A Conversation with Khavn De La Cruz
A highly prolific filmmaker who has spearheaded the active and visible presence of Filipino artists at film festivals around the world in recent years, Khavn De La Cruz is tough to pin down. With countless films to his name, including Squatterpunk (2007), Ultimo: Different Ways of Killing a National Hero (2008) and recently Mondomanila (2011), not to mention a steady output of poetry and music, Khavn’s work is energetic, vehement and urgent, subverting national iconography and upending cinematic tropes, whether related to horror, social realism or Surrealism. His wide-ranging films cover one-day productions to those developed over almost a decade, his thirst for filmmaking not only reflecting a personal passion, but also a need to address the loss of so much of the cinematic heritage in the Philippines. Tied to this, he is the director of the MOV festival, the first digital film festival in the Philippines.
Yusef Sayed: Your film Manila in the Fangs of Darkness (2008) explicitly refers to what is perhaps the most often cited influence among your peers, Lino Brocka’s Manila in the Claws of Neon. These films seen together seem like a good place to start with your work and Philippine cinema as a whole.
Khavn De La Cruz: Yes, in a survey conducted by film critic Joel David, at the end of the twentieth century, Manila in the Claws of Neon emerged as the best Filipino film of all time, closely followed by Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night.
The past repeating itself in Manila in the Fangs of Darkness (the references to and clips lifted from Brocka’s film) can be looked at as a response to the poor preservation of the cinema of the Philippines, in addition to the social issues and urban tension the film addresses. Even in this age of admirable cultural excavation and reissuing, there is surely an oversight here. Do you ever anticipate what the future will bring with regard to the preservation of your own work?
Somewhat. I sent some MiniDV masters to the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, Australia a few years ago. My editor, Lawrence S Ang is keeping MiniDV masters, too. The films have been sent in DVD format to Asia Pacific Films and we’ve stored some of the raw materials in hard disc drives. But it is true that my films – finished work, raw footage and other materials – would benefit more from a better archival system. With hard drives crashing and the MiniDV tape deteriorating, as well as improper safekeeping conditions – too much dust, heat, etc. – it is something to be worried about. An interesting statistic would be a tally of all the films made from the beginning of Philippine cinema until now, and right beside it a record of their present condition, so we could see how many have been well-preserved, in which format and whether it is in a complete and perfect state.
Interestingly, you have actually used the ‘imperfections’ of the medium to your advantage. As Headless (2004) progresses, the disintegrating relationship of the onscreen couple, Dina and Taga, and the resulting emotional distress of the male protagonist are reflected in the increasingly blurred image.
Yes, my original intention in Headless was to mimic the deteriorating mind of Taga as he loses consciousness while walking the streets of Manila and losing blood from the castration.
You’re not alone among Filipino filmmakers in actively involving yourself in many creative mediums. You once described Kommander Kulas (2010) in a way that neatly encapsulates these multidisciplinary interests saying, ‘influenced by paintings of Jose Legaspi, it’s an experimental take on the Don Quixote story with Sgt Pepper in the lead.’
I’ve worn many hats in this lifetime: Professor, lecturer, entrepreneur, café owner, car dealer, festival director, musician, cinematographer, editor, production designer, actor, producer, director, oracle reader, numerologist, poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, publisher, swimmer, basketball player, painter and computer science major.
Newcomers to your work will quickly grow accustomed to the typical crediting of your work, ‘This is not a film by Khavn’. This is obviously a reference to Magritte’s Surrealist painting, The Treachery of Images. You are an avowed fan of the surreal and have described this signature as a reflection of the creative process, whereby you feel ideas flowing through you.
This goes back to when I came across The Prayer of St Francis of Assisi: ‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.’ As for my interest in Surrealism, aside from Magritte’s pipe, I like his The Castle of the Pyrenees, as well Dali’s paintings. I’m drawn more to the Surrealist manifestos and certain innovative poetry that followed Surrealism – Césaire, Neruda and Vallejo, for instance.
My responsibility towards my work extends from concept to completion, and if permitted until it is marketed and distributed. I subscribe to the Reader-response theory, ‘the author is dead’, or in this case the director is dead.
Your prolific output allows viewers to get quite a detailed picture of your developing formal and thematic interests. For instance, watching The Family that Eats Soil (2005) I was beguiled by the short passage of extreme close-ups, the digital blur and glare, which I then learned was carried over from Corazon (2007). And there are documentary-style cockfights, which are of course central to Kristo (2004).[i]
They might be the same images but they’re used in different contexts.
It strikes me that this overlap between your works is the result of the extent to which you film, so that ideas are literally being developed, clarified and tackled in various ways on film, rather than hashed out and edited on paper for months beforehand.
Different films, different strokes. Some of my films don’t have a full screenplay; some are one-liners; others, one-page, a treatment or half a script. Some of them have full screenplays which I try to be loyal to as much as possible. The length of creation ranges from one day, for instance with Day Old Flick Manifesto, to nine years, as was the case with Mondomanila.
Would you call your approach to shooting improvisational?
For some of the films, yes, from full improv to minor improv. Even with a full screenplay, there’s still room for improvisation, for being open to the possibilities of the present, hearing and seeing the ‘now’. Filmmaking is collaborating with reality, with life, with the universe. You are not a writer holed up in your room writing whatever comes to your mind. You are outside, co-creating with people, places, and the world you’re in.
I’ve had the opportunity to see several of your films in various formats and from varying points in your filmography to date. It has been pointed out that Squatterpunk and Cameroon Love Letter (2010) are ideally suited to being screened with live musical accompaniment. Which entry point would you suggest to those unfamiliar with your work?
The most fun would be to begin wherever, at whichever point. ‘Random’ is one of my favourite words. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe. Roll the dice, spin the roulette wheel. Pick whatever you’re most attracted to, or even least attracted to. Perhaps choose the film title that begins with your favourite letter. The first, the last, the eighth-and-a-half. The one with the most colours maybe, or the one with the fewest words.
In terms of the realities of shooting, which moments have been of particular significance to you, with regard to developing a film idea in an unforeseen way?
When the main actor of Idol (2006) walked out, and I didn’t want to trash a full day’s work, I had the crazy idea of getting several actors to play the same role, wearing the same costume. This added another layer to an already multi-layered project. Headless was supposed to be shot on location at the Araneta Center in Cubao, Quezon City, but the security there was very strict and we didn’t have a permit. So we had to move to Malate and Roxas Boulevard (Old Manila) which turned out to be a better location. With Bahag Kings (2006), the battle plan was just to shoot a slapstick, Dadaist, silent film black comedy about seven kings wearing the indigenous Filipino loincloth and looking for nothing. But when the security officers of the Araneta Center had us detained in the local precinct for three hours, it became a socio-political documentary, a commentary on discrimination, intolerance and lack of freedom.
You were recently awarded support for a new film from the Hubert Bals fund, which previously assisted with the development of The Family that Eats Soil. What can you tell us about the new film and is there any particular difference in your approach or your interests now, as opposed to when you were working on The Family that Eats Soil?
It’s the sixth film project of mine that the Hubert Bals Fund has supported through the years. It also helped Cameroon Love Letter, Kommander Kulas, Mondomanila – which officially premiered at this year’s Rotterdam Film Festival – and Edsa XXX, which I plan to shoot this year. With each film I make, I try to have a different strategy. I want to make films distinct from one another, as much as I would like to produce children that are different from one another. Of course, it is inevitable that some films share common traits, a kind of thematic repetition and variation.
The new film, Desaparadiso, is about the disappearances during Marcos’ dictatorship, which continue to this day. It is an absurdist deconstruction of the Ibong Adarna corrido – the myth minus the magic. The film begins on 1st September 1972, when Marcos declares Martial Law and the eldest son of a family goes missing. Almost silent, the film has no audible dialogue from the characters – silenced. There is ambient sound, particularly from the radio that reports and entertains, serving as a kind of major character. Most of the story happens inside the house, focusing on the ones left behind. The interior static shots are always incomplete – there is always at least one character that has a missing body part. As the film progresses, the view becomes claustrophobic, suffocating.
In terms of such financial support, how important is it for you to acquire it?
Financial support is very important since we don’t live in no-currency heaven. The necessities of your creative soul may be non-material but you need money to feed it sometimes.
You have shown your work at many festivals around the world, for many years now, yet the work of the digital filmmakers from the Philippines is quite difficult to come by for home viewers. Where can we see your work, in the hope of encouraging more widespread interest?
Asia Pacific Films and Doc Alliance have made some of my films available for streaming. A few of my titles are distributed by Pathfinder and are available via Amazon, etc. I’ve also released some of my films on DVD for sale through my website and in some independent shops.
Yusef Sayed is a freelance writer and proofreader based in Lincoln, UK. He has contributed articles to The Wire and Little White Lies and has programmed community film screenings.
[i] Kristo, Corazon and The Family that Eats Soil were all shot in 2004.