Greetings Harry, Kevin, Andrew, Nitesh and Edwin,
It seems that discussion of our favorite films, underexposed or otherwise, is naturally blending itself into one of how we saw them. As technology increases access to content, matters pertaining to distribution (legal or otherwise) and manner of projection or viewing are becoming more and more tense.
Speaking on the topic of commercial distribution of interesting cinema in the Philippines is a dead end. Outside of the rare intriguing big-budget Hollywood product, it simply doesn't exist. None of our distributors are very adventurous about picking up films for distribution, so the problems experienced in some of the other countries discussed thus far sound like heaven from where I sit. What I wouldn't give to see a Pedro Costa film released, even in one cinema, two years after it was made. A Ceylan film getting distribution in Manila, however limited, would be miraculous. It is difficult to discuss the undistributed in such a climate.
Most of the interesting films that were screened in public cinemas arrived, quite naturally, via festivals (most significantly the Cinemanila International Film Festival) or Embassies and other foreign cultural offices. While I got to see a number of wonderful films at festivals or from copies provided by friend or the filmmakers themselves, the foreign highlights of my viewing year inside a local theater were United Red Army (screened during Cinemanila), and all of the films I managed to catch during the 2nd International Silent Film Festival. An event spearheaded by Manila's Goethe Institute but involving six countries, which combines screening of classics with original live scores by local musicians — all screenings were wonderful experiences in their own way, but this single most thrilling was Cascading White Threads by Kenji Mizoguchi, shown from a 16mm print with a live score by guitar-hero Bob Aves and company.
I mention specifically that it screened from a 16mm print because, due to the increased paucity with which this is happening here in Manila, it felt like a gift. Cinemanila, our only annual international film festival of repute, with a modest budget, still valiantly attempts to screen most of their films from film prints (when that is their final format), this year projected United Red Army digitally. The annual Spanish Film Festival, held in a posh mall and put on by Instituto Cervantes de Manila screened, if I'm not mistaken, ALL of their films digitally (DigiBeta or DVD), frustrating, as these were the first public screenings in the country of films such as The Orphanage and, on their Mexican Night, Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light; both of which I skipped, as the DVD either was or would soon be available (pirated or otherwise), and the film would look much clearer on my TV than on the big screen when shown via an underpowered projector (the films usually look awfully ... soft ... when projected digitally).
Piracy...a seemingly ugly word but when a local film lover has few other options to turn to (1. downloading, 2. ordering DVDs from abroad, 3. waiting 4. move to another country) to see interesting cinema new or old, it becomes something to celebrate. I visited the local pirated DVD store yesterday to see what was available: some have classics from infamous labels lined up together (Criterion, Masters of Cinema), others bundle up Asian films together (seperating Korean films and Japanese ones, which are quite popular these days), and others have compressions of Blu-ray discs into DVD-5 or DVD-9 available in sleeves with Blu-ray packaging (obviously this makes it no different from a standard DVD release, but perhaps the pirates find the blue frame more attractive). The Sun Also Rises has never shown here, Edwin, commercially or otherwise, but it was there, available to be purchased yesterday, among the lines of films on display at the pirates.
An important side note: amidst this sea of illegality there is, however, a code of honor followed by many, at least in the film community: don't buy pirated copies of local films.
With all of these works available pirated, will audiences still watch them when shown in a cinema in film prints? The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Julian Schnabel had been available for at least six months in the pirated DVD market prior to its screening in Cinemanila (from a 35mm print), and yet the screening I attended, one of many as Cinemanila often re-screens films popular in the festival, was nearly full. Perhaps the audience that watched was not the same one that swims among the pirates intently, or perhaps it was and they still wanted to experience the film in a proper cinema setting.
On the other side of viewing coin are films seen during travels, or through copies given by friends. Perhaps as important as the movies I've seen at film events abroad were the people I've met, the kindness they've showed me, and the way that, just like a good film can, they've helped me understand this world just a little bit better. Adrian Martin, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in Slovenia, often repeats a quote which he attributes to Godard: "cinema is the good will for a meeting", and at this moment I can't think of anything more apt. More on this soon.