Kidlat Tahimik—Eternal Dreamer, Constant Teacher

After passing through two of Malacañang Palace’s security checks, Kidlat Tahimik, his wife Katrin, sister Genie, apos Kalinaw and Amihan, and I began to trudge up the red-carpeted steps to the main hall. Just a step or two up had been taken, when security personnel stopped us and told my fahter-in-law, the newly minted National Artist for Cinema, that he could not be allowed to enter because his outfit—a bahag and a woven jacket embroidered with a lightning bolt in the back using traditional ikat weave—had not followed the Filipiniana dress code for the formal occasion. Before any of us could angrily protest, Tatay held up his hand and with a benign smile on his face, said, “No, it’s okay, it’s okay. This is a teaching moment!”

Along with members of the Manobo and Yakan tribe (whose Ambalang Ausalin received a GAMABA award for the Yakan weaving tradition), we were asked to wait in the China Room while the security personnel discussed the dilemma with their superiors. After 15 minutes, we were told that those in indigenous costume could enter, provided they entered barefoot. The Manobos good naturedly said, “This is how we really are, anyway. We prefer to be barefoot.”

Tatay said lightly to the security personnel who had stopped him earlier, “Perhaps it’s time for us to drop our colonial mentality, hindi lang barong Tagalog o terno ang puede sa formal occasions…”

The security personnel didn’t crack a smile. Trabaho lang, walang personalan. But as we glided up the stairs into the hallway lined with Presidential portraits, I was grateful for my father-in-law’s educator’s spirit, his levity and openness of mind that allows him to infiltrate closed colonial mind sets with his  “indio-genius” Trojan horse of ideas. With grace and good humor, he can make a point while allowing the other space to be.

Tatay never allowed himself to believe he would ever be conferred the prestigious award “National Artist for Cinema” because his 41-year career as a cultural activist gave birth to only 11 full length feature and short films. His passion to promote decolonization moved him to go beyond the discipline of film into installation and performance art, architecture, and cultural preservation.

When he travels around the world showing his classic Mababangong Bangungot or Perfumed Nightmare, he usually accompanies the film with an art installation showcasing rattan-woven figures, “Rochester spaghetti” or used strips of film, a disparate array of objects collected over the years that he arranges anew in every venue. He performs live after some screenings, reenacting the filmmaker’s dilemma of choosing between Hollywood blockbuster narratives versus indigenous mythology and local narratives.

He has taught several generations of students about nurturing one’s “sariling duwende”, that unique conglomeration of upbringing, culture, personality, idiosyncrasies and curiosities that mold a person’s passion and give birth to an authentic, singular purpose.

He has taught filmmaking to Ifugao woodcarvers and farmers, and helped revive the Hapao Punnok festival with his soul brother, woodcarver and elder Lopes Nauyac. He fosters the celebration of indigenous culture and encouraged the revival of Schools of Living Tradition throughout the Philippines with his wife, Dr. Katrin de Guia, through the KAPWA Conferences.

In building his Oh My Gulay vegetarian restaurant and his current project, Ili Likha, he practices “Pukpok-Tastas architecture”, asking each piece of wood where it wants to go instead of forcing materials to follow a strict blueprint.

As we discussed his nomination for National Artist, Tatay asked me, “How can they give me an award for film when what I do is so much more than the art of filmmaking?” As I listened to him, I almost bought into his doubt.

Funnily enough, I first encountered Tatay in my Social Sciences thesis class in Ateneo. My thesis advisor showed us Turumba, a movieabout a folk Catholic ritual practiced in Pakill, Laguna, and how global capitalist forces affect its practice via the local papier mache industry’s attempt to go global. There was no explanation or description of the film before we saw it. In the first half hour of the film, I was trying to figure out if what I was watching was a narrative film or a documentary. The people in the film were so real and natural, there were no tricks or effects that made me feel I was watching something fictional or contrived. Yet this quiet film packed a powerful punch in showing how the values of the big fat profit line and globalisation could destroy a small cottage industry and affect the delicate social bonds of a community. The last scene of the movie, of retasos of badly made papier mache dogs getting drenched in a monsoon rain, was a scene I felt you could be multiplied a thousand times in small provincial communities around the world—the beautiful spiritual and social values of a community, subsumed (or even crushed) under the homogenous, bland, and insidious global market forces.  

Seeing this movie made me want to find Kidlat Tahimik, whose name made me imagine a tribal leader wearing a feathered headdress. I met his son (and my future husband) Kidlat at a mutual friend’s birthday party. I was driving up to Baguio the following morning. Kidlat gave me his Tatay’s landline number (to this day, he eschews cellphones, except for taking photographs). The following day, I met Kidlat Tahimik in his restaurant, a social enterprise that supports Cordilleran artists. For the first time in my life, I listened to someone talk to me about the sariling duwende. I started wondering, what did my sariling duwende want to say? How could it express itself in the only way it knows how?

I started having dreams with Kidlat Tahimik in them. At first, I was puzzled at his presence in my dreams. And then I realized that my brain had transformed him into the avatar of MY sariling duwende! In one dream, he showed me his handmade wooden red shoes. “Are they comfortable?” I asked him. “Very comfortable,” he answered, as he walked mile after mile of unpaved country road. In another dream, he showed me how to leap like a mountain goat up to the top of a wall. (Tip: all you have to do is try. The believing comes after.) In another dream, he showed me that I had only several energy bars left to my life. We were surrounded by life-sized psychedelic portraits of horses (he was born in the year of the horse). I was told to use those remaining energy bars wisely, for the projects and artistic endeavors that truly mattered to me.

The real life Tatay Kidlat never tires of planting seeds wherever he goes. Every Christmas, he refuses to give gifts, and chooses Rizal Day or Tandang Sora Day for his gift-giving (even my mother Marisa knows this, and writes “Happy Rizal Day!” on her Christmas cards to her balae). He gives all of us his mini-lecture on how Christmas Day is an occasion created to sell Hallmark cards and help department stores get rich (we all listen politely, and do our best to give him a non-store-bought gift). He points out to those of us who still harbor a colonial blind spot, how this or that custom is really a Western capitalist construct. And at yearly AISEC meetings (a youth-run economics organization whose Philippine chapter he co-founded in the 60s) Tatay lectures everyone on his anti-capitalist/consumerist world view (it can be quite confusing for the audience).

Nothing puts all these sentiments as eloquently as his first film, Perfumed Nightmare, about an innocent probinsyano who dreams of abandoning his backward, third-world reality for the modernity and progressiveness of the West. After discovering that his capitalist dream has turned into a nightmare, a carved wooden horse given to him by his mother symbolizes the sariling duwende that the protagonist Kidlat rediscovers. “When the typhoon blows off its cocoon, the butterfly embraces the sun.” That is Tatay’s dream for all of us, that we may free our minds from the shackles of colonial mentality, to rediscover and embrace our true, authentic selves, what he calls our “indio-genius”.

Through his handmade 16-millimeter films and videos, usually created with expired film and without the benefit of big financial backing, Tatay has provided a Trojan horse for decolonization that continues to inspire as well as educate, a part of his rich artistic legacy for the generations yet to come.

“I choose my vehicle, and I can cross any bridge.”  

This week, Tatay is showing his latest film Lakaran, which is part of an omnibus that includes a film each from Brilliantes Mendoza and Lav Diaz (who declares that Kidlat Tahimik first inspired him to create films in his own way), at the 2018 Tokyo Film Festival. This film comes at the heels of Balikbayan #1, Memories of Overdevelopment Redux, which won the Caligari film prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 2015, an award given to films that continue to break the mold of filmmaking and entices people to keep watching films as well as believe in the power of film as a craft.

He keeps telling us, “This could be my last film!” Knowing Tatay, he will only continue to surprise us, and perhaps, even himself. Just like the character he once played in his movie Who Invented the Yoyo? Who Invented the Moon Buggy?, Kidlat Tahimik is the eternal dreamer who imagines a reality that is as dependent on hope as it is on magic. In bridging the worlds of the seen and unseen through his works of art, he is a true shaman for modern times.