Cinema's past haunts Manila

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 October, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 October, 1996, 12:00am

Rumour has it that inside the Manila Film Centre a prankster with an acute sense of the political has painted a portrait of Imelda Marcos. It is said to show the former First Lady bathed in a blood-red light, with centavo coins pouring from her eyes to represent tears.

True or not, the rumour is a popular one. The film centre, which stands on a strip of reclaimed land along Roxas Boulevard, overlooking Manila Bay, has been one of the capital's favourite subjects of tsismin (gossip) since it was abandoned 13 years ago.

Today the centre is the subject of fierce debate as to what should become of it next. It might be bulldozed to make way for 'Boulevard 2000', a skyscraper development that the Philippine Government says will be the city's equivalent to Hong Kong's Central business district. Or it might be refurbished and turned into a centre for the arts.

But before any decisions are made there is an obstacle to overcome. This obstacle has nothing to do with the centre's future, and everything to do with its grim past.

In 1981, casting around for a new international status symbol, Imelda Marcos decided to make the city a rival to Cannes. The first lady wanted a venue in the shape of the Parthenon to host the Manila International Film Festival.

What happened next has always remained unclear. The consensus is that work on the centre proceeded much too quickly until, at 2.35am on November 17, 1981, the ceiling fell through, trapping hundreds of day-shift workers who were asleep.

Rescue workers dug frantically to get people out. Then orders came through from Malacanang Palace telling them to forget the dead and dying and get on with the job of finishing the centre. Military Intelligence arrived and the few reporters who did get through saw only what Malacanang wanted them to see: minor sabotage perpetrated by communists.

The centre was finished on time and opened by Mrs Marcos. But the Manila International Film Festival never took off and by 1983 resorted to showing pornography in an effort to break even. A few months later the centre closed and has since stood as an empty and rotting shell.

Tony Perez, one of the mystics who this week tried to exorcise the centre, said it was difficult to say how many men remain buried in the concrete. 'The most realistic estimate is around 200. When the orders came from Malacanang to get on with the work, people used chainsaws to cut off protruding limbs and make them flush with the new walls.' Leaders of the country's Catholic Church believe all those entombed in Mrs Marcos' grandest folly should receive a Christian burial. The Cultural Centre of the Philippines, which owns the centre, are of the same opinion.

The government has said little, perhaps mindful that President Fidel Ramos was military chief at the time of the accident. The Minority Senate Leader, Senator Ronaldo Zamora, says it is one problem the Ramos administration wishes would simply go away.

That, however, is easier said than done. The government tried to demolish the centre in 1987, but could not find a worker in the country who would go near it.

The Philippines has strong traditions of afterlife and ghost stories. No one scoffs at suggestions that the centre is haunted.

What does worry some people is how much truth there is in the story of the entombed workers. 'It has become part of our accepted wisdom, but all the evidence, if there was any, was suppressed,' said Jan de Sison, who wrote a book about the centre.

The government has its heart set on Boulevard 2000 and might not let the debate over the film centre's ghosts get in its way.

The mystics, shamans and priests from Ifugao and Igorot hill tribes still try to placate the demons. All of them say the same thing: the ghosts will not rest as long as the film centre stands.