OPINION: Cooling down on the MTRCB

By now, everyone has been talking about how the MTRCB gave an inexplicable R-18 rating for the wide release of 2 Cool 2 Be Forgotten. People thought that its homosexual themes may have prompted the Board to recommend it only for adult audiences. That would be fine…except that when it screened at the Cinema One Originals film festival, it got a much lower rating of R-13 (from the Film Development Council of the Philippines, since the fest does not need to MTRCB inteference if it is endorsed by the former).

In the film’s permit, the MTRCB reviewers cited the following reasons for granting an R-18 rating for the film:

Psychologically disturbing for minor to watch as the film contains very mature theme, sexual content, nudity and alcohol abuse.
The film incites parricide/murder and suicide as only way out. No redeeming social value.
With the foregoing, the film merits an R-18 classification.

On the same week that 2 Cool opened in select cinemas (mostly in Metro Manila), Death Note: Light Up the New World was also released. The remarks for the Death Note movie consist of just one sentence:

The film contains themes and scenes of random deaths, up close and multiple long arm shots, occult, and good versus evil that require a restricted audience of 13 years of age and up.

For these reasons, Death Note got an R-13 rating.

Yes, you read it right. A foreign action film that has plenty of violent scenes of people trying to kill or maim each other was judged to be appropriate for viewing by high school students, more so than a local movie about three teenagers grappling with their sexuality and whose only “violent” scene consists of merely a character talking about a murder.

But that’s not all. As of this writing, the following films (shown in 2017) containing acts of violence were given more lenient ratings, too:

  • XXX: Return of Xander Cage – PG
  • Patriots Day – R-13
  • The Great Wall – PG
  • Kung Fu Yoga – PG
  • John Wick 2 – R-16
  • Hacksaw Ridge – R-16
  • Fist Fight – R-13
  • Logan – R-16
    (Source)

And for what it’s worth, a film that didn’t have a real murder scene was cited for “murder” and slapped an R-18.

So if violence was not the main reason for 2 Cool‘s R-18 rating, was it its homosexuality theme? That could be one possible explanation…until you remember that the MTRCB was also the same agency where a film depicting a gay teenager’s infatuation with a policeman was rated PG-13 (Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros); a zombie comedy movie with a straight man who was cursed to turn gay was deemed suitable for children accompanied by their parents (Zombadings 1: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington, rated PG); and a Star Cinema film with John Lloyd Cruz and Luis Manzano kissing on screen for a few seconds was also rated PG (In My Life). Those on social media who defended the MTRCB’s R-18 rating say that movies about gay people alone could really trigger the Board to give any film an R-18 rating (because apparently, hey, we don’t want kids to grow up gay), but as we have seen, this was not always the case.

So what gives?

A Board of Censors in Everything But Name

2 Cool was reviewed by Board members Alexis Lumbatan, Catherine Cabuga, Cherry Ann Espion, Eric Anthony Mallonga, and Maria Consoliza Laguardia. If the last name rings a bell, this is because Laguardia was the former Chairperson of the MTRCB, an appointee of former President (and now Pampanga representative) Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. We don’t know the role she played in giving 2 Cool an R-18 rating, but it shouldn’t probably surprise anyone if she turned out to be the most conservative member in that committee. As MTRCB chair, she gave The Da Vinci Code an R-18 on religious grounds, almost banned the film Priest from ever screening because of how priests were negatively depicted, slapped a triple-X rating on a documentary about former President Joseph Estrada, and even attempted to interfere with the censorship-free environment of the UP Film Center over a controversial rape scene in the film Aurora (starring Rosanna Roces).

Laguardia was not the only conservative chairperson of the MTRCB. People may remember the likes of Manoling Morato, Henrietta Mendez and National Artist for Literature Alejandro Roces, to name just a few, and how they butted heads with film makers and producers over the classification of their films. For instance, The Last Temptation of Christ was banned from public exhibition under Morato’s term (although, curiously, you can buy the same film in video stores today). Mendez demanded that a breast exposure and a sex scene be cut out of Schindler’s List or risk being banned for public viewing, never mind that those scenes lasted a little less than a minute or two (out of its three hour running time). Roces succeeded Nick Tiongson at the helm of the Board, supported Arroyo’s decision to pull out Jose Javier Reyes’ “pornographic” movie Live Show from theaters and even proposed that film directors should be professionally licensed if only to ensure they will never produce pornographic films. Although the Board has been headed by more liberal (or, for some, permissive) chairpersons like Tiongson, Armida Siguion-Reyna and Grace Poe, the classification board has often been regarded as a bastion of conservatism, wielding its regulatory powers like a censorship body in everything except in name.

For years, the MTRCB has denied being a board of censors, reiterating that their mandate, under the law, is to “regulate and classify motion pictures, television programs, and publicity materials”. But in fact, the law that created the MTRCB (Presidential Decree n. 1986) still affirms that the Board retains the power to censor—to suppress parts, or to prevent the exhibition of—films and television shows: Section 3 (paragraph i), empowers the Board to prosecute violators “of anti-trust, obscenity, censorship and other laws pertinent to the movie and television industry”.

One can argue that in exceptional circumstances, the MTRCB still needs to wield its power of censorship, like in the case of films that glorify criminals, or movies that incite subversion or rebellion, or films that encourage people to invest and sell illegal drugs (and these exceptional circumstances are, indeed, listed down in PD 1986). But this has not prevented critics from calling out the MTRCB for wielding this power over films that are perceived to be critical of the administration, such as the case with Lino Brocka’s Ora Pro Nobis during the first Aquino regime. (The film got around the censorship issue by premiering at the Cannes Film Festival.)

A closer look at MTRCB ratings

Supporters of MTRCB’s regulatory powers (or should I insist, censorship?) also reiterate that as a government agency, the Board acts as a safeguard of public morals, and therefore needs the authority to regulate movies and TV shows that Filipinos can watch, especially younger audiences. On its website, the MTRCB makes it very clear that it’s also part of their mandate to enact the following:

  • Promote and protect the family, the youth, the disabled, and other vulnerable sectors of the society in the context of media and entertainment
  • Empower the Filipino family, particularly parents and at the grassroots level, such that family members are able to evaluate and intelligently choose media and entertainment content
  • Promote a value-based media and entertainment culture

And to determine whether a film is suitable for younger audiences or for an older age group, the MTRCB maintains its own guidelines to classify films and TV shows. The current version, MTRCB Memorandum Circular No. 08-2012, identifies five classes for motion pictures: G, PG, R-13, R-16 and R-18. (A sixth classification, X, is reserved for films that are deemed unsuitable for public exhibition, and is practically rare you can count how many times it’s given in a two- or three-year period by the fingers of one hand.) By law, the guidelines must apply to all films and not, as an online commenter erroneously allege, on a case-to-case basis.

The guidelines were written in plain language that can be understood by parents. Each classification is defined in Chapter III of the MC, and are differentiated by seven restricting factors: theme, language, nudity, sex, violence, horror and drugs. As you move away from “G” in the classification scale, the amount of restricted content that can be shown also increases.

For instance, a G-rated film can contain “mild, brief [and] infrequent” violence that is “unlikely to cause undue anxiety or fear to young children.” A PG film, on the other hand, can have “minimal” violent scenes that are neither graphic nor gratuitous. And so on and so forth, until we get to R-18, where “there are no restrictions on the depiction of violence except that…it is justified by the context, narrative or character development”. With such a discretely defined classification system, it would appear that the MTRCB’s task of rating films would be as easy as finding the best fit for a film depending on one or a few matching criteria.

All Films Are Equal, But Some Are More Equal Than Others

— Except that it’s not, and sometimes for inexplicable reasons.

We started this article by showing how inconsistent the rating for 2 Cool was, so let me explain this through another film.

In the United States, the Motion Picture Association of America (or MPAA, the MTRCB’s American counterpart) gave the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast a rating of Parental Guidance, “for some action violence, peril and frightening images”. If the original (1991) animated version’s depiction of the Beast and also of the violent mob fight scenes near the end scared or terrified young audiences at the time, what more now that the entire film was remade with real (and virtual) characters and weapons.

Yet here in the Philippines, the MTRCB gave the same film a rating of G (and to quote in full, the violence criteria for G-rated movies is “The depiction of any violence must be mild, brief, infrequent, and unlikely to cause undue anxiety or fear to young children.”). In the film permit for Beauty and the Beast, the MTRCB said:

This live-version shows some fidelity and innovative [sic] from the successful Disney animation. It is acceptable for a General Audience.

Apparently, the film is not violent or scary enough for Filipino kids—does it mean Filipino kids don’t get scared as much as American kids? #pinoypride—and our local censors don’t see it in the same light as their American counterparts do. Never mind that the film shows Gaston shooting the Beast in full view, not just once but twice.

Or maybe the G rating was motivated not (just) by the contents of the film, but also by who made the film. After all, Disney feature films are family-friendly fare, and it is unimaginable that the Board would prevent kids from watching the latest Disney Princess film (including Beauty and the Beast). But if this were the case, would that also be tantamount to saying that some MTRCB standards apply favorably to others, while other films—especially independently-produced films—get the PG/R treatment? The MTRCB rating guidelines is supposed to apply to all films regardless of who made the movie. But in this case, just because the film happened to carry the Disney label, it seems that giving it a rating higher than G is out of the question.

(Also good examples are the Harry Potter and Transformers movie series having G rating despite their themes and, get it, violence.)

A movie where people get shot in close range with blood spilling from its victims deserve a PG or stronger rating, regardless of whether it’s a Cinemalaya suspense/thriller or a Marvel superhero movie or, in the case of television, the latest adventures of PO3 Cardo Dalisay in the TV adaptation of FPJ: Ang Probinsyano. A film where characters use even the mildest sexually suggestive language should receive an R-13 (or higher) rating and not PG, irrespective of whether that character is Christian Grey or Ina Montecillo or Praybeyt Benjamin—never mind if the films have children on the cast—or Mace Castillo. And yet, it seems, the same inequality that has plagued the distribution of foreign vs. local films (or mainstream/big studio films vs. independently-produced films) also exists in the matter of classification.

(We have not even considered the case that the G rating was probably driven by financial motives as well; that is, giving it a G rating will be more profitable in cinemas that are averse with PG or even R ratings. While this may be a valid, if somewhat off-tangent, reason—that is a point that is best tackled in a discussion about the state of film distribution in the Philippines.)

Not only is there a problem with how the MTRCB interprets its guidelines, there is also the problem of what the Board says when it hands down its ratings. Grammatical lapses aside, the MTRCB also fell short of giving an endorsement of “Beauty and the Beast” in emphasizing the “fidelity and innovative [sic] from the successful Disney animation”, as if those qualities were part of the criteria for giving films a G rating. It is one thing to justify a rating (e.g. “This film is rated PG for some mild violence”), but it is another thing to use that same government permit—funded by taxpayers’ money—to compliment a film as if the Board members rating the film were writing a consumer review. Film writer and reviewer Philbert Dy provided a notorious example of this, in the permit for a local romcom, upper case letters and all:

A VERY INSPIRING FILM!
Suitable for all audiences.

I don’t take issue with the MTRCB reviewers enjoying the movie. If that film truly made them inspired, then good for them. However, I take issue with having to put those judgments in an official government permit. The mandate of an MTRCB board member is to review and classify films according to the extent permitted by the law, but it is not their job, it is not incumbent on them, to express their personal opinions on the films that they classify. That is for the audiences to decide, not for a committee of three to five MTRCB board members.

At least, the remarks for Death Note: Light Up the New World, which premiered on the same week as 2 Cool, were more restrained and avoided opinionated statements (written by a committee that includes, among others, Mocha Uson):

The film contains themes and scenes of random deaths, up close and multiple long arm shots, occult, and good versus evil that require a restricted audience of 13 years of age and up.

By Whose Standards?

Then there’s the matter of themes. In the absence of any specific factor (e.g. amount of violence or nudity) that might affect a film’s classification, the MTRCB criteria also consider the movie’s theme according to what is acceptable for each age group. As the age classification moves up from G to R-18, the definition gets less and less specific:

G
The film must contain themes that are appropriate for all audiences. It should not contain violence, threat, abuse, horror, or other themes that may cause fear or disturbance to a young child’s mind. It should promote positive values.

PG
The film may contain themes that require parental supervision and guidance, but the treatment shall nonetheless be appropriate for children below thirteen (13) years of age.
The film should not promote any dangerous, violent, discriminatory, or otherwise offensive behavior or attitude.
The film should contain redeeming social values.

R-13
The film may contain mature themes; provided that the treatment of any of these themes is suitable for teenagers above thirteen (13) years of age.
The film shall not gratuitously promote or encourage any dangerous, violent, discriminatory, or otherwise offensive behavior or attitude.
The film must contain social redeeming values

R-16
There are no restrictions on themes; provided that the treatment is appropriate for viewers who are at ieast sixteen (16) years of age.

R-18
There are no restrictions on themes and their treatment

One of the comments made by the Board for 2 Cool was that the film has “no redeeming social values.” This obviously refers to the original rating (R-13) that the film received during the Cinema One Originals film festival. But what does the MTRCB mean exactly when they talk of “social redeeming values”? The definition of this phrase does not appear anywhere in MC 08-2012. Nor does “positive values”. In the matter of themes, the guidelines are so open-ended that it will be up to the Board’s judgment call to decide what kind of themes would fall under positive or socially-redeeming values. Which also means, it’s not only up to each Board member’s discretion, but also up to whatever system of morality they believe in, even if such moral codes are discriminatory. The other side of this is: whose standards of values or morals is the MTRCB talking about? Just by reading these guidelines, how would you know if one theme is appropriate for a 13 year old viewer, a 16 year old viewer and an 18 year old viewer? On this note, the guidelines are silent, and this makes it open to interpretation, even personal ones.

Some of the online criticisms I’ve read about the MTRCB’s decision to give an R-18 rating for 2 Cool stem from contradictions between what the MTRCB said in its permit and what was on the film itself. The only murder scene it has was not a depiction of murder, but only a mention of one (as mentioned earlier). The only nudity it shows is a very brief exposure of the buttocks in a dim location, not even an extended scene with frontal nudity. Nor does the film promote behavior that is “dangerous, violent, discriminatory, or otherwise offensive behavior or attitude.” (Unless, perhaps, there was one board member that we don’t know who is offended by gay scenes on the silver screen.) This led to speculations that the film was really given an R-18 rating because of homosexuality. But if that were the case, does a film that deals with homosexuality as a theme really deserve an automatic R-16 (or R-18) rating, just for being there in the film? Again, how then would someone account for Maximo Oliveros and In My Life, which dealt with homosexuality but were both rated PG?

In the case of Higanti (which opened this week), the Board members—which also included Laguardia—said:

There are some sexual understones [sic], extra marital [sic] affairs, media brutality, impolite words and fleeting scenes of drug use. However, R-13 classification is recommended in the film’s entirety. Strong family values, strength in self-worth, belief in God are all imparted in the midst of trials and struggles.

Like how the remarks for 2 Cool began, the Higanti committee (with Laguardia as one of its members) decided to mention the specific criteria that led them to award the movie an R-13 rating. However, it did not stop there: just like how they emphasized that 2 Cool has “no social redeeming values”, here they made it a point to mention specific items, especially “belief in God”, that made the film worthy of the attention of audiences as young as 13 years old. Because, hey, this film has moral lessons that’s just right for their age group, so let’s have them watch it. In that sense, the Board has crossed a line from being a mere ratings/censorship board, it also acts as a guardian of (religious) morality, a function that is not part of their mandate as a regulatory body.

Under that premise, it seems that the best way to have a film receive a lower rating (and thus, access to cineplexes that would normally refuse to screen R-rated films) is to appeal to the moral sensibilities of the MTRCB, to a board which used to count members of the Roman Catholic clergy as its members. This is fine if all of our movie-going audiences were children…however, in time, children will grow up, too, and will need to put aside childish things. But when will the MTRCB learn to accept this?

New Directions

In the past few years, the MTRCB has emphasized the need for matalinong panonood that is, really, a glorified euphemism for promoting only child-friendly films. However, this mindset is very limiting not just for audiences who are faced with limited viewing choices (especially when local films are getting bumped off in favor of superhero blockbusters that were given G or PG ratings). It is also limiting for our filmmakers as well, who either have to compromise and make only G/PG films, or struggle to find—much less build—an audience in this environment where even the MTRCB is weaning adults into watching only G/PG films. But equating matalinong panonood with just G/PG films that kids can see conflates a movie’s classification with its quality. (Or sometimes, conflating the presence or absence of morals with quality.) If the MTRCB really wants to promote matalinong panonood, why shouldn’t it also promote meaningful and well-made films that are also intended for mature audiences? Why does the MTRCB always have to be condescending towards films that would be rated R-13 or higher and make it a point to discourage viewers from watching the films, and be lenient towards films that they give a G or PG rating (even if they don’t deserve the rating)? Can’t adults have matalinong panonood, too?

 

While the fact remains that the MTRCB does have censorship powers, it must disabuse itself of the notion that it has the power to make filmmakers and producers bend to the Board’s will. In the case of 2 Cool, the Board owes its filmmakers a transparent explanation as to why it gave a stricter rating on its second review, an action that is disputed not only by its filmmakers but also by the audiences who saw the movie during its festival run—this alone should have served as a wake up call for the MTRCB that it has not been very deliberate in rating films.

It must scrutinize films strictly according to the standards it promulgated, and not according to the personal opinions or tastes of its members, much less their moral codes. The standards should apply fairly to every film, irrespective of its distributor, producer or cast members. The remarks on every MTRCB permit must also state no more than the criteria that was used to determine a film’s rating, and should not include the personal impresssions or endorsements of its board members.

It should trust the audiences that they will be more scrutinizing and discriminating with the films that they want to see. The MTRCB then must avoid its patronizing attitude of treating adults like children, in thinking that all movies are meant for escapism or fantasizing. Cinema can be a mirror, a reflection of the audience’s reality and experience. And in life, not every experience receives a happy ending…and that’s okay. Watching these hard truths on the big screen does not necessarily trigger (say) a mass wave of depression—it gives audiences the space to ponder their own realities. MTRCB should open up this mirror, and not always hide it under the pretense of every film “needing” to have “redeeming social values”.

For further readingS:

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2 thoughts on “OPINION: Cooling down on the MTRCB

  1. I agree with your views, Paul Barazon. More, more so the Filipino audience will have better sense than the MTRCB in its flim flam decisions.

    Like

  2. I get the sense that the MTRCB’s rating decisions are more whimsical than rigorous. If they were up to standard, they should be constantly measuring their ratings against precedents, in much the same way that the judiciary works.

    Like

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