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Blurring the big picture: Reviewing MTRCB censorship

Many Filipinos are kept within the confines of their homes because of the ongoing pandemic. Gone are the days when one can go out and engage in their favorite pastimes, like dining in their favorite restaurants or catching a flick in the movie house. Now, people find entertainment through online streaming sites, boosting viewership in platforms with a seemingly endless trove of films and shows. 

However, with this new development, concerns over the prospect of children being able to view mature content have also surfaced. Last September 4, the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) made headlines after announcing its plan to regulate video streaming platforms in the Philippines; Netflix, in particular, caught the attention of the board. Coming at the heels of the ABS-CBN shutdown, the announcement was met with severe backlash with advocates and even some lawmakers publicly opposing MTRCB’s plan.  

Exploring the ramifications of the impending censorship on the artistic freedom of the local filmmaking industry, The LaSallian sits down with filmmaker Dan Villegas and Communication Arts professor Clodualdo del Mundo Jr., who is also a director and screenwriter.

Digging deep 

Film censorship dates back to the beginning of the sound film or talkies era, where the first local film censors’ board was established in 1929. However, it was only during the Marcos regime when stringent censorship was observed, with many filmmakers enduring legal repercussions brought on by censorship violations. MTRCB’s capabilities were further expounded in one of Marcos’ presidential decrees, where films and television programs were then first required to undergo review and classification. 

The prominence of softcore pornographic films at the time, infamously known as bomba films, also prompted the enjoining of tighter rules. Consequently, a shift from liberal to conservative thinking was observed in the Philippine cinema.

As the film censorship board was rebranded to the MTRCB, its scope of operations also grew. As a “regulatory” body, they were entrusted to cut certain portions of any film or television program that the agency deemed as “immoral, indecent, contrary to the law and/or good customs of the country.” The “X” classification, which prohibits public viewing, has been a source of criticism over the years for depriving filmmakers of their right to artistic freedom.

Similar to film, other art forms and news media suffered from the Marcos era’s strict imposition of censorship. Any opinion pieces, commentaries, asides, or other anti-government, and politically inclined advertising were prohibited. Freedom of expression soon became a struggle among filmmakers, artists, and the press, with resistance movements like Concerned Artists of the Philippines emerging as a shared responsibility to promote self-expression.

Behind the scenes

For filmmakers who often play around with themes to shock and entrance audiences, the MTRCB’s plan to regulate online streaming platforms has them concerned over its effect on artistic freedom. “Assume natin na natuloy ‘yung pag-censor [ng pelikula] dito. Eh ‘di, malilimit ‘yung material na pwedeng gawin,” says Villegas. In a world where the arts and freedom of expression have long been proven to go hand-in-hand, the situation alarms everyone involved in producing or consuming content in the entertainment industry. 

(Let’s assume that they push through with censoring these films on streaming platforms. For filmmakers, the material that can be created will be limited.)

Villegas cites his films Changing Partners and Hintayan ng Langit, emphasizing his flair for integrating socio-political themes in his works. He strives to accurately portray the realities of life in his films. “The problem with too much censorship is that it gives the audience a false idea of what society should be and not what society is in reality,” he asserts.

A filmmaker’s project should capture their original intent, with Villegas arguing that “ideally, dapat hindi talaga siya maapektuhan kasi they (MTRCB) only give a rating.” 

(Ideally, they should not be affected because they (MTRCB) only give a rating.)

Regulating vs. controlling

Villegas explains that content regulation has always catered to the values of conservative Filipinos, expounding that”, ‘Yung mga progressives, hindi sila naooffend, halimbawa, sa same-sex kiss, pero ‘yung mga conservatives maooffend doon.”

(Progressive people aren’t offended with, for example, a same-sex kiss, but you can’t say the same for the conservatives.)

Furthermore, content regulation may also be used as an avenue for the politicization of certain Filipino values. Del Mundo adds, “MTRCB is a government agency; so, naturally, it’s going to adhere to the political agenda of the administration.” He cites Aswang, a documentary on extrajudicial killings of President Duterte’s war on drugs, believing that it was the documentary’s anti-government nature that got it pulled from theaters.

Recalling a time when a film he had produced, Cuddle Weather, had an implied oral intercourse scene deleted from the final cut, Villegas urges the MTRCB to be more open-minded in understanding a film’s or scene’s context before placing a rating.

The line is drawn when content is censored not only based on values. As an example, he cites the extreme censorship that was implemented during the Martial Law years. “If dumating ‘yung time na the MTRCB is weaponized and maging gatekeepers sila of information that should be readily available to the public, ‘yun na ‘yung mali,” warns Villegas. 

(If the time comes when the MTRCB is weaponized to be gatekeepers of information that should be readily available to the public, that’s when it becomes wrong.)

Breaking barriers

“Power, in the wrong hands, can always be abused,” Del Mundo warns. He suggests adopting a more open perspective in order to truly understand censorship and its target goals. Hoping for the public to be more well-informed with the dangers of censorship, he urges the masses to continue educating themselves regarding the matter, saying that, “the more informed consumers we have, the lesser problems we would encounter regarding censorship.”

Beyond censorship, Del Mundo believes that the best way to promote good Filipino values is by producing films about issues that matter—poverty, injustice, corruption, saying, “Censorship is a negative way of promoting good values.” 

For both Villegas and Del Mundo, the local film industry is taking a turn for the worst, but one thing that still remains is the quest to deliver quality Filipino films that tackle relevant social issues. These censorship barriers limit progressive films from delivering their intended message, serving as a powerful reminder that film can spark a more open discourse in society.

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