The Great Cosmic Detour

On the writings of Kidlat Tahimik


When Kidlat Tahimik was named as one of the recipients of the Prince Claus Awards in 2018, I felt two contradictory reactions when I was asked to write a short biographical note about him for the Nikkei Asian Review. On one hand, for a filmmaker who has produced mostly unbankable films–no stars, low budget, thirteen years to release–the occasion was certainly a rare opportunity to boost his international profile from a cineaste’s best kept secret to an enduring figure of Third World cinema and the personal essay film. On the other, I thought that an artist who is offered a Prince Claus Award might well think twice before accepting since it is given to an artist who work in regions stifled by a lack of resources or opportunities for cultural expression. Resources and opportunities for filmmakers are certainly hard to come by in a poor country like the Philippines and my slight hesitation at writing a biographical note was borne out of a lamentation that the country that kicked out a dictator through a peaceful revolution on the year I was born, is fast declining into another authoritarian regime, thus garnering the attention of the award-giving body.

            I was with a group of college friends in 2008 when I first met Kidlat Tahimik in his vegetarian cafe Oh My Gulay! (Oh My Vegetables!) in Baguio City, once a hill station for American soldiers and diplomats where he was born at the onslaught of World War II. The place was about to close for the night when the figure of a man with white long hair emerged from a dark corner. Kidlat Tahimik is what you would imagine Gandalf would look like if he lived in the tropics. When I approached to shake his hand, I noticed that he has carrying a book in his arm. Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War. Naturally, our conversation revolved around the book and how the Philippines has been in a permanent state of war and political crisis. Somehow most people, especially those who come from countries that award the Prince Claus Fund and the Nobel Prize, think when they encounter artists like Kidlat Tahimik, that it is precisely a state of war and political crisis that refines genius and keeps artists productive.

            I argued, inside my head, as I wrote the biographical note, that it is despite, and not because, of turmoil that Third World countries abound in creative talent. Four centuries of colonial subjugation has torn our connection to the past and left the Philippines scrambling for what it may call its own after losing much of its history to colonial gaslighting. The arts has been the greatest weapon to reclaim that past if not imagine it back to life. And film, which came around the same time we declared independence from Spain in 1896, has been instrumental in visualizing a nation that would emerge from the long dark years of colonization. Philippine film culture began with the Lumiere Cinematograph that showed documentaries at the turn of the century; its first indigenously-produced feature film, a drama entitled Dalagang Bukid (Country Maiden) directed by Jose Nepomuceno was released in 1919.

            An American colony for close to fifty years, the Philippines saw the emergence of an indigenous film industry modelled after Hollywood. Philippine movies aped Hollywood fare, from silent movies to the costume dramas, musicals and westerns of the so-called Golden Age, when a handful of studios presided over the production, distribution and exhibition of an indigenous cinema even as the government kept an open door policy to film imports. The Golden Age, then, is a highly problematic term. Although Philippine cinema gave the appearance of a highly coordinated and mature studio system with some prestige productions gaining distribution in international markets as far as Bangkok and Rome, local films actually played second fiddle to foreign films even within domestic theaters.

            The industry norm of copying the latest Hollywood hit remained in place until Kidlat Tahimik, then an unknown Filipino filmmaker made Mababangong Bangungot (Perfumed Nightmare), which won the International Critic’s Prize in the Berlin Film Festival in 1977. Tahimik was followed by young filmmakers who founded experimental film festivals and distanced themselves from the traditions of mainstream cinema. This independent film movement which lasted until the close of the millennium raged against a moribund Philippine cinema which produced mostly Die-Hard style action movie rehashes and softcore pornography. Though it did not dismantle the hegemony of commercial and foreign films, it certainly posed a challenge, one that is currently being contested by a revitalized independent film circuit.

            Kidlat Tahimik whose name roughly means Quiet Thunder, cleared another path for filmmakers so that their creations would be appreciated and studied.  Not only did Perfumed Nightmare steal the thunder from Hollywood, it showed the possibility of using film as an emancipatory medium. This artistic vision is as clear in his writings as they are in his films. He lectures at the University of the Philippines, speaks at various conferences, and contributes articles written in a mix of Tagalog and English to national dailies. Through these various extra-filmic engagements, he has articulated the possibility for cinema to exist outside the prevailing system controlled by Hollywood imports. His first writings published in the United States came out in 1986, and it is gratifying reflection of a Filipino filmmaker who has been accorded well-deserved recognitions in an age notorious for rewarding the conventional forms that govern marketable mediocrity. I have seen eight more of Tahimik’s films that have appeared in special screenings and film festivals. The constant recognitions, no doubt, encouraged programmers to keep his films in theaters.

            In a journal article entitled “Cups-of-Gas Filmmaking vs. Full Tank-cum-Credit Card Filmmaking,” an essay by Tahimik that he presented at “The Challenge of the Third World” conference hosted by Duke University in September of 1986, he declares that much of his filmmaking is left up to chance and believes that his “lack of resources can become a blessing because his time frame escapes this deadline obsession, and allows him to discover motifs.” By choosing not to profit from Perfumed Nightmare’s success after his film debuted at the Berlin Film Festival in 1977, Tahimik established his dedication to a filmmaking style that often works without a script and resists commercial modes of movie production, a decision that he writes is “partly a necessity dictated by Third World realities and partly a choice to avoid the formulas dictated by bankrollers” who finance studio production in Hollywood. After Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope picked up Perfumed Nightmare for screening at the James Agee Cinema in New York, he invited Kidlat Tahimik to make another feature film with the assistance of better production and editing facilities. Tahimik initially took on the invitation but felt alienated even within an innovative art house production company like Zoetrope. He was pursuing a kind of filmmaking that was radically mischievous. This is clearly evident in Tahimik’s stylistic signatures: haphazard editing, dubbing over footages, layering bilingual dialogue that often resulted in humorous clashes of discourse between Tagalog and English. It was clear to him that he didn’t want to be a big shot filmmaker, not in Hollywood (that goes for both the commercial and art house circuits). He just wanted to make his own movies according to his own rules and schedule, that necessitated and permitted him to speak to and be embedded in his indigenous culture.

            In his acceptance message upon receiving the Fukuoka Prize in 2012, Tahimik said, “Many people think I’m an eclectic filmmaker, but I’m really a holistic artist and a cultural observer.” With a sense of retrospective despair and grateful relief that he was finally getting recognized, he added, “The award is a chance to tie things together.” The same could be said of this publication that compiles his writings. In the same speech, he recounted a writers’ conference in the US where he first met Japanese novelist,  Kenzaburo Oe. “He invited me to take a walk in the park. He said, ‘Tahimik-san. You are Kurosawa of Philippines.’ ‘But Kurosawa is a perfectionist!’ I protested knowing my film is so imperfect. ‘Tahimik-san, your works open windows. Kurosawa films open windows to the Japanese soul. Films open windows to the cosmos.’ Tahimik quipped, “I did not know what he meant.” The line is a rhetorical move of studied self-depreciation that is consistent in both his films and his writings.

            What is astonishing about Tahimik’s eleven films is that unlike other filmmakers from the Third World, he seems not to have needed to experiment to discover the forms that would embody his personal style of filmmaking, for he hit upon his own unique vision with the very first one, Perfumed Nightmare. From the start, he established a singular voice and style and then proceeded to sustain his method through ten succeeding films without the voice ever losing its freshness and the style its distinctive power. He says that “it is perhaps because I am tracking the two worlds of scriptfull scholars and scriptless tribal people […] a kind of cosmic detour that has allowed me to rediscover my Asianness.” 

            Kidlat Tahimik began interrogating his neo-colonial identity while pursuing an MBA at Wharton. In an interview for a local business TV channel, he recalls: “I passed all my exams but it felt like something that I just had to do. My heart was not in it”. After five years as an economist in Paris, he tore up his MBA diploma in 1972, and joined a commune in East Germany, and embraced the anti-Hollywood school of filmmaking. He returned to the Philippines in 1975.

            While other filmmakers develop their style as they amass a corpus of work, Tahimik instead began with a big bang. He is like a composer whose ninth symphony has a strict structural resemblance to the first, and yet the variation in the orchestration and the new sources of melodies drawn mostly from the collective memory of a people. Tahimik writes about a time when he showed a rough edit of his film to Werner Herzog. He recalls how the latter was surprised and said, “Ah, Kidlat, you are best at your detours. Your cosmic surprises make your film most interesting and crazy.”

            Each of Tahimik’s films has a thematic core based on an intellectual premise or some historical fact or on an outrageous but surprisingly credible proposition—as in Memories of Overdevelopment, in which Tahimik based his tale upon historical records according to which Magellan is said to have bought a slave as an interpreter during his initial landing on the “Spice Islands” in the Malay Archipelago in Malacca and christened him Enrique de Malacca. When Magellan was killed in 1521 by the tribal chief Lapu-Lapu, Magellan granted Enrique freedom in his will; there are no further reports about his subsequent life thereafter.

            Tahimik, concludes in his writings about the film, that because of Enrique’s multilingualism that he must have been originally from the island of Cebu and that he had come to Malacca, where Magellan bought him, either as an immigrant or as a slave, hence the central conceit of the film’s narrative: when Enrique eventually returned to the place of his birth, he became the first person to circumnavigate the globe.

            With some mischievous interpolations revised by Tahimik, the film ends up having little to do with the fictions of history and everything to do with the timeless verities associated with transnational suffering and the human cost mindlessly expended by the vanity of European imperialism. As juror at the Philippine independent film festival, he echoes this lesson when he issued a strong statement for young cineastes to “slay the cultural father” (Hollywood movies) by filming their local story.

            Kidlat Tahimik has talked and written about the “Sariling Duende,” which is the imaginative invention of reality that is truer than what is easily perceived by the senses, but is often subsequently discredited. This process of “introspection on celluloid strips” is his way of digging out creative power buried in the “education” process.  In the earlier mentioned conversation with Tahimik at his vegetarian cafe, I recall this to be the most striking account of the duende: that it is another version of yourself trapped inside the body that you have lost as you grew up, and it has the capacity to see intentions. It fuels relationships, collects the wills from the people that then powers anything that you create.

            The conversation is one of the most memorable and serendipitous in my formation as a young writer. Tahimik is both magical and wholly credible without being another mechanical reformulation of magical realism or folkloristic shamanism. His words cut through as a metaphorical ascendance of truth that one experiences even when overwhelmed by the day-to-day realities of globalization. The duende could easily be a character straight out of Perfumed Nightmare, a creature that is sacred, but filled with pagan bliss.

            Though Perfumed Nightmare is a delightful introduction to his work, a cineaste new to Tahimik could start with his personal essays and become charmed by the voice and be captivated by his style. While his images retain their peculiar force, Tahimik’s paratextual writings make the meaning of his films more apparent and personal especially since they speak to his people, his ideal audience. His speeches, such as those delivered for the funeral services for his friends–and there have been several in recent years–read like narration in his films that are long but uncomplicated. In his later writings, Tahimik has taken to terse recollections of moments in his life. The blanks and pauses have become more pregnant, that one almost hears another voice speaking in between. Despite the gaps, the whole seems perfectly natural, as if one sat across the table from Tahimik, hearing him tell the story and having the impression that he is talking to himself.  Tahimik has written in one of his essays that he sharpened his focus on “breaking out of the colonial cocoon” through passionate debates with his mother, Virginia Oteyza.

            Sometimes the core idea of a Tahimik film generates imaginative and historical content by combining two realities, that of an abstract puzzle posited by an intellectual hypothesis and that of an observed concrete world in which the story advances. This is best exemplified by Why is Yellow at the Middle of the Rainbow, in which “yellow” refers to the color that was to become the standard color of protests against the Marcos regime. Completed in 1994, this prototype of the never-ending documentary film, was actually compiled from several essays that had previously set the tone and direction for the shorter works that Kidlat Tahimik later produced. Instead of the plot-based works from the late 70s and early 80s, what now emerges are episodic and no longer narrative-driven movies, which assembled associative essays drawing upon everyday events, family scenes, random observations and travel documentaries.

            In the essays that make the film, the personal is political, and both are equally significant: the assassination of the Philippine opposition leader Ninoy Aquino which triggered protests against the regime of the dictator Marcos, and the story of Tahimik’s hometown Baguio, as well as his sons growing up, Tahimik’s attendance at an American film festival and the natural disasters that regularly devastate the Philippine archipelago. Tahimik can engage the reader in a perception that is simultaneously authentic and duplicitous, a reality that dissolves in the very moment it is seen to be solid: these elements pull the narrative towards the telling of old-fashioned tall tales. His later writings, most prominently the speech he gave when he was elevated to the Order of National Artists, marks a consciousness of his deeper engagement with the indigenous communities. In that speech, his narrative suddenly shifts to the expression of transcendental ideas, like entering a wormhole into a strange world where everything can be misconstrued. Tahimik writes in the book Philippine New Wave, “My best friend always mispronounced the word ‘indigenous.’ He’ll say ‘indigenius.’ I would always call it a cosmic mispronunciation. The genius of the indigenous culture is still within us. We just have to recognize it, and let it flow out.”

            The premise of Memories of Overdevelopment has been articulated in advance of its premiere during his retrospective at the Berlin Arsenale in 2016 through several of Tahimik’s interviews, in which he recounts how his life and work constitute a great cosmic detour from the world order. Tahimik writes that his words “offer another interpretation” of his films.  The possibility of some latent contradiction, an evident plot outside his intention, promise for both his reader and audience an uncanny exclusive interpretation. In compiling his written essays, speeches, and lectures, one discerns a lifelong political position as an anti-imperialist, anti-Hollywood and pro-indigenous advocate. He once expressed apprehension at being labeled as part of the Third Cinema movement because his politics were not as ideologically aligned as others included in the list but his writings prove this to be a mere refusal to be categorized. I am certain that with their compilation, many of his critics are now left worrying if their assessment of his films were not mistaken. Tahimik’s writings results in high intellectual entertainment, with the impressive parade of ideas alternating with absorbing nostalgia, tempered by his philosophical interest. Tahimik confronts the facts of history with a curious imagination and recovers from a remote time those passions of ordinary humans that make them our contemporaries.

            In compiling his writings, we are given another look at his films refracted in the thought bubbles of his characters—mostly humble laborers and artisans—who leave behind corporate ambitions and set out for their own cosmic quests, exposed to the hazards of a treacherous capitalist world because, compared to an urban graveyard of broken dreams, any life is preferable in which the voice of the duende can still be heard.

Geronimo Cristobal
December 05, 2019
Ludlow St., New York

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