Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Kidlat Tahimik is building an ark.
It’s not seaborne, however; it towers over Ili-Likha Artist Village, a massive complex that houses several artist-run workshops and restaurants, overlooking an unadulterated Baguio skyline. Ili-Likha itself is bricolage heaven. Mezzanines upon mezzanines are stacked to create vertiginous Penrose loops. Architectural conventions of stringently angular ups and downs are thrown out the proverbial stained glass window.
The ark, in fact, is to be the cinematheque Balanghay ni Ikeng, named after Enrique de Malacca, a Malay native who was the slave of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan. Drawing in part from the Italian historian Antonio Pigafetta’s account that reports that Enrique spoke the lingua franca of the Visayas and translated for Magellan, Tahimik conjectures that Enrique was Filipino. “Though I won’t use the word Filipino because we weren’t yet Filipinos then,” he says. “Let’s call him Pinoy, for reference. It was a Pinoy who was the first man to circumnavigate the world.”
Enrique also happens to be the hero in Tahimik’s last film, “Balikbayan #1 Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III,” which premiered in 2015 after more than three decades in the making. The first half-hour show reel was made shortly after the seminal “Perfumed Nightmare” of 1979.
Tahimik built a temporary stage above the cinema bleachers to test-mount his installation for this year’s Art Fair, “WW3 – The Protracted Kultur War,” a behemoth undertaking of carvings and sculptures using salvaged and repurposed wood and other indigenous materials.
Tahimik talks to CNN Philippines Life about the importance of the local story in cinema and art. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.
Can you talk us through your installation for Art Fair?
I put together a lot of junk I’ve collected over the years. These are trees fallen down from Typhoon Lawin [in 2016], used as sidings of this boat, for example. The central figures are two main characters. One is Inabyan, goddess of the wind of the Ifugao. Inabyan is fighting the goddess of wind of Hollywood. You might recognize Marilyn Monroe’s iconic pose, holding down her skirt. Now you know where the winds are coming from. It’s a statement that we, the independent filmmakers, have a choice. I’ve been making films for 40 years, and I decided I’m not joining the Hollywood bandwagon. I’m not saying that every filmmaker or student of mine should refuse the Mother Lily formula if you have to do that for a living, but maybe you can still do the local story that’s waiting for you, as a talented director, to tell.
Francis Ford Coppola wrote you that letter that you never got. What do you think would’ve happened if you did?
I started my Magellan’s slave film in 1979. I thought I was going to make a film that was the usual film — production value, good lighting, etc. But I realized that if I really were to do that, I would need money. I managed a 33-minute showreel where you get a gist of the story, but the story doesn’t breathe. It doesn’t expand. That was maybe only a year after Coppola decided to distribute “Perfumed Nightmare” under Zoetrope. Sometime in 1983, they sent me a letter by snail mail saying, “We’ve seen the film, which we think should be finished and shown to the public, and maybe we could be of help.”
Basically they were saying that they can help me in one of two ways. One is to finish the film on the production end, and another is the distribution end. Anyway, I never got that letter. Sometimes our postal system may not be the most efficient. It was only in 2005 when I visited Tom Luddy, who is the co-founder of the Telluride Film Festival and who used to work with Coppola, that we found out about that lost correspondence in file. I don’t know, maybe if I made the film then, I would’ve still had a certain straitjacket. Even if they would’ve given me freedom, it would’ve turned out to be a different film. But because I had 35 years, the luxury of time to let it breathe and let other ingredients come into my potpourri, I think I came up with a more interesting film.
I started filming when my son was only two years old, and when I finished the film, Kawayan was already a grown man with a beautiful beard. Also, 10 years before, my original Magellan had died, the actor. While doing my retrospective tour in the U.S. in 2012 (the film was shown at the Harvard Film Archive, the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, and the New Orleans Film Festival, among others), I kept seeing my short film, and I kept hearing the film say, Finish me, finish me. Don’t wait for your next lifetime.
When I came back from that four-week trip, I already had new energy to finish the film, and Kawayan was doing a big project in Halsema Road. When I went there to film him, somebody crossed my camera, with really bushy hair and a big beard. I thought, Magellan! It was Kawayan. I had to wait 35 years so he could be the revival of Magellan, and I finished the film.
How do you see your pre-cinematic life, having gotten an MBA at Wharton and being an economist, as having an influence on your cinematic career?
Some people think that since I have an MBA I must be quite calculating in making my films, and that I’m able to mobilize resources. But actually, I had to bend over backwards to de-Whartonize myself. Really just wait for any trickle, buy a few rolls of film, shoot one or two scenes. If there’s no money, wait, and just go where the wind blows. Sometimes it’s also useful to have studied something that in the end you’d want to reject, you reject the philosophy of that MBA. That’s why I’m able to tell stories that nobody knows where they came from. Young artists always come and say, “Master, tell us how to make the film.” I don’t have any advice to give you guys. What’s important is that you nurture the storyteller within you. We all have a storyteller who has a unique frame of the world. The world is waiting for those stories. They’re not waiting for “Star Wars 25” and “Men in Black 328.”
In your post-college years, there was a time you were in Munich to sell souvenirs at the 1972 Olympics and you met Werner Herzog, who became your mentor. What were the most significant things that you learned from him?
That spirit of independence was something I could feel even if I couldn’t understand all his films. He was already a respected filmmaker of the New German Cinema and he struck me as listening to his surroundings of what story to tell and mixing it with his own frame. It’s only in 2015 when I met him again in Berlin when he had a big film with Nicole Kidman, which was really a Hollywood-style [film], but I think he kept this personality. There were many things that he taught me. One is that we have to build our own audiences. He said that to me when he took me on a trip with him, where we drove 800 kilometers to a cinema with only 35 people. When I first showed him my rough cut of “Perfumed Nightmare,” I was very insecure about one scene. There’s a scene there where I shot a side trip to Bavaria and I wanted to include my baby in the film. Everybody was saying you have to cut that, it’s a cute scene, but … I was apologetic about the scene, I said I’m probably going to cut that scene because it’s too much of a detour. And he said, “Ahh Kidlat, you’re best in your detours.”
Can you tell us about your “Bathala na” style of film- and art-making?
The best metaphor is how I built this place. I’m a “Bathala na” architect, I’m a “Bathala na” installation artist. I built this whole complex without any plan, blueprint, or architectural study. The usual Hollywood formula looks for a tightly written script, maybe based on a novel, so the story already has all the elements, and you’re paid to get it done at the shortest amount of time. Making a building like this without a plan is also like shooting without a script. “Bathala na” is a play on bahala na.
In the old days, maybe when you decide what you’re going to do, to hunt for this, or to cross a mountain, you do everything, whatever you can plan: you feel the winds, you watch the clouds. You use all your intelligence and brawn and instinct, your connection with the cosmos, you go with a certain audacity and braveness, but the outcome you leave with the cosmos. There’s a certain humility. It’s also like building a building. You can already pre-order how many cement bags you need. But when you allow for this constant ping pong with a benevolent cosmos, you’d be surprised what you can get.
As an artist, I find that there’s a tension between staying true to who you are — say, your personal history and working with what’s already there — but also challenging yourself to not be too comfortable. How do you balance that?
I’ve made my family uncomfortable, like when I tore up my MBA and started growing my hair. I’m not talking a bullheadedness, that I don’t give a damn what my parents feel. I always respected them, but I had to do it this way. My impulse is to be an artist and not be stuck working on economic statistics and calculating rate of return on investments. Also I want to do something that’s relevant to my family, my kids. I’ve always said this dictum that Kidlat Tahimik is a tatay first before he’s a filmmaker, in that order. Because once you become a filmmaker, the Hollywood formula and your economic bosses take over, and you have to follow their every rule. I’d like to have the audiences that Lino Brocka has, but I cannot work with Mother Lily. With all respect to Mother Lily, I don’t judge her, I just know that she’s part of a system that I know I can’t work in.
I know that I’m not going to work in that milieu, I’m also not going to make super eccentric films that no one understands, but I find a way between that my visuals can communicate some basic human condition or emotion so that my story can be relevant not for the biggest audience, but for people who are looking for comfort, looking for light, something to undo this crazy world of ours. I’m not a crusader, I’m not a messiah, but I’m a simple artist and hopefully in between these extremes I can find, as Buddha says, the middle way.
Former director of the CCP Raymundo Albano wrote in an essay that doing installation, as opposed to painting, is within the Filipino DNA — that we witness such intuition in how we set up fiestas, for example. I guess he was talking, like Marshall McLuhan, about the dialectic between medium and message. How do you see this play out in cinema as a Western medium viz-a-viz telling a local story?
Filmmaking as pioneered by Hollywood has a certain way of telling stories, and people are so used to it. You won’t want to venture into something else because you have to get your money back. I think a lot of painters fall in the trap, of not being accepted by galleries or losing a buyer. With installation, you can be playful with elements that you put together. You know, Filipinos are very instinctive people. Have you heard of kapwa psychology? Sikolohiyang Filipino is something that’s guiding me a lot right now. It was introduced by Virgilio Enriquez and a few other social scientists about 40 years ago. And he asked, why are we analyzing Filipinos through Freud, Jung, and Skinner and his rats? Why don’t we find our own methodology based on our Filipino values? They found that kapwa was the central core value that makes us distinct from other cultures, as opposed to individualism. We include the other in our decision-making. Kapa-kapa and pakiramdaman are things that are very Filipino.
Susan Sontag wrote this about your films: “Invention, insolence and enchantment — even innocence — are still available on film.” I understand how she could spot the innocence, because your films are very surreal and playful, but at the same time they’re politically and culturally-charged. Why is this innocence important?
For a long time my films were classified as Third Cinema. I thought they meant to say Third World cinema, directed by a Third World guy, with a Third World setting. I only learned very recently that Third Cinema was a sophisticated political union of many filmmakers who maybe didn’t like to be between the capitalist and socialist worlds, but already had a direction for what they wanted to say.
When I made “Perfumed Nightmares,” I already had some discomfort not so much on the economic arguments or the political arguments, but how we are such a cultural underling of American culture. So I had an instinct to not be that. By jumping into a filmmaking process, I just learned how to wind my 16mm camera, I learned how to focus — it was like a child playing with his first toys — that was going to express in film my feelings of how I grew up in Baguio, which was an American hill station, that all my education was with American nuns, that Baguio was so Americanized in its design. I never questioned that when I was young. I thought it was normal to get excited by Elvis Presley and wear jeans.
As I grew older I thought, wait a second, there are so many beautiful things in our culture but why doesn’t it reflect in the way we behave, or the way we tell stories or the way we frame the world? There was something wrong in this unbalanced world. I had been an economist in Paris for five years [and] after I got my MBA, I decided to quit the job. I was so wanting to get out of that and become an artist. I had an inner wave, a tsunami, to express a story, and I don’t want to do it the way I “should’ve” done it. Maybe that’s what Sontag meant as innocence. You still do it even if all the rules say don’t do it yet.
Kidlat Tahimik’s installation “WW3 – The Protracted Kultur War” can be viewed at Art Fair Philippines from March 1-4. Visit the official website for schedules and tickets.