THE ORIGINAL IGO-ROCKET MAN

(An Interview with Kidlat Tahimik by Caroline Kennedy)

London, November 1980

“And it’s going to be a long, long time

Till touchdown brings me home and they’ll find

I’m not the man they think I am at home,

Oh, no, no, no, I’m the rocket man….”

(with apologies to Elton John)

Kidlat Tahimik, alias Eric de Guia, has been rocket-crazy ever since he can remember. His father, an eminent engineer and his mother, the first Mayoress of Baguio (Philippines, Mountain Province), gave up a long time ago prompting him into a career befitting of such illustrious parentage. All Kidlat wanted to do, if one is to believe his latest film, was to make a rocket that would reach the moon.

Poster for Perfumed Nightmare

“Sinong Lumikha ng Yoyo?” Sinong Lumikha ng Moon Buggy?” (Who invented the yoyo? Who invented the moon buggy) is the story of that ambition.

Kidlat describes his movie as the “very first Third World space spectacular”. Not in the genre, of course, that we are used to here. That is to say, it will never compete with “The Empire Strikes Back” or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. It is not meant to. But, in its way, Kidlat’s film will make its mark because his approach is so fresh, so original and so funny that it would be hard put not to charm the hardest-nosed Hollywood producer. Not that the commercial scene is one that Kidlat expects, or even wants, to conquer. For him the arts theatre, or the “alternative theatre” is the outlet he’s aiming for.

Three years ago, we watched Kidlat trailing around the world’s major film festivals with his baby, Kidlat, tucked under one arm, the sole copy of his first movie, “Perfumed Nightmares” clutched firmly under the other and his Igorot basket, containing nappies and milk bottles, strung tightly to his back. To audiences in Berlin, Rotterdam, Los Angeles, San Sebastian, Salonika, Toronto and Edinburgh, this apparition of the two Kidlats became a familiar, and somewhat poignant, sight.

The Two Kidlats by Bencab

On retrospect, he says, the experience taught him all he needed to know about film festivals and the way big-time producers and distributors operate.

“I had to do it once just to see for myself,” he explains. “If I didn’t do it with my first film I might always have regretted it.”

To his credit, he did end up that year with three major prizes, the International Film Critics’ Prize in Berlin, the Catholic Jury Prize also in Berlin and the Peoples’ Prize in Rotterdam. When asked whether he’ll enter his latest film in the Manila Film Festival in 1982, he replied, “My scene is not spending 30 million pesos on a nude beach. No, I’ll give that festival a miss.”

In 1969 Eric de Guia opted out of his economic studies in Munich in favour of pitching hay on a Norwegian farm. There, in his spare time, he became Kidlat Tahimik – author and playwright. The metamorphosis didn’t take him completely by surprise. He had, after all, been writing plays for many years and had long since realized he wasn’t cut out to be an economist.

Kidlat among the Igorots

In 1972 and, by this time, back in Munich living in a commune of artists, film-makers and photographers, this transition became irrevocable. The next step, therefore, would be some way of financing his first movie. Now, ironically, his economic studies probably helped him. He wound up with a contract from the Munich Olympic Committee to sell capiz-shell Olympic mascot dogs and he immediately sent home to the Philippines a vast order for what should have been the official 1972 Olympic souvenir.

“Unfortunately, I never did become a mascot millionaire,” sighed Kidlat. “The infamous Typhoon Gloria struck and delayed the boat carrying my capiz-shell K-9s and, by the time they did finally arrive, the Games were almost over and there were no tourists left in Munich to sell them to.”

Luckily, however, there was still the Sarao jeepney in which the thousands of little dogs had been packed and, when his expected financial crisis came, Kidlat was able to sell the jeepney to German movie director Werner Herzog for a substantial sum. At the same time Herzog offered Kidlat his first professional acting role in his much-acclaimed and prizewinning film, “The Enigma of Kasper Hauser”.

Philippine Jeepney

Both “Perfumed Nightmares” and “Sinong Lumikha ng Yoyo?….” are very personal films. They portray the expatriate Filipino adjusting to a European life, dreaming the old colonial dream of streets paved with gold but, at the same time, never quite being able to shake off his Filipino identity of which he is, alternately, proud and ashamed.

 

Imagine, for instance, an Igorot clothed in German leather hosen living in a snow-bound farm in the heart of Bavaria, learning to yodel! Yet that is precisely how Kidlat spent three years of his life. The Filipino in him emerges every time he encounters the wasteful amount of scrap discarded by an overdeveloped and uncaring society.

“Back home we would have a use for all that. Nothing gets thrown away.” And he proceeds to illustrate this fact by building his home-made rocket ship from the dustbin contents of frivolous German hausfraus.

“A Filipino invented the yoyo and an expatriate Filipino invented the moon buggy so why should I not be able to construct a rocket capable of getting me to the moon?” he asks.

Nuestra Senora de Viajes with her feet on the Moon

The constantly flashing images of the weeping Nuestra Senora de los Viajes y Dolores, her foot permanently poised on the moon, and the onion-shaped towers of Bavaria silhouetted against the grey sky, soon convinced our hero, Kidlat, that the Virgin Mary was the world’s first astronaut, propelled by fuel no less extravagant than onions! That, after all, would explain her tears!

The real Kidlat of Baguio and the fabricated Kidlat of the movies are hard to distinguish. Their dreams are the same and their ambitions clearly match. The little boy who, against the wishes of his conservative parents, resolutely constructed rocket-shaped towers in his backyard at home, is there portrayed in the film. The grown man still snatching at his childhood dreams is also there. Fact and fiction blend so imperceptibly that one emerges from the movie not knowing whether we have seen an imaginary version or the real person and that, I believe, is how Kidlat wants it to be.

Francis Ford Coppola, who shot “Apocalypse Now” in the Philippines, recognized Kidlat’s talents and arranged for him to show his first “Third World space spectacular” at a screening in New York. With his German wife, artist Katrin Muller, and their two sons, Kidlat and Kawayan, Kidlat Tahimik, alias Eric de Guia, flew off towards the setting sun in the latest 20th century rocket-shaped invention – the Concorde – to where, for many Filipinos, the streets are still paved in gold – America.

May the force be with you, Kidlat!

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