Thursday, May 31, 2012

YBCA: NEW FILIPINO CINEMA—The Evening Class Interview With Raya Martin (by Alex Hansen)

In the "New Filipino Cinema" series curated by Joel Shepard for San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), Raya Martin's seven-minute short Boxing in the Philippine Islands (2011) has been grouped into a program entitled "Sex, Drugs and the Avant-Garde: Filipino Shorts." Shepard synopsizes this shorts program: "With a lurid title but a serious intent, this program of new shorts will give you a taste of the work of nine younger artists from all over the archipelago. Featuring a little bit of everything—doc, drama, experimental, and even some student work—this is a great intro to the contemporary film scene. All films (except Boxing in the Philippine Islands) are U.S. premieres." Ticket info can be found here.

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?

Raya Martin: It was a commissioned work for a public park exhibit in Manila. At the time, I was obsessed with drugs after researching for my last feature 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?

Martin: I'm a frustrated experimental filmmaker, but also because of my cultural background I have a love-hate relationship with the narrative. My "proper" cinema schooling was simultaneous art house and avant-garde works: discovering Tarkovsky and Brakhage at the same time while I was in film school. It just meshed into this consciousness in me and that's how I started seeing things around me. That's probably why I jump here and there: documentary, fiction, experimental elements... Buenas noches, España and Boxing in the Philippine Islands were made around the same time and that's probably the only reason why they feel related to each other; but, for me they're different. All of my works are different from each other, or at least they try to be.

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?

Martin: The Philippines is really a strange, beautiful country. It's neither Asian nor American, but we're also both in a lot of sense. Our lives are bound by American rules: we speak your language really well, and we dream of Hollywood all the time. But also we're a poor country, and we have to make do with what we have. So it becomes this bastard scene of your film industry. It's wretchedly beautiful. I don't think there's much difference with how we work as filmmakers here than in the U.S. I don't believe in national cinema. It's just become this monster, this ghost that exploded the past couple of years, but it's not there. It's also like sex tourism, they all come here and it's one big playground because we all look the same in bed, and we're like, hey this works, let's build this. But I don't feel we're critical with how we work here. Most of the filmmakers do independent works as name cards for studios. Sometimes it works, but most of the time they're just imitations. But maybe delicious imitations nonetheless.

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).

Martin: The beauty of working in the Philippines is that the creative minefield is really bottomless—we live on so many layers—but, at the same time we're never apologetic about our parochialism. We love our own little bubble, and it's up to all of you to take all those references and do your homework. We probably stole that arrogance from the colonialist mindset. It's some form of resistance, a backwards version, but a resistance nonetheless.

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).

Martin: I love the internet. I love piracy. That's how we got our early education of films because we couldn't just buy from Amazon every time. This was when the internet was just starting to boom, and then eventually we'd share each other's downloaded stuff. The whole idea of capitalism labeling piracy or the internet being a threat to creativity is bullshit. The artists don't get paid, sure, but they always haven't been paid or treated well before these things exploded. I don't have DVD distribution of any of my films. They're all just there floating. In the beginning I concentrated on just making them. There was too much coming out of me at the time that—whenever my producer wanted to sit down and talk about proper distribution—I would always delay it. I can breathe better now so hopefully we can do something about that.

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.

Hansen: You mentioned earlier that—because of your cultural background—you have a love-hate relationship with narrative. Does your inclusion of radio drama, television, and old films (as elements in 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?

Martin: It’s survivalism. There are just more institutions willing to support your laziness than there are over here. If we had the luxury of that process—which I actually learned during my stay in Paris and tried to apply in a project like 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.