Raya Martin was born in 1984 in Manila, Philippines. He graduated from the University of the Philippines Film Institute in 2005 and worked as a writer and researcher in local television, newspaper, radio and online magazines. His short film The Visit (2004) won the Ishmael Bernal Award for Young Cinema at the 2004 Cinemanila International Film Festival, and his documentary The Island at the End of the World (2005) won best documentary at the .mov International Digital Film Festival 2005. His first feature film A Short Film about the Indio Nacional (Or The Prolonged Sorrow of the Filipinos) (2005) won the Lino Micciche Award at the Pesaro Film Festival, Italy in 2006. He is the first Filipino filmmaker to be accepted into the prestigious Cannes Festival Cinefondation Residence in Paris, France.
Idaho filmmaker and Evening Class intern Alex Hansen—who has an admitted interest in all things avant-garde and experimental—conversed with Martin regarding Boxing in the Philippine Islands and enquired after Martin's craft and practice within the contemporary Filipino film community. The Evening Class extends its thanks to Alex for his welcome contribution.
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Alex Hansen: Tell me about Boxing in the Philippine Islands?
Buenas noches, España (2011) but it was impossible to do something around that. So I thought about making something around sports or fitness, and it happened that a Manny Pacquiao fight coincided with the exhibition. I went to look for current boxing underdogs in the province and shot them with a pinhole that I made with a digital camera during their training. When I came to editing, we found footage of Pacquiao rehearsing and played with it using an analog camera. The analog dirt looked energetic enough to box our pinhole footages, so I thought, why not put them together? The work became a visual arena.
Hansen: Your shorts seem to lean more towards the experimental side, at least on the surface level—they "look like experimental films"—while your features seem to work these experimental tendencies into a more conventional appearance. Does your approach differ whether you're working on a short or a feature? Did your approach to Buenas noches, España, which "looks" like the shorts, differ from the previous features?
Hansen: What prompted your interest in using history as creative fuel?
Martin: The blatant historical references come from my personal background. My parents, especially my father, were activists during the dictatorship era. He also happened to be a huge historical buff, mostly local, regional stories, which explains our modest library of Filipiniana books at home. Those were my childhood books, playmates, while most of my friends who I grew up with had other "timely" things to read or play with. I'm trying to grow out of it though.
Hansen: What is it about the filmmaking scene in the Philippines that has allowed it to become a breeding ground for such a surge of interesting and exciting work?
Hansen: A commonality that all the work coming out of the Philippines seems to share is looking to the surroundings / environment, history, and local culture for subject matter and inspiration versus the "dream factory" Hollywood mindset that a lot of American independent filmmakers try to emulate. Do you think the lack of familiarity with these sources lessens the impact for foreign viewers? For instance, I wouldn't know Manny Pacquiao is a congressman if it hadn't been for a commercial I'd seen (and since I can't remember what was being advertised, it apparently wasn't a very successful one).
Hansen: What was the first piece of work you created that felt like you had successfully expressed something? In my work I tend to intuitively piece a film together as I go. As a result, while they've had certain qualities, I've never felt my early films have been completely successful (until my latest piece, which still feels like dumb luck more than artistic intent). Does the end result matter as much to you as the journey it takes to get there?
Martin: When I did my first short film in high school, which seems to be missing now, I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I come from a family of writers, and when I did try it out it became this huge frustration. I needed my brother to double-check for me all the time, so then I couldn't operate on my own if he wasn't available. But working on images feels more natural to me, that's why I love it. I could be alone, but at the same time I'm very good working with people. Soul mates. I take the end product seriously. For me, it's like dressing up in public when you go out of the house. You want to be comfortable. You want to be respectable. But at the end of the day it's who you really are, how you've raised it. Shooting a film is probably the best feeling in the world. We can shoot for two days straight and still won't be unfazed. It's a really magical feeling.
Hansen: How do you feel about your work being shared on the internet? As a viewer, it's been a blessing for me. Living in Idaho, I wouldn't have any other opportunities to see your work. How much does it help or hurt your opportunities as a filmmaker? I can't imagine there are a lot of companies clamoring to release your work on DVD here in the U.S. (though if they did, I'd be the first in line).
Hansen: Perhaps a better way to have phrased my earlier question about the distinction between filming shorts or features would be to say that your shorts—Track Projections (2007), Ars colonia (2011), and Boxing) play more with the medium and the material aspects of cinema while your features play more with conventions (running time, shot duration, etc.). Buenas noches, España is more a mixture of the two different modes. Not sure there's a question there, but anyway.
Martin: I don't think I'm conscious about those things. I love my mash-ups. It's an elementary level of dialectics but I'm a kid like that and there's something pure about it. I could listen to Nine Inch Nails while watching Buster Keaton. I have to add that I'm also a frustrated structuralist.
Now Showing (2008), for example) relate to this? Perhaps the frustrated experimental filmmaker in you subverts this material in order to reject how it fixes characterization and temporality into the narrative?
Martin: Our idea of time is much different than what is propagated here. Despite our stance, we are islanders. Our sense of time is dictated by nature. There's a lot of waiting. We are very patient people. I like finding odd things in different media, though. I grew up listening to radio dramas, and then moved on to a lot of television shows where they show all these classic local films. But my generation has encountered them in odd ways: dramas are interrupted intermittently by advertisements, as opposed to watching them on the big screen, or on stage. The more you fight this reality, the more it won't make sense. So I try to embrace this.
Hansen: Your description of the filmmaking scene in the Philippines—doing the work to get noticed by the studios; being enamored with Hollywood—sounds comparable to filmmaking in the States. I imagine the main difference might be that American independent filmmakers often resist making do with limited resources, waiting instead until they have enough money to shoot with this latest and greatest camera or that high-end piece of equipment. Everything has to be done "right" or why bother? "If it's not done right, I won't get to direct the next Batman." What do you feel are the benefits of simply getting out what needs to get out versus sitting on ideas until they can be executed perfectly?
Independencia (2009)—then I'm sure we'd be more alike as filmmakers. Unfortunately, the government is not as supportive in funding cultural works, and the idea of arts and culture for private funding is just more backwards than it is there. Our arts education isn't non-existent, but it's a few decades behind. I've encountered artists from the province who come to Manila and discovered that it's possible to do something beyond painting landscapes or sculpting politicians. Nudes are still considered progressive. Just imagine if we try to pitch this thing called "cinema."
Hansen: I'm one who enjoys putting in the extra effort after watching something to better understand it, but some audiences don't like to do their homework. Are you ever conscious of how a viewer (no matter where they're from) will respond to a film while you're making it? Does that influence you in any way? Does it matter to you how big of an audience your work gets? If two people "get" and enjoy your films, does that offset the thousands who might be baffled by what they've seen or disregard it shortly afterwards?
Martin: If I did succumb to the idea of an audience present from the beginning, I wouldn't be able to come up with these works at all. It was probably luck, anyway, being stubborn about this process of creation. One of my favorite stories comes from Kidlat Tahimik, who happened to be my mentor in college, and is a good friend of Werner Herzog. During their younger days, Kidlat rode with Herzog to some far-flung town for a screening and asked why they had to go all the way just for a screening, unsure if people would even watch there. Herzog said that one has to go to his audience and cultivate it. Only businessmen count their present paying audience. We never learn from Van Gogh.
Of related interest: Raya Martin's Tumblr page.