I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Filipino filmmaker John Torres discusses his embrace of being an outsider, the fight for an audience, and how a mishearing became his new film Lukas the Strange.
The increasing availability of cheap digital film equipment at the beginning of the millennium reopened the floodgates, however, and within a few years hundreds of independent features and countless more shorts were shot on digital. The rising popularity of indie cinema back home and the success of directors like Lav Diaz and Brillante Mendoza on the international festival circuit paved the way for a young generation of filmmakers that would otherwise never have been allowed—or, rather, would never have agreed—to practice within the studio system.
This was the case with John Torres. His original intention had been to move to the US after university and work in IT, but playing around with his father’s digital camera and editing software opened his eyes to the potential of the filmmaking process. Shooting feverishly and on impulse, he recorded random segments of his everyday life and later edited them together into abstract shorts, seeking to capture the essence of his present state of mind. The success of his shorts at local indie festivals led to his first feature in 2006, Todo Todo Teros, which was showered with acclaim and accolades at festivals abroad and established him, along with the likes of Khavn De La Cruz and Raya Martin, as one of the key members of this new generation of independent Filipino filmmakers.
His early films earned him distinction as the most personal director amongst his peers due to their highly autobiographical content. The romantic tribulations at the heart of Todo Todo Teros are drawn from personal experience and he used his next feature, 2008’s Years When I Was a Child Outside, to process the discovery that his father had a secret second family. While in narrative terms he subsequently strayed away from autobiography, his focus has remained the same. At their core, his films are considerations of the inherent complexity of identity, on a personal as well collective/national level, perceived through the prism of memory and subjectivity.
In Lukas the Strange, his fourth and latest feature—and the first he shot on 35mm—these themes are addressed through the protagonist Lukas, a 13-year-old boy whose father leaves home after telling him that he is a tikbalang, a folkloric half-man, half-horse creature. Simultaneously, the arrival of a film troupe in Lukas’ village sends the entire village into an excited frenzy as everyone hopes to be cast in the film. The engendered personal, familial and collective crises are conveyed through a heavily fragmented and elliptical narrative that weaves a poetic stream of consciousness out of the characters’ memories, fantasies and dreams, conveyed through an equally anarchic aesthetic. The image quality fluctuates wildly, the sound is out of synch, subtitles don’t always match the dialogue, voice-overs and intertitles present a discord of mostly unidentified voices. The tone of the film is in constant flux, with a sequence of acute Lynchian dread followed by a scene of light-hearted slapstick, which in turn gives way to an orchestral interlude that invokes the feel of silent film.
Personal as well as historical references, metaphors, and allegories abound and the film lends itself to any number of analyses. However, just as Tarkovsky’s The Mirrorcan be transporting without knowing a thing about the director’s biography or the specifics of Soviet history, Lukas the Strange is rewarding for the uninitiated, as the disorientation fuels a viewing experience that is spellbinding precisely because it disallows the cerebral. When I spoke to Torres, he actually encouraged such a viewing—which makes sense, because walking into a cinema without any prior knowledge of the film provides a perfect analogy both to his purely instinctual approach to filmmaking and to the serendipitous path that led him there.
Giovanni Marchini Camia Lukas the Strange is not an “accessible” film, especially if one isn’t familiar with your style. How would you present your film to an audience unfamiliar with your work to ease them into it?
John Torres That’s a very difficult question. (laughter) But what I tell them as an entry point is that I started Lukas the Strange with this boy in mind due to an error on my part, a mishearing. One night, my friend was telling me about his childhood and told me that his father, an ex-soldier, once told him, “Son, I am a tikbalang,” which is a creature that is half horse, half man. I was thinking that he must have thought that he himself was half horse because he had taken after his father. In all the stories that he told me that night, I was imagining that he was half horse. I was so enamored by this. This was an interesting enough story for me.
But this was an error on my part, a syllable that I missed. In Filipino you say, tikbalang ako, which means, “I am a tikbalang.” But if you miss one syllable, which is na &mdash “natikbalang ako” —there’s a totally different meaning. It means, “a tikbalang tricked me.” That’s also very interesting because a tikbalang is a figure in our folklore, a trickster. He makes people lose their way. I wanted to retain this idea, this character of a boy—what if he thinks he’s really half horse? His father disappears the next day and as the boy is going around the village, he sees that the landscape, the people, have changed their appearance, because of a film shoot.
GMC What would you say with regards to the style, which is so anarchic in this film?
JT It was really due to my experience watching films in the ’80s. Filipino mainstream films in the ’70s and ’80s, when I really started watching films, were almost surreal. You could tell that the dialogue was not in synch. The visuals, the colours weren’t even close. Everything was, you could say, not properly done. In that sense, I imbibed the technical aspect of it. I also wanted to describe and show the fact that I’ve seen all this mishmash of tapes and the very, very rough aesthetics of ’80s Filipino filmmaking, which I grew to hate, but later grew to love, and grew to embrace. Also, there’s the fact that I don’t really remember the stories behind those films, I don’t really remember the narratives, so what I have are just these snapshots or images and their combination with dialogue or sound that’s not in synch. As you say, “anarchic,” really. (laughter)
GMC How do you first approach a subject for a film?
JT I start with things that are very personal, the same questions and the same issues that I have in life. It’s just my way of starting with things that I’m comfortable with: knowing who you are, how you’re built. I limit myself to things that are more interesting for me to tie together. I cannot write a script first. It’s very hard for me to write. I think it’s more exciting for me to go there and shoot when everything is alive. Even if we have a script, it’s just a guide. When you’re there, it happens: all the accidents, all the details that are just there, you just have to find them, you have to take notice of those details and integrate them into the film.
For example, with Lukas the Strange, I made an inventory of things that I have. I had a box of Chinese-made, electronic ab belts (laughter), which I had bought fresh from school because I wanted to sell those here in Manila. I thought it was something that could be marketed, and of course, I was a bad seller, so this box of ab belts was just lying in our garage and I thought of those, and I brought them. Of course, we went to a place where I could be more comfortable, where I could have support, so I went 10 hours north of Manila by bus to my mother’s home town, where I have relatives, where I have family, where we spent my early childhood together. Even if I didn’t have a lot, I knew I had this box of ab belts and some willing bit players, including relatives—I eventually cast my nephew as my lead and a distant uncle as the father of the lead. Everything’s there. Sometimes you really have to be creative, and look to work around limitations. I’m very fond of limitations.
GMC How did the story evolve?
JT I initially wanted it to be a blatant homage to a certain Filipino director whom I admire: Ishmael Bernal. Bernal made 40 films. He’s dead now. I wanted to write a narrative using the chronology of film titles as plot points, sort of like DVD chapter heads, or something like that. But I saw that I needed a lot of money to implement this, so I concentrated on the space of the lost film—maybe a third into his filmography there’s this space left by a lost film that he shot and never showed to anyone, which is titled Scotch on the Rocks to Remember, Black Coffee to Forget. I didn’t want to recreate what the film was about, so I concentrated on the film before this lost film and took the characters and took the milieu and wondered how they would continue onto this space left by the lost film.
GMC Like your other films, Lukas the Strange makes really inventive use of voice-overs and intertitles. What is it that appeals to you about these devices?
JT For practical purposes, we shot a few documentary-type scenes first. As we shot and edited some of those scenes, I started writing and I wanted to see what things I could stage so that I could somehow thread them together into one coherent whole. As soon as I shot scenes and edited them together, I felt the need to have intertitles. Plainly said, it’s just gut feeling. I’ve been following gut feeling on most of my films already. It’s a matter of having intertitles to either make things more interesting, or more poetic, or even just to have more exposition—those practical reasons, really. But I didn’t want the intertitles to disrupt the whole tone of the film, for example. It was really a very careful balancing act on my part. I’ve grown tired of having my own voice as narration, in voice-over. I just wanted to explore more ways of doing things.
GMC Because your films are all very personal, what is your relationship with your audience?
JT I have this belief that although my films are very personal, they’re very specific. Even though these are the very unique personal experiences of a young Filipino man living in the city, I believe that somehow the story will be discarded eventually and what will remain in the end is this feeling, a description of a feeling. I think this shared, abstract, but very specific feeling of something is what I’m after and what I try to share. An audience member coming up to me after a screening and saying, “I really don’t understand the references or what happened, but I have this certain feeling that is very specific and very real,”—just hearing that is enough for me.
GMC With foreign arthouse cinema there is always talk among Western critics about the extent to which a different set of cultural references is required to really understand the films. Do you think a Filipino set of references is necessary when watching your films?
JT I think it’s helpful, it enriches the material, but it’s not necessary. I would also want other people to just go to the cinema not knowing anything about me or about our nation. Some have actually said that they didn’t know the Philippines existed. (laughter) It enriches the material tremendously to know about the Philippines, though. We could talk about the references: the colors in the film, that part of our history, the red and the yellow that resonate in our recent history. But it only serves to provide more talking points, really. If a viewer wants to dig deeper into the film, I’d like that. If you tell me, “I have to see the film again,” I also welcome that. But if you tell me, “It’s enough that I don’t know all these things, I just have this feeling,” then that’s a connection we have already.
GMC And what difference have you noticed in audience reactions back home and abroad?
JT I haven’t shown Lukas the Strange here in the Philippines. The premiere is next month. It’s a technicality: I got funding from the local government and they have this event, a film screening, that got postponed and postponed, so my international premieres have gone on and I’m just doing my premiere here next month. But I can imagine that they’ll laugh at the references to the aesthetics of Filipino films from the ’80s. I think this is my most narrative film—the least complicated in terms of narrative threads—so I think that maybe they’ll have a little easier time watching this film.
GMC Was there a difference in the reactions to your previous films?
JT This is my fourth film. For the first three films, the reaction was actually the same here as it was abroad. My first film, Todo Todo Teros, which got some awards, local and abroad, was very successful. It was a love story, basically, and people latched on to this aspect. And although it was still really difficult for them to stay with it until the end, they still had this idea that there was this love story that they can watch. Then I moved on to my second film, which is about my father, family, nothing romantic at all. The third film was a little bit romantic, but the love story’s very, very subtle. It’s more political—not a “political film,” but it’s about warfare. It’s more about revolutions than love.
From the first to the third, I’ve seen that audiences are getting smaller for my films. I built expectations through my first film, but I just really want to explore the process more. For example, in my previous film, Refrains Happen Like Revolutions in a Song, I experimented with words as music. I didn’t translate the foreign words of a dialect here in the Philippines, and shot documentary style. I had one character and made use of the sound of their voice. I shot everything without knowing or understanding a thing and then, through subtitles, just wrote a different story, different dialogues for the characters. This is the kind of experimentation that I really wanted to explore. I wanted things to change, so that I could see what things remain.
GMC Did you take inspiration from other filmmakers in this regard?
JT I was kind of ashamed, before, to tell others that I haven’t really watched a lot of films, especially compared to my colleagues. But I’ve grown to be really quite proud of this. (laughter) I was embarrassed because during Q&A’s at festivals, for example, everyone asks if there are references to American avant-garde filmmakers and I give them a stare and a blank face and I tell them, “I don’t know these people. But yeah, maybe?”
I don’t have an illusion that this is something new, or that it isn’t inspired by someone’s work, but I guess it’s just a coincidence. I don’t know. It’s actually interesting for me to have all these references; it also makes me curious about other people’s work, but being an outsider is also very much something that I try to embrace.
Someone said that I make films like I’m on a bus with the window open and just looking at other people, their lives passing by, and that what I tell isn’t really about their lives, but my take on what I hear and what I see. My second film, Years When I Was a Child Outside, which is very personal, takes on this outsider’s point of view more blatantly.
GMC You started out in the independent boom that also launched the careers of Lav Diaz, Khavn De La Cruz and Raya Martin. You’re all friends, right?
JT Yeah, friends and bandmates. We hang out. Manila is a very big city, but we’re lucky and we live near each other. Lav Diaz of course is older, and he’s sort of an inspiration and a mentor for us. Although we make very different films, we just came onto the scene together and we’re friends as a result. Sometimes we may not like each other’s films, but we talk about it, we ask for counsel, for advice, as first audiences for our films. Beyond that, we’re really just friends. We get along well. Khavn and I share an interest in music, so we play gigs together. He’s also a writer, so he lends me books. It’s a really nice friendship.
GMC What was it like to start your career in this sudden upsurge of creativity in the Filipino cinema? Was it a happy coincidence or did it motivate you, give you a push that you needed?
JT We started almost ten years ago, at the same time. Khavn had this small festival here in the Philippines, and my first short film was invited to his festival. It so happened that Raya was also there showing his film. I was invited by the late Alexis Tioseco, a film writer who invited me to this TV programme with the others: Lav Diaz, ROXLEE (Roque Federizon Lee)—who’s the father of experimental animation in the Philippines. They were all so casual and down to earth. There is a steep hierarchy in the mainstream, even in the periphery of the mainstream, so I imagined directors having director chairs, and having all these assistants and their own room with “Do Not Disturb” signs. But the people that I met during the time of the independent cinema boom were so simple, so approachable, and very sharing of their needs. I could see that they didn’t have a big crew and that sometimes they worked alone. It was so inspiring, really.
But this was at the time that we were just starting to get shown. We didn’t have all these independent film festivals that we have now, so we really had to build our audiences. The starting point, the opportunity to get attention, was the fact that a few Filipino films had been screened abroad and getting all these laurel leaves on their posters. So in the news, they were like, “It must be good.” (laughter) It was an entry point for audiences.
GMC Although your styles differ greatly, an aspect that unites all your films is that, in one way or another, they all take the history of the Philippines under consideration. As this history has been and continues to be so turbulent, any consideration cannot be wholly apolitical. Do you regard yourselves as political filmmakers?
JT Definitely. You could write a paper about how all my films are, in a way, political. (laughter) Or Khavn’s films, the madness of Khavn’s films. This is really what’s interesting for me—what I want to tell everyone—that although my films are very personal, they are situated in a broader landscape, every time. We can’t help but be very political because we see what’s going on around us. It’s inevitable, even if we pass by newsstands, we see the headlines, and this is what creates our consciousness. We can never be totally apathetic in this way and there’s still this reaction to that, which I really like, and which I see in my colleagues as well. I think it’s a really good thing. We never make films in a vacuum. We often discuss our films and see these things that are at the core of what we do.
GMC Another political aspect that’s been ascribed to independent Filipino films is that they’re an effort to finally subvert the cultural imperialism that has always held sway over Filipino cinema. Do you agree?
JT Maybe more so with other filmmakers, but the fight, for me, is with the process of making the film and building an audience. First off, the making of the film, which goes against the established way of doing things. I try to present the audience with different things. You could say that it’s a guerrilla way of filmmaking that somehow subverts the business of films here. And in terms of output, we’re taking over—the independent circle has a larger output now than the mainstream, so much so that mainstream films want to look indie now. The struggle now is more about having the screening venues that we need and of course, in order to do that, we have to get the backing of the malls in the Philippines, which account for most of the film traffic here.
Aside from that, there’s the film classification board of the Philippines, where they can be very restrictive about things that you cannot shoot. It’s gotten a lot better now, but in the recent past there were times that if you showed just one boob, it meant a certain classification. Cockroaches, or making love and pumping more than three times, for example, you cannot show. There’s a formula for these things. (laughter) It’s gotten better now, but again, in order for us to show our films we need to go to the film classification board, and there have been a lot of issues in terms of independent filmmakers showing their films. I’m more interested in the process, in how you can do it even though you’re not in this circle, not in the mainstream.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee