The legal and cultural implications of killing a dog for film

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As the MMFF season draws to a close, "Oro" has sparked a debate over a graphic dog killing scene, raising questions about film ethics, animal welfare, and the diversity of culture. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — A thick, long line snaked its way halfway around the Gateway Cineplex on January 3, 2017, supposedly the last screening day of films included in the MMFF, in a year unprecedented for Philippine cinema. An hour before their screening times, tickets to two films had been sold out: “Sunday Beauty Queen,” an OFW documentary which won Best Picture, and “Oro,” which depicted the Gata 4 massacre in Caramoan, Camarines Sur, and won the Fernando Poe Jr. Memorial Award, among others. Both did not perform well in terms of box-office sales in the MMFF.

“Oro,” for its part, has been lauded for its “compelling account of the death of four gold miners in Caramoan, Camarines Sur,” and its “unflinching resolve to expose the crime, loudly and clearly.” On its last few days in theaters, however, it has attracted both publicity and flak for a scene depicting a dog being killed, tortured, and apparently eaten onscreen.

Here’s what we know for a fact: In “Oro,” a dog was gutted onscreen, in a manner that raised questions about the ethical sensibilities of both the audience and the filmmakers themselves. The Philippine Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) may file a case against the filmmakers, alleging the killing was a crime under the Animal Welfare Act. The makers of “Oro” released a statement, stating that the production team had no hand in the killing, implying that it was a member of the community — a “tagapatay,” who partakes of the custom of killing and eating dogs — who performed it. The filmmakers added that the meat of a pig, and not the dog, was eaten.

DGPI-on-Oro_CNNPH_2.jpg The Director's Guild of the Philippines statement on the dog killing scene in "Oro" states that the "DGPI does not condone any illegal act, rights violations and animal cruelty committed during the filmmaking process."

In between, reports and other accounts surfaced that the production team may have covered up the fact that a dog was killed as part of the script. The FPJ Memorial Award was withdrawn. The film has been pulled out of theaters, pending the editing or deletion of the controversial scene. There is an unverified Facebook post by a former cast member, saying two dogs were actually killed, and the dogs were especially procured for that purpose.

It is clear in the law that a dog cannot be killed in the name of art, a matter seemingly addressed by the film’s director, Alvin Yapan, when he prefaced the “Oro” statement with these strong words: “Hindi po totoo na pumatay kami ng aso para lang sa pelikula.” Dogs are traditionally killed and eaten by the members of the small community, a tradition that was included in the narrative of the of the witnesses to the Gata 4 massacre, says Yapan, and as practised by numerous tribes and communities in accordance with their cultures, according to Feliz Guerrero, the executive producer.

The film’s statement, thus, made a defense not referring to art for art’s sake. Rather, the defense questions how we perceive a culture that may seem alien to our own: in some parts of the Philippines, dogs are killed, eaten, considered a delicacy for their meat. The Animal Welfare Act itself recognizes this: an exception to unlawful animal killings include those “done as part of the religious rituals of an established religion or sect or a ritual required by tribal or ethnic custom of indigenous cultural communities.” However, any cultural practice that involves the killing of an animal not usually eaten as food (at least by non-indigenous communities) must still have the imprimatur of the Committee on Animal Welfare, who must decide if the method of killing is humane.

"Hindi po totoo na pumatay kami ng aso para lang sa pelikula ... Hindi ko inimbento ang metapora ng aso dito para lang pumatay ng aso sa loob ng isang pelikula para lang pag-usapan."

On this matter, the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA) declares that “the State shall recognize, respect and protect the rights of ICCs/IPs to preserve and develop their cultures, traditions and institutions.” The law, which provides for the ancestral domains, self-governance and empowerment, social justice and human rights, and the cultural integrity of indigenous cultural communities (ICCs) /indigenous peoples (IPs), states in its Sec. 33 that “ICCs/IPs shall have the right to manifest, practice, develop, and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies,” among others. Sec. 31 also obliges the State “to endeavor to have the dignity and diversity of the cultures, traditions, histories and aspirations of the ICCs/IPs appropriately reflected in all forms of education, public information and cultural-educational exchange.”

Speaking exclusively from that point of view — on what is allowed and prohibited in terms of the dog killing scene in “Oro” — there is a sensitive interplay between upholding animal welfare, on one hand, and respecting the rights of cultural communities, on the other, to perform their traditions. The State also has a corresponding obligation not only to recognize, but respect and reflect this cultural diversity through public channels.

The protection in the name of preserving tradition only applies, however, if the cultural practice is performed by an indigenous group, which is specifically defined under IPRA as “a group of people or homogenous societies identified by self-ascription and ascription by others, who have continuously lived as organized community on communally bounded and defined territory,” among others, “sharing common bonds of language, customs, traditions and other distinctive cultural traits, or who have, through resistance to political, social and cultural inroads of colonization, non-indigenous religions and cultures, became historically differentiated from the majority of Filipinos.”

Oro screencap2.png On what is allowed and prohibited in terms of the dog killing scene in “Oro,” there is a sensitive interplay between upholding animal welfare, on one hand, and respecting the rights of cultural communities, on the other, to perform their traditions. Screencap from ORO-MMFF/FACEBOOK

Were the dog killers in “Oro” part of an indigenous group? If so, is the act of killing protected as a cultural practice? If the answers to both questions are yes, then to refer to culture and tradition as a defense may be valid, as made by “Oro’s” filmmakers. If not, then it might be difficult to use culture and tradition as a defense against what seems like a clear violation of the Animal Welfare Act. The lack of clear, verified facts regarding what really transpired during production — how the dog was killed, how many, who caused the killing, etc. — only complicates matters further.

Going beyond the legal and ethical considerations of allowing a dog to be killed onscreen, however, which has been the focus of most of the criticism against “Oro,” if their Facebook page is any indication — the issue has also invited interesting observations on how we may react when faced with a conundrum where the issues of ethics on film, animal welfare, and cultural anthropology intersect.  In condemning the filmmakers, do we also condemn the communities (not necessarily those in “Oro”) which view dog killing and eating as a cultural practice, as cemented by decades of tradition? Is the outrage over the dog killing scene symptomatic of a still-existing marginalization of any culture that deviates from our own, a culture we struggle to understand? Can we say, in one breath, that dogs must not be killed — even for film — and in the same breath, respect the community who performed, partook of it, and consented to its depiction on film?

In the Philippines, dog is popular food among northern tribal communities as well as mountaineers in Mindanao. But let’s say, for example, that instead of a dog, a chicken was killed onscreen, then eaten. In the Cordilleras, pinikpikan is prepared this way: beating a chicken until its blood coagulates, breaking all the bones to make the meat tender, before it is given a final blow to the head, after which it is de-feathered or thrown into the fire. Other methods vary and provide that the killing should be done first, perhaps to appease to animal rights advocates. Nevertheless, since poultry is adjudged by the majority as a main source of food (as allowed to be killed by the Animal Welfare Act), and pinikpikan has been widely accepted as part of Filipino culinary tradition, would the outrage over a killing of a chicken onscreen be as strong?

If not, what of the outrage over the dog?