MANILA, Philippines — Annual film festivals around the world are exciting events to showcase the talents of independent filmmakers. In regards to Philippine cinema, independent filmmakers have become the bread and butter of the industry, especially because their films tend to excel at film festivals.
However, the films’ level of success is matched by the overwhelming amount of scorn they receive against their use of poverty as a backdrop.
The moniker “poverty porn” describes the way such films glorify poverty. These films are slated by critics, including Filipino columnist Ma. Ceres P. Doyo and the University of the Philippines Film Institute, as being exploitative because they depict extreme poverty in way to incite audience fascination. Many critics accuse the films’ creators of benefiting from the fame they receive on behalf of the film but that these individuals do not actually advocate for those in poverty.
Kinatay, a film by Filipino director Brillante Mendoza, earned Mendoza the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. It is a graphic film following a desperate, poor protagonist who becomes involved in the gang murder of a female dancer.
Filipino filmmakers such as Mendoza deny their films are any form of poverty porn. Mendoza contends that he does not try to glorify or speak for those in poverty in any way. He is just telling the story of a fictional character who comes from a destitute background. Mendoza is a storyteller who tells the type of stories he want to tell. For Mendoza, film festivals are an opportunity to showcase the art of Philippine independent cinema, not a personal occasion to profit and win awards.
What is more, audiences tend to under-appreciate the style of independent films and favor mainstream mmedia. So Mendoza challenges his critics to carefully watch and understand his films before demanding him to change his vision.
Philippine cinema is not the first to be accused of exploiting the stories of the oppressed and impoverished. Danny Boyle’s 2008 Slumdog Millionaire also received some backlash for his representation of the poor. For many critics, these films are superficial. The nearly 30 percent of Filipinos living in poverty do not have a personal say in what is being told in these films.
Supporters of Philippine independent cinema believe that sometimes portrayals of poverty in media can help those in poverty by evoking audience sympathy. This is true to an extent. In the case of Mendoza’s films, awareness about poverty is raised, but that awareness is not enough, nor is it an accurate awareness. Relief aid for global poverty does not increase following a movie set in poverty. Instead, the audience walks out of the theater thinking more about the story than the reality that inspired it. Artists win awards for Best Actor and Best Director while people in slums unknowingly continue to try to make ends meet. This disparity in gains between people of the entertainment industry and people in poverty is what angers critics.
However, the critics behind the disapproval are only spokespeople for the impoverished. The critics are just as removed from the reality of poverty as the makers of the film. So the question is also raised about who has the right to censure the morals behind an art piece. The issue is that most of those living in villages in the Philippines are not even aware of the existence of the films, nor do they necessarily consider such films as an immoral business strategy.
It is difficult to draw the line between artistic expression and social offense. However, criticizing these films for being exploitative will not directly help those in need. Critics and activists should promote more education regarding the situation of global poverty. Efforts should be made to help filmmakers and audiences realize the implications of an indifferent attitude toward controversial art pieces.
By placing the blame on filmmakers, social progress is at a stalemate. Advocacy for the poor needs to be directed to people from all walks of life: filmmakers, audiences and those in poverty. Villagers need to be aware of the happenings in media as well.
Many villagers accept poverty as a lifestyle that is destined to be passed on from one generation to the next. They live by tradition. Critics deem that the films produced by Philippine cinema reinforce this mentality in the upper working classes living in the Philippines’ urban areas.
According to critics, Philippine cinema romanticizes poverty. Both impoverished villagers and urban dwellers believe there is no need for change and the result is no social or economic progress. This cycle of poverty must be broken. It starts with widespread advocacy: people who are willing to speak up and people who are willing to listen.
– Carmen Tu