Cross-Cultural Film Guide/ Patricia Aufderheide
The American University/ ©1992
Plot: Kidlat Tahimik is a young man living in a small Filipino village. As the film opens, we see him in three stages of life (symbolized by toy and then real "jeepneys," the elaborately recrafted and decorated vehicles that have their origins in the Jeeps left by the Allies in World War II) crossing the bridge--"the bridge of life"--to his village. Narrating in voiceover, Tahimik explains the patterns of daily life in the village. He has a fascination with the Voice of America broadcasts, and particularly with the space program. He longs to be part of the developed world, and forms the Werner von Braun fan club. When an American arrives for an aborted international conference, he gets his chance. The American asks him to come to Paris, to run his chewing-gum-ball machine concession on the streets. In Paris, and on a trip to Germany, he makes friends and discovers that progress in the developed world sacrifices important values. Backgrounded by footage of a summit meeting in Paris, and unable to return to an idealized image of his past, he stubbornly refuses to capitulate to the terms of progress, resigning from his post as head of the Werner von Braun fan club and maintaining that he will find his own way.
Style: This film has very crude production values, and they are part of its charm and message. It is intended to look very much a "home made" film, improvised, much like jeepneys are, from available materials and made into a distinctive statement. It melds found footage, stock footage and narrative footage, tied together with voiceover. There is a strong narrative line, with occasional magical touches. The central character, seemingly authorial, is clearly a fictional creation (see below, Background on director/film). The naivete of the character serves as a disarming device for Tahimik to put forward a critique of Western progress. The film is explicitly allegorical, and full of metaphors, puns, sly ironies and jokes.
Background on director/film: Kidlat Tahimik, whose real name is Eric de Guia (Kidlat Tahimik means "quiet lightning" in Tagalog and is also the name of his first son, born before completing this film), grew up "eating French fries and burgers" in Baguio, The Philippines. (Baguio is a summer resort, influenced by American culture from longstanding U.S. bases.) A restless and ambitious person with an idiosyncratic and somtimes mystical vision, he began this, his first film, more or less by accident. He had come to Europe to sell Filipino-made trinkets, but a typhoon delayed the shipment. (Some of this history was later reworked in a later film, Turumba.) Stranded, he made some contacts with filmmakers, including Werner Herzog. On $10,000, using outdated film stock, found and stock footage, and donated in-kind resources through Herzog's network, he spent years simultaneously making this film and learning how to make film. The film was released in the U.S. through Francis Coppola's now-defunct studio Zoetrope (again, through Herzog's connections, with Coppola's producer Tom Luddy).
Tahimik returned to the Philippines, but lives an international life. His later films are in some ways simpler than this one, which depend for its effects on elaborate pastiche. He has been working on a film called Memories of Overdevelopment (a takeoff on Tomas Gutierrez Alea's Memories of Underdevelopment) since 1983. It is to be the story of the first man to voyage around the world--not Magellan, but one of his slaves, bought in the Philippines.
Film production context: Film production in the Philippines is prolific and sophisticated. The national industry produces between 150 and 200 entertainment films a year, depending heavily on romance and action, capitalizing on scandalous current events, and often richly sentimental. The Filipino film industry has spawned whole genres and subgenres of its own. It has been under one or another form of censorship for many years, first under Marcos and then under Aquino. Even more powerful than government censorship is the profit motive. The industry is concerned with profits, not prestige. As one of the leading Filipino filmmakers, Lino Brocka, said to Pat Aufderheide at the Toronto Festival of Festivals in 1987, "When my producer tells me about a new film, she always says, 'Now Lino, no awards, please.'" (Lino Brocka died in a car accident in 1991.)
Perfumed Nightmare was made entirely outside this production universe. Made in Europe, it has been shown in art houses in the Philippines, never even threatened with censorship. Tahimik told Pat Aufderheide in 1987 at Duke University that he thinks his work has never been censored because he works in 16mm, which is not a mass medium, since commercial theaters show in 35mm. Later work by Tahimik has gotten Europan support, for instance from the German cultural channel ZDF for Turumba. He gets little support from within the Philippines, where he is correctly perceived as a noncommercial filmmaker.
Importance: Perfumed Nightmare has won a cult reputation in the U.S. and Europe, where it is often seen in repertory or educational contexts. It was highly praised on its first appearance here, but remains a cult phenomenon. It is significant as an example of integration of form and content. Tahimik's critique of progress is built into his film style. It is also significant as a rare example of a film from a developing country about development that is executed with humor.
Pat Aufderheide, "The joys of an imperfect film," In These Times Sep. 2-8, 1981
Kathleen Hulser, "Jitney Tour of Soft Illusions," The Independent, December 1982, pp. 9-10
Kidlat Tahimik, "Cups-of-Gas Filmmaking vs. Full-Tank-cum-Credit Card Fillmaking," Discourse, XI:2 (Spring-Summer 1989), pp. 81-86
Last updated on September 17, 1996
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