Film In Conversation
Khavn De La Cruz with Joshua Bogatin
For Filipino filmmaker Khavn, “each new project is a failed attempt to answer certain questions, or to be more precise, to pose more questions.”
Wazak! These Are Not Some Films by Khavn
With more than fifty features and 150 shorts, Filipino filmmaker-poet-musician Khavn De La Cruz, or simply Khavn, as he credits himself, belongs to that rare category of filmmaker who demands as much attention paid to the breadth of their output as to the qualities of individual works. Filming features in as quickly as a single day, the speed of Khavn’s working method speaks to a deliberate flaunting of the traditional financial structures of cinema as well as the critical tendency to privilege the Gesamtkunstwerk over the sketch. Full of rough edges and a near complete sense of aesthetic freedom, his films are abrasive collages of confrontational energy that could play equally well on a gallery wall as they could during a midnight movie slot. Defying not only easy categorization but also consumption and comprehension as well, the films of Khavn are perhaps most clearly marked by a Buñuelian view of poverty as something neither noble nor degraded but simply human and absurd as well as an iconoclastic mockery of social values in The Family That Eats Soil (2005), the satire is so savage that at one point even the subtitles stop translating what people are saying and start mocking them instead.
Having been in contact with Khavn to organize a retrospective of his films at Spectacle Theater, Wazak! These Are Not Some Films by Khavn, which runs throughout September, I took the occasion to speak with him over Skype about his process and views on cinema.
Joshua Bogatin (Rail): On your website there is a quote by the critic Olaf Moeller. He calls you, “One of underground cinema's best-kept secrets, a prankster punk, an ass-kicking rebel priest.” Do you see your films as being punk?
Khavn: What does punk mean these days? My films are rebels without a cost and the world is a supermarket. I just make films, and in the strict sense of the word, some aren’t punk. It all depends on how you define it. You can label them, but in reality they’re all very intuitive. Things are not so conscious. You can compare it to some kind of possession where I am compelled to make this and that kind of film. I don’t necessarily adhere to a set of dogma, not even punk. Each new project is a failed attempt to answer certain questions, or to be more precise, to pose more questions. They’re experiments and I don't know what will happen with each film, even if I'm the author of it.
Rail: When you start out on a film how clear are these questions? How much continuity do you find between projects? Do you ever think of yourself as trying to solve the same questions through different films?
Khavn: Each film is like reinventing the wheel, having to go back to ground zero over and over again. Some weeks ago, we started making a new film. We went back to the location where we shot Mondomanila (2012), but without a script or even a concept. Sometimes when I make a film there's at least one sentence, a page, a vague idea, but here the bare task was just to make a film. For the first hours we were just basically running around headless shooting nothing until we bumped into these twin brothers who were selling rags, and so on and so forth. Each day we were trying to discover what the film was about.
Rail: When you are working in that way, how do you know when you’ve found what you’re looking for?
Khavn: It's based on the gut, which is much more intelligent than the brain. If it's right, it's right. It's very subjective, and even when the film is finished people can still say, "Is that a film?" I can't really explain it because in a way it's always uncharted territory; there are no previously made maps on how to make a particular film. I also like to challenge myself because it’s boring to just repeat myself every time. To get excited, I always like to do something different, even if maybe at the end someone will say, "This is the same as this and that." Failure is part of the journey.
Rail: What does failure look like if you’re constantly reinventing the very terms in which you’re working off? In one of your manifestos, Be Movies, you say “there are no mistakes.” Do you still believe that?
Khavn: Yes, and sometimes I even actively look for mistakes because they can be what makes the whole film special. Mistakes are things that go against what you want or your preconceived notions of what cinema should be. During the shoot, you try to record all the mistakes that you can and in editing you choose the best mistakes. The fact that it's something different from what you originally planned doesn't mean it's better or worse. In some cases it's better. It also goes back to simply embracing everything, embracing the gold in the shit.
Rail: You’ve said before that sometimes you get inspiration from all sorts of movies, even bad movies. In many ways I think your films move beyond ideas of good and bad taste, the vulgar and the profound. What does the term bad movie mean to you? What does it mean to be good or bad?
Khavn: It’s a bad joke. When you feel insecure about your filmmaking powers, one of the best antidotes is to watch a bad film by a master of cinema. Of course bad, like good, is very relative: maybe you just don’t get it. The point is you get a kick out of kicking that dead donkey of a masterpiece. What’s bad? What’s good? What’s punk? What’s a film? If labeling helps you, well and good. If not, throw out the dictionary and just shoot.
It’s also impossible. A film can never be one hundred percent good or one hundred percent bad. You can transform those bad elements into something good for your film. Even in the lousiest films, you can still pick up some useful junk.
Rail: Around the beginning of your career in the early 2000s, you wrote a lot about digital filmmaking as a liberatory tool that can emancipate artists from the limitations of traditional budgets and film production models. You can film without thinking about whether each shot is worth it, but work more instinctively. Since that time, digital has become the mainstream standard of filmmaking, but the art form seems as money-obsessed and more expensive than ever. Do you still think digital has the power to change things? How has your relationship to the technology changed as the technology itself has changed?
Khavn: Those manifestos were written after the storm that is the film. A document to remind me of what transpired, things learned, epiphanies, new recipes for disaster.
One of the main ideas behind the manifestos is to not have excuses. I've encountered a lot of filmmakers who have excuses not to make films. They’re waiting for the big break, the big budget. With digital, with these affordable cameras and cell phones, you can create something with what you have. The tools are definitely up for grabs for the filmmaker to do whatever with them, to be able to make their films without selling their homes and starving.
When I was starting to make films, I always had a Hi8 video camera in my hands, trying to capture every single moment. Now, I don't even own my own camera aside from my phone and a few toy cameras. That's one big difference. Once I referred to myself as a lazy filmmaker because I'm not shooting 24/7 anymore.
Rail: Do you still see your films as making something new?
Khavn: Yeah, the delusion should always be there. If the illusion of creating something new or something special disappears, I would probably stop making films. So, each film is an attempt to create something not yet created. Although at the same time—I think I mentioned it in one of my manifestos—there’s this polarity between “Make It New” by Ezra Pound and “nothing is new under the sun” in Ecclesiastes. Sometimes it's also interesting to be old. Or maybe I'm just getting old. Hold that thought.
Rail: Do you still think cinema has the possibility of changing things?
Khavn: Well, that's a difficult question because in terms of changing, for example, the state of poverty, definitely Vittorio De Sica and Lino Brocka’s cinemas have not eradicated poverty. There’s also this blurred dream of someone watching your film and being changed for the better, but maybe that's a very minuscule and personal thing. It’s easy to make grand statements that cinema can change this and that, but maybe I'm just pessimistic tonight about how powerful cinema can be. Ask me again tomorrow. Without cinema, this crazy world would be much worse.