Words from that day
Interview by: Davide Cazzaro
The following conversation was recorded in Manila towards the end of the beautiful day, in late November 2008 after the Annual Southeast Asian Cinemas Conference (ASEACC), that May Adadol Ingawanij and Ben Slater describe in their introduction to Criticine: Love Letters.
I have waited for some time before making this transcript available. It was for my own research and not originally intended for publication, nor had Alexis had the chance to read it or make amendments, but the tragic events of September 2009 transformed it into a source of pathos and one of the last opportunities to hear Alexis’s views and ideas.
It’s still hard to believe that Alexis cannot read the Love Letters issue he was preparing so enthusiastically, and it is even harder and more painful to know we will not have the chance to read his words (and hear his voice) anymore. As a result, the longer I held onto the recording, the more I felt I was withholding something that should be shared and disseminated.
A note on the interview: I’ve reproduced our conversation as a series of comments made by Alexis on a few wide topics raised by me. I’ve left out my voice and kept editing to a minimum in order to preserve the informal, conversational tone of the interview.
Let me conclude with a thought I tried hard to voice (without succeeding, I was afraid of getting emotional) during the memorial to Alexis and Nika held at the Substation, Singapore, a few weeks after their passing: I will always be glad I spent some time with them; their energy and passion for what they were doing often made me think of the words Jean-Luc Godard wrote in a note to Pierre Braunberger:“My dear Pierre, many people have loved the cinema, but few have been loved by it. You are one of the latter.” May their legacies be remembered and live on for many, many years to come and may cinema take good care of them.
We moved to Canada
When we moved to Canada in 1983 my Mum was enamored with the idea that you could own a film. That was a time when home video was very new, so she would rent films and copy them with two VCRs. She wouldn't necessarily watch these films over again but I guess it was comforting for her to know they were there. She used to rent mostly new releases but once in a while also classics. I liked movies as well, and I had my Mum in love with movies in general; and my siblings—I'm the youngest of five—who were very much into 'cult films.' We never discussed them in any deep way but we watched things like A Clockwork Orange so I gained a little bit more (knowledge) there. Then there was a friend of mine in high school in Canada—the second year to be precise—he was already into 'hardcore' art cinema and he used to come over to my house on weekends. I remember we used to go to the video store and they had a deal: '5 movies, 5 days, 5 dollars'. And we would spend two hours arguing over what to rent and then we would watch all the films overnight.
The film was fantastic
When I came here (to Manila) I had no appreciation for Philippine cinema whatsoever and I wasn't thinking about cinema that seriously. I had seen very few (Filipino) films and it didn't seem there was anything good. The first serious Filipino film I watched and which had a big impact on me was Lav Diaz's Batang West Side. It was December 2001. I was a student, and a person I knew proposed to go and watch it. I had no idea who Lav was, no idea about the film, I just knew it was a five hour long Filipino film. I decided to give it a try because I thought, "If this guy is making a five hour long film he has to be serious." We went there; that night the theatre was full. The film began an hour late and people were restless. When the film began there was a silence I'd never heard in a Filipino theatre before—people usually are very noisy here. The film was fantastic; it deals with the Filipino-American experience and it doesn't present the characters as caricatures, they're not vessels for a message, they feel like breathing human beings. It also deals with issues of migration, of Filipino identity and many things I'd never thought about before. For someone like myself who grew up in Canada, Batang West Side affected me a lot and stayed with me for a long time.
What Batang West Side did to me
A year passed and I didn't see any interesting articles on the film and I felt bad about that; so I decided to write something for a website, IndieFilipino.com, which covered local 'indie' music and films. In my article I described that screening and wrote "a film was shown that would challenge and change Philippine cinema." I then added: "Batang West Side is an unequivocal masterpiece. Read that again." When I read it now I think it's a bit funny and a little arrogant but I was very passionate about the film. I got some comments on the piece and then I decided to interview Lav Diaz, although Batang West Side was the only film of his I'd seen. I got in touch with him, he was very accommodating and we had a long interview. I put it on the website and after that I started to feel a bit of a responsibility. Here there is a filmmaker who, I believe, is making great films but people aren't seeing them—this guy wants a Filipino audience and doesn't have it, he wants a serious discussion and doesn't get it. Batang West Side did that for me and I wanted other people to feel that. So one (responsibility) was on the part of the audience and one on the part of the filmmaker. I felt both needed a push.
Since then I started watching more films - mostly independent ones, and I thought, "Why aren't people writing about this? Why aren't they thinking seriously about this?" It really started out from what Batang West Side did to me. IndieFilipino died a slow death. Most of the people who were part of it were either in college or fresh graduates, then the real world hit and they lost their fire and I was the only one writing new articles in the end. Meanwhile, I attended the first ASEACC in Singapore, I spoke as part of it and I heard interesting presentations, watched clips, met people. I was wondering, "Why can't I see these films, why can't I read about them outside this conference?" The idea about a website on Southeast Asia was already there in a sense but the conference gave me a push, (some) motivation.
When you can't find the space
I'd also noticed that a lot of the writing on Southeast Asian or Philippine cinema is done by Western writers, which is not a bad thing, but the locals should have a stake in what they are doing as well. You read a lot of things in newspapers and local magazines about what others have said outside (the country), about the festivals certain films have been invited to and why (foreign) programmers liked them. It's understandable that something like this happens but I think it is much more beneficial for the filmmakers and the audience if we decide for ourselves and we say, "This is what matters; what you should be watching; what is authentic; what we stand for." This was the original idea behind Criticine, a website on Southeast Asian cinema with writers that were either from or specializing in Southeast Asia. It launched in October-November 2005. A friend of mine argued with me for a long time on the reason why I was not focusing only on the Philippines, but I told him that if somebody came to the site for Apichatpong [Weerasethakul] or Garin [Nugroho], maybe they would stay for Lav Diaz or Eric Khoo, so I thought that by putting together articles on the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore (the five major countries we have articles on), the site could be much stronger.
As for its influence, I received feedback from people who told me it's a nice resource; basically it has been a source of information. I think it created an interest among different filmmakers and cinephiles about what's happening in other parts (of Asia). I take a lot of pride in the interviews that are on the site because we took advantage of being online and not paying for printing. As a result, we have interviews which are 20 to 25 pages long and we can post them unedited. I don't know if it helped the films travel but it might have helped the curiosity of people. On the part of writers, I think it's encouraged some people to write—you see now a similar website in Indonesia called "RumahFilm.org", edited by Eric Sasono. I guess people didn't think about the idea of an online film magazine and about how, in a way, it was easy to do it and how it could have an impact. This is important because there really is a struggle in the mainstream media to have a significant discussion about serious kinds of film. When I was a student I was writing for a newspaper and they mangled an article I wrote without asking me - they didn't give a shit whether I cared about the article or not. When they did it I said I was never going to write for this paper again and I didn't. So when you can't find the space you want you have to create it and (with Criticine) that's what happened.
In love with the film itself
If you think about the ASEACC conference as a chalet where people meet it's a very effective thing, also because since its inception it focused not only on scholars but on practitioners. So it's a meeting point. I actually met a lot of people there who became friends and even people who contributed to or collaborated on Criticine. However, in terms of both the quality of the conference itself and the ideas that come out of it, I think there is a lot that can be improved. As I mentioned earlier, we haven't seen other Southeast Asian films, almost none of them are distributed. There are some crossovers between Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, but not very much gets distributed here (in the Philippines), in Thailand, etc. So panelists present papers on films that people don't know about and the audience can only argue based on the formulation of the argument, and that's a very shallow way to go about it. There are also many papers on bad films, used just because somebody thinks that a film fits into their Feminist studies, Postcolonial studies, or whatever, but not because people are really interested, in love with the film itself.
I think this interest in Southeast Asian cinema entails many different factors. In a certain sense you can say, following what Philip Cheah mentioned yesterday (during ASEACC), it has to do with the idea of cycles. A country has its time in the spotlight and it can only have that time for so long, even if the films it's making are still good. I'm not a big fan of these cycles or trends and when people say "Oh, the Philippines is the next hotspot," it is not something that entices me because it entails a lot of bad programming, and people who just want to include Filipino films in their festivals (because of this). And if the filmmakers aren't resilient enough, it can have an effect on them.
Attention is also increased by a number of individuals sprouting from each country that sort of makes one curious of what else is there. Filmmakers like Apichatpong, who brings attention to Thailand if not to Southeast Asia, or like Amir [Muhammad], Lav Diaz, or [earlier on] Lino Brocka or Kidlat Tahimik. Lastly, I think it also relates to the fact that there has been better filmmaking in the past decade than in the decade before. this has do with the ease that digital filmmaking provides, which has the greatest effect on the countries with the least money. And in Southeast Asia if there is money it often goes to grossly commercial productions, so a lot of filmmakers who weren't able to make films or weren't able to make films as frequently, are making them now. There is a lot more production, period. And among that, a higher percentage of good films than there was before.
These dialogues were exchanged
Singapore has fairly little creativity and a lot of resources. If you're in a specific place and you get bored, it's nice to have guests. I say this in a very serious way! In the last four years I have been invited to Singapore nine or ten times. That's a lot given how specific the field I work in is. Singapore has become a sort of hub, partly because of money, because of the centrality within the region and the easy accessibility thanks to budget airlines. Maybe now a lot of Southeast Asian filmmakers are getting to meet in Pusan or Rotterdam [Film Festival], but before they used to meet at the Singapore International Film Festival or even in the Asian Film Symposium at the Substation—a very important place. I curate the Filipino section of the [travelling short film programme] S-Express and for myself the Substation was the first place where I met many Southeast Asian filmmakers and people, where a lot of these dialogues were exchanged.
S-Express is not only about the filmmakers but also about the curators and they pay the curators a fee to put together a 60 to 90 minute programme and they fly in filmmakers and curators, and have a discussion with both of them. I think it is a very fine and rare programme. I don't know how successful it is. When I show the Filipino program there has always been around 30 to 40 people, and the place seats 80 to 100 max, so the audience isn't necessarily building but the relationships forged within the region are. And for me it happened there. I see S-Express as something quite unusual, I don't know if I can say it's the most important of its kind in the region but it's the only one that I know of that happens yearly, and you have the same people curating the programmes. So a relationship is built among these people who have insight into the respective film industries and can share with others what's happening where. There is therefore a consistent interaction. One could argue: but it's limiting, because it's an interaction between these 5 or 6 curators but for myself as one of the curators it has been very beneficial for creating relationships within the region. When S-Express first started it was Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, and that's it, because they didn't know people in the other countries and then they added Indonesia, and then Philippines and China. I like that it's an intimate event, without plans to expand it more and more.
Amir is on his own planet
When you talk about a movement or a wave generally the idea is that people are going in the same direction. In Malaysia you have several that are going in the same direction and a few who are going out on their own. In the Philippines, I don't know if you can call it a movement in terms of aesthetics or style because the filmmakers are doing very, very, very different things and I think that's a good thing. If we look at the case of Malaysia, I think there are a few filmmakers there that are pretty special and have a unique voice: I'm mainly thinking of Amir and some of the works by Tan Chui Mui. But when you see a film by [Woo] Ming Jin or [Liew] Seng Tat, they are not bad films, but the style of the films is very similar—by that I mean the editing, the rhythm of the editing, the style of cinematography, the distance of the camera to the subject. Amir is on his own planet, [Ho] Yuhang is trying very different styles of filmmaking, Yasmin [Ahmad], again, does her own distinctive things, James Lee does a lot of the same things fairly often but I think some of his experimental shorts are quite extraordinary.
Who are the real filmmakers?
I don't know what will happen once the current attention (on these countries) dies. I think it will be a little bit more difficult for the filmmakers to get funding from the international bodies. There is an article written by, and I have to admit this, my girlfriend Nika Bohinc, published on the website sea-images.asef.org and called "Does Europe know how to Fish?". It talks about the MEDIA funding agency's decision to open up to Southeast Asia and to other parts of the developing world. Is Europe trying to teach Southeast Asia how to fish or is it giving it fish (read: funding)? Should it be trying to teach others? Because a lot of the money is coming from Europe: a Hubert Bals Fund grant for script development is 700,000 pesos. Khavn [De La Cruz] will shoot a film for 100,000 and keep the rest for other projects; Lav Diaz will shoot it for maybe for 1 or 2 million. So that money only for script development can be their whole budget.
But what happens when that money runs dry? I think that's when we will see which filmmakers are the most committed. Who are the real filmmakers? And by that I mean a filmmaker who makes a film by any means and not just because the money is there. So it's an interesting time, I'm glad that a lot of these films exist. I don't think every film that gets the grant from these institutions is pandering to the festivals. I believe that if Raya Martin was living by himself on an island he would still make a film in the same way, even if it was just for himself to watch or whales to watch, he would make it in the same way and if other people appreciate it, that's fine, if they give him money, even better.
To me this is the strength
On a negative side, a lot of filmmakers these days claim to be independent because that's a nice thing to say. Many of them would like to make films in a studio with a large budget and stars if they could. On a positive side, there are a number of filmmakers—and it's growing more and more—coming from outside of Manila. For so many years we had almost no cinema coming from outside, maybe some productions went to another part of the country and shot there but they were not trying to hear stories from that part or portray the locals' own perspective.
As I mentioned earlier, the best thing about Filipino cinema now is that the good filmmakers that are coming out are making films that are very, very different from one another. When I say this I think of Lav Diaz, Raya Martin, Sherad Anthony Sanchez and John Torres. You look at Raya's film and he's someone who is entirely in love with cinema. On a certain level almost all his films are about cinema. You look at John Torres, all of his films are about a very subjective, personal experience, about dealing with what's inside. I like to think of him as an 'internal Chris Marker', navigating the inside world. Then you have Lav Diaz, who is entirely socially committed, the most intelligent and the best scriptwriter among all of them, and then you have filmmakers like Sherad Anthony Sanchez who makes all of his films in [the island of] Mindanao—now two features and several shorts—and he's dealing with stories and a way of storytelling which is very different from the others. So to me this is the strength, and these are the filmmakers that I think I can fairly confidently say they will still be around fifteen years from now; and I can't say the same about the 50 to 70 other filmmakers who make films here today.
Alexis, make me famous
In Manila there a lot of filmmakers who don't like each other; a lot of filmmakers who have a crab mentality. There isn't a very healthy discussion of films but there is really a 'festival fever' among a lot of the filmmakers. I had a filmmaker talking to me and saying, "Oh, Alexis, make me famous!" Certainly he was joking but there was a bit of seriousness in his part about it. Not about me making him famous but about helping him getting into this kind of thing. A friend of mine was telling me about a filmmaker who went to show her film to Yasmin Ahmad and asked her: "What can I do to make this film more appealing to festivals?" And when you ask something like that. Once another filmmaker told me: "You should be writing about everyone; you should be documenting what's happening. You've written about Lav, Raya, John and their films are travelling", and then he used a term, which I find disgusting: "You blessed them and now their works are going around." I don't think I have that much influence to begin with, but also I take exception to the term 'bless' as if it's not done just for the sake of the work. And I was telling him: "There are three levels: Reporting, i.e. this film won this award etc.; Journalism, i.e. this film won this award and this is what the director said when he received it; and then there is Criticism, which says, e.g., this film sucks and I tell you why and then I try to discuss it." What I'm trying to do is criticism and I'm not going to write about every film because many films aren't worth my energies, because I don't write very fast, because it's difficult, especially when you want to talk about films in terms of aesthetics.
This comment is often made by filmmakers: "I'm more appreciated abroad than at home"; but they are appreciated abroad by the same 'art house' crowd that would appreciate them at home. Maybe in France there is a little more because they have a more sophisticated culture of cinema than here, but the segment of society that appreciate them in other countries is still the same segment of society that appreciate them here so it's often bullshit to say "I'm more appreciated abroad." The other thing is how the local media celebrate all these foreign festivals. We have here in the Philippines what I would call "a cinema of the press," i.e. the best filmmakers in the eyes of the public are the ones who are more savvy with the press in getting press releases about themselves out. So in the newspapers you have an equal amount of space about a Filipino film going to an unknown festival as you would about Lav Diaz winning in Venice.
Just so much to do
Overall, I would say you can both blame and not blame filmmakers for focusing a lot on festivals and foreign 'art house' crowds. You can't blame them because you go where you are appreciated, whereas to try and work on a local level—it's a fight, for the audience. And some of them don't put in the energy that they should; that you wish they would. So, it's a serious thing. But where you can blame them is when they go to a lot of festivals and spend a lot of time there. They relax, answer a few questions, have a nice time in a foreign city, etc.; it can be a good thing to broaden their horizons, see more cinema, meet more people, but it can be a bad thing as they could become a bit too cosmopolitan and start to rest on their laurels, and then come back feeling that they should be appreciated (more at home). Why do filmmakers not talk much about the reception at home when they're in foreign countries? Often because there isn't much to talk about, and some filmmakers do like to play the card of "I'm not appreciated. The State treats me like this. I can't get funding, etc." I do think a big part of that problem lies within the local film community—we don't have many cultural workers in the field of cinema here, as maybe they do in Europe or in America. Partly this has to do with the financial aspect, partly with the dedication. There is just so much to do and there is a lack of intelligent committed people to do it.