You cannot build rocket ships from bamboo ‒Kidlat Tahimik and Third Cinema
by Fabian Tietke
In 1969 Argentinian filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino wrote in the introduction to their seminal manifesto „Towards a Third Cinema“: „Just a short time ago it would have seemed like a Quixotic adventure in the colonialized, neocolonialized, or even the imperialist nations themselves to make any attempt to create films of decolonization that turned their back on or actively opposed the System. “ In their manifesto Solanas and Getino outline a possible future cinema of decolonization based on the experiences with a newly flourishing militant cinema in Latin America. Yet, in spite of all the promising signs identified by Solanas and Getino for films that openly criticize imperialism no longer being Quixotic endeavours, each and every one of Kidlat Tahimik's films proved to be just that: Quixotic. weiter lesen
You cannot build rocket ships from bamboo ‒Kidlat Tahimik and Third Cinema
by Fabian Tietke
In 1969 Argentinian filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino wrote in the introduction to their seminal manifesto „Towards a Third Cinema“: „Just a short time ago it would have seemed like a Quixotic adventure in the colonialized, neocolonialized, or even the imperialist nations themselves to make any attempt to create films of decolonization that turned their back on or actively opposed the System. “(1)
In their manifesto Solanas and Getino outline a possible future cinema of decolonization based on the experiences with a newly flourishing militant cinema in Latin America. Yet, in spite of all the promising signs identified by Solanas and Getino for films that openly criticize imperialism no longer being Quixotic endeavours, each and every one of Kidlat Tahimik's films proved to be just that: Quixotic. Ever since his debut The Perfumed Nightmare Tahimik has continually fought the windmills of film production to be able to make his films. In tinkering bits of the Philippine's colonial past and its decolonized present together with pieces of European self-conceptions Tahimik found his personal take on political cinema.
About ten minutes into his debut feature Tahimik's alter ego listens to the Voice of America's Breakfast Show. While the voice streams from the radio, we see the alter ego cutting the image of a blonde young woman in a red swimsuit from a Miss Universe poster. Then the voice of Tahimik's alter ego starts to cite a letter to the editors of the Breakfast Show in answer to the broadcast he just heard. He asks the radio station to play the first words of the US-astronaut that first set foot on the moon. As his address he gives: Kidlat Tahimik, president of the Wernher von Braun fan club of Balian. After a cut he informs his mother that he no longer dreams of Disney Land but of Cape Canaveral. This scene can be understood as a parody of the encounter of an inhabitant of a remote village in the Philippines with icons of Western post war modernization – Disney Land, the space program and beauty competitions. By moving these icons of modernization from their usual context and then adding complete adoration, the film reveals the absurdity of modernization's popular image. This strategy of challenging the self-confidence of Western modernization by challenging its icons remains a constant throughout the film.
Later in the film Tahimik lets a voice declare in biting irony „Liberté, egalité, fraternité, supermarché“ over the images of another one of the ubiquitous construction sites in Paris. Supermarkets replace street vendors in Paris, modernity grinds its way into the cities. Buildings turn into rocket ships, imagination makes reality match the imaginary. The idea of a DIY space flight will remain a recurring element in Kidlat Tahimik's first two films. The high-tech of space programs is frequently juxtaposed by references to bamboo as make-shift construction material for nearly everything. Tahimik uses this juxtaposition to make power structures visible and challenge them. In the manifest of Solanas and Getino astronauts and space flights are examples of imperialism for lack of „our own revolutionary engineering“(2) Tahimik's recurring DIY space shuttles and rockets are playing on precisely this gap.
The analysis of the possibilities of political filmmaking under the existing conditions by Solanas/Getino sees filmmaking in a broader context: “Culture, art, science and cinema always respond to conflicting class interests. In the neocolonial situation two concepts of culture, art, science and cinema compete: that of the rulers and that of the nation. And this situation will continue, as long as the national concept is not identified with that of the rulers, as long as the status of colony or semicolony continues in force. [...] In the meantime, there exist our culture and their culture, our cinema and their cinema. Because our cinema is an impluse towards emancipation it will remain in existence until emancipation is a reality.”3 Kidlat Tahimik's films do not subordinate themselves to these opposites. They are playfully utopian sketches of emancipation. This paper seeks to follow the connections between the films of Kidlat Tahimik and the concept of Third Cinema. In order to do so it will look for firm ground regarding the question what Third Cinema is. Following this I will discuss a number of possible connections and differences between the work of Kidlat Tahimik and Third Cinema that may shed as much light on the prior as on the latter.
What is Third Cinema?
The term Third Cinema was coined by the manifesto by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino. They wrote it while working on the film La hora de los hornos (The hour of the furnaces, 1968) – a ground breaking essay film on the contemporary political condition of Argentina of over four hour length. La hora de los hornos became a favorite of film festivals for years to come. In Argentina it was distributed mainly through unofficial screenings. Solanas and Getino saw the only real alternative to the consumerist mainstream cinema and the author-centred notion of New Wave cinematographies in “making films that the System cannot assimilate and which are foreign to its needs, or making films that directly and explicitly set out to fight the System. Neither of these requirements fits within the alternatives that are still offered by the second cinema, but can be found in the revolutionary opening towards a cinema outside and against the System, in a cinema of liberation: the third cinema.”(4) In short: Solanas and Getino define Third Cinema as a weapon in the struggle for liberation, as “a gun that can shoot 24 frames per second.”(5) Following this first attempt at a definition they list a number of films that they see as first signs of a Third Cinema.
Not much is said on the question whether there are stylistic and aesthetic elements that define this cinema. Indeed the films of these years do not share an underlying aesthetic. Yet many of the films share an idea how they should be produced. “Junto al pueblo” - the images of the Third Cinema were intended to be achieved by working with the people for the people. Filmmakers such as the Bolivian Jorge Sanjinés produced their films collectively with miners and indigenous people striving for a collective auto-narration of the oppressed. Third Cinema challenged the labour division between those filming and those filmed.
These decisions came at a visual prize: most films were shot on 16mm black and white film, often with no or very limited artificial light and a very reduced use of music. The predomination of documentary filmmaking and the choice of adopting a realist stance on fictional filmmaking hint at neorealist films as a self-chosen precursor and the feeling of necessity to present the realities which called for emancipation. The Third Cinema did look different from the glamour of Hollywood cinema and the artistic perfection of New Wave cinematographies.(6)
Two important questions arise after reading “Towards a Third Cinema“: First, are there geographical limits to the idea of Third Cinema, and second, are there chronological limits to this cinema? The first question comes at least close to being answered in the manifesto as films from Italy and Japan are named alongside La hora de los hornos and other examples from Latin America.(7) The second question is necessarily left without an answer.
Most authors dealing with Third Cinema in later years opt not to set chronological limits to the term. Gerald MacDonald, exploring Kidlat Tahimik's first feature within the theoretical realm of Third Cinema, defines it as follows: “Third Cinema is the cinema of radical politics. Its primary aim is to subvert the institutions of the dominant society through direct influence on the viewing audience. [...] It is also a self-reflexive cinema that attempts to reform cinematic practice along egalitarian, non-hierarchical lines.”(8) MacDonald decides against chronological or geographical limits and even the link between Third Cinema and decolonization seems to be somewhat shaky in his definition.
Marxist film scholar Mike Wayne takes this notion a step further. In his book “Political film. The Dialectics of Third Cinema”, Wayne sets out to redefine and sharpen the relations between First, Second and Third Cinema, “in order to rescue Third Cinema from the common conflation that is made between Third Cinema and Third World Cinema. Third Cinema is not to be restricted to the so-called Third World. First, Second and Third Cinemas do not designate geographical areas, but institutional structures/working practices, associated aesthetic strategies and their attendant cultural politics.”(9) Wayne rescues the ideas of the Third Cinema for political filmmaking of the present by separating the intentions of Third Cinema from its historical context even further than MacDonald did.
Yet, while some of his discussions of Third Cinema's relations to First and Second cinema are enlightening, one cannot help but wonder what might be gained by extending the term Third Cinema into the present. The idea of an internationalist Third Cinema struggling for films to promote (in one way or another) decolonization seems to be born from a situation too specific (that of the late 1960s and 1970s) to just remove all chronological limits to the term. Solanas and Getino have been very clear that Third Cinema was intended as a cinema that was closely linked to political practice. By this they meant practice on the streets: manifestations, protests, barricades and the like.(10) Extending the term Third Cinema beyond the context of its birth unnecessarily blurs the term.
Wayne's reassessment of Third Cinema and his tendency to link the Third Cinema with contemporary concepts of political filmmaking refer to a manifesto written by Cuban filmmaker Tomás Gutiérrez Alea in 1980, titled “The Viewer's Dialectic”.(11) Alea juxtaposes Cuban and US cinema, discusses social functions of cinema and the relation between film and social realities. He sets film “as a spectacle” against film “as a vehicle of ideas” in the quest for a revolutionary film or people's film. Alea's films from the 1960s and 1970s share some notions with the concept of Third Cinema as laid out by Solanas and Getino. The manifesto “The Viewer's Dialectic” however, focuses on the question how cinema can serve as a popular mode of propagating ideas without turning into a spectacle. By using this manifesto as a bridge between Third Cinema and contemporary ideas of political cinema Wayne loses one important element of Third Cinema on his way: the transnational or internationalist approach. The concept of Third Cinema as a cinema of decolonization was commonly understood in the 1960s and 1970s as a transnational struggle against Western imperialism. In fact one might argue the one common element in most films of the Third Cinema is that they address transnational power structures. Hence ridding the concept of Third Cinema from the inherent connection with the struggle for decolonization leaves us with not much more than political film.
Does any of this help to answer the question what Kidlat Tahimik's filmmaking might have to do with Third Cinema? It may in two ways: Firstly having found that there is no consistent theory of Third Cinema we can drop the idea to answer the question by reference to a commonly accepted definition of the term. Secondly we have identified an element that Tahimik's film share with most of the films of Third Cinema in the way transnational power structures are addressed. So how to proceed? To get an idea what we might be looking for when trying to find links between Tahimik's films and those of the Third Cinema it might help to actually compare these films.
The hour of the space ship: Comparing La hora de los hornos and The Perfumed Nightmare
By comparing the respective opening scenes of La hora de los hornos and The Perfumed Nightmare differences spring to the mind: while Solanas and Getino stress the collectiveness right from the start and have images of a fight between protesters and police blast from the black screen, there is no collectiveness on screen in The Perfumed Nightmare. While Solanas/Getino invoke the internationalism of their struggle with a quote by the Martinican poet Aimé Cesaire, Tahimik opens with a very local and personal narration about the bridge leading to his alter ego's village, Balian. While the statements in La hora de los hornos written in big white letters on the black screen reaffirm the collectiveness and accuse the oppression, Tahimik shifts from the many processions (from uniformed forces to an advertisement for a beauty competition) the bridge has seen to a sequence reaffirming his alter ego's subjectivity. We repeatedly see the alter ego pull a jeep of growing size over the bridge announcing “I am Kidlat Tahimik. I chose my vehicle and I can cross all bridges” full frontal into the camera. The first voice we hear in La hora de los hornos is an off-commentary declaring that Latin America is a continent at war.
Yet on the structural level there are similarities: Both films embrace the importance of history to understand the present situation. While in La hora de los hornos this comes in the form of an illustrated lecture, Tahimik keeps referring to historical events in the opening scene: the US troops' attempt to broaden the bridge after WW II, the life of the hero's grandfather, or his request to replay the audio record of the landing on the moon quoted above. What is missing from The Perfumed Nightmare is the dramatic disgust in the voice of the commentary in La hora de los hornos at the word “bank”, or even worse, “Lehman bank”. The equivalent is a scene showing Kidlat sleeping on the floor, with an ostentatiously dubbed snoring on the sound track. The camera shifts from the sleeping hero to a poster with flags of the historical revolutionary movement Katipunan, which fought against the Spanish occupation of the Philippines. The end of the war against the Spanish brought the beginning of the American occupation of the Philippines. Once the camera has reached the poster the snoring stops and gives way to a marching band playing Yankee Doodle. Then once again the camera pans to a poster of beauty contestants.After their opening sequences both films turn to exploring the present conditions in Argentina, respectively the Philippines. Once again La hora de los hornos does so by a combination of ethnographical films and a lecture-like commentary. Kidlat Tahimik's alter ego on the other hand sits down with his friend Kaya, who has learned the art of building bamboo huts from the alter ego's grandfather. And while The Perfumed Nightmare indulges in a commentary about the similarities between white carabaos and American chewing gum, La hora de los hornos portrays the Argentinian upper class at a cattle auction. Before the departure for France Kidlat Tahimik learns the story of his father's death at the hands of US troops. With the move to Paris the similarities between The Perfumed Nightmare and La hora de los hornos end.
Comparing the opening scenes thus establishes a range of similarities and differences between the two films. The most enlightening differences are in the ways both films take their time to link the present to the past. Where Solanas/Getino denounce the evil foreign forces of the English bankers, Tahimik juxtaposes a political movement from the Philippine's history with an audio cliché of the USA.
Both films use ethnographical film footage to give an idea of the respective living conditions. Yet Solanas/Getino use the images of people living in the country as an illustration of the accusation of neoimperialism given in the commentary. Kidlat Tahimik on the other hand uses the individual narrations to form a collective portrait of the Philippines arriving at a more intimate collectiveness than the one La hora de los hornos keeps hammering into its spectators. Both films seek to empower – La hora de los hornos by reminding its spectators of the oppression suffered and the implicit call to fight back, The Perfumed Nightmare by the subjectification implied in the initial statement “I am Kidlat Tahimik. I chose my vehicle and I can cross all bridges.” The “we” of The Perfumed Nightmare does not share much similarities with the Peronist nationalist mass organization in La hora de los hornos but invokes a collective of individuals with shared experiences.
Quite surprisingly, inspite of the differences between La hora de los hornos and The Perfumed Nightmare the similarities prevail. The shiny windows of the buildings in La hora de los hornos are icons of a technocratic modernism just the way the space program is in the films of Tahimik. And while Solanas and Getino have linked the examples of a developing Third Cinema to militant struggles in the streets, neither La hora de los hornos nor The Perfumed Nightmare will have provoked any of those. But neither does this more analytical and less fomenting approach lessen the radicalism of these films.
Making ends meet
La hora de los hornos is one of the founding films of Third Cinema. The similarities it shares with Kidlat Tahimik's first feature The Perfumed Nightmare prove to offer common ground. Albeit in very different modes the two films raise quite similar topics and use similar ways to merge these into a rationale about decolonization and neocolonialism. Given the lack of a consistent theory of the Third Cinema the question if Kidlat Tahimik's films belong to this corpus of films might best be answered by turning to what the films of the Third Cinema stand for in the history of political cinema and the modes of representation they employ.
Like La hora de los hornos the films by the Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène like Borom Saret and La noire de..., or by the Brazilian director Glauber Rocha, by Bolivian filmmaker Jorge Sanjinés and those by Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán are commonly counted as Third Cinema. On the level of the content of their films the work of these filmmakers from the 1960s and 1970s share a systematic approach in analyzing the political situation. Their films have a clear understanding that the conditions they show can only be explained by transnational dependencies.
In the quest for representations of decolonization and neocolonial structures the feature films among them resorted to a Brechtian approach. The characters and their actions can be understood both on a textual and an allegorical level. Like the icons of Western modernization adored by Kidlat Tahimik's alter ego in his Philippine village, common practices and symbols link the local narration to a transnational context. It is safe to assume that this choice of representation followed a shared theoretical framing that might be outlined by the names of Karl Marx (for his social analysis), Vladimir Lenin (for his analysis of imperialism) and Frantz Fanon (for his analysis of the colonial subjectivity).
Employing a definition of Third Cinema as a cinema addressing transnational dependencies in a systematic way with a shared theoretical background we can try to outline the limits of the concept . Its beginning can be set to the time between the third Afro-Asian Peoples' Solidarity Conference in Moshi in 1963 and the first Tricontinental conference in Havanna in 1966. While on a political level these conferences established a forum to exchange experiences of decolonization, on a cultural level they established a sense of shared antagonisms. Its end might be set to around the time when the tools of analysis and the modes of representation became too different and the sense of internationalism became too little for the films to be summed up under one label. This point in time would probably be set somewhere in the 1980s.
Kidlat Tahimik's films fit this definition well enough. They „go against the System“ as Solanas and Getino put it, they try to find ways to represent cultural neocolonialism. The finesse of Tahimik's tinkering with the bits and pieces of the story, the individual, the quirky narratives that grant you a peak under the defilades of postcolonial capitalism. Neither of Tahimik's films has the backing of a mass organization similar to the Peronist movement that Solanas and Getino probably had in mind when writing their manifesto, neither of Tahimik's films has been realized in a collective mode of filmmaking like Jorge Sanjinés' filmmaking „junto al pueblo“. Still, as pointed out above, they invoke a collective of shared experience.
So what about Tahimik's later films? It is tempting to see The Perfumed Nightmare as a bridging film leading from the concepts of Third Cinema towards a new mode of playfully selfreflective political filmmaking. Unlike predicted by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino the production of films of decolonization has remained a Quixotic adventure. In Kidlat Tahimik's case it proved useful to stick to playful ways of dealing with this in order to keep up the good mood.
1 Octavio Getino, Fernando Solanas, “Toward a Third Cinema”, Tricontinental, No.14, October 1969, 107-132, here 108.
2 ibid., 115.
3 ibid., 109-115.
4 ibid., 120-121.
5 ibid., 127.
6 For more on this see “Introduction”, in: Spuren eines Dritten Kinos. Zur Ästhetik, Politik und Ökonomie des World Cinema, edited by Lukas Foerster et al. (Bielefeld: transcript 2013), 12.
7 ibid., 122.
8 Gerald MacDonald, “Third Cinema and the Third World”, in: Place, Power, Situation, and Spectacle: A Geography of Film, edited by Stuart C. Aitken and Leo Zonn (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield 1994), 27-46, 29.
9 Mike Wayne, Political Film: The Dialectics of Third Cinema (London/Sterling, VA: Pluto Press 2001), 6.
10 Octavio Getino, Fernando Solanas, “Toward a Third Cinema”, 122.
11 See Wayne, Political Film, 108. For Alea's manifesto see Tomás Gutierrez Alea, “The Viewer's Dialectic, part 1” translated by Julia Lesage, Jump Cut, No. 29, February 1984, 18-21. schließen