Revitalizing the MMFF, the gateway to Philippine cinema

The Metro Manila Film Festival is a celebration of Filipino films; but how groundbreaking has the festival been in recent memory?

The Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) has become a Filipino holiday staple—one that often attracts crowds while showcasing what Philippine cinema has to offer.

For most Filipino families, spending the holidays watching MMFF films with their loved ones is a holiday well-spent.

In its earlier days, the festival was not only an annual family affair; it was also a great platform. It produced a myriad of films that allowed filmmakers and artists to showcase their silver screen gems. Though critically acclaimed films like Laurice Guillen’s family drama Tanging Yaman and Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s take on José Rizal boasted of the festival’s exuberance, the MMFF has since taken a different path.

In recent memory, the MMFF has earned a reputation of being a notable hit or miss among audiences. This leads filmmakers—the ones who take serious effort in creating films—to face the strings and scrutiny that have become attached to the expectations on Philippine cinema.

A Filipino Christmas tradition

“I’ve reached a point in accepting the fact that the MMFF is not an art festival,” comments Filipino film and television director, writer, and producer Jose “Joey” Javier Reyes. For him, the MMFF has become a “tiangge” of Filipino films—a hodgepodge of genres where there is something for everyone to enjoy.

Cinemagoers, such as Izak Letargo (II, AB-HIM), believe this formula has been overused for the past MMFFs. He believes the festival is being too risk-averse, “I don’t think [the MMFF] trusts the art itself. I think they trust the actors more to sell their films.” Since the MMFF prioritizes showing Filipino movies over foreign ones, filmmakers grab the opportunity to generate substantial box- office revenue, using the name recognition of personalities such as Vice Ganda and Vic Sotto as an advantage.

But gone are the days where films raked billions of pesos in commercial success. “Since the pandemic, there [has not been a] single Filipino movie that [has] made money,” Reyes points out. As a result, the entire industry had to adapt to this significant change, “not only with MMFF but of the entire tradition of cinema.”

However, 2020’s Fan Girl was quite an exception during the 46th MMFF. Despite being released online and having an unpopular genre—at least for the majority of the Filipino crowd—the movie had a good turnout. Reyes says this was because the clientele of Fan Girl was not the movie house audience; it was the online audience. He explains, “The platform determines the nature of the material we sell.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean Fan Girl’s overall success sufficed what pre-pandemic blockbuster MMFF movies have earned on their first day.

With the recent and probably short lived reopening of movie theaters and film houses, the MMFF opted to return to cinemas this year. However, Reyes worries, “Everything is walking the tightrope because the two years [under a] pandemic changed our viewing habits.” Nowadays, people would rather watch movies in the comfort of their homes instead of watching in cinemas—unless they feel secure and sure that the virus is already manageable or if they think the movie needs to be watched on a much bigger screen. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic remains uncertain and the MMFF’s status is understandably “struggling”.

No way to hit home

In 2021, the festival’s 47th edition met a new challenge. The perception toward the latest MMFF has exponentially soured, particularly after delaying the long-awaited local release of Marvel’s Spider-Man: No Way Home. People took to social media by storm, sparking discourse on how people perceive local and international films. “The very fact that Filipinos are more concerned about when they will watch Spider-Man rather than when they will finally see Filipino movies in cinemas indicates that our priorities are not there to give importance to [local films],” Reyes says, implying that this reflects how we value our culture as well.

But in light of this, the MMFF can evolve in a natural way to be better respected by Filipinos if people will patronize the kind of content they want to see in local cinema. “Because if we keep hating it (the MMFF) without even going to see the films that they put out, it’s not going to change,” says Letargo.

Reyes is confident that the MMFF’s mission to help and support local filmmakers has always been in sight. The 47th edition was certainly no different. However, this can be further seen if there is support from all around, pointing filmmakers in the right direction of moving forward. He cites the Korean Wave as an example, which manifests the appreciation of Korean culture in their films and dramas—something that he wishes could also happen with Filipinos. “We can only be globalized if we love ourselves first, if we love who we are,” he says. Letargo agrees, encouraging people to take the time to watch good Filipino films such as those released under the 42nd MMFF, “I remember watching all of the films that year because they were really good.”

Support goes both ways

In spite of the pandemic and the timing that places the MMFF into scrutiny, Reyes acknowledges that 2021’s MMFF did not go through a curse, but rather a challenge. This calls for Filipinos to think beyond themselves and about the country, and for filmmakers and cinema alike to commit to the same. “Put [Filipino films] on the pedestal; people are gonna be intrigued, and watch them,” Letargo advocates. And while the MMFF may not currently err on the side of irrelevance, it can tread toward such a path if it does not address and adapt to audience demands. That way, “we [can] make better movies that can serve the public, not only to earn money, but [also] to be better as Filipinos,” Reyes says.

Amid these factors, the world of Philippine cinema is still hopeful about regaining its cinematic charm that would woo moviegoers to support and to patronize local films. This can start by regaining what was lost and have a substantial attempt to recover the culture and tradition of the MMFF. The future of Philippine cinema is still uncertain for now. But should it die out, it can take a new shape or form. “Whatever it is, you just have to ride the tide and be aware of the change,” Reyes reminds.

Matthew Gan

By Matthew Gan

Kazandra Vargas

By Kazandra Vargas

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