Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Miko Revereza is illegally residing in Los Angeles, California. His family relocated to the U.S. for better economic opportunities and the promise of working and being sponsored for a green card. “It’s a common story,” he says.
When Revereza was in high school, he realized he was undocumented, and so he became acutely aware of the lack of opportunities to get a lucrative job or even go to college after graduation. At that time, he already studied black and white photography, but he was also interested in making images move, so he bought a VHS camcorder at a thrift store.
“This gave me license to be creative and experimental, to earnestly mess around and immerse myself in underground culture with no promise of a future career,” he explains.
His illegal immigrant status in the U.S. has since informed his work, particularly his 2014 documentary short film “Droga!,” which explores the cultural erasure of his being Filipino and the Americanization of his identity. His 2017 essay film “Disintegration 93-96” also reflects on his experience of immigration, diaspora, and the blurring of individual identities.
Both these films, he says, are typically screened and discussed in the context of experimental film. He shares that “Droga!”, for instance, is part of the Philippine experimental cinema Kalampag Tracking Agency, a curatorial initiative of filmmaker Shireen Seno and artist Merv Espina. This project has also featured works of filmmakers such as Rox Lee, Raya Martin, and Tad Ermitaño.
For Revereza, experimental cinema is especially empowering because anyone would be able to make it. “You don’t have to be a pro or even have access to a camera. You can make art films with the materials that available to you,” he says. “Experimental cinema in the Philippines is thriving and is getting international recognition by the most prestigious film festivals. It will be part of our cultural heritage.”
He’s been living in Los Angeles for eight years, and over this period of time, he says that he’s gained a reputation of being “the VHS guy” within the emerging art and music scenes. Because of this, his work with experimental filmmaking, and with VHS specifically, caught the interest of one of the producers of Christina Aguilera’s latest music video “Accelerate.” The lead single from Aguilera’s latest studio album “Liberation” includes vocals from Ty Dolla $ign and 2 Chainz, and is co-produced by Kanye West.
The video, reminiscent of Aguilera’s “Stripped” persona from over a decade ago, opens with the analog visuals of Revereza. CNN Philippines Like talked to Revereza about his work on the music video, how his illegal immigrant status has influenced his art, and his thoughts on controversial artists like Kanye West. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.
You moved to America and have lived there illegally and it was also mentioned here that your "life long struggle with documentation and exclusion it imposes" informs your craft. Can you elaborate on this or give examples of how your status in the States has influenced your films or your writing?
As a “TNT” it is custom to settle for whatever you can get in America, even if you are exploited and the wages are unlivable. I take issue with blindly accepting allegiance to a country that exploits me. There is privilege and class to even being here, but without papers, I cannot legally work, drive, fly, take out a student loan, vote, have social security, or travel outside the country … I am put in a situation that doesn’t allow me to have a decent life.
The undocumented voice has long been an underrepresented one because of the fear of being captured by immigration police and processed like criminals. Now we are speaking up and telling our stories. As a filmmaker, I am sharing a perspective from an undocumented lens. I am grappling with questions of identity, what Filipino means to me and how our history has lead me here to America. Film is the medium which allows me to think about my situation and history and to document that thought process.
When you are classified as an "experimental filmmaker" what does that mean for you?
Experimental film is the classification of films that deviate from the standard methods of producing mainstream narrative and documentary cinema. The first films ever produced were naturally experimental and rudimentary. They were studies of what the film camera can do and how one sees the world through a movie camera lens. This classification can be loosely applied to my films that explore themes of migration and identity through a Filipino-American undocumented lens.
You mentioned that it was your work with VHS that enabled you to work with the team behind Christina Aguilera’s video? What was the experience like and what sort of directives were given to you?
In this case, I worked with the producer years ago on a fashion editorial where I shot behind the scenes footage on VHS. Hearing from her again was a nice reunion and the opportunity was too good to pass up. I grew up in the same era as Christina Aguilera’s debut and remember taping some of her music videos onto VHS. The direction given to me was to be creative and do my thing. I was given ultimate freedom which is rare. There were no monitors for people to see what I was shooting so they trusted me and it allowed me the confidence to push the boundaries.
How did the VHS analog visuals come to life? Did you encounter any roadblocks given that it’s an old technology?
VHS and any old analog formats can be technically problematic and prone to sudden failure. It’s scary to shoot on such a finicky camera for something this big. I had one fully charged battery but made it through the shoot. After the shoot, I processed this footage through my old analog machines that colorize and deteriorate the image even further to my liking. I didn’t hold back and go for a basic VHS look; there are apps for that. I went full on experimental punk film and I’m excited to see how it turned out.
The song has a very synth-heavy production. How did you ensure that your visuals were in tune with the melody?
The song is very catchy. [It’s] one of my favorite Xtina songs I’d have to say, so it was easy to vibe with. Rather than the synths that recall ‘80s cliches, I found the lyrics more inspiring. “Try to play us we gon start a riot up in here, Accelerate, come on babe, pick up your speed, Stamina, fill me up, that's what I need.” Basically, I wanted the VHS footage to look completely destroyed.
How collaborative was the process with director Zoey Grossman?
Zoey was cool and so was the entire production company and crew. It was a chill and supportive environment and I made friends there. They just let me go off and do my experimental VHS thing with so much trust in whatever that vision would be. As an artist, those are the best words to hear. I was surprised and pleased with how much of the footage made it into the video.
Kanye West, who produced the track, continues to have several controversial opinions; the latest being about how slavery, he says, was a choice. Do you consider these certain aspects of the people you work with when you decide to work with them? Or do you consciously isolate the work and whatever controversy that may plague the artists you work with?
This is a difficult question for me because in all honesty Kanye has been an influential cultural figure who I've felt like I could always relate to. As an immigrant we struggle for a seat at the table and dream of breaking through the glass ceiling. I think Filipinos can relate to the obsession with class and the insecurities and prejudices it breeds. Having a cultural heritage handed down from Spanish and American colonial rule, our instincts are programed to erase our violent history and trauma and be part of the colonial hallucination itself. To desire being mistaken as mestizo or American only reflects the continued subordination in our minds.
There is a Facebook group, Memories of Old Manila, and there was a comment thread about how Spanish colonization was not that bad. In relation to Kanye’s comments on slavery being a choice, who does it serve when we (people of color) begin to erase the violence, theft and exploitation in the hands of white society from our history books?
“Yeezus” is one of my favorite albums of all time because it reflects that crab mentality in America and the desire to conquer the glass ceiling just to spite that it even exists. He makes the idea of hijacking luxury seem like a radical act. For someone so knowledgeable about culture, it's astonishing to me why he would say something so dangerously uninformed. I hope that if there is anything to be gained by Kanye’s comments, it’s that more people will educate themselves and our pop stars, that America was founded on the theft of land and continues to be built on the exploitation of free labor.
Going back to your life as an immigrant filmmaker in the U.S., what factors do you consider that make you feel that the project is true to who you are as a filmmaker?
I am proud I had a creative hand in this project. It’s not one of my personal films about migration and at the end of the day this was just another gig to help me get by and pay for grad school. The content of the video has nothing to do with the fact that I’m an undocumented immigrant but check it out ya’ll, I’m [a] TNT and proud to be an immigrant! This is an example that migration is beautiful and grows culture and innovation in the world. Let's open all the borders! Let’s make all passports equal! Let’s make migration a human right and stop the exploitation of immigrants! New York, worldwide! LA, worldwide! Parañaque, WORLDWIDE!