T’was the translucent-blue tongues of the glaciers licking the salty sea… yes, at the End of the World. That’s what they call Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of Argentina. It might as well be the edge of that flat-earth – that was feared ferociously by the crew of Magellan’s expedition. Three wooden tall-ships groping 38 days to find a passage to the bigger ocean – what he would name “El Pacifico”.
T’was on our way to the Mar del Plata Film Festival. My wife and I did a southern detour to trace that narrow Magellan strait that could make-or-break the first circumnavigation in 1521. The spice-seeking Spanish fleet, meandering through a treacherous labyrinth of narrow cliffs capped by glaciers… a pinhole opening to the vast pacific.
T’was on a Patagonian cruise ship. My bamboo camera scans the spectrum of blue: from the marine-blue of the waves, panning up to the icy-blue of the glaciers, then zooming-in to the Bavarian-blue pupils of my wife Katrin; and zooming-out on high peaks, racing past the heaven-blue of the sky.
So why did Magellan call it Land of Fire? Despite the name Tierra del Fuego, my pilgrimage memories are tinted with the cool blue of a cruise – not the hot fiery orange of a spaceship launch.
Without the guidance of satellite signals – it was the indigenous GPS of Enrique, Magellan’s slave, that showed the way. His Austronesian seafarers’ cosmology “knew” the way home. Like the homing-instinct of E.T. he pointed out the way to his master – which rocky curve to follow, and which glacier tongue to avoid. Until they saw the setting sun on a tranquil sea… Enrique could now smell Home.
The cruise ship captain announces “We will take 36 hours to reach the Pacific Ocean, what took Magallanes 38 days in 1521.” My eyes spot a cluster of three pointed chunks of glacier ice floating by. My fantasy sees the white sails of three caravelas – the wooden boats that eventually crossed the Pacific Ocean.
Wow! Another 99 days they sailed, to reach the 7,000 islands of my country. 1521 was long before the maps got the name “Filipinas.” Named after King Felipe II of the greedy empire coveting spices (who BTW, died of syphilis…but that’s another story.)
Flash-Forward to 2021 Quincentennial
In 2021, we honour 500 years since Magellan’s 1521 crossing of the Pacific. Three months ever-westward sailing. “Amigo, when do we fall over the Niagara Falls of the Pacific?” murmured the paranoia of the crew. They had ran out of food and water – eating the last rats and cockroaches, drinking their own urine – yearning for the end of that endless voyage.
T’was so apt: “Das Ende der Endlos Reise” the title offered by Werner Herzog for my circumnavigation film in 1982. Little did he know it would take another 33 years for his young Filipino filmmaker friend to reach port – a homeport for film premieres called Berlinale 2015.
As if, to stretch further that endlos voyage, I find myself today still editing new images for a final version in 2021. Yes, I plan to celebrate the Quintcentennial of the 1st circumnavigation by honouring Enrique, the obscure slave/ valet/ interpreter of Magellan. But also his cosmic guide… whom western historians choose to ignore as an uneducated primitivo. Eurocentric chauvinism. Que Barbaridad!
But an Austrian writer acknowledged the feat of our humble tropical sailor. In his autobiographical novel about Magellan, Stefan Zwieg points out the mood when they arrived in our archipelago: “Enrique was chattering and laughing with the Cebu natives – in a language he had not heard for years, his mother tongue. For the first time in the history of this planet, a human – no matter how lowly his status – had circled the globe and returned to his native island…” Bravo Enrique!
Open-Ended Script; Never-ending Timetable
Most cineastes have a roadmap (aka the tight script) with a deadline. Others might start to roll film with no dialogue lists – just distilled concepts to be translated into celluloid images (aka the film treatment.)
Mine was the scanty ocean-map, that I started sailing with in 1979. It was still the era of celluloid spaghetti or16mm film. For millennials who don’t know what film is, FYI once-upon-a-time, long strands of film were wound around a spool. If accidentally unspooled, they become a pile of shiny black noodles. We filmmakers had a pasta menu to choose from. We could shoot Rochester spaghetti (Kodak) or Munich nudeln (Agfa) or Tokyo Ramen (Fujifilm.)
In 1988 I had no winds in my sails. I decided to shelve the circumnavigation project. My sons were growing up. I wanted to enjoy being a gangmate with our three boys. I didn’t want to sacrifice that bonus of papa-hood on the altar of a film career. Yes, my priorities became clear: “Kidlat Tahimik is a tatay (father) and a filmmaker – in that order!” So I put my Bolex 16mm camera in a box and stopped churning spaghetti.
Family Currents/ Technical Cross-currents
T’was time to shift with the currents of family priorities. Enter: the lure of new video, like mysterious sirens seducing ships to stray from their celluloid course. The strong storm-surges of new-technology typhoons made filmmakers trade-in their spaghetti movie cameras for video camcorders. Yes, the novel cameras captured images-cum synch-sound. And the filmlab go-between became extinct.
The click-n-drag editing yielded quickie storyline sequences – that could surely speed-up my scriptless journey. It was a super-easy way to collect visuals by chance – supplying my storyboard with detour-episodes to juggle around. Herzog had told me, “Kidlat, you’re best in your filmic detours!”
Yes, even to find a surprise ending… like Magellan’s accidental discovery: (Sailing into uncharted seas, he was shooting without a script, n’est-ce pas?) “Hey! Our world is round!!!”
An inevitable farewell to the old continent of celluloid spaghetti was dawning. This meant plying into the new archipelago of quick-obsoleting gadgets. Yearly typhoons of technical winds battered last year’s videocams into obsolete vessels. Then we rounded the Cape of Storms into the more easily navigable waters of digital video. My old world had been a giant 16mm Steenbeck editing flatbed sitting in a room full of bulky trim boxes with shelves of film cans and rolls of magnetic tape.
The editing room imploded into laptop editing. Yes, celluloid had dinosaured into oblivion. (Our last 16mm filmlab in Manila closed.) To us indies, it was downsizing our seafaring operations from the aircraft-carrier scale to a small dugout. That suited my three-man-film-crew filming.
But I refused to free-fall into the efficient world of fastfood films. I had learned to drift in my never-ending timetables. Trusting my Bathala-Na or Cosmic schedules, those endlos voyage was really a comfort zone of doing it my way.
Gusts of Old-Culture Ghosts
As an indie with no-budget, I played the indio Enrique in my film. Kidlat Tahimik was the cheapest actor available. And yes, always on call – for four decades. When I began my film in 1979, I depicted the survival instincts of Magellan’s slave coming from his tribal ancestors. Originally it was just a convenient wardrobe strategy.
Donning my crimson G-string costume (from the Ifugao tribe) would visually juxtapose the underdeveloped slave vs. the overdressed master. Adopting the indigenous loincloth made the costume design job of my wife Katrin much easier. She could focus on sewing the intricate courtesan fashions of medieval Europe.
Our late ‘70s new-age movements included ethnic-costume revivals, returning to our indigenous roots, digging out ancestral wisdom. This would bring my lenses to capture the waving red G-strings of the Ifugaos, our tribal survivors of the cultural storms Magellan introduced in our islands 500 years ago.
What monsters did those kultur-wars create within us islanders? That identity crisis was described by Chitang Nakpil, a Filipina writer: “We Filipinos lived three centuries in a convent, plus 50 years in Hollywood.” Such displacements of our pre-colonial worldview deepened my curiosity.
Colonisation by M.B.A.
It pushed my Bamboo Camera to research how my “over-education” resulted in M.B.A. contradictions. That is, McKinley’s Benevolent Assimilation policy in the early 1900s of the US colonial government in Manila. The M.B.A. public schools re-booted our island culture. Dr. Renato Constantino simply calls it the “mis-education of the Filipino.”
Two decades of cultural immersion with my Ifugao mentor Lopes Nauyac in the village of Hapao would awaken me. It became clear how we were robbed of Enrique’s tribal assets by our public school system. This was enhanced by the seductive Trojan Horse of Hollywood. (Movies became our informal schooling.) Our culture was seduced by the perfumed nightmare of benevolent assassination (sic).
The ancient harmony with nature of the villagers mirrored to me that growing up in our over-Americanised echo-chamber (perfected during the M.B.A. era) keeps us Filipinos out-of-synch with mother earth. I had to confront my “American-Idol” cultural demons. Shed them. And hopefully emerge a freer soul?
Still windless in my sails, I was a castaway – floating here and there. In Baguio it was great to be a hands-on papa with modern parenting experiments. In Ifugao, living the slow-mo life in the rice terraces catalysed the deconstruction of my westernised mind.
While dancing to tribal gongs with my sons in our G-strings, I could occasionally pull out my videocam to be father and filmmaker at the same time. The prolonged immersion in Hapao allowed my sons (who in the early ‘80s had acted as kids in the film) to grow old enough in real life, for me to cast them as bearded sailors with Enrique in the high seas.
Enrique’s Indigenous Survival Kit
For Magellan’s manservant, staying connected with his shamanic ancestors was his secret to survival. Ikeng could be a loyal friend adapting to his master’s European-self. But by retaining his islander-self, he could be logistically useful, guiding the expedition home.
As a slave, he could pray with the ship’s chaplain. With the Catholic crew, outwardly he could do the sign of the cross. Closing his eyes, Enrique would be visualising innerly his ancient mountain gods. He could seek strength from the sea goddesses. On the shipdeck he was chatting with dolphins and whales for directions.
Spiritually balanced, the indigenous slave Enrique was the indio-genius survivor par excellence. It is no surprise he would endure the oppression of slave traders, and not cave-in to the protocols of an imposed religion,
Stamina-wise, he could tackle the rigours of a 99-day Pacific crossing. Above all, our cool Enrique could float above the violent norm of macho sailors – exacerbated by cabin fever from three years circumnavigating. (Yes, not unlike the locked-downed people today in our Coronavirus prisons.)
By being culturally grounded, he survived two oceans, and the cold curses of European winters on his tropical body, and the racism of foreign lands. In the end he circled the globe, bringing home to his island, his precious “Memories of Overdevelopment” from a long stint in Renaissance Europe. (Apologies to my Cuban filmmaker amigos for juggling their film title.)
A New Mantra for Sailing-On
Like Enrique, decades of drifting to find my film ending had taught me to let-go my MBA diploma’s mantra to “Stay on Track”– along that road to success. With hindsight, filming my never-ending voyage became a “Straying on Track” orientation. Bathala Na! (Or, as that cute guru Yoda said “Trust the Force!”) Like Enrique, decades of drifting to find my film ending had taught me to let-go my MBA diploma’s mantra to “Stay on Track” – along that road to success. With hindsight, filming my never-ending voyage became a “Straying on Track” orientation. Bathala Na! (Or, as that cute guru Yoda said “Trust the Force!”)
It allowed me to evolve into a seasoned sailor in the ocean of life. Finally I could take hold of my ship’s steering wheel – more confident in our indio-genius GPS – thus negotiating daily swells and typhoons, towards a more tranquil being-ness.
With scriptless navigation, letting nature spirits guide me to the finish-line became my “Bathala Na” filmmaking modus operandi. This rendered an inner confidence that I could reach any shore – without a Google-map, or an MBA diploma, or a corporate blueprint.
Was that the end-result of my inner Magellanic journey?
T’was four decades of my filmic-voyage to become a relaxed circumnavigator of life. Obsessive, I had been endlessly swimming toward that far-away success island – fighting family/social cross-currents, desperately seeking funding-tailwinds, and zig-zagging the seas to avoid the whirlpools of colonial pasts.
Finally a mellowing bonus in later life: free-floating to wherever karmic winds push my sails. By Straying on Track, I would arrive at that far-off island – only to find out it has always been within myself.
Hoy Amigo! You must first squeeze through your personal Tierra del Fuego.
When you survive that baptism of fire, only then might you transcend your ocean of self-made turbulence – and sail-on, into the realm of the pacific…