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CINEMA-PHILIPPINES: Young Director Tests Censors’ Limits

Nirmal Ghosh

MANILA, Oct 14 1997 (IPS) - A young Filipino film director is in the eye of a storm that pits old, bitter adversaries in the Philippine cinema – creative art versus the censors.

Carlos Siguion-Reyna, 39, a well-built man with a thoughtful air and a piercing gaze behind clear, multi-coated lenses, was roundly applauded by the partisan crowd at a recent special screening of his new film at the University of the Philippines. The audience clapped wildly as he said a few words about the struggle to get the film, called ‘Ang Lalaki sa Buhay ni Selya’ (‘The Man in the Life of Selya’) past the censors.

Attacking the censors, Carlos’ mother, the film’s producer, thundered: “We are not going to agree to any cuts. It will be shown intact or not at all! They are holding producers hostage. We may as well forget the global dreams of the government, film makers and audiences, there will be no artistic growth in this country!”

Warming up, she accused the censors’ body, called the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board, of having a “useless Jurassic mentality” and being “remnants of the Inquisition.”

This was high-pitched stuff over a film that, frankly, does not stand out as a remarkable work of art, notwithstanding the closing of ranks against the censors by film writers and columnists, and the film industry in general.

But with Selya and his previous film ‘Ligaya ang Itawag Mo sa Akin’ (‘They Call Me Joy’) Siguion-Reyna has succeeded in breaking through hypocrisy and taboo.

In ‘Ligaya’, a prostitute played by actress Rosanna Roces tries to abandon her lifestyle, but cannot. A town mayor is shown raping a prostitute – this and the graphic sex scenes was where the film struck trouble with the censors who rated it ‘X’, effectively banning its showing to the public. After a long wrangle it was released after cuts.

‘Selya’ seems headed toward the same fate. But this time Siguion-Reyna, his mother and his screenwriter wife may not give in so easily. They are bringing the case to court and have written an appeal to President Fidel Ramos as well.

The man in the life of Selya, a schoolteacher, is a homosexual. The sticking point is once again graphic sex scenes in the film. But worse than that, in the eyes of the censors, it shows two homosexual men making love.

Critics say the controversy has obscured the message of the film — that homosexuals are capable of genuine, tender relationships, and undergo trauma because they are not accepted by society. In the film, Selya eventually opts to stay with her husband, an avowed homosexual, because he is a decent, caring man – unlike her crass, narcissistic, pistol-toting, macho lover and father of her child.

The film is not moving, and contains cliched devices. The acting is mostly ordinary, and the characters are largely one- dimensional. Selya is played by Roces, who has been catapulted from B-movie to star status by Carlos. She gets rave reviews from the critics, but her acting is competent rather than outstanding.

Homosexuality is a curious issue in the Philippines. In no other Asian country is the gay community so overt and tolerated. Yet gays come up against glass walls; the public is comfortable with them only when they are relegated to traditional ghettos like hairdressing, fashion designing, dance choreography and selling ladies’ shoes, among others.

“Tolerance is not the same as acceptance,” noted Siguion- Reyna, who studied film in New York. For all its shortcomings, ‘Selya’ does break out of the commercial potboiler mould that many Filipino films are in. For one thing, nobody gets shot and it succeeds in pushing the boundaries by dint of the homosexual lovemaking scene.

Carlos Siguion-Reyna says he wants to talk reality, not produce “nursery tales”. He has already won a raft of national ‘best director’ awards in his young career.

His films, including ‘Selya’, are regularly shown at the Toronto Film Festival. He believes in the growing maturity of the Filipino film goer and wants to change the rules. “Have the censors eradicated immorality? I think not,” the director says acidly. “I won’t stay away from sexuality because it may be morally offensive to some. If you look at ‘Ligaya and Selya’, they’re about intolerance.”

“I’ve decided to just ignore the censors, to enlarge the vocabulary. The problem is the censors refuse to confront the issue, which is (that) the people should decide, and I detect a certain homophobia as well,” Siguion-Reyna adds.

He points out that in several countries pornography is widely available, yet it is still on the fringes of the movie-going public’s consciousness. He laughs at the censors’ view that ‘Selya’ would open the floodgates to pornography. Controversy was good for ‘Ligaya’, which made money and got Siguon-Reyna national and international media coverage. So, is Selya a box office ploy?

Siguon-Reyna shrugs: “When your rights are trampled upon, you can’t do anything but speak out. My family has been involved in resisting censorship for years,” whether in the case of Filipino films thumbed down during the government of Ferdinand Marcos and more recent attempts by censors to ban or cut films like ‘Schindler’s List’, ‘The Piano’, ‘Belle Epoque’ and ‘The Priest’.

The censors – moral watchdogs created by the late dictator Marcos for reasons that included self-serving, political ones – do not see the positive messages in the films, Siguon-Reyna maintains. And they do not trust the moviegoing Filipino public.

“Maturity is about whether you trust an 18-year-old to see what is intended to be seen, to see what’s exploitation and what’s not,” he says. The Filipino film industry wants to abolish the censors’ body and become self-regulating, but the industry is itself divided. Siguon-Reyna wants the market to pass judgement.

In a Roman Catholic-majority country where a certain core middle-class conservatism coexists with licentiousness, Siguon- Reyna has clearly chosen sexual mores as his line of attack on censorship. ‘Ligaya’ was a breakthrough, he maintains. ‘Selya’ could push the envelope further.

His next project will be a musical, and the censors no doubt are watching and waiting.

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