Thursday, August 05, 2021

Can Cebu become film fest destination?

IMAGINE Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling walking on Cebu City streets to promote their film La La Land, which recently received the People’s Choice Award in the Toronto International Film Festival? Does it seem possible at all?

Well, that kind of scene caused a confrontation between government and local filmmakers during a forum for the recently concluded Binisaya Film Festival.

The confrontation started when Cebu International Film Festival (Cebu.IFF) director April Dequito said that Cebu is ready to go international and become a film hub for various films—local, national and international—and become a leader in global cinema, ahead of its other Southeast Asian counterparts.

But the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) chairperson Liza Diño-Seguerra said Dequito ought to level her expectations with reality.

Some people present at the filmmakers forum last Sept. 23 at the University of San Carlos thought Diño-Seguerra’s statement was derogatory and insulting considering the international acclaim received by some Cebuano filmmakers.

The forum was the first of its kind, organized by Binisaya, an organization dedicated to the promotion, exhibition, distribution and archiving of contemporary Cebuano films and other Binisaya dialect films. Binisaya had just concluded its week-long film festival celebrating and acknowledging local talent in the film industry.

The panelists of the forum were local filmmakers Remton Zuasola, Ruel Antipuesto, Bianca Balbuena and Jill Yap, owner of homegrown company Above the Line Production.

The implication that Cebu is not ready, prompted this Facebook post from Dequito: “I was invited to attend a film forum organized by Binisaya Film Festival. Naturally, it is a forum so I shared my observations, hopes, vision and experiences as a festival director of an international film festival, the first and only non-thematic international film festival in Cebu. I am largely disappointed at the level of cynicism and the perceived misconception that Cebu and the Philippines is not ready to be a film hub.”

“It was even claimed that we are not yet a creative industry, which is totally untrue. Cebu has made its mark in the world for a long time now as a creative city. We have even been branded as an Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) City of Culture. I repeat and I continually assert, Cebu is ready. Everything we need to make Cebu a film hub is already here. It’s only a matter of alignment. I am 101 percent sure of that. Literally, 101 percent sure of that. It’s a reality and not a double vision.”

The post received both praise and criticisms from netizens, extending the forum confrontation to the comments section of Facebook among cinephiles.

One contention against marketing Cebu as a film hub is that it doesn’t even have its own cinematheque.

“What I really wanted to say to Chair Liza is to provide support in audience development in Cebu. However, it is challenging for us in the sense that our festival (Cebu.IFF) is privately funded and our resources are limited,” said Dequito. This way, local communities will be engaged in film production.

In an interview with Sun.Star Cebu, it seemed like the confrontation had positive results as Cebu-based filmmaker Ara Chawdhury, one of the organizers of Binisaya, revealed that Diño-Seguerra met with the Provincial Government to provide a venue for local films to be shown (and archived)—a cinematheque.

“The goal of Cebu.IFF has always been to make Cebu the leading film hub in Southeast Asia—to bring the world to Cebu and to bring the Cebuanos to the world since not all Cebuanos or filmmakers get to travel to film festivals abroad. While there are a few that do, there’s still a lot that don’t and we believe that they should also have access to this kind of festival experience at the comfort of our home turf which is Cebu. We further work to invite more foreign filmmakers and producers to come to Cebu while also promoting Cebu. Cebu is the heart and soul of our objective,” said Dequito.

Diño-Seguerra, in an article published in the website last Sept. 25, announced that a travel assistance program for producers of local films competing or exhibiting in festivals abroad will be launched in October.

Another issue Diño-Seguerra raised, which other filmmakers also agreed on, is that Dequito’s dreams were too idealistic without heed of the current condition of Cebu.

Diño-Seguerra said that Cebu cannot yet compete with other Asian countries when it comes to festivals, which usually gather an audience of at least 25,000 people. The local film scene is not even making a dent in the national gross domestic product, which is why the current administration is focusing on developing local talents. Because if the films aren’t making money for the country, this means no money goes back for the possible creation of festivals.

Chawdhury, award-winning filmmaker of Miss Bulalacao, admitted that the main problem of the Cebuano film industry is that local cinemas usually only show Hollywood films.

“The bulk of the films in our theaters are Hollywood films. When (director) Jade Castro visited Binisaya last year, I asked him about how local films do in (the Visayas-Mindanao area) and he said sales are dismal. We’ve been theorizing, just based on how people react to Tagalog films here, that it’s because of language. But independent films have had a hard time getting audiences interested all over the nation despite garnering awards abroad. Ma’ Rosa only screened for a couple of days in the Philippines because theaters pulled them out. Brilliante Mendoza might be making waves abroad, but that isn’t translating in the local economy,” said Chawdhury.

Marketing—the lack thereof—is another problem.

“Dakila (a non-government organization) ran a very successful marketing campaign for Heneral Luna involving memes and school tours. Our Cebuano film premieres have been well attended. A few times we manage to secure theater screenings. Miss Bulalacao, for example, opened here initially for one screening only, but ended up getting another screening due to demand. I understand that two screenings cannot be compared to an entire week’s run, but it’s much better than not lasting a day in a theater because nobody’s interested.”

Paying attention to Cebu’s homegrown talent and appreciating their masterpieces is part of the equation to provide a more sustainable environment especially for the local film scene. Cebuano filmmakers garner more attention in Manila or abroad instead of being appreciated by fellow Cebuanos.

“I also cannot blame audiences for being wary considering some people’s idea of ‘indie’ is low budget and therefore not as well made as Hollywood films. This can be corrected by providing workshops or learning opportunities for local filmmakers to improve their craft, giving them access to potential investors or funding, encouraging and educating local would-be investors on financing films, forming unions that protect filmmakers from unethical business practices, and by introducing would-be investors and producers to legitimate practitioners,” said Chawdhury.

Currently, the problem is being addressed slowly with the growing local movement by cinema students and cinephiles.

“Our full house screenings show this. But perhaps to the regular Cebuano viewer, they have no idea we exist. It’s just a matter of meeting halfway. We don’t currently have a lot of middlemen who serve that purpose. Distributors, marketers, those are all elusive to us. Like children getting accustomed to food, audiences will only ask for what they develop a taste for, and we can’t hope for them to develop a taste for our own cinema if they don’t even know we and our films exist. We’ve been working on bridging this gap by doing school screenings, but considering our schools are host to students coming from surrounding provinces and leaving upon graduation it doesn’t guarantee a long-term awareness,” said Chawdhury.

Dequito also encouraged town or city participation.

“In order for the local cities and municipalities to be motivated in developing their audience, we offer as incentive of empowering healthy competition on the local level to promote their locations as a film location. Once they realize that they can earn from their tourism, film-wise, they may be motivated to improve and take care of their environment as a competitive venue for filming,” said Dequito.

There may be differences in opinion, but the government and filmmakers, as well as festival organizers, have one goal, to promote local filmmaking.

“Itong industriya nating tinatawag, marami pang kailangan pagdaanan (This industry still needs to go through a lot), so I think we have to all work together. And if there exists those factions (and misunderstandings), I think siguro it won’t hurt to show that we’re here for the community. Pare-pareho tayo ng (We have the same) goal. We’re coming from different sides and we’re all going toward one mission,” said Diño-Seguerra.
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