Underviewed, Undervalued, Underground

Feature: The Local Story – Kidlat Tahimik at JIFF

This year’s Jeonju International Film Festival featured a retrospective of Kidlat Tahimik.  In addition to showing all of his films, JIFF had scheduled for an event called “Cinetalk” to follow the screening of Turumba.  In addition, since he made himself available for a Q & A after Perfumed Nightmare, I assume that Tahimik did much more than his scheduled appearance.   He introduced Perfumed Nightmare saying, “I don’t make films; I let them happen.”  “If I make films,” Tahimik added, “then I make them with the cosmos.”

He was serene, thoughtful and deliberate during discussion, often mining gold out of superficial questions and staying on point throughout regarding the danger of losing local culture. His answers to questions often included the word “duende.”  The thing he said that I have been thinking about most was his advice to young filmmakers to tell the local story.

There are many cinema tropes we could apply to Tahimik’s movies.  Stan Brakhage once called it telling the tales of the tribes.  Murnau had a similar idea about the cinema as the means to create the new mythology.  Tahimik does make movies on this grand scale, yet his sense of humor, his do-it-yourself ethic and his self-taught, amateur filmmaking have also earned him comparisons to Ed Wood.  The mix of these is not only his charm; it is his genius.  Tahimik’s films show us how you can create a self in a global culture that seeks to eliminate such possibility.  They encourage us to do likewise as the fundamental means to effect societal change.

At the beginning of Perfumed Nightmare, Kidlat, playing himself, drives his jeepie across the only bridge in and out of his hometown.  In longshot we see the jeepie get almost all the way across then reverse.  This is the narrative trajectory of the film: leaving and coming back the way you came.  Shortly after this there is sequence that shows Kidlat working his way toward a state of readiness to depart.   He drags three versions of his jeepie across the bridge with a rope, first as a small push toy, next as a child’s peddle car and finally as the actual steel vehicle.  He announces, “I am Kidlat Tahimik.  I choose my vehicle and I can cross  this bridge,” then “I can cross any bridge,” and finally, when pulling the full-sized jeepie, “I can cross all bridges.”

The crosscutting between public events (a funeral, a beauty pageant, a wedding) and the lush countryside can seem disjointed, but it is establishing precisely the relationship between the two principle aspects of rural village life.  The influence of  the west is ever present.  The voice of America radio is but one major presence of the western world.  Kidlat leaves his country enamored with the West.  Indeed one would have to be to go off with such a cartoonish American dressed, as he is in shorts, safari shirt, sunglasses and a Smokey the Bear hat. It is unclear why the American takes an interest in him, and decides to take him to Paris.  I suppose it is enough that he is a comic representation of America and that as such he would take what he wants from the third world and think that he is doing someone a favor in the process.

The sense of humor, the light-hearted improvisational attitude about life is one of Tahimik’s most important qualities.  A local businesswoman hires Kidlat’s jeepy to haul a huge block of ice.  They don’t travel far before the block slides out the back of the vehicle and a chunk of is shatters on the pavement.  Children scurry around grabbing shards of it for themselves, and there is an insert shot of Kidlat himself taking a demonstrative bite out of a huge hunk and laughing.

One of his recurring interests is the way village culture adapts industry on a small scale.  In Perfumed Nightmare this is manifest in a long sequence of men working on old jeepies.  There are detail shots of grimy fingernails and dirty hands manipulating metal and swinging hammers.  The pings and crashes turn into soundtrack music.  “An old jeepie never dies,” he says, as the mechanics repair, replace and salvage.  Kidlat even makes a child-sized pedal-jeepie out of spare parts to give to his son.

From a Western perspective, which I take it upon myself to represent, there is a particularly excruciating scene that shows pre-adolescent boys “becoming men,” that is, being circumcised.  It is as graphic as it could be, complete with the isolated soundtrack noise of the “clap, clap” of the hammer on the handle of the blade as it slices through the tiny foreskins.

This may make you squeamish, it’s certainly difficult for me to watch, but the point is to paint a broad picture of the culture.   It is not meant to shock, but demands some negotiation on the part of the viewer to fit such a “primitive” practice into the world we have been getting to know so far.  It also will serve as a point of reference later, when Kidlat finds he cannot live in the wasteful and dishonest world of the West.

Kidlat seamlessly befriends people from all cultures. It should come as little surprise that the people he develops relationships with in Paris are the street vendors.  They constitute the community that is closest to what he left behind.  They are also the old world relics that are being pushed out of modern Paris.

However, it doesn’t take long for Kidlat to get over being enamored of the bridges in Paris, and the only thing left for him is to become a mythological being, to change the world with his breath.  He blows into the new incinerators, and they turn into spacecraft to take him back home.  Only it is not mere myth, for he does not proclaim himself a God.  Rather he declares his independence from the this world of limitless, unchecked “progress.”

Where Perfumed Nightmare makes a mythology of the local story, Turumba states it directly, and discloses the consequences of development explicitly.  Though it celebrates the local culture, Turumba also shows how village culture is exploited and threatened.

Turumba begins by detailing the village life focusing on the inventiveness and exuberance of the people.  The Turumba festival is the lynchpin of the narrative because it gives Tahimik a chance to reveal village life at its joyful best, but it also contains the seed of the familial disaster.  Because she appreciates their unique craftsmanship, the German antique dealer puts the family in business making paper mache dolls far beyond their traditional output.  They become rich and can suddenly afford television, phonographs and electric fans, but what begins as a positive boon quickly gets out of control. When business is good it begets more business and soon everyone is working overtime to meet the next order, skimping on quality and letting all other concerns, particularly the Turumba festival, fall to the wayside.

This is manifest most clearly in the character of the father who starts the film as an integral part of the traditional festival, but ends it as a callous businessman.  Tahimik includes several scenes of the father singing and leading band practice so that the audience can understand the loss.  It is a personal loss of his own values and a loss for the community because he is a revered participant in the festival.

In contrast to the father is Patí the blacksmith.  He uses technology as well but he does not let it use him.  In part Patí is presented as an alternative to the father because he is a proponent of rather old technology.  Metallurgy has been with us for quite some time.  The more salient aspect of his character, however, is that Patí is content to stay within certain limitations.  He has no lust for more, no desire to accumulate things.  His mind is rather one-track.  He loves steel, but he loves it for it’s potential.  Patí sees the trailer that has arrived to load the paper maché dolls into, and he thinks only of the machetes he could make out of its parts.

The fundamental tension in both films is between the positive and negative effects of progress.  Tahimik, after all, uses the most advanced technology of the time to record and preserve a culture that technology is destroying by progressing unchecked.   This was the predominant subject of Tahimik’s talk following Turumba.

During the Q & A that followed the screening, someone asked Tahimik if the community he documents exits anymore, and can it be brought about in the places it does not exist.  As he was answering, I thought of how the rural areas and small towns in the States tend to emphasize xenophobia and racism as key components of community building.   I wonder if this is a Western problem.  In the West when we make the family the center, even and perhaps especially when that family extends to the small community, it tends to foster mistrust and fear of outsiders.

I also wonder if we are not past these kinds of communities as a global possibility.  It seems to me that everyone everywhere just wants to be able to access the Internet from his or her mobile phones.  Most people don’t want to really live among the trees and rivers the way Tahimik believes is necessary.  Some people want retreats; they want vacations, but they don’t want to live like that.  Hell, I doubt I could live like that at this point.

Maybe wholesale rejection of cutting edge technology is not the only answer.  The best thing about Tahimik is that he leads by example.  I don’t see how anyone could be in his presence for five minutes and not want to live the life he espouses.  Maybe we don’t have to change the world if we are willing to change ourselves.  Both Perfumed Nightmare and Turumba show that we do not have to submit to the march of progress.  There are always options.  We can do as Kidlat does in Perfumed Nightmare; we can reclaim our independence through acts of defiance and love.



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