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On queer film censorship

Onscreen, scenes often depict fragments of stories of people from all walks of life, sometimes providing a preview of realities normally unseen. Cinema serves as a platform through which people can express themselves and tell their stories—by capturing the essence of human life and narrating it in ways not only meant to entertain but also to enlighten. Queer cinema has become one such avenue for the LGBTQ+ community.

Nowadays, it could be said that the queer cinema industry has grown with the introduction of more films which center their narratives on queer individuals. Despite this, it still faces much difficulty.

Last November, Metamorphosis, a film, directed by Jose Tiglao, which told the story of an intersex individual, was initially banned from public release after receiving an X-rating—a rating reserved for films deemed not suitable for public viewing—from the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) for containing “sexually explicit scenes”. Though the board reconsidered and downgraded the rating to R-16, the struggles the film’s creators underwent to see their work released reflects the challenges the LGBTQ+ community continues to face in having queer films recognized. 

The perception of a filmmaker

Censorship of queer films is hardly a rare occurrence and can be traced as far back as 1971, in Lino Brocka’s film Tubog sa Ginto, which tells the story of a married businessman, played by Eddie Garcia, who has an affair with his driver, played by Mario O’Hara. In the film’s controversial shower scene, the sexual activities between these two characters were, at best, implied. 

Before being subject to more censorship, the original uncut version of Brocka’s 1975 film Manila in the Claws of Light contained a scene where Rafael “Bembol” Rocco Jr’s character—the main protagonist of the film—was kissed by Jojo Abella’s character—a male prostitute who introduced Rocco’s character to prostitution—in a spur-of-the-moment expression of the latter’s feelings for the former.

In a similar case, in 1988, another Brocka film, Macho Dancer—where a gay teenager, played by Alan Paule, was forced into male prostitution and macho dancing to earn a living—was also subject to heavy censorship after receiving an order from the government to delete many of its sexually explicit scenes.  

Up to this day, PJ Raval, a Filipino-American filmmaker, says that the film industry is still quite averse to showing any sexual scenes between homosexual characters, adding that some queer films still opt to imply rather than explicitly show such scenes. 

“Even celebrated films like Call Me By Your Name follow the tradition of [having] a kiss, then camera [panning] away, [leaving us to] assume a sexually intimate scene [will follow]. I think, partially, distributors justify this [by] saying [that] audiences don’t want to see LGBTQ+ love scenes and also worry about the film’s rating,” he explains.

Despite this, Raval believes that nuanced and humanized takes on the lives of the LGBTQ+ community are still important. “I think LGBTQ+ people are just as complex as anyone else. I do think it’s important to highlight stories from the LGBTQ+ community that are authentic to our experiences,” he stresses.

The story of human history cannot be told in all its glory by omitting the stories of a group of people, or by narrating them based on poorly-constructed perceptions of their culture. As a storyteller himself, Raval understands the weight of his responsibility in representing the communities and culture he depicts in his films. “One must [not only] tread creatively but also responsibly,” he emphasizes.


On the basis of sex

Dr. Mikee Inton-Campbell, an assistant professor from the DLSU Communications Department, summarizes why queer films are censored: “People don’t like thinking about sex [in general], [so imagine] if you see an actual sex scene between two men or two women onscreen; how powerful an experience that would be.” 

Coupled with the perceived notion that queer people are tolerated as closeted secrets—a mysterious “other”—instead of being treated as one’s friends, lovers, or family members, and the challenges that queer cinema face becomes clear. 

This, however, makes queer sexuality onscreen all the more impactful. According to Inton-Campbell, there are many ways to shoot queer sex; Joselito Altarejos gorgeously showed two men intertwined in his 2008 film Kambyo, accompanied by a stirring musical score, while Brillante Mendoza portrayed queer sex as primal and instinctive in his 2007 film Pantasya and in his 2008 film Serbis. Some sex scenes may seem gratuitous, but when they are done to strengthen the film’s narrative, the result is nothing short of beautiful. 

Some films don’t need sex to illustrate the complexity of queer sexuality, as is the case with Auraeus Solito’s 2005 film Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros, which showed how the protagonist’s desire for his attractive neighbor helped him come to terms with his identity. The portrayals of queerness onscreen humanizes these individuals, challenging the notion that queerness should be confined within a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. 

Through queer eyes 

Luis Isidore Licup, an architecture student enrolled at the University of Melbourne who identifies as a cisgender gay man, conveys that the existence of queer representation in media is an integral stepping stone toward the normalization of queer culture in modern society. “I can’t think of any other platform [that holds as much influence] as the media. It’s part of our daily consumption, and without it, the world today would not be as globalized and as politically-opinionated,” he remarks. 

According to Licup, being able to witness an individual who represents the queer community pave their own path to success on the big screen is refreshing. Licup further stresses that it’s about time that the queer community is highlighted and given importance. 

The censorship of Metamorphosis, he says, was “representative, but not exclusively, of traditional Filipino culture”—deeply rooted in religious beliefs.

This may also be attributed to conservative values as well as the aversion of the general Filipino public to sexual liberation. Licup recognizes, however, that the situation is not purely black-and-white, saying, “I can’t deny the presence of an extreme hypersexual culture within the gay community. Our hypersexuality is derived from a long history of repression, [causing] our community to express ourselves in more taboo ways, which isn’t our fault.”

Despite Licup seeing both sides of the proverbial coin, he now wonders: where do they draw the line between the conservation of personal beliefs and queer exclusion? He hopes that someday, it can be answered through acceptance and normalization of the queer community.

Cinema reimagined

As for the MTRCB and its censorship policies, Inton-Campbell does not mince words when she calls for its abolishment. The agency’s visible lack of filmmakers, media critics, and film scholars are more than enough grounds to prove its inefficiency, she points out. More than that, the power that profit has over the whole industry is another obstacle because it dictates the kinds of films that audiences get to see—and more often than not, queer films do not see the light of day. 

Cinema’s duality as both a business that must profit and an art form that inspires is tricky to navigate, but Inton-Campbell resolutely believes in its enduring power to command and reflect change. At around the time Metamorphosis came out, Intersex Philippines held their first national forum aiming to start the conversation about intersex awareness. 

For her, this is only the beginning. “Think of the possibilities, of the potential of a cinema that is reflective of society rather than a cinema that merely seeks to entertain, to profit off of these vapid stories that we’ve seen over and over again,” she says.

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