Shireen Seno and Artist Film Workshop present: 

The Kalampag Tracking Agency

Neon Parlour, Thornbury
Thursday 17th March, 7pm

Shireen Seno & Merv Espina

Overcoming institutional and personal lapses to give attention to little-seen works—some quite recent, some surviving loss and decomposition—this programme collects loose parts in motion, a series of bangs, or kalampag in Tagalog, assembled by individual strengths and how they might resonate off each other and a contemporary audience. Featuring some of the most striking films and videos from the Philippines and its diaspora, this is an initiative that continues to navigate the uncharted topographies of Filipino alternative and experimental moving image practice.

In our notes for the program regarding how the name came about, we likened the Tagalog word “kalampag" to a rattling sound or a bang, usually used in reference to machines and other mechanical devices such as a car or other moving vehicle. A kalampag implies that the machinery is somehow damaged. Or perhaps it never really ran smoothly. But what is this machinery we speak of?

In 1975, only three years after the declaration of Martial Law in the Philippines, the Marcos regime orchestrated Thrilla in Manila, the legendary boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Ferdinand Marcos wanted the glory that would come from presiding over the bout and saw to it that the necessary funds were made available. Not everything went smoothly. Security was tight because of insurgent political activity and early-morning roadwork conflicted with an overnight military curfew.

But Marcos’s move was brilliant. People all over the world were glued to their seats watching live televised coverage of the fight, made possible by satellite broadcasting.

Ali won, and in his honor, the Philippines built the first multi-level commercial shopping mall, Ali Mall, as a tribute to his victory.

Soon after, another grand illusion in the country was under way: Francis Ford Coppola’s Sisyphian film project, Apocalypse Now. From 1975 to 1977, the film was shot entirely in the Philippines, with its cheap labor and ready access to American military equipment, as an easy stand-in for Vietnam. There were times when shoots would be delayed or cancelled because crew, helicopters, and equipment were sent off to shoot and quell actual rebel insurgents in the south. A war was still being waged in our archipelago after all. The film premiered two years later in Cannes as a “work in progress” and won the Palme D’Or.

Arguably the greatest illusion of the time came in the form of the Manila Film Center, which opened, to much controversy, to serve as main venue of the inaugural Manila International Film Festival on January 18–29, 1982. It was originally designed to be a one-stop shop for anything film-related, including a film archiving facility, with UNESCO as consultant in its design. But because of the controversies surrounding it, the Manila Film Center was never fully utilized. The Philippines only had a National Film Archive, effectively, by October 2011.

To certain generations of Filipinos, the Manila Film Center, widely claimed to be haunted, is the stuff of legend. And as legend has it, construction of the building started in early 1981 and had just a year to be finished to meet the deadline: the January 1982 opening of the Manila International Film Festival. This required around 4000 laborers to work three shifts across 24 hours. In November 1981, heavy rains caused the scaffolding to collapse, killing 169 workers, who, in Imelda Marcos’ hurried attempt to finish the construction of the building, were instantly buried under quick-drying wet cement.

These grand gestures were sleight of hand tactics, an attempt to show the world that the banana republic of the Philippines was a cultural mecca. As all this was happening, atrocities were happening left and right: an all-out war on Muslim and communist insurgencies, and some of the brightest and most critical artists, students and activists disappeared without a trace.

For this program, we wanted a body of works that rattled the system at least for a brief moment in time. Many screening programs and curatorial projects are based on themes. The Kalampag Tracking Agency aims to be functional as well; it treats the screening program as a method, an ongoing process of investigation and a means to not just promote these works, but more importantly, to preserve them as well.

We use the opportunities provided by festivals, archives, museums, art spaces and other platforms that have invited the screening program to access equipment that we don’t have in the Philippines. In this way, we have been able to make newer and better transfers of several works. Each screening is slightly different, as there are always slight improvements here and there. 

The first times we screened the program, at the University of the Philippines Film Institute and Green Papaya Art Projects, were important discursive platforms. Several generations of artists and filmmakers attended and exchanged ideas, talking history, aesthetics and process. For the older works especially, these were rare opportunities to illuminate actual histories. Simple things people take for granted, such as date or medium and other such clerical errors, were pointed out. These details are important and would have otherwise gone unnoticed for such errors have been published and republished in what little actual documentation they were mentioned in.

The founding of Mowelfund (short for Movie Workers Welfare Foundation) in 1974 and the University of the Philippines Film Center in 1976 did help sustain and distance independent cinema from the mainstream film industry, but there has been a continued lack of a decent archive. The National Film Archive was only established in 2011, several decades too late. Groundbreaking works have literally turned into vinegar and dust. Only a small fraction remains and is barely accessible.

Mowelfund, Philippine Information Agency, and Goethe Institut Manila’s highly influential jointly-organized film workshops in the 1980s helped incubate the likes of Lav Diaz, Raymond Red, Roxlee, and many others. We have several works from this period, particularly from German filmmaker Christoph Janetzko’s optical printing workshops conducted between 1989 and 1990: Kalawang (Rust), Bugtong: Ang Sigaw Ng Lalake (Riddle: The Shout of Man), and Minsan Isang Panahon (Once Upon a Time). Some of the material used for these works were reportedly sourced from a trash dump half submerged in a creek outside one of the major film studios.

Using the debris of the commercial industry and turning it into art is a recurring process in the program. Tito & Tita’s Class Picture was shot on expired rolls and short ends that would have been otherwise been destined for the trash bin. In Chop-chopped First Lady + Chop-Chopped First Daughter, Yason Banal melds Youtube and crass cinema through split screen, combining newsreel film footage of the failed assassination attempt on the life of then First Lady Imelda Marcos as captured and broadcast live on television in 1972 and juxtaposing it with footage from a gory 1974 popular film top-billed by Kris Aquino, the First Daughter to Marcos’ successor, Cory Aquino.

Roxlee’s crude yet compelling techniques—hand-drawn animation, painting on film, found footage, and collage, make for a witty, powerful new take on the alphabet in ABCD. Raya Martin’s minute-long Ars Colonia, shot on Hi8, blown up to 35mm and hand-colored, then with screening copies in both 35mm and HD video, utilizes generation loss and data migration, adding new layers of texture and meaning from each conversion, a subtle parody on the unrelenting beauty of the colonial master and his image.

The program also showcases documentary as essay, parody, diary, experiment and critique. A ghostly absurd white figure crawls across the city/screen in Roxlee’s Juan Gapang, a performative document of Manila, culminating at the Manila Film Center itself and the famed Manila Bay sunset. Martha Atienza’s Anito is a highly stylized document of the already quite exotic folk festival in the artists hometown in Bantayan Island, Cebu, indulging yet at the same time questioning viewer’s expectations. Miko Revereza’s DROGA! takes the other end of the exotic, documenting the Los Angeles cityscape and the lives of the artists’ family and other Filipino immigrants, and creating new intersections of American pop culture and Filipino traditions. Tad Ermitaño’s The Retrochronological Transfer of Information was simultaneously a conceptual experiment and an elaborate joke whose process and output questioned causality, fact, and objectivity in the traditional notions of science and history. Then there’s the crude and yet deceptively simple documentation in John Torres’ Very Specific Things at Night and Jon Lazam’s hindi sa atin nag buwan (the moon is not ours), where humor, emotion and a sense of wonder is exercised in form and editing, yet also strongly suggesting the power of the title as essential text and map to chart the cartographies of these abstract and poetic works. 

It’s important to note that the works of Tito & Tita, Yason Banal, and Martha Atienza have also appeared as installations in commercial art galleries and related spaces, perhaps indicating a fluidity of form and exhibition in current practice, as opposed to the older works in the program that were intentionally designed solely for the cinema. 

Unfortunately, there is still a preferred bias for length, for bigger bangs and grander statements, and more attention for the film as akin to the novel or epic over the film as short story or poem. This is why no one knows where films showcased in Manila’s first National Festival of Short Films in 1964 can be found, yet we still have feature films from this period. But before asking how these small, eccentric bangs of moving image practice can challenge the dominance of popular cinema and the national narrative, we have to investigate, preserve and circulate them first. Only then can we re-draw the map and see how these works contribute to a larger critical discourse.

The Kalampag Tracking Agency is an ongoing initiative and screening program exploring alternative notions/visions in moving image practice from the Philippines. Many of the works only exist as memories, rumors, and text on forgotten catalogs and manuscripts, even those as recent as five years ago. Perhaps the moving image can in fact bear witness to the instability/precarity of our times, challenging the very structures and dynamics that constitute these works with its audience, whose various acts of witnessing, participation and remembrance is key—and for some works, could now only be its only form of existence. 

Published in Arkipel: Grand Illusion festival catalog, 2015

The Kalampag Tracking Agency: Programme Notes - PDF