When Armida Siguion-Reyna (left) took over as the chief of MTRCB (Movie and Television Review and Classification Board), she clearly stated that her board would not be known as "guardians of morality." Instead, her term would push for the growth of the film industry, so that it will be a vital cog in helping the country grow as a nation. Consoliza Laguardia (right) is the incumbent chairperson of the board. But unlike most heads of MTRCB, her eyes are more focused on the television. She closely monitors the language, themes, and visual content of TV shows. Photo: Noel Orsal (Armida Siguion-Reyna) and Melo Balingit (Consoliza Laguardia)

 

In an interview with PEP (Philippine Entertainment Portal), veteran actor Ernie Garcia described the problems that he and some of his movies had with strict moralists and, of course, the powerful board of censors.

 

"Minsan, isang araw lang sa sinehan 'yong pelikula then ipu-pull out. Naka-padlock na 'yong movie theaters kinabukasan, kasi may reklamo galing sa ibang grupo," he recalled with a tinge of nostalgia.

 

Ernie, who was known in the ‘70s as a sexy actor, was unconvinced with the way some of his films were screened to determine whether they were "unfit for public viewing" or not. He argued that some of the complainants neither watched his sexy films nor saw the execution of the "daring" scene.

 

"'Yong iba, hindi naman nila napanood and akala naman garapal na ‘yong mga eksena pero hindi naman. May isa lang na mag-reklamo and ayon, madami ng makikisali," he said tersely.

 

Even as Ernie now enjoys a serene lifestyle as an artist, the problems he and his peers encountered before are the same ones faced by the TV and movie stars of today.

 

MTRCB THROUGH THE YEARS. After the Philippines declared independence for the second time (the first was on June 12, 1898, against the Spanish regime) on July 4, 1946 (after U.S. colonization), our lawmakers enacted Republic Act No. 3060, creating the Board of Censors for Motion Pictures (BCMP), which had a hold on television programs as well.

 

In 1965, Ferdinand Marcos was elected president. Gradually he altered and strengthened the powers of the censorship board on his way to declaring Martial Law on September 21, 1972.

 

Escalating the power of the censors coincided with Marcos's desire to monitor and restrict films, shows, and even theater performances that carried socio-political themes attacking his administration. He replaced the BCMP with the Board of Review for Motion Pictures and Television (BRMPT).

 

On October 5, 1985, Marcos abolished the BRMPT and formed the Movie and Television Regulation and Classification Board (MTRCB), fully establishing the scope and jurisdiction of censorship in the country.

 

According to the MTRCB preamble, the organization was formed around the need to introduce "innovative and fresh ideas toward the improvement and development of the film and television industry," and to "improve, upgrade and make viable the industry as one source of fueling the national economy."

 

But it mentions nothing about "setting standards for cultural refinement of the movies and television." Nor does it give the board the responsibility "to keep society's moral balance."

 

Throughout the history of MTRCB, its critics have noted that the standards and qualifications for its rulings depend on the personality, character and moral stance of whoever is the incumbent chairperson.

 

THE MORATO REGIME (1986 - 1992). Manuel Morato assumed the MTRCB leadership after Marcos's ouster in the historic 1986 EDSA Revolt.

 

As a strict moralist who proclaimed the value of celibacy, Morato quickly earned the ire of the movie industry with his iron-fisted rule.

 

Morato's primary concern was the youth and their "preservation of morality"—which didn't sit well with producers, directors, and liberal-minded artists.

 

Under his stewardship, the MTRCB did more than just classifying films; the board wielded absolute authority by censoring and deleting scenes deemed violent and sexually explicit.

 

Consequently, local bold films, particularly the infamous "pene" movies, went underground. These were replaced by a subdued genre labeled ST (sex trip) movies.

 

Morato's MTRCB banned The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Martin Scorsese's adaptation of the controversial novel of the same title by Nikos Kazantzakis; and the locally produced films Dear Uncle Sam and Lino Brocka's Orapronobis (1989), which tackled human rights issues.

 

The Last Temptation of Christ was a No-No because of its alleged anti-religion theme; Dear Uncle Sam, for its opposition to the Clark and Subic military bases in the country.

 

The ultra-conservatism of MTRCB during Morato's time, in the view of many, was a way to safeguard the interest of the Aquino administration, which was constantly under threat by coup attempts. This motive of the censors became obvious when the board rejected the public exhibition of Gringo Honasan's documentary. Honasan was the touted leader of several attempted coup d'états to overthrow Pres. Corazon Aquino.

 

MENDEZ FOLLOWS SUIT (1992 - 1994). Picking up from where her predecessor left off, Henrietta Mendez implemented the same Morato code.

 

During Mendez's time, MTRCB increased its anti-pornography campaign, particularly in the provinces where "smut" violations were said to be rampant. The Mendez-led board prided itself as society's guardian of morality and exercised complete power by deleting scenes or banning a movie altogether.

 

But unlike Morato's time, Mendez's leadership saw the emergence of the Appeals Committee under the Office of the President. The committee was established to conduct its own review of the films initially turned down by the MTRCB, and to determine whether to uphold, alter, or completely overrule the board's decision.

 

The formation of the Appeals Committee encouraged film producers to make bold movies laced with socially relevant themes.

 

Mendez's leadership became notorious for disapproving Steven Spielberg's holocaust movie, Schindler's List (1993), because of a humping scene and some nudity. The decision was later overturned by the Appeals Committee and rated PG-13, citing the historical merits of the film.

 

After Schindler's List came Clint Eastwood's Bridges of Madison County (1995). Mendez wanted to delete a scene where Meryl Streep's pubic hair appeared for a few seconds, as her character Francesca was rediscovering her sexuality.

 

Local artists and other personalities joined hands in denouncing what they viewed as a ridiculous and hypocritical judgment by the MTRCB head.

 

Feeling the heat, Pres. Fidel Ramos pulled out Mendez from the MTRCB to placate the public uproar.

 

SISON OF TRIALS (1995 - 1998). Writer Jess Sison assumed the post prematurely vacated by Mendez and inherited all the pressure that drove his predecessor out of office.

 

Wanting to create a strong impression, Sison immediately made known his three objectives:

(1) To encourage the production of more films that depict the innate heroism of the Filipino;

(2) To search for ways to install a self-regulatory framework for the film industry, where the MTRCB and industry leaders will call upon their colleagues to exercise responsibility in movie making; and

(3) To confer a "developmental dimension" to the work of the MTRCB so that it will go beyond wielding the censor's scissors and gain a spadework image in the public eye.

 

It was during Sison's reign that the MTRCB required all television programs between 6:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. to be rated for General Patronage (GP) or suited for all ages, while shows falling under the 8:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. timeslot be classified for Parental Guidance (PG).

 

Sison's leadership also figured in a number of controversies, particularly with three films: Priest, Ligaya Ang Itawag Mo Sa Akin, and Ang Lalaki Sa Buhay ni Selya.

 

MTRCB caved in to the pressure exerted by the Catholic Church to turn down Priest, a film about a man of the cloth having an affair with a woman. But Sison's greatest battle would be with popular sexy actress Rosanna Roces and her films.

 

Rosanna Roces's loud moans during her sex scenes in Ligaya had the Board members squirming in their seats. They were offended as well by a scene in Selya, which depicted two men making love together.

 

After much public debate, the two movies made it to the theaters, albeit with some scene restrictions.

 

Sison was also very particular with the movies carrying suggestive titles: Basa, which the board asked to be changed to Basa sa Dagat; Tikim to Patikim ng Pinya, and Daigdig ng mga Toro to Halimuyak ng Babae.

 

THE FEISTY SIGUION-REYNA (1998 - 2001). Being a film producer herself and an advocate of freedom of expression, Armida Siguion-Reyna's appointment as MTRCB chief greatly bolstered the hopes of fellow liberal artists and filmmakers.


Armida wanted to break the tag "guardians of morality" used by all the other MTRCB heads in defining the organization under their stewardship.

 

Instead, what the new Board wanted to achieve was to be "a part of transition process wherein the movie industry would eventually be given the mandate to police its own ranks, to maintain its own standards, and to help improve the quality of movies offered to the public."

 

The Board members under Armida were all non-believers of censorship. They were the ones who turned up dust on the streets during the reigns of Morato, Mendez, and Sison, protesting what they viewed as tyrannical censorship.

 

But not everyone was happy with Armida's tolerance. Critics accused the Armida-led MTRCB of leniency in allowing "pornographic" movies and those with suggestive titles to be shown commercially. They also reiterated that being a film producer herself, the MTRCB Chief had a conflict of interest and might be biased in favor of her own movies and those made by her producer friends.

 

The feisty chief defended her turf by saying that her board had refused to grant permits to films whose content was purely sexual and only titillated audiences. She cited the films Laging Sariwa, Dugo ng Birhen, and Monay—all slapped with an X-rating for allegedly displaying sexual scenes not central to the story.

 

Once again some sectors called for Armida's resignation, and at worst, the total abolition of the MTRCB. During a prayer rally held in November 1999, a 10-minute prayer was summoned by the Jesus Is Lord Movement to "exorcise the board of demons," as they called it.

 

But the shocker during the rally came from former MTRCB king Manuel Morato.

 

"Armida disgraced me," said the ultra-conservative Morato in his usual prim and proper mien. He then unleashed the big one that would have warranted that he be censored.

 

''If not for the prayers of Bro. Eddie Villanueva (Jesus is Lord Movement leader), I would have wanted to rape all of them at the MTRCB,'' boasted Morato, to the cheering followers.

 

Joseph Estrada's abrupt ouster in 2001 as president signaled the end of Armida's stint as chief of the MTRCB as well.

 

TIONGSON'S STINT. Like Armida Siguion Reyna, film scholar Nicanor Tiongson implemented a liberal style in reviewing and classifying films.

 

Unfortunately, this approach would cost him his job, even before he had warmed his seat. Tiongson's anti-conservatism prominently surfaced when he allowed the exhibition of Jose Javier Reyes' realist-drama film, Live Show. The movie depicted the plight of live sex performers in night clubs and their inner struggles brought about by poverty.

 

Interestingly, Armida had disapproved Live Show during her term. Then, the movie submitted to her Board for review carried a different title, Toro.

 

Director Reyes's unapologetic and straightforward treatment of the scenes angered the traditionalists in society, particularly the Catholic Church, which branded the film pornographic and gratuitous. Under Church pressure, Malacañang intervened and recalled the movie from theaters. The move prompted Tiongson to resign rather than sacrifice his principles and be used "as an instrument for the repression of freedom of expression."

 

Speaking in a rally staged to protest the ban and show support to the fallen MTRCB chief, director Joey Reyes defended the controversial film: "I am not defending myself because my film is my defense. Live Show is not a pornographic film but a movie that mirrors the real condition of our fellow Filipinos."

 

Upon the strong lobbying of Pres. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Tiongson was replaced by National Artist Alejandro Roces, who immediately gave Live Show an X-rating.

 

LAGUARDIA'S TV EYE. Of all the MTRCB appointees of Pres. Arroyo, present Chairperson Consoliza "Marissa" Laguardia seems to enjoy the full confidence of the chief executive.

 

Rather than channeling most of her energies into movie censorship, Laguardia set her eyes on TV programs, networks, and their stars. This may be due to the fact that fewer sex-themed movies are being produced these days.

 

But that doesn't mean the mother of three would earn honor as the least controversial censors chief. In fact, she might find herself one of the most talked about in MTRCB's history.

 

Laguardia has become notorious for implementing strict guidelines for television programs. She has suspended and reprimanded several celebrities, including Asia Agcaoili, Rufa Mae Quinto, Lolit Solis, and has threatened MTRCB's recent favorites, Joey de Leon and Willie Revillame with suspension.

 

Laguardia also figured in some controversies involving films.

 

When director Ron Howard's film adaptation of the groundbreaking novel The Da Vinci Code was shown last year (2006), Laguardia was firm in her decision to let the film be shown in the country, despite the Church hierarchy's protest against the movie's attack on the teachings and doctrines of the Catholic faith.

 

"The movie would be a test of faith for many people in the Philippines," she stated with conviction. "But it has to be shown. Thirty-six countries have already reviewed this film and they have not banned it. So, are we just out of the stone age?" she said blithely.

 

On the other hand, Laguardia apparently prefers to be politically safe. This was proven by her decision to stop the showing of former president Estrada's bio-pic, a short film about the tragic Guimaras oil spill, and the airing of GMA-7's Reporter's Notebook's documentary feature about an indigenous tradition of giant wooden phalluses and the thriving Rastafarian culture prevalent among some youth groups.

 

Indeed, as history shows, judging the merits and morals of a film or of a TV program really depends on the person currently heading the censors' board, regardless of the MTRCB preamble. We often hear the critics say, "It's all very subjective."

 

For now, people just let MTRCB do its thing. But the minute its decision seemingly becomes moot, Pinoy viewers and the board's perennial watchers—the moralists, the Church, the film critics—are not likely to stay seated passively. MTRCB is no alien to ruffled feathers and public uproar.