Saturday, May 22, 2010


Lino Brocka demonstrating
outside the house of then censors chief Maria Kalaw Katigbak,
after she tigbak'd the film Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim
(circa 1985)

Today, May 22, 2010, is the 19th death anniversary of filmmaker Lino Brocka.

I wrote the following article nine years ago, not long after a group of his friends and admirers unofficially proclaimed the day of his death as Freedom of Expression Day.

Freedom of Expression and Its Discontents

By Jose F. Lacaba

…freedom of expression … is the oxygen of our creativity. Without it, many talents on our continent have struggled for breath; some have choked; and some have been lost to us in that other climate, the thin air of exile.

ON MAY 22, 2001, on the 10th death anniversary of filmmaker Lino Brocka, his friends and admirers gathered at his grave to honor his memory by launching Freedom of Expression Day.

It seemed only fitting that a day associated with Lino Brocka should be chosen to bring the issue of freedom of expression into sharp focus. For this, of all the causes he championed, was probably the one closest to Brocka’s heart.

In the words of a statement issued during the memorial ceremony:

“As a founding member and the acknowledged leader of the Free the Artist Movement and the Concerned Artists of the Philippines, Lino Brocka was at the forefront of the struggle against all forms of censorship of the arts and the media. As a member of the local and international film communities, he continually stressed the right and the obligation of the filmmaker, in the exercise of freedom of expression, to shed light on social realities and the human condition. As a complainant in the Kapit sa Patalim case, he elicited from the Supreme Court a decision affirming that ‘freedom of expression is the rule and restrictions the exemption.’ As a member of the Constitutional Commission that drafted the present Philippine Constitution, he is credited with introducing the phrase ‘freedom of expression’ into the constitutional provision that now reads: ‘No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances’ (Section 9, Article 3, Bill of Rights).”

A decade after the death of Brocka, the memorial statement continues, “freedom of expression remains beleaguered on all sides by forces that seek to restrict or repress the inquisitive mind and the creative spirit. There is as much need today as in Lino Brocka’s lifetime to uphold and defend freedom of expression as a necessary condition for a strong and vibrant democracy.”

What the memorial ceremony for Brocka made saddeningly clear is that freedom of expression remains on the endangered-species list despite upheavals that have restored or enlarged the country’s democratic space. Even more saddening, the active role that artists and cultural workers played in those upheavals has resulted not in the expansion but in the diminution of their artistic space.

This is especially true of filmmakers. Brocka and fellow concerned artists helped oust Marcos, and as reward they got Morato and Mendez. Like-minded members of the film community helped ease out Erap, and in exchange they got the tightened noose of a new sanctimonious censorship.

That noose was much in evidence in the controversy over Live Show (also known as Toro), a film about the men and women who perform sexual acts in the presence of paying customers.

Live Show is written and directed by Jose Javier Reyes, a leading member of Pagbabago@Pilipinas, a group of professionals (including personalities from the arts) that made its presence felt at Edsa 2. When the controversy over the film erupted, the newly appointed chair of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board was the respected cultural scholar Nicanor Tiongson, who had resigned as MTRCB member at the height of the Juetengate scandal. The opposition of Reyes and Tiongson to the past regime, at a time when that was a risky proposition, proved to be no assurance that the new dispensation would be hospitable to their artistic concerns.

Government action in this case was a consequence of the knee-jerk reaction of religious groups and self-appointed guardians of public morals to “smut films,” meaning, all films that deal with human sexuality, whatever their intentions or level of artistic accomplishment. The noisy protest of these sectors was not unexpected. In 1999 they had rallied against the exhibition of Sutla, Warat, and Talong, among others. But what complicated matters this time was the openly interventionist role that the dominant church played in getting Live Show banned and Tiongson sacked.

If priests and televangelists had written pastoral letters and delivered sermons condemning the proliferation of sex in cinema; if the running priest had gone from mall to mall and from motel to motel to shout out his jeremiads; if the talk-show monsignor had gone from TV station to TV station to deliver his harangues; if the Cardinal had invited movie producers to his palace and appealed to them to stop making sexually oriented films, or even threatened them with a boycott; if the Cardinal had proceeded to call on the Catholic faithful to mass at the Edsa shrine to force the resignation of the MTRCB chief or the pullout of Live Show—the Church might not have won pogi points with the general moviegoing public, but there probably would have been no outcry from concerned sectors of the film and cultural community. After all, the Constitution extends freedom of expression to democrats and demagogues alike, and protects ideas of whatever shade, whether sublime or ridiculous.

But when the Church in the person of its best-known cleric summoned the head of a government agency to Church premises and then, in a high-handed and insulting manner, gave that government official his marching orders—when Cardinal Sin told Tiongson to resign as MTRCB chair—then a line seemed to have been crossed: the line called separation of Church and State.

LIVE SHOW reopened the never-ending debate over censorship and freedom of expression, particularly in relation to cinema.

Censorship, of course, has been with us since time immemorial. Often, it entailed the suppression not only of contrary ideas but of the persons who embodied those ideas. Socrates was sentenced to drink poison because he allegedly poisoned the minds of the youth, and Galileo was placed under house arrest when he wrote that it was the earth that moved around the sun and not the other way around. The burning of books, not to mention the burning of heretics and witches with beliefs anathema to the orthodoxies of their time, was a regular feature of the Inquisition.

One of the most zealous book-burner was the Holy Roman Catholic Church, which maintained an Index of Prohibited Books (Index Librorum Prohibitorum) for more than four centuries. Set up in 1559 by the Congregation of the Inquisition, the Index banned non-Catholic translations of the Bible, which meant that reading the King James Version when it came out in 1611 could get a Catholic excommunicated. The Index also blacklisted the complete works of Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Voltaire, Zola, and Sartre, and selected books of Milton, Flaubert, Rousseau, Kant, Spinoza, Pascal, Tolstoy, Stendhal, George Sand, Daniel Defoe, and Darwin. The Church formally abolished the Index only in 1966.

Under Spanish rule, the Philippines had a Comite de Censura that banned the novels of Jose Rizal, who would eventually be subjected to an extreme form of censorship: death by firing squad. As late as the 1950s, when Rizal was already the National Hero, the Catholic Church was still trying to block the passage of a law making Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo required reading in Philippine schools. During this same period, ballet was deemed immoral and was banned in schools run by the Catholic Church.

These days, in countries that claim to be democratic, censorship is seen as an idea whose time has passed, allowable only in exceptional circumstances, such as in times of war. Even the Marcos martial-law regime recognized this fact when it changed the name of what used to be called “board of censors” to “board of review” and then “review and classification board.”

While a stigma has come to be attached to the word censorship, its antithesis, the term freedom of expression, has gained currency. Freedom of expression is not expressly mentioned in our last two Philippine Constitutions, although the Malolos Constitution of 1899 speaks of the “right to freely express [one’s] ideas or opinions, orally or in writing, through the use of the press and other means.” Jurisprudence has established that the terms freedom of speech and freedom of the press, mentioned in the 1935 and 1973 constitutions, are broad enough to cover new media such as film and television. Nevertheless, freedom of expression is deemed to be the more inclusive formula, unequivocally encompassing even speechless and non-press forms of expression such as mime and painting—in short, artistic and cultural expression.

Lino Brocka, hounded by censorship in his lifetime but proclaimed a National Artist and hailed as a “legendary director” when he was safely dead, made a significant contribution when he moved for the inclusion of the phrase freedom of expression in the 1987 Constitution. But he did not invent the term. Indeed, even before he became a constitutional commissioner, the Concerned Artists of the Philippines of which he was founding chair had already declared in its credo, first enunciated in 1983: “We stand for freedom of expression and oppose all acts tending to abridge or suppress that freedom. We affirm that Filipino artists, in the exercise of freedom of expression, have the responsibility to do so without prejudice to truth, justice, and the interest of the Filipino people.”

As early as 1941, United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in a famous speech outlining the objectives of U.S. policy as “four freedoms,” had said: “The first is freedom of speech and expression.” (The three others: freedom of religion, freedom from want, freedom from fear.)

In 1966 the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly expressly stated: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”

The International Covenant, as the credo of the Concerned Artists of the Philippines would later do, recognized the “special duties and responsibilities” of those who would exercise freedom of expression. The exercise of such freedom, the Covenant noted, “may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary: (a) for respect of the rights or reputations of others; (b) for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals.”

Note the mention of “protection … of public health or morals,” which may warm the hearts of puritans and fundamentalists. The operative phrase here, however, is “provided by law.”

Which brings us to the question: in this country, what exactly does the law provide, particularly in relation to cinema?

THE LAW that currently regulates film and television in this country is the Marcos-era decree that created the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board. This is Presidential Decree No. 1986, which specifically objects to material “which, in the judgment of the Board, applying contemporary Filipino cultural values as standard, are objectionable for being immoral, indecent, contrary to law and/or good customs, injurious to the prestige of the Republic of the Philippines or its people, or with a dangerous tendency to encourage the commission of violence or of a wrong or crime.”

PD 1986 is a deceptive piece of legislation. It institutionalizes the system of classification according to audience suitability, but allows films to be cut up or banned. It recognizes the eventual need for self-regulation, but does not set a deadline for privatization and government deregulation. And it takes cognizance of the Supreme Court decision in the Kapit sa Patalim case while trying to maintain restrictions that were in line with the Marcos dictatorship’s general policy of media control and censorship.

In the Kapit sa Patalim case (Gonzalez vs. Kalaw Katigbak, in which the complainants were Antonio Gonzalez, Dulce Saguisag, Lino Brocka, and this writer), the Supreme Court had come up with a decision that, although decried in some quarters as wishy-washy, nevertheless paid obeisance to free expression. “Freedom of expression is the rule and restrictions the exemption,” the court said. It added that “censorship, especially so if an entire production is banned, is allowable only under the clearest proof of a clear and present danger of a substantive evil to public safety, public morals, public health or any other legitimate public interest.” Moreover, it stressed that the constitutional guarantees on freedom of expression are not limited to the expression of safe and acceptable ideas, but also extend to “unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion.”

From this it can be safely inferred that freedom of expression is not limited to artistic expression. The constitutional guarantees extend to both art and non-art, good art and bad art, Bayaning Third World and Bobocop.

U.S. jurisprudence, which generally influences Philippine court decisions, goes farther in defining what is or is not protected by the “freedom of expression” clause—specifically, what is or is not legally obscene or pornographic.

Miller vs. California, promulgated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973, is the most recent and therefore the current legal thinking on the subject. Under the three-pronged Miller test, a material is adjudged obscene if all of the following standards are met:

1. An average person, applying contemporary local community standards, finds that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interest.

2. The work depicts, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable state law.

3. The work in question lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

How does Live Show stack up in light of these provisions?

WHEN THE MTRCB last year, under Armida Siguion-Reyna, gave Live Show a permit to exhibit—with an R classification, meaning, For Adults Only—one thing was clear: “in the judgment of the Board” as constituted at that time (I was part of the committee that granted approval), the film was not considered objectionable but was deemed permissible for adults aged 18 and above. It was also the judgment of the Board that “the work, taken as a whole,” did not appeal to prurient interest, and that the sex scenes were handled with restraint (no leering close-ups of body parts), were not gratuitous (this was a film about sex performers), and were not unduly prolonged (a combined total of two minutes, according to one computation).

The critical reaction to Live Show has been mixed. The Film Ratings Board, which grants tax rebates to films of artistic and technical merit, did not give it a passing mark; and the university-based Young Critics Circle dismissed it as “exploitative.” Still, other critics who considered the film flawed recognized its serious intent—and Live Show, while not exactly a prophet in its own country, had sufficient artistic credentials to be invited to a number of prestigious international film festivals, starting with a gala premiere in Berlin.

To its defenders, the film is a harrowing, even depressing depiction of the grinding poverty that drives people to unspeakable extremes in order to survive. But to its detractors, it is nothing more than a lascivious display of frontal nudity and simulated sex under the pretense of art—a “well-made soft-core pornographic film,” in the words of the new President of the Republic herself.

By describing Live Show as “well-made,” the country’s new leading film critic attested that the film was not entirely lacking in “redeeming artistic value.” Under the Miller test, the film could therefore not be counted as legally obscene.

What is legal, it may be argued, is not necessarily moral. This may be true. But it is equally true that the MTRCB is primarily a legal body and not an arm of the morality police. As pointed out by Father Joaquin G. Bernas, S.J., in a newspaper column about an earlier censorship controversy (Today, Nov. 14, 1999): “The clamor against the MTRCB is couched in language of moral indignation. In judging the board, however, it is good to remember that it is a law-enforcement agency. Law enforcement does not cover the entire spectrum of morality. A basic principle of jurisprudence is that morals and law are differentiated in character and are not coextensive in their functions. It is not the task of the legislator to forbid everything that the moral law forbids or to command under pain of punishment everything that the moral law commands.”

Bernas is both lawyer and priest, and the distinction he raises needs to be understood by all those well-meaning individuals who insist that the MTRCB should function as a guardian of public morality. Still, even among those who take moral considerations into account, the verdict on Live Show is by no means unanimous. The Cardinal (who hasn’t seen the film) and the President (who has) both think it’s pornographic. But Father Peter Malone, an Australian priest who heads the prestigious International Catholic Organization for Cinema (Organisation Catholique Internationale du Cinema, or OCIC), saw the film at the Berlin International Film Festival and praised it for its “very strong social concerns.” On the other hand, Cinema, an organization set up by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, while critical of the film’s moral content, nevertheless found it suitable for adult viewing and gave it an R-18 rating, not an X.

I wonder what it is about Live Show that has provoked so much outrage among the guardians of public morals? Driving through Cubao on Holy Wednesday, I saw moviehouses showing two different movies with the word Init in it. I’m sorry I can’t remember the exact titles, but from the gaudy billboard display and the names of the leading actors I could guess that not even the kindest critic would find any “redeeming artistic value” in the Init movies. So why was there no comparable outrage over those movies? And they were showing on Holy Week!

I can only surmise that part of the reason could be that Live Show, while dealing with a sexual subject, does so in the realistic context of prevailing social conditions. It does not simply titillate us with the lusty acrobatics of generously endowed sex objects. Rather, it shows us how poverty can desensitize and dehumanize. It shows us, with painful clarity, the hell on earth that those who live in palaces cannot imagine or comprehend.

The May 1, 2001, attack on MalacaƱang by masses loyal to the deposed Estrada regime shocked us with its picture of the rage that drives the urban poor to suicidal undertakings. Live Show similarly jolts us with its raw and gut-wrenching portrayal of the desperation that can lead a small segment of the urban poor into the lower depths of degradation. A character in Nick Joaquin’s Portrait of the Artist as Filipino says: “The purpose of art is not to enchant but to disenchant.” This may not be the only function of art, but it is a necessary one. And in the performance of this duty, Live Show has exercised its freedom of creative expression honestly and responsibly.

I believe Lino Brocka would be pleased. But Lino Brocka would also caution us that freedom of expression, given its attendant discontents, still has a long way to go before it gets to be recognized as a basic human right as crucial to the well-being of the nation as the right to food, clothing, and shelter, and as necessary to our well-being as the air we breathe.

First published in
Human Rights Forum
Vol. X, No. 2
January-June 2001