If the 2020 Academy Awards is going to rake in the views and trend, it’s going to be thanks to people tuning in to see how Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite will fare. It’s not just the #BongHive rooting for the first Asian film nominated for Best Picture to win the accolade and they’re not the only ones who would be disappointed (but not surprised) if it ends up losing to the caucasian narratives of Joker, Marriage Story, and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. It’s hard to forget last year’s letdown when regarded-as-racist Green Book took home the grand prize instead of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. The prospect is still bleak with at least 17 members from the award giving body not watching Parasite because they didn’t want to deal with subtitles and an anonymous voter admitting in an interview for Hollywood Reporter that they didn’t think foreign (meaning non-white) films should be nominated with the “regular films.” Is the nomination and possible win as significant as it seems, or should we heed Director Bong when he said that “it’s not a big deal” since the Oscars is “very local?”
I struck a conversation with Nissie Arcega of Strike II, a research and education platform dedicated to the critical and political economic study of the Philippine Film Industry, to answer this question and ended up being more conscious of how there should be more to film viewing and casual film critique than fulfilling a yearly Film Challenge and trying to be cute on Letterboxd. In recent years, the politics of representation in Hollywood has been widely and publicly criticized. Oscar buzz for Parasite might signal global recognition for Asian cinema, but the attention is as oblivious as rich mom Park Yeon-kyo or celebrities missing the anti-imperial themes in Bong films to the conditions and contexts of national cinemas. For Nissie, tokenism from the penultimate appraising body of the Hollywood elite has more to do with identifying alternative entertainment commodities to reinforce the Hollywood structure on rather than reinvigorating world cinema.
She adds that it’s no surprise that Hollywood films have been dominating the Oscars since it was first held considering how the Academy was established primarily by executives from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and producers from adjacent companies. Operating with vested economic interests in the American film industry, the institution promotes select corporations under the guise of artistic and technical excellence to mask unfair labor conditions and add cultural value to their products through collective appraisals and awards.
Operating with vested economic interests in the American film industry, the institution promotes select corporations under the guise of artistic and technical excellence to mask unfair labor conditions and add cultural value to their products through collective appraisals and awards.
It’s easier to claim that most of eastern cinema don’t meet auteur criterion than admit that the reason Academy qualifications are based on Hollywood-level technical capacities and themes of all-American aspirations is due to its stakeholders directly benefiting from a lack of diversity. It is little more than a profit-driven incentive to celebrate those following a formulaic aesthetic rather than building on practice and timely narratives.
I asked Nissie whether this is a concern for the Philippine film industry and if this pandering is directing the taste of the Philippine moviegoer. She tells me that it’s not really our taste but our sense of cinema that gets influenced by Hollywood’s control over Philippine exhibition spaces, video on demand platforms, and cable TV. On the other hand, it’s American independent cinema (think A24) and European arthouse which largely inspire soon-to-be cinephiles and filmmakers aiming to compete in festival circuits. Second Cinema filmmaking injects an anti-mainstream spirit in the combination of a small crew and a non-industrial process. Despite these competing influences, Philippine cinema is gaining autonomy through the increasing support to celebrate our national cinema by restoring classics. If the Oscars isn’t what guides our film industry, what does it look like?
The country just celebrated 100 years of Philippine Cinema. I have to admit that this broad history is lost upon me. I’m more likely to binge watch Oscar frontrunners at home than watch a single entry on Cinemalaya or the Metro Manila Film Festival. I feel a little guilty that I’m more invested in finding out if this South Korean film is going to beat the odds than if local 2019 Best Pictures reflected the struggles of Filipinos. So Nissie had to enlighten me on the kind of film heritage that we have. She informed me that our films manifest not only elite but colonial attitudes which birthed films like Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon? with its attempt to reclaim the derogatory term “indio.” It’s frustrating to have movie habits be shaped by the desires of the privileged when films can construct ideas of selfhood through fantasies. Some self-proclaimed realists in indie cinema also create “poverty porn” projects under similar impulses. The moviegoer is told to strive for the questionable and unattainable or not at all.
Box-office success also determines what gets created for a specific target audience. For the past 10 years, you can notice a trend in what movies are being made and remade to see what really works in the market. We’ve moved on from simple sequels to film franchises. The iterations in the Vice Ganda filmography are comparable to that of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Nissie adds that early Filipino cinema has the positive image of the landlord at its center and landlords still have the upper hand in contemporary films but are in confidence to look down on us. An example is the critically-acclaimed box office hit Heneral Luna which blames the everyman for the failure of the revolution instead of the elites who sold out the country while giving colonizers authority to laugh at a burning country. The imagined apex of Philippine cinema right now is as a mouthpiece. It talks in the language of its elite foreign masters and caters to their interests, their aesthetics, and their politics (or abstinence from it).
The imagined apex of Philippine cinema right now is as a mouthpiece. It talks in the language of its elite foreign masters and caters to their interests, their aesthetics, and their politics (or abstinence from it).
In any field, success is a healthy coexistence between its producers and consumers. For Strike II, the definitive measure of the success of a national film industry is when the large-scale production of film equipment and films belongs not to corporations but to film worker’s associations, collectives, and cooperatives. Locally produced movies should be prioritized in exhibition and distribution. The next step would be the elevation of the participation of film worker’s unions in crafting the thrust of the industry. We shouldn’t only be hearing from them in circumstances like the inquiry into the case of veteran actor Eddie Garcia.
Filmmaking in the Philippines is counterproductive because it thrives off freelancers and their lack of social security. As long as it caters to two markets outside the very base of social life, Philippine filmmaking will never reach the status of an industry. “What it has right now belongs to a history that is backward: reliance on artisanship and its disorganized workflows,” Nissie concludes.
What’s an Oscar for the average Filipino? The bronze statuette is like the scholar’s rock in Parasite, a supposedly metaphorical thing turned into a weapon. They say outright it’s a symbol, so maybe it’s not.
You can find more about Strike II on strk2.com.