has long since
dissolved into a haze. The haze of age, of fading memories. Even
though notes tell me I spent seven turns there between 1984 and
1991, memory is patchy and vague. But what remains of those weeks
and months stills radiates fondness for the country and gratefulness
for having been allowed to help with something that was bound to
happen and grow – the independent Philippine film scene.
all was way back in the golden days when Goethe Institutes were
still run by true characters with an insatiable thirst for experiments
in culture. In Manila’s case, these portal figures were Gerrit
Bretzler and Uwe Schmelter. Truly different personalities with different
approaches but identical goals: infusing ideas, lending a helping
hand, strengthening the young sprout of alternative culture.
wise, the Philippines were the first third-world country I ever
encountered. The smog was heavy, the traffic pure chaos, the climate
suppressing. Nothing seemed to work properly. Improvisation was
the order of the day and in retrospect I am inclined to believe
this to be the true reason why experimental film is so wholeheartedly
embraced - improvisation and experiment being close relatives.
people were patient and of a pleasant disposition. Virginia Moreno,
then Director of the Film Centre at UP Manila, tried hard to make
me welcome, even conducting a Sampangita tree-planting ceremony
in my honour. She was a towering personality though physically of
rather petite stature. To her minders she was extremely strict,
bordering on harshness. Her status was based on rank, not material
riches. The only apparent luxury was a car with a chauffeur. But
a car so old the chauffeur constantly had to fix it to keep it running.
Definitely in collision with all regulations of working hours he
was at her personal disposal all hours of day and night. And he
was used as a token of friendship. I remember vividly when Moreno
sent me out into the Manila night-life with Nick Deocampo, her second-in-command.
The chauffeur slept in the car when we woke him at 4 am to drive
me home all the long distance from Ermita to Quezon City where I
was based near the university. But despite all justified criticism
of her behaviour she was respected an authority. This loyalty to
the utmost to me was one of the most striking features of Philippine
formalities and diplomacy, Nick Deocampo was the driving force of
the independent short film scene. A dedicated filmmaker himself
– everybody seemed in awe of his doco Oliver about
a Spiderman impersonator – he was an academic who had written
the first-ever book about Philippine short film history. Likewise
he was a highly talented organiser. This became immediately apparent
once the workshops were relocated from UP Manila to the Mowelfund
Film Institute. This was a kind of self-governing structure which
was run by Nick. Or so it seemed. I remember having the - doubtful
- honour to be introduced there to an up-and-coming Philippine president
whose major reason for fame was the fact that he openly had nine
mistresses. Or maybe just seven, I don’t really recall.
and I got along well and were on friendly terms once it became clear
we both shared a passion for film experiments but had quite different
intentions in Manila’s burgeoning night life. I loved to take
the ride to Ermita with him, though, encountering his growing enthusiasm
for the ‘sisters of the night’. But once arrived we
would split up and only meet again in the wee hours of the morning.
He liked to chat and I loved his gossip about foreign filmmakers
in Manila. Later I was able to help him with a few screenings in
Europe but I still feel certain sadness that we lost contact along
concept of experimental film fell on fruitful ground in Manila.
My credo had always been that nobody could hope to successfully
compete with Hollywood on Hollywoods own turf because their resources
could simply not be beaten. Instead, it was not a bad idea to tell
one’s own stories in ways based on ones own cultural background.
In this respect, the experimental film was the perfect choice of
genre with its inherent freedom of expression and flexible form.
With its extremely low shooting ratio and its no-budget character,
experimental film war particularly suitable for countries with a
less-developed film industry and artists living in poorer conditions
than in industrialised countries.
Goethe Institut had sent out filmmakers before but they had been
into documentaries, particularly interested in street children,
prostitution or the famous Smokey Mountain garbage dump. And here
I came, screening Richter and Ruttmann, Nekes and Wyborny. The enthusiastic
reaction to the films among the audience at UP Manila could virtually
be felt. Gerrit Bretzler immediately responded by announcing a practical
Super-8 workshop for the next year which I conducted as well. We
brought in the film stock from Germany but for processing they had
to be flown out to Australia as Kodak had just stopped doing this
locally. The results looked a bit bumpy but definitely worth another
try which was to be done in 16mm.
I remember correctly, this was the first workshop at Mowelfund,
a much more pleasant location in a more urban area. And it was the
first to be conducted three-fold: one week or so concept and pre-production,
then a break for me while shooting was going on, and then another
week postproduction. I can still feel the thrill when for the first
time we watched the “rushes”. Formal experiment was
almost always tied to a political and/or social content –
probably a reflection of the Philippine situation. Vicky Donato
and Luis Quirino stick out as names. But the one film I will never
forget was Jimbo Albano’s: for several days he had walked
the tumultuous EDSA ring road, completely encircling Manila to come
up with a marvel of structural film in single-frame shooting.
were more workshops to come but inevitably they got less exciting
for me. The technical instructions would always be needed but I
felt conceptual input, different thinking from other film makers
was needed. And that was the way it went which was good.
me personally, the Philippines became more and more interesting,
and the breaks in my work between pre and post turned into a major
attraction. Twice I visited Pagsanjan, the location for the finale
of Apocalypse Now!, my all-time favourite film. There I learned
about the devastation Coppola’s crew had brought about –
something to this day never related in any of the many books about
him and the film. I experienced the beauty of Boracay when it was
still a sleepy hollow of an island - omelettes with magic mushrooms
on the menue. I even ventured all the way down south to magical-sounding
Zamboanga – a place of political resistance to the Marcos
regime, fed from many different sources. I still harbour fond memories
of the weeks after the People Power Revolution with so much enthusiasm
in the air. And I am still proud that eventually I was able to travel
virtually everywhere in Manila by Jeepney, the way the locals do.
Not even the taxi drivers could cheat on me any longer with their
manipulated meters. I had arrived.
the years, some of the film makers made it to Europe for screenings
- with or without my help: Nick Deocampo, Luis Quirino, Cynthia
Estrada. And it always felt good to get together again. But despite
several attempts and offers of free study places, no prospective
film student ever made it to my university. This feels sad but in
all likelihood is due to non-existing funds on the Philippine side
to cover some of the expenses involved.
my students will find a framed document on my office wall: the Independent
Film Award for International Contribution to Philippine Independent
Cinema. This was handed to me in a ceremony in 1986 – just
after the revolution - by Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Education,
Culture and Sport, Dr. Victor M. Ordoñez (thanks to Nick
piece of paper and a haze of memories is all there’s left.
But enough to once in a while remember a time to be proud about.
3 October 2007