Was Lav Diaz ‘censored’ at Cinemalaya?
The works of auteur Lav Diaz have been part of Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival since its inaugural year in 2005, with the big-screen debut of his 10-hour production “Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino.”
In total, he has shown 10 films running between four to 10 hours long and one short (17 minutes), enough to say that the length and subject have never been a problem and that it has become a tradition to have him at the 18-year-old festival initially spearheaded by the Cinemalaya Foundation and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), later joined by the Film Development Council of the Philippines.
So, how true is it that in the recently concluded Cinemalaya, Diaz’s latest seven-hour film “A Tale of Filipino Violence” was supposed to open the festival this year, but was replaced by another film because it might offend the second Marcos administration?
And that considering the powers-that-be, especially in Congress, would influence next year’s budget not only of Cinemalaya, but the CCP as well.
Originally titled “Servando Magdamag,” Diaz adapted the 1970 Palanca-winning short story by National Artist for Film and Broadcast Arts Ricky Lee. It was started in 2019, coproduced by Diaz’s Sine Olivia Pilipinas and ABS-CBN’s Black Sheep Productions.
Retitled “A Tale of Filipino Violence,” the story tackles feudalism, agrarian unrest and authoritarianism during the First Quarter Storm. It’s Diaz’s subtle, but searing critique of the early years of the Marcos conjugal dictatorship.
Its lead star, John Lloyd Cruz, and Diaz himself agreed it’s about the subject and not the length that made Cinemalaya decide to pull it out. When Cruz heard of it, he opted to go to Locarno in Switzerland for another Diaz film he acted in, “Essential Truths of the Lake,” for which he won the Golden Jug Award, or the equivalent of best actor, given by the Independent Critics Jury.
“One of the reasons why I jumped to my flight [to Locarno] is because one of the earlier collaborations we made was supposed to be the opening film of a local festival back home,” said Cruz during a talk-back session in Locarno in early August, referring to Cinemalaya and “A Tale of Filipino Violence.” He explained he was surprised when he learned it was pulled out and got replaced.
“To put it bluntly, they got afraid of the congressmen who will give them the budget. To think it was written by a national artist,” said Cruz, referring to Lee.
“I don’t know how to process it, but this local festival is connected to the Cultural Center of the Philippines, you do the math,” Cruz added. The CCP is an agency directly under the Office of the President of the Philippines and a member of the Government-owned and controlled corporations.
The talk-back session was for the world premiere of “Essential Truths of the Lake” at the 76th Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland, where the film had screenings from Aug. 6 to Aug. 8. The Cinemalaya festival ran from Aug. 4 to Aug. 13 at the Philippine International Convention Center.
The panel included producers Bradley Liew, Bianca Balbuena-Liew, Cruz, Diaz, assistant director-actor Hazel Orencio and actor Shaina Magdayao from the Philippines.
Cruz plays the lead character in both films mentioned.
Diaz expounded how Cinemalaya’s alleged pull-out of “A Tale” is like censorship. “They pulled it out as opening film because they were afraid they won’t get the funding [from Congress] for the next edition of the festival. It’s sad, but it’s happening in the very cultural center of the Philippines. It’s [really] hard to find venues in my country.”
A representative from Sine Olivia who requested not to be named for privacy reasons told the Inquirer they received an offer from the CCP through its film, media broadcast and new media division chief Mae Carralde on July 3 to screen it at the Gawad CCP Para sa Alternatibong Pelikula at Video, a separate section from Cinemalaya but simultaneously held at the nearby 320-seat CCP Black Box Theater or Tanghalang Ignacio Gimenez.
After asking permission from ABS-CBN’s representative, producer Ronald Arguelles, and with Diaz’s approval, it was agreed to show the film in three parts. The Sine Olivia rep said everything was smooth-sailing. Even Lee was excited because he hasn’t seen it yet.
On July 20, Sine Olivia received a phone call from Carralde with the good news that it was decided by Cinemalaya executives to have “A Tale of Filipino Violence” as the opening film, to be shown on Aug. 4 at the 900-seat Jose Rizal room or Meeting Room 1, the main venue for the festival at PICC.
In the early morning of July 21, the CCP representative asked for a screener of “A Tale of Filipino Violence.” But later that day, in a Zoom meeting with Cinemalaya and CCP executives, Sine Olivia was told the screening won’t push through after all.
The following day, the representative from Sine Olivia said Carralde tried to bring it back to Gawad Alternatibo as originally planned, but her proposal was reportedly turned down again by top CCP officials.
The CCP representative then asked for a screener of the two-hour-and-37-minute film “Lahi, Hayop (Genus, Pan).” The story about three miners on a journey home and whose greed turns them into irrational human beings won for Diaz the best director award at the Orizzonti or Horizons Section in the 2020 Venice International Film Festival.
Fernando “Nanding” Josef and Hazel Orencio, won best actor and best supporting actress, respectively, at the 2021 Gawad Urian.
Sine Olivia was told it could be the opening film instead. No word came until it was announced that the “winner for Cinemalaya opening feature” would be Quark Henares’ 90 minute-long dark comedy film, ironically titled “Marupok AF (Where is the Lie?).”
Length vs censorship
Cinemalaya festival director Chris Millado told the Inquirer “A Tale of Filipino Violence” was turned down basically because of its length.
“As far as I know, the length of the film—it’s seven hours long—was the primary consideration. In fact, the first choice was Jun Lana’s ‘Anak Ka ng Ina Mo,’ but it got accepted in an international festival, so the producers had to pull it out. It’s also three hours long,” Millado added.
Millado was a former vice presidenr and CCP artistic director. He retired on June 10, 2022, after 20 years with the CCP, but he continues to serve as Cinemalaya festival director, a role he assumed in 2014. In 2017, he organized a festival of plays on martial law titled “Pista Rizalina.”
Millado pushed for Diaz’s film to be shown, but it was not his sole decision to make it happen.
As reported early this year, the 2023 budget for CCP is P356 million.
During the press conference prior to the Cinemalaya opening, CCP vice president and artistic director Dennis Marasigan said there had been a decrease in the center’s budget for productions.
“From our proposed budget for 2024, only less than 20 percent was approved, which is approximately 35 percent compared to the 2023 budget,” Marasigan said. He added the figure came from the Office of the President and the Department of Budget Management.
In both the House and the Senate, the months of August and September are when budget hearings are done. It is when departments and agencies like the CCP would present and defend their budget proposals for the next fiscal year.
‘Beg from them’
In a follow-up interview, Marasigan said that P356 million doesn’t cover the ongoing retrofitting of the CCP Main Building as the amount only covers the center’s production and administration costs. There’s a separate funding for the building’s renovation.
“Mamamalimos pa kami sa Senate and Congress (we’ll still have to beg from them),” Marasigan told the Inquirer.
Asked if he’s aware of the reported cancellation of “A Tale of Filipino Violence” as opening film and the aborted attempt to show it at the Gawad Alternatibo section, Marasigan said, “I am neither aware of nor privy to this matter, unfortunately.”
“I think parehong totoong reason (both reasons are true),” Ricky Lee told Inquirer in an online conversation, referring to the length of the film and its subject adapted from his short story. Then again, he said he wasn’t part of the talks and his views were like second-hand information.
Diaz mentioned in several interviews that adapting “Servando Magdamag” into a film has been one of his biggest dreams, at some point calling Lee’s short story like a “holy grail.”
His obsession with it started after he read it for the first time in the early 1980s before he attended Lee’s scriptwriting workshop.
“Lav first read the story in his class at the Ateneo de Davao before he met me when he joined my workshop in 1984. It was assigned reading in one of his classes,” Lee told the Inquirer.
When Diaz was writing the script, Lee told him to own the story, giving him the freedom to expound on the saga of the Monzon family.
“My short story ends before martial law. Pero sa pelikula, nagtuluy-tuloy following what happened to the characters. Marami na akong hindi alam because I gave Lav the freedom to do whatever he wanted with the material. Parang spark lang ‘yung short story that triggered Lav’s story,” Lee told the Inquirer on Monday.
“A Tale of Filipino Violence” had its world premiere at Festival International du Cinéma Marseille in July 2022. A producer’s cut was intended for an eight-part television series initially to be streamed on ABS-CBN’s iWantTFC later that year. It is still unavailable on the site.
Incidentally, Diaz’s 11th and last work shown in Cinemalaya was his four-hour-long “Ang Hupa (The Halt)” as opening film in 2019. The story is about a dystopian Philippines in 2034 that stars Piolo Pascual as a rebel being persecuted by a deranged president played by Joel Lamangan.
If the screening of “A Tale of Filipino Violence” pushed through, it would have been Diaz’s 12th Cinemalaya film.
“Let us just [let] Cinemalaya be. I understand [where they are coming from]. At any rate, they told us in a nice way what problems may arise,” Diaz, who is in New York after finishing engagements in Europe, told Inquirer in an email on Sunday, nearly two weeks after the Locarno talk-back session where he and Cruz sounded like they were blowing off some steam.
“Mali ang censorship (censorship is wrong), oo, pero naunawaan din naman natin na survival issue ‘yung nangyari (but we also understand that it was also a matter of survival),” he added.
The rejuvenated auteur said it will be shown in full at the 2024 Rotterdam International Film Festival, which runs from Jan. 25 to Feb. 4.
With that, “A Tale of Filipino Violence” has become Diaz’s most-awaited opus that the local audience may not see for a long time.
Sine Olivia, through its rep said they would like to move on from the recent Cinemalaya experience. With Cruz’s win in Locarno, they would just like to celebrate the good things coming along. “We’ve accepted the fact [“A Tale”] won’t be shown in any local cinemas in this (Marcos) administration.”