The duwende’s call: An interview with Kidlat Tahimik

The following is an edited version of an interview with Kidlat Tahimik that took place at the 2015 edition of the Brazilian film festival Olhar de Cinema ( in Curitiba. Tahimik attended the festival to present his most recent film, Balikbayan #1 – Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III (2015). He also brought with him a bamboo camera and other items that he mounted in installation form each day to represent the struggles, and ultimate triumph, of the independent filmmaker against the forces of Hollywood. Thanks go to Tahimik for the generosity of time and spirit that he showed to me and to others present, which made the experience of discovering his work feel immeasurably richer. 

Aaron Cutler: How did you come to make cinema?

Kidlat Tahimik: I think I’m an accidental filmmaker. It wasn’t something I planned. I was a theater major as an undergraduate at the University of the Philippines. In my last year there, I was accidentally elected President of the student government. Usually it’s for law or business students to get that post, but by a quirk I was elected, and at the end of one year of talking to eighteen thousand students, leading them in rallies, and meeting with bigwigs to come to the campus, I began to feel that I was presidential material. This was an illusion, of course, but I nonetheless decided to get an MBA [Master of Business Administration] after listening to some strange unsolicited advice: “A Third World country needs economists and businessmen, and not artists.”

I went to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, and after getting my diploma, ended up with a job as an economic researcher in Paris at the OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development]. A few years of writing economic reports later, I felt something inside me trying to get out that I called my duwende [inner spirit]. It was expressing discomfort, so one summer I went to Norway and worked on a farm to help it. In the morning I was pitching hay, and in the afternoon I was typing up my theater play. I went back to my job in Paris at the end of the summer, but afterwards couldn’t find time to correct the play. I had an urge to leave my economist job, but I needed some big savings in order to be able to go on a sabbatical for at least two years.

Then I considered the upcoming Munich Olympics. I found out that one of the ways the Olympics make money is by letting businesses exploit the games’ logo and mascot. I proposed to the Olympic team that I make that year’s official Olympic dachshund in a Philippine shell. They approved of my product, and I went home and, thanks to Philippine cottage industries, ended up with twenty-five thousand dogs.

I went to Munich with my merchandise. The first week it was selling very well. I was getting reorders for the second week, and then the Israeli hostage crisis occurred. I was in the Olympic Park that night. In front of me was the Olympic stadium, and behind me was the Olympic athletes’ quarters. I heard helicopters going back and forth, and only the next day did we find out what had happened. The mood of the event changed after that. The games were stopped for one day, and all the little shops to which I was selling my Olympic dogs backed out. The orders were canceled, and what would have been my bridge to freedom became my being stuck in Munich with an inventory of about twelve thousand dogs. By that time people in Munich were sick and tired of the Olympics, so I couldn’t sell any more souvenirs there. It took me another two years to sell them off in Paris and in London.

I was so bankrupt that I couldn’t even afford a student flat in Munich, which forced me to join an artists’ commune in a farmhouse outside the city. That’s where I met my wife Katrin, who plays the mother in my first film, Perfumed Nightmare(1977), and the princess in Balikbayan #1 – Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III. I eventually met my first son there as well. There was this film student, too, who was doing crazy film projects. I would carry his camera cases, help him change film canisters, and drive him around. He was enrolled in film school in Munich and had access to equipment that he couldn’t use all day. I decided that I wanted to make my own film, and that was how Perfumed Nightmare eventually came into being.

Still from Balikbayan #1 – Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III, dir Kidlat Tahimik, 2015

Cutler: What does your debut film’s title mean?

Tahimik: The “perfumed nightmare” refers to a seductive aspect of modern culture enticing us to be like our colonial masters while discarding and even throwing into the garbage bin the precious holistic knowledge of our forefathers. In this national obsession, the perfume of seduction eventually begins to sour. It was through my first film that I became aware of a cocoon of American dreams that the Philippines had been living in as a country, without being judgmental about that dream. My film was rather trying to question what one country’s culture, when imported wholesale, can do to another’s.

The film eventually led me to give up my passport name for a new selected noncolonial name. Perfumed Nightmare was accepted to screen at the Berlin International Film Festival, and after I thought I had finished the work, the Berlin team called me up and asked, “Aren’t you going to put any credits on the film?” I was so new to filmmaking that I asked, “What are credits?” “End credits,” they said. So I typed up, “Film by,” and since the name of the film’s main character was “Kidlat Tahimik”—a name I had lived with for almost two years by then—I gave that name to myself. In Tagalog, “Kidlat” means “Lightning” and “Tahimik” means “Quiet.” A cosmic decision thus inspired me to type, “A film by Kidlat Tahimik.”

Cutler: You had studied theater. What did you believe you could achieve through cinema that you could not through another art form?

Tahimik: When I was younger, I had had an overdose of the Hollywood way of storytelling and had gotten engaged with war heroes and odysseys. That kind of narrative had grown in my mind. When I first got involved with the artists’ commune, I still had a vision of film as a pervasive medium that, thanks to Hollywood, existed mainly as a global network of technological facilities. I understood it as a financial system aimed at a wide market spread. Then, as I met this crazy young filmmaker who was doing all kinds of projects, I began to think of film as a medium for my expression, without caring so much about the size of my audience. Experimenting opened my eyes to having fun with telling stories with a camera and a small set of friends.

Still from Perfumed Nightmare [Mababangong Bangungot], dir. Kidlat Tahimik, 1977
At one point, this student had to do a short exercise for which he asked a Brazilian girl and me to play little acting roles. We rehearsed for a few days and then went to the film school. On that day the supervising professor was sick, and his substitute was a young Werner Herzog. The Brazilian girl and I did our act together, and then right after that Herzog came up to me and asked, “Are you a professional actor?” I said no. “Good. I don’t like professional actors.” (I could almost see a thought bubble and Klaus Kinski’s face.)

Herzog took down my address, and then six months later came to our commune and asked me if I would play a small role in his film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974). It was a big production compared to what my friends were doing, but it still wasn’t a Hollywood production with twenty vans full of equipment. Being on set strengthened my impulse to commit my own story to film, and soon after that I exchanged my Super 8 camera for a Bolex and began shooting Perfumed Nightmare.Herzog was also very helpful to me in thinking about audiences. I showed my very first treatment of Balikbayan to him at a time when he was about to leave for America to make Stroszek (1977). He called me and said, “Kidlat, I’m too busy to meet with you, but this Saturday I am driving to Cologne to show a film. That can be a time when we can talk.” Of course I jumped at the chance. We drove four hundred kilometers north, showed his film to an audience of about twenty-eight people, and then drove another four hundred kilometers back to Munich. While we were driving back I said, “Werner, you drove eight hundred kilometers to show a film to twenty-eight people.” He said, “Ah, Kidlat, we must develop our audiences. I would have gone up if there were 2.8 people in that audience.”

That was a big influence on me, because afterwards I understood that part of the problem with Hollywood was its need to have a mass audience, not necessarily to spread the word, but for its producers to see bigger profits. I began to say that such things would not be important in my vocabulary. I would not let my MBA mind continue to think of exploitable markets. You can do your duwende story, and it will find its audiences, but the standard for that audience does not have to be a Hollywood standard. It’s another way—you do it yourself, and have a different level of satisfaction.

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Still from Balikbayan #1 – Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III, dir Kidlat Tahimik, 2015

Afterwards, when I was in the Philippines, I would carry my 16mm projector with me to show my film. I have kept shooting things without being sure if they would be usable, but with the way I make films, they find their way in. I don’t care if the image quality is not consistent. I can enjoy a film where everything is textured from first frame to last frame, but I don’t have to use state-of-the-art equipment myself. I completed feature-length films with my Bolex. I think you can tell a story with whatever you have.

Cutler: And you don’t always need a crew with you.

Tahimik: No. I need flexibility, because I’m very impulsive. Of course, when I was shooting in 16mm, my cinematographer was starting up as an advertising cameraman in Manila. I had to catch him when he was in Baguio. My wife would sew costumes. We weren’t working in a pressure cooker environment on a short period of time. It was more stop-go, stop-go, stop-go. Time has been one of the textures of my films. Stop, go, stop, go, a long period of waiting at the winter port, and then sailing again.

Cutler: Do you see commonalities throughout your films?

Tahimik: I have not been a prolific filmmaker. My filmography consists of five features, several shorts, and a few video essays. There’s a discernible personal journey in each film, in which I usually appear as the main actor. I do not act in the Hollywood sense of getting inside a character through subdued actions with some spectacular ones thrown in. Instead, I use my body as a prop to push a film through different beads of its storyline. In Perfumed Nightmare and in other early films of mine, it’s do this, do that, let viewers know that you’re building a rocket ship, let them know that you’ve gone to Paris. Character motivation didn’t matter to me—by connecting shots of me performing different actions, I was telling a story with my body.

My family members also get involved with the films. For me, the family has become a platform to discuss national issues, global issues, spiritual issues, and indigenous issues. I don’t work with a script. I define a situation, but often it allows the people onscreen to react to circumstances naturally so that they don’t have to act in a technical sense. They can just imagine what they would say and let their duwendes speak, and the combination of our duwendes together creates a familial atmosphere.

That’s another one of the films’ textures—you always feel my family members present. In Perfumed Nightmare they were just being themselves, like in a home movie. I was shooting with a Bolex and couldn’t record sound, but I could recontextualize their presences on the film’s soundtrack either with narration or with lines of dialogue assigned to them to fit the film’s flow. In my film Why Is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow? (1994), it’s clear that the three boys in front of the camera are my sons and that the guy speaking to them from behind the camera is their father. I was surprised by how a number of reactions following Balikbayan’s premiere immediately recognized the family element. I don’t identify my mother or my grandson in the film, but somehow viewers could sense the family synergy.

In Balikbayan, my son Kawayan, a painter—who was two years old when I first began the film—grew a bushy beard that helped get him cast as a reincarnated Ferdinand Magellan, which solved my problem of how to continue a film about Magellan and his slave Enrique of Malacca that I had begun thirty-five years earlier. (I had shelved the film for a few years, in fact, in order to watch my sons grow up.) I created roles for my other family members to further this story of a Magellan-like guy searching for an old man (played by me) and encountering present-day Baguio artists—in real life, we all belong to the Baguio Arts Guild. I would tell my wife that she was the owner of a gallery she actually curates, and she would start talking and whatever came out, came out. The same with my son Kidlat, who’s a photographer and video-maker, and my son Kabunyan, who makes mosaics. A few little pushes here and there, but basically I was having them speak things that they were comfortable saying.

When my kids were young, they would do something funny and I would shoot it. When I filmed them now as adults, I did so with a certain momentum. I wanted to finish the film after many years and explain why Enrique could have been the first man to circumnavigate the globe, which was not present in the footage that I had originally shot. I was guided by the idea of a reincarnation of the original footage’s main characters, all of who converge in Baguio for the annual Flower Festival. This was something that motivated me towards a kind of finale in which two souls from the past discover—perhaps not even consciously—that they have something in common.

Who Invented the Yoyo? Who Invented the Moon Buggy? [Sinong Lumikha ng Yoyo? Sinong Lumikha ng Moon Buggy?], Kidlat Tahimik, 1979
Cutler: What inspired you to make a film about Ferdinand Magellan and Enrique of Malacca?

Tahimik: The organic development of my concerns over the years has lain in trying to look at history and understand that there might be some sides to it that we haven’t appreciated. For instance, before I began making Balikbayan, I made a sequel to Perfumed Nightmare called Who Invented the Yo-Yo? Who Invented the Moon Buggy? (1979). The answer to both questions in that title is Filipinos. The yo-yo was recorded in a seventeenth-century French document as a jungle weapon. The moon buggy was conceived by a Filipino man working for General Electric. My film was a playful film to make Filipinos say, “Hey, we have something to contribute to world culture. Let’s stop thinking of ourselves as just vassals of a larger economy.” I’m not flag-waving. I’m just trying to point out that a lot of technological marvels may have found some precious ingredient in our culture.

I first heard in the late 1970s that Magellan’s slave could understand the islanders when the expedition reached the island of Cebu. Then somebody showed me the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig’s book Conqueror of the Seas – The Story of Magellan (1938). Zweig describes Enrique chatting and laughing with the natives and writes that, “For the first time in the life of our planet, a man had gone around the world and come back to his island, no matter how lowly his status.” Other writers have mentioned this. I am not a historian, and I am not trying to prove anything, but the fact that Antonio Pigafetta mentions that Enrique could speak the language on one island and not on an island prior to it suggests the possibility of Enrique returning to an island where he had learned it previously.

There’s tons of stuff written about Magellan. We have paintings of the Portuguese explorer. We have accounts of how when he went to the court of King Manuel I of Portugal, he had a limp and tripped and the court laughed at him. Very little has been noted about Enrique by comparison. When he got to the first island, he couldn’t speak Waray-Waray, but when he got to Cebu, he could speak Bisaya. Pigafetta mentions that when Magellan was killed, the explorers left his body behind to retreat to their boats. Enrique was technically a free man, since Magellan’s last will and testament stated that he would be liberated and given money upon the master’s death. Magellan’s brother-in-law, though, was now captain, and told Enrique that he would be serving his sister. He then sent Enrique to negotiate with the natives for Magellan’s body. Enrique came back and essentially said, “They’ve agreed to return the body, but they want to invite us for a banquet first.” About twenty Spaniards went ashore and a massacre ensued. It’s not clear: Was an invitation really extended and did they somehow end up in a fight? Did the Spaniards get rowdy and create havoc? In any case, the situation ended there, and Pigafetta’s last reference to Enrique is, “As we sailed away, we saw Enrique the interpreter with his fellow islanders, more cunning than we had thought.” This is probably a historian’s projection.

Pigafetta only makes four references to Enrique, so I have the freedom, so I have the freedom to flesh him out with my artistic imagination. A lot of my Enrique characterizations in Balikbayan could be projections of myself. They could be fantasy constructions that give color for him to become a more interesting character. I think that the openness I give him is a trait belonging to relatively simply and primitive cultures that allow their people to explore the world more than other people who can’t move unless Plans A and B are in place. Magellan, for instance, is Mr. Logistics. He’s talking to kings. He’s negotiating with bankers. He’s going to universities to look for mapmakers. He’s meeting with boat engineers. He’s on top of everything all the time. This slave just happens to be sold to him to massage him and brush his hair. Enrique is brought around the world, and by an accident of history in which Magellan is killed by a native chieftain, one percent of the European’s circumnavigation is lacking. Magellan had taken Enrique on ninety-nine percent of the global journey, but because Enrique could speak a language, the possibility emerges that the one percent had already been traveled. Little quirks of history exist to make it possible that the first guy to go around the world was a slave. I like that.

For twenty years prior to Balikbayan’s premiere I had been screening a thirty-three-minute version whose working title was Memories of Overdevelopment (1980-2011). I showed this because I thought that I could maybe raise funds to make my galleon, or else that if I didn’t finish the film, I could at least let people know that it might not have been Magellan but his slave who first proved that the world was round. People would say about the showreel, “It’s complete. Why don’t you just let go of the film?” Somehow, though, it remained in the back of my mind. I never completely abandoned the project, even when I was away from it. I wanted somehow to emphasize that Enrique could speak Bisaya, but not Waray-Waray. That’s what motivated me, or at least, that’s why the connection with that possible film never got cut.

When I was making Why Is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow?, which is a film about the years of the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, there was always some allusion to Magellan’s voyage present. I have sequences in Yellow that got recycled in Balikbayan. In the midst of language lessons, for instance, there’s a small sequence at an editing table where it is said, “Language is the perfect instrument of empire.” I brought that line back in Balikbayan to reflect on the situation of learning a colonial language versus learning islanders’ language.

I also incorporated some footage from an older video essay about tree-planting, along with other materials. Everything was connected to the theme of voyage, including the filmmaker in relation to a voyage. The filmmaking process itself became more important to foreground in the film as time went on. Even a short moment of my son pulling out a VHS tape began to show different technologies at work. I’m not a conceptual artist, and I think that just by instinct these things were coming out.

Cutler: Balikbayan, like several of your earlier films, combines many different kinds of scenes and materials. What appeals to you about making films that feel like assemblages?

Tahimik: I have never really been conscious of the importance of the tight script. We often think of the film script as being an aesthetic tool, but actually it’s more a producer’s tool to keep costs within a certain range. I think that as you develop your film—it’s funny to use the word “development” here—see your footage, start trying to edit it, and realize that you need this and that, the resulting assemblages emerge because your duwende says, “This can be relevant.” It’s definitely easier to follow a script. For planning, one is very important. Since I have no plan, I just drift, and when I have money I will have a few more rolls of film. The way that I have done it has been to create as I go along. A Hollywood film is full of protocols; I just rely on what falls in the way.

Balikbayan # 1 - Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III, Kidlat Tahimik, 2015
Still from Balikbayan #1 – Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III, dir Kidlat Tahimik, 2015

It often becomes necessary for my films to have voiceover, since the action isn’t scripted for actors to tell a story. That’s the dynamic at work both in Perfumed Nightmare and in Who Invented the Yo-Yo? Who Invented the Moon Buggy? My film Turumba (1981) marked the only time that I wrote a script before shooting, which I did in order to get the producers to sign on and then never looked at again once the shoot began. Turumba was shot in my father’s hometown, with residents from the town speaking as they normally would, and it is probably the first Philippine film to be recorded with synchronized sound.

When I started Balikbayan, I still had the relatively quiet sound camera that I had used to shoot Turumba. (I got to keep the camera in place of a director’s fee.) The new film was a period piece for which we shot a lot of interiors. I think that this was the first and only time that I did a kind of so-called studio setup, although all the scenes were shot in my hometown wherever I could find places that looked like Spanish castles or European venues. I returned to finish the film in 2013 with an SD camera that recorded synch sound. Everyone told me to invest in crispier, clearer HD, but I felt that I had been cosmically handed the SD camera that I was using. I didn’t decide to use a lower level of technology—I decided to use and make do with what I had. And in fact, I think that SD ultimately fits better with the texture of the 16mm scenes than HD would have.

It was easier for me to assemble this present-day part of Balikbayan than I had expected. Maybe by this time, the film had become part of me. I’m surprised by how in a lot of sequences with my family members playing different characters, I would immediately find contexts to help them interpret the scenes. I think I’ve always been a backyard filmmaker using elements within my reach. If there is a production design in Balikbayan, it might be the constant presence of local woodcarvers and artists.

Baguio is an urban center that Americans made the hill station for their colonial government. I contrasted it with rice terraces and an indigenous village to which I have been adapted for more than twenty years. I initially ended the film in Singapore after Magellan (played by my son), searching beyond the city, finally finds me in the mountaintops and participates in a group dance. At that point, I had solved one problem—how to transport the story five hundred years in time. I then added a stylized third chapter, full of scenes of people lying down on a map, in which I was able to go more into why Enrique, through his language assets, could have been the first man to circumnavigate the globe. By this time, I was free of the conventional structures that had defined the film’s first and second parts. The 16mm and contemporary video interactions had filled each other out, and now I was free to be the crazy filmmaker.

Cutler: The term “Balikbayan” refers to a worker who has gone abroad and then come back home. In this case, “Balikbayan #1” is Enrique. What does “Memories of Overdevelopment” mean?

Tahimik: In the early 1980s (around the time that I began the film) Cuban cinema was very much being talked about. I wasn’t really familiar with it. I knew that the directors were calling for socially involved and engaged filmmaking. I came across the title of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s film Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), and played on it in reference to the slave Enrique being in Europe during the time of the Renaissance. There’s a lot going on in art and culture and engineering, and he’s like a tribal boy in New York.

The word “overdevelopment” also comes from my economist days. They were always playing with titles. First it was “underdeveloped countries,” then it became more politically correct to say “developing countries.” In my early days, I took those terms hook, line, and sinker. It was like what the character of Kidlat is told in Perfumed Nightmare about First World benefits: “Doors open for you, floors walk for you, and bridges bridge.” Of course, Perfumed Nightmare shows that material development coming at the cost of cultural assets. The young jitney driver who I play discovers that, in the land of rocket ships and escalators, they are no longer available.

At some point, my work got classified as “Third Cinema.” I honestly don’t know how that happened. I don’t have a militant ideological framework. (I only read Frantz Fanon’s writings for the first time about a decade ago.) I think that when I started making Perfumed Nightmare, it was becoming an in-term, and as I happened to be a filmmaker from the Third World, I was placed in the same wave.

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Why Is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow? (Bakit Dilaw Ang Kulay ng Bahaghari) dir Kidlat Tahimik, Philippines, 1994

I will say, though, that my concerns with indigenous culture have been present for decades. You can even look at Balikbayan, which I first started in 1979, and in which I already appear as an Ifugao carver. I thought that the sight of Magellan in his heavy European clothing and Enrique in his G-string would be a good way to immediately contrast master and slave. I think that as I have kept going back to themes involving so-called primitive people, I have come to believe that they have important things to contribute to global evolution and that we have to listen to their harmony with Nature and with the spirit world, which have been taken for granted in this material world. I should know. Everything that I learned at Wharton was saying, “Look at the statistics, look at the figures, look at the percentages,” and forgetting the subtler relational values that indigenous people have between themselves and what surrounds them. This is spelled out in a scene in Why Is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow? where I am interviewing a guy who is making a rope bridge, and that scene appears again in Balikbayan.

Cutler: In Balikbayan, a piece of advice is given to you: “Don’t be a Bavarian filmmaker, be a Baguia filmmaker.” What does this line mean?

Tahimik: It’s a quote from Werner Herzog, and part of a scene that I had included in Why Is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow?. When I left Germany around 1979, Herzog said it to me, and initially I thought that he was trying to discourage me. Over time, though, I understood that he was telling to go home and be the cultural filmmaker that I was.

A lot of sequences that I shot over thirty-five years were related to Balikbayan, and at a certain point I started bringing them back and saying, “If they are relevant to this storyline, why not?” One of Yellow’s building blocks is a desperation for me to finish the film. I don’t know how to do it, and Herzog’s ghost comes out from one of the editing table’s screens to give me a kick in the butt. I was trying to show a filmmaker’s dilemma not only of finishing a film, but of moving on with a life and career. This was relevant to me at a broader level because, in general, Philippine culture is such a copycat culture. We could contribute much more to world culture—whether it’s in art or economics or politics—but we’ll be stuck for as long as we don’t slay the father.

For similar reasons, I thought that the scene should be included in Balikbayan. My wife and son and some friends were telling me that the film was already too long, and that I should have been adding rather than subtracting, but something inside me was saying, “This can be relevant.”

Cutler: What do you believe Balikbayan and your other films say about the state of the Philippines?

Tahimik: My ideas of development, overdevelopment, and underdevelopment have changed over the years. Since I opted out of my economist job, I have found myself going deeper into the counterculture. I joined an artists’ commune. The final phase has been being adopted by an Ifugao tribe, living with its members, and understanding the contradictions of development as that notion is used by the World Bank and by our country’s leaders. Those contradictions are among my films’ themes.

I can’t offer exact solutions to the country’s problems, but through my films, I think I can start a process of searching. For a long time, the Philippines held one of the world’s progressive economies. In the early 1960s we were the one to watch, and now we are among the cellar-dwellers. This shows that we can’t get our act together, and leads me to wonder why we should lose our old languages and value homogeneity so much. I’m not being anti-American in my work—I’m questioning the circumstances under which American culture has become predominant in the Philippines. We cannot do anything about those circumstances now, but nor do we have to throw away everything that our ancestors knew before the colonizers came.

There are local heroes who are never mentioned in big history books. The island tribal chieftain Lapu-Lapu is often characterized as a villain who killed the glorious light and master Magellan, but God, he’s our first national hero who resisted cultural colonization. To me, Enrique might have been the spiritual master of Magellan’s voyage who made it happen, even through his own body being the first to circumnavigate the Earth. As a spiritual master, I think that he gave certain energies to Magellan, the material master, to guide him along. In Balikbayan, I believe that there is a call for Filipinos to have more confidence in our precolonial assets. I’m not saying go back to the Stone Age, everybody wear G-strings and throw away their computers. I’m saying that if we allowed our precolonial side to come to the forefront together with our Westernized one, then we could be a major voice in the world.

Cutler: What are you working on now?

Tahimik: At some point I would like to leave Balikbayan behind. It might continue to accommodate a few things, but I think that I’m brave enough to stick with the film’s general structure, which is good like it is.

My wife and I have been organizing indigenous conferences in the Philippines, which has about one hundred tribes. We’re an archipelago with seven thousand islands, and so a lot of cultures have developed separately, though they were unfortunately all brought under the yoke of American colonization. My wife earned her Ph.D. by studying Kapwa, or “togetherness,” and indigenous Filipino psychology. Kapwa is the shared self—whenever we make a decision, we consider the other, which is a paradigm opposite to the individualistic cultures that Western societies have generated.

We have brought together indigenous people from other nations with local indigenous people for them to share experiences of preserving their cultures. We bring together academics who are interested in indigenous psychology and tribal elders who are practicing indigenous psychology without being aware of it; then, in between, are the culture-bearer artists, who are not only making art about indigenous people, but who themselves still operate by that kind of shared self thinking. Kapwa is not only with your fellow human beings—it’s also vis-à-vis your Kapwa forest and your Kapwa river. If this is one day this given value by our planet out of balance, then maybe we will find a new balance.

There is always a preference for Filipinos in certain professions abroad. This might be partly due to language, because our languages were really thrown away when foreign public school systems were brought in. We have quickly adapted to whatever American modernity has offered us. In one way, this adaptation has been a benefit, since it has allowed Filipino secretaries to get jobs with big companies and for Filipino bankers to get into Wall Street. We could also get back into harmony with the Kapwa indigenous community orientation, though. Filipinos are an East-meets-West people, which is something that I show in my films. If we could balance having one foot in the modern world with having confidence in what we’ve always had, then I think that that hybrid solution might be what the world is looking for.

Cutler: How do you see your life’s path as having gone?

Tahimik: I think that my life has been full of cosmic accidents, and somehow I am still moving on. At first glance, my Olympic fiasco was tragic, but now I see it as a turning point. I got out of my economist job and achieved what my duwende wanted—to be free to express itself. For years prior to that, my training was to stay on track, but by allowing myself to move where the winds pushed me, I was in fact straying on track. I have no regrets since that time.

Aaron Cutler is a film critic and programmer based in São Paulo. He keeps a website, The Moviegoer, at