Brillante Mendoza has won the Best Director prize for his excoriated film Kinatay at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Michael Haneke, excoriated for Funny Games, took the Palme d’Or for The White Ribbon.
Big question: Will there be a Malacanang reception for the director of a ‘distasteful’ movie about police corruption, brutality, and torture?
Ha! I can hear the gnashing of teeth, tearing of hair and rending of garments as people line up to baiser Dante’s derriere. This is too much fun.
Emotional Weather Report
by Jessica Zafra
in the Philippine Star 22 May 2009
Or, How to write about Cannes without actually setting foot in Cannes.
Brown Bunny by the French actor/director Vincent Gallo was probably the most loathed and excoriated movie in the history of the Cannes Film Festival. Since it screened in 2003 it has become the, um, standard for awfulness at the worldâ€™s most famous filmfest. Every year, critics and moviegoers pore over the official selection and ask, â€˜What will be this yearâ€™s Brown Bunny?â€™
Last year the movie with the strongest claim to the Brown Bunny prize was Serbis by the Filipino director Brillante Mendoza. Critics retched and threw up all over its technicals and its graphic gross-out scenes (overflowing toilets, purulent boils, etc). This year the American critic Roger Ebert has declared that a movie has surpassed Brown Bunny as the worst ever in Cannesâ€”and itâ€™s only Day 4 of the festival. The movie is Kinatay by the same Brillante Mendoza.
Ebert pronounced it unwatchable, which is about the most negative opinion one can have of a movie. A movie can be terrible but still watchable, either as a train wreck or as evidence that in matters of taste, one is a true independent. Ebert says that Kinatay (the English title should be â€˜Butcheredâ€™) is so distasteful and alienating, audiences should stay away. (It should be noted that when Serbis opened in selected venues in the US, he sort of liked it.)
The review is online at Ebertâ€™s Chicago Sun-Times blog. Even more interesting than the review itself is the comments section, where some Filipinos have been fighting amongst themselves. We Pinoys do have a knack for squabbling in the most public venues.
I have not had the pleasure of seeing Kinatay, but having seen and admired Serbis, I gather â€˜pleasureâ€™ has little to do with it. Disclosure: Mendoza shared a house with three close friends of mine back when they were all production designers, but weâ€™ve never had a conversation. When we finally have our chat, Iâ€™d like to ask him whether this is his career strategy: to make alienating, unpleasant movies set amidst the poverty and squalor of Manila. If it is then it is canny, and itâ€™s working.
Fact: Mendoza is one of the few Filipino filmmakers whose movies have international distribution. This facilitates funding for his movies.
Fact: The Filipino movies that attract the most attention internationally are movies about macho dancers, or slums, or both (Raya Martinâ€™s movies seem to be the exception). These are often decried as â€˜poverty pornâ€™ or â€˜poorismâ€™ (like a form of tourism in which the â€˜exoticâ€™ sights include people living in garbage dumps). They are the descendants of the social realist movies of Lino Brocka which really introduced Filipino cinema to the festival circuit.
In the current climate, filmmakers who aspire to make movies of ideas have little hope of commercial success. Todayâ€™s indiesâ€”the filmmakers who do not work for Star, Regal, the major studiosâ€”are essentially making movies for the international festival circuit. The average Pinoy viewer is not likely to see these movies.
Hence the strange situation of the newer Filipino filmmakers: they make movies about the Philippines for foreign cinephiles (the people who attend festivals). They donâ€™t earn money from their movies, but they get to go everywhere. As Lav Diaz once put it, they are poor but well-traveled.
Fact: Most film festival programmers are interested in movies about the poor. They are less likely to invite comedies about middle-class Filipinos mulling over the meaning of life than dramas about the proletariat struggling to survive.
So when your aunt in Tarzana, California or Slough, England complains, â€˜Palagi na lang yan ang ipinapakita abroad! Puro mahirap, marumi, mabaho, wala man lang mall o Boracay. Baka akala nila lahat ng Pilipino ganyan (All the Filipino movies shown abroad show poverty, filth and squalor; foreigners will think we all live like that),â€™ explain the situation.
Film festivals like Cannes may be showcases for cinematic achievement and movie star glamor, but they are essentially markets. The participants are there not to hobnob with George Clooney and Brangelina (assuming they can get within 50 meters of them), but to work: to find distributors, make deals, seal funding, and whip up as much publicity as they can for their projects. If you are in Cannes alone, on a free ticket, with no budget or marketing support, you will probably not be swarmed by the foreign media. They are too busy chasing George and Brangelina. There are dozens of filmmakers yelling in everyoneâ€™s faces. Your only hope of being noticed is to make a movie everyone will take about. You can be remembered for winning the Palme dâ€™Or, or for making the yearâ€™s Brown Bunny.
Iâ€™ve been to a few film festivals, as a media observer or in the entourage of filmmaker friends (which means I pay my own way, indie budgets being nonexistent). The most painful thing that can happen to a movie is for it to be ignored. Sure, you get a decent attendance at the screeningsâ€”a lot of them Pinoys living in the areaâ€”and they applaud enthusiastically and have their pictures taken with you. The reviewers shake your hand and say, â€˜Good workâ€™, but Thatâ€™s It. You wonâ€™t make the headlines. Distributors, agents, producers, Harvey Weinstein wonâ€™t be banging on your doors.
Well Brillante Mendoza has found a way not to be ignored. This may not be the route â€˜idealisticâ€™ artists choose to take, but itâ€™s worked for him. That he is also a talented filmmakers makes it less easy to denounce him as a cynical purveyor of gimmicks.
By the way, Iâ€™m not sure what movie won the Palme dâ€™Or the year Brown Bunny came out, but I remember Brown Bunny.