Advocating for the Creatives
Multi-hyphenate Pangasinan 4th District Congressman Christopher “Toff” De Venecia directs the spotlight on our country’s artists with RA No. 11904.
BY HELEN HERNANE
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROMEO PERALTA, JR.
HMUA BY EFF ALAGADAN JR.
There is a line that artists are very much familiar with: “Walang pera sa (There is no money in the) arts.” And this isn’t something only Filipino creatives have heard. It has become so commonplace that “struggling” often precedes the word “artists.” Whether it’s struggling to provide creative output or financial distress, it is almost expected of everyone entering this industry that they are facing an uphill battle.
Pangasinan 4th District Representative Christopher “Toff” De Venecia is familiar with the struggle himself. The Ateneo de Manila University (AdMU) alumnus entered the creative industry at a young age, acting in films alongside industry legends such as Sharon Cuneta. He was also part of the sitcom Ober Da Bakod which starred Janno Gibbs, Leo Martinez, and Anjo Yllana.
It was something that came naturally, the congressman remarks, as he explained his family’s background in the showbiz industry. His grandfather, Dr. Jose “Doc” Perez, was the general manager and executive producer of Sampaguita Pictures, one of the top film production companies in the 1950s to 1960s. Doc Perez was otherwise known as the “starmaker’’ who helped launch the careers of Gloria Romero, Susan Roces, Amalia Fuentes, Paraluman, Dolphy, Eddie Garcia, Gina Pareño, and many more.
De Venecia also shares that one of his aunts is Marichu “Manay Ichu” Perez-Maceda, a movie industry pillar who spearheaded many initiatives such as the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), Movie Workers Welfare Foundation (MOWELFUND), the Film Academy of the Philippines (FAP), and even sparked the birth of experimental cinema in the country.
While showbiz was something the former child actor enjoyed, giving him a “very interesting childhood,” it was clearly distracting him from his academics. But creative people will always just find another outlet for their ideas and De Venecia turned to writing as he became the sports editor of their school newspaper in grade school. In high school, he joined the HILITES Magazine in AdMU as a features editor, eventually climbing up to associate editor by his senior year.
In college, De Venecia thought of joining The Guidon, AdMU’s college newspaper, but found the requirements cumbersome and decided to redirect his energy toward being a member of the student council. Unfortunately, on December 17, 2004, tragedy struck the De Venecia household. Their Makati home was engulfed in flames, claiming the life of De Venecia’s sister, Kristina Casimira “KC.” She was 16 years old.
“I had a sort of paradigm shift. There were a lot of things I wanted to pursue, but I never really had the courage to go for them because of fear, anxiety, or insecurity. But with what happened with my sister, I realized that life is so short,” De Venecia confesses.
With the memory of his sister strengthening him to move forward, he then dove headfirst into his passions, enrolling in a summer workshop with Repertory Philippines, a Manila-based theater group, and also joining a photography workshop. His eulogy for his sister caught the attention of a Philippine Star editor and his work was published in the broadsheet. At some point, he was offered to be a columnist under their ‘Young Star’ section which jumpstarted his career in media and journalism.
De Venecia shares that his journalistic career lasted for around 14 years, becoming the contributing editor for Philippine Star, lifestyle editor for Chalk Magazine, and columnist for Circuit Magazine. He also wrote, edited, and consulted for other publications. This background and training as a journalist, he attests, is proving to be helpful in his present position, enabling him to listen and discuss with his constituents and investigate the root of the issues plaguing his district.
Apart from this, he was also a marketing executive for SM Department Store and soon after he put up a theater company with friends called The Sandbox Collective. Now on its eighth year, the company has created award-winning productions—Lungs starring Jake Cuenca and Sab Jose, Every Brilliant Thing featuring Teresa Herrera and Kakki Teodoro, and Himala the Musical starring Aicelle Santos and Bituin Escalante, among others.
The congressman himself has won several awards and citations, most recently the nominations for the 2019 Broadway World Awards and 2019 Gawad Buhay Awards, both for best director of Sandbox Collective’s production of Dani Girl.
THE FUTURE IS CREATIVE
Having lived the life of a creative for nearly his entire life, it is no wonder that De Venecia’s most ambitious legislative endeavor (and for him, his proudest achievement thus far) is the Philippine Creative Industries Development Act which lapsed into law on July 27, 2022 and is now known as Republic Act (RA) No. 11904.
“[Having it enacted] was a two and a half year initiative involving multiple sectors, stakeholders, and a ton of lobbying. We pursued it as such at a ‘mission impossible’ timeline, but with everyone sort of vaulting in and working hard to make it happen. Here we are now, [the Philippine Creative Industries Development Act] is now a law that will be implemented in the years to come,” he shares. Having lived the life of a creative for nearly his entire life, it is no wonder that De Venecia’s most ambitious legislative endeavor (and for him, his proudest achievement thus far) is the Philippine Creative IndustriesDevelopment Act which lapsed into law on July 27, 2022 and is now known as Republic Act (RA) No. 11904.
“And yet here we are, 2022, still banking on the creativity and resilience of Filipinos, without necessarily supporting them or giving them the kind of environment wherein they can thrive. But since Filipinos are so creative, scrappy, and passionate, they are able to make it work against all odds. Then when they achieve plaudits abroad, the government is the first to congratulate them.”
The congressman shares the case of Filipino actor John Arcilla who won the Volpi Cup trophy at the 78th Venice International Film Festival. When the actor was interviewed, he hoped that he would get some kind of incentive for bringing honor to the country.
“No such thing exists within our governance framework. Athletes, at least, are able to receive [something] especially if they’re Olympic medalists. Pero sa ’tin [na mga creative], wala. Sobrang masaklap ‘yung sitwasyon ng pagiging creative dito sa Pilipinas (But for us [creatives], nothing. The situation for creatives here in the Philippines is really terrible),” he laments.
De Venecia shares that the law brings them a step closer to their goal—the Philippines as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) top creative economy by 2030. Is it possible? While it isn’t going to be smooth sailing, we need only to look toward South Korea to know that it’s not impossible. The Hallyu Wave in the 1990s was a conscious effort of the national government to develop the media sector by setting up the Ministry of Culture. Reportedly, the government was influenced toward giving the creative industry its full support when the total revenues of the Hollywood film Jurrasic Park exceeded the sales value of 1.5 million Hyundai cars. It was a huge wake-up call, as Hyundai was considered a major source of pride for South Korea.
Today, South Korea’s cultural influence is everywhere. Some estimates place the generated income of the K-pop (or Korean pop) industry anywhere between US$5 and $10 billion each year. Korean dramas are also just as pervasive and can be found in nearly every streaming platform in the world. It also has an impressive market size valued at around US$2 billion.
“That didn’t really happen overnight. That was something that was planned for. [The Hallyu wave] is the creative consequences of an intentional policy shift on the part of their government,” De Venecia stresses.
De Venecia also reveals that the country is experiencing a “creative brain drain.” A lot of our country’s creatives, he says, need to go abroad to be “legitimized before they’re paid attention to” in the Philippines. He cites a similar conversation he had with Tony Award winner Lea Salonga, who said that ultimately what launched her career was her experience abroad in Miss Saigon and becoming a Disney princess.
“So why do we always have to go out [of the country] to be appreciated within? Culturally, I guess you can say it’s colonial mentality and crab mentality. But when we talk about Hallyu, their biggest market is not necessarily other countries—it’s the South Koreans themselves. How I wish that someday when a Filipino film or content is released, it would be the Filipinos who would be the first to jump on board,” De Venecia shares.
The Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) of RA 11904, he says, would be job generation, revenue, higher gross domestic product (GDP) contribution, development of domestic and international markets for Filipino outputs or content, creation of a more vibrant intellectual property ecology, and more.
De Venecia explains further that a government agency will be created solely for developing the sector as a result of RA 11904. This will be called the Philippine Creative Industries Development Council which will be attached to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). The law also institutionalizes programs that will benefit the sector. He also plans on institutionalizing programs that will benefit creatives—“Everything from R&D (research and development), educational support, business support, grants, incentives, subsidies.”
“We want to change the stigma na walang pera sa sining, na walang pera sa pagiging (that there is no money in the arts, there is no money in being a) creative, when in fact, there is [money]. That’s essentially our vision and advocacy,” he underscores.
The 35-year-old public servant comments that support for the creatives often translates to patronage, buying a painting or sponsoring a performance. “But they’re not long-term solutions. In fact, there are pain points in the value chains of these industries that are not being addressed. Some of these may have ultimately led to their collapse,” he says.
As an example, he turns to the publishing industry and print media. Magazines in the Philippines have been shutting down left and right, with others going full-digital. De Venecia shares that the government would have addressed the root cause of the problems.
“Was the cost of paper too high? Could we have reduced the tariffs on paper? Could we have started local production of paper so that it’s more cost efficient for publishers? Could we have galvanized the Department of Education (DepEd)] to work on the reading comprehension and proclivity of students who would be the eventual markets of the publishing industry’s outputs?” he muses.
Creative industries and the government, he says, are interrelated and intertwined. Both are held back by myopic views, with creatives sometimes working in a “vacuum.” The COVID-19 pandemic, however, forced the creative industry to pause and “take stock of what they have, who they are, and where they want to go moving forward.”
When asked about the issues plaguing the creative industry, De Venecia lists some off the top of his head: “How come in filming, do our shoots really have to last 36-48 hours? If you’re an extra, will you forever be waiting under the shade of mango trees, no safety or health protocols? How come with the Intellectual Property Code, visual artists are [supposed to be] entitled to five percent of the resale fine for artworks but how come this isn’t implemented? And yet NFTs (non-fungible tokens) which use blockchain technology were able to solve that very issue. How come when it comes to shipping, let’s say fashion or furniture, inter-island within the Philippines is very expensive? Sometimes it’s even cheaper to buy furniture abroad than send a piece of furniture from Cebu to Manila. How come freelancers are vulnerable? With gastronomy, chefs always say there is a lack of ingredients and yet if there is a demand, why is there no supply? There can be a collaboration between the agricultural sector and the creative, gastronomic sector.”
In the end, however, the congressman points out that with all of these problems, the government is just starting to shed light on the issues and provide a platform for creatives to address such and have an audience with government agencies.
“I can talk about at least five to ten issues per industry that need to be resolved. But it really starts with the Philippine Creative Industries Development Act] as being the foundational piece of legislation in which you can build and address sector-specific concerns moving forward,” he shares.
FROM THEATER TO CONGRESS
With RA 11904 and other significant legislation—such as the Edades and Bernal Museum Law, Freelance Workers Protection Bill, Eddie Garcia Bill, Manaoag Bill, Gabaldon School Buildings Conservation Act, Free Irrigation Services Act, Magna Carta for Young Farmers Bill, Philippine Space Agency Act—under his belt, it is hard to believe that the district representative is merely in his third term.
De Venecia entered the political landscape in 2016, after much persuasion from his mother, former Pangasinan 4th District Representative Gina de Venecia. Politics, he confesses, was simply not in his head space before then. But his mother persuaded him into running and “something clicked” for him.
“I think her ‘sales pitch’ was that I could use my creativity to work on improving tourism in the [fourth district]. Then she mentioned the Our Lady of Manaoag and I had all sorts of ideas for pilgrimage tourism, agri-tourism, eco-tourism, cultural tourism, things that I could really advocate in my capacity as a policymaker so that warmed me up to the idea [of running],” he reveals.
“But it’s funny because they’ve been trying to convince me since forever. I remember one conversation with now Senate President Miguel Zubiri who is a good friend. We bumped into each other at an event at The Peninsula around 2014, I think. He was asking me when I would consider getting into politics and I said ‘No, never.’ And he said, ‘You know what? I used to say the exact same thing, but then if it’s your calling, it’s your calling.’ Looking back at that moment, here I am, in my final term [as congressman].”
De Venecia’s father, Jose de Venecia Jr. (JDV) served as Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1992 to 1998, and from 2001 to 2008. However, his parents’ background never really drove him into governance. But De Venecia shares that with his current position, he got to know his dad further.
“I got to know him through this work and to know him as a person, from constituents who would confide in me about the impact my dad has made in their lives. His colleagues in Congress, they would always talk about all these groundbreaking policies that JDV introduced and how he would always take care of the people,” he reveals.
It goes without saying then that his parents are among his sources of inspiration now that he is in politics. But aside from them, De Venecia also cites former United States President Barack Obama as an inspiration especially when crafting legislation.
“You’re going to have to be] comfortable with the fact that you’re not going to get a 100% solution… so that you don’t get paralyzed trying to think that you’re going to actually solve this perfectly,” Obama said at the 2019 Qualtrics X4 Experience Management Summit in Salt Lake City, Utah.
De Venecia reveals that it was somewhat of a “lightbulb moment” for him, explaining: “As you passionately lobby and fight for policies, there is always a stakeholder in mind and there are rationales in place that explain why you are pushing for this particular policy. But not everyone will understand or be okay with it. For me, it’s not forgetting the rest, there will be separate pieces of legislation for the other stakeholders. So what Obama said really provided some kind of context.”
When he is not fighting for certain pieces of legislation in Congress, the congressman shares that he goes around his district as much as possible. In a day, ideally, he visits three to four micro-, smalland medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs). He helps promote their business and link them with government training and services; and with his creative background, he also gives them advice which, he elatedly shares, they often follow.
“The reason why I focus on small businesses is because they give life to the communities, [they shape the town’s] identity and character. So I try to help them define who they are, conceptualize their branding if they haven’t already, how to be successful in social media, and how they can work with creatives and other businesses to further boost each other,” he reveals.
As an example, he shares an artisanal ice cream shop in Manaoag, Reydel’s Ice Cream, that sells ice cream with unique flavors such as sampaguita, malunggay, ampalaya, and bulalo. De Venecia reveals that he gave them the idea for the sampaguita flavor which they created in less than two months after their initial meeting.
He shares another story regarding the calamansi farms in San Fabian that often have oversupply of calamansi during the rainy season, draining whatever income they earned during the summer season. De Venecia thought of agri-tourism and now tourists can visit the vast farm and pick their own calamansi for an affordable fee. Additionally, they also created calamansi crinkle cookies and juice.
Another major endeavor of the young public servant is the Anakbanwa Creative Residency Project which aims to further promote the district. The program will choose two participants to stay in Dagupan for four to five weeks to develop context and site-specific creations while collaborating with local artisans and the emerging art community in Pangasinan. Accommodation, curatorial support, and grants are given to the selected creatives amounting to Php200,000. At the end of the immersion, the artists are expected to put up an exhibit or performance.
“Tuwang-tuwa ‘yung community sa (The community is very happy with the) Anakbanwa program. [Last year,] we were able to raise funds to help rehabilitate the frontage of the McArthur House. This year, we’re so happy because we received twice as many applications and some came all the way from South Cotabato,” De Venecia shares.
These projects are merely the tip of the iceberg of everything that has been developed since the congressman first stepped into the political arena and there are more plans in store as he starts his final term. But one thing is for sure, he will always have creatives and Dagupeños in mind, saying: “Pangasinan is really ripe with potential and for as long as I can, and I’m down to my last three years [as congressman], I will certainly endeavor to put the province on the map. I have plenty of dreams and plans for Pangasinan, but if we don’t all work together, the opportunity would be a waste. We cannot rely solely on our leaders, we have to lead ourselves and collaborate.”
“The future is creative and with the enactment of RA 11904, the future is upon us. It’s here and we will strive toward a world wherein creativity would be omnipresent in our economy, that people would recognize the value of creativity. I look forward to the day when our creative youth will be free to pursue creative careers and not be told otherwise because there’s money in it, there is sustainability to be enjoyed in creative enterprises. Now it’s time that the government put its money where our heart is and our heart is in creativity,” De Venecia ends.