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Reality Collides With Art in Philippines : Court Order Halts Work on TV Film

February 26, 1988|MARK FINEMAN | Times Staff Writer

MANILA — As tens of thousands of Filipinos danced to Donna Summer, prayed to the Virgin Mary and gawked at fireworks, sky lasers and confetti-spewing helicopters Thursday in a daylong celebration of the 1986 "People Power Revolution," Chris Albrecht and Hal McElroy were not having a good day.

The two film executives scurried helplessly from room to room in Manila's opulent Mandarin Hotel, trying to save their $12-million international production, a six-hour television miniseries lionizing, and depending upon, the very event that the Filipino people were celebrating a few miles away.

The rebellion eventually drove Ferdinand E. Marcos into exile in Hawaii and led Corazon Aquino to be installed as president.

Contrary to what Albrecht and McElroy had carefully and critically planned for so many months, art did not imitate reality on the streets of Manila on Thursday. Rather, reality caught up with the artists.

The one day alone cost the joint project of Home Box Office, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. and McElroy-McElroy Productions $250,000, not to mention a great creative opportunity. That in turn jeopardized the future of what the producers hope will be one of television's more creative and ambitious ventures.

On the eve of the Manila anniversary celebration that would have given the film makers all those spontaneous, unpaid extras as a live backdrop for a re-creation of the February, 1986, revolt at the very spot where it happened, one of the leaders of that rebellion managed to secure a court injunction temporarily barring the company from continuing its 36 days of on-location filming here.

Former defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile, who remains an influential opposition senator, argued in seeking Wednesday's injunction that the mini-series violates his privacy by commercializing what he now says he views as a private moment.

"This is a man who has taken a moment in history of which all of the Filipino people can be proud and made it into his own," said Albrecht, senior vice president for original programming at Home Box Office, which is paying for half of the production. "Because of one person's self-interest, this whole project may now have to be revamped.

"I feel like we're a tiny ball in a political Ping-Pong match."

Added McElroy, whose Australia-based production company has been in Manila for nearly a month organizing the docudrama, "Today is an absolutely irretrievable occasion. What he has done is to deprive us of the chance, and deprived all of the Filipino people of the chance, to have the Filipinos again stand as heroes before the world."

In another sense, though, what Enrile, one of many now-fallen heroes of the 1986 rebellion, also did was to illustrate graphically the vagaries of making movies in the Philippines, notwithstanding a national policy of encouraging foreign and domestic motion-picture production here.

Because of that policy, more than a dozen foreign and 100 local films are produced each year here, thriving on cheap, English-speaking labor yet returning millions of dollars in salaries and rentals to a poor Third-World country desperately in need of jobs.

The foreign films range in quality from such B-grade efforts as Cannon Films' Chuck Norris epics, "Delta Force" and the endless "Missing in Action" series, to award-caliber productions such as "Platoon," "Apocalypse Now" and, assuming it ever reaches the TV screen, the ongoing Australian-American miniseries on the revolt.

The results of the past efforts have had mixed reviews, both from the film makers and the Philippine government.

During the filming last August of "Missing in Action III," the government was the big loser. A $5-million Sikorsky helicopter gunship, a vital weapon in the government's struggle to put down an all-too-real Communist insurgency in the Philippine countryside, crashed in Manila Bay while rented out to Cannon. A half-dozen key Philippine Air Force men were killed in the crash, which triggered a series of still-unresolved lawsuits.

In the days following the crash, the Philippine press was sharply critical of a government policy that makes it easy for film makers to rent military hardware, close off main streets and take over government buildings. Many local film producers in Manila feared that the incident would lead to the end of movie-making here.

But the controversy finally faded, and it was just a few months later that Home Box Office, McElroy-McElroy and the British television firm Zenith Corp. closed their final deal to produce the ambitious miniseries on location.

For Hal McElroy, the decision to return to the Philippines for an on-location shoot brought back less-than-pleasant memories, reflecting the dangers awaiting producers who do business here.

Although it dealt with the bloody 1965 Indonesian coup, McElroy's last award-winning hit, "The Year of Living Dangerously," was filmed on location in the Philippines in 1982--until disaster struck.

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