Khavn De la Cruz (hereinafter called Khavn, his preferred moniker) is the most active filmmaker in the Philippines.
When introducing a filmmaker whose works are as polarising as Khavn it is best to start with a statement only a fool would deny.
Working primarily in the digital medium, Khavn, aged in his early thirties, boasts an impressive filmography of over 30 works – a heady mix of features and short films that cross a number of genres, styles, and tastes. An award-winning filmmaker, poet, songwriter and musician, the multi-talented Khavn has been known to handle just about every aspect on certain earlier works, inserting pseudonyms in the credits in place of repeating his name too many times.
Through my work as a critic and screening curator for the website Indiefilipino.com, I have borne witness to the dividing nature of Khavn’s films up close. Last October 2003, Indiefilipino.com held two screenings of Khavn’s films Memory Before Dawn (Alaala Ng Madaling Araw) (1996) and Headless (Pugot) (2002) at the underground make-shift theatres, Brash Young Cinema and Los Otros. Memory Before Dawn is a video diary featuring live-recorded voiceover by the filmmaker and on-the-spot, on-the-cam editing (using the pause function). The digital feature Headless is an improvised collaboration with likely the best filmmaker in Philippine cinema today, Lav Diaz, and young theatre actress Banaue Miclat. Both films drew equally strong, conflicting responses from audiences – some found beauty and poetry in the experience of watching the personal experiment Memory Before Dawn, whereas others thought it a mundane and pointless exercise. Headless, which cuts back and forth between extended sequences of a long-haired man walking the streets of Manila with a bloodied crotch (Diaz), and first-person point of view flashbacks of the slow demise of his relationship with his girlfriend (Miclat), turned off many viewers. Defenders of the work, myself included, found sublime undertones in it – from reflections on the destructive agitator mentality artists can carry into their personal lives, to their need to have society as an audience for their feelings, emotions, and in this case especially, pain. These are observations that Khavn, who often informs his work with intuition and instinct more than science, likely may not have thought of upon making his film.
It is this way of working that is both Khavn’s greatest strength and greatest weakness – the infinite creative juices he possesses ensure interesting and dynamic work, such that he has found a home with international audiences at festivals, but it also means that in a country such as the Philippines, whose cinematic sensibilities are still in their adolescent stage, his films are deemed esoteric and difficult, and his audience, thus, is limited.
With the international premiere of his Hubert Bals Fund-granted film The Family That Eats Soil (Ang Pamilyang Kumakain ng Lupa) at the Rotterdam International Film Festival looming in the month ahead, I spoke to Khavn about just these things – his aesthetic, finding audiences at home, and the curious delicacy at the centre of his latest work.
– Alexis Tioseco
* * *
Alexis Tioseco: Your films have travelled to various festivals and you are becoming fairly established internationally, but at home in the Philippines, your audience remains limited. Why do you believe that is, and has the knowledge of audience affected your work?
Khavn: My audience in the Philippines is limited simply because I don’t have the money and/or clout for a billboard, to open in major cinemas nationwide, for advertising in the dailies, to show my trailers on TV, etcetera.
I can have all these but I won’t own a single percent of my film, and more importantly, I will have to make a film that betrays myself and my work. So I opt for a limited local audience and just send my films to festivals, with the hope that it gets easier financially along the way, in the process, creating a filmography of a cinema I can really call my own. I make films that will fit my lack of budget, which the work hopefully compensates for with authenticity and creativity.
But really now, which filmmaker in the Philippines can claim that he has a vast audience locally? After [Lino] Brocka, moviegoers really don’t care if it’s directed by whomever. There’s no Pinoy (1) filmmaker which has a strong enough commercial identity that Filipinos flock to his film when they see his name in the marquee. Philippine Cinema is still star/actor-driven, and half of the time, that even fails.
The hierarchy in Philippine theatres starts with the Hollywood mafia; then the local major studios. Next are the minor studios posing as independents, which have moolah, slightly more or less than the major. Lastly, you have the indies; which have ultra-limited budgets or even none at all – just enough to finish production. So when you ask why my audience is limited, my answer to that is: lack of funds.
AT: Do you think gaining an audience locally is just a matter of publicity?
Khavn: According to the school of “publicity is king”, it is. You feed them whatever – shit, soil – again and again, and soon they’ll like it. Not too different from Pavlov’s puppy. It’s just like what the biggies here have been doing in terms of cinema, music, etc.; feeding us crap, dumbing, numbing the masses to the point of paralysis.
On the other hand, my films are not your usual mainstream fare; they are relatively “difficult”, requiring a more active viewing. It might take a longer time versus a film like Kung Fu Hustle, (which I enjoyed very much, by the way). Although one doesn’t really know. It hasn’t been tried, tested.
Basically, I make films with myself as the primary audience. In the past, I tried adjusting my films for the imaginary Filipino masses, but in the end, what came out, was still something “un-commercial”. So I just gave up. No more attempt of “dumbing down” my work. Fortunately, even if I try to sanitise or compromise my work, what emerges is still something I can call my own. Maybe my film ego, film personality, is just too big.
AT: Do you want your work to be understood by mass audiences?
Khavn: Of course, you want to be understood, even if one’s message is misunderstanding. But we all have different experiences. We’ve read different books, watched different films, listened to different music, lived different lives. Though deep inside, we’re supposed to be one and the same. But we have different metaphors, symbols, dreams. You just hope that in the end, you connect with the viewer in some way, even if what they get is totally different from your intentions, sometimes even the opposite.
I plan to make films in the future that are genre-based, commercially-oriented. But let’s see what comes out. Good luck to us.
I thought one of my last films Hero/Antihero (a satire on Philippine Action Movies and its king/s) was my most commercial/accessible work. But when I showed it to a journalist friend, he thought that it was the most out-of-this-world film I’d created.
So when I made The Family That Eats Soil, I just threw all illusions/aspirations/pretensions of making a viable commercial film out the window. I just made the film that I wanted to make. Period.
AT: Much of your body of work is very experimental, very extreme. Realistically, given your aesthetic, do you think working in the mainstream is an option or possibility in the future?
Khavn: Why not? Experimental, extremist cinema exists in other countries. Why not here in the experimental and extremist republic called the Philippines? That would be the day.
AT: Why do you think audiences aren’t as open to more experimental work here as they are in certain other countries?
Khavn: One reason is the issue of censorship through the MTRCB, which was created by Dictator Marcos himself. Some filmmakers specifically make films for them, by following their rules – you can show one breast but not two nipples, etc. Now, one of the major cinemas, SM (2), has self-censored itself by refusing, not only X-rated films, but also R-rated films, even if the distance between the two letters is quite far. This is rumoured to be due to the owner’s being a Born-again Christian. Long live religion! Viva cristianismo! (3)
Also, there is the notion that the majority of the Filipinos, being too tired from working or looking for work, don’t want to think. They just want their simple/clear emotions to be triggered. They want to laugh, cry, be scared, but not at the same time, not in one sitting, which is what I try to do. In other words, Filipinos patronise escapist cinema, which is the reason why Hollywood is big here. The top-grossing Filipino film for 2004 is a fantasy-comedy for kids; which is no sin, but simply an unfortunate reality permeating the globe.
It’s a chicken or the egg thing. Filipinos initially want escapist cinema. The producers who are after a sure profit produce only this kind of cinema. Risk is out of the question.
This is not to say that the Philippine audience has no hope. Thanks to piracy, local movie-lovers have more options, thus broadening their taste. Some even say that video piracy is creating a cultural revolution in film-viewing in the Philippines.
AT: Aside from film, you have been recognised for your work in a number of fields as a fictionist, poet, songwriter, and musician. Do you consider yourself a filmmaker above all these? Which among them are you most passionate about?
Khavn: I consider myself a creative artist who makes films, creates music, and writes literature. I am passionate about art and life, and they feed off each other. I could offer film as a trick answer, since it contains the other arts as well.
AT: Philippine Cinema, though now a century old, is still growing, maturing, and forming its identity. Do you feel you have a social responsibility as a filmmaker? And if so, what do you believe that responsibility to be?
Khavn: I disagree that Philippine Cinema is still forming its identity. It is more appropriate to say that it has “lost” its identity, or disregarded it. We’ve made a lot of films since the beginning of cinema. Unfortunately, archiving has not been a priority. So a lot of films have been lost, destroyed, made into trumpet whistle toys; literally disintegrated because of neglect and lack of proper storage. Secondly, even if some films have been saved from oblivion, distribution and exhibition is another obstacle. ABS–CBN, which owns the best archiving facilities in the Philippines, would rather promote their self-produced cheesy flicks than the best of Philippine cinema history.
I believe that I am being socially responsible by simply being myself, expressing myself to the core, being honest, truthful in what I do, be it film, music, or literature.
The Philippines is a naturally rich country in terms of history, character, location, stories, etc. I believe that simply documenting its sleeping and waking lives is the task and responsibility of the Filipino artist.
AT: Given the crass commercialism rampant in the local film industry, do you feel the need to veer your aesthetic even farther from the norm as a reaction action against that?
Khavn: I was born and raised to be a rebel with or without a cause. I don’t make films to displease the local film industry. The local film industry is the last thing on my mind while I’m creating. My aesthetic is a product of everything that I’ve taken in and kept out. Part of this is the crappy local movies that have inspired me and kept me going. Try it, watch a really lousy movie. Afterwards, you’ll walk out saying: if that’s what they call, or what can pass off as, a movie, I can easily, definitely, do much better than that.
The idea of doing something that veers so far from the norm is not a conscious choice, but is more of an afterthought, a realisation, rather than something I ponder on during writing, production, or post. I don’t feel the need (to react against the current norm) per se. I just write what I want to write, shoot what I want to shoot.
Sometimes though, you do little things just to fuck the prevailing system, just to piss off the powers-that-be.
AT: Speaking of messing around with the system, how was the idea for your new film, The Family That Eats Soil born?
Khavn: Circa 1997, I wrote a short story simply called “The Family”. I actually integrated it into the final screenplay of “Soil”, since it has complementary characterisations. I don’t remember where or when the idea of them specifically eating soil came. But if you’re going to force me, I could answer: from this local noontime show where this poor guy ate soil as a remarkable feat, something like Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not” for the jilted generation of the fourth world.
AT: You received a Hubert Bals Fund Grant to write the script for the film. You didn’t submit the script, but instead, the finished film. Tell me about the process of making this film.
Khavn: Short answer: It’s easier to shoot than to write.
For the script, I combined my two short stories “The Family” (written originally in English) and “The Family That Eats Soil” (written originally in Filipino), added some scenes, details. We shot in our house, using our dining table which seats six. Originally, I only had five family members; I added the zombie grandfather so there wouldn’t be an empty seat. Although thinking about it now an empty seat would have worked as well.
It was basically shot in three consecutive days in October 2004. But I added some scenes I recorded in June 2004 and a few shots from an earlier attempt two days before the official October grind. The attempt was aborted because of miscasting.
AT: Who was miscast?
Khavn: The initial actor who was supposed to play the father was a non-actor, a respected Indian Guru who refused to have soy sauce come out of his ear (something the part required) because of what it supposedly connotes. The mother backed out at the last minute because she found the material too dark, and she wanted light, healing, and other bullshit. She didn’t want to add to the unbearable weight or baggage of living in Manila.
The replacements did a good job, however. The universe cooperated. Which is good.
Two girls from the production design team were hardcore feminists and animal rights activists. They weren’t too hot about the sex scenes and the death of an angelfish.
I had an excellent posse of technicians from editing, musical scoring and sound design, to animation, 2D and clay.
AT: The Family That Eats Soil paints a dystopian view of the modern Filipino family. The repetitive chorus of the film that breaks up the separate stories of the individual family members is the image of a family meal, eating soil. I have my own opinion, but I want to know what the significance of this act is for you.
Khavn: I could give you a variety of answers, and none would necessarily mean more than the other.
AT: Try me.
Khavn: Okay –
B. Poverty. Having nothing to eat but soil means you’re so poor, you’d eat anything.
C. Worse than mere poverty is Internal Poverty, the feeling or mentality that one is poor. One can be physically rich, money in the bank, etcetera, but deep inside, he still believes he’s poor, that his pocket money is not enough. He is so afraid of poverty. This is because of a paranoia brought about by a poverty trauma, probably during childhood. That’s why the film is not set in the slums. It’s set in an upper–middle class house in Manila.
So what is the significance of a family eating soil for you?
AT: To me, it represented just that – the subversion of archetype Filipino family values. Eating meals together as a family is something that is highly valued in Filipino culture, but in my experiences, it’s often more symbolic than it is actually constructive. So the act of eating soil in the film I felt was satire, saying that what this ritual is feeding us isn’t healthy.
Khavn: There is that Christian slogan “The family that eats together stays together”, which reinforces the Filipino tradition of having a family, a closely-knit one at that.
One of the themes prevalent in my works is the cliche “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, or “What you see is not necessarily what you get.”
A seemingly happy, perfect family on the outside can be hyper-dysfunctional on the inside. Eating is a fairly internal affair, something that happens inside the house. Maybe, it’s just my basic mistrust of the myth or illusion of a perfectly functional family; that it doesn’t exist. Except in the minds of the priests who don’t have one, yet impose it on their constituents.
The Filipino family is like the Philippine archipelago; broken up into many pieces. Yet it still has the nerve to call itself a unit. They should just change “family” and “country” into “a bunch of disparate entities”.
“Shattered” is a word that comes into mind. “Broken” is too mild. Although “crushed” is a more apt term with regards to soil. The family eats soil day in, day out, same old thing for the rest of their lives. Stasis. The need for change. Sometimes, something or someone must die in order for rebirth to occur.
Don’t believe a single word that I’ve said. I’m just blabbering. Trying to pull your artificial leg.
- Shorthand term for Filipino.
- Shoe Mart, a chain of malls owning by far the largest number of Cinemas in the Philippines.
- As I have been told, the decision to not show R-18 films was economical. They were losing money at the box office and that was why they were pulled from SM theaters. It is illegal to exhibit X-rated films in commercial cinemas, and may only be shown in censorship exempt theaters such as the NCCA (National Center for Culture and Arts), CCP (Cultural Center of the Philippines), and the University of the Philippines Film Center.