Independent, international, and indigenous filmmaker
By Patrick F. Campos
No one can doubt that Kidlat Tahimik is an independent filmmaker. Born and baptized as Eric de Guia on October 3, 1942, during the Japanese Occupation, to a cosmopolitan home in the American-fashioned city of Baguio, he received his early education at Maryknoll Convent School and St. Louis High School. In college, he was a student of engineering first, then of geology, before earning a degree in speech and drama at the University of the Philippines where he served as president of the student council on his senior year. A man of apparent contradictions like his adopted name, his background could not have made what he turned out to be, predictable.
He did not become an engineer like his father, Victor de Guia, although he would later build the Victor Oteyza Community Art Space (VOCAS), named after his artist-uncle; the Ili-Likha Artist Village, which promotes Cordilleran culture and arts; and his own home, all of which used his pukpok-tastas engineering style. He turned out to be an artist like his uncle Victor. After college, he pursued an MBA at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, thinking that as an economist he would have a better chance of becoming the President of post-independence Philippines. His parents’ dream for him to become President is not surprising. The De Guias are an affluent and influential family, and Kidlat’s mother, Virginia Oteyza de Guia, was once Baguio’s first woman mayor.
In a scene from Kidlat’s Bakit Yellow ang Middle ng Rainbow? (1994), his mother is shown nostalgically recalling the historic moment after the war when she pulled down the American flag from the city hall and in its place hoisted the Philippine flag. Kidlat, in the same film, retorts that the moment actually signaled a more guileful form of colonization because the US gifted Filipinos with “the smiling Trojan Horse.” In the film Balikbayan #1 (2015), his mother is shown wistfully looking at photographs of Kidlat in his younger years and saying that his son, who sailed the world years earlier, never returned. These scenes show an aspect of Kidlat’s personal history that he has continually exorcised through his cinema.
After Wharton and after doing fertilizer distribution reports for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in France, he tried to write a play while pitching hay for a Norwegian farm in 1971. He decided to literally tear up his Wharton diploma in 1972 to live in an artists’ commune in Germany. (The act of tearing up his diploma mimics the Filipinos’ tearing of their cédulas that signaled the start of the Philippine revolution against Spain in August 1896.) In Germany, he discovered a 16mm Bolex camera and thus did his cinematic life begin.
Because of his background in economics, he developed an aversion to what he called “McDo films” and “artificially inflated filmmaking.” On the eve of the so-called golden age of Philippine cinema, in 1973, Kidlat was instrumental in making Lino Brocka’s phenomenal Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (1974) possible by introducing the maverick director to small-stake investors that formed Cinemanila Corp. Through the years, Kidlat has helped promote this model of cooperation between financiers and industrial partners to provide a leeway for films which big studios would not touch.
KEEPING HIS TRIBE ALIVE
He debuted as an actor in Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kasper Hauser (1974) where he played the role of a village chief who uses his nose-flute to keep his tribe alive. In 1976, as a new Philippine cinema was dawning, ushered in by Brocka’s Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975) and Insiang (1976), Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon? (1976), Ishmael Bernal’s Nunal sa Tubig (1976) and Ligaw na Bulaklak (1976) and Mike de Leon’s Itim (1976), Kidlat Tahimik moved along a parallel but independent track, shooting a film the way only he could, the only way he knew how.
In 1977, Kidlat Tahimik—noiseless and far removed from the “New Filipino Cinema” of social and psychological realisms then in full swing—put Philippine cinema on the map when his directorial debut, Mababangong Bangungot, won three prizes at the Berlin Film Festival. The film was distributed in the US by Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope and premiered in the James Agee Cinema in New York City. Writer Susan Sontag rhapsodized that the film reminded her that “invention, insolence, and enchantment—even innocence—are still available on film.”
Mababangong Bangungot tells the story of the fictional Kidlat Tahimik, a jeepney driver from Laguna, who travels abroad to pursue his American Dream, only to wake from the perfumed nightmare of “progress” that threatens to flatten everything, from small businesses in Paris to rural villages at home. In the end, with the power sparked in him by a wooden horse carved out of his revolutionary father’s rifle, Kidlat Tahimik (the fictional character) magically blows away masked figures that symbolize western domination.
Independence from empire was the call of Kidlat’s first film. It had an anti-colonial counter-narrative that provided grounding for Eric de Guia to assume the identity of his cinematic invention, Kidlat Tahimik. In the film, the latter declared his independence from all things that shackled his true identity.
The next three works continue his quest to film counter-histories and reinvent his identity. Sino’ng Lumikha ng Yoyo? Sino’ng Lumikha ng Moon Buggy? (1978) is about a man who wants to build a space shuttle out of junk so that he can play yoyo on the moon. The story critiques the idea of space travel as a form of conquest and reclaims the innocence of the act of looking up to the skies. Memories of Overdevelopment began in 1980, follows the odyssey of Enrique de Malacca, slave of Magellan, the first man (a Filipino in Kidlat’s fancy) to circumnavigate the globe. Turumba (1983) tells the story of a rural village that is disrupted and turned into an assembly-line factory by a German businesswoman.
These works bear the marks of their milieu like the other films of the golden age, although with a film language all Kidlat’s own. From his earliest films, he epitomized the possibilities of alternative filmmaking.
Following his films’ warm reception in Europe and the US, and even with the precarious situation in the Philippines under Marcos’s martial rule, Kidlat Tahimik resettled in Baguio with his family. The environment of violence that greeted him upon his arrival moved him to make Bakit Yellow ang Middle ng Rainbow? He started filming this explicitly political film in 1983 at the height of social unrest following the assassination of Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr. and finished it in 1994.
The artistic background of Kidlat’s coming of age was the international modernism of the 1960s. What served as the political background were the anti-colonial and anti-fascist revolutions in Vietnam, Cuba and Algeria which politicized and radicalized cultural production in so-called Third World countries from the late 1960s to the 1970s. That the Filipino rebelling against his Americanized upbringing began filmmaking at this time inescapably situated Kidlat Tahimik’s work in the cracks between modernist auteur cinema and radical Third Cinema.
Kidlat Tahimik is an avant-garde sophisticate, though his style, according to Herzog, is “primitive,” a double-edged term that speaks of the seeming simplicity of the artist’s outlook and process as well as the sharpness of his political critique. His “imperfect” films, wrought out of junk, represented the avant-garde values of personal filmmaking and served as an exemplar of activist filmmaking that was critical of neocolonial exploitation and state oppression. In this context, he emerged as an auteur of Third Cinema on the global stage. His quest for true national independence at home contributed a unique Filipino inflection to an international cinema movement.
Even in the Philippines, however, his unique cinema occupies a separate space in relation to “poverty films.” Kidlat Tahimik’s films do not glory in sadness and hunger, even those that lament injustice and violence. They are premised on the hope of possible, though yet to be realized, triumph. One of his constant refrains is that whatever “progress” relegates to the realm of “sadness” and “poverty” should never remain self-referentially “sad” or “poor.” The key to understanding this reversal, which precedes social change, is to transgress the bounds of “progress” that degrades.
Observers have noticed and noted this disposition. South African director Ross Davenish, for example, describes Kidlat Tahimik’s work as being “constructed like a cinematographic equivalent of a shanty town. Any material at all that can be used is. The result is tough, vital, simple, ‘real’—an affirmation of life.” Kidlat’s worldview is framed by possibilities instead of regrets. He emphasizes the strengths of Filipino culture despite or through its contradictions. As such, his films undermine the conventionally bleak image of Filipino films framed by international film festivals.
Bakit Yellow? is a significant example of Kidlat’s cinema in this regard. It is a freewheeling account of history told through the everyday with one thread of the narrative following the life of Kidlat Tahimik and his family, the other following the fall of Marcos and its aftermath. It opens with the panoramic wilderness of North America’s Monument Valley, left breathtakingly beautiful but uncultivated by American expansion westward. The clanging sounds of native Filipino instruments disconcertingly provide the score for the scene as we see a lone child, Kidlat’s firstborn, playing with ragtag toy cars on the ground.
By opening his film thus, Kidlat draws a parallel between the subjugation of Native Americans and Filipinos and melds their respective spaces and histories through the images of Navajo land, the Third World in the belly of the First World and the sounds of the Luzon highlands, the Third World back home plundered by the same First World. The translocality of Bakit Dilaw? situates it as a Third Cinema film addressed to the world, while staying grounded on the specificity not only of the Philippine experience in general but also of Northern Luzon experience in particular. The presence of the young boy playing supplies the counterpoint and intimates a new future.
Bakit Yellow? took over 10 years to finish. It exemplifies best what Kidlat Tahimik refers to as his kapa-kapa film-making and Bathala na scriptwriting, modes of filming which try to counter bahala na fatalism. The former, according to him, is the act of resigning to Cosmic Will after one has given the best energies, best inputs, best heart. The latter comes from the feeling of helplessness working for colonial masters. His artistic decisions seem whimsical because they are unpredictable, but they are so because, according to him, he allows the whole cosmos to be the playground of his sariling duwende.
During and after making Bakit Yellow?, a shift in his mode of filmmaking became apparent. Instead of the grand gestures of his early films, he started making film essays—“photo albums” like Takedera Mon Amour (1991) and Japanese Summers of a Filipino Fundoshi (1996); “love letters” like Orbit 50: Letters to My 3 Sons (1992) and Some More Rice (2005); collages like Roofs of the World! UNITE! (2006); travel diaries and “missions” like Our Bomb Mission to Hiroshima (1995) and Our Film-Grimage to Guimaras (2006); and declarations and manifestos like Celebrating 2021 Today (1995) and Holy Wood (2000).
In these mostly shorter works we see the bases of his filmic rituals—a careful attention to and collection of the detritus of everyday moments and an urge to remark on unremarkable things. Each work evokes particular places recorded at various times, unified in the present, first, by the retrospective consciousness of the filmmaker and, second, by the spectator who journeys with the artist through the act of watching. The details of the everyday add up to the big bind. Kidlat Tahimik suggests both through his films and his process, and the exorcising of alien ghosts that have come to possess local culture cannot be accomplished with only one great heave, but in small but cumulative acts of resistance in thought and action.
If the direction of Kidlat Tahimik from the 1970s and ’80s was waking up from the American Dream and heading home, his direction in the 1990s and 2000s was both outward, through his many travels, and inward, from the busyness of city life to the restful calm of the mountains. The films of this later period document the artist’s efforts to reconnect with indigenous Igorot culture. We see this in the way he juxtaposes places, practices and people—Tibetans and Igorots carrying wood across the forest, kimono-clad women dancing with bahag-wearing men, Igorot gongs clanging from a Japanese farm. The insistence is that age-old traditions remain vibrant if they continue to resist the homogenizing tendencies of consumerism. The films of the 2000s also narrate Kidlat Tahimik’s decision to take up residence in the Ifugao rice terraces for part of every year and live the life of a farmer, not as Kidlat Tahimik but as Kuya Kabigat, as he is fondly called in Hapao, Ifugao.
Throughout his career, it is his being grounded, chronicling events from Baguio and Ifugao rather than moving to the center of filmmaking in Manila, that distinguishes his cinema from his contemporaries. In this sense, he has been filming from the regions without the benefit, or the limitations, of the now oft-used term “regional cinema” and without the burden of differentiating against the Manila-centric film industry. From where he is, he comments not only on national politics but also on the daily struggles of indigenous peoples with issues like land-grabbing, illegal mining and displacement.
His notion of independent filmmaking as self-reliance correctively exceeds the narrow comparison between mainstream and indie films and the conventional portrayal of the individual artist as being separate from the community. He saw early on the potential of democratization brought about by video technology not in the terms dictated by commercial cinema or even art cinema. He saw the portability of the technology as making possible a communal approach to filmmaking and as a means of restoring the emotional charge of community life that has dissipated through time.
In many of his films, Kidlat Tahimik asserts that the Igorots have displayed and continue to exercise native agency as expressed through their “indio-genius” lifeways. These lifeways are exactly what Igorots themselves need to film. Thus, many years before moving to Hapao, he had already initiated the Sunflower Film and Video Collective, through which he introduced the Ifugao people to filmmaking technology, gave them access to cameras and, later on, laptops for editing, so that the natives themselves could preserve their own culture by documentation and represent themselves onscreen. As early as the 1990s, Kidlat’s efforts were in-sync with the emergence of Fourth Cinema, an indigenous cinema centered on local culture made by the natives themselves.
Emblematic of Kidlat Tahimik’s project is his wearing of Igorot regalia, the bahag, in his public appearances. Some see this act as sensational exoticism or a glorification of the primitive, but when Kidlat pursued his urge to move to Ifugao from urban Baguio, what he saw was that the vital culture represented by the bahag was not exotic and was not a thing of the past, as lowlanders might presume. It is very much alive at present. The fact that indigenous Ifugao culture has kept its vitality despite a long history of contending with colonization was for him a sign of independence, and so he decided to channel this spirit of independence in his own art practice. In this sense, his project is not indigenization, not even the recuperation of indigenous culture, but the protection of a living culture from complete obliteration.
ENRIQUE DE MALACCA
His latest feature film, Balikbayan #1, is a work that balances his international and indigenous impulses. It combines his earlier counter-historical films with his later mode of essay filmmaking. Fittingly, it won the Caligari prize at the Berlin Film Festival, where he premiered his first film, Mababangong Bangungot.
Balikbayan #1 rounds up the story of Enrique de Malacca, which he first set out to tell in Memories of Overdevelopment 35 years earlier. Kidlat appropriates the narrative of Enrique to narrate the catastrophic but heroic story of the Filipino who, like Enrique, was sold and enslaved but also embarked, wandered, survived, and returned as a free man, a native and a modern figure at the same time, ready to determine his own fate.
Interestingly, the film is intermixed with actual diary footage of Kidlat Tahimik where he tells his grandson about the importance of making journeys and homecomings and explaining to him why such travels cannot be concluded because each person must pursue an independent quest to become.
Indeed, to this day, Kidlat Tahimik’s quest ever goes on, even as his body of works and his aesthetics remain singular. To the rationalized studio film made by a platoon of employed specialists, his is the years-to-finish, non-commercial film by an unschooled cineaste. To the ambiguous imagery of experimentalists, his is the sprawling collage whose meaningfulness is always plain, but whose meanings, by associations and clashes, are protean. To the merely self-expressive art of the individualist, his is developmental, community-empowering and collaborative art-making. To documentaries concerned with prosaic facts, his are concerned with introspective truth. To razor-sharp and sleek psychological films, his are unpredictable anything-goes bricolages. To social realist and tragic poverty films, his are comedies in the sense of being humorous and triumphant. In short, he stands as a kind of check and balance, if there ever was a system of checks and balances, for Philippine cinema.
Because he has kept to the sidelines, patiently making films independently, never allowing his work to be compromised and commodified, his cinema has not been seen by masses of Filipinos. But it has, in time, contributed to making the indie cinema of the succeeding generations historically possible. In a roundabout way, Kidlat Tahimik’s time has come. As a visionary filmmaker and a spiritual father figure, he has served as a mentor, inspiration and model to younger filmmakers to take the road less traveled and, as he exhorts at the close of Balikbayan #1, to make the journey itself a song and a home.