A sui generis mixture of documentary, diary film, fictionalized autobiography, cinematic essay and ethnography, Kidlat Tahimik’s 1977 debut, The Perfumed Nightmare, became an instant classic of sorts, announcing the arrival of a pioneering filmmaker. But Tahimik remains a very unusual sort of pioneer. His cinema’s sharp critique of the divides between rich and poor, capitalism and community, developed nations and the developing world relies on gentle humor, everyday experiences and childlike play. Weaving this material into knowing and heartfelt looks at life in the Philippines, Tahimik uncovers the ways in which the country’s postcolonial status places it at the center of contemporary concerns about the retreat of tradition in the face of a global marketplace dominated by an all-encompassing, ever-growing technology.
There is little in Tahimik’s early biography to indicate the career he would eventually choose. He was born Eric de Guia in Baguio in 1942 to an engineer and a woman who would be the first female mayor in the Philippines. After receiving a master’s degree from the business school at Wharton, he worked for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris in 1968. Uninspired by the research he was called upon to perform, he left his job to sell memorabilia at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Afterwards, rather than returning home, he joined an artists’ commune in Munich and eventually attracted the attention of Werner Herzog, who cast him in a small part in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974). Under Herzog’s tutelage, he took up filmmaking and premiered The Perfumed Nightmare at the 1977 Berlin film festival. The film quickly traveled the world, championed in the US by Francis Ford Coppola and Susan Sontag.
Since then, Tahimik has created a string of documentaries and one fiction feature film, all of which demonstrate his love of wordplay both silly and sophisticated and his ability to blend politics and the imagination in surprising and revealing ways.
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Directed by Kidlat Tahimik
Philippines 1980-94, digital video, color, 175 min. English and Tagalog with English subtitles
Tahimik’s magnum opus, Why is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow? is an epic film diary spanning the 1980s. Though each of Tahimik’s films is unique, this one defies summary simply because of the sheer volume of ground it covers. While telling the story of a family –overseas vacations, school projects, children’s first steps – it also serves as an introduction to Filipino history and geography. Yet most arresting is the way the film moves seamlessly from the personal to the political as Tahimik’s camera documents the events leading from the assassination of Benigno Acquino to the fall of the Marcoses and progresses to hurricanes and earthquakes. “In an age of rising seas and collapsing economies, [the film] shows us how to be furious at all the injustice in the world but also how to face that injustice with the utmost joy. There are indeed few, if any, films like this….” (Christopher Pavsek)
Directed by Kidlat Tahimik. With Kidlat Tahimik, Mang Fely, Dolores Santamaria
Philippines 1977, 16mm, color, 93 min. Tagalog with English subtitles
With his first film, the former Eric de Guia not only debuted his nom du cinéma, Kidlat Tahimik (meaning “quiet lightning” in Tagalog), but also its onscreen incarnation, a character that would become as inseparable from the filmmaker himself as Chaplin’s Little Tramp. And like the Tramp, Tahimik presents himself as a naïf, the better to draw audiences into his autobiographical journey of de-colonization. Seamlessly blending fiction, autobiography, history and ethnography, the film begins as a self-portrait of Tahimik, his family and friends, and his hometown. When Kidlat realizes a lifelong dream to visit Europe, the disillusioning experience causes him to revisit his idealization of Western culture and technology. This political awakening is told with both gentle humor and burning fervor. As a result, The Perfumed Nightmare has become not only a founding text of “third cinema” and a classic of the surrealist counter-ethnographic genre; it’s also justly recognized as one of the finest essay films ever made.
Directed by Kidlat Tahimik
Philippines 1979, 16mm, color, 95 min. Tagalog with English subtitles
In this rarely seen sequel to The Perfumed Nightmare, Tahimik’s fascination with interplanetary travel has led him to start a Filipino space program in the fictional German town where he lives. His colleagues are toddlers, and together they build a rocket out of scrap metal. This engagingly childlike premise enables Tahimik to present imagination and play as a parodic critique of the hegemonic use of technology. In both its style and its content, this film demonstrates Tahimik’s belief in a DIY ethos as an aesthetic and a political alternative to the pretensions of mastery exemplified by modern science and commercial cinema alike.
Directed by Kidlat Tahimik
Philippines 1992 – 2006, digital video, color, TRT: 87 min. Tagalog, English and Japanese with English subtitles
Video-Palaro is a compilation of five short films made between 1992 and 2006, a period during which Tahimik has continued to document his life and travels, while switching formats from 16mm to video. Here he takes his camera along as he fights an oil slick, helps to repair the roofs of Himalayan monasteries and witnesses the last harvest of an aged Japanese rice farmer. He has often said that he doesn’t conceive of his films as discrete projects but rather as an ongoing work. As these films make clear, that work is deeply invested in the most modest but essential materials and processes and, at the same time, thoroughly entwined with Tahimik’s daily existence and those of his children, who continue to grow and mature on camera.
Directed by Kidlat Tahimik. With Homer Abiad, Iñigo Vito, Maria Pehipol
Philippines 1981, 16mm, color, 95 min. Tagalog with English subtitles
Tahimik’s sole fiction feature to date, the sly Turumba presents itself as a charming example of neo-realist storytelling, complete with a voiceover narration by a sweet young boy in a tiny Philippine village. When the papier-mâché animals manufactured by one of the local families for an annual festival are discovered by a buyer from Germany, their fortune is made, until demand starts to swell and what was once an artisanal pleasure has become alienated labor. Thus does Turumba metamorphose into a razor-sharp and pitch black allegory of modernization and neo-colonialism. Children are a constant presence in Tahimik’s work, and here he uses the guileless point of view of the film’s young narrator to provide ironic commentary on the pursuit of economic development.
Directed by Kidlat Tahimik. With George Steinberg, Kidlat Tahimik, Katrin Müller de Guia
Philippines 1980-2011, digital video, color, 33 min. In English
For thirty years, Tahimik has been working on a film about Enrique of Malacca, the Malayan slave owned by Magellan who may have been the first person to circumnavigate the globe. In its current state, it reveals Tahimik working in a different register – the historical epic – nevertheless imbuing it with his trademark humor and imagination. Even as a fragment, the film fascinates.