INTERVIEWS Apt Pupil: Bi Gan on Long Day’s Journey Into Night By Blake Williams I Like America and America Likes
By Adam Cook and Daniel Kasman
To be upfront, we weren’t familiar with Kidlat Tahimik. Multiple tips led us to seeing his new film, Balikbayan #1 Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III, at its premiere in the Forum section of the Berlinale, in the way that one is often pushed towards unknown filmmakers: on the recommendations of more knowledgeable friends. But it turned out we were in fact the perfect audience for Tahimik’s new film, because it is itself a journey backwards through the last three-plus decades of the filmmaker’s life, a quest to unearth and make sense of the failed production of what was to be his fourth feature, Memories of Overdevelopment. His debut, 1977’s Perfumed Nightmare, which also premiered in the Forum, remains Tahimik’s most well-known work. A benchmark of Third Cinema, it seemed to promise a lifetime of masterpieces from a Filipino visionary. It’s the story of a village jeepney driver who dreams of leaving the Philippines for America to become an astronaut, and makes it as far as Europe before having his dreams thwarted by the real world. Ironically, that film came out the same year as the similarly plotted Stroszek, and, moreover, Tahimik was a one-time protégé of Werner Herzog’s—he even plays a small role in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974). But Tahimik’s career behind the camera didn’t exactly move at a breakneck pace, and his (mostly self-elected) modest output is made up for, and partly explained by, his new counter-historical/contra-colonial/autobiographical feature.
Planned as a revisionist historical drama about the first man who circumnavigated the globe, its hero was not to be Magellan, but rather his Filipino slave, Enrique (played by the director himself). Bought in Malacca and taken to the court in Spain, Enrique becomes a pet to Princess Isabella, before the intimacy of their relationship results in his being sent back on Magellan’s ships to return to the Philippine islands. Tahimik was able to shoot and assemble only a 30-minute showreel, a beautifully scaled epic in miniature, to shop around for more funding—which never came.
Now, in 2015, this partially finished and once-aborted project has been resumed and subsumed into an even larger cinematic canvas which encompasses both all of the original footage—including Tahimik’s wry narration filling in gaps and explaining what’s yet to be shot, or to be seen next, or previously—additional footage not in the original showreel, and finally, and most importantly, a contemporary narrative. This story, shot in low-grade digital—in comparison to the rich, earthy 16mm footage of the original project—sees a white man (played by one of Tahimik’s sons!), a modern Magellan surrogate, discovering and helping a wayward shaman-like woodcarver (Tahimik one more), and then spends the rest of the story trying to find him again.
His journey is crosscut with the original Memories of Overdevelopment, sometimes revealing old footage for the first time, and at other moments cleverly juxtaposing it with new material to even more directly allow the cinematic past to inform the present. Once this new Magellan’s quest is over, the film nearly reboots, reorienting its modern protagonist from the “white man” to the indigenous Filipino played by Tahimik. Here, the line between this figure and Tahimik the filmmaker collapses completely, if it hadn’t already, as direct camera address, intertitles, blown takes, and other elements turn this finale into a reflection both on filmmaking and on the director’s sublimation of his failed old feature into his life—including an Enrique-like journey around the world.
As such, we learned about Kidlat Tahimik through this film: by hearing his voice, tender and friendly; by seeing his drama, lo-fi, serene, offhand, intimate, and direct; and by experiencing his montage, playful, self-aware, and funny. We learned an awful lot about him, but not enough; and so it is fitting that this in no way feels like the final version of Memories of Overdevelopment but is rather a history, film, and a director forever in progress, which accounts for the endearingly cumbersome title. To try to make sense of it all, we sat down with Tahimik, accompanied by his son Kidlat de Guia, at the Berlinale to discuss it in full.
Cinema Scope: When did you first want to tell the story of Enrique?
Kidlat Tahimik: It was about 1979. I had just finished my second film, Who Invented the Yo-Yo? Who Invented the Moon Buggy?, about the first man to play yo-yo on the moon (my first film, Perfumed Nightmare, is about a taxi driver who dreams of becoming the first Filipino astronaut). At this time, I heard about the first man to circumnavigate the globe. We all know about Magellan, whose expedition proved the world was round. Most people thought he was the first to go around the planet. But there was this little side story. He had a slave whose official name was Enrique of Malacca. Most people thought the slave was from Malaysia, but when you buy a slave you Christianize them and give them a Christian name: Enrique after Henry the Navigator, and Malacca because he was bought in Malacca. There’s an interesting twist in his story having to do with his linguistic ability, recorded in the diary of the voyage written by Antonio de Paghita. Enrique was quite a good chronicler. Every place he went he wrote almost anthropological descriptions of the people, recording words in different languages that describe the various anatomies and so on. He was a curious person—if he had a camera he would have made a much more interesting film!
Scope: Is de Paghita’s book the only remaining record of the details surrounding Enrique?
Tahimik: He was one of the survivors. Five ships left Spain in 1519, carrying 250 sailors, and the one ship that returned had 17 survivors.
Scope: So without this chronicle, our knowledge of Enrique wouldn’t exist?
Tahimik: We wouldn’t be able to know him then. Antonio de Paghita only mentions him four or five times in the book. Of course, the big star of the book is Magellan, “Magellan did this, Magellan did that.” We know there was an Enrique of Malacca on the voyage. We know that when they arrived in the Philippines, and on the first island they hit Magellan saw that the natives had brown skin and black hair, and said to Enrique, “Try to talk to these natives, maybe these are the five islands we’re looking for.” It’s written in the book that the first island was Limasawa, but they could not understand the language there. Every island had its own language, and in those days cross-cultural influence through migration was very minimal. The next island they hit was Cebu, and the language there is Basaya—that’s where they could speak to the people. This linguistic factor does not 100% prove that he had come back to his native island, but it opens up the possibility, and I’m more willing to go with that. I’m not out to prove anything; I like the story! I’m a storyteller.
Scope: Does the lack of historical evidence enable you to imagine more?
Tahimik: Yeah, with just a few references to the slaves I had to flesh them out. There are oil paintings of Magellan, so we know what he looked like. But we don’t know what Enrique looked like, so I cast myself.
Scope: What happened with the original project? Why wasn’t it completed and released? How did you arrive at resurrecting it so long after production?
Tahimik: Like my first films, I just set out to do it. I didn’t check the weather report, I didn’t check my gas tank; I just went out there, seeing where it took me. When I was already hot on the story, I started imagining. I’ve never used a script. My son and his brothers were still small kids at the time. Sometimes I just go and tell bedtime stories. It can evolve this way or that way. Some stories became sequences, and some not.
Scope: Certainly your narration in the film reminds us of a bedtime story.
Tahimik: I remember thinking “Did I say all of that?” when I went over the footage the first time. You can see in the film there’s the original version in 16mm. I had a 33-minute showreel that I’ve brought around for the last 20 years, so I’ve gotten used to it.
Scope: So at a certain point funding ran out?
Tahimik: I’m known for a paper that I wrote called “Cups-of-Gas Filmmaking Vs. Full Tank-Cum-Credit Card Filmmaking” that I gave at Duke University in 1987, and this film made over 35 years is definitely “Cups-of-Gas” filmmaking. There were two times I might have found funding. Perfumed Nightmare was picked up by Zoetrope Studios. Tom Luddy of the Telluride Film Festival was the Special Projects Developer at Zoetrope at the time and was curator of the Pacific Film Archive. I showed my film there and after that decided to go hitchhiking across America. I left my print behind and asked Tom to ship it to me when I got to the East Coast. At that time, Francis Coppola was finishing Apocalypse Now and was going crazy with four endings and Tom said, “Hey, turn your mind off and I’ll show you a crazy Filipino film”—Perfumed Nightmare. Then, in 1983, I was already a few years into this project, I had made my showreel and showed it to Tom. Zoetrope sent me a letter I never received.
Flash forward to 2005. I stopped in San Francisco, as usually my last stop is Berkeley before I go back to the Philippines. I called Tom, who said, “Come on over, I’m looking at Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist.” He was making his last selections for Telluride. While we were watching it, his secretary, who’s a Filipina, got curious and went over his filing cabinet and found a letter from Coppola saying, “I’ve seen your film [Memories of Overdevelopment] and Zoetrope would like to help you finish this film or on the back end we could also set up distribution.” It was a very clear intention to do it. There was no email and because the snail mail got lost I never received the letter. Thirty-two years later I see it and wonder, “What if?” I could have been drowned out by the big studio system, who knows. Would it have been a blessing or a curse? In 1983 I had decided to shelve the project because I wanted to raise my kids. “I’ll come back in five years, maybe wait for some money.” Five became ten became 25. Only in 2012 did I get back to it. I don’t have any regrets now because I have reached my finish line…Somewhat.
Scope: That’s when you started filming the contemporary footage?
Tahimik: Yes. I got used to telling my students that I would finish my Magellan project in the next lifetime. I kept repeating that and began to believe it. I didn’t feel any strong pressure to do it now. Or maybe I just didn’t know how to make the next step. My first Magellan had died. Am I going to cast a lookalike? But in 2012 I was invited to the US for retrospectives, I was seeing the showreel of Memories of Overdevelopment on the big screen for four weeks straight and it was saying, “Finish me now.” When I flew back to Baguio, my city, I checked in with my second son, who was working on a project there. The day I got there I was shooting and this shaggy-haired, bearded person crossed the camera, and when I looked at the footage later I said, “Oh! That’s my Magellan lookalike!” It’s my second son who plays Magellan. Soon we had shot the first scenes, and after that we just shot whenever something moved me.
Scope: Did you find it liberating to unseal this showreel, and play with it and break it apart with the new and old footage?
Tahimik: That proved to be a challenge because it’s easy to say I can solve this, maybe the characters get reincarnated 500 years later and bump into each other at our flower festival. But was I going to separate all of the showreel? I began to feel there was a flavour in the film, it’s a work in progress. I wanted to keep that flavour. Maybe that’s why I did the first scene with the film reels found in the rice paddies. It’s a reference to my previous film, Why Is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow? (1994), where we find film cans in Monument Valley. How to do it became a struggle. As a matter of fact, some other editor said, “Why don’t you just drop in the old scenes evenly throughout?” and I thought it would be better to leave them as big chunks and maintain the flavour.
Scope: I love you returning to that footage. One of my favourite moments is the contemporary scene when we visit the gallery for erotic art and as the artist explains his sculpture we flash back to love scenes, which we’ve already seen, between Enrique and the Spanish Princess—the new and old footage are interacting.
Tahimik: Some of that old footage had never been edited. I was discovering a lot of footage I had forgotten about. Those are the silent scenes because I had lost the sound in a house fire in 2004. I played a lot with that kind of structure with the new-old footage. This last year was spent trying out those things and confirming it.
Scope: Did you always imagine yourself as playing Enrique, originally?
Tahimik: I was in my first film and had gotten used to the idea that I was the cheapest actor available. I was always on call, faithful to the project, and not going to fight with me—it would be me! It just seemed natural. Last August I was invited to South Korea for a retrospective and while I was there I was invited to a theatre actor’s conference to talk about film and acting. I accepted it before realizing they wanted me to talk about acting techniques, but it caused me to reflect on using myself as an actor. I’m not really acting. I use my body as a prop to move the action, the story, which is a different kind of acting.
Scope: You take that further in the film, as your body is a prop through time that implies a journey. Is the story of Enrique well known in the Philippines?
Tahimik: No, it’s just Magellan in the history books.
Scope: So the film is a kind of a popular-culture intervention, and an intervention into conventional history.
Tahimik: I even want to go to the Filipino congress to ask them to proclaim a day of Enrique of Malacca.
Scope: Do you feel like you’re done with this now? You can move on?
Tahimik: I think I can move on, but I don’t think it’s over as in over-over. I have to do a little tweaking; this was the first time I saw the movie on the big screen with all the super audio tech of the Germans; I could hear everything and now I have to modify the soundtrack. Basically, it was just a version to show to the festival selection committee, but now I’m getting reactions that it’s a full film.
Scope: Because you’re in it and you resume a version of yourself later, it suggests a future to the project, one that doesn’t really end. It seems like it could keep going because of you. It lives with you.
Tahimik: If I’d gone to film school, then I would’ve worried about continuity and I would have really searched for a lookalike. You get so caught in that protocol of continuity I would have lost my spontaneity and the ability to listen to the cosmic suggestions, so even my grandson and my mom are in the film—four generations! My son did quite well. There are no professionals in the film. The original Magellan was a German gardener in my city who had fallen in love with a Filipino woman. I just saw his beard; I didn’t audition him. When I look back now, I didn’t give him many lines and he was quite good. Even the actor who played Lapu-Lapu, the island ruler who fought and killed Magellan—who is in real life an anthropologist—was quite good.
Scope: The idea that the journey goes beyond the film is also built into the fabric of the movie and how it’s constructed. The work-in-progress feel actually opens it up and imbues it with this feeling of constructing a story, for the viewer also, and constructing history. Especially the ending, which opens up more and more.
Tahimik: That was my last edit, the words just before the credits. My mother died the day we arrived here in Berlin. Six months ago she almost died. She started saying these words very painfully and my son noted them down and then last month he showed them to me and it felt like they were made for the film. I added it last minute, “When the journey becomes a song and becomes a home.” I think it became my home for 35 years!
Scope: One thing I particularly like about the ending, which features a karaoke video using footage from your film, is that it suggests that this story you’re finding and turning into a film, someone else can turn that film into a song, and the song into a video. It can just keep going. It’s a story that’s not only living with you, it’s a living story that can be retold and appropriated with different methods.
Tahimik: That’s nice, I never thought of that.
Scope: Your narration also tweaks the tone, makes the footage more playful than it already was.
Tahimik: The story grows on the editing table. I only get a first view of the script when I have to type it to make subtitles! Then I have a full script! Which is probably also one of the challenges the moment you are integrating new footage. I remember one of the editors was telling me, “You keep repeating that phrase, ‘First man to circumnavigate the globe.’” Should I worry about that? Some redundancies are there because you want to remember the line.
Kidlat de Guia: Can I turn to you guys? What are your reactions to my father’s film? What do you think about it?
Scope: We didn’t know what to expect at all, having not seen his previous films, but it took all of about a minute for us to turn to each other excitedly. The first sequence is beautiful, but then it quickly changes, and changes again with such energy. At a film festival where you’re seeing five films a day, it broke through the monotonous process of watching movie after movie. It became something else, something more free, fun, and spontaneous. Our first reaction was really just to how fun it was to watch, how exhilarating, and how it opens up narrative possibilities and invites the audience into that process.
Tahimik: It’s nice that you didn’t have preconceptions, seeing it with fresh eyes.
Scope: Maybe it’s good to enter your films through this one, using it as a gateway.
De Guia: What do you think makes it different and unique amongst the films you’ve seen here?
Scope: Its formal freedom seems to combine several movies into one with a high degree of structural and political sophistication, but without becoming heavy, didactic, or overdetermined. It has a sense of freedom and we never knew where it was going to go, and wherever it did was interesting. Whatever happened next complicated or played on what came before. It has a cumulative effect as the film is always building on itself, so the experience of watching it isn’t just watching a film continue—it’s an act of growth. It’s formal freedom but not formal chaos, there’s a pattern, a language, and the more you watch it the more it becomes a dialogue between different mediums, material, the past, the present, the filmed-past, and the filmed-present.
De Guia: Do you think it’s something that might be more accessible now with the internet and people are used to different formats? How do you think the average moviegoer would react?
Scope: In a way, we were in a perfect position for the narrative strategy of the film, since we went in unknowing—no knowledge about you or Enrique—so the narrative of your modern Magellan tracking you down and piecing this film together is the narrative of the unknowing audience. It really is a journey of you discovering what the film is about, what the film inside the film is about, the history, and so on—all of these layers of discovery. I think if you’re sympathetic to such freedom, it really pushes you forward; you must continue the film because it is about discovering more and it keeps giving you more to discover.
Tahimik: Do you think you have to be sympathetic at the beginning or is that something that can grow while you wait a bit more to see what happens?
Scope: I think you trust the movie. “I trust what this movie is doing, I trust where it will take me.” Part of that is why we wanted to meet you, the personality and character of the film, because you’re in it and narrating it, it’s your character coming through the film to us. It’s an intimate film, like you’re inviting us into your home showing us home movies, and other movies, imagined movies. It has a personal aspect to it that really draws you in and makes it serious but not serious, complex but simple and all these paradoxes.
Tahimik: The chaos allows the paradoxes to shine through. That’s the story of my life!