MANILA — It was a steamy evening, punctuated by thunderstorms. Destitute figures, clad in rags, slept under the remote porticoes of the government's Manila Film Center. Out front, hundreds of the more fortunate paid 35 pesos (about $1.75) to get in, more than four times the going ticket price at privately owned movie theaters. Soldiers stood on guard against possible terrorist attack.
Inside, dozens of formally dressed cineastes, civic leaders and members of the press heaped Philippine delicacies on their plates from a lavish buffet. Nervous anticipation charged the air--tonight's event was the hottest ticket in town.
The crowd had come for the premiere of "Scorpio Nights," an erotic thriller about a young man's adulterous affair with a nubile neighbor. It would break boundaries here in terms of sexually-explicit sex: Graphic sequences of lovemaking culminate with a scene of simultaneous orgasm and death--footage that would earn the movie a quick X rating in the United States.
By morning, "Scorpio Nights" would be the talk of Manila, on its way to becoming a box-office smash.
The most notorious Philippine movie of 1985 would eventually gross 8 million pesos (about $500,000 at the time)--shown exclusively in a film center conceived by the Philippines' First Lady Imelda Marcos, funded by the government of President Ferdinand E. Marcos and run initially by their daughter Imee.
In this politically oppressed and economically bleak country, such cultural contradictions seem absurdly logical.
"The Film Center makes its money off the sex movies so it can show the good ones," said director Tikoy Aguiluz, whose sexually charged (and critically praised) "Boatman" was a big hit at the center. "It's like the mother who sells her daughter on the street so the next child can go to the university. It is crazy--but it's the Philippines."
Cinema here mirrors the chaos and cultural schizophrenia endemic to this former U.S. possession of 7,000 islands and 50 million people, a $26-billion foreign debt and a government flirting with political disaster.
Although Marcos is said to have little personal interest in movies, his wife considers herself both a patron of the arts and a cultural "protector of the children." So while child prostitution, corruption and political murder flourish, government censors--recently replaced by a ratings board--do their best to keep messages of protest or reform off the screen. Most of the 150 or so movies made here each year fall into the exploitation genre, shot for $100,000 to $200,000, full of bloody violence and machismo or lots of heated clutching and soapy melodrama.
But a handful of more serious film makers struggle to make movies with a social conscience, or at least some social realism.
"We have been given police powers," Maria Kalaw Katigbak, the grandmotherly chairwoman of the government's board of censors, told Calendar matter-of-factly before the board was recently dismantled. "We have a team of police soldiers who get authority from me to confiscate films and close theaters." Although the board had once been preoccupied with sexual content, Kalaw said, "Now, we have the problem with the movies that are propaganda against the government. We have to be firm in interpreting what is subversive and what is not."
Late last year, Marcos declared that he had "abolished" both censorship and the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP), the government agency that administrated the Manila Film Center.
Created as a sanctuary for film makers from the government's own censorship laws, the ECP generated widespread controversy when it began exhibiting the most sexually explicit films ever seen in the Philippines. (Observers point out that Marcos' presidential acts coincided with his announcement of a snap presidential election to be held in early January--now set for Feb. 7.)
Marcos replaced the ECP with the Film Development Foundation of the Philippines (FDFP) to "pave the way for the establishment of a foundation aimed at encouraging private-sector participation in the movie industry and the uplifting of the people's aesthetic values." It operates with the same staff in the same offices as did the ECP.
At the same time, Marcos replaced the board of censors with the Movie and Television Classification and Review Board, a mix of 15 film industry representatives and 15 prominent citizens that will ostensibly classify movies but not censor them.
But a local film industry reporter contends that members of the new ratings board "are the same dog with a different color. They are still cutting film. They want to make it appear that they are only classifying films, but by giving an X, they can keep a film from being shown commercially. The board controls the creative process." The censors, he said, have always been "less concerned about sex. Sex entertains the people. What they are really worried about are political themes, because they might raise the consciousness of the people."