A Short Interview with Raya Martin By Mark Peranson
For his first feature, Filipino director Raya Martin embarked on an ambitious project: a silent, black and white film, set in the 19th century in a rural Filipino community, A Short Film About the Indio Nacional (Maicling pelicula nañg ysañg indio nacional). For its strangeness and audacity, Indio has reminded more than one viewer of the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and like the Thai director’s Tropical Malady, it comes in two drastically dissimilar parts. The first, shot on DV, is a short story about suffering told one night by a husband to his wife, who cannot sleep. This initial separate-the-men-from-the-boys patience tester (barely lit, the scene actually takes a while to develop, as the wife shifts and shuffles in her bed) eventually gives way to the “Short Film” proper: a series of episodes set near the end of the Spanish colonial period tracing the development of a common man (“indio”) and set to improvised Chopin-like music by fellow Filipino filmmaker Khavn de la Cruz. Pastiche is far from Martin’s mind: for one, there’s no film history in the Philippines to tear apart and reassemble. Unlike the work of Guy Maddin, Martin’s film fills in an historical gaps, and does so with constant invention and poetic beauty.
A recent attendee of the Cannes Cinefondation, Martin — only 21 years old, a fact surely to be mentioned in all interviews or reviews of his film — is certainly a director to watch, and another bright spot in a region that just might be experiencing the ripples of a New Wave. We spoke in Hong Kong, then afterwards by email.
Mark Peranson: Why make a silent film, now?
Raya Martin: I just told someone how I become really excited whenever I see actualities and silent films. I think a silent film is how I really see cinema. It’s an exact transportation of time and space, and there’s something about the purity of images, to see just the images themselves, moving, and understand that what you’re seeing was a real space in a real time. In this essence it could be an issue of novelty, I’m thinking. We’re in an age where everyone’s in retrospection, including my generation, maybe because there’s no “looking forward” anymore. The old is the new new. I did this film as a “kid” with a mix of natural and illogical motivations: a craving for magic that I get from silent films, curiosity for information, interest in learning…
Mark Peranson: In Indio history is also clearly a significant impetus, both in terms of Filipino film history, and also the history of colonialism in the country itself. How aware are you of early Filipino films, are there any that you are directly referencing? And, secondly, why make a film about this subject matter today?
Raya Martin: The tragedy of Philippine Cinema is that it doesn’t have a proper archive, because of circumstances, general attitude toward cinema… The war took away everything except for four films, and all of them are in bad shape now. But these are talkies. If we’re talking about the silent era, there’s completely nothing to look at. I was studying the history of local cinema generally seeing only films of recent decades, the ’70s and the ’80s. The rest is a cinema of the book, just images of words that we keep discussing until we believe it to be true. If I remember correctly, cinema in the Philippines was born in 1897 with a screening by westerners. It was only in 1919 when the first Filipino film was made, but we only get a glimpse of it from a picture of a poster and the memories of actress Atang dela Rama in an interview.
Some of the images in Indio were influenced by my personal love for Russian cinema, but it was really postcards of the time that inspired me in setting up scenes. There was a lot of photography going on at the time, as studies, souvenirs for westerners by westerners.
Doing a historical film wasn’t a deliberate choice for me. My parents were activists during the Martial Law in the ’70s. My father was a writer in the vernacular, and loves collecting Filipiniana books, so that in growing up we’d have our own library at home. My great grandfather was a revolutionary during the Spanish period. My brother was an activist as well, so that during dinner the conversations were about people involved in political struggles. And you can’t separate that from local history. So naturally this was my story (indirectly) or things that I’m conscious of.
Mark Peranson: Can you comment on the structure of the film? Why the two parts? And why “Short Film”? Because it’s not as long as Evolution of a Filipino Family?
Raya Martin: It’s a very short film for its scope, which covers more than 300 years of being a Spanish colony, the very years of the “indio nacional”. Or add about a hundred years more if you want to be dramatic and say we’re still neo-colonial indios.
Initially, the whole thing was supposed to be just the silent part. Then, I played with the idea of developing stories through a talking part shot in digital format. I collaborated with another filmmaker to write this, but soon after it became more and more contrived. I ditched the whole thing at the last minute, and stumbled upon the short story that I adapted into the first part. I thought it summed up well why I wanted to do this in the first place. It’s me looking at myself in the mirror asking questions. The silent film is my way of figuring out things. The two parts converse with each other.
Mark Peranson: What has the reaction of the film been at home? Also, your age seems to come up a lot (that leads off the Hong Kong International Film Festival program note, strangely). Do people have any problems with a guy so young telling them about their history? I would suspect some condescension has occurred.
Raya Martin: I’ll tell you an interesting story. I proposed this film to be my graduation film, as a full-length film. The guys turned me down, saying it’s too ambitious and I couldn’t do it. Anyway, I went on to order 20 rolls of black and white film and shot a few months before the defence. I shot everything anyway because it was the practical thing to do. But I only presented them the part of the young boy as bellringer. It was titled “Childhood in the Philippine Islands, undated.” Most of the panellists liked it, except for the dean, whose only background in film was writing journalistic essays, romanticizing about the 80s Brocka heydays. His background was more in Philippine History, and the defence went on and on about details regarding title and costume inaccuracies, and he wraps it up by saying he doesn’t know what the film wants to do. Honestly, I almost died, but it’s made me stronger about my belief in the film and what I wanted to do with it. I may not have the research and critical capacity of 60-something academicians, but my heart’s in the right place. I hope.
Mark Peranson: There seems to be a real explosion of talent throughout Southeast Asia, and maybe particularly the Philippines… maybe it’s just that Rotterdam has decided to show an interest in the subject, but I don’t think so (though even they did it this year by also showing some of the Filipino classics). Why do you think Filipino films are finding favour again in the international community? What would you say the conditions are that has led to this rebirth?
Raya Martin: I know there’s been a constant presence of Filipino films at festivals not just recently, but what makes these days special are the independent productions that are at the forefront instead. The last decade was highlighted by some interesting talents working for the studios, Lav Diaz included, but films were not as strong. Eventually some filmmakers started working on their own, and when the local film industry started its tragic decline, these independent productions became more prominent. I’m thinking it also has something to do with the revived western interest in the region, as there’s always been brilliant talents everywhere. People are noticing these productions because the ones who write about them do. Well, some works have been there and have come alive because of this revived interest, but there’s also been a substantial increase in independent productions as well, in the Philippines at least because of the industry decline and the democratization of digital filmmaking.
I was just discussing this to someone the other day. Television killed the culture of watching films in theatres. There was great interest in television ever since the Mexican imports arrived in the early 90s. This was followed by local rip-offs, then successful imports (and exports as well) from around the region. Then piracy was soon normalized and that was it. It was also an economic thing. A ticket to the cinemas then only cost a dollar. That eventually doubled, so that the local market now is the middle class, who would also rather watch foreign films. The sad state of film viewing now has to be an issue of economics and colonial mentality.
There’s an ongoing trend of independent filmmaking. Studio producers and directors, as well as television stations, have come together to put up a program calling for new projects and, in essence, commission chosen works. It’s something of a neo-studio operation where projects are constantly consulted to panellists of industry insiders until they’ve reached a final decision (let’s call it “final cut”). It culminates in a film festival. The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros was the hit film in the first year.
Yes, I grew up watching a lot of these studio films. I’m a huge horror buff and there were a lot of classics. Even now when I see these films again, I still think they’re great. But the studios must have gotten confused now, not knowing who to target. So they’re trying to rework formulas, but somehow they never match.