“Why is the movie ‘Plane’ banned in the Philippines?” it asked, posing a provocative question indeed. Of course, I had to find out. So I hunted the darn thing down, finally finding it on Amazon Prime.
“It’s movie night,” I announced to my sweet wife who, it must be said, loves watching flicks almost as much as I do. And so we hunkered down.
An American action film starring Gerard Butler, the movie opened in U.S. theaters last month. It would be showing in the Philippines too, but for a recent move by the country’s Movie and Television Review and Classification Board. Caving in to demands by Senator Robin Padilla and others, the board pressured the movie’s distributor into pulling it from Philippine theaters. Why? Because, according to Padilla, “The reputation of our Motherland is at stake.”
l understand his concern. The film depicts a commercial pilot—played by Butler—who, during a routine flight from Singapore to Honolulu, is forced by bad weather to land on the remote Philippine island of Jolo, in the Sulu Sea. “This island,” the copilot warns, “is very bad. It’s run by separatists and criminals. There’s no government or police. If this is where we landed, we’re not safe.”
Indeed, within hours, the passengers—minus the pilot—are met by a gang of rebels who, after lopping off a head or two, take them all hostage. Forcing Butler and a cohort to embark on a dangerous mission to rescue them and save the day.
To be fair, the depiction is not without some basis in historical fact. Jolo, after all, serves as jungle headquarters for Abu Sayyaf, the Philippines’ most feared Islamic terrorist group. The same bunch that, in 2001, kidnapped American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham—mentioned briefly in the film—along with dozens of other captives, some of whom ended up dead. And it’s the only place, during my brief stay in nearby Zamboanga two years later, that virtually everyone warned me against visiting.
Lately, though, the government says the situation there is improving. The number of terrorist attacks has decreased dramatically. And some former rebel fighters are even reportedly re-training as guides to service an anticipated surge of tourists. So it’s not surprising that politicians would want to avoid projecting negative images. But is banning movies the best way to do that?
At least one group—the Director’s Guild of the Philippines—thinks it’s definitely not. “To outright ban the film,” the organization said in a statement issued last week, “is a cure much worse than the disease itself.”
Most Filipinos seem to agree, judging from their reactions online. “…banning films on account of what is perceived as unfavorable to the Philippines,” one declared in the Philippine Star, “is simply censorship…there will be no more freedom of expression.”
Added a soon-to-be foreign immigrant to the country named Scotty: “It is a fictional movie but banning it will prove that it has some truth to it.”
The one certainty is that everyone’s now talking about a film which, in all likelihood, would have remained obscure. The probable outcome: lots more people will find ways to see it than ever would have before. You can trust me on that because I’m definitely one of them.
David Haldane’s latest book, “A Tooth in My Popsicle,” is available on Amazon and Lazada. A former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, where he contributed to two Pulitzer Prize-winning stories, Haldane is an award-winning journalist, author, and radio broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines. This column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.