Erenlai - Items filtered by date: Monday, 01 November 2010

The first film directed by and starring Kidlat Tahimik is Perfumed Nightmare (1977). He is a Phillipines born director who released this film with the help of Francis Ford Coppola. Although his films were shown as part of the documentary film festival in Taizhong at the end of October, they do not follow the style of the conventional documentary, and incorporate what could be called performance art, or a performative rendition of memory, experience and emotion.

The director, in what seem to be fictionalized sequences, traces his memory of setting out from the Phillipines to France and then the US. The director seems to attempt an experiential or sensous recreation of the trip. First setting out from his imagination of the West, a kind of Occidentalist structure with its foundation in Voice of America broadcasts and dealings with American soldiers and later recognizing the error in this imaginary of the West. The film employs a lot of surrealist imagery to fragment the logic of the narrative and the events on screen quite often happen in contradiction to the narrative voice of the film.

The film seemed to be countering the notion that modernization in the guise of progress is a good blueprint for what in the West is referred to as "The Third World". The protagonist who had been eager for progress to occur rescinds his membership from a fan club of an immigrant to America who helped to build the Apollo space shuttle. This signals his realization that the American dream is not the path to happiness. At first he is awed by France but as he grows accustomed to life there, he realizes that technological progress does not endow places or things with the meanings and emotions that places and things are endowed with in his hometown. The faceless encroach of the supermarket on the 4 seasons market confirms for him this absence of meaning that he comes upon in the West. Despite his ever more caustic tone in his films, Tahimik, in his interview with erenlai.com, insists that he is not anti-Western in his sentiments, but rather feels that the contemporary world could benefit from the application of aboriginal values to modern life, the indi-genius way, as he calls it. A theme he goes on to develop in his film Why is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow (1994), suggesting that "old ways" are essentially an untapped resource in terms o_MG_0912f conservation and ecology; what he calls "an inbuilt brake system" Although used in an ironic tone in this later film, he adopts the dichotomy of first and second world on one hand and "the third world" on the other, dividing the world into "indigenous" and "Western" peoples, he seems to buy into this way of categorizing the world, which in essence is a result of a Western ethnocentric psyche. He traces the recent social and political events of the Philippines through the eyes of his son, Kidlat. He seems to be continually harking back to an imagined "non-Westernized" Filippino nation, embodied in his mind, in the Igorot aborigines. This is stressed in another of his films, his 1981 film Turumba, narrated from the perspective of a young boy called Kadu, gives an account of the dehumanizing effects of the European system of mass production on the village where Kadu lives. The local craft of Papier-mâché prepared for a local festival called "Turumba" is distorted and homogenized by a German woman who starts to export the craft works to Germany en masse. What had originally been a family enterprise laden with tradition, becomes a sudo-sweat shop, and the models that had been used before are discarded for the 1971 Munich Olympic Games mascot. Kadu's father who originally had been the Kantore at the festival every year becomes the boss of this enterprise and becomes obsessed with accruing status symbols of wealth, including a TV, a Mercedes Benz, foreign travel. This material wealth is contrasted to Pati, a machete maker, who lives simply but happily without the pressures of trying to prove wealth in material possessions.

 

The theme of both of these films along with Tahimik's debut film, Perfumed Nightmare, talk of a disillusion with the Western "developed world" and a pastoral longing for a simpler life uncomplicated by a imported system of values. These films reminded me somewhat of the short story 蕭蕭 (Xiaoxiao) by 沈從文 (Shen Congwen). The short story, in one interpretation, conveys a longing for life on the margins of civilization, as yet untouched by modernization. The old society's rules and laws although seemingly chauvinistic and oppressive are regulated by the institutions and the men and women within the society. This is represented within the story by the horrible things we hear about how women are treated in the society in which Xiaoxiao lives, but the relatively benign treatment of the protagonist herself, which denies us a feminist reading of the story. This suggests the pre-Western society had already evolved an independent "Chinese Modernism", the potential of which was lost with over-exposure to Western modernism. The film like this short story seem to be praising this cultural wilderness while simultaneously acknowledging its coming destruction. Both the film and the short story question the prizing of the modern above the native, and seem to point to an already void desire to found an alternative Eastern modernism, independent of the perils of what is often called "The American Dream".

 

Some excellent bits of the first film include the Filippino cast "whiting up" in a scene where they act as the white guests at a farewell party that make Kidlat feel small, prompting him to say:

I am Kidlat Tahimik, I'm not as small as you think, nothing can stop me from crossing my bridge.


Another scene, earlier on in the film, is where religious self flagellation is portrayed, and Kidlat goes to pray to the Virgin Mary, who speaks to him in a very crude manner, revealing the snideness of an icon who demands the pain of self-flaggelation. Mary describes Kidlat in the garb of self-flaggelation as "sexy". In his interview he discusses in more detail his relationship with religion, particularly Catholicism. Which he sees not as an enemy but as a circumstance, which has interfered with the cultural brake mechanism in the Philippines.

His apparent view of Western culture is summarized in his first film as follows:
 
 
The white carabao is rare, it is born against nature. The white carabao is beautiful but inside its cold and aggressive. One day, Kidlat, you will understand that the beauty of the white carabao is like the sweetness of the chewing gum the American soldiers gave you.

This seems to me to indicate the illusion created by Eastern imagination of the Occident and the subsequent disillusion that it begets.

A Clip from Perfumed Nightmare

Yau Ching (游靜) is a documentary filmmaker and professor based in Hong Kong. She was present at the Taiwan Documentary Film Festival this year where her film We Are Alive was nominated for the Asian Vision Award. Since it was one of my favourite films at the festival, both stylistically and in mission, I was delighted to interview Yao Ching about her documentary film and her own youth experiences.
 

What were you trying to show about these ‘bad’ kids? Was there a message you were trying to give?

I didn’t really show the kids, to be exact. The kids showed themselves. I basically did a series of workshops in these so-called reform institutes or detention centres in three different places. Hong Kong, Macao and Sapporo, Japan. At the workshops I gave the kids access to a bunch of video cameras, still cameras and audio recorders, for them to express themselves through these media. I gave them some exercises and themes as a means to talk about their feelings and thoughts. Through the exercises they were able to talk about their dreams, their fantasies, to write letters to themselves – their future selves; to talk about their families and most memorable memories. They were able to show a ‘self’ which is normally ignored or dismissed by mainstream media and institutions because they’ve been labeled as bad kids by society. Basically, in these very moralizing environments, these kids have lost quite a lot of their dreams and hopes for the future. I hoped that through these exercises they could regain some of this sense of self-recognition and self-confidence, so they could value their differences with other people and be able to think of themselves as having meaningful lives, not just the life defined by the legal institutions.

Is this why you asked them where they wanted to be 5 years in the future?

Actually that was a question about what kind of video you would write to your future self. I was hoping that through this exercise, they could see themselves as having a kind of continuity in their lives, not just that they were being segregated in this system, and this is the end of your life. Then you restart completely from nothing. This kind of amnesia doesn’t really make people recognize and learn from their past experiences. What I value for my own self growth for example, is how I can make sense of my past experiences as something I can use to improve myself, to grow and expand my vision for the future. Building that continuity through media and video, I was hoping they could think like people who had a future and past and could come to terms with things.

Have you ever been incarcerated?

No. That’s a very good question. I was a very good studious kid in my childhood, but then in my adolescence I was suddenly labeled a very ‘bad’ kid due to my gender and sexuality. This dramatic shift from good kid to bad kid has constructed me very deeply, in that I was forced to rethink some of the assumptions behind these constructions and labels. So, this project was also a way for me to rethink some of these values, such as what it means to be a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ kid in society.

Are there ways you think the penitentiary system in Asia can be improved on and how would you go about it?

From my limited experience, dealing with some institutions in limited places, I think that the whole youth reform system has to reconsider what education for youth is, rather than simply shutting them off from society or incarcerating and isolating them – even in terms of information flow, so that they are denied access to mainstream society and so that mainstream society doesn’t have to see them; as if this would make society much more safe and civilized. We have to actually rethink our priorities so that society can help these kids grow up and be useful for society and we could even learn a lot from them. There is a lot to be learnt by society about diversity in East Asia. A lot of the youth problems that we are facing these days, could be coming from the inability of adults to cope with diversity.  Our children have been growing up very fast with a lot of access to different kinds of information; thus they grew up being a lot more diverse than we were in the old days. So we adults have to learn to look at some of these, to register, to consult and to learn from these kids. Not just to erase them.

Do you think that any of the kids got some useful inspiration by the documentary process?

It wasn’t really a documentary by me, but a collaborative process between me and the workshop participants. Thus, from the exercises they did themselves and with me, you can see that they have grown over the course of the workshop. I have learnt a lot from them. I think that they have learnt a lot too, not necessarily from me, but more from their own process of making the works, of having that freedom, however temporary it was, to tell these stories about themselves. I always think that telling your own stories to someone else is therapeutic. You can see through the workshop how every time they recount the story it is a little different. So, just through that process of telling, they are already learning.

 

 

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