At the New Zealand International Film Festival, an interview with the veteran Filipino filmmaker and “father of independent cinema in the Philippines.”
Balikbayan #1 Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III is a remarkable film. Shot over thirty years, it was initially conceived as a simple re-telling of the story of Magellan’s slave, Enrique of Malacca. The slave reportedly communicated with locals on the island where Magellan was killed, leading to the conclusion that the first person to circumnavigate the globe was not Magellan (he still had 900km to reach Malacca), but his lowly slave.
Filipino director Kidlat Tahimik has a reputation as a revolutionary figure in world cinema. His debut film, Perfumed Nightmare (1977), is regarded as a classic. He started making Balikbayan in the early ’80s, using 16mm to shoot a quite exquisite portrait of Enrique. However, Tahimik stopped filming to spend time with his children. In the last few years he has been able to return to the film—over thirty years since beginning production on it—and has expanded on the influence of Enrique to contemporary times. The end result is a freewheeling and joyous mélange of indigenous voices, echoes, repetitions, and digressions.
Tahimik expertly weaves in the past, the present, and the future into Balikbayan, both formally and materially (he films later scenes on an iPhone, which jars with the intimate initial footage), and he uses numerous voices to tell the story. In doing so, he demolishes ideas of historical biopics, historical orthodoxy, and a Eurocentric mythmaking on the past. He also critiques the idea of static cultures, showcasing a vibrancy and diversity that’s hard not to fall in love with. It’s quite unlike anything in this film festival, and is an absolute highlight.
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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: Why film?
KIDLAT TAHIMIK: It was an accident that I came to film. As an undergraduate, I was a theatre major. By a quirk, I was elected President of the student government at my university. When I graduated, I thought I was ‘presidentiable’. I decided to take an MBA. I was working as an economist in Paris and I began to see the light, “I’m not cut out for this and I should become an artist.” I joined an artist commune in Germany, where I met this film student and helped him whenever I could. I got the fever, and have wanted to make my own films ever since.
BG: You were in Paris in a crazy time too?
KT: Right after the May [’68] revolution. I was in a three-piece suit person and writing economic reports.
BG: How did you come across Enrique’s story?
KT: It was when I had just returned to the Philippines. I had read a few articles, and some writers had brought this up; one Philippine historian said it was a possibility. He quoted the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig in stating that when Enrique the slave had reached the first island of the Philippines, he could not speak the language. Magellan tried to use him as an interpreter. He tried to speak his own language, but they could not understand him. On the next island, he was chatting and laughing with the natives. So for the first time on this planet, a person had gone around the world and come back to an island where he had learned the language, no matter how lowly his status. He had taken over whatever the master had set out to do.
BG: Were you interested in the story as you had also left the Philippines for Europe and come back? Was there a parallel in your life?
KT: The word Balikbayan is a Filipino word. “Balik” is to return, and “Bayan” is to go your village or your island. It’s for overseas workers who come back. I guess I am. I am an ex-pat who went around [the world], tried this, tried that. Like E.T. there’s a homing instinct, and I had a limit to living in wintery countries and economies, and decided to go back to the tropics and raise my family there.
BG: There’s a second part to the title, Memories of Overdevelopment. Is that a link to the Tomás Gutiérrez Alea [1968 Cuban] film?
KT: It took me 35 years to make the film. But it has nothing to do with the Cuban film. Enrique the slave, who was taken from his island, who was bought by Magellan to Europe, what kind of experiences did he have? There was a lot of overdevelopment energies going on, the arts, the knowledge, the thinking, the memories of overdevelopment.
BG: Enrique’s story, there’s not a lot about it. Did that give you a lot of room to fill in the gaps?
KT: Yeah. I think many historians who watch my film want to lynch me as soon as they get out of the theatre. Historians can get finicky on details. I don’t want to get into that kind of debate. I based it on a few historical facts. We know about Magellan’s voyage, we know of the circumnavigation, and we know from the chronicles and the journals of the voyage, which was written by Antonio Pigafetta, which was published in 1523, a year after the voyage was completed in Europe. But the slave, he was part of the first European expedition to cross the Pacific. At that time, they thought the world was flat, and the crew was mutinying to go back because they thought they were going to cross the falls. After they crossed over the Pacific… it opens up the possibility that Enrique was the first person to go around the world.
BG: There are a lot of myths about Magellan too.
KT: Magellan died in the Philippines. He was killed by Lapu-Lapu, so his most eastern point was Malacca where he bought the slaves, which is about 900km away from Cebu Island, which is where Magellan died. He lacked 1% of the total globe. In fact, the slave could speak the language; maybe he was born there or was picked up by pirates. He was sold to Magellan and he did the 1% before Magellan took him on the 99%.
BG: There’s a powerful story in the idea that a major historical achievement had been carried out by someone who wasn’t even a footnote in Western historical accounts. He was a slave, or stereotyped as primitive.
KT: I think the world today looks up to the first world’s technological achievements: putting a man on the moon, building giant tractors to dig up the world, all of these nuclear aircraft. I like the word primitive in a positional sense—they have an open relationship with the world. Through all of the technological and scientific acumen that Magellan had, they were looking for an opening to the Pacific Ocean. They had followed the South American coast down until they got to Tierra Del Fuego, and there are so many fjords and islands and passages. I would have imagined that Enrique said, “lets go down that path,” and Magellan took a gamble. This is a way of looking at indigenous assets in dealing with adversity. Over the last 20 years my wife and I have organised indigenous conferences. My second mission is to meet up with Maori people who are knowledgeable about the revival of the language, because Maori were seafaring and read the stars.
BG: You also subvert the idea of master and slave. There’s a liberating aspect to Enrique’s knowledge and story.
KT: In a way, circumnavigating the globe is also reaching his liberation. Magellan wrote in his last will and testament that my slave Enrique of Malacca shall become a free man and receive some money. There must have been something about him for Magellan to write him into his last will and testament. Magellan died in the Philippines so from that point on Enrique was a free man. Also by completing the circumnavigation, the master had to let go of him.
BG: In a post-colonial sense, there’s a multiplicity of voices in the film, the past, present, the future, there is you as artist, slave…
KT: The multiplicity of voices, that’s an interesting aspect. Every film about Columbus or Amistad or that kind of film is about their point of view, and it became interesting to do [the opposite]. In order to finish the film, I had started with 16mm, and thought the story would happen five centuries ago. I stopped the film because I wanted to watch my sons grow up, and ten years became thirty years [before I started again]. All of my sons became artists and the artists’ voices became one layer. The original footage became a layer. And then 500 years later, it becomes another layer. By creating a new layer, I created new voices, a new era. Somehow, I still have to link them to the story. The multiplicity of voices, I like that. You’ve given me a new way to look at the film.
BG: That fits with Enrique himself—he wasn’t ‘simply’ indigenous, he spent time in Spain, Portugal, Malacca.
KT: Bamboo is famous for its flexibility. It can bend to the typhoon winds to survive. Those that are strong can break. Multiple experience gives many angles in which to act in the world. That survival instinct is part of this indigenous aspect. We have this expression, “leave it to the heavens.” It’s not a fatalistic thing, it’s a spiritual level for things to happen at the last moment.
BG: Things changed over the time in filming?
KT: It was a convenient ritual to wear the G-string to be the primitive slave against the over-dressed European. It was an easy cliché. I was born in Baguio, which was a key station when America first colonised the Philippines—itself a crucial colony. Every summer, they were so surprised by how hot it was in Manila. They saw that the Spanish and the Dutch in Indonesia had hill stations, and they found one in Baguio up in the mountains. It was nice all year. As a result of the cosmic delays in finishing the film, my wife and I had become very much involved in indigenous conferences. I also moved to the village that you see in the village. My immersion made me better understand the significance of customs and culture, things like the G-string. Today, we’re quoting a lot of angles to tell Enrique’s story and express his indigenous self.
BG: You were also helped by technology—the shift from 16mm film to cell phones and digital technology.
TK: The technological change was part of the process. Seeing my son play with videos, I now play with video cameras. It helped get it to the finish line. I had to resort to shooting [on the fly]. Sometimes you can just get stuck on technology making the process easier. People will teach you make sure your texture is beautiful from first to last shot, but whichever medium I could use to get over the finish line, I didn’t mind.
BG: How is Magellan viewed in the Philippines compared to Lapu-Lapu?
TK: That’s the funny thing about the Philippines. We still have many places in our cities named after American presidents or generals, and so in a way Magellan as a [hero] started in the Philippines. That was my worry. In 2021, with the 500-year anniversary… is anybody going to talk about the slave? How is Lapu-Lapu regarded in relation to Magellan? Those are issues I’m trying to raise. Let’s not worry about Magellan. The nationalists probably see Lapu-Lapu as someone who defied colonial domination, but for most people, they know Magellan as the discoverer of the Philippines. But how could Magellan discover the Philippines when people were [already] there?
BG: I haven’t seen your other work, but with Lav Diaz’s reputation on the festival circuit, are you proud of your role in helping Filipino cinema finding its international voice?
TK: They call me the father of independent cinema in the Philippines. I was about 30 years before Lav Diaz, and if it was reverse, he’d be the father. It helped that my first film Perfumed Nightmare did well. People talk about “third cinema”. I don’t really understand it from an ideological sense, but I made Perfumed Nightmare as my own liberation from the cultural stranglehold that American culture had on the Philippines. It’s not anti-American per se, but anti- why is all of our curriculum based on American universities? My filmmaking has maybe inspired a lot of young filmmakers who realise they don’t need a formula, they don’t need sex and violence. A lot of young people come and talk to me, and ask me for my secrets, and I tell them I don’t have any secrets. I don’t have any technological advice. But I can tell you how you don’t have to follow the Hollywood formula. I can encourage you to find your own view, nurture it, give it a lot of TLC, and then let it tell the story, don’t let the producer tell the story. Don’t start copying frame by frame or sequence by sequence. We were colonised for centuries, so it’s difficult. Philippines spent three and a half centuries in the convent and 50 years in Hollywood. There’s a copycat culture. We have something better to offer you with our own stories and our own directors. The world isn’t waiting for Star Wars 25, Indiana Jones 238, or Men in Black 11,000. It’s your own story.
Every festival I’ve brought an installation. I don’t want to be boxed in as a filmmaker, so I bring this portable installation. It’s a woodcarving of two goddesses of the wind. In my film I make wood carvings. The local goddess of the wind, the story goes she was weaving, and she clung and survived when it blew, and she became the goddess of typhoons. During a typhoon, people pray to her, “please spare us.” The other is the goddess of the wind of Hollywood, Marilyn Monroe. They’re juxtaposed with each other. There’s a third, and that’s the filmmaker. And there’s a choice: do I make a blockbuster and make a lot of money, or do I tell a local story, which deserves to be told? I play with that and hope young independent filmmakers will be inspired.
“Balikbayan #1: Memories of Overdevelopment” screened in Auckland and Wellington at the New Zealand International Film Festival. Kidlat Tahimik was a guest of the festival.