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“That’s Thirty Years of Footage I’ve Accumulated”: Kidlat Tahimik on BalikBayan #1: Memories of Overdevelopment and His Pioneering Career in the Philippines

Kidlat Tahimik at Play-Doc (photo by Tamara de la Fuente)

One of the pioneers of independent cinema in the Philippines, Kidlat Tahimik has been tinkering away on his latest film since 1979. Like much of his output, the pugnaciously titled BalikBayan #1: Memories of Overdevelopment, Redux IV (2017), resembles as much a collage of moods, periods, film stocks and video formats as it does any kind of coherent movie. Working from an original 33-minute cut assembled in the early 1980s, the film is in part about Enrique of Malacca, a slave who accompanied his master Ferdinand Magellan on the first circumnavigation of the globe. 

What showed at Play-Doc, the small Galician festival where I met with Tahimik earlier this month, was a new(-ish) 160-minute revision of the 140-min Redux III version that represented a sort of comeback for the master at the 2015 edition of the Berlin Film Festival. Yet Tahimik’s gregariousness, eccentricity, and fondness for mysticism often charm his interviewers and admirers alike into avoiding detailed technical discussions of his work. At Play-Doc, he performed a “slave-class” in lieu of a masterclass, which included a hammy, winking inauguration ceremony into the school of “Hollywood filmmaking” and the spectacle of a wood-carved statue of Marilyn Monroe behind tormented by a statue of a Filipino wind goddess, with improvised sound effects by Tahimik himself. To add to the confusion, Kidlat is also the garrulous “star” of each of his films (besides Lakbayan [2017-18]), including his most revived and beloved work, Perfumed Nightmare (1977), in which he plays a goofy Jeepney driver also named Kidlat Tahimik (itself Tagalog for “Quiet Lightning”—real name: Eric de Guia). In catching up with Tahimik at the festival, I tried in whatever small way I could to redress this critical imbalance.

Filmmaker: I want to talk about the technical side of your films. Nobody ever seems to ask you those types of questions.

Tahimik: Sure. I mean, I’ve never been a high-tech person. Even when I made Perfumed Nightmare, I had zero training in filmmaking. I was like an excited kid who just plays with what he has. Sometimes you find ways to take advantage of the technology, to use these machines in ways that people taught to use them by the manual never would do. One good example: Perfumed Nightmare was done on the Bolex, which is a noisy camera, so I had to reconstruct all my soundtrack in post-production. At one time, I was able to borrow a sound camera. Although I had sync sound, I didn’t even know that when you clapped the clapper-board it had to be done in front of the lens. I would yell, “OK, ready, camera, action!” and just clap it anywhere, even behind the camera. When we excitedly started to look through the rushes we said “OK… how do we sync the sound? Where is the clap?” [laughs] That was how naïve I was with my first film. Maybe that’s part also of the strength of that film, that it is supposed to be “third world” in subject and everything. Even the way I did it was pretty out in the boondocks. I would have a thought that, “OK, I need this kind of narration track” or “I need something to bring the film from this point to the next point.” I did the film totally without a script.

Filmmaker: Without anything?

Tahimik: I had a treatment, but even my treatment was way out there. I had a beginning, middle, and end: A village boy wants to go out to the big world—not just the big city, Manila, but to America. Since I was living in Paris at that time, I couldn’t bring any kind of film crew over to America. Since there was a [replica of] the Statue of Liberty in Paris, I was able to construct that Filipino dream to go to America in Paris, to use that as the basis for the film. But I had no script or anything. Sometimes I would record randomly with my friends: “OK, I need laughter.” I would call these friends and record them. Only later would I realise that there was a noticeable room echo: “Oh my God, that is not the same kind of laughter as, let’s say, the boy scouts laughing at the Americans leaving [the Philippines] in what I had shot.”

Filmmaker: You were really learning as you were making it, as you were figuring out each piece of the filmmaking puzzle?

Tahimik: I would learn that way, yes. It would be much later that I would really understand that there’s a big difference between, say, recording in a room and recording outside. Once I told myself, “OK, I’m making a story,” I began to think that maybe it was an advantage that I couldn’t shoot sync sound on the Bolex. Today with video, of course, you automatically have sync sound. Very often when you have sync sound and interact with your footage in the editing room, you’re really stuck to the literal situation of that shot or even to the literal situation of why you shot that scene. Since I’m a filmmaker who has no timetables—I’m free totally in that way—I might shoot something today and, if I come across the footage two or five years later, I have enough distance that I can “reframe it” filmically. Now, it would be harder to “reframe” if I were stuck with sound. It’s one of those cosmic blessings that came from my ignorance of the importance of sync sound. Of course, it is important for the usual way of doing films. But I had a certain freedom to just play with these images. One example: my original film ending in Perfumed Nightmare is very different from the space ending that ended up in the film. The space ending was only possible because I happened across the chimneys of Centre Pompidou that were being raised [by cranes] and that gave me a film ending. I was on my last roll of 7247 Kodak positive film, and when I took that last shot, I had probably just ten seconds of film left. I went frame by frame when the crane was putting the chimney on the stand to conserve film. When I saw the rushes, it looked like a flying saucer. So, I said “Wow, why not develop a space ending: this character is able to go back to his home country—spiritually or physically, that is not important.” Little accidents like that at the Pompidou—and because I didn’t have sync sound—allowed me to wander off in other directions. So, was I audacious or just crazy doing those things? Whatever. The film has since developed its own naïve aura. I didn’t plan it to be naïve. I really thought I was doing a Hollywood film when I started it. For all its crudities and primitive technical aspects, it has worked to my advantage.

Filmmaker: How have you archived your materials—both on film and in digital, in the past and today? And how do you access this wealth of old footage?

Tahimik: Twelve or fifteen years ago I finally surrendered to video technology. I wasn’t being snobbish—all my equipment was 16mm. In the beginning all the video cameras were so expensive, no? And now the technology allows you to have small cameras in high quality so that’s why in [BalikBayan #1: Memories of Overdevelopment Redux VI [2017], an on-going revision of a project that began in 1979 -ed] I have everything from 16mm to 8mm, VHS, hi-8, mini-DVs, this strange, very small Japanese video camera. When a friend of mine was visiting, he lent me his iPad and I was able to take some shots on that. Since I’m not film-school trained if I need an image, I’ll just use it. I don’t care if the purists will say, “Hey, the chemicals in this batch doesn’t match the chemicals in that batch.” 

Filmmaker: Where is your main archive?

Tahimik: For a long time, I had all my negatives stored in a Filipino laboratory. When it closed twelve years ago I had to accept video. I had all my rushes made into positives so I could work with them. I have them at home.

Filmmaker: Literally in your house?

Tahimik: Yeah. If I had an idea—“I have a shot of some kids being circumcised, where is it, where is it?”—I would find it and make use of it. I never throw away a single frame. When I would go to the negative matching in the lab, they would still have whatever was left of the original. If I needed something that had already been used in a previous film, then I would do an inter-positive or inter-negative.

Filmmaker: Do you have a list of these shots? Say, “children on their bikes,” “shot of a moon,” something like that?

Tahimik: [laughs] No, I just know I have it somewhere. In case you haven’t already noticed, I’m not Mr. Efficiency. I haven’t adapted to the Western concept of “time is money.” When the laboratory closed in 1995, something like that, [they] called me up and said “Sir, can you please get your negatives?” When I went there, I said “My God, that’s thirty years of footage I’ve accumulated.” I didn’t know what I was going to do next. I also realised it was the end of an era. They call me the father of independent cinema in the Philippines. The first generation of independent guys who were doing 16mm also stored their stuff there, we would often meet at that laboratory. It was the only lab where, if you came with twenty feet of film, they would develop it for you.

I had the date to pick up my negatives and I went to that place. It has a big lobby, since it is also the government television station. I [went] down to the laboratory. I took off my pants and had my G-string [a slang term for a piece of traditional dress in the Philippines] already on. I dragged rusty can after rusty can up to the lobby. I had about two squared cubic metres of rusty cans with all the negatives. Then I sat on top of the pile like “the thinker” for about two hours, wondering how I would deal with this problem. It was also to commemorate that there would no longer be a lab for all these other filmmakers and me—actually, most of them had already shifted to video. 

Filmmaker: Was it just low-budget films held there? Or were there commercial films like Lino Brocka’s?

Tahimik: Me and Lino were contemporaries in college! We were both speech and drama majors—us and Behn Cervantes. We graduated in the same year. Actually, Lino failed to graduate because he had some crazy objection—we had to do ROTC, Reserve Officers Training Core. Every Saturday you had to carry a gun and parade in the grounds, one of those colonial legacies. Anyway, this was the government laboratory, set up by [Ferdinand] Marcos for all his propaganda, but then it continued to open its doors to private companies. For a while, commercial films went to them—but then, as it is a government agency, perhaps inevitably things start to deteriorate. They didn’t maintain their chemicals [or] machines. A lot of people stopped going there. For us indies, we didn’t care that, say, discoloration happens because they used an old batch of chemicals on the stock. We stayed on with it right until they finally closed. I moved my thirty years of footage, including stuff I made for BalikBayan #1, to my apartment in Manila, in one room with no refrigeration or air conditioning. You can see a lot of chemical deterioration on that stuff when you watch BalikBayan #1. When I was trying to finish this film—after thirty-five years—I truly didn’t care as long as I could tell the story. But that’s me; I’m a dilettante as far as technical perfection is concerned.

Filmmaker: I assume you edit digitally now.

Tahimik: Well, to go back a bit: in 1977, I won the Critics Jury, the Catholic jury and the Ecumenical prizes during the Berlin Film Festival, my first festival, with Perfumed Nightmare. That led to a grant which allowed me to buy a Steenbeck and ship it home. When I had my Steenbeck and a few other things, I could do my magnetic transfers at home. I could do everything, I would only go to Manila to do the big lab work. I always did, and still do, a first assembly myself— because I don’t work with a script, I can’t pass the materials on to anybody. I would create the sequence according to either something I had pre-conceptualised or to whatever structure the footage would suggest. When I created an individual sequence, I would then assemble it with other sequences, and this would grow and grow, like with my three-hour Why is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow?, which while editing it [got] much bigger than I expected. For a long time, I relied on a German friend who visited the Philippines once a year. If he would come and visit, he would have some distance and he was able to give what I’d done a bit of extra rhythm. But the original block-building was and is from me. I had no timeframe, I would just wait until I felt the film would be ready to be released.

Filmmaker: All this time, were you editing some hours each day or just whenever felt right?

Tahimik: If I say that it took me thirty-five years to finish Balikbayan #1, that’s not to say it was the only project I was stuck to. I had shelved it for a number of years and then came back to it, or I would be shooting other things. There are sequences in Why is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow? in which I had already included the story of Enrique of Malacca, the slave protagonist of Balikbayan #1, because I wanted, and still want the story, to be known. During the anti-Marcos demonstrations in the Philippines [the “People Power” protests of 1986], there was really something to focus on. We kept going to demonstrations and I would shoot footage of my kids at these events.

Filmmaker: On the Bolex?

Tahimik: Yeah, mainly. Everybody told me, “Cory [Aquino, Marcos’ competitor in the 1986 snap election and eventual successor as head of state] is a hot item. You should finish the film, then get it released and make a ton of bucks.” But even if we were euphoric about getting rid of the dictator, so much happened immediately after the new government took over. It was clear that something wasn’t working. I would go on shooting and editing. If there were some coup d’états and I failed to shoot them for whatever reason, I would shoot some G.I. Joe video games and put those in its place. It would allow me to talk about those things when I didn’t have the actual footage of the coups themselves. I could go back and forth to the editing room with ease and total freedom because I had my own Steenbeck. At some point I felt, “OK, it’s ready to be seen, or at least submitted to a festival.” Sometimes after the festival I would reedit again. I submitted to the Yamagata Film Festival in Japan, and they invited it as the opening film  for their first edition in 1989. The original cut was about 90 minutes. Then I was moving on to this post-Marcos stage and my next version was about two hours. Yamagata is every two years. In 1991, they invited it again as a new version. And then invited it again, one last time, in 1993.

Filmmaker: So, it is a little like the process for BalikBayan #1 after that.

Tahimik: What I presented of BalikBayan #1 in Berlinale in 2015 is still pretty much the same story as the new version. This new one is “redux” again—I have Redux IV, V, and VI now, allowing me to include new footage to embellish things. However, the basic story remains the same. Whereas with the Yellow film, as a filmmaker I was desperate for an ending. I kept changing the combination of sequences over and over. What you see today is what I finally ended up with. I think I would never have stopped but the Yamagata festival director said to me, “Why don’t you just release something? You can continue then and make a second part someday.” It made sense and so in 1994 I said, “OK, let’s premiere the final thing.” With Balikbayan I still have things to add. But I’m coming to an end. I think I have all the elements I want in there. I’ll probably stop at Redux VII.

Filmmaker: Can you tell me about the years between arriving in Europe, moving to the commune in Germany, and when you made Perfumed Nightmare?

Tahimik: It was ’73 when I moved to the commune and ’75 when my first son was born. About ’74 was when I started helping this film student do his thing. Do you know of Werner Penzel? He made some very interesting films about Embryo, the Krautrock music group. I was like an apprentice—learning how to clean the Bolex, clean the lenses, I would change his magazines, and thread his film. I would also drive him around in my Jeepney, in place of a production car. He was a film student, so I would say, “Can you extend your rental another week so I can do my thing?” When he would be editing, he could only edit up to a certain time at the film school, it was booked. But if he would fall asleep at the editing table, I would take over and do my thing. It was kind of a guerrilla way of doing things. Film is expensive, even today, mainly because of these post-production costs, no? Sometimes Werner Herzog allowed me to use his editing room when it was free. Another two or three other filmmakers in Munich would let me use their equipment once they were finished for the day.  I would wait for this one porno editor to finish his work—I would watch every angle of penetration [laughs] until he got tired, then I would take over at 10 or 11 o’clock in the evening.

Filmmaker: Did you shoot anything before Perfumed Nightmare as practice?

Tahimik: I accompanied Werner Penzel for his diploma film. We met a Brazilian theatre group who had gone to a theatre festival in Nancy. Afterwards, they were finding a place to kill time for the summer, so they ended up at our commune. Werner decided to do this film with them. We drove to the south of France to an abandoned village, we started shooting his film. While there, I wanted to do some kind of a satire. I quickly thought of some things—I brought some costumes and started shooting a very short film, which I’ve never actually edited. I got my first practice of shooting on the Bolex during that period we were in that abandoned village. It was only in ’75 that I decided to do Perfumed Nightmare.

Filmmaker: Were you much of cinephile at the time?

Tahimik: No. When I was in Paris I would try and go to the Cinémathèque. But I’m so slow in reading French subtitles, I can’t remember those films at all. I probably saw a couple of Godard films or work by these Cahiers du cinéma people. I really can’t remember much of the films for that reason. When I started to do Perfumed Nightmare—it is funny because a lot of film critics would say, “This is a very autobiographical film.” And I would have to say, “I was never a Jeepney driver, like the Kidlat that stars in the film. That’s also not my village, that’s just my father’s village.” But then I realised that they meant “autobiographical” in the sense of my cultural awakening, the moment when I started to question the cocoon of American dreams that I had grown up in. So, it was a stage where I had a strong understanding of my discomfort with having grown up in a very Americanized culture in the Philippines. I mean, you’ve heard me talk about the indio dwende? In the Philippines, we have a special dwende inside us, a unique view of the world. I think at that time my dwende really wanted to jump out and assert itself—do a film that would express my nostalgia for the old culture, a lament for losing that culture, and an expression of anger at the imposition of American culture onto the Philippines. As a matter of fact, in the Philippines, we don’t speak English—we speak Americano. In fact, we have become the global home for call centers. We displaced India, who speak in British English.

Because of the Hollywood influence on the world, it is easier for these companies to have people who speak with an American accent, or pronunciations at least. I was an economist, but I never became an ideologue who would like to “frame” capitalism. I wanted to express the absurdity of me growing up in the Philippines the way I did. I was surprised that when I studied in America people would tell me I have an accent. I’d reply, “I have an accent?!” I was sure that I spoke perfect English. You have an illusion that you are part of that world. Part of that echo chamber. It took me some years to realise that I had to “reframe” how I grew up in this culture and how I would find some relevance if I don’t want life to continue like it had been—accepting that echo chamber and its messages as reality. When I say that I work with the cosmos, I mean that I have no script. I am able to find a combination of things I will shoot. 

Filmmaker: You shoot entirely that way?

Tahimik: Yes. Unconsciously, I find something to trigger this or that shot. Only later does it find a good place in the film. In ’77, I kept jumbling around my footage until I arrived at the perfect combination that was Perfumed Nightmare. For a first film, I still can’t believe it worked out that way. It has been 40 years now and the film is still out there orbiting on its own. Right now, I’m back in everybody’s radar, at least since about 2015.

Filmmaker: Not to force the comparison too much but a lot of what you’re saying—your way of working, your biography—sounds a lot like Orson Welles. A first film with a major life of its own, a reluctance to finish epic projects, hating the idea of closure in filmmaking. I see that you use Welles’ picture in Why is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow?, which got me to thinking about the connection.

Tahimik: You think so? I saw his film F for Fake, then I saw this Japanese graphic with Orson Welles’ picture on it and added a bubble, “F for Fake,” and put it in the film. I know he’s a big name, a serious filmmaker one should study. In a way, for me this is not so much a problem of finishing a film, rather [of] letting the timetable determine itself. In production you have to exert all your brain, brawn, muscle, heart—everything, even in editing. But you have to leave the final outcome to the cosmos. It is a very Filipino value. Leave it to the cosmos. But you have to do everything possible first in order to do that, it is not laziness. All the time I drop the project and do some other things—be a father, a teacher, a professor, things like that. But it is always on the backburner. It never disappears completely. Suddenly, if I have an impulse to do something and create some images—when I was invited to a festival in Argentina in 2016, I thought: I’m so close to the Magellan strait [where Ferdinand Magellan and Enrique his slave passed by on their 1519-22 circumnavigation of the globe]! My wife and I took a three-day cruise and I was able to shoot there. It was begging to be included in this version that I’m showing tonight, so I put it in. That’s the way it works. I don’t think I could do a Hollywood-type production, or even a commercial Filipino production. For those filmmakers, everything has to be finished in a pressure cooker. The ingredients are there. You have all the elements. Preproduction is there. Put it in a pressure cooker so that you can immediately start making money afterwards. Since I’m not driven by that kind of thinking, as I meet ingredients they become part of the story and before you know it, it has become its own narrative. You surrender to that. I don’t even let myself dictate—my treatment might be full of preconceptions, which I then ignore.

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