Raya Martin talks to George Clark
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Raya Martin talks to George Clark
Indepencia, Raya Martin

Indepencia, Raya Martin

Filipino filmmaker Raya Martin has established himself in recent years with a complex body of work that employs a reflective use of media in order to explore the colonial past and fraught national history of the Philippines. His sixth feature film Independencia,  premiered in Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival, is the second part of a proposed trilogy following his debut A Short Film About the Indio Nacional (or, The Prolonged Sorrow of Filipinos) (2005). Each film in the trilogy will be set during in a distinct period in Philippine history related to Spanish, America or Japanese occupation and each will adapt a cinematic aesthetic of that period. Indio Nacional was a made in the style of a silent film and Indepedencia, which is set prior to the second world war carefully reconstructs the style and techniques of this early sound cinema made in the Philippines, a film history which survives in only a few fragments and articles.

When I met Raya Martin during the International Film Festival Rotterdam I asked what drew him to recreate this period in Filipino history and how he developed a style and narrative that would work in that context yet also have currency today and allow a fresh understanding of Filipino history and the American occupation in the 1940s?

Well first I started thinking of scenes, generalised scenes from today that can be situated before in the past, like someone going to sleep or travelling, walking around alone, basic things like that but put in a different context and the history of before. Independencia naturally had to be narrative because of the demands of the films of that period, if it is a studio film it had to have a story. I was interested in Satyajit Ray during that time, not really reading up on his work and not really watching the films but reading up on the synopsis of all of his films. I thought that he was one of the most plot-full of all the filmmakers. So I just travelled along that idea and built this mother and son tale around the idea that during that time people moved out from cities and villages into the jungle. I wanted to move away from the coverage of the battlefield, so it was literally moving out of the centre. So you have the mother and son in the jungle and then the appearance of the girl who operates as an outside element that disturbs the situation. Developing the story was also about dealing with the whole basis of the project which was about history in cinema, and how the narrative could be influenced by that history and vice versa.

In that sense the historical style of the studio set is really crucial both in terms of re-creating that period aesthetic, but also the set allows you to create a micro-climate within which this drama takes place?

Yes, on a superficial level the idea was to create a specific environment for real people. The way I cast is also part of the concept. Here I really wanted actors from cinema and television because their tradition of acting is very flamboyant and showy and it fits in with the style. At the same time I was really interested in how dioramas work in the museum and how if you stay in one spot and just stare long enough things come alive. Also there is the concept of the box, in terms of cinema during that time where literally everything was done inside a box, inside a studio and also metaphorically it is inside the system that was built by Hollywood.

Film history exists through material in archives but just as importantly in the way it is recounted and retold. Can you tell me how you approached Filipino film history for this project and what sources you drew upon?

Well it’s corny for an artist to say ‘I just want to trusted my gut’ but in a way it was kind of like that, most of it is based on imagination. Imagination of course has a lot of bases and you take references to build it up, for me most of it comes from photography which is or could be the basis of cinema but also it is a universe away from cinema. At the same time I relied on the history of the American studio films of that period which has also influenced me in a way in making this film. It’s tricky because when you are trying to rebuild a national cinema, a film from your country which doesn’t exist anymore can only be done with a heavy hand, as it’s also going to bring back the colonial ghosts even though we are trying to move away from them. We need their help again to order move away from them, that is the irony of it.

It seems that Independencia is as much about films which might have been made, or which you wish would have been made, as those films that actually existed?

Exactly, which is why I would be scared if a real film from that period suddenly came out of some archive and people could say, ‘This is what it really looked like.’  Which could be totally different from what I did. The same time as historically it is not trying to be accurate, factually or aesthetically, it would be bad if it were totally invented. It’s really dealing with what we have now or what I have now and sharing it with people.

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What draws you to appropriate distinct forms both from the history of cinema or other media in your work, from the use of early sound film aesthetics in Independencia to the recreated home movies that make up much of Now Showing (2008)?

I don’t know if it’s still correct but I really believe that the medium is still the message and especially in filmmaking. At least for me I start with what material I am going to work with and it’s often brought about by economics. Okay I have this certain budget, can I use 16mm or do I only have to borrow a camera from this person, and which type of camera, if it is digital or analogue. If it’s analogue okay, things will definitely look old because it is all about perception and so then we have to make the story about that. So if it looks like its from the nineties or eighties then it’s set during that time. The urgency of creation really is based on economics.

That’s an interesting way of dealing with those restrictions and the economic conditions that surround filmmaking.

They even become the starting point of an idea, yeah. It’s all in the process. For me it really doesn’t matter what the film would look like or where it was screened and what people would think, it’s really more about the process. Especially now in the Philippines there are a lot of people making films, I guess also in the rest of the world, who just pick up a camera and just do their own thing. In a way creation has become instant. I don’t have anything against that, instant art is also very beautiful. There is also a danger of romanticising the way people can spend years and years to create just one thing, maybe something as little as this or something as huge as this building. I’m against the idea of art as hard work but investment in artists adds to the soul of the work or spirit. On a superficial level when you work on a larger scale everyone has fun and there is more work for more people ­­– again it’s economics.

Can you tell me how the middle section developed in Independencia? Where did the idea for this fake newsreel footage came from?

Well you know how they used to screen films in the past, at the end of part one they had a short intermission and they showed newsreels commissioned by Pathe and the like which were essentially propaganda films. The films often talked about the heroism of American soldiers in the Philippines, so that was the idea for the film in the intermission. It’s a true story, there was an American journalist who said that this event was the greatest atrocity ever done by the Americans during the war, which is basically the story in the newsreel. In the scene a soldier just kills a boy who was  playing around with an egg. They also had this policy in the past to kill anyone who commits a crime under three years old as then it would be easier to manage and educate the rest of the population. So this scene is also about the population control during that time but centred around this dramatic incident. Also you have the boy who is in the fiction part and then the boy in the fake newsreel, but it’s a fiction based on a real story, so there’s this whole play with fictionalisation too.

The propaganda material makes explicit the issue that history is told from the perspective of dominant powers, and that puts the story of these marginal people removed from the cities and removed from the centre into a different opposition position.

I was also unsure about this initially because there are some obvious techniques used ­– like the newsreel – but also that it’s a melodrama and it’s in a studio, but I don’t think there is any other way. History, at least our history was built on that so you really have to take it and retell how it is but in a different framework. Have you seen John Gianvito’s the new film Vapour Trail?  There is the idea in the film that obviously history has always been written by the ones who have the voice and the ones who could inscribe it. Everyone has a history, but history is really about people who have a means to express it.

I’m interested in your relationship to visual arts and how you think about your work in relation to that area?

From the onset I really based myself in cinema. When I made this film called Auto Historia, which is ninety minutes long, but there is only ten or eleven shots in it, a lot of people said that it could be shown in a gallery as an installation. Of course I see exhibits and installations and I’m aware of it and aware of the dynamics of creating visual art pieces. But my understanding of creation is really based in the cinema. With my films, I insist on showing in theatres because the responses are really different and the experience is different. Cinema really, in the romantic sense, is sitting in a box of darkness with a projection and not leaving until the end. I think because cinema is about commitment. I believe in committing ninety minutes or ten hours of yourself to a work. Whereas in a gallery you just come back and forth, so the perception is totally different.

There are these great moments of humour in the film despite the seriousness of the historical period it is depicting. How do you balance these elements?

It really annoys me when people say that the film is so serious. I find parts of it really funny. Filipinos really have a strong sense of humour with other Filipinos, but when it comes to artistic expression everyone is so serious. When you see Filipino films in general they are devoid of humour. I guess it’s reflective of the effects of history and we try to laugh everything off but deep down inside it’s a history of sadness. So I wanted to move away from that and just show us on a superficial level but also to see inside of it, inside of a Filipino.

About the Author: George Clark is a curator, writer and artist. At the Independent Cinema Office between 2006 and 2008 he managed a range of touring projects including: ‘Essentials: The Secret Masterpieces of Cinema‘, ‘Artists & Icons’ and ‘The Artists Cinema 2006′. Independent curatorial projects include ‘The Unstable States of…’, ‘Without Boundaries: European Artists’ Film and Video’ and the retrospective ‘The Cinema of Miklos Jancso’ [co-curated with Travis Miles]. He has written for Art Monthly, Afterall, Sight & Sound, Senses of Cinema and Vertigo Magazine among other publications. He is currently collaborating with the artist Beatrice Gibson on the script for a film commissioned by the Serpentine Gallery and Camden Council.

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