Int: In the 1980s the Philippine government under Ferdinand Marcos actively supported art house cinema and film auteurs. Imelda Marcos organized two big film festivals in Manila and films like Himala, Oro Plata Mata and Virgin People were produced by the ECP, which was headed by Immee Marcos, the daughter of the president and his wife. There was also an effort to bring international productions into the country. Did itever occur to you to apply for funding from the government or was it out of the question for you?
KT: What was always holding me back was that I never could write a script. I think my name would have been so big for them. If I had approached them, they would have probably supported my film Like Cinemalaya, it was script-based. They were so used to the usual production, having a script and a break-down of the costs.
I was also very much distant from the Marcos regime. Lino Brocka and Ben Cervantes were close friends of mine. I myself am not as leftist as Ben, I’m more left-center. But by that time, film-making to me had become this “Do it as you feel it, as it comes” cosmic interaction. Of course, I could have done the usual step-by-step process in which a film is usually approved or gets funding. Maybe that´s an important part of the film industry..Would I have been able to survive complying with those kinds of requirements? So it took me 35 years to cross some kind of finish line…
Int: In the end, we see this stained glass window in the hut of Enrique, but it isn't really clear where it was coming from. Could you comment on this visual metaphor?
KT: If I would have finished the film at that time, I would have shot a scene of Enrique pulling it out of the Master´s box as a final souvenir. I just thought it visually interesting, if you see it in the hut. Those were all these little loose threads but in the end it wasn't really important for me to tighten those threads.
Int: And what is the significance of San Sebastian for you?
KT: You know, I found out recently that Saint Sebastian stands as an icon for the gay community. This guy wants to die a heroic death and he smiles like San Sebastian with a thousand arrows. It’s just that simple. I’m not part of the European Catholic tradition and I have not studied the saints and whatever meanings they have. It was just playful. It’s like a lot of us. We choose our heroes, whether the hero comes from a movie or is a saint or somebody our parents have always talked about.
Int: And another thing I’m not clear about: Enrique is an Ifugao, so why does he speak Cebuano, when he arrives in the Philippines on Magellan’s boat?
KT: That became unimportant for me to explain that. I knew it would raise questions among linguists or by historians. In the completed film he would have spend some time in Cebu, but I did not show that . I was hoping that people wouldn’t take that Ifugao-ness literally. It’s the people who know the Philippines who say: “Oh, he´s from the North and Cebu is over here. How did he get here?” For me, it was a visual of somebody from the mountains who somehow ends up at the sea and somehow gets picked up by the slave traders. I left it vague. I think if I were much more systematic like the Europeans maybe I would have come back to all those details and put the proper op. cits and loc. cits to make the film defendable in terms of consistency. If you notice it – bravo! My film making process allows for those lapses.
Int: The implication of that Magellan gets to do his big journey because of his slave.
KT: Exactly! History’s often accidents or created out of of certain moods.
Int: In post-colonial studies you have the concept of the “counter narrative”. There is the “official” version of history – in your case, Magellan circumventing the globe – and then there is this other “subaltern” version of history, the slave who actually completes the circumnavigation. Was that your intention, to create such a counter-narrative?
KT: It’s not like I’m trying to show a Third-Cinema-version of history. I put a playful spin on the account of Pigafetta. I am using his writings to focus on the question why this slave is possible first circumnavigator. I am introducing the language problem. By the way, all those silence sequence are just because I lost the sound track. I just lost them, so I thought, “Why not leave them that way?” I think it was enough to become a pattern, happens three or four times in the film.
Int: What is most interesting for me about the film is the depiction of being a slave. Being sold as a slave is not tragic at all in your film. It’s not a drama. You don’t feel very sorry for this slave, on because he doesn’t lose his agency. Ok, he’s being told what to do, but at the same time, he stays who he is.
KT: There are films like “Amistad” and that are about slavery-- usually, they’re made ready with tragedies at the center of the film. For me it’s just a circumstance that he happens to be a slave, in contrast to the master that brought him around. Why would I make it tragic or show how he gets whipped every Sunday. He is a privileged slave who gets to stay in the master’s cabin. I don’t even remember if – when I first started this film – I was open to such kinds of statements, to show how we was exploited or mistreated. It never happened because I guess I got desperate just to try to finish some story line.
Int: So what is the message here? That slavery is not so bad? That if you adapt and if you make yourself useful, you might be the one to circumnavigate the globe? Enrique is not confrontational at all. He doesn’t seem to suffer from his fate, he’s helpful, he does as he’s being told, he’s flexible. These traits are also those that Filipinos are characterized by. Is htat the message? If you like that, you might end up cirucmnavigaton the globe?
KT: I’m an actor, but I’m not doing acting that’s conventional. There are not many angles or close-ups to heighten the emotion. I’m really just a body that walks through different scenes who pushes the storyline from one scnee to the next. to the next, to the next, to the next, it’s not based on “Ooh getting in,” but he did this, he did that, because this happened and that happened. I don’t think that there’s any scene in this film that is strongly emotional, except maybe for the scene where I’m declared a free man and I am levitating. But basically, I use my body to transport a story, so I’m not an actor in the conventional sense of the word.
That’s probably why he doesn’t come across as a tragic slave or a rebellious slave. I was trying to avoid that kind of cliché. For me it’s an incidental circumstance that he’s a slave. He’s a survivor. He is an easy-going guy and he does not get mistreated. And at the same time, there is a shrewdness about him, that allows him to become the first person to circumnavigate the globe.
Int: There’s a saying that you cannot be hero in front of your servant…
KT: Because he knows you so well!
INT: Right, they know your shortcomings. Was this also an attempt to belittle Magellan somehow, to show that the great adventurer in the end was just an old man who needs a lot of help from his slave?
KT: Magellan’s a human as far as this guy is concerned. In a way, I made him look sympathetic The slave is his closest aid, his valet, he shares a home with him. Maybe he even had some influence on his decisions and serves as a mirror to him. We know that the slave does everything his master, and he even lets him work for other people. Even the king takes in the slave for a short time…
Int: In the end you get this sense, that his reliance on his slave is also part of his downfall. He cannot do things by himself anymore. He reminds me of these decadent white guys, that you find on the beaches of the Philippines. In the end he sits in his bathtub in the beach and has his hair combed by the slave and he is drinking his beer. He has been spoiled to the point that he cannot defend himself anymore.
KT: Oh wow, that’s a nice angle. That´s what you start to think when you see a film repeatedly. But you ask me these questions about discrimination, when I was living in Germany or other countries. I’ve never allowed this to bother me or to create an artistic work as something to be angry about.
Int: You said that your acting is you just walking through the scenes. It reminds me a little bit of the great characters of silent films like Chaplin or Buster Keaton. And I think at that time, it had to do with a certain amazement that they were in a film at all and that all these people would see these moving images. And with your films it sometimes seems as if you were amazed by the fact that you were actually making a film. You’re not playing by the rules of film making, but you are not even ignoring them on purpose…
KT: Because I am working intuitively. Here is a good example for this: When we started to shoot “Perfumed Nightmare”, Hartmut would say: “Okay, ready, clap!” So I did the same thing, except that I didn’t know that the clap has to be in front of the lens, because it serves a reference point for the sound. So I was like a child copying or mimicking the director. And when I showed the “Zwiebelturm” sequence to some of the students at the Munich Hochschule, while I was working on it, they said: “But that is parallel editing! Nobody does that anymore! Parallel cutting is passé!” (Of course, these are film students that were trying to create new expressions.) And I thought to myself, “Wow. I didn’t even know what parallel cutting was,” I don’t know. I don’t belong to that tradition.
Int: What is the meaning of the amulet that Enrique is wearing? He once uses it to catch insects in the film and once as a means of navigation.
KT: The Americans call it a fertility charm. If you look at it from the positive, it looks like an opening. If you look at it from the negative, it looks like a phallus. It is just something from folklore that gets reproduced as earrings or as necklace. When I mentor, or as an advisor to young Filipino filmmakers, I keep telling them that we need our own viewfinder to tell our own story with our own ways, not the formulaic stories. So it could become that and I think that’s why I used it.
Int: Maybe this is a good opportunity to talk about your relationship to objects. In your films they often seem to take on a life of their own or you declare them to be something that they are not: this water root is really Magellan, and that root is really a snake…
KT: That´s an interesting observation. I’m always picking up stones and things like that. I guess my eye frames certain things, and maybe it’s instinctive. I pick something up and later it finds its place. It might be an installation or it might end up getting filmed. Yesterday, someone was commenting about the little figurine that I use in the language scene in “Balikbayan No. 1”, when I try to learn Russian and Italian. And maybe that was suggested by “Titanic”. But you think it is animistic?
Int: There are a lot of these objects in your films. In the “Yo yo”-film there is the icon that you find in the fountain. And in “Balikbayan”, there is even a scene, where you say that rocks have a heartbeat and a pulse. And that this is just there, waiting to tell their story.
KT: Maybe that’s part of my mindset. When Katrin and I would go around the beach where we shot those scenes, I kept looking for stones. Because that particular beach is near a volcano, and a lot of the rocks had these interesting colors and patterns. I thought at one point that I would use the stones as a map, because a lot of them look like maps, islets, and passages. That’s why I first began picking up the stones.
Int: It seems to be a recurring motive that objects stand in for maps.
KT: I see things in the shapes, especially if you are so close that you don’t recognize them anymore. That skull with all these canals becomes the moon. You think it´s connected to animism? Maybe. (Chuckles)
Int: The title “Memories of Overdevelopment” references this Cuban film “Memories of Underdevelopment”. Was that a conscious reference? After all, it belongs the Third Cinema?
KT: I think I heared about this Cuban film in the early 70s. It just stuck in my mind. I don’t really know that film. It is the same with “I am curious yellow”: It was just a pun. I like to play with those things.
When the slave goes to Renaissance Europe, where so many things were happening and when Europe was so rich – what would a slave from the third world think about that? That was my reference point for the title.
People always put me in the context of Third Cinema. I knew I was a third world cineaste and that I was one of the first, but I thought I just that I happened to come from the third world and that my subject matter was the Third World. I started reading up a little bit lately on those Cuban people, like Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. I didn’t know that the Third Cinema was almost an ideology. It was a group of filmmakers who were challenging the First and Second World cinema, that were trying to assert themselves. Just for the record: I don’t think I ever understood that ideological context of Third Cinema.I don’t mind being associated with them. But I don’t have the same ideological entry point that they do. I’m left, but maybe I am one of the voices like them expressing objection to uncomfortable phenomena in the world. And maybe, it becomes like the voice of the child who sees the Emperor’s clothes are nothing.