DIWA Filipino Film Showcase
Imagining the Second Province
First-person documentary cinema and diasporic Filipinx history
42 years ago, as a roll of 16mm film unraveled in front of a projector, an image showed on the screen at the other side of the room. It was of a former economist-turned filmmaker pulling a colorful sort of bus-jeep hybrid across a bridge in rural Philippines, as his asynchronous voice declared: “I am Kidlat Tahimik. I choose my vehicle, and I can cross all bridges!”
In this, his film, entitled Mababangong Bangungot, or Perfumed Nightmare, he wove autobiographical found footage together into a coherent narrative through a voiceover, developing his own style of documentary filmmaking that wasn’t as interested in disseminating facts as it was in sharing deeper truths.
Filmmaker Alisa Lebow would later call this kind of cinema the ‘first-person film’, which according to her is first and foremost about a mode of address: “these ﬁlms ‘speak’ from the articulated point of view of the ﬁlmmaker who readily acknowledges her subjective position” (Lebow 1). This exploratory essay is a general overview of first-person filmmaking as utilized by the Filipinx diaspora. Starting with Kidlat Tahimik, we’ll go through the years to look for a number of examples of this unique genre of documentary cinema, and try to figure out why it is so relevant to diasporic Filipinx.
Mababangong Bangungot (Perfumed Nightmare, 1977) by Kidlat Tahimik
Kidlat Tahimik was a Wharton-trained economist who found filmmaking (and the love of his life) in a hippie commune in Germany. But film technology back then was expensive. Back then, there were two different sets of equipment for film and sound, and both were costly to rent. So he shot his footage in cheaper 16mm film and without sound, and did the voiceover later in post. But what started as a logistic limitation actually became a style aesthetic that freed him from the burden of narrative. He shot whatever he could and edited them with a voiceover to construct a story afterwards. The story was of a small town jeepney driver who wanted to first go to the big city, then abroad, to find his fortune. As he brings his jeepney from the Philippines to Paris and Germany, he retraces his own life’s footsteps. The film’s central image becomes the jeepney, an American vehicle of war that the Filipinos made into a vehicle of life. Just as Filipinos picked up scraps and pieces of war jeeps and refashioned them into jeepney buses, Kidlat Tahimik picks up scraps of footage and refashions it into his film. Until today, diasporic Filipinx filmmakers endeavor to craft something true from these scraps of culture made available to them.
Tahimik made his film at the height of the Marcos dictatorship, and Kidlat’s everyman in search of the American dream paralleled the huge wave of emigration at the time due to both political and economic reasons. But after the peaceful People’s Power Revolution toppled the Marcoses in February 1987, would these expats come back to help rebuild the nation?
Revolutions Happen Like Refrains In A Song (1987) by Nick Deocampo
was a documentation of the People’s Power Revolution and its aftermath. Through the film, Deocampo asked: “did the revolution really change people's lives? One year after the revolution, I visited the past to find out that life was not like movies with happy endings” Revolutions Happen Like Refrains In A Song,Born into a poor family in the Visayas, Nick Deocampo moved to Manila in the 1980s to teach film. He and his students used Super-8mm film to make underground documentary and experimental films that explore what it truly meant to live in the Philippines under Martial Law. One of these films, entitled (Deocampo). With the revolution being incomplete, the impetus to continue documenting his own life and the lives of others goes on.
His contributions to the documenting and supporting the nationalist project gave him the opportunity to go abroad and meet with filmmakers and film scholars from other countries who were also involved in the Third Cinema movement, a chapter in his life that he also documented in his film:
“With what records I had of the once forbidden images of the realities in our country, and a modest coverage of the revolution in my Super-8 films, I saw myself traveling to other countries. A spirit of freedom followed me in Berlin, Paris, Frankfurt, and other European cities… I stood tall among legendary people: Fernando Birri, father of the new Latin American cinema, Laura Mulvey of Great Britain, B. Ruby Rich of America… But being away from home made me alienated. Sitting in Berlin to feel the sun was different from sitting in Manila, enjoying the same sun. In Paris, I could not look at every rue and alley without remembering Manila, its narrow streets and tight passageways. It was hard to forget that which one had learned to understand and have loved so much. It was not just the place that was hard to get, it was also the people. I look at faces here; they were cordial, friendly, but they didn’t have meaning. A smile could be any smile; a look, any look. I longed for the warmth of Manila…” (Deocampo)
We see through Deocampo that the diaspora is not just a pulling away from the motherland. Through his experience abroad, Deocampo felt Rizal’s “specter of comparisons”. He was abroad, and yet, Manila and the Philippines was still in his heart. Indeed, the affective impact of nationalism may be felt more strongly when one is away, and experiencing the diaspora may amplify one’s patriotic feelings. Deocampo would go on to become an influential academic of Philippine independent cinema and remains in Manila to this day. But for some, going back to the motherland may not be an option.
Bontoc Eulogy (1995) by Marlon Fuentes
Marlon Fuentes was born and grew up in Manila during the Marcos regime. He lost his father at a young age and witnessed a close friend being murdered by the military during an anti-Marcos demonstration. He moved to Philadelphia in 1975 to study film and video, and is now a visual artist based in L.A. He says that making art is a way to deal with the constant state of being stuck in two cultures: a Philippine motherland that was fading from his memory, and a new American home where the mundaneness of raising a family has become more real and tangible. He uses this film to trace Filipinx diasporic genealogy way back to a flashpoint in the colonial history of the Philippines: the St. Louis Fair, when the Americans brought hundreds of indigenous Filipinos to Missouri to exhibit their new subjects. Utilizing archival footage he got from the Library of Congress, he turns the colonial gaze of the ethnographic film over its head by layering over it the narration of his fictional grandfather named Markod of the Bontok people. At the same time, he utilizes first person filmmaking techniques to question the myth of objectivity.
Filipino nationalism, based upon America, fully buys into the myth of objectivity, that Filipino history runs progressively across “empty, homogenous time”, as Walter Benjamin would say. It sees a seemingly objective “Philippine picture”, thinking (as the Americans did) that the nation can be quantified, measured, and contained within the frame of the image. Diasporic Filipinos, however, acquire the chance and the privilege to look behind the curtain (or behind the camera?) Seeing the Philippines from the American perspective, but also seeing America from a Filipino perspective. This “double-vision”, or as Jose Rizal would say it, the “Demon of Comparison”, can simply regress into nostalgia, as Fuentes seemed to do in the beginning of the film. But it can ultimately be redemptive. One sees the artifice of the image, the single-mindedness of the “world picture”. Image is only as powerful as one imagines it to be. Hence, we can play with image, make fun of it through story, as Fuentes did. In reality, Fuentes never had a grandfather named Markod who was part of the St. Louis World’s Fair. In a fabricated interview with Marlon Fuentes, he said that
As a filmmaker who wanted to explore history in a personal way, I found ethnographic film presented a stylized and codified syntax that in certain ways preempted content. I wanted to participate in the discourse of ethnographic representation by using and appropriating the idea of the "native filmmaker"... My goal was to create a story from the bits of information I could unearth here in the United States, without going back to the Philippines... Thus I consciously confined myself to the materials available in archival sources such as the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian. Fortunately, some interesting "salvage footage" existed in these archives (Fuentes 119-120)
Some may classify Bontoc Eulogy as a “mockumentary”, but this seems too simplistic a label. “Self-reflexive film” might be a more apt title. Certainly the images presented in the film are undoctored and authentic. Certainly the St. Louis Exposition happened and the exploitation of a thousand Filipinos occurred. But by revealing the artifice and constructed-ness of the narrative surrounding the images, Fuentes points out at the very constructed-ness of the American image of the Philippines. By showcasing a truth claim that is false (i.e. Markod was my grandfather and he participated in the World’s Fair), he also reveals the falseness of American history’s truth claims, and the fragility of history. As Fuentes himself said in his imaginary interview, “History is really an art of memory. The gaps and ellipses are just as important as the materials we have in our hands” Bontoc EulogySome may classify By deconstructing the ethnographic film, he begins to question the myth of authenticity, and lays the groundwork for a diasporic genealogy passed down from his fictional ancestors to future generations.(Fuentes 120).
Todo Todo Teros (2006) by John Torres
Birthed by the digital revolution, the Philippine New Wave was a jubilant cry for artistic freedom. Filmmaking was no longer the realm of mainstream studios that had the budget to produce films. We could make films about what we want, not about what is marketable. The smaller and lighter digital cameras meant we could bring them anywhere and shoot anything while escaping the bureaucratic redtape of location permits and consent forms. Guerilla filmmaking was utilized, not only as a style but as a philosophy. And yet, it also had echoes of previous technological revolutions: Deocampo’s underground Super-8 films, and Tahimik’s 16mm films before that.
In his own words, Torres was a sheltered and spoiled kid who had a rude awakening during the Asian Financial Crisis when his family went deep in debt. He had a hard time coping with what was happening, and found solace in shooting footage with his family’s small video camera. He was discovered by other indie filmmakers at an independent film festival called MovFest. Together, they collaborated and helped each other with their projects. Torres was invited to the Berlinale in 2005, where he shot everyone and everything to create Todo Todo Teros. Combining found footage in Berlin with those in Manila, he constructs a loose narrative of a border-crossing, two-timing filmmaker-turned terrorist. Torres documents a time of his life when he was in a committed relationship with someone back in the Philippines, but upon arrival in Berlin, falls in love with handler and tour guide. His liaison becomes a metaphor for the inbetween-ness of the diasporic Filipinx, uncertain of whether to stay loyal to the homeland, or to move on and adapt to their new country. In an interview, John Torres states that:
I was being drawn [to] an outsider, and I believed that I was really committed to this person. But then I saw how I acted behind the camera. As you see, as you could hear, my voice was being very intimate with the subject, with the person in front of the camera. Terorismo and Eros, terrorism and love: how you become a terrorist with the people you love (APA).
This was, of course, the world after 9/11, and the War on Terror and increased border surveillance had restricted the global movement of Filipinos. In a way, Torres also saw this new generation of guerilla filmmakers as freedom fighters disrupting the status quo. In the same interview:
Even just having mostly a Filipino audience [at the screening], I think it's really, really good for me, especially in that they're living here, outside the country. It's a big chance for me to tell them how things are going in the country, even if it's just on the surface a love story. It talks about a lot of things political, economic, social (APA).
Queer Transnational Love in the Time of Social Media and Globalization (2017)
I could definitely relate to Torres’ sentiment. I started playing around with the first person filmmaking genre in 2006, not knowing that it already had this rich history for some time. Through it, I documented my relationships, as well as my diasporic journey from Manila, to Chicago, to Seattle, and now to Honolulu. In my last film, Queer Transnational Love in the Time of Social Media and Globalization, I reflected upon my queer identity as it intersected with a transnational, or long-distance relationship I had a few years ago, unraveling the social and political issues that queer Filipinx migrants encounter here and elsewhere in the world. But more important than the film itself was the community that we began to build. As we filmmakers traveled around the world from festival to festival, meeting the Filipino communities in each city, we were also beginning to create a diasporic network of filmmakers and film enthusiasts, through which a shared community can begin to be imagined. And I was not only a filmmaker, I also became a film festival organizer. As more filmmakers share their stories, small, community-driven film festivals such as San Francisco-based FACINE (Filipino International Cine Festival), the longest-running Filipino film festival in the US, New York-based Sinehan sa Summer, and the one I organize, the Diwa Filipino Film Showcase of Seattle, strive hard to locate the Filipinx spirit in the community, wherever they may be.
When asked about what the title of her 2017 narrative film was referring to, filmmaker Zorinah Juan said that “The Second Province signifies placing roots in a home that is not your first… It is a feeling of belonging to both and neither at the same time. The ever-present knowledge that I am not of one province but of two; never quite being able to settle on which one is first in my bones.” I feel that these films from the diaspora have picked up from this diasporic, oceanic point of view that “provincializes” the two poles of the Philippines and “abroad”. There are many more films that need to be discussed, and as I write this I also realize I’ve only been featuring mainly works about cisgender males, leaving out half of the narrative of the Filipinx diaspora. I would like to believe this is not due to ignorance, but perhaps due to the observation that it was only in the past decade or so (during the digital revolution) that women Filipinx filmmakers began embracing the first person filmmaking medium. Off the top of my head, I could name Adjani Arumpac, Carla Ocampo, Lauren Faustino, Joella Cabalu, Gail Gutierrez, and the aforementioned Zorinah Juan. Their works are innovative, experimental, and touching, perhaps more so than the ones featured in this article.
I believe this multitude of films, this multitude of voices, is important. When taken individually, these tiny, great realities map out filmmakers’ subjective spaces and ‘situated knowledges’ within the Filipinx diaspora. But analyzed together and set in conversation with each other, they become a visual archive of diasporic Filipinx experience that looks beyond nation and state in order to more completely describe the multi-faceted nature of transcendent Filipinxness.
The diaspora is a conceptual territory. It occupies no space and yet encompasses every space. It has no sovereignty except over its body. It does not reside in empty, homogenous time, but lives in unevenly dense, heterogenous time. And diasporic history is a history where the question of authenticity no longer matters. It is the power to construct a story with the little resources you have. It is the power to share your voice to a disembodied community. It is the power to stand up and declare, “I am Adrian Alarilla. I choose my vehicle, and I can cross all bridges!”