|The Tragic Theater||2017.01.01 19:57:43|
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"The Tragic Theater"
The History of the allegedly haunted Manila Film Center
It all started with Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Weir. Both had films about Asia to direct, and
chose the Philippines to stand in for Vietnam and Indonesia, respectively. Having tasted a bit of
Hollywood in her backyard, Imelda had the grandiose notion to turn Manila into the Cannes of the
Pacific by starting an international film festival. In order to do so, she required a suitable venue for
her envisioned Manila International Film Festival (MIFF).
That’s how the story of the Manila Film Center (MFC) began.
Having set a date of January 18, 1982 for the start of the festival, Imelda needed to get cracking
on building her newest edifice. For her last major project at the Cultural Center of the Philippines,
Imelda passed over Leandro Locsin and chose architect Froilan Hong.
“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, and although designed
and conceptualized by the combined forces of Hong, Ignacio, and the brains of UNESCO, consultations
and technical drawings, were 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.
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.
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. According to Mila Llorin,
the Marketing Head of the upcoming festival, “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.”
When the Film Center finally opened its doors 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.
The festival made itself known to the globe as 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.
But that night, no one talked about what was buried beneath the red carpet. No one except
the ones in the shadows. They felt it, and they murmured. 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.