The filmmaker photographed by MM Yu in Baguio.
Culture Movies

Kidlat Tahimik: the duwendes and contradictions of a National Artist

The Father of Philippine independent cinema has just been given the National Artist honor. In this interview from the archives, we get to know the iconoclast who built his legacy critiquing post-colonial Philippines
Anna M. Rosete | Oct 23 2018

“I am Kidlat Tahimik.  I choose my vehicle, and I can cross all bridges,” says Kidlat Tahimik in the beginning of his mythical Perfumed Nightmare, a four decades old film that claimed for the Father of Philippine Independent Cinema his rightful place in the world.

In this work, Tahimik or Eric de Guia in real life, delves into themes that address the vast division between the rich and the poor, globalization, capitalism, and tradition — themes that continue to define how the Philippines is represented in local independent cinema today. Well into the twenty-first century, when Pinoy indie movies are consistently making inroads in some of the world’s top film festivals, Tahimik’s critique on the Philippines remains as relevant today as when he first unleashed his groundmaking movie in 1977.

1980 Zoetrope poster for Kidlat Tahimik's 1977 Perfumed Nightmare. @rubinbooty on Instagram

In Perfumed Nightmare, he situates his affectionate lens in a barrio where he himself plays the protagonist who dreams of relocating to the United States to fulfill his dream of becoming an astronaut. En route, he finds himself in France, confronted by the menace of modernity, his experiences and feelings plumbed by a hallucinogenic pastiche of clips, found footage, flashbacks.

The jeepney he chooses to ride while in Europe is a metaphor for the homegrown and the traditional, which he drives to his disillusionment of the West. In the end, Tahimik dismisses his chance to fly to New York via the Concorde. Instead, he makes a pilgrimage home, in a chimney.

“Here is a sweet, funny, witty, intelligent little movie, which is also primitive to the extent that its style is direct, sometimes awkward but always unselfconscious. It tends to defy analysis by being so successfully—and so exactly— what it appears to be, that is, a meditation by a young man on his life and the world he aspires to join,” Vincent Canby writes in a 1980 New York Times review of the film.

At his theater in Baguio.

Tahimik’s early years show nothing to indicate his interest in film. He was born in Baguio City. His father was an engineer, and his mother, the first female mayor in the Philippines. After earning his degree in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania business school at Wharton, he worked for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris from 1968 to 1972.

The Harvard Film Archives reports that he was “uninspired by the research he was called upon to perform,” thus he headed on to Munich to sell souvenirs for the 1972 Olympics. He later joined an art commune there, where he met film director, writer, producer and actor of the New German Cinema, Werner Herzog who cast him in The Enigma of Kasper Hauser (1974). In Herzog’s company and influence, Tahimik pursued filmmaking. His semi-autobiographical Perfumed Nightmare made the rounds in the international film circuit. It was advocated by Francis Ford Coppola and Susan Sontag.

“The bamboo cameras are reminders that there are many stories waiting to be told…”

We sit down for a question-and-answer session about finding the inner ‘duwende,’ his anachronism for the inner soul and truth to filmmaking:

You are called Kidlat “Tahimik.” How so?

It's like a contradiction, an oxymoron. Parang sa unang isip ko, “Uy, meron bang kidlat na tahimik?” Well, actually humina yung kulog. So, the flash is kidlat. Siguro it's a spiritual goal for me to become pure energy with the sound and fury, signifying nothing.

BAMFA of Berkeley (Berkeley Museum of Fine Arts) calls you the Idol of Iconoclasts.

Icono-classic filmmaking kahit walang pera o kahit walang budget basta’t lakas-loob makikinig ka lang sa dwende mo. Allow the Indio genius of your culture and your people to become part of your framing and you can’t go wrong. Mas matagal and now 35 years, half of my life, pero nakatawid pa rin kasi I trusted my sariling dwende and let it tell the story.

Can you tell us about how you actually make your bamboo camera work for you?

I’ve been telling young filmmaker students na there’s been a lot of temptations to do the blockbuster... the formula of the one that will give you the glitter and glamour and walk red carpets or big festivals, but then you might end up stuck in that formula filmmaking world…that’s just a reminder na you don’t have to do everything that’s based on a “Patok sa Takilya” goal. The bamboo cameras are reminders that there are many stories waiting to be told… It’s an encouragement prize, 'yung bamboo camera, and it’s not to be compared with yang mga glitter and glamour… that’s why I’m giving bamboo cameras every two to three years to indies na talagang they're independent, and they're telling a local story and they’re not interested in the 501% profit. They’re not interested in Golden Bears or Golden Oscars… I feel like there are stories [that] should be shared, and they're exerting an effort in that direction.

Click on the image below for slideshow


With son Kawayan in Berlin. MM Yu

“Allow the Indio genius of your culture and your people to become part of your framing and you can’t go wrong.” MM Yu

Photographed against a Baguio artist’s quilt, in the home of Nona Garcia in Baguio. MM Yu

With wife Katrin. MM Yu

Kidlat Tahimik - Perfumed Nightmare, 1979 @anarquiadelaimaginacion on Instagram

Tahimik gives an art talk. Photo by Glen Charles Lopez. Courtesy of Ateneo Art Gallery

Where do you see independent cinema going? And what kind of stories would you like to see these fllms telling?

I want to see their duwende stories. So, often yung mga young filmmakers, the world is not waiting for Star Wars 25, MIB 74, Indiana Jones 7,085. They're waiting for your “duwende” story as you can tell. What’s your duwende? It’s just something in you that sees the world with the unique frame. Your framing is your duwende. When you write an editorial, you let your duwende frame what you want to say, and it’s only you who can frame that story because your duwende is so unique. Unfortunately, the reality of the outside world is when you go out and you be directors, you obey all the rules of the producers. Once you become the reason for making a film para “patok sa Takilya” nawawala yung local stories. Yung "duwende" stories.


All portraits by MM Yu.

The text for this story originally appeared in Vault, No. 20, 2015.
Contributing editors RL Altomonte and Karl F.M. Castro