Of freedom, independence, and potted plants

A very good time to deliver a “potted plant” speech would be at endings. It would be a bad idea, for instance, to say things about the thing/person/place ending that would exceed what would be expected in, say a New York Times obituary. Mostly praise, but if there is criticism, tempered. In this case, my own potted plant speech for the ending of Meiday, which happens tonight, was published several months ago–coincidentally on the 15th anniversary of my grandfather’s passing. Much of what I am about to say, though, are thoughts that emerged out of the current Cinemalaya brouhaha. For those wishing to catch up on the controversy, the Filipino film site Lagarista has been offering reportage on developments. And in a bit of breaking news, I have learned an hour ago that the Cultural Center of the Philippines, host of Cinemalaya, is indeed planning to convene an open forum which may be as stormy as one held in August last year over someone else’s work.

***

The reason I brought up Meiday is that Mei Bastes, the event’s founder, made it clear in a recent interview that she would end the gig series, which began in 2008. It is in part due to a recent illness, and even at the time I was writing the GMA News Online piece, I felt that all signs were pointing to an eventual end. So I am noting its passing with some weariness.

There is one thing though which is noteworthy. Meiday’s last day happens to be the first day of shooting for Marie Jamora’s Ang Nawawala, her Cinemalaya entry. In a comment I made on the controversy elsewhere, I noted something about the nexus of independent and commercial music and cinema coming to the fore in tonight’s events. And while critic and lawyer Oggs Cruz, who was still on the Cinemalaya screening committee at the time he reviewed it, noted that Marie’s script was one of the best in his view, the potential of this film (and I do intend to view it when it is released) does not erase the fact that it speaks a lot about music and cinema in our country. For me, if there is anything wrong about Philippine art in general, it is that any pretense to independence or artistic freedom is still bound by an unwillingness to democratize either the process or the product of creative endeavor. Unlike in other countries where art receives significant public and private sector support, the Philippines does badly on the first and a little better on the second. The need to build a groundswell of support and appreciation for art is stymied by the forces of the market and a puritanical strain that has infected almost all religious communities, and even efforts to produce an “alternative” or “independent” scene are mostly backed by people with wealth, power, or connections to both. This is true indeed of the art scene here, and indeed anywhere, especially as governments in the First World tighten their budgets due to the reckless actions of bankers and brokers.

The difference is, like the proverbial first water creature who figured out that the air outside the ocean was breathable, awareness of this reality has only come to the fore as we are now seeing some forms of art, especially cinema, emerge as a hot, marketable commodity, something that is “more fun in the Philippines.” Emerson Reyes’s story is only prominent because he decided to ask whether the powers-that-are had gone too far. I believe that, in this case, they did.

But there is another side to this. While I support Reyes’s efforts to retain creative control over such aspects as casting, for instance, it has led me to wonder whether the “auteur” theory (that is, a film is primarily or solely the director’s creative vision) is still being valued especially by the local independent film community, where the creative ideal (apparently) is that of a filmmaker who writes his or her work. I have yet to see a significant mass of film screenwriters, who do not direct, get some credit or prominence. I am posting this in the hope that I will be proven wrong. (The lament that “the scriptwriter gets no credit” was parodied in the film Shakespeare in Love, where a flyer for the then-opening production of Romeo and Juliet does not mention Shakespeare at all!) There is something to be said for (a) the possibility that a film is a film outside what the director envisioned (the hermeneutic function of distanciation, giving the reader the right to interpret), and (b) the equal possibility that any film is the product of a collaborative effort and vision. In a culture which values community more than the individual (and, even if an individual effort is prized, it is prized in order to build community), (b) may turn out to be more crucial. As someone else rightly pointed out, the issue is not just the leadership of Cinemalaya, but the institutions, the frameworks within which we collaborate, that are also the problem.

This is where, oddly enough, the “independent” or “alternative” music scene, stymied by far greater obstacles than film, seems to have fared better where we are. It is the one field where public support has had very minimal influence, and where even public support often follows the vagaries of the private sector.

However, another dimension to the survival of the music scene has to be noted. The singer/songwriter has been able to carve out a very small niche, and in Manila, for example, one independent filmmaker/impresario has, with moderate success, been able to give a space for them. (See the GMA article linked to my About page for more information.) But as I have started learning about what is turning out to be the diversity of music in this city alone, in my (other) line of work, it seems that bands matter, and networks matter even more. In short, others count. One’s success or failure is not one’s own.

The downside is that as we form connections, the choice must come as to whom we must include or exclude. And no matter how we may make claims to be inclusive or welcoming, there are limits to inclusivity. One of my favorite lines in that potted plant article is really about the kind of music Mei Bastes, for example, has not featured. (Here, I would argue that Wilderness is a post-rock band, but then post-rock has its roots in progressive music too, and it is a most laudable thing for them to be represented.) The trouble with exclusion is that the choice often takes on an emotive/personal quality, one that shatters relationships, and that is crucial in our context in a greater way than elsewhere.

As I think this would do for now, I leave readers with this question:  how far those in the creative arts should consider themselves free, or whether they really understand what that freedom entails. Or what constraints exist on freedom that may be beneficial to them.

How can we responsibly be creative in the light of our freedom?

That ultimately is the question, and that is something I have thought about for some time now. No definitive answers forthcoming, because  that’s not for me to answer.

Tomorrow, a field report from Meiday, and two other things of course!

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One thought on “Of freedom, independence, and potted plants

  1. Pingback: Revisiting an old piece | Thinking and Doing

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