Interview with Kidlat Tahimik Part 2: Religion and cinema

INT: But since we're talking about religion already, what's your take on religion? Are you a religious person?

KT: I've become a Buddhist in 1998. I'm not knowledgeable about dogma. I just like a general feeling that we create our own suffering by our grasping mind. Our mind clings to something and therefore it becomes a reality in our ephemeral state. I follow it because my son was curious about it, when he was in high school. Later I sent him to Takedera (the Japanese Bamboo temple featured in his film “Takedera Mon Amour” – T. B.) where he stayed for six months. But after six months he was discontent because Mr. Ono hardly speaks English. I was invited to a conference in India, so I said: “Look, after India let's meet in Kathmandu. I heard that they're English-speaking. And we met there, and I was just accompanying him, and then he decided to seek refuge. In Buddhism, instead of being baptized you seek refuge. I had gotten interested in the very general tenants. I became a Buddhist at that point. Maybe that is my protest against Christianity and Catholicism. I was born and raised a Catholic, and I was very religious through my early days. I even thought I would become a priest one day.

OM: So that came from your family, your family as a whole was religious, or just you.

KT: My family was religious, but quite liberal. We would go to mass every Sunday. I became ware of Philippine history much later. I only read Rizal, when I was finishing college, and I understood why he was so angry at the friars.

OM: But Rizal is required reading in every school in the Philippines!

KT: Yes, I must have read it as part of my class on Philippine history. But It’s like my MBA, some things I read just because I had to pass the test. But I didn't take any to heart.

OM: Didn´t Rizal come back to you when you became a cosmopolitan traveler?

KT: Yes, definitely. We visited his statue when we went to Heidelberg. I was feeling that the other day. I asked myself: "Why are the Germans taking my films seriously?" For me, I still can't digest it. The Arsenal (cinema where the retrospective took place) – for me that's an iconic symbol of serious films, and there, they are taking me seriously. I don't want to compare myself to Rizal. But maybe my playfulness in my craft requires a lot of discipline. Maybe what is intriguing you guys. And this retrospective is probably the first time I am taking myself serious. (laughter)

INT: Where there any other writers that inspired you apart from Rizal? For many people interested in post-colonial theory, Franz Fanon´´s “Wretched of the Earth” was a very important book.

KT: First of all, I'm not really a reader. I really very rarely read or finish a book. The significance of Rizal was also coming into me more, when I asked myself how did this guy feel and think and how he had his daily interactions with the natives here (in Germany ---). I was more curious about that than rather about his political ideologies. Sometimes they frame him as a playboy, with a girl in every port. I don't think so. I think he probably just had this kind of “kapwa” from Katrin's book. As a Filippino, he had this including kind of orientation. And that would make him a likable person. And maybe a lot of these women that he met were not necessarily sex partners as we think of today. They were just friendly connection, like in my film “Memories of Overdevelopment”, with childlike openness.

On all of his pictures he's very well dressed. And I remember when I was in OECD I was also one of the best dressed people there. Is that a compensation because you feel smaller, you're different, you're brown, whatever. Because of that you overcompensate by trying to be like them. The colonized mind drifts through real tests, until you're finally live in the culture of the colonialists.

OM: "Perfumed Nightmare" is a story of emancipation, but at the same time it's a very comical film. It tells a story which other people, black people, have told in a much more painful way. I think that's what made it so different at the time when the film came out: it was not this pain narrative, it made this experience understandable. Like at the end of “Perfumed Nightmare”, the scene with the masks and the fighting back. What you just described is also in the film: You're being dwarfed by these puppets.

KT: That scene was very different in my treatment. In the film, the protagonist wants to go home and there was going to be a party. It was during the last days when we were shooting in the Philippines. I asked Lino Brocka: “Can I use your theater group?” And they just happened to have a workshop on mask making, so they had all these masks. I felt it would be very expensive for me to create a party scene once I returned to Europe. So I thought maybe if I use those maskes it'll come across that they're the Europeans. That they're white people and not the brown caste that was behind those masks with the smiles. And then the blowing became a real ending for the film. He is finding his own strength.

OM: These things make sense, even if you had not read Fanon´s book, which is called “Black Skins, White Mask”.

KT: Well, I think there is some kind of osmosis going on, I'm getting things indirectly, not in the usual way, like people who read and follow up. I remember when I was at my first socialist festival in Belgrade in 1979, somebody in the audience after seeing the film said, "Did you read Karl Marx?" And I said, "Well I know broadly what Karl Marx is about." I find it difficult to read something, but I sense what he's all about. They said, "Your film has some very Marxist elements in it." I probably had to read assignments to pass my exam at U.P. just to get my degree. Maybe I had to make this film, “Perfumed Nightmare”, as a way to digest all those things, and some of them get mixed up with my own past experiences of having worked in Paris or in an economic organization.

INT: The Kidlat character in “Perfumed Nightmare” is this likeable, open person; he even has been compared with Charlie Chaplin. How did you come up with that character?

KT: Just in my personal flow.

Maybe I've always had this certain confidence because of my family. My mother was the mayor of the city and she was an accomplished, intelligent person. It was not an accident that she was the first woman mayor in the Philippines. But I think having grown up with that kind of background, I had a certain confidence and maybe social grace wherever I went. Maybe I am likeable, I don't know, but I rarely get into confrontational situation, not like my wife, who is quite frank about everything. I guess that's her Bavarian background. Sometimes I tell her to be more Philippino. But it's probably my training. My parents were both active in the Boy Scouts. I think I have a strong Kapwa-orientation, and wherever I've gone it opens doors.

INT: The Kidlat character in the film is a jeepney driver, he's a “subaltern”. You don't seem to mind playing such a lowly character.

KT: I always admired the creativity of the Filippino in making things like the jeepney. So my choice of the jeepney driver was because of this romantic fascination with how Filippinos transform anything into something that they can manage. They have that open attitude. Without any manual they can repair anything. Well, sometimes they also get something totally kaputt. But in general that find a way to get things running again. I think I have that kind of optimism myself.

I think what comes across in my films, is partly my own openness. A lot of the first critiques I got for “Perfumed Nightmare” called the film a very autobiographical film, and I would really have to correct people and say, "I'm not really a jeepney driver, that's not my village.” But I think I could sense it, this discovery, and being able to break out of this colonial straitjacket, breaking out of the cocoon, as the film says. That really was my final way to discover that there's so much strength in our old culture – why not get back to it? And so as Kidlat in the film learns to blow again, I learned to blow again. I think in that sense it's an autobiographical explosion of recognizing one's own potential. I was lucky that I had the Gregors at the right time who snuck me into the Berlinale festival, just at the right moment. That gave me more confidence to stay on track in the indie sequence.

OM: Did you experience any racism while you were in Germany? Was that the reason why you returned to the Philippines?

KT: No, we did not want our children to have a Wernherr-von-Braun-education. There is a technologically progressive, scientific orientation, which I think is a big demand on a child growing up.

I knew the dynamics of people sizing up strangers who look different, because I lived in America and I lived in Paris. There are people who do not want to socialize with somebody who's different, but at the same time there’s also liberal people who try to frame you in a different way. So I could survive in most situations. When I moved to Munich, it was a very provincial place, but it opened up a little bit because of the Olympics. I was accepted by Katrin's family, but it took them many years until they could defend their daughter's relationship with an Ausländer. But we are still together after so many years and have three children. I was aware of the possibilitiy of discrimination, but I never let it be a thing that would spoil my day.

INT: One last thing about this film. You said Filippinos are good in transforming things, making them their own. And one thing that happens in "Perfumed Nightmare" and that happens in almost all of your films, is that you misread objects that you encounter: these chimneies are really rockets and that root is really Magellan and things like that...

KT: I think it's normal: the outsider sees things differently than people who are used to them and who are jaded.