A Conversation with John Torres
Interview by: Alexis A. Tioseco
John Torres sits beside me in a coffee shop, his long hair tied behind his head; a hesitant but proud smile jostles for time with a more serious expression. It is 2:30 am, and we have just finished watching his first feature-film Todo Todo Teros. I ask the first question, and he leans into the recording device perched upon the brown table between us and whispers, releasing his humble, self-deprecating voice into the air. It's a peculiar but charming voice; one that evinces deep-seated conviction, but concedes of vulnerability. It is deliberate in its cadence but always sincere—and that sincerity is the key. It unlocks the secret to the beauty of John as a filmmaker, but also John as a person. It's a sincerity so tangible, so real, that it's disarming.
Little more than two years ago, John was an outsider in Philippine cinema. He had apprenticed under a commercial filmmaker several years prior, but had been consumed by the path many of the young take—sacrificing their dreams for security; their passions for a steady salary. And then he received a rude wake-up call.
He got hit.
And where it hurts.
Flash forward a few years. While the outer appearance of the man appears the same: benevolent, humble; the spirit has changed: alive, bursting with renewed resolve. And he also has a Cinemanila Young Cinema Award, and Fipresci-Netpac Award from Singapore under his belt.
Quitting his job, John has taken up arms against his pain, against his trials, and sought catharsis through creation. Each of them fusions of found and organized footage, his first three short films—The Otros Trilogy—utilize on-screen text and that voice (in voiceover) to dialogue with the images, with his memories of the past, his struggle in the present, and confront one of those devastating events: his break-up with his girlfriend of 13 years. His fourth short film is not a work that can stand on its own, but a brief glimpse at the center of a larger canvas, a work he is set to begin on, and deals with the second of those devastating events. It runs 7 1/2 minutes, and is sparse on action and dialogue, but still imparts something, an intangible feeling, the vibe, mood or essence of what the larger work will become. The subject of the title, which in English is The Night When Father Told Me He Had a Child Outside, is not addressed directly, but underscores the mood of the piece. He has just (at the time of this writing, May, 2006) received a Hubert Bals Fund grant to work on the project further.
John Torres' films breathe. They breathe a soul that is alive and awake, feeling, touching, embracing the world around him. His films are love poems: short but sweet, aching yet tender, and always sincere, always moving: cinematic haikus. They look with affection at their surroundings (foremostly Katipunan Avenue): the community, the squalor, and the rich sweetness found in the eyes of the seemingly impoverished, testifying a love and unity with them through the moments captured by the imperfect lens of his digital camera, transforming his personal pain into exaltations of beauty. He may not consciously be trying to break your heart, but he will all the same.
With his new film Todo Todo Teros, Torres treads similar territory. The found-footage, on-screen text, and somber, honest voiceover are all there, but this time Torres expands the work in both time (at over 100 minutes, it's his first feature) and space (past Katipunan and even Manila, it includes footage shot in Berlin, of a girl he got to meet while there for a small festival). Todo Todo Teros, about an artist who wakes up one night to discover that he is a terrorist, touches on many topics, but at its center is a moving treatise on the way we terrorize the ones we love. The Teros of the title is a term concocted by Torres that combines terrorist and eros. Fitting.
For filmmaker John Torres, everything is personal. Even interviews. I sat down with John to listen to him talk about finishing Todo Todo Teros, his plans for it, the things he went through in making it, and what's next.
Alexis Tioseco: How does it feel to be done [with] the film?
John Torres: Very very… I feel like I could die already, because I gave birth. It felt like I gave birth, because I really worked hard on it, and labored on it for, if you think about it—not everyday—but I labored on it for about half a year. And it’s such a nice feeling to be able to present something that speaks of what I have in my heart, in my thoughts, and in my mind. What convictions I have and beliefs I hold dear, even the weaknesses, and the confessions that I make through this film. It’s a very nice feeling.
AT: You’re talking to the tape recorder like a confession and not to me. I thought this was going to be a casual conversation. (laughs)
JT: Ahahaha… hindi kasi ano eh…[no, it’s just…] (laughs)
AT: When you say labored over it, what do you mean?
JT: Since the start I just had a scene in my mind, I just had a series of shots I took in Berlin, and from then on I just wanted to make a film out of it. But I felt that I needed [to make] something that stretches [for] over an hour already, because I felt that [in these images] there is a story that needed to be told, and not just a short film, not just a short span of time.
AT: Two questions: why did you feel that you had something; what [was] in those shots [that] made you want to make a film? And why did you feel it needed to stretch for over an hour?
JT: No, no, I just thought that… there was something in me that needed to speak up, and it wouldn’t do it justice to make a very short film about it. I thought I needed time to dwell and to be silent, and to not rush things. Looking back and viewing again my short films, I felt now that I needed to be more confident and be more secure about silence, about having other people wait a little more. Not saying anything, just stopping, and pausing for some scenes, not rushing things. And I felt I needed this time to give that message out, through this story that I was thinking of.
AT: What was it in these shots that you saw that made you say “I need to make this into a film”?
JT: Oh, because the lines that were told were so packed, and I thought that when you talk about home, when you talk about chance, when you talk about beauty, you cannot rush these very very… these ideas.
AT: I’m not referring to rushing them, but what in these shots made you want to make it into a film?
JT: Oh, because it was a personal experience of mine that needs to be told.
AT: Why does it need to be told?
JT: The experience of being drawn to a person, a stranger, and not knowing what happened. Just suddenly waking up, realizing a lot of things, and you need the time to process all of these. I felt I needed time to contemplate it, to think about these things deeper than what seems to be on the surface. It’s not just about an encounter between two people who barely knew each other.
AT: The time that you are referring to, it isn’t “I should take time while I’m making the film, I should be patient while I’m making the film”, but rather that you should be given time for yourself to think about it [what happened], and it is only through the film that you could do that.
JT: Yeah, and I think that is the more important thing: to process and reflect on your own life and the film is just my own way of expressing all those in a way. But yes, I agree that the more important thing now, the more important task I had to do was pause and reflect on my own life, try to make sense out of all those experiences. And I had the footage and it sat there for a while, and I just needed to think about what happened, and reflect on all of it, and hopefully learn from it. Because it’s not a simple matter of making a mistake anymore, it’s something deeper. You go into your motivations for acting that way, for saying things like those, you go into the context of why you were there and why you stayed in that situation, and choosing the next day that course of action that you took. All those [were] questions in my head I really needed to answer.
AT: You and I are good friends…
JT: Oh yes…
AT: We have been since Indiefilipino [Indiefilipino is a defunct website I used to contribute to that focused on independent arts in the Philippines. – Ed.] first showed short films in Otros [John’s studio-cum-intimate screening venue. Ed.]. And you told me about [what happened] when you got back: about Berlin, about your experiences. Tell me about it again: about being there (while there), and after that, why you referred to it just now as a mistake.
JT: I was invited to a small festival in Berlin last September for one of my short films Tawidgutom—it was actually my first short film—and it was my first time to travel alone, to leave my country alone. The last time was in ’96, but with my parents. This was my first time to be alone, and in a far away continent. Everything was really new, and I was a stranger to all the people there. But I needed that time also, to realize that I can live on my own, and that there is an entirely new world other than Katipunan Avenue where I grew up and I spend most of my time in [now]. So there, I went there as a filmmaker invited by the people there, and I just met this Russian guide from the Festival. [She was] so nice; [she] took me around, and took me to places, and we really got to know each other a lot. So everyday she’d take me places, and I just had my camera on, and what you see there [in the film] is what happened, but more than that, there are a lot of things that happened with the camera off. To keep it short, we really, really got to know each other and I was really drawn to [her]. Everybody knows that I have a girlfriend, whom I love dear. And so I now tread into this subject matter that is really sensitive, to me especially. Which is… because now you get to ask yourself, do you really love this person [your girlfriend]? And if so why are you this much drawn to another person, and why are you spending so much time with that person? To put it bluntly, it’s about infidelity. Where do you draw the line, and when do you step over it? That is a very, very difficult thing to tackle, because my father has dealt with that and I’ve seen the effects on my mother, as well as the whole family, so it’s a very, very sensitive subject, especially to me. And now I am being challenged by this…
AT: When you say you’re being challenged, you’re being challenged by someone or something?
JT: Well, my beliefs are being challenged because I’ve always believed that you don’t do such a thing; you don’t spend time and become really intimate with another person, when you have a commitment, when you are into a really serious relationship, which I have with my girlfriend.
AT: When earlier you said everyone knows you have a girlfriend, by everyone whom did you mean, and did Olga know?
JT: My girlfriend - do you want the name? – Ina Luna, is a college student in Ateneo, Creative Writing. [She is] just the second girlfriend of mine, because I was in a previous relationship, very long term, that stretched from over 11-13 years…
AT: Which people can see in one of your films…
JT: Ah, yes yes, my second film Salat tackles that actually… So after that relationship, after two years [began my relationship] with my current girlfriend. So there, what do you want to know?
AT: Oh, you said, everyone knows you have a girlfriend, so who is the “everyone” you are referring to, and did Olga know?
JT: Everyone as in, if anyone asks, my friends, of course my family knows. Olga, I told her also, but only after a few days, because at that time we were just getting to know each other and [I felt] it wasn’t the right time to tell her, but eventually I did, and she told me, she had a, had because they’re separated now, but not yet at the time, a… [trails off]
AT: …a what?
JT: husband. And wow! It was near the end of the trip, and I… she just told me, “well you didn’t ask me”. And I was shocked, you know. I was very, very much drawn to this person, and it was unexplainable. I don’t know! That’s why I was trying to process all these things. Was I drawn to the newness of things? Was I just responding to my lost teenage years, because I never had the chance to get the attention of other people, other girls, during cotillions [traditional coming out party and social event when a young girl turns 18. –Ed.], during soirées; I never had those because I was in a long-term relationship. So I was thinking is it just a response, just scratching my itch? All those things. So yeah, it was within the process of these and I’ve said, the way I make films, I don’t have a script, I just go on everyday, and just shoot when I need to, actually. When making the film, I didn’t have a clue where I was headed. And it’s very much to my liking because I get to process, and I get to collaborate, and I get to see where I’m headed. And in the end, somehow miraculously, it all makes sense. Very hard [process] to accept sometimes, but…
AT: When you say it all makes sense, do you mean in your films?
JT: Yes, my films.
AT: And do you also mean things in your head with regard to your relationships, with regard to Ina, Olga?
JT: It all makes sense but it’s another thing to accept, you know, accept that you are really weak, accept or take the blame, but it makes sense. I’m getting to know myself more, I’m getting to understand even [those] people who make those mistakes, just like my Dad. People who cheat don’t get these caricature images from me anymore. I try to understand more [now]; I try to be more tolerant because I accept my own weaknesses, and my humanity. And I hope that with my film, even if it really tackles the terrorist in you that destroys things about people close to you, things that they hold dear, I hope that with the film, people will try to understand it more [the terrorism we are capable of]. [I hope the film will be able] to paint a more human picture of all of those people.
AT: The story/concept is credited to John Torres/Joel Toledo. What was your process of collaboration like with Joel? What type of input did he provide?
JT: Joel, being a poet I admire, offered a lot in terms of adding layers to the surface. Initially, it was just a simple love story between the terrorist and Olga. Joel saw a rough video narrative of Teros and saw the angle of the act of filmmaking as a tool to terrorize the current system of making films. He gave me a one-page study of some interesting plot points that were worth exploring. We talked and discussed some plausible scenarios that I could shoot, and I knew I was limited to low-budget guerilla filmmaking, so no big scenes or expensive crane shots. Haha. Although we never really pushed through with most of the scenes that we wanted to include, I was nevertheless guided by Joel’s helpful input about filmmaking being a benevolent act of subversion. He also guided me in terms of structure and collaborated to translate and make English subtitles.
AT: What spawned the idea of using terrorism as a metaphor in the way you did in this film?
JT: Loving deals a lot with building and destroying things we hold dear. We can be terrorists not only to strangers but also to our loved ones. That was what I wanted to explore: the beloved as terrorist to you and your world. We have this notion of terrorists as strangers who invade from out of nowhere, this crazed criminal who sneaks in and either goes away unscathed or dies with you and you never know who he is. You are never intimate with him in the first place, but you empathize with the victims, and you are forced to hate the perpetrator of the crime. I wanted people to see that we can be terrorists in ways not as extreme or radical as those we see on CNN or BBC.
AT: You have the narrative running through three channels in Todo
Todo Teros—the voice-over, the on-screen text, and of course, the
images themselves. What inspired your use of on-screen text and is
there a logic to its utilization? At times it contains the use of the
first person I—"I just read that...". Is there a reason that you
chose not to read these statements instead?
JT: In the film I talk about being constantly under surveillance, so
along with the characters, I try to communicate not just through voice
but also through written word, SMS, song, performance, drawn images,
and even gibberish/invented language.
I don't know, maybe all the wiretapping and the "mother of all tapes"
coming out in the news [referring to the scandal regarding Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and the alleged taped conversations between her and the head of the Comelec during the last Presidential Election campaign. -Ed.] have prepared me to resort to this mode of storytelling. (laughs)
AT: Whether or not I appreciate all of the elements or all of the aspects of things in the film, what I always definitely appreciate [in your works] is the amount of honesty and humility that goes into it. And I think that is something that is very, very evident in things that are said or lines of text that would appear on screen. Like when you mention tricking her into saying “mahal kita”, which means “I love you” in Filipino, because she doesn’t understand. And your own admission of knowing what to say that will make her laugh, and knowing perhaps relating this to the terrorist way, what cues you can give to make things progress in the way you want things to. And sometimes, that’s a difficult thing to admit and to put out there…
JT: (laughs). Salamat [Thank you]. I can be really scheming also as a person because I know that I know some things. But with my films, I have to make filmmaking count for me, and this is where I have to be honest. And this is where my films will become living testimonies of who I am. And as I’ve told you, I have to be honest in each one, because they will haunt me when I grow old, they will talk to me, and when I die, they will still be there. Who is going to believe me, a dead person from the past? But then they watch these films that are so alive, who are they going to believe? So there’s no way I can make a film that will not count because I would want to die for those films, to give a part of me, to give a large part of me to those films. It has to be painful—no it doesn’t have to be painful all the time, but painful in a way that you really, really devote much time and really give a lot of your effort, your blood, and yourself to the making of it. Diba? [Right?]
AT: What philosophy do you bring to your filmmaking? What made you decide to become a filmmaker, and what do you hope to accomplish with your films?
JT: In all my films, I want to stay brutally honest and authentic to whatever I experience from life. That means spending a lot of time from being hurt, clueless about things, rebellious, angry and bitter to experiencing breakthroughs, swimming in your new comfort pool, and even being in awe of wondrous revelation in seemingly trivial things.
It is starting with nothing and not knowing whether you will have something worth watching in the end. But because it requires a certain pagtataya or a betting of yourself, of your time, your honor and good name, it makes the process of filmmaking count. There is no guarantee that you will have something so you try to enjoy the journey that you take.
It is a test of faith and patience that requires you to be open to the signs along the way. And you try to store them to memory and just hope that it will make sense in the coming months. In other words, there is a constant dialogue with the images that you know and the signals of the unknown. You are always in the hunt for things to be revealed. So there should be "breakthroughs" to go to the next station.
I always have scenes in mind that I want to shoot, but I have learned to throw them all away and defer to moments of illumination. Real life has a lot to offer in terms of beautiful, cinematic scenes, and I have to be ready to catch them on tape. They're beautiful and, more importantly, free.
I call this parasitic cinema. Haha.
Ever since high school, when we had this film appreciation class in second year, I wanted to become a movie director. I just fell in love with it in an instant. Since then, I had it all planned: film courses in college, cinematography classes and directing seminars after college, apprenticeship under an established filmmaker, and hours and hours of watching films.
I want people to see that struggle has meaning. I want them to see that Jesus is Emmanuel, "God-with-us." I want them to see that there is a conspiracy of grace, an army of angels that tries its very best to battle your personal wars. I want them to see that God has a plan and he is quite a good storyteller/maker.