Need Space?

The central thing I picked up from Jason Tan Liwag’s Op-Ed, “Is there still space for the Filipino film critic?”, is that the development of film criticism (or of film critics) can come only from a particular form of space – a space that gives opportunities. Liwag also pointed to this perceived “lack” of spaces and opportunities for the “lack of varied perspectives in Filipino Film Criticism.” Within these two points, we can say that the development Liwag seeks is one that should end with “diversity.” But what is this that they really want? What is this ‘space’ that they are looking for?

The article comes off first as a bit confused. Liwag tends to bring up the old debate between print and online writing as if, if further analyzed in its concreteness, print writers still have the same cultural capital in the Philippines. Same thing with academics: are online critics still insecure about academics? The fact that it is even observable (and Liwag has pointed this out) that the older film critics groups have moved online on their own blogs means that Print is no longer a viable platform for film criticism. And the fact that contemporary practices in media studies research are being done more to fatten up one’s curriculum vitae, means that they are not really a threat to the relevance of online film critics. Heck, no general audience who enjoys movies probably knows who Patrick Campos is, but they probably know who Philbert Dy is.

To counter their commentary on print, Liwag also noted the danger of social media encouraging the ‘gamification’ of online film criticism. But how is this really a problem for film criticism at large? So what if one online commentator does this particular kind of film analysis and this one does marathons for a short period of time and constructs one’s own canon? How is that dangerous? What Liwag has done with this attitude does more harm by placing guilt on people who only want to enjoy films and write about them. This is not a remark you’d like to say if you’re looking for “varied perspectives.”

Of course, the aforementioned attitude towards gamification presents itself as a problem but something not to be left out to its practitioners who never really take cinema too seriously. Armond White noted how this problem emerged several years ago with Roger Ebert’s model of film criticism that is detached from any social reality. Note, this attitude was the root of this gamification problem which aggregate sites made a system of. It has its own charm and that attracted people more into cinephilia (once celebrated by Jonathan Rosenbaum). But to blame someone caught within this historical reality does not do film criticism nor film critics any service.

For someone who looks for diversity of perspective, Liwag’s piece seems to only gather voices that also align with his aim and not really consider contradictions that are involved in the process of this capture. They already pointed out the symptoms: academic institutions only provide programs for production and not for film writing and the FDCP gives out support to production and not to film critics – where are the counterpoints from them? Liwag later concluded this part of his discussion to just mention how other nations approached the problem which involves appealing to the same institutions to support opportunities they perceived needed.

The highlight in the latter part of Liwag’s piece is the perceived importance of a particular kind of film literacy or film education (a kind of film literacy that comes from current institutions) all the while upholding that writing a film analysis puts one’s perspective of the world. For Liwag, this is the bare minimum if one is to become a film critic. But won’t this kind of engagement with film bring more singularities than diversity? At some point, Liwag may be correct when they said that there’s a lack of varied perspectives in Filipino Film Criticism, but this is not because film programs are inaccessible. But far from Liwag’s analysis: ‘amateur’ or ‘untrained’ perspectives can probably bring more diverse and more interesting voices if articulated in writing. And if, as Oggs Cruz noted in the same writing of Liwag, “film critics’ groups aim to promote Filipino Films,” then, an antagonistic voice – contrary to a promoting one – can also bring diversity (the only thing missing from Liwag’s insights).

Cruz also mentioned in the same article of Filipinos being prone to groupthink, as a commentary against critics groups and awards, a commentary Liwag seems to align with. But if you think about the whole network of production, particularly those which are heralded as the best films of the past year, it makes you question the source of this perceived groupthink. Most of the critics Liwag interviewed in their piece themselves were involved in selection committees of film grants or juries to film competitions or are PR people for film studios. They form a consensus. Why blame the rest of the population for something they themselves started? This is not 2008 anymore when they are just marginal commentators: they are already part of the few active participants in the construction of the mainstream film scene.

What produces Liwag’s perceived “lack of varied perspective” is same myopia that Liwag shares with the space of film criticism that he’s addressing: that the scope of their perspective is too limited to even consider those who are actually already writing something different elsewhere. Liwag comments on a need for space of opportunity as if they do not have any opportunity to speak of: they are already writing for CNN and Rappler (like Cruz), what more space do they want?

Are they really looking for diversity or just to replicate themselves? To look for a particular kind of training for film critics to even consider one as such is symptomatic of that subject position of being in a space where that particular kind of film education and film literacy matters most. And to hear only from those who share the same thought narrows only the space they think they are looking for. Are they asking for a privileged space where only those who have that particular kind of background can speak, be heard, and be validated? That’s groupthink.

More questions arise: what’s up with these increasing calls for film literacy? Can’t people just make sense of films on their own terms? Are films so difficult they need a particular process flow to be understood? Films should make sense even if one does not have any idea how they are made. I thought no one has a monopoly on insight but how would voices multiply in the confines of this particular hermeneutic that is ‘film literacy’? 

Most of these calls come from people who are either inside the film scene or people who are invested in it. It often strikes me as self-serving: that films or film people must be understood on the terms they set and not in the way people who are looking want to see the film. You can’t find diversity in this kind of space, it will never happen if different desires or ways of seeing are barred from giving their own say. Liwag said in their conclusion that “what counts as criticism and who gets to be a film critic seems reductive because these questions are supposed to be difficult to answer” but they sure find it easy to say what are the prerequisites to be a film critic. Walk the talk. They already have the space that they are looking for. They are only rubbing it to you that you can’t just walk right in.

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