I remember the first time I heard of Ekran was also the first time I heard of Slovenia and the first time I heard of Nika Bohinc and was introduced to her. The year was 2008 and I was co-editing the .MOV programme and helping moderate some of the workshops, not the one Nika was giving, no, but she was there for the others as well, in the audience with Alexis Tioseco. Nika was editor-in-chief of Ekran, the youngest to land the gig it turns out, and it was in prepping her profile that the name caught my eye. It’s Russian for “screen”. And I remember thinking how it was almost too obvious a word to name a film magazine with. But it also had that evocative roll off the tongue that Russian words tend to have, this arcane hum, if only phonetically. I nurse a mild fetish for Russian words and names so that added exotic weight is semi-automatic and a signal no one else is likely to receive. It nailed the same arcane hum that other cinema had, though, that other cinema the magazine pursued, that other cinema I pursued - - - the non-Hollywood, non-commercial, non-conformist, non-mainstream sort. Call it the inflated and enthusiastic wont to (over)romanticize that is my quirk as a so-called film buff and maybe as a person, too, but in my head, there was a clicking into place, parts matching.

Ekran was/is the sovereign film magazine of Slovenia, born in 1962, reborn in 1997. It was the Slovenian Cahiers Du Cinema, no less. That there was a country called Slovenia was not what threw me the most. That they had their own robust version of Cahiers Du Cinema, and with it their own robust history of film writing and film theory, was what did. Here was a country of roughly 3 million with a cinema proportionate to that population (that is, tiny) as opposed to our 92 million with a proprietorship to a film culture and industry that was, at one point, among the largest on the planet, and we don’t even have a recurring column in a newspaper, let alone a film magazine that has made it whole through an entire year. It was like a calling out. I remember this brief prickle of embarrassment tinged with not a little melancholy run through me. Oh, Ekran did temporarily close shop. The aftermath of some editorial crisis apparently, as it always is. But it didn’t stay in limbo for long. The Slovenian Cinematheque took it under its wing eventually. Yes, Slovenia cared enough to have its own Cinematheque,too.

More than the aesthetic rethink that did transpire, though, the thrust of Nika’s mission as editor, picking up where Simon Popek and contributing editor Jurij Meden, her predecessors, left off, was really to throw its arms around the world. There was cinema outside of Slovenia, cinema outside of Hollywood, cinema thriving in the festival circuit, cinema made for no money, cinema no one’s heard of. Nika was curious about all of it and Ekran fed that curiosity with vigor. Up until then, Ekran had been written in Slovene except for that one issue that had a piece on Lav Diaz in English. But Nika started to rope in film critics and film writers and film programmers and even filmmakers from all over, John Gianvito and Neel Chaudhuri and Ben Slater and Benjamin McKay and Olaf Möller and Albert Serra, among others, as if they were field agents, phoning in dispatches from the frontlines, to fill the magazine’s regular columns Cinema Postcards and Mirror in their native tongues.

This is where I came to Ekran, as everyone outside of Slovenia most likely did. Its international online iteration, Eklan Untranslated, curated those multiracial, multilingual column pieces, among others, in one place. Those of us who fancy ourselves film buffs habitually look under the skirts of the rigid canons for cause to blaspheme and it comes with a benign greed for more. Ekran Untranslated was one more rabbit hole that led to places where we could find more of that more. As a resource to that other cinema I was talking about back there, it was invaluable. And is its own embarrassment of riches if we go by film writing alone.

Film writing is something I tend to approach with a measure of caution. I find most of it arid, didactic, scholarly. I find most of it hard to qualify as writing,too. Alexis was the one who said that the first impulse of a film critic is love and his approach to film writing was to come to it the way one would a love letter. It was an approach after my own heart. And there was something to the writing dynamic on Ekran Untranslated - - -be it discourse or theory or diary - - - that dovetailed into that, given over as it was to language and tone, shot through with subjectivity and possessed of a peculiar intimacy and warmth but never at the expense of the dialectic urge and of genuine insight. It felt wet and alive. And above all that, belying its polyglot diversity, it exuded this sense of community. And that may be its most crucial attribute and its most lasting gift. In wanting to bring a vast new other world of cinema to light, Ekran, under Nika, showed us how small that world really is. And how everything and everyone in it is more connected than it seems.

*first published in UNO September 2010



Halaw (Ways of the Sea)
Directed and Written by Sheron Dayoc

It's a sort of porn, too, the valorizing that domestic cinema makes OFWs undergo, much like the way they valorize the poor. Let's truss it up, then, and pelt it with ridicule like we do poverty porn, but then again let's not as that's petty and a bore. Not to say that there's nothing to exalt about OFWs but when a demographic becomes too profitable to upset, the patronizing tends to get laid on a little too thick even for melodramas. And as a trope, all those films - - - Caregiver and Anak and Dubai- - - say little about working away from your family in another country other than that it takes a tremendous sacrifice and that it can get terribly lonely and that it's heroic almost. 

Sheron Dayoc's Halaw taps a bleaker, richer vein. The grist that feeds his film may be the rampant people smuggling that sneaks out of Zamboanga and into the back door of Sabah, but it's really about the desperation and banality of the Faustian bargains that are as much at the heart of the OFW experience as the heroism and the melancholia. And how deep they run into the systemic malfunction of a country that fails time and again to sustain its workforce and into the seductive glamor of anywhere but here.

Following a motley group of stragglers that include a returning and bejeweled middle-aged whore (Maria Isabel Lopez, hilarious), a brother and sister (Arnalyn Ismael, a little pushy but a grace note regardless) hoping to reunite with their mother and John Arcilla, who threatens to center a piece that doesn't want for one but calms his trademark seethe down into a fitful languor before he does, Halaw only looks like an ensemble piece but doesn't behave like one. Working abroad under any conditions, but moreso under these conditions, is a last resort without coordinates. And it is this random and aimless meander to the way Halaw denies its characters any room to bond into a group dynamic, nor milks them for anything more than a passing empathy, and to the way it picks up strands of plot and subplot it doesn't pursue and parses everything in loose ends and half-measures, that nails the interior rhythm of what every OFW goes through, the numbing tedium of waiting under which anxiously simmers threat.

Less than a third of the way in, though, as night falls and the rickety outrigger sets out to sea, Halaw lapses into montage - - - anxious faces, blackened tides, maudlin ballad playing over it all. It's wistful,sure, but not a little at odds tonally and also not a little corny and not a little phony, too. It's a freak burst of weakness and a mere nit I wouldn't have picked if the suspiscion that the film has been cut against its will didn't get more and more persistent after this. If there's anything Halaw needs, it's at least another half-hour to breathe, not to have more room for more things to happen but rather to have more room for more things not to happen. Tedium and threat, right. 

And much as every scene seems determined to acquiesce to this necessary torpor, something curtails it before it gets to do so, cuts it short, hurries it up, hews it to a shape. Its unfortunate English title (Ways of The Sea) may come off like some drab tourism AVP but Halaw does benefit from not having the temperament of your average Cinemalaya film: that would be earnest and cushy and prudent and no coloring outside the lines. And I wouldn't necessarily mind truncation if it didn't have the worrying nag that much of it is done to fold the film into the weary comfort zones of the Cinemalaya house style it's been evading and doing a valiant job of it, too.

But it's the last shot nearly everyone piles on,though - - -the outrigger disappearing into a dark grove and the series of expository title cards telling us nothing, at least nothing the literal translation of the title (deportee) hadn't told us already. It's the loosest of loose ends, all unease and displacement and with the severity of a stump where a hand should be. I have no idea if the Halaw we have is a Faustian bargain struck with the forces that be, right down to the terrible subtitling, all I go by is how tough it is to shake the sense that the ending came out of some reverting back to carte blanche. Not only is it the film's most triumphant moment, aesthetically, but as a singular, damning epitome of the pointlessness in it all, it is also its truest.



Indulge me this bit of narcissism if you will. Below is a cross-publishing of a brief interview Michael Gullen of The Evening Class and Twitch conducted with me via email for a Brocka retrospective held in San Francisco early this year, posted out of how it nails the way I see not only Brocka but Philippine cinema as a whole then but most specially now, and of film writing as well. It's shorter than Michael expected but that only means it's less of a slog, too.

What do you want San Francisco audiences to understand about Filipino cinema?

That it's not all social realism and exoticized poverty. That it is multi-colored and many-flavored and more often than not--especially these days--goes on adventures. And that there's more where all this came from.

What do you want San Francisco audiences to understand about Lino Brocka?

That Brocka made around 65 movies and only around 10 of them have been elevated to the canon. And that the films that didn't make it to the canon--the melodramas, the comedies, the pop films--demand as much investigation, possibly even more, than those that did. Canons are moldy and rigid and play it safe and are no fun at parties anyway. I always thought cinema should be the opposite of all these (especially the part about being fun at parties).

How do you situate yourself within Filipino cinema and Filipino film criticism?

I'm a fan first, a writer second and a critic a distant third. I abandon myself to tone and voice and color, to energy of language and blood in the pulse and the beating to a pulp of all anonymity and objectivity. Cinema is all about wading knee-deep in the mud and getting your feet dirty and sometimes your heart broken. And I always thought film writing--or any kind of writing for that matter--should be as vivid and fervent and as misbehaved and as given over to the moment, not dry like a dissertation. Also, would-be film reviewers should at least know basic grammar. But there should be more film writers, if only to amp the volume of discourse. There are very few of us and the ones that are doing good work--and there are a good number of these already, mind--are either people I know or have met. I want to someday be swept off my feet with awe and envy by a complete stranger's piece. All this, of course, most likely situates me in the margins--which is really where I prefer to be.

If there is one Filipino film that you don't think gets enough attention, what would it be?

A trick question, as there can never be just one. But for now, let me just say that Joey Gosiengfiao's masterpiece is not Temptation Island (1980) as the world seems to think; it's Bomba Star (1980).