The SONA usually starts at around 4 pm and will last for one hour on average. Lately, though very political in nature, as part of an extravagant tradition with complete showbiz media coverage, senators and congressmen enter the red-carpeted hall with their spouses acting as consorts, wearing signature dress that leaks opulence before the start of the SONA. It should have been just the simple barong tagalog and saya, the Philippines’ de facto national costume, but now these truly Filipino dress has transformed.
As designers offered their services to politicians, the event exudes extravagance and excesses, making the fashion show that is SONA one of the submilinal disparity of the true state of the nation.
Traditionally, SONA is just a dry formal sanitized narration of the yearly accomplishments of every regime in the Philippines. SONA is like an accomplishment report to Congress. The usually hour-long narration and speech ends with plans for the future and possible legislation to compliment said plans; problems that still need to be fixed, and the usual promise of a bright future for Filipinos.
With the advent of technology and new communication platforms, it is no longer just a dry carefully written narration from the president (or his speech writers, really). It has slowly become a projection replete with statistics, graphs, photos, videos, case studies.
From a mere verbal accomplishment report to Congress, SONA has now become what Lasse Juel Larsen described as cinemafied: “an approach [that] investigates visual compositional formations of cinema and tracks them across media boundaries.”
But before cinemafication, there is what the communications specialist Dr Kiku Adatto of Harvard University referred to as “picture perfection.” Adatto described picture perfection as “picture-perfect mentality, the self-conscious attention to the construction of images, and the focus on gaffes that reveal the artifice of the pose figure prominently.” It came from her landmark book published by Princeton University.
The case being described by Adatto of one picture perfection was that of former United States president George W. Bush on May 1, 2003. In the picture, Bush was prominently placed outside the command center of a US aircraft carrier. He was surrounded by US servicemen standing in attention. Also prominently displayed is a banner at the top of the command center bearing the words: “Mission Accomplished.” The background is the color of the American flag.
The picture gave false impression that Bush is at a warzone, and the war has just ended, of course, with the US coming out inevitably, victorious. The president was, in fact, just two miles from the shore in a naval base in the US. He even landed aboard an airforce jet to complete the package of heroism. But the fact remained that after that “Mission Accomplished” stunt, scores of American soldiers died from ambush and skirmishes in Iraq.
Adatto described the scene as “perfect set of pictures...like [that] of Hollywood movies, such as Top Gun and Independence Day.”
Even then, Adatto mentioned that picture perfection started “unfolding since the Second World War in photography, politics, popular movies, television, the internet, and in everyday life” until the dawn of social media platforms and cheap consumer electronic gadgets such as smartphones. Adatto had this prophetic vision from history that “[the] documentary power of the camera has vastly increased, but so has the ability of the camera not only to falsify information but to also falsify ourselves.” And what could be worse than falsification? It is falsification through cinemafication.
Adatto further warned us: “[such] television and newspaper coverage conveys, in effect, a paradoxical message: Behold these striking pictures. But as you behold them, beware of them, for they are not real. They are setups, the products of politicians, media consultants, and spin-control artists who are trying to move you or manipulate you or persuade you. So do not take these pictures at face value. They are photo ops, contrived for the sake of our television cameras, and, in this sense, our cameras lie.”
The Philippine presidency as ‘picture perfection’
In the Philippines, there is what we call today Presidential Communications Operations Office or PCOO, an off-shoot of what was once the Office of the Press Secretary or OPS. It’s the controversial government agency tasked to relay information, act as mouthpiece to the president, and manage the communications and public relations platform and image of the national goverment, especially its chief executive, the President. It is headed by a former newsreader and broadcaster, Secretary Martin Andanar.
Before PCOO, nothing much has been said about the conscious effort to create “picture perfection” for the president of the republic. Everything then were standard photo-opportunities and videos managed and directed by the OPS. Some were taken by news agencies covering the Malacañang Palace, the official residence of the president during his tenureship.
But not until the 2004 “I am sorry” video of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo entered the so called “picture perfect” scene. Or an attempt at it.
The 2004 “I am sorry” video was produced and broadcast to dispel rumor that Arroyo had a conversation with a Commission on Elections (official to rig the vote count in her favor when she ran for the presidency that year. The “I am sorry” video was the answer that she indeed committed a mistake by speaking to a high-ranking constitutional commission official over the phone. It happened after the presidential elections when Arroyo faced the actor Fernando Poe Jr. She said sorry for talking to a Comelec official but not for the suspected rigging of votes to favor her.
It can be remembered that Arroyo took over the position of the president when Joseph Estrada stepped down from the presidency after a series of controversy involving the national fund. Arroyo, then vice president, took over and finished Estrada’s term of office. She then ran for the presidency for another 6 years and narrowly won over Poe, the king of Philippine movies.
The controversial video, which aired on primetime and nationwide, was known as the “I am sorry” video. It was the answer to a controversial wiretapped conversation now known in the Philippines as the spoundbyte “Hello, Garci.” Garci is Virgilio Garcellano, the former commissioner of Comelec.
In the video, you can see the close-up image of Arroyo. A sad image of Arroyo. Background of said image are framed pictures of her family. The set and the video, according to some, were directed by award-winning Filipina filmmaker Lupita Aquino Kashiwahara. But it was never found out. Nor was it formally acknowledged by the movie director nor Arroyo.
Directors for Duterte
The Duterte presidency was a product of Filipinos longing for change. He promised a drug- and crime-free Philippines within the first 3 to 6 months of his pesidency. The 16 million votes he received were a testament of faith. According to political analyst and University of the Philippines professor Clarita Carlos, “His blunt, frank style is what we need, not some flowery words. We need results. We are in for some exciting and challenging times.”
Carlos added that Duterte won “because he promised change and did not campaign like a traditional politician.” She said Duterte is a “game changer” who “does not care about PR (public relations).”
For starters, after 3 years, we are still being ravaged by the drug problem. We certainly are not crime-free. Corruption still lords over the government. Oppositionists are threatened, if not detained, as in the case of a lady senator and the impending arrest of scores of oppositionists using testimony from some washed up whistle-blower.
What Carlos mentioned, that Duterte does not care about PR, is the polar opposite of what the PCOO did to their boss during the highlights of his governance: employ movie directors for his SONA.
If the Bush “Mission Accomplished” and Arroyo’s “I am sorry” media stunts were never acknowledged as directed videos, the Duterte administration admitted unequivocally that they would employ the help of movie directors.
Brillante and Joyce
Brillante Mendoza is a Cannes film festival winning director. His movies received much critical acclaim both in the Philippines and abroad. He accepted the task of directing the 2016 and 2017 SONA because, according to him – during one of his interviews with media prior to his, so to speak, directorial debut starring the President – “People might be wondering, ‘Why is there a director for the SONA?’ I just want to clear that up. I’m here as a director so we can reach the proper order of the shots and just to make sure also that we would be able to capture what kind of president he truly is.”
He added that he “just [doesn’t] want to show the President speaking from his point of view. We also want to capture how he is able to communicate and connect with the people. And the people would be able to understand him, what he wants to achieve, what he wants to say.”
Mendoza was able to clarify that one of his most personal reasons in directing Duterte was “in line with my advocacies. If you notice, the films I've made in the past 10 years were all about social issues. My recent film was about drugs and corruption.”
Mendoza was criticized by the way he handled the camera, especially the extremely closeup shots. On this, Mendoza defended the shot as “aesthetics of cinematography, you get close to the person because you want to see his soul, part of [his] soul. You want to show his sincerity, his genuine sincerity. And that’s what I want to show – his genuine sincerity. And that he’s looking, watching after the people. I mean, if we listen to what he's saying, he means business.”
After two SONAs, Mendoza was replaced by a blockbuster movie director in the name of Joyce Bernal.
It is funny to note that Bernal managed to break box-office records through her comedy flicks. The joke went that she’d make a slapstick out of SONA. Bernal stated that in her SONA directorial debut, in 3 sequencing shots, she wanted to make the public understand how Duterte loves the Philippines. For her latest directorial job, 2019’s SONA on Monday, July 22, Bernal has this projection in mind: “want it hopeful and good. ’Yong parang masaya na, kasi last year, ano’ng nangyari? So sana parang i-set mo ’yong mood ng lahat ng tao dito na, ‘Uy, ’wag na kayong mag-away. Mga bashers!’” (I want it to be a happy one, because last year, what happened? So I should set the mood for the people here, like, “Hey, bashers, let’s stop quarreling!”)
President Duterte’s image conveys toughness. Part of this toughness is his devil-may-care way of addressing things verbally. Most of the time, he refuses to read his speech carefully prepared by his caucus of writers and political advisers. That could probably be the reason why there is a need for him to have a director on an occassion that should be formal and precise.
But these attempts at Adatto’s “picture perfection” on Duterte has been mostly a treatment to maintain the popularity of the President. By accepting, and communicating the reason for handling the SONA, Bernal only dilutes the message: the details, the much-needed economic stability, the more effective plan to eradicate corruption and crime, the more pressing issue of the West Philippine Sea, and other promises he made when he ran for the presidency. Instead, an attempt at “picture perfection” replaced the President’s address. Our country’s woes cannot be cured by a manicured picture, image, and video with fancy camera works. – Rappler.com
This article is a revised and updated version of a paper presented by the author on October 12, 2018, at the 6th International Literary Conference held at Universitas Sanata Dharma, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
Joselito D. De Los Reyes, PhD, teaches creative writing, pop culture, research, and seminar in new media at the Department of Literature and the Graduate School of the University of Santo Tomas. He is a writing fellow of the US Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies, and a research fellow of the UST Research Center for Culture, Arts, and Humanities.