Filmmaker Khavn de la Cruz on his always-unpredictable output: “Let life be your co-director”

NME talks to the prolific Filipino auteur ahead of a six-picture retrospective of his work on Upstream

When deliberating the filmmaker Khavn de la Cruz, people often fixate on his sprawling oeuvre. The numbers are ridiculous: 52 features, 151 shorts, and counting – especially since he’s got an ongoing rap opera, a stop-motion feature for children, a riff on the Tasaday hoax, and a bunch of shorts lined up.

The mononymous Khavn is not just a multi-hyphenate but a synergist: a jazz man with a punk spirit, a Beat poet with a classicist heart, a prodigious composer with an ear for both barrio folk and Philip Glass. And in all these disciplines, he’s no dabbler or tourist, refusing to shed what normies dismiss as petty eccentricities: the cyber-punk garb, the stream-of-consciousness voiceovers, the guts and the gore.

The success of his historical piece Balangiga: Howling Wilderness at the FAMAS and Urian – both named it Best Picture in 2018 – is mere cherry. In some ways, it’s belated acknowledgement at home for a dead-serious talent who, over the years, has been making his name elsewhere: Berlin, Rotterdam, Vienna, Tokyo, Edinburgh, Bucheon and Venice.

Luckily for latecomers to the Khavn party, Upstream is mounting a meaty retrospective of six of his films starting April 24. There are three shorts in all their gritty, handheld glory – the Manuel Conde-referencing Juan Tamad Goes To The Moon; the cinéma-vérité slum piece Rugby Boyz; and the absurdist free-association hodge-podge Ruined Heart.

Then three features: the crime thriller Bamboo Dogs, loosely based on the Kuratong Baleleng police scandal of the ’90s; the post-apocalyptic gangster flick Alipato: The Very Brief Life Of An Ember; and the feature version of Ruined Heart, perhaps the most high-profile of the lot with Japanese A-lister Tadanobu Asano in the lead, and frequent Wong Kar-Wai collaborator Christopher Doyle on cinematography.

NME shoots the breeze with Khavn about surrealist comedians, smoking babies, and following Lino Brocka’s white rabbit.

Khavn de la Cruz interview 2021 Bamboo Dogs Balangiga Howling Wilderness
Tadanobu Asano as The Criminal in Khavn’s ‘Ruined Heart’. Credit Christopher Doyle

“There is no avant-garde. Only those who have been left behind,” Richard Tipping wrote in 1993. How do you feel about that in relation to your work?

That’s extremely tragic… On one hand, you think, this fucking-shit-up idea of the avant-garde has been around since the first cave-graffiti artist. But at the same time, it’s still very new – and still very much taboo. Pornographic even.

But I know you’re also someone who enjoys the pop side of things.

Yes, [but the pop mindset] makes me sick. Because even if you really, really like beef steak, for example, you wouldn’t really want to have it for breakfast, lunch, and supper.

The tendency [in popular filmmaking] is to be mediocre, because that’s what’s encouraged: to be palatable and compromised. You won’t hear people say, ‘Aldus, write me the most impossible song’. It’s always about what people will like, especially in film. Audience-pleasing is everything – and the [pop] audience doesn’t even exist for real! They were just created. Well, that’s capitalism for you.

On that note, is your creative freedom a product of not being answerable to people who hold capital? What do you feel affords you that privilege to work out of the box?

I feel it’s about cultural responsibility. Imagine big-time media, corporations, and businesses – especially those that deal with art – investing in cultural literacy. Imagine if they devoted a small portion of their earnings such that kids are able to see, say, the short films of [Jan] Švankmajer, for instance.

Think of it: [comedian] Vic Sotto’s contemporaries in Japan – Takeshi Kitano, say, or Hitoshi Matsumoto, both superstar comedians – are doing out-there films, sometimes even going the surrealist route.

Essentially, what if the powers-that-be…weren’t just into power?

“Filmmaking heals me, but not in a spiritual, New Age way; it completes who I am”

I saw your early stuff in real time – Headless and Greaseman and other things from the early aughts – and they’ve always felt like jazz pieces, built on a molecular riff and the potency of an idea. What attracted you to these things?

My love of free jazz, improvisation, and the small-press discipline of automatic and instamatic writing – they’re all intertwined. It’s that whatever-comes-out, come-what-may spirit. That’s essentially what my ‘strategy’ is.

I remember entering the Gawad CCP [for Alternative Film and Video] when I was much younger, and there were categories in the forms: narrative, animation, documentary and experimental. I was confused which box to tick when filling those out, because in my head, everything I did was an experiment.

Your newer features have a stronger sense of linearity, though. Bamboo Dogs, for instance, employs a basic narrative while maintaining an improvisational spirit.

I have this illusion that whatever I do is new. “Make it new,” as [Ezra Pound] said. In my head, they’re all new, they’re all different, and nothing overlaps – which isn’t true, of course. [laughs]

I mean, you’re bound to repeat chord patterns and things. But rules are meant to be broken. And Bamboo Dogs is an exercise in doing what, I think, I haven’t done before.

It’s also more purposeful, more deliberate. The decision to shoot exclusively at night, and to shoot mostly inside a moving van – it’s because I like obstructions in art. Like Stravinsky said, uhm – well, whatever the fuck he said about limits, man, it applies! [laughs]

Khavn de la Cruz interview 2021 Bamboo Dogs Balangiga Howling Wilderness
Rez Cortez as Korpo in Khavn’s ‘Bamboo Dogs’. Credit: Albert Banzon

You have a reverence for past masters of Filipino film like Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal, who were seen as “alternative” at first because of their decision to tell the stories of the disenfranchised. You’re of a similar bent, at least in favoring the dregs of society. What’s the draw for you?

Are you psychoanalyzing me? [both laugh] But seriously, maybe I just followed the white rabbit. “Oh, that’s where Brocka went!” But I wanted to go further, and so you get something like Mondomanila.

But as for roots, my father grew up poor – and though I didn’t experience the same, I have extreme empathy for that life. My wife often teases me about being a crybaby when it comes to street children. I have buttons, man.

But I never want to be dishonest, and I don’t want to do a disservice to either fantasy or reality by repeating what the others have already done. That’s an affront to Brocka, to the Filipino, to people in general.

If authentic portrayal is a measure of empathy, then Alipato is perhaps most empathetic. And its sense of reality isn’t compromised by the fantastic elements, like the garish characters.

[laughs] Right? Like, what did you think of the smoking baby?

It’s not… that out of this world, if you think about it. [both laugh] It’s beautifully shot ugliness: almost documentary-like in grit, but almost fantastical, too, in its hyperreality.

Maybe that divide [between reality and fantasy] doesn’t exist for me. Sure, the stench gets to me – the chaos, the mess – but beyond those superficial elements, when you undress everyone, we’re all the same meat and bone.

Khavn de la Cruz interview 2021 Bamboo Dogs Balangiga Howling Wilderness
Christopher Doyle and Khavn on the set of ‘Ruined Heart’. Credit: Kamias Overground

Your works vary wildly in production quality by design. The short and feature versions of Ruined Heart are the best examples. The short has a guerilla aesthetic, while the feature – shot by Doyle – is more balletic. What’s your philosophy with regard to that?

In literature, it’s never an issue – that you wrote a piece using an expensive pen, or if you used blood, a cheap ballpoint, or whether you wrote it on scratch paper or papyrus. Unfortunately, in film, the veneer is all-important. It’s a conversation, really, about technology: One was shot using a cheap camera, the other using a more expensive one.

I once overheard my editor telling someone something to the effect that I purposely dirty up images that are already cheap-looking and “ugly” to begin with. But that’s what’s beautiful to me, you know? That, or maybe I’m just tasteless [laughs] – I don’t detect hints of, like, cinnamon in things.

What I’m trying to say, as a quick summation of what I do, is that my work is like pig slops, but special. It’s like looking at e.e. cummings’ paintings and trying to figure out how they’re connected to his poetry.

I’ve always felt that way about your work, though: that you draw the same kind of breath in your writing, music and filmmaking.

Bad breath. [both laugh]

I mean the same cadence, the same pulse.

Yeah, no, I understand. You can map them all together: [his defunct bar] Oracafé, [the] .MOV [digital festival that he organised], or whatever other craziness I was into – even my own children. You can connect the dots, except no coherent image will come out! [laughs]

That’s in my manifesto: to have life as your co-director.

“My work is like pig slops, but special”

You’re a pioneering filmmaker, but I think you’re also someone who wishes to make the medium more accessible, and not this snobbish thing only a few can grasp. Is that accurate?

I’m not as conscious about that as I used to be, but maybe I still believe it. I mean, I do give workshops and all – this coming October in the Czech Republic, this past month in Malaysia – encouraging young filmmakers to make a film a day, and so on.

If Julia Cameron had The Right to Write, to some degree [I was promoting] the right to film. I mean people are doing it nowadays anyway, with phone cameras and all. So, what’s stopping you from, say, shooting your kid doing whatever?

Filmmaking heals me, but not in a spiritual, New Age way; it completes who I am. It gives sense to things that are senseless, though in the end it’s still without reason. It fills the gaps with word, sound, and image. It makes me happy – and why should others be robbed of that chance?

Khavn’s Upstream retrospective starts April 24

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