Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Why Is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow? (Bakit dilaw aug gitna ng bahag-hari?)

Director Kidlat Tahimik and his son Kidlat de Guia

Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky

Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky

Filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik

Filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik and his mother

WHY IS YELLOW THE MIDDLE OF THE RAINBOW? (Bakit dilaw aug gitna ng bahag-hari?)       A                    
aka:  I Am Furious…Yellow
Philippines  (175 mi)  1981 – 1993  d:  Kidlat Tahimik

How are we going to finish this film?  We could just wait for the spaghetti to run out.
—Kidlat Tahimik

This rare film was originally scheduled to be screened at the downtown Drake Hotel in Chicago as part of the Prak-sis New Media Art Festival, a three-day conference offering artistic responses to the legacy of Cold War-era social upheaval in southeast Asia, but the 16 mm print, the only surviving copy in the world, repeatedly stuck in the projector, inflicting severe print damage causing the celluloid to burn, so the screening was re-scheduled a week later to the School of the Art Institute, where only a handful of people were fortunate enough to see this remarkable film.  Kidlat Tahimik, a Tagalog translation of “silent lightning,” remains an obscure underground filmmaker, considered the “Father of Philippine Independent Cinema,” but is also a writer, artist and actor who was born Eric de Guia in Baguio City, Philippines, who grew up in a life of privilege in a summer resort community located in the presence of several U.S. Military bases, an experience that heavily influenced his films, which tend to be scathing critiques of the aftereffects of colonialism.  Graduating from the University of the Philippines in Speech and Drama, Tahimik studied at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, earning a Masters degree in Business Administration, working as a researcher for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris from 1968 to 1972, an organization committed to spreading Western technology to lesser-developed countries, where he wrote fertilizer distribution reports while working on a farm in Norway before returning home to become a filmmaker.  Tearing up his diploma and changing his name, Tahimik lived in various artist communes, including one in Munich that attracted the attention of Werner Herzog, who cast him in a small part in THE ENIGMA OF KASPAR HAUSER (1974). 

Bryan L. Yeatter describes Tahimik’s life during the 70’s in his book Cinema of the Philippines:

Tahimik traveled to Europe where he was going to try to make a living selling trinkets, but somehow along the way he managed to make contact with Werner Herzog, and using borrowed equipment, outdated film stock, and stock footage, he put together his first film [in 1977], Mababangong Bangungot (Perfumed Nightmare) for a mere $10,000—a remarkably low cost even in its time. The film mirrored his own experience as Tahimik played the lead, a young man who dreams of escaping the stifling existence of his isolated rural community and seeing the modern world. Through an American acquaintance, he travels to Paris to run a gumball concession, and later ventures to Germany, ultimately concluding that the modern world may have much to offer, but has also sacrificed much of importance in the process of its development.

Under Herzog’s tutelage, he took up filmmaking, making his first film, PERFUMED NIGHTMARE (1977), a mixture of documentary, diary film, fictionalized autobiography, cinematic essay and ethnography, and winner of three awards at the Berlin Film Festival, where Tahimik is appalled by the massive expansion and pervasive influence of Western technology while raging against the colonialist impulses that led France and then the United States to make the Philippines their own exclusive property, where the economic model was much like the slave trade, using cheap exploited labor to ravage the nation’s resources in order to enhance the quality of living in America while leaving the Philippines in dire economic straits.  Screened by Tom Luddy (Telluride Film Festival co-founder) at the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley, Tahimik met American director Francis Ford Coppola (who distributed the film in the United States) just about the time he was envisioning shooting his film APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) in the Philippines.  Commonly associated with the Third Cinema movement that rejects the Hollywood model of making films as escapist bourgeois entertainment, Tahimik was a pioneer in embracing indigenous culture, redefining Philippine art in personalized terms that goes far beyond the nation’s social history.  Co-founder of the Baguio Arts Guild, integrating indigenous and avant garde subjects into his aesthetic, making technically unpolished films, Tahimik’s work as writer, director, editor, actor, and cinematographer has led the path for an independent Philippine cinema for over thirty years. 

More than a decade in the making, this is nothing less than revolutionary filmmaking, where the film “defies summary simply because of the sheer volume of ground it covers,” according to author and professor Christopher Pavsek, becoming a magnum opus that questions what it means to be a post-colonial Filipino, where the director had to wait until his oldest son was old enough to narrate a large portion of the film, creating an epic film diary spanning the decade of the 1980’s as seen through the eyes of Tahimik and his family.  What is singularly unique about this film is the pervasive use of children, whose point of view is the focal point of the picture, as the film is a coming-of-age essay that coincides with a child growing up, curious and inquisitive, asking questions about the world around him, where the director acts as a father-figure narrator, where the film is largely a dialogue between father and oldest son, Kidlat de Guia (now a talented filmmaker in his own right), who ages noticeably as the film progresses leading up to his entrance into high school.  Tahimik met his wife Katrin de Guia, who is also an artist and writer, while in Germany, seen throughout making stained glass artworks, where they also have two younger children, Kawayan and Kabunyan de Guia, where art defines how this family expresses itself.  Calling the film a “celluloid collage,” we watch the family on overseas vacations, participate in school projects, and capture a child’s first steps, while also using a series of newspaper headlines and archival television reports to delve into national stories.  Tahimik seamlessly blends the two together, where the personal becomes the political, all corresponding to a progression of the director’s life as a Filipino father.  Using surreal imagery that often challenges the logic of the narrative, this three-hour diary incorporates contemporary history of the Philippines, Tahimik’s own family, found footage, newspaper headlines and TV broadcasts, home movies, travel footage, and documentation of public events and political demonstrations, where documentary footage is mixed with scripted performances.  The film begins in Monument Valley, the site of many John Ford westerns beginning with STAGECOACH (1939), where the family is seen posing for pictures at John Ford's Point while rousing Hollywood music plays for what the director calls spaghetti movies, as the filmmaker and his son hitch a ride with (the unidentified) Dennis Hopper in his old Cadillac, which raises the question of how Indians were portrayed in the movies, continually shown in stereotype as the archenemy of the original American settlers in the West, where Indians were portrayed as savage creatures who were less than human, yet this was their land that was being trampled upon and stolen from them, where they had to be pushed aside by force to make way for the advancement of the “white man.”  Following a similar theme, Tahimik identifies the Philippines as a Third World country (Third World definition - Third World Traveler) that was formerly colonized by First World nations, where the differentiation between the two can be expressed in their use of machines, as First World nations use machines to perform much of the work that in the Philippines is still performed by human labor, what Tahimik proudly tells his son is “people power.”    

"Towards a Third Cinema"  Towards a Third Cinema, by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino

The anti-imperialist struggle of the peoples of the Third World and of their equivalents inside the imperialist countries constitutes today the axis of the world revolution. Third cinema is, in our opinion, the cinema that recognises in that struggle the most gigantic cultural, scientific, and artistic manifestation of our time, the great possibility of constructing a liberated personality with each people as the starting point — in a word, the decolonisation of culture.

Tahimik is an unusual sort of film pioneer, relying upon gentle humor and a sharp wit, not to mention spashes of avant garde, experimental cinema used  in a playful manner, with inspired musical choices like Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana Carl Orff - O Fortuna ~ Carmina Burana - YouTube (4:51) and surprise appearances from unidentified film artists like Francis Ford Coppola, Werner Herzog, and Andrei Tarkovsky (the only time he came to America in 1983 for the Telluride Film Festival), as Tahimik points out the vast economic divide between the rich and the poor, offering a sharp critique of capitalism and Western technology that refuses to recognize the human value contributed by each individual, where society becomes slaves to technology and machines, including industrial advancement that exploits the poor with low wages and poor working conditions.  In the mountainous region of Baguio City where this family lives, the indigenous community co-exists with the locals, even though their ways and understanding of their own history may be different, where the director seems to take great pleasure profiling local craftsmen and women, offering images where people power is seen moving massive rocks and boulders into a line to build a bridge across the river.  Expanding on the historical confusion, the local community is seen embracing the colonial influence of the United States, where the presence of American military camps are scattered everywhere, including nearby Camp John Hay which always celebrates the 4th of July with fireworks and family games while distributing ice cream for all the kids, where Filipino’s also grew up thinking this was the Philippine Independence Day as well, as it was one of the few holidays everyone celebrated together and overshadowed their own country’s national holiday (Araw ng Kalayaan).  Like John Ford and his movies, this is the Hollywood version of colonialism where fantasy and fiction outweigh reality.  Tahimik adopts the view that a modern society could learn from remembering “the old ways,” suggesting they represent an untapped resource in terms of conservation and ecology, calling it “an inbuilt brake system” where the negative effects of technology are slowed, where artists are like shamans, suggesting that following the First World is not always the path to happiness.  One of the continuing narratives recounted throughout is the relationship between the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan and his navigator Filipino slave, where Magellan attempted to convert the “savage” natives of the Philippines to Christianity, by force if necessary, a plan that backfired as Magellan was killed by a spear attack in the Battle of Mactan and was unable to complete the first circumnavigation of the earth.  Rather than view minorities through an adverse power relationship, like the racially superior beliefs of the colonial powers, Tahimik identifies with the indigenous people for the cultural and artistic value they can bring to anyone’s life, including extremely imaginative children’s folktales, where it influences his own decision as a parent where he doesn’t allow his children to play with guns, or see movies that accentuate Hollywood’s love affair with guns and violence, claiming it’s a foolish imaginary world that depicts Indians as better off dead, seeing little difference between John Hay and John Ford, claiming they’re both the same thing. 

According to Raya Martin, arguably Philippine’s greatest filmmaker, he calls this film the best Filipino movie ever made in an October 26, 2012 article he writes for Moving Image Source, while also pointing out:

Kidlat Tahimik’s cinema is best summarized by a scene in the film. Footage from his infamous unfinished-to-date Magellan project, an epic retelling of the explorer’s expedition to the Philippines, narrates: “Magellan taught his valet the rudiments of chess. Not only does he carve his own pieces and learns their movements, he picks up easily the thinking patterns of being a winner. The master realizes, for the first time, the slave is a thinking animal capable of plotting his own moves.” “Checkmate,” says Kidlat Tahimik, who acts as the indio slave in the film.

And as the whole film is a constant self-referential to Kidlat, the filmmaker, trying to make sense of his footage on the editing table, the celluloid on a flatbed spills all over a printed text by the Spanish scholar Antonio de Nebrija: Language is the perfect instrument of Empire.

"Is it any wonder that the indio now behaves like his master?"

One of the abrupt shifts of the film is newsreel footage reporting the assassination of Presidential candidate Benigno Aquino (assassination of Ninoy Aquino) as he arrives at the Manila airport, reportedly shot by “communists” say the initial reports, though more likely the murder was carried out by the bodyguards assigned to protect him by the Marcos government.  Sitting President Ferdinand Marcos, closely aligned with American President Ronald Reagan, ruled as a dictator for over twenty years, the last ten under a declared martial law, where he is believed to have looted billions of dollars from the Filipino treasury.  The outrage surrounding the Aquino murder catapulted his widow Corazon Aquino into the political spotlight, leading her to run for President under the banner of the People Power Revolution, which eventually led to the common perception that Marcos stole the election, declaring himself the winner, where as many as two million Filipinos fled into the streets wearing the color “yellow,” sustaining a campaign of civil disobedience, which eventually turned the military against Marcos, leading to his exile to Hawaii where he died soon afterwards while “Corrie” Aquino was proclaimed the legitimate President of the Philippines.  There is a tone of true elation as Tahimik, along with all the local parents, teachers, and school kids, design yellow signs and posters for the street demonstrations, where a sea of yellow captures the mood of a nation, where Tahimik’s own 1986 footage is reminiscent of Oratorio for Prague (1968), Jan Nĕmec’s street footage of an equally euphoric Eastern European nation that believed they were on the verge of democracy before Soviet tanks started occupying the streets of Czechoslovakia.  But people power prevailed, where this film is an outgrowth of the artistic freedom associated with that lifting of a blanket of corruption and the repressive measures of living under a military dictatorship.  The feeling is similar to Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness (Bei qing cheng shi) (1989), which also reflected an exuberant artistic expression that was suddenly free to explore its own nation’s history after the lifting of the ruling party’s martial law that had been in effect for forty years.  It is probably no accident that this sudden artistic surge of the first liberating signs of freedom reveal these directors at the height of their powers.  Little did the director know that this euphoria would be followed by the startling revelation that the late dictator Marcos built the Philippine Nuclear Power Plant directly on an earthquake fault line, where it had to be disassembled, which was followed by a series of military officials on trial for corruption, the devastating impact of the 7.8 magnitude Luzon earthquake of 1990, Luzon on July 16, 1990, killing over 1600 people, causing nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in damages, an event that caused massive crippling of the economy and may actually have precipitated the volcanic eruption of Mt. Pinatubo Mount Pinatubo Eruption (June 1991) covering the region in ash, leading to devastating floods, where it seemed the country was besieged by an apocalyptic fury of nature.  The uniqueness of the film is experiencing it all through the personalized vantage point of a father teaching his son, widened to include literally hundreds of school children as well, where Tahimik distinctively captures them all singing Whitney Houston - Greatest Love Of All - YouTube (4:50) while exploring the local community as well as his nation’s history.  According to Tahimik:

[the filmmaker can either follow] the dictum “time is money,”…or allow time to be his ally and open up to cosmic inspirations provided by a relatively free time frame.

My footages are like tiles in a mosaic…You shuffle them, change them around. In my process, nothing is permanent.

Making a film is like taking a long trip. The film voyager can load up with a full tank and bring a credit card along to insure completion of the voyage in as short a time as possible. The voyager can also load up with a few cups of gasoline and drive until he runs out and scrounge around for subsequent cups of gas to get to his destination, without worrying about how long it takes to complete his voyage… The length of the trip […] is a matter of choice depending on the combination of ingredients – inspiration, resources, tools, working materials available, personal circumstances like family or emotional disturbances, etc.

According to Christopher Pavsek, associate professor of film at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC and author of The Utopia of Film: Cinema and Its Futures in Godard, Kluge, and Tahimik, Why Is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow? - BAM/PFA - Film ...: 

It is impossible to describe Kidlat Tahimik’s virtually unknown masterpiece, the diary film I Am Furious Yellow (or Why Is Yellow Middle of Rainbow?), that chronicles Tahimik and his young son’s lives as they traverse the tumultuous decade of the 1980’s in the Philippines, so let’s just list a few of the things you’ll see in the course of its three hours (which go by far too quickly): a great democratic revolution deposes a dictator; a massive volcanic eruption covers the world in ash; a huge earthquake levels a whole city and social class distinctions as well; Magellan’s slave Enrique circumnavigates the globe (and wins a princess’s heart); storms rage over the gorgeous landscapes of the Philippine cordillera and Monument Valley in the U.S. Southwest; the filmmaker and his son hitch a ride with Dennis Hopper in his old Cadillac; and a tooth is pulled out of little boy’s mouth by a very big toe. That doesn’t even scratch the surface of this vastly rich film, which at once demonstrates just how vital and compelling cinema can be as well as how vital and compelling our very existences can be despite all the disasters and catastrophes—both human-made and natural—that loom from every angle. 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 in the world. 


  1. Do you have any leads for how this film might be seen?

  2. Earlier this year in March, the film was screened as part of a complete retrospective of the director's work in Berlin (http://kidlattahimik.de/). Perhaps you might try contacting someone associated with that project, or you might try contacting the artist himself. This is one of the rarest and hardest to see films on the planet, where you'd probably have to track someone down who remains in close contact with the artist.

    1. Much appreciation for the additional info. I've also seen that Kidlat screened the film in person during a residency at CalArts last year -- I'll actually be attending CalArts starting this September, so I'm kicking myself for just missing it!