Let’s make it very clear that the MTRCB doesn’t actually censor films. But what they really do is arguably just as bad: they force producers to choose between censoring their own products, and suffering the consequences. Through incredibly subjective criteria, the MTRCB gave Petersen Vargas’s gay-themed coming-of-age film 2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten an R-18 — a death sentence for any independent film struggling to find a wide audience — and Jerrold Tarog’s internationally acclaimed psychological horror film Bliss the rare and downright baffling X rating, meaning no audience at all unless the film is re-edited.
Meanwhile, sixteen-year-olds were allowed to watch Wolverine impale people through the head in Logan. And while Bliss struggles to appeal against the MTRCB’s claims of gratuitous sex and nudity, couples still got to fawn over Jamie Dornan banging Dakota Johnson into submission in Fifty Shades Darker.
It would be nice to believe that artists shouldn’t have to put up with the government’s inconsistencies, but the reality is potentially much more discouraging. If the MTRCB keeps doing what it’s been doing, then Filipino filmmakers might just be forced to adjust — or, at worst, compromise the value and sincerity of their art.
The first filmmakers who are likely to be affected by the MTRCB’s stricter ratings are those who are already working within the studio system. Think Antoinette Jadaone and Dan Villegas. Both have been skillfully experimenting with the typical rom-com formula to introduce less traditional or conservative ideas to a mass audience. But if the studios they work for decide to hold back on potentially daring content (to ensure good ratings, or simply to remain in the good graces of the MTRCB), then it’s easy to imagine the years of progress built up by Jadaone and Villegas screeching to a halt.
But why can’t we just look at these obstacles as a creative challenge? asks the optimist in all of us. After all, metaphors are a thing, right? Or, better yet, we could invest in scripts with “readily detachable” parts. So when the MTRCB slaps an R-18 or an X on a film, then we can easily cut out the scenes that put the film at risk. It’s ingenious!
But it isn’t that simple. There’s a cumulative experience to watching a film that can be ruined by the obvious removal of a scene. Don’t say you didn’t notice the abrupt cuts in the MMFF release of Erik Matti’s Seklusyon. Don’t blame the editors; it’s nigh impossible to make a clean forced cut because good editors know that each scene is intertwined with every other. Bad editing is a cardinal sin in filmmaking, and the MTRCB is forcing filmmakers to sin.
This is the predicament in a nutshell: adjusting to the demands of a government body just isn’t an option because there is no excuse for insincere work. And before anyone on the MTRCB tries to argue that sex and violence is unnecessary in art, we don’t have to look far to find films that are sincere in how they depict mature themes. The violence in The Passion of the Christ turns the divine into the visceral. The nudity in Before Midnight doesn’t titillate, but depicts vulnerability.
Some might wave off this censorship drama as an elitist problem. But there is surprisingly only a thin line between censoring a film for mature content, and censoring a film for its ideologies and criticism of current politics. One short film from the anthology AmBisyon 2010 was given an X simply for showing a newspaper covered in sh*t. Don’t forget how Ferdinand Marcos banned the last five episodes of Voltes V for fear that they might incite violence and rebellion.
Filmmakers are historians. It’s their job to reflect reality and, as the MTRCB itself vows, to promote vulnerable sectors of society. Censorship, then, is simply a disservice to Filipinos everywhere. The problem is that, when the MTRCB looks for “redeeming social values” in film, they’re really just looking for positive messages that refuse to acknowledge the existence of darkness.
But there is darkness out there and we need to see it. We need movies that represent the LGBTQ experience (2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten, Ned’s Project). We need movies that talk about religion (Honor Thy Father, Seklusyon) and the war on drugs (Purgatoryo, Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B). We have to be allowed to speak out loud.