by Patrick Campos, Film Institute of the University of the Philippines
With Kidlat Tahimik, whose name in Tagalog means “quiet lightning,” the films and the filmmaker are one. He has continually invented himself through his cinema, and so his cinema is as singular as the man. Born as Eric de Guia in 1942 in the American-fashioned Baguio City, north of Luzon, he received his MBA from Wharton and worked as an economist in France before stumbling upon a 16mm Bolex in Germany. In an act of defiance that recalled the Filipino revolutionaries’ tearing of their cédulas in 1896 to declare independence from Spain, he tore his diploma in 1972 to become an artist and to rediscover his roots. Before embarking on his own career, Kidlat was instrumental in making Lino Brocka’s You Were Weighed and Found Wanting (1974) possible by introducing the director to small-stake investors. Kidlat has since then epitomized the possibilities of alternative filmmaking and the artisanal mode of production. In 1974, he was cast in Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kasper Hauser (1974) as a village chief who plays his nose-flute to keep his tribe alive. The role prefigured the persona that he would assume and exceed in the coming years.
As the golden age of Philippine cinema was ushered in by Brocka’s Manila in the Claws of Neon Lights (1975), Ishmael Bernal’s Speck in the Lake (1976), and Mike de Leon’s Rites of May (1976), Kidlat moved along a parallel track. His debut film, Perfumed Nightmare (1977), won three prizes at the Berlin Film Festival. It was distributed by Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope and premiered in the James Agee Cinema in New York. It tells the story of an alter-ego, “Kidlat Tahimik,” a cab driver under the spell of the American Dream/Perfumed Nightmare. This driver travels to Europe en route to the U.S. to pursue his dreams but is disillusioned when he meets vendors and artisans in Europe threatened out of business by the onslaught of “progress” and when he receives news that his rural village has been flattened out also in the name of “progress.”
As a crisis of belief ensues, he recalls the extraordinary exploits of his father, who was a revolutionary hero against Spain and America.In the end, with the power sparked in him by a wooden horse carved out of his father’s rifle, Kidlat Tahimik magically blows away masked figures that symbolized western domination. Perfumed Nightmare rehearses the performances in Kidlat’s own life, molding the film as autobiographical and allegorical. It is an anticolonial counter-narrative that would provide the ground for Eric de Guia to assume the identity of his cinematic invention, Kidlat Tahimik.
His next three works continue his quest to film counter-histories and to reinvent his identity. Memories of Overdevelopment, begun in 1980, follows the odyssey of Enrique de Malacca, slave of Magellan, the first man (a Filipino in Kidlat’s fancy) to circumnavigate the world. Who Invented the Yoyo? (1981) is about a man who wants to build a space shuttle out of junk so that he could play yoyo on the moon. The story critiques the idea of space travel as a form of conquest and reclaims the innocence of the act of looking up to the skies. Turumba (1983) tells the story of a rural village that is disrupted and turned into an assembly-line factory by a German businesswoman. It won Best Third World Film at the Mannheim Film Festival. These works bore the marks of their milieu like the other films of the golden age, albeit with a film language all Kidlat’s own. This milieu was defined by Martial Law in the Philippines under the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Following his successes in Europe and the U.S., and even with the precarious situation in the Philippines, Kidlat decided to resettle in Baguio with his family. The environment of violence that greeted Kidlat upon his arrival moved him to make a more explicitly political film. This was the disposition of Why is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow? which he started filming in 1983, at the height of social unrest, and finished in 1994. Kidlat’s “imperfect” film, wrought out of junk, was an exemplar of Third Cinema that was critical of neocolonial exploitation and state oppression.
It is a freewheeling account of history told through the everyday with one thread of the narrative following the life of Kidlat and his family and the other following the fall of Marcos and its aftermath. But unlike the aesthetics of Third Cinema in Latin America, Kidlat’s film, as with his entire cinema, does not glory in ugliness. His works, even those that lament injustice and violence, are premised on the hope of possible, though yet unrealized, triumph. His constant claim is that whatever “progress” has relegated to the realm of sadness and poverty should never remain self-referentially sad or poor. And the key to understanding this reversal, which precedes social change, is to transgress the bounds of the measures of progress that degrades.
Why is Yellow exemplified Kidlat’s kapa-kapa [groping] method and Bathala na [literally, “God’s will be done”] script, which try to counter the colonially stigmatized notion of bahala na (come what may) fatalism. The former is the act of resigning to “Cosmic Will” after one has given the “best energies, best inputs, best heart.” The latter comes from “the feeling of helplessness working for colonial masters.”His artistic decisions seem whimsical, but it is because, according to him, it includes the whole cosmos. The sense that one’s cinema, like the process of self-invention, is unfinishable is also crystallized by Why is Yellow the Middle Color of the Rainbow?. It was first released as I am Furious (Yellow) (1989), a celebration of the People Power revolution that ousted Marcos. Then it was transformed into a statement of defiance in 1994, for it became clear that the promise of democracy, land reform, and decolonization has been betrayed. Even in the premiere screening of Why is Yellow in Japan, Kidlat was still editing the film before an audience as part of a performance.
As he was finishing Why is Yellow, a shift in his mode of filmmaking became apparent. Instead of the grand gestures of his early films, he started making films essays and “photo albums” (Takedera Mon Amour ; Japanese Summers of a Filipino Fundoshi ), letters (Orbit 50: Letters to My 3 Sons ; Some More Rice (2005)], collages (Roofs of the World! UNITE! (2006]), and travel diaries and “missions” (Our Bomb Mission to Hiroshima , Celebrating 2021 Today , Holy Wood , Our Film-Grimage to Guimaras (2006)].
In these shorter works we see the bases of his filmic rituals — a careful attention to and collection of the detritus of everyday moments and an urge to remark on unremarkable details. Each of his works is an evocation of particular places recorded at various times, unified in the present, first, by the retrospective consciousness of the filmmaker and, second, by the spectator who journeys with the artist through the act of watching. Kidlat probes cinematic form through associative juxtapositions, nondiegetic inserts, asynchronous sound design, percussive musical score, and voiceover, attempting always to arrive at a present and ongoing time. It is this condition of the self-conscious present with its contingencies and ordinariness that defines the way Kidlat looks back to the past and looks forward to the future through his films.
If the direction of Kidlat from the 1970s and 1980s was waking up from the American Dream and heading home, his direction in the 1990s and 2000s was both outward, through his many travels and cultural exchanges, and inward, from the busyness of city life to the restful calm of the mountains. The films of this period document Kidlat’s efforts to reconnect with indigenous Igorot culture and to compare it with other ancient Asian cultures in the Himalayas and especially in Japan. He juxtaposes places, practices, and people — Tibetans and Igorots carrying wood across the forest, kimono-clad women dancing with bahag-wearing men, Igorot gongs clanging from a Japanese farm. The insistence is that age-old traditions in Asia remain vibrant and must continue to resist the consumerist and homogenizing forces of globalization. The films of the 2000s also narrate Kidlat’s decision to retire in the Ifugao rice terraces and live the life of a farmer, no longer as Kidlat Tahimik but as Elder Brother Kabigat.
As a new wave of independent films came in the 2000s, so did a new generation look back to Kidlat’s pioneering work as a source of inspiration. Kidlat received a Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (2008) and the University of the Philippines (2009), the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize (2012), and the Cinemalaya Award for Outstanding Contribution to Philippine Independent Cinema (2014), in addition to his Lifetime Achievement trophy from the Film Academy of the Philippines (1994).
His last film, Balikbayan #1 (2015) [literally, the first returning native], is the completed version of Memories of Overdevelopment, a work that combines his earlier counter-history with his later mode of filmmaking. It won the Caligari prize at the Berlin Film Festival, where he premiered his first film. Itends not only with Enrique de Malacca returning from Europe to the Philippines as a free man, a native and a modern figure at the same time. It also concludes with diary footage of Kidlat telling his grandson about journeys and homecomings and explaining to the spectators why Balikbayan #1, as with his cinema, cannot be concluded but must ever go on in the quest to become, beyond the closing credits.