Kidlat Tahimik: A Clown Who Fights the World

Saya diminta menulis oleh Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF) 2011 tentang pembuat film asal Filipina, Kidlat Tahimik. JIFF 2011 mengadakan retrospeksi Kidlat Tahimik, memutar seluruh film dan video works Kidlat dan mendatangkannya ke Jeonju. Buku ini terbit sebagai bagian dari retrospeksi itu.

Saya sekali saya tak bisa menghadiri JIFF 2011 sehingga tak bisa bertemu Kidlat. Pertamakali saya berjumpa dengannya adalah pada acara penutupan Cinemanila 2009 di Manila. Kidlat adalah seorang yang eksentrik. Ia memakai pakaian adat kemana-mana dan ketika ia datang, seluruh hadirin – filmmaker, wartawan, kritikus dan penyelenggara festival – menoleh dan berebut memberinya tempat duduk. Ia punya nama besar, sekalipun di kalangan terbatas.

Ia sempat ke Indonesia, tepatnya ke Jakarta dan Yogyakarta serta memutar filmnya di kedua kota itu. Lagi-lagi saya kehilangan kesempatan bertemu muka dengannya. Namun kesan saya terhadap Kidlat tetap mendalam, dan cukup untuk membuat esei sederhana tentangnya ini.

_eric sasono


When Kidlat Tahimik visited Jakarta, Indonesia, in 2010 he made quite a scene. After screening Perfumed Nightmare, he appeared in a toga with his traditional Filipino attire underneath. He banged some cans and performed a rather peculiar art. Kidlat did not forget to tease the audience, who were mostly aspiring film students of Jakarta Art Institute, the first film school in Jakarta. He said, “Dear mother and father. I have graduated from film school with cum-laude achievement. Therefore I am going to be a famous filmmaker who makes blockbuster films that will be screened in Hollywood and will please a lot of producers. Surely I am going to be a celebrity! If it happens, I will still make good proposals so I can ask funding agency and rich people to invest in my films. While it happens, I am still be dreaming in my room.”

A film lecturer who was present at that moment, intrigued by Kidlat’s pun since he is relatively familiar with that subject. Film students in Indonesia, as elsewhere, are always in the position of choosing one of the conflicting ways: being a commercial filmmaker who make box office hit films in classical Hollywood storytelling or departs with a venture of being a lesser known artists who maintain his or her integrity. For this lecturer, Kidlat represents the “true artist” who follows his art rather than makes living by doing what other people telling him to do. He sees Kidlat Tahimik as someone who dares to “fight against the world”, as it was mentioned in the title of the entry in this lecturer’s blog.

Kidlat’s parody is typical and the lecturer’s response was as typical as expected. Kidlat Tahimik has been always consistent in resisting Hollywood and its predominant aesthetics. Kidlat’s films always put questions to the widely perceived objectives of motion pictures’ aesthetics, such as plot seamlessness. Contrarily, Kidlat’s films are meant to attract the audience’s perception into certain awareness of imbalanced global politic, especially related to modern-day capitalism.

This very idea has made Kidlat’s film categorized as “third cinema” a term coined by two filmmakers, Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gaetino, in a manifesto accompanying a film they made in 1968, The Hour of Furnaces or La Hora de Los Hornos. The origin of the term came as opposition against the “first cinema” which is attributed to American / classical Hollywood films; and the “second cinema” which is for European-auteur cinema. Third Cinema is identified as Cine Liberacion or cinema of liberty, which indicates the departure of the filmmakers from dominant mainstream aesthetics and filmmaking process. In the case of The Hour of Furnaces, the film employs the usage of inter-titles to get the audience engages in the discussion on the particular subjects in the film. The film was also produced collectively in the spirit of a cooperative movement. Film, in this regard, is seen as a tool for making change or to revolutionize people or in Solanas and Gaetino’s words, film is a “gun with 24 frames per second.”

From a term that defines a movement, third cinema was broaden into a theory by Tehsome Gabriel, a film professor to define the aesthetic liberation of the films from the (mostly) third world countries from dominance of certain aesthetics that have been “colonizing” them. Gabriel adopted three phases of development of aesthetic liberation of the third cinema, borrowing it from Frantz Fanon, a famous anti-colonialist thinker (see Gabriel, 1982, for further explanation on this). The term then become more and more developed as analytical tool to (mostly but not limited to) cinema of third world countries.

The leftist character of the third cinema is apparent whether in the more “purist” usage of the term as it was coined by Solanas-Gaetino or when Gabriel explored it. First, the idea of third cinema is based on the division between disadvantaged mass / public on one side and the privileged ones on the other side, either in the category such as class or global politics or race etc. This inequality has created a predominance of certain aesthetics, which are classical Hollywood mainstream cinema and European-auteur cinema in comparison to other type of aesthetics.

Secondly, the third cinema is identified with an effort to raise awareness of the abovementioned inequality (or inequalities) among society (or societies) and to inspire the mass to think (and act) accordingly. The narrative of third cinema never accept any notion that the world should be perceived as it is, then it proposes to make amend to the world by aggravating collective awareness of the under-privileged people. Either perceived as ‘liberating’ or ‘revolutionary’ by its believers, third cinema always political in nature and proposes changes in certain direction, which is to eliminate the imbalanced relations between the underprivileged and the privileged and creates awareness for the underprivileged masses (or public) based on its authentic (or indigenous) knowledge system.

It is apparent that Kidlat’s films are addressing inequality. All his films explore the themes of imbalanced relations between people from one nation to another. From that point, the films depart into criticizing some ideas that is perceived as noble in this imbalanced relationship. In this regard, there are some important themes that I see as interesting subjects of Kidlat’s criticism.

One of the major themes that explored in Kidlat’s Tahimik’s films is the idea of progress. Progress, as it is defined by the technological and physical infrastructure advancement, is seen as a major deceit to humanity as well as communal intimacy. Kidlat criticizes progress as giving amazement in the beginning but its true nature is dreadful. The treachery nature of progress can be seen in Kidlat’s first encounter to “many bridges” and automatic door in Europe in his most known film, Perfumed Nightmare. Kidlat immediate reaction to those modern buildings is an awe and amazement. Then after he found that this progress, in bigger picture, has sacrificed the people he personally knows, he becomes aware that the progress is actually a phantom that gives him nightmare.

In relation to progress, Kidlat also criticizes science with the same tone. Kidlat portrays science as part of the progress, which evades human being from his or her true nature, culture and history. In Perfumed Nightmare, science as it was represented by the news about Apollo landing on the moon and invention of rocket that Kidlat follows in the Voice of America, also made him amaze in the beginning. In the beginning Kidlat establishes this “Werner von Braun fans club” as a celebration to human being’s achievement. Later he knows that this invention has distracted him from his respect to his personal strength that comes from mythology, which is blended with his personal history. In this regard, science is portrayed as giving stain to the pure soul. Modern science, as representation of modern-day capitalist knowledge system, is badgered. Moreover, Kidlat portrays the triumph of the underprivileged is gained through the usage of his (or her) indigenous knowledge system.

Kidlat’s resistance against progress could be broadened into his stance on modernization as in its term of world system integration. Progress sometimes is put as identical to modernization that brings nobility to human being. In Memories of Overdevelopment (or known as Magellan’s Slave), Kidlat has portrayed the modernization and establishment of the global system has bore an unequal global relationship among many people in many locales. The film portrays a Filipino who is being enslaved by Ferdinand Magellan (first world traveler noted in modern European history).

In this regard, the integration of many locales into a global system has created a new caste of human being, the lowest caste, which is slave. Kidlat portrays slavery as the basis for societal construction in modern-day global world rather than heritage of middle-age civilization. The world portrayed in Memories is a precursor to mercantilist capitalism, and this will develop into industrial capitalism, which created integration of different societal models and global division of labor. At this point, it is very interesting how Kidlat portray the Magellan’s slave as a clown who commenting to the “more civilized” world with unmatched witticism. This strategy is very important in giving upper hand to the authentic (or indigenous) knowledge of the underprivileged. This will be discussed in a while.

The next theme that is touched by Kidlat is the intrusion of industrial method of production into a village in the Philippine in Turumba. In Turumba, Kidlat shows how a profit motive, as it is known as the basic characteristic of modern man (or woman), has distracted a person from his or her communal obligation. The profit motive has changed the traditional method of production – where collective and familial lineage define the amount of produce to be produced as well as division of labor – into industrial method of production where productivity becomes more important than other aspects of the production.

Looking at those themes, it is interesting to see how Kidlat addresses his criticism. The filmmakers whose films are categorized as third cinema, mostly departed from the same point as Kidlat, and also propose authentic knowledge system (or leftist knowledge system where society is perceived as consist of two conflicting classes) to define the world where they are living in and build foundation of the new society based on that knowledge. But their revolutionary or leftist nature has made most of the third cinema films approach the subjects in a serious fashion where violence and repression are obviously strike the underprivileged mass (or public).

Kidlat takes rather different approach. The clownish-approach he is using in criticizing the modern-capitalistic word is similar to what Charlie Chaplin has done in his masterpiece, The Modern Times. As Chaplin, Kidlat employs himself as the main character of his films, and he is posited as a victim of progress and modernization and global integration that he is criticizing and at the same time showing the treacherous nature of those “noble ideas” to humanity. This viewpoint is rather romantic in nature, as Kidlat has already portrayed the modernized capitalist world as fierce in the first place.

The next strategy of Kidlat in criticizing the modern-day capitalism is by the usage of children. Kidlat does not pose these children as adult, but at the same time he also does not particularly addresses them as children. Rather, Kidlat has mentioned some particular habits or activities that relatively ageless while depicting children’s as the doers of those habit / activity. This is a strategy that he is using in Perfumed Nightmare and his other film Who Invented a Yo-yo, Who Invented the Moon Buggy.

Children are being used as symbol of innocence in contradicting the “noble idea” of progress and science as it was brought by capitalism. This is as if the treacherous nature of progress and science that brought about by modern-day capitalism can only be applied to children, while that would be perceived as a very childish persuasion in the adult world. This is a total mockery to the “nobility” that promoted by modern-day capitalism such as science, progress and economic motivation (orientation of modern men materialistic achievements).

Kidlat Tahimik and the third cinema’s criticism against modern-day capitalism has shown one of the basic function of cinema as an art, which is to provide the way of the people in perceiving the world. The interesting question in this regard is why is then the underprivileged people in the (mostly) post-colonial nations should be given a storytelling in different way as compared to what has been given by the mainstream cinema?

One important aspect of the reason of third cinema’s existence at the first place is the nature of classical Hollywood cinema storytelling which is served as a mechanism of interpellation of the masses into larger sphere of capitalism consumerism. The fast-growing global consumer culture is, more than tangible, has given certain direction to the masses to consumer lifestyle. Cinema, in particular the Hollywood classical storytelling model, has been functioning as the spearhead in promoting that consumer lifestyle, as David Bordwell observed it. Film industry, Bordwell said, is now directing its energies into pursuit of synergy (in marketing) rather than finding narrative coherence. The success of a film in term of box office now cannot be separated from the entire marketing of the film-related consumer goods.

In the light of today’s film industry, cinema as medium and as art has lost its function as a tool for emancipating the public. What Kidlat has done is basically to put cinema into a vehicle for constructing mass perception based on their own experience rather than adopting predominant aesthetics which are based on experience that are foreign to them. The world has accepted this predominant aesthetic together with its implication and very few questioning.

This is where Kidlat Tahimik’s films are extremely relevant. ***

The original text of this essay appear in Kidlat Tahimik, Jeonju International Film Festival 2011.

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