Mark Williams: The Kalampag Tracking Agency covers 30 years of artist film making in the Philippines. What led you to develop the project?
Shireen Seno: Merv Espina, a friend of mine who shifts between art-making and curating, asked me to work with him on a screening program of experimental works from the Philippines for the 2014 EXiS Experimental Film & Video Festival in Seoul. He knew I liked to gather works, and he remembered me telling him that I wanted to curate. We spent six months putting the program together.
Did you know about all of these films before you began? Did you uncover more works? How did the process of making the project shift your own ideas about the Filipino avant-garde?
We knew of half of the works in the current program; the rest we encountered and uncovered along the way. One of the major hurdles was the lack of a comprehensive history or listing of experimental works. Also, there’s not one place one can go to to check for works such as these. We only had a National Film Archive effectively as of 2011.
It was a lot of dead ends and happy accidents, as Merv puts it. We saw some of these works through screenings and copies handed down from artists, filmmakers, writers, and curators across the years. Others we only heard about from friends or old catalogs. Some artists didn’t have copies of their own works. Conversely, we were surprised other people did. Although, most of the times these were forgotten. So sometimes all it took was the right question to rattle someone’s memory which led to several branching paths.
Besides asking people to go through stuff in their houses, one of the first places we started was at the Mowelfund Film Institute’s archives and the audiovisual library of the UP Film Institute (UPFI). Mowelfund turned over their film reels to the newly formed National Film Archive in 2013. UPFI turned theirs over to the Library of the UP College of Mass Communication. There were a lot of older works there. But since even these institutions don’t have access to basic equipment–such as working U-Matic players much else working 8mm or 16mm projectors—we usually got left with whatever crude video transfer was made in the 90s and early 00s that was a transfer of a transfer of transfer, finally making its way to DVD. It was not at all linear.
Chasing down certain works meant we were witness to an oral account–both complementary and contradictory–of an all too recent history from friends and friends of friends who thought this or that person had a copy. This meant lots of phone calls, emails, road trips and several hours listening to stories and going through both personal and institutional archives.
It’s also amazing how fast something can disappear in just a few years. When Ondoy (Typhoon Ketsana) submerged Manila in 2009, it destroyed a lot of homes. Along with it, a lot of works seemed lost forever. For newer works in video, all it took was a crashed computer or hard-drive or damaged DVD. Film works were more resilient, but it took a lot of effort just to find projectors and usually no decent digital transfers were available. So it meant not just tracking down certain works, but the best copies of them or the equipment to view them. The project ended up bringing to light a number of issues — medium and technologies, the archive, preservation and circulation, the rise and fall of institutions, film festivals, and artist-run spaces, spectatorship and audiences, intentionality and authorship, historiography and historicity.
Recently I came across a great interview with Filipino film-maker Nick Deocampo in Cantrill’s Film Notes in 1989. He talks about the struggle to shake off American and European cultural influence and work towards “an avant-garde cinema best suited to our own sensibilities”. Could you talk about how some of the works in your programme exhibit a particular Filipino sensibility? Is it still a struggle to find this?
The German influence is indeed quite strong — the programming at the Goethe Institut Manila was our source for alternative and experimental films in the 1980s, a much-needed break from Hollywood and Philippine commercial cinema. Four of the works in the program were made during a series of workshops organized by the Mowelfund Film Institute and the Goethe Institut Manila in 1989 and 1990, which brought in German artists and experimental filmmakers such as Christoph Janetzko, Ingo Petzke, and Harun Farocki. The workshops focused on 16mm optical printing and found footage.
Many of these early works exude a clever subversion to existing structures, both political and commercial, and make use of various formal techniques to show how the two are intertwined. The newer works tend to be more subtle and poetic but just as complex. I think that’s where the struggle lies — to find works that aren’t just innovative and provocative, but rigorous in their experimentations and provocations.
One of the works I really enjoy is Rox Lee’s Juan Gapang/Johnny Crawl (1987) which documents a performer painted in white crawling around the grounds of the Manila Film Centre. It’s a deathly image. Could you talk about the significance of that site for the work?
Commissioned by then-First Lady, Imelda Marcos, The Manila Film Center opened, to much controversy, to serve as main venue of the First Manila International Film Festival (MIFF) on January 18–29, 1982. It was originally designed to be a one-stop shop for anything film-related, including a film archiving facility. Even UNESCO was consulted in its design. But because of the controversies around it, it was never fully utilized. The Philippines only had a National Film Archive, effectively by 2011.
To certain generations of Filipinos, the Manila Film Center, widely claimed to be haunted, is the stuff of legend. And as legend has it, construction of the building started in early 1981 and had just a year to be finished to meet the deadline: the January 1982 opening of the Manila International Film Festival. This required around 4000 laborers to work three shifts across 24 hours. In November 1981, heavy rains caused the scaffolding to collapse, killing 169 workers, who, in Imelda Marcos’ hurried attempt to finish the construction of the building, were instantly buried under quick-drying wet cement.
In Rox Lee’s film, the ghostly figure, Juan Gapang, crawls through the gaps between the shadows of the pillars of this grandiose Neo-Classical structure, a chilling testament to Imelda Marcos’ "Edifice Complex"—she commissioned a number of buildings in the name of beauty and progress. The film was made in 1985, when the Marcoses were still in power.
There’s a great phrase you use to describe the film Kalawang (Rust) (1989) by Cesar Hernando, Jimbo Albano and Eli Gueb III – “the cultural and libidinal complex of colonization”. What did you mean by 'libidinal'?
The idea of power and authority as tied to the body and sexual desire — the way in which colonization works by obscuring violence with pleasure.
You’ve toured this programme a lot, what kind of responses have you had inside and outside of the Philippines?
We held our first two screenings in Manila, excited to bring together some of the older filmmakers from the Mowelfund workshop days and the younger ones, some of whom are work in between the cinema and the museum-gallery setting. The program was twice as long then, and divided into two, with a short break in between. There was a lot of sentimentalizing about the good old days and complaining about a lack of passion in the current generation. This brought up the role of workshops in cultivating experimentations but the subsequent lack of a community or commitment to sustain a continued practice of avant-garde cinema.
The two-part program went on to screen at the 2014 EXiS Experimental Film and Video Festival in Seoul, but after this, Merv and I decided to shorten the program to its current incarnation at 67 minutes. We felt that certain works were more suited to an installation setting. Others were redundancies, in terms of works that were quite similar to each other.
The newer, tighter version of the program has been screening at various experimental film festivals, educational institutions, art institutions, and artist-run spaces ever since, and the responses have been phenomenal.
We take these opportunities not only to draw attention to the urgency of archiving in the Philippines but to create new digital transfers of a few of the film-based works including Rox Lee’s ABCD and Juan Gapang. We also explore the possibilities and constraints of artists’ mobility and immobility and how the works change as they move across different spaces. Martha Atienza recently presented the program at Gasworks in London, where she was in residency. Miko Revereza and Gym Lumbera presented in New York last year at Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn. Miko has been living illegally in the US for over 20 years since moving there from Manila as a child.
I understand you’ve just screened your first feature at the Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane. Could you tell us about that work and the reception for it?
Big Boy is set in the late 1950s, after Philippine independence, about a boy whose parents believe the taller he is, the better off he’ll be. I wanted to explore the idea of being stretched, not just metaphorically but physically as well. So there’s this idea of image-making and how it is intertwined with memory and the body, which is why I decided to shoot the film entirely on Super 8mm, with all its quirks and flaws. It has screened in various festivals, art institutions, and independent spaces around the world, but only a few times in the Philippines, despite being acclaimed by local film critics. Our audience for independent films is growing but it still favours a certain kind of film, one that can be easily understood.