Collective Memories of Film Piracy: The Disregarded Movement Against Cinema Elitism

Our church is on the top floor of a mall in Ortigas. The pastor would often joke about churchgoers who head to the ground floor to where the DVDs were located after the service. I didn’t understand what was wrong about it, but my mom stopped buying DVDs after that.

The DVD vendors seemed to disappear. They were being replaced with secondhand electronic gadgets stores. Some were selling class A shoes.

I saw someone. Behind her was a small room covered with translucent fabric concealing the inside. As she pulled the string hinged on the door, she whispered, “Pasok po kayo.”

It was a small space where countless DVDs were hung on the wall. It looked like heaven to me; all the films I was looking for were there. I was tempted to go inside. I was eight back then.

I asked mom, “Why stop buying DVDs?” She would tell me that selling these was illegal. I didn’t understand it then, and I never figured it out during the eight years that I watched movies through these DVDs, ones my father would bring home.

No more DVDs for little JT. We just occasionally watched films in cinemas, or my mom would let me watch films that were transferred to her Nokia C3 by her office mates—still piracy. From then on, I was curious about what happens behind the camera. I thought people in these films were just puppets. I always wanted to know what it took to do something like that. Cinema was influential in my growing up. It brought me to different places—I knew that if there’s something or someone I want to journey with, it’s the art of storytelling.

At 14, this attachment helped me understand what film piracy is: how it works, the dynamics, why it is illegal. Before, I would still ask my mom to buy DVDs, but I would see hesitation on her face. I was 15 when I went to local film festivals. It was the 2016 Metro Manila Film Festival that gave me hope for Philippine cinema. I decided I wanted to take part in something like that. This made me pursue film in college, even though my parents weren’t that sure at first.

I started doing short films and shortly discovered how expensive it was to make one. I understood the importance of watching them in cinemas, especially independent films that often tackle salient issues in the country. Unfortunately, it is films like these that are pulled out after its first day of showing.

Piracy Illustration.png
Illustration by JT Trinidad

When I was younger, I could see how my neighbors in Pandacan, Manila would buy from a DVD vendor walking around the streets of the city. This is their only way to watch films. Sometimes, during Christmas, they would go to the mall to catch a film.

But one of my friends couldn’t even afford a meal. She hasn’t eaten yet for that entire Christmas day. I doubt if she would even think if she could catch a film in cinemas. For people like them, to survive is the only important thing—get through the chains of every day.

In this capitalistic society, art is just for the rich. A lot of my classmates couldn’t pursue their dream programs because the fees for art schools are way too high. Our professors dropped one of the greatest visual artists for being absent because she had to work. Everything and even everyone seem to have a cost in the art scene, in film specifically.

It is often seen as an illegal act, but film piracy is an act of revolution against the perpetuating culture of elitism that exists in the world of cinema. It deviates from the capitalist nature of film and returns to its former purpose—tell a story.

Ekstra (2013): The Film Industry

One cannot blame filmmakers against film piracy. It costs millions to create a single full-length film and piracy could cause hefty damage to their livelihoods. A lot of film workers depend on making films as their source of income. In Jeffrey Jeturian’s Ekstra (2013), the film workers and extras on set were treated like machines. Maybe that’s why it’s called the film industry—it continues to create products called films while exploiting those who are below the superstructure.

This is rooted in the feudalistic structure of filmmaking. It’s alarming that a stereotypical director is someone who would always shout at everybody, blaming them for everything. This normalized that a domineering presence exists in a supposedly collaborative artwork. Ekstra (2013) showed us how toxic it is to work in the mainstream media industry; how these people were treated like rags, having no shade under the heat.

It’s painful to watch, but it’s even more painful to realize that this mirrors reality in the media industry. It must be remembered that this internal crisis is still rooted in the government’s continuous disregard for the arts. Many people, even ones in authority, still look down on artists or cultural workers.

There is no law ensuring that films stay in cinemas longer. Films are only regarded when they are awarded in international film festivals—suddenly it’s Pinoy pride. But when filmmakers ask for help, they are immediately snubbed. International films usually dominate cinema houses. Local cinemas seem to have no room for local films.

Films only get patronized when they succumb to the standards of Hollywood cinema. There is an illogical obsession with aesthetics and this “international look” that can only be achieved with expensive equipment. Cinema remains exclusive to the privileged, to those who can afford to fund such films.

We can never call our films malaya or free if our standards of cinema remain to be sourced from foreign ideas. Even entering Cinemalaya is a privilege. If money is a major factor in making films, it is because of film being a commodity. This commodification of cinema made viewership more inaccessible; not everyone can afford to buy a ticket.

Buy Bust (2018): Aestheticizing Poverty

During the 1950s, there were 50 standalone movie theaters in Manila. One of them was the Luneta Theater, which closed in 2010 to give space to commercial establishments. Today people would go to malls to catch a film, and tickets went up to 300, 400, 500, depending on the viewing experience you want to have. These drastic changes in the landscape of Philippine cinema made it more inaccessible for the underprivileged.

Erik Matti’s Buy Bust (2018) sheds light on poor people who are victims of Duterte’s extrajudicial killings. Filipino films often tackle poverty, but if a film is made with the goal of winning awards abroad and glorifying film as an art in its aesthetic form, it cannot recognize the issues tackled in its story.

Ironically, a lot of local films tackle poverty, but poor people can’t watch them. These films continue to be marketed instead in international film festivals, getting awards, and having critical recognition from audiences disconnected from its themes. This is evidence of how some films about poverty are voyeuristic—it contemplates on the lives of the poor, making it exotic for the Western audience. It is wrong to aestheticize actual struggles; it isn’t human to profit from misrepresentations and exoticization of the marginalized. Their struggle should only inspire art that empowers them, not something that adds to the stigma they experience.

Films continue to be an echo-chamber for people who have the luxury of film access. The discourse about cinema and its content remain exclusive even when the subjects are often people in the margins. Piracy made these films accessible to the people in these stories. Its reach gets wider. Any film, about poverty or not, should be accessible to anyone.

Beauty and The Bestie (2015): No more escaping

Many dismiss Vice Ganda films as lacking in substance, but we can’t blame Filipinos who flock to movie theaters to watch them. Worlds in escapist films are too good to be true. It’s valid for someone to dream of a society where problems don’t exist at all—if there’s one, it can be easily resolved through magic. For the poor, piracy is a form of escape, but escape is temporary. The end of the call is not just to escape the world of the ruling class in cinema, but to overthrow them; to completely abolish them and their unjust control.

Escapist films may not be every cinephile’s choice of film, but it is elitist to antagonize audiences for liking a Vice Ganda film. That said, the problems that these escapist films soothe are caused by the oppressors in the upper part of the social structure. Oddly, they are the same people who produce these blockbuster films to ‘help’ the oppressed. Escapist films benefit the oppressors, whom the marginalized seek to escape from in the first place. This shows that in capitalism, even choice in cinema is an illusion due to big production companies monopolizing the film industry.

Film piracy may be illegal in a lot of forms, but it is important to recognize its role in distributing films to those who don’t have access to movie theaters. Piracy will never not be classed. The forces that decide who gets to watch movies often fail to see its power—it can organize and mobilize.

It’s not hard to reimagine a community that has high regard for cinema; where piracy isn’t a thing anymore because films are more accessible. I never saw piracy as wrong because it was through it I fell in love with cinema.

I envision the future of cinema as devoid of the purist ideas that caused its hampered growth. It might be too good to be true to dream of a cinema that reaches each and everyone in the community, serving its purpose to organize, inspire, and tell stories. It sounds too good to be true now, but it’s not impossible.

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