PRINT November 2019


Still from Kidlat Tahimik’s Turumba, 1983, 16 mm, color, sound, 94 minutes.

THE UNDENIABLE SHOWSTOPPER of this spring’s Sharjah Biennial was filmmaker and artist Kidlat Tahimik’s gallery-filling installation Ang Ma-bagyong Sabungan ng 2 Bathala ng Hangin, A Stormy Clash Between 2 Goddesses of the Winds (WW III–the Protracted Kultur War), 2019. Packed with gods and icons, fantastical beasts, human figures, and other sculptural elements carved out of salvaged wood or woven in rattan, the work imagines an epic standoff between the forces of indigenous resistance and American cultural imperialism, writing a mythic tale around colonial violence and the vicissitudes of globalization. Tahimik pits Inhabian—the deity to whom the Ifugao people from the northern highlands of the Philippines pray to keep them safe during a typhoon—against Marilyn Monroe, the siren of the silver screen, backed by a rocket-riding Mickey Mouse, a gun-toting cowboy, and an ominous horde of Vikings. With his trademark satirical bite, more wily trickster than ironic hipster, the artist depicts Inhabian’s protective breath blowing Monroe’s iconic white dress up above her waist, transforming this titillating image of accidental exhibitionism into a sign of defiance against the all-powerful and pernicious influence she represents.

A world-renowned figure in cinema, Tahimik is just beginning to gain an international reputation as an artist, although in his multifaceted practice he has long experimented with installation and performance to contextualize and enrich his films. A master storyteller, he skillfully entwines autobiography, documentary, fiction, and poetry, developing new archetypes and unexpected allegories through which he crafts contemporary myths and fables out of the complicated histories of colonialism and resistance in the Philippines. For him, myth is not the opposite of history; rather, it is an equally valid alternative to it that simply reveals different truths, enhancing our understanding not just of the past but also of the present and future. The typhoon—a force of nature that happens annually and overwhelms all attempts to control it—is a favorite metaphor for the Global South’s resistance to Western colonialism. As the protagonist’s spiritual guide Kaya instructs in Tahimik’s first and best-known film, Perfumed Nightmare (1977), “When the typhoon blows off its cocoon, the butterfly embraces the sun.”

Twelve stills from Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare, 1977, 16 mm, color, sound, 93 minutes.

TAHIMIK WAS BORN Eric de Guia on October 3, 1942, in Baguio City, a resort town that was also home to several American military bases. Hailing from a well-to-do family, he completed his MBA at the Wharton School of Business in Philadlephia in the late 1960s, after which he worked as a researcher at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. The experience left him deeply disillusioned with models of global development that measure progress solely in economic and technological terms, such as those associated with organizations like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. After a summer spent working on a farm in Norway, Tahimik ripped up his diploma, quit his job, and dedicated himself to telling stories, initially dabbling in playwriting. His introduction to filmmaking came when he assisted with a friend’s production. A chance encounter with Werner Herzog led to his appearance as an exotic sideshow attraction in the German director’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974). By that time, Tahimik had rejected his given name for its colonial taint and adopted his alias, which means “silent lightning” in Tagalog. Entirely self-taught, Tahimik has always worked independently, his singular films offering a model through which the native spirit (or what he refers to by the Spanish word duende), suppressed by colonialism, can express itself again. His art and person embody the third world as both theory and praxis, aesthetic and ethic, championing its simple strengths and modest virtues.

Tahimik’s early films locate and resist the effects of colonialism and imperialism primarily within the cultural sphere, as exemplified by Hollywood’s homogenizing global influence—a soft power that helps normalize political oppression and economic exploitation, producing compliant colonial subjects and eager consumers. Tahimik calls this “benevolent assassination,” the descriptor a play on “benevolent assimilation,” as the United States’ policy toward the Philippines from the late nineteenth century on was called. Made on a meager budget, Perfumed Nightmare is considered a classic of Third Cinema. Having won the International Critics Award at the 1977 Berlinale, it was championed by the likes of Herzog, Francis Ford Coppola, and Susan Sontag, who wrote that it “reminds one that invention, insolence, enchantment, even innocence, are still available to film.” The protagonist, also named Kidlat Tahimik and played by the artist sporting a bowl cut and a toothy grin, is a charming if goofy jeepney driver from the rural Philippines, a faux naïf in the tradition of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot. Enamored of the West and obsessed with rockets and space, he dreams of visiting Cape Canaveral and establishes a Werner von Braun fan club in honor of the ex-Nazi engineer who was instrumental in getting Apollo to the moon.

For Tahimik, indigeneity is not a cultural formation arrested in the past but a vital set of beliefs and practices—a way forward.

The German scientist’s first name was, in fact, Wernher, and its misspelling is probably a cheeky nod to Herzog. Tahimik is partial to such wordplay. His work is peppered with witty (and not so witty) puns, acronyms, and turns of phrase, which sometimes result from a careless typing mistake or a misunderstanding or mispronunciation or mistranslation. In interviews, for example, Tahimik frequently uses the word indigenius, a neologism attributed to an Igorot friend, as shorthand for “indigenous wisdom.” Such transcultural slips are a familiar consequence of the formation of postcolonial subjectivities; they reflect a linguistic syncretism that troubles notions of national purity and authenticity.

In Perfumed Nightmare, Kidlat eventually travels to Paris with an American entrepreneur, amusingly portrayed as a petulant overgrown Boy Scout, whose bubble-gum dispensers Kidlat is hired to maintain. Although fascinated by the modern metropolis, he is gradually disillusioned by the deleterious effects of capitalism’s so-called progress; in the end, he returns home in a makeshift rocket—in a scene shot in the iconic ducts of the Centre Pompidou, then still under construction—magically propelled by the winds of a third-world typhoon, whose power and wisdom he has finally come to appreciate.

Werner Herzog, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, 1974, 35 mm and Super 8, color, sound, 110 minutes. Hombrecito (Kidlat Tahimik) and Circus Director (Willy Semmelrogge).

The film cleverly reverses the conventional narrative trajectory of Western ethnographic films: Instead of a “civilized” Westerner exploring a distant corner of the globe, a “native” journeys from his remote village to an industrialized metropolis, revealing some of the cultural idiosyncrasies he finds there. Perfumed Nightmare also includes jarring documentary footage of local rituals: a circumcision ceremony in the forest, self-flagellation at a Catholic festival. Rather than serving as evidence of irreconcilable cultural difference to be analyzed by the anthropologist, such footage anchors the film in the cultural context in which it was made. Used as narrative pivots, these sequences function as what film scholar Christopher Pavsek calls “metaphors in the real,” documentary-style shots that are deployed allegorically, a tactic that Tahimik frequently uses.1 His films anticipate, in terms of form, process, and subject matter, more recent allied practices, such as the “improvisational realism” of the Karrabing Film Collective, an indigenous group from Australia’s Northern Territory that likewise uses filmmaking and installation to retell myths, histories, and political struggles.2

Still from Kidlat Tahimik’s Who Invented the Yo-yo? Who Invented the Moon Buggy?, 1980, 16 mm, color, sound, 90 minutes.

Like much of Tahimik’s oeuvre, Perfumed Nightmare is film as bricolage, uneven and unruly, sutured together from accumulated images and sounds that vary widely in style. Some sequences possess the unrehearsed spontaneity of cinema verité, while others are clearly and somewhat crudely staged. Tahimik prefers not to design his mise-en-scène, opting instead to film at existing sites using found props, structures, and contexts, embracing a way of working that remains open to chance and accident and resists convention. He shot Perfumed Nightmare on expired stock, which accounts for its grainy, faded look, and using a noisy Bolex, which meant that the soundtrack had to be added in postproduction, resulting in an asynchrony between sound and image that he uses playfully to his advantage. Despite the film’s fragmented, episodic nature, Perfumed Nightmare’s narrative arc feels organic. Tahimik does not work from scripts, believing them to be industrial rather than creative tools, necessary only to establish and adhere to the schedules and budgets of Hollywood-style productions. Dismissing “Full Tank–cum–Credit Card Filmmaking” in favor of a “Cups-of-Gas” alternative means that he works in fits and starts, as resources, time, and energy allow.3 Guiding this approach is what he calls bathala na, his play on the Filipino concept of bahala na, a conscious surrender to the will of the cosmos, less a fatalistic resignation than a determined resilience in the face of uncertainty and adversity, achieved by way of improvisation and adaptation. While it could be argued that the look and feel of Tahimik’s films reflect the difficult material conditions of the Global South, he reasserts the compromises his modest circumstances seem to entail as strategies for resisting Hollywood’s spectacular aesthetics and industry standards and for recovering the utopian potential of cinema.

Tahimik has made only a handful of full-length films in his more than four-decade career, following up his debut with the rarely seen Who Invented the Yo-Yo? Who Invented the Moon Buggy? (1980), a quasi sequel in which his alter ego, now a guest worker in the hilariously named fictional German town of Yodelburg, establishes the Philippines Official Moon Project. Its acronym—POMP—deliciously deflates the hubris of space exploration, as does his motive: to be the first to play yo-yo on the moon. Subverting the narrative of colonization, the film reclaims space as a site of wonder and imagination through the faculty of play. Turumba (1983), Tahimik’s next film, is also his most conventional. Set in the sleepy town of Pakil and narrated by a young boy named Kadu, it recounts the transformations within the child’s community and family, who sell handmade papier-mâché toys during the eponymous biannual Catholic festival, occasioned by the introduction of mercantile capitalism and the trappings of modernity. Turumba celebrates traditional craft and artisanal labor over industrial modes of production and a life of subsistence over one of accumulation. Throughout Tahimik’s films, craftspeople appear as exemplars of how to work and live sustainably, in harmony with nature, and reuse is championed as a strategy for making that disrupts the destructive capitalist cycle of technological innovation and planned obsolescence. Tahimik recasts artists as modern-day shamans, responsible for maintaining a community’s link to the spirit of the land. He performs this role through his dress and demeanor, often wearing the bahag, or traditional Filipino loincloth, which he mischievously calls a G-string.

In 1979, Tahimik began working on BalikBayan #1: Memories of Overdevelopment—a postcolonial counterhistory that builds on the theory that Enrique de Malacca, Ferdinand Magellan’s slave and translator, was actually the first person to circumnavigate the globe. The film is an interminable work in progress that has undergone repeated revisions; a sixth iteration was screened in March during the Sharjah Biennial’s opening week. For this project, every edit is provisional and propositional; the narrative model is associated with oral culture, wherein stories are renewed and revised with every telling. This approach keeps Tahimik’s filmic text dynamic, open to the shifting currents of life and history and to changes in film technology, from celluloid to VHS, to Hi8 and MiniDV, to the iPhone’s digital camera, formats that all appear in BalikBayan’s most recent version. It is a radical statement, an assertion of the value of time spent unproductively over its instrumentalization in the name of profit, progress, and closure. It is the cinematic equivalent of yo-yoing on the moon.

Still from Kidlat Tahimik’s Who Invented the Yo-yo? Who Invented the Moon Buggy?, 1980, 16 mm, color, sound, 90 minutes.

Such flexibility is only possible because Tahimik handles the bulk of production and postproduction duties himself, embedding the filmmaking process into the rhythms of his everyday life. He also prefers not to use professional actors; his family, friends, and colleagues frequently appear alongside him in his films, giving the works an intimate, almost autobiographical feel. This diaristic quality becomes more self-conscious and overt in later films like Why Is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow? (1994)—and his video shorts, which address various topics: fatherhood (Orbit 50: Letters to My 3 Sons [1992]); a global tree-planting campaign to mark the five hundredth anniversary of Magellan’s famous voyage (Celebrating the Year 2021, Today [1995]); the bahag and other traditional Asian undergarments (Japanese Summers of a Filipino Fundoshi [1996]); the dying art of terrace farming (Some More Rice [2000]); roofs and the merits of bamboo as a construction material (Bubong! Roofs of the World, UNITE! [2006]); and a healing ritual performed in the aftermath of a disastrous oil spill (Our Film-Grimage to Guimaras [2006]).

It is a radical statement, an assertion of the value of time spent unproductively over its instrumentalization in the name of profit, progress, and closure.

Made in collaboration with his eldest son, then a young boy, Why Is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow? is Tahimik’s most explicitly political film. Chronicling their family life amid the tumult of the 1980s in the Philippines, it tracks the initial euphoria of the popular revolution that deposed Ferdinand Marcos and the disillusionment that eventually set in as the democratic process that followed failed to produce real change. The film is also Tahimik’s clearest tribute to the wisdom and strength of indigenous communities and their ongoing struggles for justice and the rights to their ancestral lands. Documenting indigenous sites, gatherings, practices, and rituals, it establishes links, both political and epistemological, between the Igorot and Native American communities in the southwest United States. Like the notion of the third world in his earlier films, indigeneity emerges here as another mode of transnational anticolonial solidarity.

His mythos has become both a part of history and an oracle of the future.

Tahimik has a deep and sustained relationship with the Ifugao community among whom he has lived and worked for decades. He has tirelessly supported, promoted, and worked to safeguard their way of life. Through his Sunflower Film and Video Collective, he introduced video technology to their remote communities, providing them with the tools and skills needed to document and preserve their culture on their own terms. He has collaborated with them on sculptural installations and communal building projects. Like his films, these structures are ad hoc, rejecting architectural plans and modern methods and instead relying on the intuitive wisdom of traditional craftsmen while incorporating abundant and renewable locally sourced materials. For Tahimik, indigeneity is not a cultural formation arrested in the past but a vital set of beliefs and practices—a way forward. In a postcolonial context, the fierce independence and continuing resilience of indigenous cultural practices are not only oppositional but also reparative, a way to render the native self, split apart by colonial violence, whole again.

Tahimik ends Why Is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow? with footage of the aftermath of two natural disasters: the 1990 earthquake that leveled Baguio, and the disastrous eruption, a year later, of Mount Pinatubo, which blanketed much of the region in a layer of ash. Again, he interprets these calamities allegorically, as cosmic reboots, a wiping clean of the slate that neither revolution nor democracy can achieve. As the climate crisis becomes more acute, and the frequency and intensity of such events grow, Tahimik’s work has begun to feel uncannily prescient. His mythos has become both a part of history and an oracle of the future. It appears increasingly clear that the insidious nexus of colonialism and capitalism constitutes a grave threat to our life on earth. In the face of imminent extinction, the indigenous wisdom and ways of life that have long resisted these forces can no longer be dismissed as anachronistic. Instead, as Tahimik affirms, they are vital and necessary if we, as a species, are to survive.

Murtaza Vali is a critic and curator based in New York City and Sharjah.


1. Christopher Pavsek, The Utopia of Film: Cinema and Its Futures in Godard, Kluge, and Tahimik (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 144. 

2. Tess Lea and Elizabeth A. Povinelli, “Karrabing: An Essay in Keywords,” Visual Anthropology Review 34, no. 1 (Spring 2018): 36–46.

3. Kidlat Tahimik, “Cups-of-Gas Filmmaking vs. Full Tank–cum–Credit Card Filmmaking,” Discourse 11, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 1969): 81–86.