Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Quiapo Cinematheque

The Quiapo Cinematheque

By Eric S. Caruncho

First Posted 09:15am (Mla time) 06/24/2007

MANILA, Philippines - Information wants to be free. Or at least, cheap. Nowhere is this dictum more apparent than in the bowels of Quiapo's Muslim district, now known to all and sundry as "Deeveedee."

When I first started frequenting the place five or so years ago, when pirated DVDs first came out, they cost P100 each. There was only a handful of ratty pirated DVD stalls huddled in a kind of talipapa along one block of Elizondo St. Out back was the porn section, a warren of dimly-lit cubicles with dirt floors, quite literally in the gutter, on which squatted the occasional naked urchin. It was a Dickensian experience, to say the least: Video Store of the Damned.

A few months later, the price had gone down to P80 per disc, and the stalls had multiplied exponentially, crossing Arlegui St. into the adjacent block.

In the ensuing months, the price went down further, to P60, and finally to P50 per disc. Two new building, with air-conditioning, had opened to serve the increasingly upmarket clientele for the bootleg discs. Then a couple more. And a few more.

Today, the "Deeveedee" district spans several blocks running southward from R. Hidalgo St. all the way to the Golden Mosque in Globo de Oro, with DVDs that go for as low as P40 per disc, three discs for a hundred.

When I first started frequenting the area, it was, quite frankly, a pestilential slum, reputed to be a refuge for pickpockets, holdup men and all manner of unsavory characters. For the slumming suburbanite, that was part of the thrill, actually, as was the excitement offered by the occasional raid by agents of the Videogram Regulatory Board.

Today, a mere five years of the bootleg trade have given the area what decades of development planning by the city government have not: a veneer of prosperity. The traders have graduated from scooters to AUVs, and a service industry of sorts has emerged to serve the resident population: convenience stores, halal restaurants, hotels. (I am just waiting for Starbucks and a foot spa to set up shop.)

I know, I know. Video piracy is killing the movie industry. But i's also sustaining a growing community of migrants who depend on the trade for their livelihood. One “expose” by a TV network even suggested that the pickpockets, holdup men and other unsavory characters mentioned earlier have shifted to selling DVDs which, I suppose, is a good thing, or at least the lesser of two evils.

A friend of mine, a noted film director who shall remain anonymous here for obvious reasons, calls the district the "Quiapo Cinematheque," presumably because whatever else it might be, Quiapo is a haven for the discerning cineaste.

The Cinematheque Francaise was where the directors of the French nouvelle vague, the likes of Truffaut, Godard and Rohmer, cut their teeth on Hollywood classics, world cinema and American B-movies alike. It is the Parthenon of film geekdom, celebrated in that scene from Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Dreamers" where the heroes watch a screening of Jean Luc Godard's "Band of Outsiders" at the Cinematheque and reenact a scene from the movie at the Louvre. (Incidentally, I have both films on DVD, bootlegs naturally).

"It's only an educated guess, but the next generation of Filipino filmmakers is, very likely, receiving the bulk of their education in cinema from bootleg DVDs, rather than from film school or Mowelfund or the occasional embassy screening as used to be the case. And just as Quentin Tarantino educated himself by working as a clerk at a video store and watching every piece-of-crap tape that looked interesting, these movie geeks could show us something tomorrow that we've never seen before.

One thing that anti-piracy advocates neglect to mention is the appalling lack of choice of titles in legit DVDs. Go to any legit video store and chances are, all you’ll get is mainstream Hollywood product.

Not so at the Quiapo Cinematheque.

The sheer diversity of bootleg product is staggering: there are stalls specializing in anime, film classics, concert videos and music films, telenovelas, and of course, porn. Cost aside, the strength of the Quiapo Cinematheque lies in its total promiscuity: slick Hollywood product, cheapo trash, undisputed classics of world cinema: it's all there, uncut. There's only your own inner censor to draw the line. In a couple of years of shopping in Quiapo, I've managed to make up for 20 years of being too lazy to go to those Alliance Francaise or Goethe Institut screenings. French new wave? Italian neo-realism? Film noir? Hong Kong action? '70s Japanese bondage films? Zombie cannibal splatterfests? Korean romcoms? Silent films? Got 'em.

The deeveedee district is also one of the few places in the city where the mainstream Christian populace can have a close encounter with their Muslim brethren, even if it's only their DVD "suki." In a society where Islam still represents the extreme of "otherness," such cross-cultural meetings are few and far between. Who knows what effect these small transactions might have on future relations between the faiths?

Of course, with the global media conglomerates pressuring the US government to crack down on Intellectual Property (IP) pirates worldwide, all this could vanish just as quickly as it came to be. As technology advances and broadband services improve and become more accessible, optical media might just become obsolete. Illegal downloads might overtake illegal discs as the IP police's chief headache.

Information, after all, wants to be free.

Or at least, cheap.

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