Khavn de la Cruz is an artist with an output that is singular in its fecundity, a prolix daily output that is off the charts. Musician, poet, writer, filmmaker, Cruz is, however most well-known as “the father of Philippine digital filmmaking.” Pamela Cohn sat down with Cruz in Prizren, Kosova to discuss his prodigious output.
According to the Philippine artist Khavn de la Cruz, there are “divine intersections” everywhere you look. I believe my encounter with him in early August to have been just that; I was inspired and refreshed in his presence. I found Khavn de la Cruz to be a frank, open, bright young man who laughs easily and often. He is also an artist with an output that is singular in its fecundity, a prolix daily output that is off the charts. Musician, poet, writer, filmmaker, Cruz is known as “the father of Philippine digital filmmaking.” He’s made twenty-eight features (and growing), including Son of God, which recently premiered in Copenhagen, and more than a hundred short films, many of which have received prizes in international competitions. As if all this weren’t enough, Khavn de la Cruz is also an acclaimed composer, songwriter, singer and pianist, having produced several albums (sometimes an entire album in one day) with his band Vigo in addition to staging several rock operas at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. The Isola International Film Festival in Slovenia just showed his film Cameroon Love Letter (for Solo Piano), accompanied by a live musical performance, and in early November, he will conduct a film workshop in Sarajevo at the Pravo Ljudski Human Rights Film Festival. He is working on his “craziest, biggest film to date,” Mondomanila, and completing his fourth book of poetry, entitled Shockbox.
I met de la Cruz at the Dokufest International Documentary and Short Film Festival in Prizren, Kosova, which featured a program of de la Cruz’ short film works, and where we were both in attendance as members of various competition juries. Our conversation took place in an outdoor café on a very noisy, narrow backstreet of Prizren. The Manila-based artist was completely at home among the chaotic sounds of screaming children, idling cars and motorbikes, loud boisterous conversations and thumping disco music pouring out of every doorway. Though he sat still for the entirety of our talk, I had noticed over the course of the week that de la Cruz had a very odd habit of literally jumping up from his seat as if an electric bolt had gone through his body and taking off down the street at a fast walk, his peripatetic muse caught by a flash of color, an interesting scent, or some other high-frequency sensation that shifted his inner compass and commanded him to follow it immediately. He was gone, seen suddenly in the middle distance before you knew what was happening. Quite strange, but, like the man himself, delightful and charming.
PC: The intense proliferation of your work is staggering. I come from a world where it takes some filmmakers several years to finish one film. You come at your work in such an intensely focused, obsessive, unfiltered way of working that precludes any exterior obstacles or interference.
KDLC: If I came at work in a more structured, commercial, strategic way, I don’t think I would have made the films that I’ve made. It is intuitive. I make music, too, but I really came to my voice through writing poetry, writing every day—one or two poems, or sometimes, several. I was definitely more prolific in that than in cinema. In cinema, I’ve tried to apply that creative momentum. There are a bunch of independent Philippine filmmakers who were quite big in the 80s, who created an underground movement in Manila. But, ultimately, whether their goal was to make a feature film or some bigger commercial project, they never did. Something blocked them. And I attribute that to this idea of momentum. If you stop, somehow it’s hard to start up again. In a way, Woody Allen practices this type of momentum by doing one feature a year.
PC: He’s also a filmmaker who’s faithful to his own personal rhythm, or perhaps he can realize what’s possible with the resources he’s able to gather together in a year’s time to do another movie.
KDLC: Yes, you also might arrive at this rhythm because external forces are making it possible. But I believe that if there’s this “unfiltered” energy, as you put it, a filmmaker can shoot every day. That’s why I’m a bit lazy when I travel to festivals. I don’t bring a camera with me because if I have my camera with me, it’s automatic that I’ll start to shoot and make something. There’s a risk of not doing anything else. One of my idols is Rumi, a Sufi poet. He stopped writing down his poetry at a certain point; he just spoke it and someone else wrote it down because he couldn’t keep up with his own creative flood. I’m very impressed with that kind of energy flow.
PC: Can you explain what you’re reacting to in the environment in which you work? You make everything where you live.
KDLC: My father is sort of against the idea of travel. When I was young, I wanted to go places, “find myself” and all that, you know? But he told me that I didn’t have to go anywhere. He told me that I could just go deep right in my own little space, right where I was. I still ended up moving around but learned to use my given surroundings in my filmmaking. Half of my films were shot in one neighborhood but you’d never know that. My cinema is also a reaction to most mainstream movies made in the Philippines that are very much influenced by Hollywood, and a reaction to Hollywood itself, which dominates most movie screens there.
I have this manifesto called Day Old Flicks. It’s coined after “one-day-old chicks,” which is a type of Philippine street food. [These are, literally, one-day-old male chicks eaten whole, bones and all, batter-fried and dipped in red chili sauce.] I’ve made feature films in a day. Shooting a short film over the course of several days is a luxury for me.
PC: This must make for a very interesting personal relationship with time.
KDLC: Yes, certainly. One of the things that is always a concern is how to cut costs. The longer it takes to make a film, the more expensive it is. It has to do with energy, too. Like improvisational music played on the piano: you have this moment to create something right then and there, you just follow the beat. It’s the idea of “best thought, first thought.” The best take is the first take. All the “mistakes” ultimately become part of the piece, the set design. You allow the world into your films. I might want to make a certain film, but then, let’s say, you have these blue chairs [pointing to the ones we’re sitting on]; you have an actor that acts in a certain way and, for better or for worse, that’s your lead actor. You have to deal with it. You have to incorporate everything, the bad and the good. It becomes a collaboration with life, this type of filmmaking. You end up making this “other” film. If you attempted to create that script, you would not be able to do it.
PC: There are pieces you work on solo and then there are pieces where you have a full crew working with you. How does that collaboration play out when you’re working with other people, a particular group helping you to realize a certain vision you have?
KDLC: These people have the same energy as I do, and bring that to the work. It’s definitely all about the alchemy. Each soul in the crew and the cast should connect in some way, as I said before, for better or for worse. Of course, if it’s for the worse, I don’t work with that person anymore [laughing]. But what comes out, I value. In a way, I let my collaborators be. I’ve been working with the same cinematographer and editor for about five or six years. It’s a matter of trust. That’s why I brought them in in the first place. You can’t help but just learn from mistakes and you don’t know if people are trustworthy until you work together, so that’s necessary. When your life develops, your art develops. You can’t separate one from the other.
I once was making a parody on a Hollywood action movie and the hero, the main protagonist, backed out after one day of shooting. There was the option of scrapping everything and starting again, getting another lead actor to replace him. So I did that. But I cast seven different actors to play the same character—all wearing the same outfit. I wanted to make a comment on the “thousand faces of a hero.”
This is the prerogative of cinema, versus, let’s say, writing. Literature, on paper, is static; it lives there like that forever. But cinema cannot be limited to the screenplay or to the actual production, the shooting and everything else that happens. That’s what makes the film.
PC: And when there’s an expensive apparatus engulfing you as a director? What happens then when there’s very little room for “experimentation”?
KDLC: I worked with a really large cast and crew for one of my first short films, a very expensive endeavor. After that, I decided to make films differently—not with less quality, but definitely cheaper. A more expensive piece doesn’t mean it’s better. I remember trying to practice “real” filmmaking, the usual way people do it? I fell flat on my face and my pockets were full of holes. As I said before, I really rely more on the alchemy, and if the project fails, at least you can fail proudly. Even if I make a no-budget film, there is still some kind of budget—people have to eat, some props need to be bought. But each element is properly valued. And, of course, this valuing becomes multiplied when the budget grows, especially the money that comes from my own pockets. Filmmaking is crisis management most of the time so you do value each moment that works.
PC: And the volume of work you put out—does this feel like a choice, or is it more of a compulsion?
KDLC: Most of the time it doesn’t really feel like a choice, or a conscious decision. I started making more than one feature film a year starting in 2004. At the beginning of every year when I’m in Rotterdam, I say to my friends that I’m just going to make one film that year. And it is because I really want to do other things—an album, other books. But yeah, I end up having a bunch. This year, I might be successful, I don’t know. . . . Actually, I’ve done two features already.
PC: Oh, well, you’ve already failed then… (laughter)
KDLC: I am trying very hard to limit it. Since I have a bunch of new features that I started making last year, I’ll have films to put out through next year. I don’t know how many poems I’ve written, how many songs I’ve done. When I came to filmmaking, the impulse was to be as prolific as I am in other ways. It feels like I’m about to reach my saturation point. That happened with literature. As I said, I was writing a bunch of poems every day and some of those became songs. Sometimes, I would write an album in a day. And now I’m churning out films. I never really stop writing or composing songs, but it reaches a point where it does become compulsive in the way in which I have a need to keep the chest very full or overflowing, making the most of my “artist’s life.” You never know when you will expire. You have to try to say what you want to say when you have the chance.
PC: And your relationship to those that consume your work, pay attention to it? You have some notoriety, a good deal of critical acclaim. Artistic directors all over the world want to show your work at their festivals.
KDLC: I consider it a dialogue, one I’m actively engaged in. I do know artists who choose to be recluses and they’re happy with that. I have no problems or issues with the public perception or reaction to my work. The point is, I do my own shit, and other people do their own stuff. Each of us is a piece of the puzzle. Not everyone should make blue chairs. There should be someone to sit on them; someone might want to eat them. Each has its own function to make this world a more colorful place.
PC: What I know of Manila, I know from the movies—what it looks and sounds like, at least. I’ve never been there. Maybe this is a vapid question, but would you be a different filmmaker if you lived or worked somewhere else?
KDLC: Yes, probably. It’s like some plants, you know, or some animals, some cockroaches, that might adapt, or might die when their environment changes. That’s a “what if” question—I really don’t know. I only can guess about what I would have become if I had lived in a different culture, been brought up in a different family. I’m very much a product of my surroundings, my history.
I’ve also done a few films outside Manila, but only just because I happen to be there. Those times when I wasn’t lazy and did something. Or I’ve been forced to do it (laughter). I do rely a lot on external imperative. It’s great to have an internal imperative and want to do certain things—your soul will die if you don’t do those things, perhaps. But external imperatives like deadlines for commissioned work are essential to grow as an artist, I think. In some way, it unleashes dormant ideas or impulses. My first writing was done as an exercise in class—compare writing poetry to flying a kite. I would never have done that, thinking it was stupid or mundane. I wrote that assignment because I was a student and the teacher told us to do it. After I wrote it, the teacher was very pleased, and the editor of the university journal was very pleased, so I became a poet. Okay, now I’m a poet! I must write more poems! (laughter)
It’s like a tap on the shoulder. It is encouraging. It gives you a foundation of confidence, which, maybe, helps you go through all the blocks, the negativity, along the way. You’re able to get the job done. There are many schools of thought. One is, “You either have it or you don’t.” I also believe, though, that anyone is capable of being an artist, or of expressing a passion in an artistic way.
PC: What stops people, do you think? Can we really be a world of artists? Would that work? Why aren’t we all making art, every day?
KDLC: Well, it’s valid if you’re just not into that. But also, I think a lot of people are just discouraged. Maybe it was just a bite that set them back and that was enough. Or maybe it was a real bulldozer. But whatever it was, it was enough to discourage them. I just met a friend here in Kosova who was discouraged to become a painter because her father bought her a canvas. That might seem like encouragement, but she interpreted it as pressure, something negative. Fuck painting! Even though now she realizes, she really loves painting. It’s tricky. When I started playing music, my teacher told me I had talent. I thought that was bullshit and that he said that to every student to make them practice more. And it was kind of drudgery, the daily practice and all, until the day I was really inspired to be a musician. And it wasn’t based on his praise or encouragement. I think it stemmed from envy. A high school classmate of mine got an award in a music competition. That was it. I was playing music, day in and day out, like crazy.
I always have a really long list of things to do, before I die. And the list changes all the time. And some things remain. It keeps me going. When I was deep into writing poetry, I was impressed by Neruda. He wrote until the day he died in his own Isla Negra. Maybe that’s the kind of life for me with music and cinema, maybe something else.
(Cruz excuses himself to take a call about jury deliberations, the decisions to be presented later that evening.)
PC: I’ve just recently started to get the opportunity to jury at festivals. You jury quite a bit—how is it for you to judge other people’s work?
KDLC: I like it. I think the premise here, as we’ve stated, is that I’m lazy.
PC: Yes, we keep coming back to that.
KDLC: (softly) Yeah, the lazy brown fox (laughter). I’m forced—yeah, back to the forced thing, too—to watch these films that I wouldn’t watch unless I’m in this situation. Some things you like, some things you don’t like, but it definitely affects and adds to my cinema, my views, my life. In judging other people’s work, it also becomes about discovering myself. Among an array of elements, I discover that I’m attracted to this one; I don’t like that one. And, of course, the other jury members think differently because we’re all unique individuals. It’s a discovery that I like certain things that I never thought about before. You fine-tune your aesthetic, as well, on a conscious level. I’m usually subconscious, unconscious, more intuitive. I do things just because I’m compelled to do them. William Stafford said it’s important for awake people to be awake. It’s also important for dreamers to sleep.
PC: We’re all narcissists at heart, every human being, no matter how outwardly generous we are, how often we shine a light upon someone else. It’s always the world according to me.
KDLC: Yes, definitely. In a way, that’s why someone is getting you on a jury. Because you have a strong point of view and you’re willing to express it. It might not be better than the rest of the world’s, but that’s your duty and so you have to pick the best film under those circumstances, which is a reflection of your aesthetic, right? Life is climbing an upward spiral.
PC: But there also have to be resting spots. If you’re really living life all out, it’s strenuous.
KDLC: In a way, festivals are resting spots for me. Not for my liver, but yes, in every other way.
PC: It’s always invigorating and inspiring in unexpected ways. It always fuels me, somehow. We’re allowed to be open to things that we might not be in our everyday lives.
KDLC: As experimental, open-minded, and liberal as you think you are—you’re not.
PC: Yes, it’s also an opportunity to encounter your prejudices, as well, that’s true.
KDLC: Definitely. We’re all products of our own cultural history, even when we’re trying to destroy or dismantle it.
I remember the first festival I attended. It was a writing workshop/convention that I’d entered about fifteen years ago in the Philippines that took place in the mountains. I even wrote a song about it. In English, the title is “Last Week.” “Last week is the happiest day of my life / Because we’re doing nothing / We’re just being ourselves.” You’re among like-minded, like-spirited people. You’re all artists or you’re for art, or world peace, or whatever. There’s a soul connection, which is so important. Art can be a very solitary endeavor. I’m kind of hooked on festivals. You have to find a good balance. Do your work; enjoy your life.
PC: Besides your laziness, what do you consider your most valuable asset?
KDLC: I’m not a very religious person, but I do love the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi—“make me an instrument of your peace.” I believe that an artist is a vessel. You can be an instrument of peace. Or one of destruction. Life is manifesting itself and passing through you, reflecting your interpretation back to your audience.
PC: Does your own work surprise you in that way?
KDLC: Definitely. Not to be egoistic, but with my piano pieces, or my poetry, or my films—in a way, I didn’t make those things.
PC: Well, that’s really the opposite of being egoistic then.
KDLC: Maybe that’s why I intro my cinema work by saying, “This is not a film by Khavn de la Cruz.” It’s letting life use you, letting it pass through you.
PC: What do you get out of it?
KDLC: The privilege of being that instrument. But, as I said, I really value the momentum that’s built from this outpouring of work. The dynamics of it can certainly change. It’s just really important to not ignore the muse.
PC: It also takes a really strong person to encounter that muse every day. Many artists’ instruments just get busted and they never recover from that. You seem like a very healthy artist, if that doesn’t sound too presumptuous.
KDLC: Well, there are some of my films where you see the contrary, my distinctly unhealthy side.
PC: But it’s unleashed in your work; it’s not eating you from the inside.
KDLC: My films are varied in style, subject matter, tone. But most of my songs are sad love songs. The Philippine pop culture—it’s very hopeless [laughs]. I write a lot of songs when I’m brokenhearted, depressed, and I use songwriting as catharsis, as therapy. One way not to implode is to explode on a regular basis. Not just simple explosion, but a productive one, while following your bliss. An explosion in which you’re being negative, criticizing other people, utilizes that energy in a bad way. If you just go about creating your body of work, nurturing your life, then your life becomes your statement. That’s it. You can’t be everywhere your work is, but that work can speak for you and represent your presence even when you’re not there.
For more on Philippine auteur Khavn de la Cruz, check out his website.