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 soirees; 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.
AT: It’s kind of a similar feeling that I got as well, [something] that you touched on earlier. You touched on going abroad, and perhaps making up for the time that you didn’t have as a teenager, dating or meeting interesting people. And the feeling that I had is kind of, I know you as a friend, and I know you as a very kind and warm and loving person. It is easy for you to get comfortable and affectionate with people. And even more so I think when you are abroad with new experiences, and with people of the opposite sex who are quite attractive…
JT: Of course, of course…
AT: And it’s an admission…of that weakness…
JT: I will never hide my weaknesses. I will boast of them even more. Because when you see me triumph later on, I would want you to keep in mind my own setbacks. And that has always been what I’ve been telling my friends, actually, whenever I cry in front of them, or whenever I give away all these things [painful details]. I always make it a point to tell them: remember this, because when we get there [where we need to be], this will all become sweeter. So there, it’s tough, but that’s why, you know, my three short films it paints this picture that there’s this romantic person, this very idealized-- not really idealized but very human also-- but there’s character, there’s this narrator, from all these films that stands for these ideals. And you see this next film and you see that he’s very weak, he has made a mistake. Does [that] not mean that he doesn’t stand for the other things that he said? That’s the question. I don’t know, I’m not answering that.
AT: Though I think Tawidgutom also admits a bit of weakness there.
JT: Oh, of course. Yeah, but it’s much easier to swallow because the need for companionship and the need for love is there.
AT: Because it’s more of a defensive weakness, than an offensive weakness.
JT: I guess so, I guess so. And who would blame you for asking for love, for asking for affection, you know? But I guess it’s another thing, when you know, you ask for one more. (laughs)
AT: So, you have admitted these weaknesses, and [now], the other big question: you have gone back to Berlin. And you have made a concerted effort, to go there…
AT: And also, to other festivals.
JT: (laughs) yes.
AT: Do you have confessions to make?
JT: (laughs). Well, I am still the same person that really is still attracted to other people, you know, but… and is as weak. But I guess you will have to watch my next films for me to… because I’m still also trying to make sense of what’s happening. Of what’s going on…this is not a cycle you know, don’t get me wrong, but this is a similar situation that I am into. I would like to think that I am moving forward. I find myself sometimes in a similar situation. But I guess it’s this, it’s a constant struggle, sometimes it’s a cycle; it never goes away that easily. But stay tuned for the next film. (laughs).
AT: It’s a cycle to me in a sense that there is a repetition of those same emotions, those same feelings. And by repetition I mean you go to another festival, you meet interesting people, and there is a repetition [of feelings, excitement in meeting new people].
JT: Yeah, I guess I just have to get used to the fact that other people are also beautiful, even people who are really different, coming from different backgrounds, different places. They are very much different from us, but they can be beautiful people.
AT: Oh definitely. We’re not arguing that. But your films are very personal, so we’re delving into similar territory. So when you went back to Europe, you were 60% done with your film, and that 60% hadn’t yet told you, hadn’t made you as strong as you are now. Do you mean to say that you are stronger and wiser now than when you went back to Europe for the second time? Meaning that you are more learned now and if you went back…
JT: Yes I would like to think that. I would like to think that what I know now makes me stronger and wiser.
AT: But when you went back to Europe, you weren’t yet at that point.
JT: Well, I was still in the process. As I am still in the process also.
AT: So that 40% was very, very important?
JT: Who knows, even that 5%, if it completes the other things that you have to tackle about. I don’t know, I can’t really answer that completely, but I would like to think that I am more equipped now.
AT: I ask this, not in an accusing way, but because you said you need to sit and let these ideas and topics ferment, and you need to resolve them. And that when you’ve finished the film, you have.
JT: Haha, okay…(laughs)
AT: Meaning, in that 60% you hadn’t, and in that time since, you have.
JT: Yes, hopefully. I have a lot to learn, still. I’ve finished the film, I’ve learned a lot of things, and I still have a lot to learn. It doesn’t guarantee that I won’t make the same mistakes over again. Who knows? I would hope not. It’s in everyone’s minds also. People who go through the same thing, you just hope that they don’t make the same mistake again. You just hope that you behave and respond in a way that is, that speaks of what you’ve learned so far. Does that make sense?
AT: It does.
JT: Alright. You can never, you can never claim that you’ve already figured it out. Even after making films. You don’t just close it and say I’m a master of this. I have a PhD. on this already and I just won’t make that mistake again. Hopefully…
AT: How has your girlfriend been taking the whole process?
JT: (laughs). Amazingly, she was the first person to watch the film, and it was amazing because she is such a very, very good person, and she really liked the film. She was holding me close most of the time, and, whenever she would ask about things for clarification, she would ask me point blank. That was so cool. It was a very nice experience. I was really nervous, because I didn’t know how she would react.
AT: She must be quite an amazing young woman…
JT: Ah she is…
AT: I mean in all sincerity, considering the nature of your films…
JT: She’s one of a kind. It helps also that she’s crazy like me. She’s into the arts also, so she’s very, very open-minded, very forgiving. She speaks my language, also, which really helps a lot. I’m really grateful.
AT: Formally, well not formally, but content-wise, first question: why change—because it’s a very personal situation, you have Olga there—why change the female protagonist to a wife and a not a girlfriend?
JT: Well, I just, I just… I felt that I needed also to address the sacrament of marriage. Because sometimes you know for some people it’s not as serious to see other people when it’s just your girlfriend, you know. It takes it to another level when it’s your wife already, and there’s this commitment, a legal contract you know; sometimes people reduce marriage to a legal contract, legal commitments. Even legally you can’t do that, you know. At that level [marriage], it’s a whole different ball game, and I just needed to address that.
And that is also one big fear of mine, that when I get married and I don’t have an excuse anymore, because I missed out on my teenage years or when I wasn’t married and I could just do all these stuff. But when I’m married you know, there’s this commitment, and it’s really official, you know. Not that it makes it less important if you don’t have a relationship within the context of marriage, it’s not that. It’s just this way of addressing my fear that hey, marriage is very important to me and I don’t want to mess it up. I don’t want to break it. I don’t want to put it all to waste.
AT: Are you referring here to marriage, or are you referring here as well to Ina, and that the gravity of your relationship means this much to you, and that’s why you put it in the film in the context of marriage?
JT: Well, now that you’ve pointed it out, yes also. But my obvious intention is what I said. But yeah, my relationship with Ina is very serious, and if it does get into that level already, I’d be glad to, I’d be the happiest person on earth. So yeah, you’re correct in that sense…
Do I get to interview you after? (both laugh)
AT: Tignan natin… [we’ll see] (laughs). The film had three main characters, basically, which are the character of the narrator or “Earl” so to speak, Olga, and Bughaw who plays the character of the wife. The last portion of the film focuses very very, very strongly on her (Bughaw), with little voiceover. Perhaps text appears, but correct me if I’m wrong, there’s isn’t as much voiceover [in the end] as the rest of the film.
AT: And it’s mostly the images of Bughaw and her projecting the images of Olga. Why end with her and not with you—you, or you the narrator “Earl”?
JT: (laughs). The most important thing for me to say is that after all these things, after everything’s been destroyed in your life, after you’ve been terrorized, what matters is that you’ve processed all these things, and you learn to move on and you learn to embrace all these things. That’s the most important thing for me to say in this film, and I just felt that because it’s obvious that she has been terrorized and all those things; the love story between the two characters, Olga and her, the sweeter it got the more bitter and more painful it became for this person.
AT: The sweeter it got between Olga and the narrator?
JT: Yes. The more painful. And so I revealed it at the latter third of the film. And all the time, you were rooting for these two people. And as a viewer, everything changes when you see this last third of the film. And man, you’ve taken part also in that in a way, rooting for that relationship to blossom. Now, things have changed, and you see the effect on the person of the wife, who has suffered so much. And I felt that I just needed to show a person moving on and emerging from the ashes, after everything has been destroyed, after all the world has rooted against you, or you know, has shared in this act of terrorism, even if they didn’t know it.
AT: In the film, by “all the world”, aside from the narrator and Olga, are you also referring to also the other people watching the film, as in the children, or do you mean the audience watching the film?
JT: The audience watching the film.
AT: I understand having her character there, to show her pain, but what does the ending of the film mean to you—having her project these images, having other people see them? And this is her dealing and coping with the pain: what now?
JT: If you notice in the end, it’s already a dance with all those emotions, it’s already a dance, but it’s not a very easy dance to make. As you see, there will be times when you recall and when you mourn, but you learn to accept, eventually. Actually interestingly, she also becomes a terrorist in a way, because the action that she took after holding that, taking into possession that piece of film, she acts in a way that somehow terrorizes the husband, by number one, staying silent and number two, showing the world that yes, she is suffering and yes, she is not ashamed of it, and number three, being present in that film owning that film, because you notice, you’ll see that it was not a direct reproduction of the film that she got, but it’s one that has her, also in the film already. And in the end, you know, it’s surviving all these. And that’s terror enough for the one that has destroyed a lot of things.
AT: By you, you mean Bughaw?
AT: But we don’t have any sense of reconciliation [between the couple], or even of the possibility of it at the film’s end.
JT: Actually…well it’s…
AT: …or just a reconciliation with herself.
JT: It’s reconciliation first with yourself. How do you see that? Gusto mo pa sabihin ko? [Do you really want me to say it?] Because I want them to think about the last… just take note of the motion, of the actions in the last scene, you know, and hopefully you’ll get it. The message I’m trying to convey there. It’s an embrace of some sort, coming to terms of some sort. And a really very important good point that you mentioned, reconciling—reconciling with your own self.
AT: I was very curious; there was a reconciling with your own self. On the part of the narrator, we hear that, but we don’t see it. On her part we see that…
JT: How did you… can you tell me more about that? With the narrator you see that there’s reconciliation.
AT: You hear it somewhat, in his admissions. They could be onscreen text admissions, or they could be ones that he admits in a voiceover.
JT: Actually, the narrator, man, he… I would like to see how he copes. How he deals with what’s happening now. That’s the next person I’d like to see. I actually think he’s very… he has been troubled. You know, and when he gets a hold of this film…
AT: Oh I’m sure that that will be the next step. Which is part of the point that I’m trying to make. He is dealing with it, in himself, but he is not confronting it with his other. And she is dealing with it herself, but is not confronting it with her other. You don’t see them, if I’m not mistaken, onscreen together.
AT: And you don’t see them interacting.
AT: Was that something that happened with you, and was that also something very personal? Did you have your own individual reconciliations that did not involve each other? And if it was not something that happened—meaning your reconciliation did involve the other, then why did you not include that in the film?
JT: (laughs) Again, again please…
AT: In the film, the narrator at least reconciles his action with himself, somewhat. In the sense of the text that appears on screen, and the way that he…
JT: From which particular text did you get that impression?
AT: Well, his admissions in the way that he would relate to her, her being Olga, I think part of that is steps toward his reconciliation. Whether we have a grand final one, we don’t, but we have his steps towards his reconciliation. We have admissions. And on the part of Bughaw, we see her reconciling with herself, but we don’t see her reconciling with the other.
JT: Ah, okay, okay.
AT: Was that the way it was for you in real life, and if it wasn’t that way, why did you make it that way in the film?
JT: Wow… I would need another hour or two for that though, man. It’s, it’s… [tape runs out, flip to other side]. I would think it’s going to take a lot more time than another story to tackle all these issues, all these ideas.
AT: Is that to say that your reconciliation in real life did not involve one another?
JT: I made peace with…[pauses]
AT: Meaning at least, at first… this film is true to life. And the next step was reconciling with each other.
JT: Ah yes, definitely. So that’s the first step. And then after that, you also make peace with the other. But the more important thing is that you make peace with yourself first. That you reconcile with yourself first, before jumping onto that. I don’t think it will work if you make peace with the other without forgiving or reconciling with your own issues, by yourself, on your own.
AT: There’s a line toward the end of the film, perhaps you can correct me on it, something to the effect of “This is my cinema…”
JT: Aah (laughs).
AT: Can you repeat that line for me?
JT: “This unfortunately is my cinema, I…” Aww man, I wish I had the text here. It’s the man behind the surveillance camera telling Bughaw, the wife that I cannot interfere now because I am part of the government and I have team members also, and strict rules to follow. This is my cinema, I can only watch, I cannot give you what I know. I can only watch you helplessly, and you suffer. The best thing I can do now is blow these words in the wind, and hope that they reach you. Somehow, it doesn’t get addressed if after that, after saying it to the wind, it makes a difference. Somehow, I’d like to think that it made a difference. Although not audibly, I believe somehow, even with just his presence and his concern, it will get to her; it will make her reconcile.
AT: What does it mean when he says this is my cinema, I cannot give this to you? He’s talking about the surveillance footage?
JT: No, no, he’s talking about the text message from Berlin, from Olga supposedly to the husband, but those were intercepted by the government.
AT: Those are his cinema?
JT: No, no, no. The cinema is just watching you guys suffer now. Watching you cry, behind the surveillance camera. I can only helplessly watch you. I am just a viewer of this also. Which speaks of another topic in the film…
AT: When he’s saying “my cinema”, is he is speaking from the perspective of the audience, not as a filmmaker?
JT: Yes. Just a spectator. Just like the opening scene “our cinema” and you see the supposed terrorist just watching, suffering in front of the [cinema screen] just beating their own skin. But they cannot reach out to their subjects. Or to the screen. There is a separation, and there is a certain sense of helplessness somehow, that you’re just watching, that you cannot really make a difference, as a watcher to the characters. So it deals with a topic that I try to discuss also which is [the] filmmaker and creating works that empower, that somehow subvert a culture, a way of doing things. And so I delve on filmmaking, and how you put a premium on pouring your heart out and not really focusing on finances, and even distribution. Just putting it out on the streets. I’m not a proponent, you know, of piracy…
AT: That’s bullshit, you’re a proponent of piracy! (laughs)
JT: Yes I am. (laughs). But I see the value in letting other people watch, letting the most number of people watch works that make a difference, you know. And yes, the sad reality is, how can you reach the most number of people? The video pirates have brought us a lot of good films into our country.
AT: That’s definitely true.
JT: Right? And here we cannot afford Greenbelt, we cannot afford the expensive cinema houses here. And it’s a shame, because we have good films that can make a difference in the lives of other people, stories that they can identify with, that they can learn from. So not only in terms of distribution, but also making the films, focusing more on the story, the content; where we are; our own stories. Does that make sense to you? I was hoping to touch on that. Actually it’s more to independent filmmaking, guerilla filmmaking.
AT: Bughaw is going to give her work to the pirates?
JT: It’s more of letting the world know that yes, I suffered this, and I still am present. I don’t deny my presence in this tragedy or in this destruction. I declare my survival in the midst of all these. In that way, you will hear her breathe, you will see that she holds the camera.
AT: And her suffering will be even more powerful than yours because in this case, she is the victim.
AT: So her emancipation from that, will be much more powerful. In putting it out there for the public. A more powerful statement.
JT: I hope to make… if that’s clear enough. I hope so. Just imagine how the terrorist and Olga would react if someday they got a hold of a pirated copy of this, (laughs) you know, this film, and at the end of the film you get to see the shoulder of the person you love. Just like what we’re used to here in Manila, in the Philippines. We have all the pirated movies and we see the people coming in and out of the theater. They’re present, they laugh with you in comedies, they cry with you. When the film reel gets stuck, you hear people clapping just to wake up the operator. So it’s a whole new different experience now, it’s a whole new different story, because you have the other people communing with you, you have the other people watching with you. It’s a public endeavor, in a sense, and somehow that’s another component, you mourn with other people, you also mourn with them. You find comfort with them, you share with them your suffering also. By declaring your suffering you also share with them, with the viewers, who can identify with you. (laughs)
AT: We watched the film just now [a few hours ago], with two friends. One you knew previously, Tiffany Limsico, who proofreads for Criticine, and the other a friend from my University, who you first met today, Micha Abrera. Micha brought up something, which you dismissed somewhat, but that I want to ask you about now. She mentioned the idea that, the antagonist so to speak, Olga in the film, about her being white, and if that mattered.
JT: Oh okay, okay okay. Well there is that angle also, because it talks about terrorism, and somehow, as you know, foreigners have this image of Filipinos as terrorists in a political way, terrorists who come as strangers. And yes at first it mattered, that the color of her skin was different form my brown skin, but I needed to graduate from that plot and delve more into an important thing which really is being a terrorist to people you love, and it doesn’t matter anymore if you’re white or if you’re from another background. So you graduate, but that served as a springboard, and I think it helped that you first showed that and then debunking and making a mockery of the labels that have been thrown to Filipinos as terrorists, Southeast Asians as terrorists. And you tell the outside community, the foreigners, the foreigners, people that are not Filipinos that we are not bitter, that we are not stuck in that we just try to retaliate, we just try to answer back and say hey, we are not terrorists. And we dismiss that actually, and go more into terrorism as a form of hurting the people you love. Terrorism to strangers now becomes a little bit more trivial. It doesn’t [focus on instances] when you talk about killing and wasting other people’s lives, but it is not something that is worth trying to defend, it just takes a simple offering of trying to be silent sometimes, but you show them that that’s not our concern. Our concern is being a terrorist to people who matter to you. Eventually, it doesn’t anymore [if you] take into account your race, or the color of your skin. So we’re not stuck in that thinking anymore. It actually terrorizes them, because they see that you label yourself as a terrorist, you accept the label of being [a] terrorist, and that alone is a form of terrorizing the person who labeled you as such. You don’t try to deny it.
AT: At the same time, that at first there were comments that had to do with that, like our skin is brown, but then later on you also have, which is featured quite prominently, when Bughaw’s character is flashing all around the room the images. You have those warnings from the different embassies which involve European countries, except for Australia and New Zealand, which are countries generally populated by white people… (laughs), “white people”. So if that isn’t an issue in the film…
JT: Well, I needed to put that also so that just to let them know, hey man, try to know us better, try to understand us better. Know who the Filipino is. Because the travel advisories, they keep you away from us also. They discourage you from getting to know us more. I guess it’s in a way a mockery, but if you really think about, if you really think hard, it’s my way of saying, go beyond that. If you see the film it talks about explosions, and it’s superimposed to, just the New Year’s celebration in Manila. So it’s making a complete mockery of those labels, of the official statements of those governments.
So there, you start off as strangers, and you also have to address that. And with that scene I hope to invite them in a sick way (both laugh) to hey, look beyond that. [The] crime rate in New York is worse than in Manila. And you don’t have travel advisories against [going] there. And then I also get a kick out of not putting in subtitles [for] certain words in the scene wherein Leonardo and Bughaw were supposed to be speaking in gibberish, in a language you don’t really understand. But if you’ll notice, as a Filipino, you’ll hear that certain words escape and they refer to pain and they refer to filmmaking. And I did not want to put that in subtitles because as a Filipino, you’ll get more. It’s deliberate on my part: know us and know our language. If you watch it again, and if you know Filipino, you’ll get more now, you’ll get more from the film. But it’s a minor, minor detail. But it is something that is also a part of that film. Watch it again!
AT: You know I did get that. Bughaw says film…
JT: May angulo, tapos sabi niya [there’s an angle, and then she says] she was really pained [and asking] why is my husband spending so much time with film, with all those angles that he got; he never pointed the camera at me, not once. And also, Leonardo was talking about lighting and accepting it, it was out of his hands. In the midst of all these words, those words somehow escaped also. Curiously, Olga also is a foreigner in that land. And she talks about the concept of home, about language, of speaking with her heart, with her tongue; of chance; of things happening for a reason; of having a second heart. All those, you know, you try to validate it, if they’re really [right] for you, [and fit in with] your own set of beliefs, in your belief system. All those questions you really need to think about also.
AT: I thought one thing that she said was quite striking, when she said, she speaks better German than she does English, but she’s much more comfortable in Russian that either and when she speaks in Russian she feels like she’s speaking from the heart. Which could be why you didn’t subtitle some of those words…
JT: Well… in reality it was just her saying, “Do you like ice cream?” (laughs)
AT: I think it might also be the idea that that barrier between people that exists of people of not common cultures.
JT: Ah yes definitely.
AT: And she was the one who was the art student…
JT: No, no, it’s Leonardo’s ex-girlfriend…
AT: Who was an art student in…
AT: Where did that come from?
JT: Well, uh, [smiles] curious detail is that I also met a person from Munich. And she’s really a good friend, but just that, just a friend. And I just thought about that, when I was typing the subtitles. Think of a detail that you know… so there.
AT: And her name is thanked in the credits?
JT: Yes. Susanne. Yeah uh, I think she’ll be….
AT: She’ll be the next film?
JT: I don’t think so. (laughs). No, no. I think I’m gonna do a film on my Dad, next. But yeah, I think she will be…
AT: She will be in what?
JT: She will be in my future… (laughs) short film.
AT: I was curious also—and this I bring up because it is something I know—you mentioned that Olga was married. And I was wondering if making the relationship between the narrator and his other, married, as if perhaps that was a statement or something that you wanted to communicate to her, to Olga, about marriage. I imagine for you, being someone who takes this so seriously, it must have been a very big deal for you to find out that she was married and perhaps, it affected the way that you see her a little bit, or a lot.
JT: Yes, yes, yes. A lot. Actually, we met again in Berlin and we really got to talk more and more, and we talked about her belief in God and all the issues that revolve around it. And it was just, nice…
AT: Her belief in God or lack thereof?
JT: Yes. It puts things in perspective, having the distance and the time and coming back, and you know, knowing more and more about the person. And I still—wow—like her very much you know, but I see her differently now. Not because she doesn’t believe in God, but because of the other issues that follow because of that. You cannot believe in God, but believe in goodness – well she believes in goodness – but believes in similar things that you also hold to your convictions. You can share convictions without sharing your belief in God; somehow that still works. So you get a clearer picture of things, when you have that distance. But this was a very, very, very nice chat. So the difference now is that when I go back to Berlin, there’s nothing, no more tension on my part, because I’ve reconciled with this issue already, and it’s nice. But in the film, that detail wasn’t really… if it still talks about sacredness, there’s commitment, there’s the relationship of marriage, the sacrament of marriage, I’m still happy about that
AT: You used the term, earlier, infidelity, in regard to yourself. I wanted you to define what you meant by that, if you would be comfortable doing so.
JT: Well umm….[pauses]
AT: So that the readership is not mistaken and they can help to understand you, and your film better.
JT: Let me just say this: even with the mind you can be really unfaithful. It doesn’t happen to be involving physical contact. Even with your own desires you can be unfaithful. I hope you find it (laughs) … so there. It’s not as bad as it sounds, but I’m not saying I’m clean.
AT: You’re not saying you’re clean or you’re saying you’re clean?
JT: I’m not saying I’m clean. But the point is that you can be unfaithful with your mind and your heart and not even touch the person. That’s where it all starts. And that’s a big step actually.
AT: What’s a big step?
JT: To desire the person from within, first. It’s just a starting point, right? But it’s very serious. Sometimes people just say, “Hey, I didn’t cheat once” just because they didn’t have physical contact. For me, it is [still cheating]. It is. Actually, if you see the film, there were no sex scenes, there were no love scenes, but those [scenes in the film] were equally intimate.
AT: There was a hand on the shoulder…
JT: Hand on the shoulder, the rubbing of the arm. Sometimes in a way, they’re more intimate, you know.
AT: Oh definitely. Because when you see those scenes, and you know that it’s not just something physical, that there’s an emotional warmth…
JT: Oo grabe yun, sobra! [Yeah, that’s intense!]
AT: I imagine seeing you rubbing her arm, or the hand on the shoulder must be something that was, a bit testing for Ina.
JT: This is a curious detail: one scene, with my index finger, I touched her eye bags. And I usually do that to Ina. And just seeing an act being repeated to another person: it’s…it’s terrible. It’s our…it’s our… touch. It’s our way of being intimate to each other. That’s terrible. It’s worse sometimes than a kiss. Because it’s something that has been “owned” supposedly by a relationship. It’s an intimate detail. Because both of them have very large eye bags, especially when they’re stressed. Especially Ina. Ina has very cute eye bags. (both laugh)
AT: So now you have to come up with something else. (laugh)
JT: The scene where I was trying to touch her arm, and [am] just curiously looking at and rubbing the hair strands. It was really difficult for her.
AT: So will all of your films involve found-footage, women, be personal, semi-autobiographical?
JT: It’s good that you [say] semi-autobiographical. It’s semi! Not all of those are true. But yeah, wow, during the home stretch of editing the film, I swore, I swore that I would never undergo this process again. But, but…
AT: But you just told me you have a Susanne film, and a film about your father, and…
JT: Aah, who knows? I… don’t know. This is the only way I know how to make a film.
AT: I personally don’t see anything wrong with it. I can see it being very difficult for you personally. I just read with Apichatpong who was talking about how, his films are very personal, whether they are autobiographical or not, they are very personal. And he wants it to be that way, so much so, that in the future, Apichatpong will be a character in his films. That he himself will be, and people will go to his films to see, what’s new in the life of Apichatpong. And I think that’s something that is very much so beginning to happen in your films. What is new in the life of John Torres?
JT: I used to kid my friends, “You know, if you want to know how I am, just watch my films”. And you really get a very personal sample of what I’ve been going through. What I’m going through now, and what I went through before. Just watch Tawidgutom first, and then [the rest]… well yeah, I don’t mind that. It’s actually…it’s nice.
AT: Is this something that you were fond of before you started to make your films?
JT: It’s torture, man!
AT: No, no, before you started to make your film, was this type of cinema something you were fond of?
JT: To tell you the truth I hadn’t seen films with this type of treatment. Not that I’m saying that this hasn’t been done, but, no…
AT: The closest thing that I can think of in a Philippine setting is Kidlat Tahimik, who has himself in his films, uses himself, his voiceover, into one or more characters in some of his films.
JT: Ah, yeah, of course. He is a very strong influence, as you know. But when making the film I just didn’t think about making a Kidlat Tahimik film, just consciously trying to stay in that mode. It just happened, and curiously I just started with my own experiences, because that’s the only story I know, the only story I could tell.
AT: You wanted to be a filmmaker for quite some time, and you’ve apprenticed under a Filipino filmmaker, Carlitos Siguion-Reyna, and personally you have told me about how you were stuck in an office job for quite some time until you finally made the leap and said “No, I will make films, I will do my art, I will do what I want to do.” And so you stopped working. At the time you were doing that, did you know that these were the types of films that you were going to make? These personal, biographical films, or were you planning—I’ll make [a] narrative, I’ll write a script, I’ll do the conventional film.
JT: I just knew I would be making films, but I didn’t know how. Maybe [it’s] because I was too impatient to write, because all of these images were rushing to my head, and I couldn’t afford to wait [so I ended up making films like these]. I couldn’t afford to wait for a good camera, actually. There were nights when I felt like exploding, I would drive out and go straight to the streets and just shoot and shoot and I didn’t know what the heck I was shooting. But I just kept it there.
AT: While you were working in the office, were you not shooting?
JT: No. Not while I was working because it took most of my time, man. I was commuting from Quezon City to Makati and when I get back home, I’d be too tired already to go out and think of things, because I had to wake up early. But just one day, just one day… it helped also that there was a break also from my relationship with my first girlfriend. And that was just me being fearless and just saying, what the heck I’ll just do what I’m supposed to do, what I want to do, what I’ve been dreaming to do, because I couldn’t afford to die not making a film.
AT: When you started to make these films did you already know that, you started to make them and they were very personal, and you were using found footage…
JT: I didn’t even know there was a term called “found footage”. I am an outsider, really. I don’t know the people within the industry. I actually just wanted to make something that I could show to myself, first of all, and to people who hung out with me in Los Otros, my studio in Katipunan. Just a few friends. I never dreamed I’d be showing these to strangers, to foreigners, to a larger audience, Russians, Germans.
AT: When you started, and when you finished films, at first you were just showing them to close friends. Was there a point where you just thought, okay, that’s it?
JT: Definitely, definitely! I never dreamed that… it’s just mind-boggling that, you know… [sounds baffled].
AT: At what point, when the time came, that possibly people were interested in your work and wanted to show it or wanted it to be shown, was there a point where you said I’m uncomfortable with showing it now?
JT: You know that man! You were the first one to watch that wasn’t that… at that time when you watched we were acquaintances. We had just met once, with this friend of ours, and you were the first one. And you know I was really hesitant when you asked me to guest on this TV Show that you were part of, for an episode about independent filmmaking. I almost told you, I told you I guess that I wasn’t up to it, but you just kept on. And now I tell my friends,“ Be careful, you don’t know what you’re rejecting, what opportunities you’re turning down”. So, it’s a really big thing, man, that I said yes, and that you invited me, and that paved the way for me to give my film to a fellow filmmaker who gave it to the festival director in Singapore, who liked it, and man, that was my first big break, and from there everything just flowed and just continued.
AT: Was it that you started being comfortable with the idea of showing your works to people you were not close with after the show? Or just before you went on air on the show? I mean at one point were you saying… okay this is getting easier.
JT: It’s getting easier. Well, it helps that you are forced to speak in front of the audience during the Q&A and during the filmmaker’s introduction before the film; it helps that you get those experiences. But until now, I’m still not used to this, still not used to strangers watching and connecting to my film. I was so amazed that people who are really opposite me: white, old, gray-haired business-like people, men, actually recognize me and congratulate me and they say that they can somehow connect. So that’s really amazing [smiles] and I’m still not used to that. But yeah, more and more, slowly [I’m getting more comfortable].
AT: What effect has that kind of reception and that kind of interaction with the audience had on you? Has it helped make you a braver filmmaker?
JT: Oh definitely, definitely. There is hope that I can also connect to people I don’t even know. It definitely makes me bolder to experiment more and play more, which digitally technology affords. They can let you play around with the medium. So it’s perfect. It’s a perfect setting now for me. It’s a set-up that I can work freely in.
AT: Todo Todo Teros just had its World Premiere in the Singapore International Film Festival, where director Philip Cheah has been very supportive of your work. You tied with another film for the Fipresci prize. What did winning this award mean to you?
JT: Man, oh man. I can never thank him enough for the belief and the faith that he has on my work. Without him and you of course, I think my DVDs would remain shelved in my workplace in Katipunan.
Winning the NETPAC/FIPRESCI award meant that I am doing something right after all; that I can make a film my way; that I need not do it from script to screen, but rather, from screen to script; that I can spend more on time and personal reflection than money and financial investment. That creatively, I can retain out-of-focus shots to make clear, emphatic statements. That I can do without lighting and dollies and cranes. That I can get support from friends, who provide their talents freely. As I said in my acceptance speech, all these can serve to terrorize a commercially-driven system of making, acquiring, and distribution of films.
It is good to be reminded that I am making a difference, but I try not to dwell on the award and the certificate too much because I tend to lose track of the main point, which is to connect and make a dent in other peoples' lives.
Winning my first award for a feature film is extra sweet since Singapore serves as the first home of all my films.
AT: You've mentioned to me some radical ideas you have with regard to distributing your film locally; can you tell me more about them?
JT: If it weren't illegal, I would really sit down and talk to the pirates and make them my channel of distribution. They have a vast network, and they keep the prices down low. I would rather that more people see my film than make more money with a lot fewer viewers. I am quite comfortable with this idea because I—in the first place—never really invested millions making the film, and so I don't really have millions to lose.
I have gone as far as talking to quite a few of them and asking them how much they make per DVD. It is quite interesting to get to know them and how they work.
AT: But if you own the rights to your film, and are selling it freely through them (the pirates) would it still be illegal? What is hindering you from going this route?
JT: Well I guess it would be okay, but I think they would argue that you are doing business with petty criminals. It’s like you're dealing with the video mafia.
AT: How much did the film cost to make?
JT: Financially, it just cost me the mini-DV tapes. No crew, no lights, no meetings, nothing. So it was really cheap to make. But of course, just making the feature entailed a lot of turning down projects and freelance work that helped paid the bill, so in a way, it cost me a lot more than those mini-DV tapes.
AT: Are you considering trying to release your film commercially in the Philippines—at least on SM's digital cinemas? Do you think this is something that Philippine audiences are ready for?
JT: Yes, I would love to screen on digital cinemas here. I think the movie-going public is not there yet, but I know they are in the right direction. Thank God for guys like Lav Diaz, Rox Lee, and other guerilla filmmakers who are paving the way for us younger directors.
Thank God for the pirates who in a way educate them with better selections of films. Thank God also for festivals sponsored by embassies, for the Hubert Bals and other foreign orgs supportive of third world filmmakers.
I wouldn't expect to make much from a theatrical release, but I am more hopeful doing the rounds of schools and universities.
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