DVD Piracy and Cultural Production in Manila

Curator's Note

In Metro Manila, Philippines, the pirated DVD has become a primary means of viewing cinema and television, a mode of consumption that crosses class divides and provides access to the world’s screen media on unprecedented levels. More than simply offering “windows to the world” for Manila’s armchair travelers, the discs also play an active role in shaping the city’s screen cultures. Pirated “dibidis” provide fodder for cultural production through their role in creating the city’s screen cultures.

For instance, pirated DVDs have become iconic of localized cinema culture, featuring in recent, independent Philippine films. The young protagonist of Auraeus Solito’s The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (2005) dreams of becoming a DVD vendor, so he might watch all the films he wants. John Torres’s experimental feature, Todo Todo Teros (2006), ends with a reflection on the double mediation of the “cam copy,” which betrays its pirated status through audience members’ intrusion into the frame. The protagonist of Raya Martin’s Now Showing (2008) works at a pirated DVD booth in Quiapo, the center of Manila’s DVD trade; the camera follows her through the cacophonous rows of pirated DVD street vendors before she reaches her own stall.

These independent film representations find their counterpart in the televised raids of the government’s Optical Media Board (OMB), a body formed partly in response to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative “Watch List.” OMB heads such as Bong Revilla, Edu Manzano, and currently, Ronnie Ricketts use their status as former action film stars to portray a government tough on illicit trade. Manila pop-punk band Sandwich even used Manzano himself in their video for the song “DVD X;” the Senator appears in slow-motion at the song’s climax, gunning down the camera-toting band members. Importantly, the pirated DVD trade in Manila is dominated by the country’s Moro minority, lending these dynamics an ethnic divisiveness. Rolando Tolentino has written about this in relation to the Philippines’ historical orientalizing of Moro pirates, and I’ve also touched on how this identity informs Manila’s cinema shopping in other work.

In these ways, the pirated DVD becomes more than simply a vehicle for circulating local and global media—it is also an emblem of local screen cultures. Thus, it’s important that theories discussing DVDs, piracy, and global media consider the pirated DVD’s role as an object that informs local cultural production.


Dear Jasmine:

I liked reading your post. I'd like to know more about many of the issues that you have outlined above:  Could you elaborate on the history of OMB's emergence, in particular the link to the U.S. organization?  How are "pirates" caught?  Are there informants, potentially former "pirates" which help catch them?  Which films are being pirated?  Is it mostly foreign commecial films?  If so, from where? 

I was taken by the fact that the OMB''s actions vis a vis piracy involve acting (i.e. performance in these televised raids)  and adopting the conventions of television action drama.  What do you make of the blurring of boundaries here between pedagogy and entertainment? How do such televised raids construct OMB vs. pirates? Historically, is there a neat division as the clip shows, or as I noted above that the former pirates might work for the OMB, or other informal economies at work? 

There is some useful overlap between your post and Suzanne's post the use of television action drama and action heroes to combat piracy.




Thanks Jasmine.

I really enjoyed your selected clip and response. Following up on Monika’s questions, to what extent do you think the raids are carried out for the benefit of the U.S. Trade Representative (to avoid trade sanctions, etc.)? Are they always government-led? If so, what is the role of the Australian producer shown in the clip? Is Filipino nationalism ever used in the anti-piracy rhetoric?

It’s interesting how the raid videos attempt to dramatize and cinematize what is essentially a very uninteresting story of breaking in, confiscating discs, and making arrests. For example, unlike in the U.S. television show Cops, we don’t get a sense here of the personalities of the enforcement agents or the pirates.

Are the local independent films also sold in the pirated market? Would you say, following Brian Larkin’s work on Nigerian video-films, that local film production in Manila has benefitted technically or technologically from the well-established pirate markets?

The piles and piles of optical discs shown at the end of the clip give an interesting texture to the clip. Does the destruction of the discs ever become part of the pedagogical IP efforts in Manila?

thanks again, suzanne

 Dear Monika and Suzanne,

Thanks for your comments. Ferdinand Marcos started the OMB as the Videogram Regulatory Board in 1985, under Martial Law. Presidential Decree 1987 compelled videotape vendors to comply with international IP laws. The link to the USTR isn't official, but Philippine media gives ample coverage to the country's placement on USTR lists as a measure of local success or failure in fighting piracy. The films being reproduced range widely, with piracy of Filipino films being unofficially treated more harshly than their foreign counterparts. Nationalist rhetoric comes into play when OMB representatives frame piracy in terms of protecting the local film industry, which has declined for many reasons.  Telenovelas from around the region, particularly from South Korea, are among the more popular foreign works being pirated. However, Hollywood cinema and even more obscure, European titles from distributors like Criterion make the rounds in the pirate stalls, leading some to observe piracy markets' contributions to cinema literacy among young Filipino filmmakers.  I've heard that a couple of Pinoy auteurs whose films circulate via international film festivals, rather than through local distributors, have spoken to pirates about distributing their works, to provide greater access to a mass public.

The raids are government-led; however, the OMB includes members from the private sector, consumer organizations, and academe. The affiliation of the Australian in the clip isn't clear; he seems to act as a general stand-in for foreign criticism. I'm not certain about the role of informants. Often, raids take place at distribution sites, with look-outs assigned to watch for trouble. Stalls are designed to be broken down and hidden quickly in case of raids, and I've heard stories of customers being locked in the stalls with the vendors as they wait for the raid to pass.

Though the clip doesn’t give much context to the "characters" involved in the raid, the star is then OMB chair Edu Manzano (in the black and white striped button-down shirt). At one point, when he corners the vendor and starts screaming at him, he uses his star-status to communicate with one of the suspected pirates, yelling in Filipino, "If I'm your idol, you'd better listen to me!" One aspect of piracy culture in the Philippines that merits further study is the role of the OMB chairs' star status in faciliating the raids.



Thanks so much for your posts and responses. I am fascinated by this topic and what you are contributing to it. 

I'm also interested in the ways the video appropriates genre conventions, blurring the lines between entertainment and information.

In addition, I'm interested in the fetishization of DVDs vis-a-vis the online digital variety. Somehow the crackdown on digital pirates wouldn't look as cinematic or dramatic if there were no physical objects (i.e. DVDs) to be seized and/or destroyed. The de-materialized nature of this kind of piracy may force opponents into somehow physicalizing future crackdowns (e.g. seizing computers, etc).

The ethnic dimension is also extraordinary here. While there may indeed exist a socio-economic impetus for Moros to engage in piracy, does it really justify it. In other words, are there any alternative approaches to the us/ them antagonism in the global crackdown on DVD piracy?

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