(Note: I don’t typically double-post, or indeed triple-post, but some forms of mourning, or memorial, ought to be as wide-reaching as celebration, or an embrace. This is for the international cinema–and especially Southeast Asian cinema–critic-lovers here at Big Other, too.)
On September 1, 2009, Filipino Canadian film critic and founder of Criticine, Alexis Tioseco and his girlfriend, Nika Bohinc, were killed at home in Quezon City, “in an apparent burglary staged by three armed men who fled the scene.”
From Gang Badoy’s “Alexis, voilà (or the death of Alexis Tioseco)”:
Alexis is dead. He was murdered on the night of Sept. 1, 2009. I know this because I saw him dead. Not in the solemn way that we are accustomed to — prepared and lying in peaceful state but face down and crumpled on their kitchen floor with his girlfriend Nika Bohinc almost beside him. Nika was a respected auteur herself, hailing all the way from Slovenia. The two met at the Rotterdam Film Festival a few years ago, both fell deeply in love and built a high-powered partnership mantled in a gentle relating together.
When Alexis died almost everyone near him focused on remembering his life, celebrating his work, reveling in his love for film and passion for saving Philippine Cinema. I suppose it is normal for human beings to ask for the cause of death — in passing — and when found too difficult to stare at — we focus our pupils elsewhere. We toast to him and comfort ourselves with the illusion that it was after all “a full and good life.” It works for a few months but not for me who saw exactly how he fell, less than two hours after his murderers left (what is now known as) the crime scene.
As difficult as this is for you to read and for me to write, it needs to be said that Alexis died by violent hands. It was not clean and there was nothing graceful about what I saw. I can always use euphemisms — God knows I have been — but not today. I want to cut the ribbon of The A/V Club with truth.
The truth is Alexis was beat. He was bruised and his right hand shot. His left hand’s middle finger had something around it. I stared at it for a while, thinking it was a ring — I never remembered Alexis wearing jewelry so I had to strain and look through the blood and saw that it was his house key in a ring. He was shot while he was still holding the keys to his home.
I will never be able to describe how it is to see the crime scene investigators mosey around him with characteristic city-hall indifference. All I could do was remind them over and over to be thorough. I barked orders at many of them that night in the kitchen, so much so that after a while they started calling me “Attorney.” I would ask if they’d dusted the chair or the bottles for prints. When asked why I was allowed inside the crime scene I lied and said I was Alexis’ legal guardian and that I was a student of forensics and that they should just take my word for it. In my mind, Alexis and I had a good chuckle because he is (was?) aware that all the forensics I know is from watching CSI.
I stood guard watching over Alexis and Nika pacing around them, kneeling beside them every now and then to make sure they were comfortable — a most absurd thing given that they were already dead. I am not mincing my words now, am I? I am sorry if this disconcerts you but it is the truth. And the truth is we have to be brave enough to talk about their death. I know we have to continue remembering his life and celebrating his life’s work — but f*ck — shouldn’t he be living it instead? Tonight I am angry. I am sad. I am resolved. And then I want to forever look the other way. I want to forget but I need to remember. There are reasons.
Alexis and Nika were murdered and today, over six months after, there is still no progress on the case. His sisters and brothers, our shared good friend Erwin Romulo and I have wrestled through administrative meetings with the police, a general, the former Secretary of Justice Agnes Devanadera, you’d think with all our connections we’d get somewhere — still nothing. The courtesy calls to the heads of these departments were hell. We’ve witnessed the Forensics Department go antsy when they found out we consulted a private forensics expert, the big title game — and the delay of releasing documents because of red tape and ego. All hell. All hell to all the players in this game as I cling on to my childhood belief that both my friends are in heaven.
Between 2006 and 2009, as long-time readers of this space know, I was in the throes of deep mourning over my father’s death, as well as the throes of severe illness (how is grief an illness? how is illness a physiological manifestation of grief?). And for those three years, I neither read nor wrote anything, or almost anything–indeed, refused outright, to read or write anything, as in October 2010 I wrote in one of my first [PANK] columns two years ago (has it really already been two years?), “A FAILED ESSAY ON GRIEF, SICKNESS, ANTI-WRITING/ANTE-WRITING, WOUNDS, CIXOUS, PHILOCTETES, DÉBROUILLARDES, AUNG SAN SUU KYI, ON KAWARA, KANYE WEST, JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE, BARTHES’ MOURNING DIARY AND QUEER GHOSTS IN CONTEMPORARY R&B; IN THE FORM OF AN INTERRUPTED LETTER TO A DEAD PARENT”. During those three years, I completely abandoned the book I had started when my beloved was still in the world; untaught myself of reading; untaught myself of learning; untaught myself of living anywhere but in the wound; living in the wound, and not the world. I do live in the world now, though, I think. I admit I’m not always sure.
During those three years, despite neither reading nor writing, I did, however, watch movies. (I also watched awful-fantastic Japanese television and variety shows like VS Arashi and Bistro Smap, though the latter is a classic; the episode with Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai–of course, one of my great cinematic loves and alter-egos–is particularly good; I think they were there to promote Confession of Pain.)
And so: I watched and re-watched a lot of films. In particular, a lot of Asian films. In particular, a lot of Filipino films. Many of the films I watched on Youtube, where they had been illegally uploaded; this, just before the Google merger, which happened in 2006 and gradually transitioned Youtube into the advertising-machine it is today. It was a strange time to be watching films on Youtube; as I was watching, sometimes a part of a video would disappear, or would have its sound removed for copyright violation, and this would happen in the middle of watching, such that certain films I began and couldn’t finish; certain parts of certain films remain sonic lacunae for me, because the audio had been deleted. There are holes in my experiences, holes in my memories (not least of all because some of the films were not subtitled, or had subtitles in languages I didn’t speak or spoke badly, like the Italian subtitles on my file of Lav Diaz’s Melancholia, plus of course my Tagalog has its own gaps, holes, lacunae), but all of that felt fitting, at a time when I was living in the most gaping hole of my life. Today, I revisit those old Youtube accounts; many of them have been purged.
Still, I watched, or partially-watched; listened, or partially-listened to (and my memory of having watched these films remains fragmented, dreamlike, partial, blurry, as if seen through tears–which sometimes was the case; and as Wittgenstein wrote, the world is all that is the case…):
Lino Brocka’s Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang, Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag, Cain at Abel, Macho Dancer, and Insiang. I watched Ishmael Bernal’s Tisoy and Himala. I watched Gil Portes’ Merika. I watched Mike de Leon’s Kakaba Kaba Ka Ba?, Kisapmata, Itim and Batch ’81. I watched Laurice Gillen’s Kasal. I watched Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong taong walang diyos. I watched Celso Castillo’s Burlesk Queen. I watched Kidlat Tahimik’s Mababangong bangungot. I watched Raya Martin’s Autohystoria. I watched Auraeus Solito’s The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros. I watched Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis. I watched Lav Diaz’s Melancholia. I re-watched Gene Cajayon’s The Debut, and wept at the same scene I wept at when I watched the film the first time, at fifteen, in an AMC movie theatre–was it the Mercado in Santa Clara?–the scene in which Tirso Cruz sings publically to his daughter on the day of her debut. A scene I’ve never found elsewhere online; but the song Cruz sings to his daughter is “Ikaw,” which he famously sang with Nora Aunor in Guy and Pip.
Tirso Cruz serenading Nora Aunor beneath her window, strumming a guitar. As my father, who was born in 1930, told me stories of how he used to do, too. As my father sang that song, to me. Sang the words: IKAW ANG LIGAYA SA BUHAY / SA PILING MO’Y WALANG KAMATAYAN. YOU ARE THE HAPPINESS IN MY LIFE / IN YOUR PRESENCE, THERE IS NO DEATH.
Love, and a love song, can really make you believe something like that. You can actually die for the belief that in love, there is no death. A love song is a utopia because within the time-space of the love song, that belief, that promise, of the deathlessness of the beloved, the belief in and promise of the beloved-as-neverending-world–exists not only as belief or promise (here I must apologize for the the word “only”; as if a belief or promise is ever only anything–hello, the belief and the promise are two of the most radical, most subversive, most urgent philosophical and political gestures we have) but, rather, as: a fact of the world. A truth–if the word truth can be spoken. Or: a justice, if you’re a Derridean and not a Badiouian, and prefer the love of justice to the love of truth. (The choice is a false one, but that’s another essay.)
The utopic as a way of living, which is a way of loving. A film can be, can produce, this kind of radical utopia, too; not simply in literally politically progressive content, but in the very rupture that a truly committed (in another essay, I will write more about the sexiness of the politics of commitment, so wait for that) film can open up in the world. Its transgression, its subversion, being not only in the way it might expose the world we live in now, but in the way it dares to imagine the world we could live in. Film, materiality, politics, potentiality and exposure. The chemical reaction that is also a political reaction; this, too, is film. An emulsion, of the world and its potential.
Incidentally, it is this emulsive quality of truly radical film that makes me often think that the tragic genre is inherently reactionary–like, for example, the “grim realism” that mainstream film critics love to receive as Authentic Art, as Authentically Good, Authentically and Irreproachably “Political.” Bourgeois critics like that make a practice of eating up–consuming–“hopeless” works of art. Even when the perspective of the works themselves may be more than simply hopeless, such film critics can make whole careers, indeed, can dine out for years, on focusing on and thereby fetishizing those moments of hopelessness, turning them into truths about a culture, a country; this is the privilege of speaking from certain positions of authority; one’s unexamined stereotypes are taken for gospel. “Hopeless” depictions of the marginalized and minoritized, the disenfranchised and dispirited. Better yet if said films takes place in the poor global south, then your (typically white, often male) Telegraph critic really creams his complacent corduroys. And even in Shakespeare, I often find his comedies far more progressive than his tragedies. For me, the tragic more often than not stops just short of the radical, because, as Masha Tupitsyn once said: “I think the responsibility of critical or transgressive literature has to be two-fold: it should describe how and why we suffer and imagine a way out of it.”
Of films not seen on Youtube during that three-year period: my husband and I also went to watch Lav Diaz’s nine-hour Death in the Land of Encantos in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, with only a half-hour intermission in between. I think we also watched Adolfo Alix Jr.’s Adela, either the day before or the day after. During Adela‘s ending scene, the long static shot when Anita Linda weeps and weeps by the garbage-covered beach, I thought of all the films I love, which end with women weeping. Their faces. Giuletta Masina at the end of Nights of Cabiria. Yang Kuei-Mei at the end of Vive L’Amour. Chen Shiang-chyi at the end of What Time Is It There. Lee Young Ae at the end of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. And the end of one of my imaginary films, in which Ariel weeps while eating noodles for long life.
In the dark of the movie theatre, I watched Anita Linda weep. Watched Anita Linda, who in the film was older than my father was when he died. Watched Anita Linda, her face full of time, her face full of grief. Time itself being: grief. Time as experience of grief. Anita Linda, weeping. I, too, who knew time as grief: wept.
One of the few things I did read during these three years of grief was <a href=http://criticine.comCriticine, which a few weeks ago, I recommended to Jeremy, during our magical conversation in Saas Fee, on Hong Kong gangster films and Southeast Asian cinema.
So I did read, then, I realize; I read anything Alexis Tioseco wrote. His manifesto against the corrupt Metro Manila Film Festival. His interview with director Carlo Caparas, in which he was scolded and dismissed as being “young and inexperienced.” To me, grief-stricken in the Bay Area, putting myself through a crash course on Philippine cinema as a kind of coping mechanism (and obviously, as a way of seeing and hearing faces and voices that would remind me of the face and voice that I had lost, the face and voice I would never, will never, see again)–Tioseco was a radical and subversive force for both film criticism and cultural criticism in the Philippines, but not only in the Philippines. He engaged in (and demanded of others) a film criticism that was itself also a cultural criticism, urgently calling for a decolonized, de-corporatized, de-commodified Philippine cinema. In his blog, Tioseco, quoting a passage from Chinua Achebe’s “Colonialist Criticism,” wrote that it was “in the spirit of [Achebe’s] challenge… that Criticine was started”:
My people speak disapprovingly of an outsider whose wailing drowned the grief of the owners of the corpse. One last word to the owners. It is because our own critics have been somewhat hesitant in taking control of our literary criticism (sometimes – let’s face it – for the good reason that we will not do the hard work that should equip us) that the task has fallen to others, some of whom (again we must admit) have been excellent and sensitive. And yet most of what remains to be done can best be tackled by ourselves, the owners. If we fall back, can we complain that others are rushing forward? A man who does not lick his lips, can he blame the harmattan for drying them?
Tioseco’s love of film was also in and of itself a politics of film, an ethics of film–a politics of living, an ethics of living–in the way that love can be a revolutionary force. (Tioseco, who once wrote an essay called “Revolutions Happen Like Refrains in a Song”; this song, in my mind, always being a love song.)
Here let’s distinguish love from simple: praise, admiration, sycophancy. The love I speak of here is fiercer and starker than praise, or even support. Here I speak of radical-critique-as-love, and love-as-revolutionary force, in the way that we must fight for the survival of what we love. For the justice of what we love. To fight for a more just national cinema in the Philippines represented nothing less than a defiant form of state subversion, agitation, dissent, insurgency. And I remain certain that I am not the only one who recognized the insurrectionary force, and love, in Tioseco and Bohinc’s work.
In 2007, F. and I went to Ljubljana, Slovenia, where Nika Bohinc was from. Crazy coincidence: maybe I even passed Nika and Alexis on the street, who knows. Here are some pictures I took at the time, incredibly and inexplicably, because back then I almost never took pictures, and even now I remain fairly tentative about it, despite being supposedly a “filmmaker”:
I remember liking that car advertisement, TWINGO SLOVENIA, where the words IN LOVE were highlighted to stand out, to glow, as if from the force of the words themselves, from the force of that state, that emotion. In love.
I remember walking through the Tivoli Park, numb, still sinking and bobbing (not swimming) in my grief. Thinking that the park, or the very eerie experience of being in the park, felt like being in Resnais’ L’année dernière à Marienbad.
Last year in Marienbad. It was 2007. Only a year had passed since my father’s death. Last year, in the time of the disaster. Last year, in the space of the disaster. Thinking also of the unspoken disasters in Resnais’ film. The disaster of a year (years, really) of repressed trauma: disaster of the atomic bomb, the Nazi occupation in France, the taboo of the Algerian War.
Resnais said of Marienbad: “I was making this film at a time when I think, rightly, that one could not make a film, in France, without speaking about the Algerian war. Indeed I wonder whether the closed and stifling atmosphere of L’Année does not result from those contradictions.”
Delphine Seyrig’s nameless heroine doesn’t remember, refuses to remember, what happened last year. Maybe it didn’t happen, never happened. In 2007, I remembered, didn’t remember, couldn’t remember, couldn’t do anything but remember, what had happened the year before. But it happened. It did happen. Since the moment it happened, it’s always been happening. It’s never stopped happening.
“Laissez-moi, je vous en supplie,” Delphine Seyrig begs in the film. “Laissez-moi.” Her words are addressed to Giorgio Albertazzi, but she could have been talking to memory, or grief. As I, too, sometimes begged, to memory, or grief. Laissez-moi, je vous en supplie. Laissez-moi. The way you beg for your life, from death. Or the way you beg for your death, from life. At that time, it was nearly impossible for me to tell the difference between the two pleas. I often mistook one for the other.
Before, I wrote about how there was once a time when I wanted to write a novella of Alain Resnais’ film Muriel. What I didn’t say then was that this desire actually came to me during the three years of grief and unreading, unwriting–and so I never ended up writing this novella, and have still not written it, and will probably never be able to write it.
Delphine Seyrig, who plays the nameless woman in L’année dernière à Marienbad also plays the mother in Muriel, in which–as I wrote in that post–her son, a young French soldier in the Algerian War, comes back to his extremely haute bourgeoise life, tormented by the memory of torturing a young woman.
Benjamin Stora, in the essay, « Quand une mémoire (de guerre) peut en cacher une autre (coloniale) », says:
De nos jours, sur soixantes millions d’habitants que compte la France, six à sept millions de personnes sont donc directement concernées par la guerre d’Algérie. Ce chiffre peut paraître considérable, mais il est trompeur. Pourquoi, en effet, subsiste-t-il la sensation diffuse que le reste de la société française ne se sens pas « touché » par cette histoire coloniale? … pourquoi la guerre d’Algérie apparaît-elle toujours comme extérieure, périphérique, dans l’histoire générale de la France contemporaine?
“Muriel, ça se raconte pas,” Bernard says in the film. Literally: Muriel, that doesn’t tell itself. Which is to say: Muriel is a story that cannot be told. Muriel is the name of the Algerian girl he tortured–this, despite the fact that Muriel is not a typically Algerian name. Was it her real name, or a name he transposed onto her memory? This transposition, imposition, acting also as a displacement–a way of displacing the memory, and thus, displacing the responsibility to ever really confront that memory, and so, confront what he has done? Muriel, ça se raconte pas. Muriel, a story that cannot be told Muriel, a name that cannot be said.
In a conversation with a bourgeoise French woman, when she asks him what he’s doing, what he’s been up to, Bernard replies, in the present indicative tense: “Je reviens d’Algérie.”
He uses the present tense because he is still coming back from Algeria; because he has, in fact, never stopped coming back from Algeria. This is the time, the tense, of trauma, Resnais shows us. This is the tense of how trauma lives in the body (how trauma is tense, is a tension in the body; makes the body tense). And that time, that tense, is: the present. The time of returning, which never ends. What you can’t forget never stops coming back. Never stops being present. Never stops being a presence.
Haunting, too, takes place in the present tense. You experience what’s past–the past–as present–as presence. For haunting is nothing less than the terrifying and uncanny insistence of presence–of something not being absent more than “ordinary” objects and people are present. This not-being-absent of haunting is a presence that goes beyond mere existence or there-ness: a presence that transcends both space and time. Haunting returns. Haunting follows. When you’re haunted, it’s precisely that which cannot be absent that is more there for you, indeed more alive for you, than anything more conventionally “there” and “alive” in your life. In haunting, what you’ve lost–what other, less stricken people name as dead–is more there, more alive, more found, more present, than anything else. Than anyone else.
This is what it is, to be haunted. Not to have lost someone, but to be unable to lose someone, unable to know or feel your loss as loss. But rather, to feel that loss as its seeming opposite; as an unignorable existence, an existence as insistence. An irruption, interruption, interpellation, in the normal world of the normally living. In haunting, you are interpelled by your loss-as-not-loss. You are intermediated by your (not) loss, and intermediate in your (not) loss. You are between worlds. You are mediated (sometimes, in haunting, you become possessed; you become a medium.) You are inter: between, in the middle of, in the guts of, entera, intestines. When you’re being haunted, you know it in your gut. You feel it in your gut.
When you’re being haunted, you feel your presence in the world, your “life” (which can now only be referred to in quotation marks, tentatively, uncertainly) as a trembling among-ness: no separation between you-as-living and others-as-dead; between one realm and another; between one life and another. Between one death (the other’s) and your death (which is always, in a ghost film, imminent, a menace, a haunting-to-come; either the ghost will come for you, too–unfinished business–or you, in your grief, will follow the ghost–also unfinished business). When you’re haunted, you are inter alia: among other things. Indeed, you, as the haunted, are an other thing. You, too, become one of the other things. Are you alive or dead? Do you know the difference? Is that difference something you know? Or is it something you feel? Something you live, as if living in a fissure, a cut, a wound, in time and space.
To be haunted. To be unable to let someone go. Unable to be let go of by someone, even if they’re gone. The not-goneness of the gone. In haunting, the present–the presence–feels like it’s everywhere. It feels like it could go on forever. And this endurance of the present, of presence, is at once utterly unbearable, and also: your only consolation. The only way survival can even be imaginable, or tolerable. At least I have my haunting, I would think (I sometimes still think). At least I have that.
In French, the title of Resnais’ film is actually: Muriel, ou le temps d’un retour. Muriel, or the time of a return.
SA PILING MO’Y WALANG KAMATAYAN
IN YOUR PRESENCE THERE IS NO DEATH
Now, you all know how I love letters, the epistolary, and especially love letters. The erotics-ethics-politics of the love letter. The erotics-ethics-politics of the apostrophic. Of the You. The you-of-justice, who is also the beloved you.
Alexis Tioseco wrote one of the greatest love letters to his girlfriend Nika Bohinc; a letter to his love, which remains one of the greatest love letters to cinema ever written. (See below.)
When Tioseco writes, “The first impulse of any good film critic, and to this I think you would agree, must be of love”–I hear these words as nothing less than a heartfelt call to arms.
Heartfelt: what the heart feels always being a question of politics, there at the intersection where the historical moment meets–often with violence–the feeling body.
A call to arms, then, addressed to the haunted critic-mourner-lover-revolutionary in us. A call to arms: arms to fight with, and arms to fight for. Arms of the beloved; arms of the lover. Yes. The first impulse must be love. Yes. A call to arms. The impulse and the call are the same; the impulse is the call, and the impulse is also the answer.
How will we answer this call? For the past couple of days, I’ve been trying to work on a film for the first annual London Feminist Film Festival, but I ended up writing this instead. (If there was ever any doubt that I am a writer first, and a filmmaker second…) I’ll probably end up missing the deadline. Missing the dead. Missing the line. Missing the line that separates the living from the dead. The line that separates me from the dead. Where are the dead? Where’s the line? I’m between things again. Among things again. An inter alia, again. Despite missing it (how I miss you), I know that eventually I’ll finish that film. I still have a call to answer.
How will we answer this call? I think I’m writing this essay a day early [Note: This essay was originally written and published on August 31, 2012, despite being posted here at Big Other on September 1, 2012, UK time], and posting it a day early, a day before the anniversary of Tioseco and Bohinc’s death (the haunting is always untimely, the ghost, or spectre, being untimely, just as the revolutionary is always also in some way untimely, as Derrida wrote in Specters of Marx), precisely because–I can’t wait. I can’t wait to answer this call. I can’t wait to answer, and ask these questions. The answer being a way of life, too. The answer being, how we live our lives, after.
How will we answer this call? My love, I can’t wait to be with you again. With you: in your presence, in your present, there where there is no death. I can’t wait to believe in that, again and again. I can’t wait to promise that to you, again and again. I can’t wait to hear you sing those words to me, again and again. Sa piling mo’y walang kamatayan. In your presence, there is no death. I can’t wait to be haunted, again and again. I can’t wait to be interrupted, interpellated, intermediated. Again and again. I can’t wait to be with you again. I can never wait to be with you again. I can’t wait to read these words to you. I can’t wait to read these words to you in person.
For this, like Tioseco’s letter, is “a letter I would love to read to you in person.” A letter I would love–I would love to read to you–read to you in person–a love letter–a love of reading–a love of a person–I would love to–I would love to–I would love you–I would love you–would–the conditional also being a tense, not only of the return–but of the arrival–not just you haunting me–but me coming for you–me going to you–the tense of the promise–the tense of belief–what I promise to you–what I would do for you–in this–the letter–I would love–to read–to you–in person–oh, the things I would do–if I could only–read this–to you–in person–how I would love–oh–how I would love–how I would love–my love–to read–this letter–to you–in person–
A call to the arms of love. Again and again (the time of a return; a question that returns, a question that arrives), I ask: How will we answer this call? Which arms will we take up? Whose arms will we enter? Who, or what, will we hold in our arms?
Alexis Tioseco, “Letter I Would Love to Read to You in Person,” originally published in Rogue Magazine:
My Dear Nika,
I’ve been asked to write a column for this issue of Rogue, and the topic given to me was myself. I’ve always felt it awkward to write in public spaces about personal motivations behind the work I choose to do, so I have decided to use you as an excuse: there are things that you must know, that you may sense but not understand unless I tell you, and so I shall use this opportunity to put them on paper.
Besides, how could I say no to this offer when just the other day you recalled how an essay that was written by the solicitor of this column—in a previous incarnation of this magazine—played a central role in our being together? One must pay back one’s debts . . .
When we met in Rotterdam last January there was something about you that struck me immediately. It was not your beauty, or rather, not just your beauty, but your manner of speaking: which now sixteen months later still demands so much of me. There is a precious intensity in your gestures, the way in which your eyes dart and hands reach out to grab the right word, that illustrates how strong a desire you have to communicate, especially when the conversation turns toward the things that matter to you—the integrity of your work, the importance of nature, the concern for your brother. (I know what you’re thinking—shut up! I’m not a native speaker!—but this isn’t a question of familiarity with language.)
We both did not arrive at the festival in the best of conditions: you in ill health and from the disappointment of not closing the latest issue of Ekran before leaving Slovenia (compounded by you missing your flight and multiplied by a year’s fatigue of battling for editorial independence) and I from the solitude of learning to live alone, and of not yet having come to terms with the abrupt death of my father seven months before (something which, as you know, I am still attempting to do).
I wasn’t in a very good place the months before we met, reckless and hurried in my interactions with new acquaintances, but in Rotterdam it was hard not to fight for clarity and calm when the person before you, beleaguered and weary as they were, would still refuse to let their words slip carelessly . . .
I know sometimes you may think that it was the fact that we worked in the same field that attracted me to you, but I must tell you that this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Why? Because one of the greatest joys I believe one can feel is to share that which they find beautiful with someone who otherwise wouldn’t have noticed it, and to see it appreciated. This is the main reason why I love teaching and why I refuse to show Lord of the Rings to my students (no matter how fervently my co-teachers insist). It is also the evidence that cinema isn’t what brings us nearer to each other: because in this regard, we are on equal footing, and I must instead find other things in me to share with you. For anyone who knows me, they know how difficult that is…
Does a place mean more than a person? Does my work in the Philippines mean more than the possibility of a life with you, somewhere, anywhere else?
But Rogue wants to hear about cinema! Or at least about my work and what I have done in it.
Why it means so much to me, and why I have done the things that I have. So it is about cinema that I must write! Some of this may seem like things you have heard, my dear Nika, but don’t worry, if I am successful it will all come together in the end, and you will see why it relates to you, to us, and to the future.
Allow me to begin with a story, one of which you may be quite familiar.
In 1997, my father decided that my brother Chris and I, together with my mother, should return to the Philippines (my father as you know had been going back and forth between Manila and Vancouver, never growing quite comfortable in Canada. Remind me to make you a copy of the essay “Where’s the patis?”).
We had moved to Canada in 1983, leaving the Philippines just a few months before the death of Ninoy Aquino and just a few months after my second birthday.
Like most teenagers, I was still growing comfortable in my own skin, or rather trying to, and the thought of moving to another country for my last two years of High School petrified me. I resisted: on one hand, I protested to my parents that I wanted nothing to do with a country that was so class conscious and so corrupt (though I didn’t mind going there for vacation . . . ), and on the other hand, inside, I just didn’t want to deal with attempting to infiltrate ill-fated High School social circles in a new country. I was also completely devastated about having to leave the first girl I ever slow danced with in my high school life—Melodie Pangan—who I’m sure never thought of me as anything more than a friend, but who I still called dramatically from the airport, in tears, telling her I loved her for the first time. But I digress . . .
My father seduced my brother and I with the promise of round-the-clock air conditioning and a driver to take us wherever we wanted, which admittedly made the move easier to take (so much for my 16-year old defiance of class consciousness). Both of which, as it turned, were just selling points: things he was able, but unwilling, to provide.
As you know, we are five children in my family, but only Chris and I, together with my Mom, moved back. The primary excuse for it being just he and I was that we were the two youngest, and since Chris was just preparing to enter College and I was finishing my last two years of High School, we would both be able to adjust easier. But the other reason was also that we were men and, as men in the Philippines, he had wanted to groom us to take over the family business, to help maintain what he had established, or build on top of it. The primary reason, I believe, for him wanting my mother to come back was so that Chris and I would. We had grown quite close to my Mom over the years in Vancouver, as my Dad was often away, and he knew that her agreeing to go was the key to being able to bring us back. On the part of my Mom, she was settled in Vancouver, she wasn’t comfortable having helpers live in the house, and was used to cooking and cleaning herself and looking after us. She moved back for him, because he asked her to.
Two years passed, and my mother moved back to Vancouver. She had been battling bouts of depression caused by their fights, by her lack of control of the family, and it was decided that she would go to Vancouver for a while for therapy. I didn’t know at the time that it would be for good, it was supposed to be for two months. She returned for the first time in 2006 for my father’s funeral.
My brother Chris never quite settled in the Philippines. One theory we have was that he never got to imbibe the culture in a manner deeper than gimmicks in Makati—and as a majority of his good friends were foreigners and he had no Tagalog classes, he didn’t learn the language much. The other possibility is that he just wasn’t used to living under my father’s watchful eye. He graduated from University in June of 2001, and by August he moved back to Vancouver.
The first impulse of any good film critic, and to this I think you would agree, must be of love.
What was left of my Dad’s dream—of keeping the family together in the Philippines and of one of his sons taking a keen interest in the business? Me. And just me. With less people living in it, the house had more space, and I no longer shared my room with anyone, but I felt more and more suffocated. Upon graduating with my studies directed towards business management, I began working for my father. I lasted from June to November of 2004 before admitting that I couldn’t do it any longer. I would tell you I quit. My father told relatives at family gatherings he fired me. Either story will do now; it doesn’t really matter.
“BF 2 GF’s rich dad: I wana mari ur dauter,
Dad: Do u work?
BF: Im a theology scholar.
Dad: Can u afford a weding?
BF: God wil provide.
Dad: Wat about a haus, raising a family & education of d kids?
BF: God wil provide.
Later…Mom: How’d it go dad?
Dad: D guy’s poor, & he thinks Im God!”
“BF 2 GF’s rich dad: I wana mari ur dauter,
Dad: Do u work?
BF: Im a Unvrsty Profsor nd a film critic.
Dad: Can u afford a weding?
BF: God wil provide.
Dad: Wat about a haus, raising a family & education of d kids?
BF: God wil provide.
Later…Mom: How’d it go dad?
Dad: D guy’s poor, & he thinks Im God!”
I never wanted to be a film critic. To this day I abhor using the term for myself, but I’ve begun to do so regularly, just because it makes life easier.
Many filmmakers, especially filmmakers in the Philippines, have a problem with the word critic. We have little to no culture of healthy polemics in the country, as any attempt to consider fault is taken as a personal attack. Rare are those that are able to deal with it properly. One particular filmmaker took objection to the idea of a publication that I was to edit using the title “Criticine”: he had a problem with the word critic being included. A nasty term, I suppose he thought.
The first impulse of any good film critic, and to this I think you would agree, must be of love. To be moved enough to want to share their affection for a particular work or to relate their experience so that others may be curious. This is why criticism, teaching, and curating or programming, in an ideal sense, must all go hand in hand.
The first proper review of a Filipino film that I wrote was on Lav Diaz’s Batang West Side. I knew I liked movies, had even harbored thoughts of making them at one point, and I certainly took a measure of pride in being looked to by my peers as someone whose opinion was worth seeking. But despite this, and despite the surprising satisfaction of first seeing my name in print, I never had any interest in writing film criticism in any serious way.
It was not writing the review of Batang West Side (which I was quite proud of at the time, but look at with a bit of embarrassment for its simplicity today) that changed things for me, but rather what took place before and after writing it: the complete lack of engaging, intelligent writing on the film that engaged more than just the length. (Conrado de Quiros tried, and perhaps his championing was more important than the actual text.) Batang West Side, as you now, is 5-hours long, and if you read most of the articles that I mentioned (I dare not say discussed), this would likely be all that you knew. Even Jessica Zafra, after organizing a screening of the film through her engaging-if-but-short-lived FLIP Magazine (and having commissioned an article from Lav), proceeded to make crude jokes about the film in the letters section of the succeeding issue.
I was a junior in college when the film premiered, and in the five years I had lived in the Philippines, the closest I had come to connecting with culture via cinema were a few jokes in April, May, June, a film about three sisters starring the then quite popular Alma Concepcion and maybe SPO1 Don Juan: Da Dancing Policeman, starring the great Leo Martinez. Needless to say, Batang West Side was a departure, not only in length, but in aesthetic: its rhythm, the distance from the camera to its subject, the duration in which shots were held, the construction of the discourse (equally about past as about present), and most especially in its attitude towards its audience—its stubborn refusal to give in to our inherent need for a neat ending, instead forcing us to draw our own conclusions.
I wasn’t prepared for Batang West Side. I hadn’t heard of Lav Diaz and simply attended because it was during Cinemanila, and it’s not everyday someone makes a film of that length. I was curious. The film stuck with me. Especially so as one of the first films that made me think concretely about what it meant to be Filipino, about the pitfalls of migration. Perils that, I think for the first time now as I type this, my Dad probably understood better than anyone. It’s a shame he never got to see the film.
It was now a full year after Batang West Side premiered, a good few months after I wrote the article, and still little literature was available on the film. I contacted Lav and asked if I could interview him, to which he obliged graciously. The interview ran close to an hour, and I asked him all the questions I wished others had.
Happy with the results, which ran 12 pages long and was published on the website Indiefilipino.com (may she rest in peace, how I loved her so!), I used all the prepaid credit I had to text most everyone mildly interested in cinema in my modest phonebook to plug it. Hardly any of them responded, of course, but there were notes of appreciation on Indiefilipino’s forums, and it made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
There were people, it turned out, who were interested in reading serious writing on serious cinema—it just had to be written and published somewhere accessible.
The first impulse is always one of love.
The more films I saw, specifically local independent films, the more I wanted to see. The deeper I got, the more responsibility I felt, the stronger the need to do something, to share that which I found beautiful.
Writing in English, I never felt much of a need to write about foreign (non-Filipino) movies—though I’m often asked to, and mostly of Hollywood fare. While I love cinema in general, a passion that has grown exponentially over the years, I feel no need to put myself in service of that which doesn’t need it. The feeling has always been: why write about Juno when I’ve hardly read anything incisive put to print about the great animation of Roxlee? Why write about No Country For Old Men when there’s the brilliantly charming films of Antoinette Jadaone waiting to be discovered by readers? The same held true for a stint I had reviewing films every other week on The Breakfast Show on Studio 23. The informal terms of agreement: I could review anything I wanted, local or foreign, new or old, short or long, so long as they could get clips to show. It didn’t make waves by any means—it was but a single segment on a show for viewers with ADD—but I think it meant something to some people: Kris Villarino, the Cebu filmmaker who made the short Binaliw; the group of young upstarts from Davao starting a series of filmmaking workshops that has only grown over time; or the chaotic arrangement of an entire episode on independent filmmaking (before the term was abused) in Christmas 2005 that guested Raya Martin, Khavn De La Cruz, Mes De Guzman, Roxlee, Lav Diaz, Pam Miras, and a very shy John Torres speaking about his short films in public for the first time.
One thing has slowly progressed into another and, what began as a simple curiosity pursued with sincerity, has evolved into a commitment.
Philippine cinema has given much to me, and one must pay back one’s debts.
I never expected to have the opportunity to travel for/from film, especially not on the expenses of others—but, slowly, the opportunities presented themselves. Traveling is a privilege, and not one that I take lightly. In June 2004, as a fresh college graduate, I attended a conference in Singapore. A few months later, on the basis of my writing, I was selected to participate in the Asia-Europe Foundation’s Meeting of Young Film Critics from Europe and Asia. A few months later, I found myself in Berlin as part of the Berlinale Talent Press (though this was only partly subsidized, and it was a last minute loan from my brother in Canada that allowed me to go). A number of trips have ensued, to everywhere from Singapore (7x) to Hawaii, from New Dehli (2x) to Paris, Rotterdam, Oberhausen, and, of course, precious Slovenia, serving on juries and giving talks. All the time I’ve maintained the same stance: that it is important for people to write about their own cinemas and not let it be left to those outside to dictate what matters.
But these tickets, these travels, are expensive. Hotels are expensive. Time is expensive. The pollution caused by airplanes in the sky will cost us in the long run. When you put all these things together, it equals an investment: a serious investment made on and in an individual. Do I sound like I’m taking this too seriously? Allow me to phrase it another way: without the cultural investment made in me, for the work I have or can do with regard to Philippine cinema, I would have never met you. There is much to repay.
I don’t like writing about the Metro Manila Film Festival. I didn’t like it the first time I did it in 2003, nor did I the second or third time. I didn’t like it as well when, with the help of Erwin Romulo, we drafted a position paper seeking reforms in the festival and attempted to rally established filmmakers behind it (signatories included, among others, Eddie Garcia, Peque Gallaga, Jose Javie Reyes, Erik Matti). It’s not fun being told off like I was a two-bit journalist looking for a quote by filmmakers named Laurice. I didn’t like it, but I did it because part of me sincerely believed we could things. A belief that, for a few moments, was infectious, for even those that knew in the back of their mind that nothing would come of it still chose to take part. A friend whose couch I slept on for much of those weeks sent me a text sometime after, a message that now three years later is still saved on my phone:
There’s a line in AGUILA where a Moro secessionist is told his cause is lost. He replies to him that winning doesn’t matter, it’s doing what one feels one should do. That’s wisdom for you.
My dear Nika,
If there has been a single cause of strain that has stuck out in our relationship it is this: the idea of my attachment to the Philippines, the strong desire you see that I have to live and work here, and the way that, perhaps, you see this as a matter of misappropriate priorities. Does a place mean more than a person? Does my work in the Philippines mean more than the possibility of a life with you, somewhere, anywhere else? Must it be you that moves, makes the (I know you hate the word, but let us use it) sacrifice of moving? And what, if anything, does that say about us—that the scales of our love weigh more heavily on your chalice?
I know you’ve come to terms with the idea of moving here, hopefully next year, we discuss—but I still feel the need to talk a bit more about some of my reasons for wanting to stay, at the very least for the meantime. I’m not attempting to compare my affection for Manila with yours for Slovenia, but only to explain the thoughts that go through my head, the things I feel I must do, things that, perhaps, we can do together.
⊲ I wish that the Film Development Council of the Philippines would understand the value of the money they’re given and consider going to Paris and spending five million of their 25 million allotment for a showcase given by a young festival as an investment, and not just a vacation.
⊲ I hope they support filmmakers with finished work to go abroad to festivals for the pride they bring their country—I wish instead they would support their films locally, and help them get seen by larger Filipino audiences.
⊲ I cry for the loss of Manuel Conde’s Juan Tamad films.
⊲ I cry for a country that can’t convince a single Filipino-American who owns the only known print of Conde’s Genghis Khan in its original language to return (i.e. sell) the film back to his mother country.
⊲ I cry for the generations of Filipinos, myself included, that can no longer see Gerry De Leon’s Daigdig ng Mga Api, and instead have scans of movie ads to admire on the internet.
⊲ I mourn a heritage that has allowed the prints of Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos and Peque Gallaga’s Oro, Plata, Mata to turn flush sepia through neglect.
⊲ I cry for a Union and University of the Philippines that conspire in apathy to let the master negatives of treasures produced by Bancom to rot in rooms only air conditioned half the day and in cans untouched for years and years.
⊲ I pray for a Senator or Congressman to take the courageous step of drafting a bill to help establish a National Film and Sound archive.
⊲ I pray a city government or even enterprising and concerned theater owners will consider settings aside 50 centavos or a peso of a ticket to go toward the preservation of our national audiovisual heritage. There have been flood taxes siphoned from movie tickets. For crying out loud, this should be easy!
⊲ I wish Cinemalaya which, thanks to the media and government mileage behind it has a great festive excitement, would actually put their efforts in service of Philippine cinema, and not in their own self-involved attempt to start a micro-industry.
⊲ I wish filmmakers would stop listening to Robbie Tan.
⊲ I wish Cinema one, which often produces better films than Cinemalaya, would actually give filmmakers some rights to their work and stop swindling them.
⊲ I wish Lav Diaz had larger budgets to maneuver and shoot with.
⊲ I wish Raymond Red would get to make Makapili and return to making fantastic shorts in the experimental mode.
⊲ I wish Mike De Leon would make another movie. . . . Please . . . we need it.
⊲ I wish Roxlee would get enough money to buy the time to make an animated feature.
⊲ I wish everyone would buy a copy of Nicanor Tiongson and Cesar Hernando’s The Cinema of Manuel Conde.
⊲ I wish there were more books on Philippine cinema.
⊲ I wish there were a series of classic screenplays that would get published.
⊲ I wish Cinefilipino would have put out Maalaala Mo Kaya with the reels in the proper order.
⊲ I wish Cinefilipino would have put our their Brocka titles with just a little bit of care and affection, providing some writing on the film or some features, and didn’t just throw them out there to earn.
⊲ I wish Nestor Torre would open his eyes . . .
⊲ I wish the Manunuri books on Philippine cinema in the 70s and 80s would go back in print.
⊲ I wish the Manunuri actually cared about Philippine cinema today.
⊲ I wish the Manunuri actually reviewed films instead of just giving out awards.
⊲ I wish the Young Critics Circle were actually young.
⊲ I wish the Young Critics Circle were actually critics.
⊲ I wish Francis “Oggs” Cruz, Richard Bolisay, and Dodo Dayao would get space in the broadsheets, because they’re far more interesting than anyone writing regularly there today.
⊲ I wish Noel Vera would move back.
⊲ I wish Hammy Sotto was still alive.
⊲ I wish Hammy Sotto’s manuscripts would get published.
⊲ I wish Jo Atienza was still in Manila.
⊲ I wish we had a fully supported Film Museum.
⊲ I wish we had a Cinematheque.
⊲ I wish the UP Film Center had better seats and showed good films.
⊲ I wish more non-filmmakers from the Philippines would get to travel to festivals.
⊲ I wish film were taught in high schools.
⊲ I wish Teddy Co would get the recognition that he deserves for his selfless work.
⊲ I wish Teddy Co would write more, as his ideas deserve to be recorded.
⊲ I wish co-ops would co-operate.
⊲ I wish Khavn De La Cruz would get to make his musical EDSA XXX.
⊲ I wish the Max Santiago feature would get made, and that shorts would finally come to my hands on DVD (Hi Marla!)
⊲ I wish Tad Ermitaño never stops writing and playing in his cave.
⊲ I wish Lourd De Veyra continues writing on actors and cinema.
⊲ I wish Raymond Lee UFO successes.
⊲ I wish we had more regional feature films and more support for regional filmmakers.
⊲ I wish everyone would watch When Timawa Meets Delgado.
⊲ I wish someone would lower MTRCB rates for screenings fees, especially for festivals.
⊲ I wish someone, anyone, would make a good, thought-provoking film about the Philippine upper-class.
⊲ I wish Ketchup Eusebio would get more leading roles.
⊲ I wish Elijah Castillo gets to do a lot more films, soon.
⊲ I wish Cesar Hernando would get to transfer Botika, Bituka.
⊲ I wish filmmakers had some integrity and told Viva to screw themselves when offered another exploitation film.
⊲ I wish more people could see the film Bontoc Eulogy.
⊲ I wish Vic Del Rosario wasn’t presidential advisor on Entertainment, given the shlock they produce, and, yes, that includes the films which starred First-Son Mikey Arroyo.
⊲ I wish Star Cinema would stop . . . just stop.
⊲ I wish there was a film library that people could go to and read books on cinema.
⊲ I wish the MMFF wasn’t handled by the same people who install public urinals (admittedly useful).
⊲ I wish the MMDA didn’t call those circles and boxes Art.
⊲ I wish that MMDA Art wasn’t so much better than every MMFF film.
⊲ I wish Philippine cinema all the success in the world…