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Balangiga revisited in film, or Khavn’s ‘intimate epic’ 

October 6, 2017

Managing Editor

Cover Art Erka Capili Inciong

The latest project of acclaimed independent filmmaker Khavn tackles an ancient chapter of Philippine history (that is, more than a century old) which, however, has found resonance in the anti‑American posturing of Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte. Balangiga: Howling Wilderness, Khavn’s 51st full‑length feature, may yet be his first truly epic work, although he describes this work as an “intimate epic,” if genres or categories are in order. To be sure, this is not the first cinematic endeavor on that historic tragedy in the Philippine‑American War—Khavn himself cites earlier works like Joey Gosiengfiao’s Sunugin ang Samar from 1974 and a play by writer‑actor Rody Vera, among others. But from the looks of the Khavn’s production (images courtesy of cinematographer Albert Banzon), this promises to be another riveting experience by the filmmaker. SparkUp recently spoke with Khavn by email about this project.

You’re launching Balangiga: Howling Wilderness on Oct. 19. Why not on the 28th of September, the actual date of that event?

Why not, chocnut? Hindi kaya ng short sked. Katatapos lang ng 10th shooting day nung Sept. 6. Panalo sana kaso hindi aabot. Madugo ang post prod nito: editing, sound design, coloring. Parang triple album. Parang coloring book ng Sistine Chapel. Pwede next year, Sept. 28, 2018, palabas sa Balangiga at iba pang bayan ng Samar, plus Tacloban and the rest of Waray Land. Yung maipapalabas namin sa Oct. 21 sa QCinema International Film Festival sa Trinoma, hindi pa yun final, maski gustuhin namin. Some things just need/take time, parang pagtanda.


Is this your first period piece, apart from tackling chapters of modern history like EDSA and the Marcos era? How did this particular chapter of the Fil‑Am War develop as a fascination in your mind?

Sa features: Edsa XXX is set in 2030, bagamat it utilizes found footage from the 1986 Edsa Revolution, Edsa Dos, etc. Desaparadiso naman ang martial law. Sa shorts, Filipiniana is set in a surreal 19th century plus a bit of pre‑Hispanic and American and Japanese occupations. Karamihan set in the now and the near and far‑future (Dystopia), if not, sinauna / primitive / mythic (The Middle Mystery of Kristo Negro).

May ginawa nga rin pala akong isa pang “period” piece: Bamboo Dogs, tungkol sa Kuratong Baleleng rubout, 1995. Pero early next year pa ang release ng pelikula.

Matagal na akong interesado sa Balangiga Massacre: ang war booty na batingaw at kanyon, ang crossdressing warriors na umatake during Sunday Mass, ang extreme retaliation ni General Jacob Smith and his “kill & burn” order—isa sa pinakainteresanteng bahagi ng masalimuot at makulay nating kasaysayan. Ubod nang dugo. Kadalasan laging talo ang Pinoy, dito nanalo tayo maski isang kabanata lang. Pagkatapos nga lang, talong‑talo, gaping‑gapi. At the end of the day, lahat talo sa digmaan.


What historical sources did you rely on for this project? Were there scholars involved in the research and can we cite them?

Yung panalong libro nina Rolando Borrinaga (The Balangiga Conflict Revisited) and Bob Couttie (Hang the Dogs) ang main sources ko. Both interestingly published by New Day. Dinayo ko pa sa opisina nila. Sulit. Maraming paglilinaw, pagliliwanag.


Did you also dig deeper into the notorious Gen. Jacob Smith (the American military leader who became a symbol of the brutal US retaliation to Filipino resistance in Balangiga), so that you had a more thorough portrait of the man?

I did, though hindi namin nagamit. Ganoon naman talaga sa research, maraming nakakalap, pero marami ring kailangang isantabi. I chose to focus on the emotional core. This film is not about General Smith nor the massacred American troops, not even the balangiganons who killed them. Pinoy common man ang tutok nito. Isang proto‑dysfunctional na pamilya ng mga namatayan–lumilikas mula sa Balangiga patungong Quinapundan. Kadalasan wala tayo sa mga aklat. At best, footnote. Etsa puwera ika nga. Dito sa film kong ito, karaniwang Pinoy experience ang pinagtuunan ko, ano ang epekto ng digmaan, ng pagwawala ng mga Amerikano sa pamilyang Pilipino. The entire American force is represented here by a deafmute soldier with PTSD (post‑traumatic stress disorder).


Who did you cast for that crucial role? Who are the other featured actors in the cast?

Si Henry Strzalkowski ang gumanap sa boses ni Howling Smith (in the body of a mystical Biringan bird). Si Henry ang boses ni Dr. Armstrong sa paboritong Marcos cartoon na Voltes V. Nasa Daimos din siya.

Nagpunta kami ngTacloban and Samar to cast the two main actors: Kulas is played by eight‑year‑old Justine Samson and the grandfather Apoy Buroy is 66‑year‑old Pio del Rio. Both are non‑actors. The toddler Bola is two‑year‑old Warren Tuaño from where we shot, Botolan, Zambales. Also Melchora, the one‑horned carabao that flies, and Salvi, the chicken with blue and gold feathers.

By the way, two of the Waray songs I wrote/composed are sung by Max Surban and Lolita Carbon. With cameos by Lourd de Veyra as a banduria player whose son was killed by the Americans, Rox Lee as a crazy priest, Jun Sabayton as a Samareño who's also fleeing from the Americans.


Since this is for a business‑oriented news site, let me go to the financial aspect of filmmaking. What have been your sources of funding over the years, and whose support did you seek this time for this project?

Hubert Bals Fund of the International Film Festival Rotterdam supported several of my films: The Family That Eats Soul, Mondomanila, Edsa XXX, Desaparadiso, Kommander Kulas, Cameroon Love Letter. Other foreign grants and commissions. Also some German funds via my german co‑producers Stephan Holl and Antoinette Köster of Rapid Eye Movies with whom I did Ruined Heart, Alipato: The Very Brief Life Of An Ember, and Mondomanila, among others. The rest is through my own pockets. Balangiga had a seed money of P1million, a grant from QCinema where the 1st cut / work‑in‑progress will be shown this Oct. 21 at Trinoma. We’re still looking for funds to pay the rest of the film crew, shoot additional scenes, post‑production, etc.


How complicated and costly was it to reenact the destruction that went with the Balangiga episode?

Very. It’s like trying to shoot a (P)100 million project with less than 1% of gas. Thus a supposedly 40‑day shoot became a 10‑day shoot‑and‑run. Buti na lang maraming kaibigang tumulong. Plus local government support from Botolan and the rest of Zambales.

Animals and children ang pinakamahirap idirect sa lahat. Dito, dalawang bata at isang kalabaw ang bida. Sa dinami‑rami ng pelikulang ginawa ko, ito ang pinakamahirap sa lahat. At several points during production, muntik‑muntikan na kaming sumuko. Malupit pa ang klima, ubod nang init, binagyo pa kami, minsan sabay pa ang init at ulan, panahon ng mga nagpapakasal na tikbalang.


Is this project targeted to be viewed at the so‑called mainstream cinemas more than the other films you’ve done?

Yup, nationwide. Mas maraming utak at pusong mawasak, the merrier. Di siya pwedeng maging R‑18 dahil di siya mapapalabas sa SM. Dahil nag‑eexist pa rin ang medieval MTRCB, sa ibang bansa lang mapapalabas ang todowazak uncut version/director’s cut.

Are there renewed efforts to make your past films––like Ruined Heart and Son of God, to cite, offhand, a number of your movies––available to the moviegoing or DVD‑buying public?

Some of my films that had an international DVD release are still available online: Ruined Heart, Mondomanila, Squatterpunk, The Family That Eats Soil, Vampire of Quezon City. A few are in VOD. Naglimited release ako independently ng mga DVD ko years ago kaso simot na. My German co-producer and I are talking right now about a collector’s edition of a hundred of my films (30+ features, 60+ shorts) including the two‑minute Can & Slippers and the 13‑hour Simulacrum Tremendum; from 1994 to the present.


What lessons does this chapter of Philippine history impart to us today, as we face a new expansionism right in our region? Can this qualify as one lesson––that this country often forgets its track record of heroism and resistance?

Lessons one need not learn from watching a movie called Balangiga: the Filipino survives no matter what, kaparis ng kawayan, katulad ng kalabaw, survival is a bitch, war is stupid, learn fast, before your ancestors die, be self‑reliant, be kind, rewind, heroism is overrated, don't resist, persist, visionaries are butchered every day, be a cockroach, when in doubt, fly like a carabao, sting like a blue & gold chicken, carabao’s milk is good for your heart, kill the enemy, kill yourself first, trust, let go, jump, teaching is for martyrs, learning is for the learned, max surban is king, gitik‑gitik is the new black. 


Balangiga: Howling Wilderness will be shown on Oct. 21, 6:30 p.m., at Trinoma, as part of the Quezon City International Film Festival.