By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento
At age 76, Kidlat Tahimik (aka Eric De Guia) is among the younger National Artists, and happens to be the only one alive for Cinema. Further, among this tiny elect group, he is the only Wharton MBA holder, with a c.v. which includes a stint as a researcher for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This was before he symbolically tore up his Wharton diploma (he didn’t totally trash it though), and followed his bliss as an artist. Or as he has stated elsewhere, he let his duende come through. This duende is not the squeaky voiced gnome of lower Philippine mythology, but the inner demon or the spirit of genius which inspires and animates true artistry. See the Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca’s “Theory and Play of the Duende.” As Kidlat Tahimik declared in his film Mababangong Bangungot (Perfumed Nightmare) which is essentially his artist’s manifesto: “When the typhoon blows off the cocoon, the butterfly embraces the sun.”
During De Guia’s transition to Kidlat Tahimik (K.T.) some 40 years ago, he grew his hair long, the better to style this into an Igorot bowl cut. He has since grown this out into silvery shaman tresses. During formal occasions, he dons the Ifugao bahag (loin cloth), effectively mooning other dignitaries. Since he is not an I.P. (indigenous person), he has been accused of cultural misappropriation and, even, of slumming it. Patrick Campos of the UP Film Institute believes though, that since De Guia has lived among the Ifugao for significant lengths of time in the last three decades, he has organically connected his work to his life. He also started the Sunflower Film Collective in his adopted Ifugao community. During the scant hours when there is electricity, they edit films on a Macbook.
As K.T. the protagonist jeepney driver in his seminal film, Mababangong Bangungot, who dreams of crossing the bridge out of his pretend hometown Balian, Laguna, declares: “I choose my vehicle; I choose my bridge.” Crossing the bridge is a metaphor for the way to a better world. In the film, an American businessman becomes K.T.’s way out: as an OFW, he drives around Paris in his Sarao jeepney, refilling the American’s Chiclet vending machines.
With his unique coiffure and vehicle, the cinematic K.T. wonders: “Why is everybody staring at me? I feel I am becoming smaller. I am Kidlat Tahimik. I am not as small as you think. Nothing can stop me from crossing my bridge.” For sure, because by Philippine standards, De Guia is one of the big people, and alien to the social class who rides the jeep. His mother Virginia “Gene” Oteyza De Guia was the only female mayor of Baguio City. Before she died, the De Guia family donated 95-hectares in Sto. Tomas, Apugan-Loakan to the Baguio LGU for its environmental management programs.
Mababangong Bangungot won multiple awards in the Berlin Film Fest, around the time that Lino Brocka was making waves in Europe. A Brocka champion in France has refused to recognize De Guia’s film as “Filipino.” Its tongue-in-cheek whimsicality, and light-hearted political commentary about the yawning gap between the secular First World with its “floors that walk for you” (the airport walkalator) and “doors which open for you,” and the charmingly backward and traditional Third World full of talking religious images, lively flagellants, unsanitary circumcision rites, ridiculous beauty pageants, and laughably ignorant science, are seen from the amused perspective of the educated, Westernized observer. The pioneering Philippine cinema archivist Agustin “Hammy” Sotto saw elements of exoticization, e.g., villagers cradling an unlikely menagerie of farm animals on their laps as they crowd onto K.T.’s jeep; a young woman and K.T. simultaneously and openly urinating on the ground, on either side of his jeep.
Nonetheless within the tacit superiority of De Guia’s point of view, there is a sweetness and sincere concern for these Third World curiosities. When he reflects that one less vendor in the traditional market, means one more parking space, one senses the conflict within the Wharton MBA who gave up the dogma of neoliberalism for the whispered lessons “on the quiet strength of bamboo,” which the Yoda-like craftsman Kaya promised he would one day understand. K.T. realizes that Kaya’s art is doomed to extinction, because “one cannot build rocket ships from bamboo,” and despite himself, building rocket ships is what K.T. wants to do. In Mababangong Bangungot, he is the president of the Wehrner Von Braun Fan Club. Towards the end, he resigns, declaring independence from those “who would build bridges to the stars.”
However, in the 1982 follow-up Sinong Lumikha ng Yoyo? Sinong Lumikha ng Moon Buggy? (Who Invented the Yoyo? Who Invented the Moon Buggy?), K.T. shoots for the moon. He is the president of the Yodelberg Yoyo Society which aims to send a chicken to the moon for starters. That done, it would be on to bigger things: for K.T. to reach the dark side of the moon and there, play with his yoyo. Acknowledging the absurd grandiosity of this mission, its acronym is POMP, for Philippine Official Moon Project. Overall though, the film is a reflection on the creative process.
De Guia has defined independent film-making as making films that only the filmmaker could make. Not surprisingly, his films are also unabashed home movies, often featuring his wife and children. His eldest son Kidlat Gottlieb Kalayaan, then four years old, is his sidekick in Sinong Lumikha ng Yoyo? Sinong Lumikha ng Moon Buggy?, which also has actual home movies of De Guia’s parents. For his 10th birthday, his mother gave him silver ballet slippers and sparkly balletomane pantaloons. Her brother was the painter Victor Oteyza, and in 1939, she had appeared in the movie Nagkaisang Landas under the screen name Lydia Leynes. De Guia’s father, Victor, an engineer, gave him a slide rule and a boxed model of a tower as his birthday gifts. He was also expected to become an engineer. When young Eric did not follow the tower model’s assembly instructions, his father called him a dilettante, and urged him to always strive for exactitude.
De Guia does not have a prepared script when making his films. National Commission for Culture and the Arts Cinema Committee Chair Teddy Co describes his style as more of a reflective essay, rather than a conventional, plot-driven narrative. De Guia has called it “straying on track.” Sinong Lumikha ng Yoyo? Sinong Lumikha ng Moon Buggy? also has archival footage of the 1956 Philippine Soap Box Derby where 13-year-old Eric had entered “Pine Cone Fury.” The body of his car bristled with pine cones. His engineer father told him a race car had to be aerodynamically smooth to overcome wind resistance. Young Eric lost the race but got a special trophy for the most original design. His father was not impressed and simply said that “friction was stronger than beauty.” From such incidents of family drama, art and artists are made.