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Exorcising the Curse of the US: Miko Revereza on Nowhere Near

Nowhere Near

After living undocumented in the US for 26 years, in Nowhere Near (2023), director Miko Revereza journeys back to the Philippines in an attempt to trace the source of the colonial ghosts causing his parents’ amnesia. Through an abstract odyssey into personal history à la Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, Revereza works in a range of mediums to express the borderless aesthetic of statelessness. What results is an investigative documentary layered with the narration of his own novel, floating into the mysteries of psychogeographical disconnect with superimposed images and submerged family portraits.

On the day of the film’s US premiere, Revereza spoke to Filmmaker about recent criticism of NYFF’s experimental films, how his views on his “Towards A Stateless Cinema” essay and personal cinema have changed and the parallels between Nowhere Near’s journey to exorcise generational ghosts and Chihiro’s mission to break her parents’ curse in Spirited Away.

Filmmaker: You shot No Data Plan (2019) in three days, whereas Nowhere Near seems like it was part of a longer incubation process. Could you describe how the project transformed over the years you were working on it?

Miko Revereza: I think Nowhere Near is actually my first feature film, but it’s also my latest one, because I started it before No Data Plan. In that sense, No Data Plan was kind of like a segment of the larger project. I started filming for Nowhere Near first, but the footage became an entire archive where I was pulling from the images I shot at that time for, like, seven years.

I’d gotten accustomed to my No Data Plan workflow because I shot that in three days and then edited it for like a month. I was like, “Oh, piece of cake.” My second feature was a collaboration with my wife called El Lado Quieto and that process was a little longer. We filmed for one month and edited for three months: “OK, that’s not so bad.” But this one was a never-ending edit. I left no stone unturned, but the process of getting there was trying every single thing out. There were countless failures along the way where it just wasn’t at the point that I wanted it to be at, where it hadn’t matured to the form I wanted. For years, that just wasn’t realized yet but after some time I would eventually think, “Alright, maybe it’s coming together now”—but no. It needed another year of sitting on, then I’d come back to it and be able to give it more context, thinking and writing. 

It started to come together when I began writing Nowhere Near as a novel, or as a very extended poetic narration. There’s much more to it, but I had to go through the process of editing a novel in order to textually edit the film on paper first. But it took so long to get there that by the end of the film I was completely exhausted by all the material.

Filmmaker: Editing from an archive of images while also writing a novel to clarify the direction they’re going in sounds like a grueling process.

Revereza: The filming is the fun part. It’s a pleasure filming out in the world and being outdoors. But editing is very alienating and isolating, thousands of hours spent in front of the computer screen trying to figure it out. It’s interesting to think of all of these shots as memories, then going through the vast database of memory folders to come up with a concise version of those memory fragments.

Filmmaker: A perennial question throughout your work, you’ve said, is “How does an undocumented documentary filmmaker document themselves?” Did making Nowhere Near illuminate anything regarding that question?

Revereza: The process of this film has been my exploration of that question. It felt like I was really trying to solve something, solve our immigration issue through this investigation through cinema. That’s why I interrogated my mother [in an on-camera interview about the family’s immigration history and attempts to find a lawyer] and why I’m asking all of these questions: to get to the heart of the problem, to advocate for ourselves and to learn how to be our own lawyers in a way. My goal was to find a way through documentary that I could document us, legally. To solve our case. In that sense, it felt like a curse: There was this burden on us for 26 years. It was a puzzle that I felt like I could solve through cinema.

But things diverged from there: I decided to leave the US, giving up on that quest of solving our problem. I left and embarked on another investigation that shifted to the question of “Why did we migrate in the first place?” So, [I was] led to Pangasinan, the town that my grandmother’s from, to the point where the US troops landed. But to return to the question of: Did I figure it out? Did I answer this question of documentation? I don’t know. In the end, I left the US and that was a way for me to achieve more agency. I was completely stifled by bureaucracy and couldn’t accomplish anything. I just couldn’t. It was difficult to navigate living with that type of fear. This film is an investigation of a family curse. And I wonder, did I lift the family curse? Probably not [laughs].

But also, the film itself was such a burden that it became its own curse. And maybe it absorbed our curse, because now that it’s finished, it feels like a huge weight has been lifted off of my shoulders, my existence, everything. It’s like the film became the medium of absorbing everything, and after being super processed throughout all of these years it’s become an object. Now that it’s out there, it’s out of my hands. I’ve passed it away, and that’s a very liberating feeling.

Filmmaker: Not to oversimplify it, but it seems as if the curse that you were exorcising was, for the most part, the US.

Revereza: Maybe. That’s a hot take [laughs]. Yeah, totally. That’s the curse of their colonization and occupation of the Philippines in the same way as the Spanish. There’s this lingering hold they keep on the Filipino psyche, this overarching power dynamic that leads us to the US and keeps us subordinated. But right now I don’t have anything to do with the US. I’m outside.

Filmmaker: And it seems like there’s a sense of relief in that.

Revereza: Yeah, totally, that’s true. Definitely relief. It’s interesting, people kind of lament for me. Like, “Oh, you can’t get back in the US,” but like, “I’m good.” [laughs]

It’s complicated to call any place home. [Mexico] is a place [that’s] not my home as it is for other people who have lived here for generations. Every place I live, it’s hard to connect to as home, like the US and the Phillippines, but I also feel like there’s so much weight to the word “home,” and it doesn’t need to be such a priority.

Filmmaker: Right, there’s a fluidity to the idea, which also maybe connects to how you use water in Nowhere Near to give a sense of this idea of perpetual movement with these migratory bubbles from the LA river. Can you talk a little bit about using water as a motif throughout the film?

Revereza: It’s interesting, the superimposition of water on people or places, their migratory bubbles: it feels like there’s that current and we’re also in it. At least I feel like I’m in that current. But also, throughout the process of making this film, there was something cathartic in coming across the combination of different images. Especially with portraits of family members. They’d be aesthetic choices first, but then they would turn into emotional ones that would trigger something. Like, what does it mean when my grandfather is underwater? It turned out that slowly, he was dying. 

In a more literal way, it’s just putting my footage in the water and setting it adrift in a current not knowing where the images will go, but letting go. I like these kinds of gestures and there’s a lot of mystery in these superimposed images. They’re not resolved images; they’re for prolonged thinking and revisiting.

Filmmaker: I really love the montage at the end where it’s all these portraits of your family members and different bodies of water flowing over them. Were there other visual ideas you knew you wanted to experiment with going into Nowhere Near? I know, for instance, that it was your first time using footnotes. 

Revereza: One of my early strategies of editing this film—because it was so much footage to deal with—was just taking stills from the film and creating a photo book where I could flip to the different images. It wasn’t necessarily chronological, just formal and aesthetic, like what images follow next in sequences. 

The whole time I was making Nowhere Near, it was always kind of in book form. Even now that it’s a film, I feel like I’m still flipping through the pages of a photo book when I see it. But when it was in that stage, sometimes I would put footnotes for myself. Initially, they were just editing notes, or notes to self for later about other things I was thinking about that were related. But after I had written a whole novel, which also had its own footnotes, and the film started coming together in a cinematic way as an essay film, I liked the idea of keeping the footnotes so that it could, in some way, retain the design of a book.

Filmmaker: You’ve talked about how you wanted audiences to hear the subtitles from the voiceless narrator of No Data Plan in the voice of their own inner monologue. Do you see your use of subtitles, footnotes and text on-screen as something which might limit the interpretive powers of the audience?

Revereza: The approach with No Data Plan was text on-screen and subtitles without voice for the majority of the film. That was interesting for me as an exercise of having the audience read it to themselves in their own voice. Now, with Nowhere Near, I spent a lot of time and focus on the text. It meant a lot to me. It might be the thing I care the most about. I’ve struggled with the question of how to deal with language in all of my films. I always had the idea in mind to do an essay film where I could read throughout but I could never really achieve that before this. With No Data Plan, to be honest, I didn’t achieve what I wanted to with the essay film.

Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil was such a big influence. When I discovered it many years ago, I thought the amount of text and the amount of images was so impressive, and the way that the literary and image forms had so much interplay. But I always felt kind of intimidated by it and thought “I’m not even close to that level,” and thought I couldn’t do that kind of film because I wasn’t intellectually there yet. And I’m not—I’m not Chris Marker—but throughout my film career I found a way to find my voice, eventually. With this film, I feel confident that I’ve put my voice out there, literally—it’s my own voice and I wrote it.

I have subtitles throughout Nowhere Near because I felt like it’s still kind of a book. Even though I’m reading it, I want people to fully understand it. And sometimes, without the subtitles, my voiceover might get lost a little bit and it was such a priority for me for the text to get conveyed. I needed to convey this message to the audience and be sure of it.

Filmmaker: I think this is really interesting. I don’t know if you’ve seen this Artforum article that’s been circulating—

Revereza: The one from yesterday? 

Filmmaker: Yeah, you’ve read it?

Revereza: Mm-hm.

Filmmaker: Among other things, it says today’s experimental films are struggling to find a new cinematic language, in part because they’re conforming to institutional requirements to try and avoid misunderstandings with audiences and funders. What was your response to the article? 

Revereza: It was interesting to read, but I don’t know. What is “new” in any artistic medium’s language these days? Like, what is the new literary language? What is the new anything language? To single out cinema in the way of searching for some groundbreaking new form, it’s a lot to expect. I think there are interesting innovations happening—if not formally, at least with perspective. My film has a unique perspective of being undocumented in the US for a long time. There’s a lot of new perspectives in cinema and that informs new cinematic language—that is new cinematic language in itself.

To the point where we’re relating to institutional expectations, that’s always been the problem with documentary. Documentary has always been institutional. Whereas before people were being commissioned to make documentaries about ethnic groups in this anthropological sense, at the moment, institutions are commissioning ethnicized people, like myself, and marginalized people, to make their own films. [That] can be complicated as well: that burden of being one’s own subject, putting my subjectivity out there as a means of my practice, as a means of sustaining myself professionally and in the most basic way—putting food on the table, paying rent. 

So yeah, I hear that. I’m curious about how to have agency within that. I don’t want to make this film over again. I refuse to. [laughs] And I’m very much not into making personal cinema moving forward, or maybe not even touching on the same topics of being a migrant and this ongoing story. As I said earlier, I’ve liberated myself from that through this film in a lot of ways. Right now, I just want to play with the form and experiment, and to go into abstraction or into narrative or documentary, but I want the agency to play. And coming back to the question of new cinematic languages, I think people need the agency to play. Things get stuck if there’s the expectation of doing the same project. It would be nice if institutions were open to the left turn, to the complete divergence from the ongoing, repetitive project. I’d like to challenge that moving forward. 

Filmmaker: I also wanted to ask about the ideas that you talk about in your essay “Towards a Stateless Cinema” in relation to Nowhere Near, because it feels like you’re expanding these ideas of diasporic consciousness and perpetual movement as they relate to each other and cinema. Are the aesthetic principles of stateless cinema something that you’re consciously developing and theorizing as you’re shooting? Or does it arise organically in the editing room? 

Revereza: I wrote this essay in 2019—it’s actually the thesis of my MFA—and there are certain things I wrote that are really interesting. I’m still attached to that idea of footage as a measurement of distance. But there are also things that are a little idealistic, like the ability to transcend borders through cinema. It evolves, and I feel like throughout making this film it certainly evolved, even if it’s not under some term like “stateless cinema,” or “diasporic.” I’m usually thinking about it organically; they were just the day’s thoughts. It’s a diary. Sometimes it shifts to this  intellectual trajectory. Sometimes it’s emotional, or a mix of those things. But I’m not sure I have the desire to encapsulate my practice into the term I put out there, “stateless cinema,” because I don’t even know what kind of filmmaker I want to be next. I’m just happy that this film is out there. It makes me like a free agent of exploration.

Filmmaker: Something else that I really wanted to talk about with you is the film’s analogy with Spirited Away. What was it about Spirited Away and Chihiro that triggered your connection with it?

Revereza: The process of writing this film was waking up and writing the first thoughts that came to my head, and one day that was the thought. I think I watched Spirited Away the night before, then I thought about the parallel in the morning. It was interesting to rewatch Spirited Away and discover this other aspect, where the other dimension is a border. There’s this wall and this tunnel leading into it, then the parents get incarcerated and Chihiro has to figure it out. So, I felt a parallel and a resonance in that story, where the quest is lifting the curse off the parents.

Filmmaker: I thought it was such an apt connection as well, because Miyazaki is such a believer in illustrating the power of free, unrestrained movement, which has also been a theme of yours in a different way. Do you feel like Spirited Away and his films represent this fantasy of free movement for you in any way?

Revereza: I’m not sure if it’s the free movement. The things I take away from Miyazaki are these world-building exercises; I watch them for their worlds. I was talking to my friend and she was telling me that after watching some Miyazaki, her daughter was sad that she couldn’t be in those worlds. I felt that way when I first watched Spirited Away—connected to this world, this summer camp feeling just outside of the normal everyday, where you can be transported into this spirited world. There is this kind of free movement of people flying 1000 feet into the air [laughs] and I’m always into that. The free movement of animation and moving images is just so spectacular. And how movement is animated, like wind through grass, waves, tears. It feels so epic to see this kind of movement in Miyazaki’s films. 

Other than this kind of note about Spirited Away, there are things that I’m tapping into in the film that can be magical. Especially with these superimpositions, like the water with this person. It’s not an elaborate special effect—it’s just two images on top of each other—but it creates this magic in looking at it.

Filmmaker: There’s also these allegorical dimensions to Spirited Away with how the parents feel entitled to all this food and the dad is like, “It’s okay, you can eat, Dad’s here and he’s got credit cards and cash!” Of course it was made after the burst of the bubble economy in Japan during the ‘90s, but there’s this parallel idea of liberating past generations within Spirited Away.

Revereza: Kind of the curse of neoliberal parents and digging them out of the spiritual debt that they got us. 

Filmmaker: That’s a perfect way of putting it. She just wants to save her parents but in the process she ends up signing away her name, identity and clothes. Does that ring true for you as well in this process that you’ve been going through?

Revereza: That’s crazy, I forgot the part where she signs away her name and identity. It’s been a few years since I’ve watched it. But actually, I think even when I wrote this, I was just thinking of a far memory of the film. It’s interesting, that bureaucratic contract of signing away your name. It’s resonating with me right now as you said it, but I hadn’t thought of it until now.

Filmmaker: You should watch it again, I was watching it last night and was blown away by the parallels between it and Nowhere Near. Are you a fan of animated films? 

Revereza: I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed but there’s animated films that have left a huge mark on me. Whenever I see a new anime that really challenges the conventions of animation, I get excited. I’m more interested in animation that plays with its awareness of being animated than narrative-driven animation. Akira, Miyazaki’s films and Ghost in the Shell were all amazing, but what was really interesting was when Ponyo had a more hand-illustrated style. Just peeling away the refinement of animation to get to the animatedness, I like that play of the medium. I like films that are aware of their filmed-ness.

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