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Picture of the dog that went viral on social media in connection with the controversy surrounding the film Oro.
The online news portal of TV5

To say that Oro is being dogged by controversy is not to make a cheap dig at the film’s woes or that of its makers because the verb choice is entirely appropriate. The recipient of the Fernando Poe Jr. Memorial Award for Excellence for about five minutes, Oro dramatized the murder of four small-scale miners in a small town in Camarines Sur in 2014, yet despite all that, it is gaining word-of-mouth for all the wrong reasons: one controversial scene featured the actual butchering of a dog that, apparently, was done because it had happened in real life. According to Alvin Yapan, Oro’s director, an affidavit executed by a witness narrated how he, the witness, had tried to collect payment from the alleged killers for a dog that had been served as a snack during one drinking session. At first, the production denied that a dog had been killed, that it was a goat, actually, that was wearing prosthetics. Eventually, though, they had to admit that it was not a goat that had given an Urian-calibre species-bending performance but, yes, it was a dog in the role that other dogs would kill themselves for. An actress would later write on her social media account that the filmmakers had instructed cast and crew not to speak about what had happened on set, that supposedly, two—not just one — dogs had died, so what aggravates the filmmakers’ situation is not just the cover - up, but the cover-up of the cover-up.

I have not seen Oro; it was not on my list of must-see movies for the recent Metro Manila Film Festival. Now I have even less reason to want to see it, but not for why you might think. The offending scene has been ordered cut though the film was not pulled out for commercial exhibition, a decision which struck many as dumbfounding. Nonetheless, the one scene which might have induced moviegoers to see Oro just to see then decide for themselves is no longer there. At any rate, my goal here is not to write a review but to provide a context for the issue.

It is not always the case that art should be strictly for art’s sake — in fact, it is never the case — simply because it is neither created nor appreciated in a vacuum. It has always been a head scratcher to me how little people realize the law impacts their lives. The law reigns—from conception to resurrection. Art is no different. As a form of expression, it constitutes regulated speech, e.g., is a particular work art (therefore defensible) or is it pornography? As a product of the creative impulse, it is protected by intellectual property laws. As commerce, it is the subject of contracts, it is subject to taxation and its forgery is the subject of criminal laws. And that’s just for starters.

Movies, as art, are therefore not exempt from the laws that themselves govern the audiences who legislated them. It does not matter if artists realize this or not, or even if they are aware of such, because a basic precept of law is that ignorance thereof will not excuse non-compliance therewith. In laymen’s terms, just because you do not know that a law governing a certain set of conduct exists, it does not mean you are free to do anything you want and not get punished when caught. Thus, a director who does not know that such a thing as a "Code of Practice and Minimum Standards for the Welfare of Chickens" exists will not excuse him for not knowing that chickens, as do all animals, enjoy five fundamental freedoms: the freedom against hunger, thirst and malnutrition; freedom against physical discomfort and pain; freedom against injury and disease; freedom to conform to essential behavioral patterns; and freedom against fear and distress. And I am not making this up—it is an actual administrative order.

Oro probably went to the extent it did to preserve verisimilitude and to hew to the noble intentions of the film. Whether or not the effort was worth it, unfortunately for the filmmakers, is for the criminal court to decide because, again, unfortunately for the filmmakers, there is such a thing as the Animal Welfare Act of 1998. The Oro people reportedly had received a recommendation to coordinate with animal welfare authorities but had elected not to follow it — if that is true, then that was a big mistake. If you are the type to sit through their end credits, you will probably have noticed that Hollywood movies list legal departments as among those deserving to be named. Now you know why.

How, then, could the filmfest judges have bestowed the FPJ Memorial Award on Oro given the patently illegal depiction onscreen of a dog-killing? It was only when public outrage became irresistible that the MMFF decided to withdraw the award, which poses the question: did they see nothing objectionable in the first place? Or did they consider such directorial decisions permissible "for the sake of art"? Obviously, this one fell through the cracks, and if we are not to see a repeat of it next December, the MMFF had better realize that they occupy their positions not just to sit pretty and eat popcorn.

Regrettably, the controversy has affected the other artists connected to the film. The cast earned awards for their acting but the MMFF left these awards intact because they attach to individual artistic merit. Be that as it may, the actors certainly can keep their hardware for a job well done and for the noble intention of memorializing a dark chapter in history that, were it not for the filmmakers’ troubles, would have been overlooked as a footnote. But those are tainted trophies, one of which, by the way, was for ensemble acting, and like it or not, that poor, uncredited dog was a part of the ensemble.