Film
May 20, 2016

The enduring nightmare of the Manila Film Center

Words by Tats Manahan Photos by Frank Callaghan

More than three decades after the tragedy that beset the Manila Film Center, no ritual has fully exorcised the ghosts said to inhabit it, not least the burden in the hearts of some of those who used to be in its employ. Speaking to three women who used to walk the building’s haunted halls, Rogue Magazine revisits the grand vision for its founding and the delusions that turned a dream into an enduring nightmare

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Apart from an occasional gaggle of garishly dressed, giggly transgenders reveling in flamboyant poses for selfies, the building stands strategically set apart like a modest spinster of elegant faded glory.

Its design emulating the lines of the Parthenon, the grand vision of former First Lady Imelda Marcos was for an edifice housing a 360-degree theater showing panoramic views of Philippine tourist spots, a film financing/loan program that would fund choice film projects, a digital archive for films in an era where it was yet unheard of, a number of audio visual rooms, a filmmaking and blow up laboratory. In short, a filmmaker’s wonderland. Today, the Manila Film Center stands desolate and decrepit, with nothing to its present credit but being home to a production company that stages elaborate gay revues. A distant and sad cry from its original noble, albeit extravagant, intent.

When the Film Center opened in January 1982 at the cost of $25 million, its first international film festival was poised to rival the festivals in Cannes and Venice. It seemed, at that time, that the glitz of the whole world—or Hollywood, at the very least—conglomerated in full force, truly an outsize spectacle for a Third World island nation. Brooke Shields, at the height of her legendary beauty, Jeremy Irons dressed in the cape he wore in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Robert Duvall, George Hamilton, who had just been nominated at the Golden Globes for his performance in Zorro, The Gay Blade, were among so many other film luminaries present. And not to be outdone, Madame Imelda, stealing the combined glitz from everyone, floated in wearing a couture terno by Joe Salazar, its hemline generously endowed with peacock feathers.

If anyone noticed the squish beneath the red carpet, no one was saying. To those in the know, the cement underneath the carpet was still a trifle wet; evidence of the rush job the building went through in trying to beat the deadline; a deadline that claimed lives of an unquantified number of construction workers whose bodies lay buried underneath celebrity feet shod in expensive designer shoes, some caked in wet plaster.

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Imelda, Ferdinand, and Imee Marcos at the inauguration of the first MIFF.

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Imelda accepting a bouquet of flowers during the festival inauguration.

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The Film Center facade in 1982.

“The wise man built his house upon the rock” was obviously a point of wisdom ignored, giving way to blind ambition and persistence. The structure stood on reclaimed land, was designed by Froilan Hong, and conceptualized by Ramon M. Ignacio, then Senior Technology Officer at the Technical Resource Center. The original plan was consequently trimmed down to house only an auditorium and film archives. In the design of the archives, the team requested for the assistance of experts from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. After several ocular visits in 1981, UNESCO ended up playing a major role in the ultimate erection of the structure.

Consultations and technical drawings, however, are only as good as they get.  The tight construction deadline, which was the grand opening in January of 1982, with a starting construction date of more or less three months prior, was a feat to be realized. To achieve this impossibly tall task required some 4,000 workers taking three shifts across 24 hours. As a result, where six weeks of labor would be required to construct the lobby, it took 1,000 workers just 72 hours to complete. And the race to beat the clock was on.

Nena Benigno, former Public Relations Officer for The Experimental Cinema of the Philippines and the Manila International Film Festival; daughter of former press secretary and columnist, Teddy Benigno: Rush, rush . . . it was like you would see a building full of cats. Rushing, rushing. The goal was to open on opening day. Imelda wasn’t going to move it, and all the guests were coming. We were at the PICC watching everything that was going on . . . 

Marianne (not her real name), an usherette: I started as an usherette on call, and they got girls from Maryknoll, Assumption, St. Paul’s . . . . We were also being rushed with our training. Personality development, all of that . . . sukat ng mga uniforms . . . we were given a kit. We were given three sets of uniforms: a balintawak, then there was the blazer, beige from top to bottom . . . make-up, Clinique kit. Italian shoes . . . stockings, the whole thing.

Money was simply never an object to one who was set on her ostentatious dreams.

But at  3 A.M. on November 17, 1981, two months before its scheduled opening, a scaffolding collapsed with a rumored number of 169 workers falling into a mire of wet quick drying cement, some half buried, some completely drowned in the rubble.

Nena: And then my father (Teddy Benigno), called me and said, “You go to your Film Center because I heard it collapsed.” My father was [then] with Agence France Press; he was bureau chief. So he wanted to write an article about this that went abroad and he wanted more details. I was there good and early. I don’t know who else knew . . . . What I understood was the fourth floor, they had put quick dry cement on each floor, and you’re supposed to put that layer by layer until it dries, then you put another layer. Because of the rush, they poured over too much cement and it fell over the night shift . . . the workers. That was the fourth floor. From a distance I could see people in stretchers being carried out, frozen in cement. When I got there, they were still digging out people; it [the cement] was not completely hard. And there was a guy that they were trying [to] keep from going into shock. Half of his body was buried. He was alive, but half buried. I don’t know what it was, but to keep him awake, alert, not to go into a coma or shock, they kept him singing Christmas songs. I was watching this. 

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A worker is lifted from the rubble in what might be the only video footage existing of the rescue efforts of November 17, 1981, taken by a GMA 7 cameraman.

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A rumored number of 169 workers fell into the wet quick drying cement, some half buried, some completely drowned in the rubble.

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Nena Benigno, former Public Relations Officer for the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines and the Manila International Film Festival, said of her experience upon arriving at the Film Center on November 17: “There was a guy that they were trying [to] keep from going into shock… He was alive, but half buried.”

Security measures were taken by the Marcos administration to keep the press away. No official rescue teams were allowed on site, not until nine hours after the incident. Betty Benitez, festival vice chair for finance and administration, wife of Human Settlements Deputy Minister Jose Conrado Benitez, received a request for jackhammers to dig out the workers.

Nena: All she told me was ‘Nandiyan ba ang media? Did you see them? Go and keep them out’.….She used to be . . . like the administrator of the Cultural Center of the Philippines? She was the shadow administrator . . . she was the practical . . . the go-getter . . . the one that made things happen. She was the one who mobilized the people, who met the deadlines. She made Johnny [Litton] and Imelda’s . . . dreams. She was the enabler.

Mila Llorin, marketing head, Manila International Film Festival: Because she was the finance person.

Benitez eventually sent the jackhammers hours later, after an official statement from the administration was posted.

Nena: What are you going to do after that? I didn’t want to go back . . . I felt so . . . Do you know what happened to the guy who was half-buried?

Mila: I was told that they just cut up all of the ones that were exposed . . . remove and build over . . . which is why the seats are very steep. It was a rush job. So these people were just, you know, they had to finish it, period.

And the show went on. But not without a sideshow.

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Presenters George Hamilton and Vilma Santos with President Marcos.

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Kathleen Turner and William Hurt in Body Heat, one of the films in competition that year.

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Guest Brooke Shields being interviews by news reporter Dada Lorenzana.

From January 18 to 29, 1982, 17 international movies competed. India’s 36 Chowrighee Lane won best picture; Lumila Gurchenko and Bruno Lawrence were named best actress and actor, respectively, and Goran Markovic of Yugoslavia won best director for Majstori, Majstori!

Marianne: The chismis was there were construction workers who were still alive but were not rescued anymore because it was already crunch time. We couldn’t get anything, kasi di ba there was a [news] black out during that time? It was still Martial Law . . .

So I was backstage. The walls had cracks. Ay, we could smell! . . . At the back, our uniforms were very malalim . . . and [a] balintawak is thin, and I remember it was a satin kind of white cloth. I will never forget that blowing on my skin . . . it would transfer from person to person . . . ‘What was that? What was that?!’ Eh di ba Maryknollers, Assumption . . . lahat na atang mura, namura na ‘ata doon backstage, lahat ng kolehiyala na mura . . . We were like 10 or 15 lined up. Siyempre backstage there was no light, ‘di ba? And the smell was so strong! There was a presence of something there . . . 

Haunting story after story circulated the city and beyond, prompting the Film Center authorities to resort to all sorts of rituals to pacify the rumored angry spirits of the abandoned workers unceremoniously entombed in the building’s foundation.

Mila: We had the exorcism rites. We had the pagan rites. We killed a pig. We killed a chicken. Then we had the entrails of the pig. We had a Catholic rite. We had a Chinese rite. So after every rite, the officers would be given something to ward off evil, like an anting-anting. At one of them [rituals], it was a rice in a cone. The Chinese had these envelopes with writings.

Nena: We had so many rites. Because Imee refused to occupy the building. She said, ‘Ayoko pumasok diyan.’ She ordered all these exorcism rites. Or else she would never step in there.

Mila: But she never did anyway.

Nena: But she did for the exorcism rites.

Mila: Yeah, but she was told that she was going to die there, if she steps in the building. Some manghuhula or something [told her], so she never did. So I was very happy she didn’t, because if she did, I’d die too because I was holding offices in the building. Sabi ko good, wag ka mag-opisina dito.

Nena: On inauguration day of the Film Center, they did an exorcism at five in the morning . . . there were Igorots, very old Igorots with tattoos all over their bodies . . . a real Canao. They had been killing animals and cooking them in that pot for a whole week. It was like they read the entrails to see what the spirits were saying . . . and they said they had talked to the spirits and the reason why they were still there was because it happened so fast . . . so the mediums and the Igorots told them, ‘No, you are no longer with us. You are dead’ . . . So the spirits agreed daw. And so we were going to have a farewell ceremony. The whole staff showed up at 5 A.M. Imee was there, Johnny Litton, Marichu Maceda . . . part of the ceremony was to drink the wine, and there was a big canoe in the lobby with unthreshed rice. And those who were leaders will have to take a palo-palo, dance around the canoe and thresh it . . . and then came the tapis dance . . .

And after all that, it was time to feast on the very animals they had killed to use as conduits to the spirit world.

Nena: Sabi ni Imee, ‘Ah! I asked Via Mare to cater upstairs. You eat your thing but we’re going up.’ So we ate Via Mare and supposedly the spirits were happy to go. 

Mila: But they never left. It never stopped. There was never a period when it was all quiet.

When we left the building in 86 after the revolution, that building was already condemned. It was closed. Because it was tilting. I was surprised when I learned it was put to use.

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There was a news blackout on the tragedy in 1981; reports about the Film Center collapse would surface only after the EDSA revolt of 1986.

EPILOGUE

Financial setbacks followed the tragedy. A $5 million subsidy allotted for the festival was disapproved by then Prime Minister Cesar Virata. To augment the funding, a contingency plan devised by the First Lady created what was later known as the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB), which allowed leniency in censorship laws for soft porn films to be shown during the festival. Embodied in Presidential Decree 1986, the law further exempted all films to be shown during the festival to be free of censorship, opening wide the doors for pornography, camouflaged in artistic license.

Nena: Cardinal Sin wrote a letter . . . it was in all of the churches, denouncing what was going on.

Marianne: I remember Virgin Forest. They had to do a lot of showings of that . . . Grabe the Filipinos, they would kill just to get in . . . parang sobrang maniac na they would kill each other, the glass was shattering because they were pushing each other, and we were not set to open the gates yet . . . I remember the faces of these Filipinos, na talagang . . . ano yan, beast? Maniac. Just to get in! As a young girl it disillusioned me . . . parang bumaba ang tingin ko sa Pilipino.

The Ostentatious One stood to protect her brainchild no matter what, which extended the life of the Film Center for a few more years. Imelda got what she wanted. She always does.

Nena: She had all these wild ideas that she would toss and they would come back to her with the feasibility. For example, cover Roxas Boulevard with white sand. She really seriously considered that. Except she was advised that if she did that, import the sand from Australia or something, it will wash away in three weeks. And she’ll have to import another batch, which will also wash away.

Mila: There’s normally a big reception. A formal dinner. At the time it was done at the ballroom of the PICC. Invitations were sent out. Transportation had been arranged. Everything is set. Two o’clock in the morning, I get a call. Wakes me up. ‘Mila, Imelda is here at the Film Center.’ It was the second year of the festival. We had one in ‘81 [the prelude to the MIFF] and ‘82. And she was walking at the colonnade level, and moonlight was streaming in. It was so lovely and breezy. And she decided to have the reception there. At the colonnade. And she had this dream of covering the colonnade with flowers. So I get this call. ‘That’s what she wants. Do it.’

Mila: I called up Baguio. I called up everybody. I said, ‘Wake up, transportation change!’ . . . She wanted candle lights. Eh breezy eh! So I was going bananas, calling up [people]. I was really getting a heart attack. This was two o’clock in the morning. I was frantically trying to reach anybody who can go up to Baguio and get flowers and bring them down here. And how many flowers? Enough to cover the colonnade! Crazy. Then about an hour later, I get another call. ‘Hey Mila it’s okay. She changed her mind na.’

Nena: That was life.

Mila: Ako talaga at that time I really hated her with a passion.

Nena: Remember when it was Imee’s birthday and she sat like a queen on a throne at the steps of the film center? And all of us danced?

A few days before the interview, Nena Benigno and Mila Llorin, now both Christians entrenched in biblical wisdom, found their way back to the controversial edifice, deeply aware of their participation in the horrific events surrounding the activities of the Film Center.

Nena: I asked for forgiveness for the money spent, millions spent, taken away from the Philippine General Hospital’s new wing; it was put there. For the workers that were killed; for the expediency; for the occultic rites done there; for the bad examples that our leaders were.

Mila: I was part of the team that approved the pornographic films . . . . The real story behind that was we needed to make money . . . in order to survive. Obviously our art films weren’t going to bring in money. In fact, in order to accommodate the population who wanted to see the films, we showed it at the Folk Arts Theater. [It was] enough to pay our salaries. It was never enough to pay off our debts.

Nena: She sprinkled oil, I sprinkled water. Or was it the other way ‘round?

Up until the Film Center closed, outstanding debts to Philippine Airlines for flying in celebrities and other Imeldific caprichos were never paid. After the revolution in 1986, Rustan’s Department Store took back all of its paintings and furniture.

After the 1990 earthquake, the center was abandoned, pronounced unstable. After its rehabilitation at the cost of P300 million, it was leased out in December 2001 to Amazing Philippines Theater producers of The Amazing Show. After this lease expired, the Philippine Senate considered moving there, but the move never materialized. In November 2012, the Amazing Philippine Theater regained their lease. Then on February 19, 2013, a three-hour fire caused damage to the building, calculated at P1.2 million.

Through it all, the grand illusion still stays where it stands to this day.

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Originally appeared in Rogue’s 2015 Cinema Issue (November 2015)

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