Wonder, wander – No. 2: Meandering, uncertain, predestined
Conversations from this year’s Spring Sessions
Tents in a Bedouin-style camp at the Wadi Rum desert in southern Jordan - Courtesy: Soraya Ghezelbash

Between April 26 and 30,  Jordanian curator Noura Al Khasawneh had very little phone service. She was hiking — with a group of approximately 30 international artists, including myself — from Dana, Jordan’s largest nature reserve, to Petra, and camping in the desert along the way. The hike was part of Spring Sessions, the five-year-old arts residency that Khasawneh co-directs with fellow Jordanian curator Toleen Touq, usually as a 100-day, Amman-based program. This year, however, they decided to move Spring Sessions out of the city. For 45 days, we walked from the tip of Jordan in the north to Aqaba in the south, before crossing over by ferry into Egypt’s Sinai for the final stretch. On the way, participating artists took turns giving presentations, conducting readings and facilitating workshops for the group.

Since we occasionally stayed in farms and Bedouin-style campsites on the way, it was common for our calls and emails to stop coming through — connection was particularly poor on that Dana-to-Petra hike. In general, Khasawneh delighted in the disconnection; very often, she had no idea where her phone was. But on that late April hike, Khasawneh was a little nervous. Kidlat Tahimik, a 75-year-old film director from the northern Philippines, commonly referred to as the “godfather” of Filipino new wave cinema, was flying in to Jordan for Spring Sessions, and she wanted to make sure she was reachable should he face trouble at the airport. But she was also visibly excited. When she screened Tahimik’s debut film, the 1977 sensation Perfumed Nightmare, during last year’s edition of Spring Sessions, she had become spellbound. Tahimik had to come to Spring Sessions, she resolved. For months, she determinedly pulled every trick in the book to get in touch with the director and bring him to the residency.

The first time I heard about the plan for this year’s Spring Sessions, I was walking with Khasawneh in downtown Cairo — in December 2017 — after a talk at the Contemporary Image Collective. She told me she was thinking of traveling by foot, with this year’s participants, across the length of Jordan before crossing to Sinai. I had so many questions: Was it safe? Was the route planned out? What permissions would they need to get? Her face illuminated by the neon storefronts on Talaat Harb street, Khasawneh waved off my queries. “I don’t know exactly how we’re going to do it, but I know it can be done,” she said. It is common for Khasawneh — who also directs the Mohammad and Mahera Abu Ghazaleh Foundation (MMAG) in Amman, and is at work establishing the Central Amman Library — to come up with seemingly impossible ideas, and to mobilize as many forces as possible to have them materialize somehow.  During the 2017 edition of the residency, she convinced the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts to remain open for 24 hours so that the participants could present their projects to Amman’s residents. “In a way, getting these projects done is my art practice,” she told me.

When Tahimik joined us — accompanied by his son, Kawayan de Guia — we had just finished that five-day Dana-to-Petra hike and arrived in Wadi Musa, the town nearest to Petra. We were spending the night at the Valentine Inn, an unabashedly baby-pink building with a mint-green staircase spiralling up its facade. Inside, the walls (and ceiling) were submerged in Valentine’s Day paraphernalia. Silver strands of hair and dreadlocks flowing down over his oversized green and purple jacket, Tahimik pulled out his camera right away, greeting an enchantingly starstruck Khasawneh with the camera in his palm. Looking both disoriented and animated, he filmed the feast of grilled meats and salads we had descended upon, the dance party that followed and the kitschy interiors of the inn.

After completing a five-day hike from the Dana Biosphere Reserve to Little Petra, Spring Sessions participants arrive at the Valentine Inn in Wadi Musa - Courtesy: Sara Elkamel

After a windy morning visiting Petra, we took two buses to Wadi Rum, a patch of desert so phantasmagoric it stood in for Mars in various movies, most recently of which was Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015). The four days we spent in Wadi Rum formed the bulk of Tahimik’s Spring Sessions experience. Barring the first night we were in the desert, we spent every evening watching his films, followed by extended Q&A sessions. To set up a makeshift cinema, we draped a cloth down one of the sandstone arches surrounding the camp we were staying at, and rented a sound system from Amman. These film nights kicked off with Perfumed Nightmare, in which Tahimik stars as Kidlat, a Filipino village boy who drives a leftover US military jeep, or “jeepney,” listens religiously to Voice of America and heads the Wernher von Braun fan club. Kidlat’s dreams of making it in the “New World” — and becoming an astronaut — are slowly wrecked by encounters he has on trips to Paris and Munich. Critics have described the film, which blends together elements of documentary and fantasy, as a landmark of independent cinema. Running through all the films we watched, which included Memories of Overdevelopment (1984) and Why is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow? (1994) is a critique of hegemonic colonial narratives, and an assertion of localized truths and personal stories.

From the surreal stint in Wadi Rum, we moved on to our last Jordan stop, the port city of Aqaba. On the first of our two nights there, we had dinner at Formosa, a Chinese restaurant run by a Jordanian-Taiwanese couple that was described emphatically by almost all of the Jordanians in our group as the best Chinese restaurant in the country. We took over the restaurant’s entire top floor and balcony, which had a view of the Aqaba Gateway, the eerie, near-deserted open-air shopping and dining complex where Formosa is located. After the meal — which did not disappoint — a few people from our group discovered the karaoke machine, and proceeded to belt out the classics: Michael Jackson, ABBA, Britney Spears and more.

Tahimik, Khasawneh and I found an empty room in the back, and, enclosed by its wooden walls, sat down for a conversation. There was a fan on, but it seemed to be doing nothing but swirling the humid night air around, leaving beads of sweat on all our foreheads.  

With the intention of capturing a fraction of the verbal exchange that has happened over the course of the residency, Mada Masr is publishing three conversations that took place on the walk, of which the conversation that follows, among Khasawneh, Tahimik and myself, is the second. You can read the first one here and the third here.

Sara Elkamel: Kidlat, what was one moment that really stood out for you  in the past few days in Wadi Rum?

Kidlat Tahimik: Well, the extremes of the landscape provoked all kinds of feelings. I remember when I went on that morning walk with [photographer] Fouad [Elkoury], [Mada Masr copyeditor] Habiba [Effat], and [artist] Nicolas [Austin Legros].

Noura Al Khasawneh: Oh, yes! The walk of the two oldest and the two youngest in the group. How was that?

KT: When we started, it was 10 am. Sometimes your conservative side says hey, we’re going into noontime, that means we’re going to be walking back at noon. But at the end you say, I just want to take that challenge. So we did leave at about 10 am, and we were on our way back at about 11.30 am. When we were about halfway back — I think we did about a 5 km hike — I was getting thirsty. But I told myself, I have a bottle here, but I’ll see if I can stretch myself all the way to the camp. And I did it.  So I think if I’m ever caught in the desert, stranded, I would be able to stretch my little canteen of water until I find my oasis.

Also, the exotica of the desert is so seductive. My other experience of extremes was being on a glacier in Norway. Again, it felt like I was the first tropical animal on that glacier. And crossing a desert at my age: that’s something I can brag about. I will have bragging rights among my fellow senior citizens.

NK: I still can’t believe you came all the way from the Philippines.

SEK:  Kidlat, I remember you saying that the Spring Sessions concept note mesmerized you, and in a way called you here.

KT: Yes. To start with, the visual presentation was so interesting — those Tarot cards with every little grain of earth behind them.

NK: I went to meet [Spring Sessions co-founder] Toleen [Touq] in Mexico to work on this project. She lives in Toronto now, so we decided that since I’m going to have to cross the Atlantic whenever we meet, I’d rather just go to a different place every time. [F.T.Kola], a friend of mine, who’s a writer and a Tarot card reader, joined us in Mexico. She was giving us Tarot card readings, and we thought we should do another reading for the walk, and that turned into our concept note. We were just joking around, but what came out of that was such a beautiful text, we had to use it.

One of the images created for the Spring Sessions 2018 open call - Courtesy: Melika Quteishat and Hussam Hasan

KT:  The text was so appropriate. I was just finishing this film about lakaran. Lakaran is this concept of traveling from point A to point B, but the experience itself goes far beyond the physical relocation. Our Filipino revolutionaries, who were fighting for independence [from the Spanish] in 1897 and 1898, had this concept of lakaran, which is to walk across the land, from here to there, but the destination was a secondary concern. The primary idea was that they would reach some kind of enlightenment. An “aha” moment, some liwanag, or light. There would be some form of enlightenment during their pilgrimage. So when I was reading the Spring Sessions text, I thought, wow, this is a continuation of the film I was just making. I could feel your vibes stretching out across the ocean. And I haven’t regretted a single second of it.

NK: The other funny thing about the desert is that we’ve only been in Aqaba for a few hours and it feels radically different, doesn’t it? I feel like when I was in Wadi Rum, I forgot about certain aspects of the way I behave in my normal routine. And suddenly I’m just back to being myself, or my other self. It’s strange.

KT: Yes, it’s interesting. Today, at the hotel, the conversations were very different. You suddenly hear people talking about tax-free beer and getting this or that thing, or going to the Chinese market. I mean, that’s part of our daily life anyway. But when we were in Wadi Rum, because there was no possibility, nobody talked about these things. Everything was on the interactive side, and the artistic spirit was floating around. People were playing ping-pong at a different level.

NK: I also think that the heat added to it. We were lying down most of the time there, and it was a completely different way of interacting with each other. I think everyone was waiting for that moment, around 5 pm, when the sun would start to set and we could go on these stunning walks. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Kidlat Tahimik taking a daytime break in the main hut at the campsite in Wadi Rum - Courtesy: Kari Rosenfeld

KT: On these evening walks, I remember we had no sense of when it was going to get dark. You walk far enough and just hope that you haven’t walked too far.

SEK: Noura, I’m really curious why you first fell in love with Kidlat’s films.

NK: I think I had received some kind of newsletter, and in it was a short review of Perfumed Nightmare. It sounded particularly dreamy, so I spent a few nights trying to find it. On the last day of Spring Sessions last year, I felt I had to watch it before the program ended, otherwise I would get busy with other things. So we were hosting a closing exhibition at the [Jordan] National Gallery [of Fine Arts], and I had found a pirated copy, which I screened there. I think I sent you an email that day to get your permission, but I didn’t hear back from you, so I did it anyway.

KT: I must have said yes, even if I didn’t respond to the email, because saying yes would be a prelude to me coming this year.

NK: Exactly. So we watched it, and I remember everyone falling in love with it. A few of the participants from this year were there too. In many ways, its topics are relevant to my broader interests. And there’s an element that’s extremely imaginative, and surreal. I think you insert your personal history in a way that’s very comforting.

KT: I think there’s no other way that I could talk about history. I mean, I’m not a very cerebral person. My oldest son and I always have this argument. Because he thinks I’m an intellectual, and I always deny it. I don’t read, or I read very little, so I have to rely on my personal experiences. And that’s where the personal aspect of interpreting Filipino history, for example, or interpreting that first circumnavigation of the globe, comes in.

NK: I feel like this goes back to the conversation we were having [in Wadi Rum] about working from a hyper-local context, and not necessarily relying on academic documents. There’s something about your films that makes them not come off as anthropological. And I think it’s very rare to watch a film that deals with something from such a hyper-local perspective that doesn’t come across as didactically anthropological in any way. They feel like, as you said, films based on personal experience.

KT: Yeah, it’s storytelling, and you surrender to the storyteller. Because they’re not telling you what you’d expect to hear. [In the film,] Kidlat just rambles, and sometimes he gets redundant, but the narrative’s concentric circles sometimes give you an even clearer picture than what something very academic would offer.

Spring Sessions participants team up with Bedouins managing the campsite to set up a makeshift cinema in Wadi Rum - Courtesy: Habiba Effat

NK: It’s because you’re dealing with the context that you come from, the context that feels most comfortable to you. It’s obvious that the starting point is your own experiences. I think that’s what attracted me to your work in the first place. And there’s something really liberating about that, for me at least, because you’re not trying to hide this spontaneous aspect of how all your films come about. It’s clearly not based on a formula, or a specific process.

The other thing about this experience of having you here, and this may sound a bit voyeuristic, but it’s always amazing for me to be around 20 people who are all working on their own projects, and to learn from their individual creative processes — it’s basically why I do this program.

And it’s funny to see all the different types of conversations that each person had with you. I was just talking to [artist] Soraya [Ghezelbash] outside. She said she asked you about your children playing roles in your films. And she just told me: “To me, watching Kidlat and his son here, was like a prophecy.” She looked really serious about it. And I’ve known her for years, but I didn’t know this: It turns out that her father, who was Iranian, was a filmmaker, and he lived in South Korea for a long time, where she lived as a child. He passed away last year, but she said that, for years, he had tried to convince her and her brothers to be in his films, and they had refused.

KT: Ah, her father was a filmmaker? She didn’t tell me that.

NK: Yes. So I think for her, because he passed away last year, she felt that there was something amazing about being here and seeing a filmmaker and his son together, having a father-son relationship but also collaborating and being involved in each other’s work. She’s now decided to go to Iran, dig up the films, and watch them for the first time. So it was nice to see how each person took different aspects of your films and concentrated on them.

KT: Wow. All these levels. And maybe that was amplified by the desert. If we were in a city, people would still be doing other things. It’s like the great writers who wrote their masterpieces because they went to prison — but what a nice prison Wadi Rum was.

NK: I also think there’s something very generous in having us be part of your work. I mean, the reason I enjoyed watching Perfumed Nightmare so much the first time was because I felt liberated by it. You really allow yourself to not be restricted by specific rules of filmmaking.

KT:  Well, I think that freedom you’re talking about involves a certain audacity, and I don’t know exactly where that came from. But it’s like: So what if my sound is not in sync? So what if the lips are saying something else and I want to feed a new line to the sequence? And I think that when you go to film school, you’re taught to fear any critique – like hey, that button on [Portuguese explorer Ferdinand] Magellan’s shirt did not exist in those days. Or, someone could say hey, that sea doesn’t look like a real ocean. You’re always afraid of people nitpicking because that’s how the commercial film industry is set up. People love to attack any small thing they can find in a big production. It’s like trying to shoot down a big bomb with a slingshot. So I think when people watch a film where everything is off-track, all the rules are broken, the lighting isn’t so good, and sometimes it’s out of focus, the combination makes it so out of this planet that people have to take the film seriously. I think that’s what happened to Perfumed Nightmare.

In that writing exercise we did yesterday, I wrote something like: “I wish I could go back to before I learned how to read and write, and before I learned how to shoot and edit.” I wish there was a way to preserve my innocence. But that innocence I had with my first film, I can never have that again. Once you’ve shot and edited a film, the next time you shoot and edit, you’re different.

NK: How did you first get into filmmaking?

KT: I originally wanted to become a playwright. I wanted to break out of my economist job and to make a little sabbatical money, so I could spend two years writing my first play. And the only way I could quickly make some money was to go to the [1972] Munich Olympics, and sell my own version of the Olympic dachshund dog, which was the official mascot at the time. So I made thousands of dogs, out of a translucent shell called capiz, and that got me to Munich. But because of the Olympic hostage crisis, I couldn’t sell all my dogs. So instead of selling the 25,000 dogs, which would have given me the profits I needed to spend two years writing my play, I was stuck with 8,000 extra dogs. And because of that, I got stuck in a commune in Germany. I started from zero, from minus zero even. But I met my wife at the commune, eventually had my son, and then I met a student filmmaker, and that’s how I got into filmmaking. And that filmmaker also had a teacher, Werner Herzog, who got me into his film, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. What was important was that I got my foot in the door with a crazy, audacious and independent filmmaker like Herzog, who gave me some valuable spiritual lessons.

NK: Did you continue to work with Herzog?

KT: The only time I worked with him was in the Kaspar Hauser film. You know, when I was leaving Germany to go back to the Philippines, Werner gave me his blessings. He said, and those were his words: “Ah, Kidlat, you can never be a good Bavarian filmmaker.” And the message was just: Be your own filmmaker self. Which is what I’ve tried to communicate to young artists in the Philippines since then. I’ve been talking about your inner compass, or your duende. If your duende is rooted in a rich culture, why would you try to throw yourself into Hollywood culture or Bavarian culture? You can only ever be a second-class citizen, or a second-class creator, if you try to imitate their cultural products. You will never be the same. Werner said this to me before I went back home. At first I thought he was telling me I’m not a good filmmaker, but then I realized he was giving me a gentle kick in the butt that would probably spin off in the direction I wanted.

SEK: You’ve mentioned the duende a few times since we met. Can you talk a little more about it?

KT: For lack of a better word, it’s the you-ness, the unique you that comes out in your artwork — whether it’s a painting or a novel, or a film. It’s your unique perception of the world. That’s what I’m really referring to when I talk about your duende. It’s not some kind of Harry Potter type of thing, when you say some magic words and suddenly poof, some smoke comes out. I think it just means that when you or I look at the same event or the same situation, our frames are different. It comes from your childhood, and your cultural filters. If your father is a military fascist, and he says: 2 + 2 is not 5, or, alternatively, your father says, maybe 2 + 2 is, I don’t know, let’s see how it goes — these unique child-rearing practices already determine what you choose to crop out or crop in when you’re observing or framing life. Your cultural filters also form another level of uniqueness. So, when you write your play or your script or make your painting, only you could have done it.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The title of this piece, “Meandering, uncertain, predestined,” comes from an unpublished essay by Rheim Alkadhi, titled “Trans Land, a Duration.”

Sara Elkamel 

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