Saturday, December 19, 2020

The Films of Khavn De La Cruz

The camera zips around a small room, then down the stairs, looks around the surroundings and then rises above the building to give a view of the neighbourhood. From the street view to the sky, then back down before settling for a long ride inside a van. The film is Khavn’s Bamboo Dogs (2018) and the van is different from that shown in Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay yet the air is sinister, not murderous but it feels ominous. What follows is a potent mix of corruption and crime all depicted in cool lighting, a stylish flourish that also lights up Khavn’s earlier film Ruined Heart (2014), shot by master cinematographer Christopher Doyle. 

The lovely cool colours of these two films contrast the black and white images that populate Khavn’s other films. In fact, he isn’t afraid of depicting the ugliness of the world around him, a world where violence is abundant but that violence is cyclical and follows a long history dating back to the barbaric colonial times. This aspect is illustrated by Balangiga: Howling Wilderness which is based on a historical incident involving a colonial massacre.

In just a few films, it is clear that Khavn has his own unique style, one where music plays a key part and that is because Khavn composes the music for a lot of his own films. In fact, it was the music Khavn worked on another director’s film that first drew my attention to him. Khavn worked on the music for John Torres’ award-winning Todo Todo Teros (2006). Torres’ film opened a new path for my journey into the new Philippine cinema that was making the rounds at film festivals during the 2006-2010 time period. During these few years, I sought out as many Filipino films as I could at film festivals and some finds included Jeffrey Jeturian’s brilliant The Bet Collector (2006), Brillante Mendoza’s Tirador and Foster Child (2007), Lav Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), Adolfo Alix Jr.’s Adela (2008), Raya Martin’s Independencia, in addition to Khavn’s Squatterpunk (2007).

Over the last decade, I focused more on the works of Lav Diaz and Mendoza while stopped following the works of Khavn.  As it turns out, Khavn has been incredibly prolific over the last decade and has directed more than a dozen features (fiction and documentaries). A correction was in order so a mini-spotlight of the following features:

Bamboo Dogs (2018)
Balangiga: Howling Wilderness (2017)
Alipato: The Very Brief Life of an Ember (2016)
Ruined Heart (2014)

The availability of digital cameras played a key part in the production of the Filipino movies I encountered in the 2006-2010 time period as the digital medium allowed new directors to make films on a shoe-string budget and get their voices out. A point highlighted by John Torres when he won the VIFF Dragons and Tigers Award for Todo Todo Teros in 2006. When Torres was given his cheque for $5000, he remarked that money would enable him to make 10 more movies! The rise of digital cameras also played a key part in the evolution of Khavn’s cinema, an aspect on display in his Digital Dekalogo” manifesto where he writes:

“But technology has freed us. Digital film, with its qualities of mobility, flexibility, intimacy, and accessibility, is the apt medium for a Third World Country like the Philippines. Ironically, the digital revolution has reduced the emphasis on technology and has reasserted the centrality of the filmmaker, the importance of the human condition over visual junk food.”

When discussing films that show the harsh lives of ordinary Philippine people, I often end up drawing lines back to the works of Lino Brocka. This real or imaginary line to Brocka’s films can be drawn from the works of Lav Diaz and Brilliante Mendoza. I can now drawn this line to Brocka from Khavn’s films. In addition, Khavn’s films overlap with some aspects of Lav Diaz and Raya Martin’s works (Independencia) in their depiction of colonialism’s brutal aspects while having shades of Mendoza's works in highlighting corruption and poverty. However, these references form just a subset of Khavn’s entire arsenal of filmmaking. Ruined Heart is a perfect example of his divergence from other Filipino directors. The film is an immersive musical journey where hardly any dialogue is spoken. The few words that are heard are akin to poetry. 

A love story against the backdrop of a criminal world is depicted in a musical video format. The baggage of dialogue isn’t required because cinema has long fed us enough to know what is happening. Instead, we can get lost in a world of dazzling images and pulsating music. This world is a complete contrast to that of his other films and illustrates that Khavn has a lot of creative variety to offer. This is again emphasized with his 2020 film, Orphea, co-directed with Alexander Kluge. 

Khavn's films won’t be found on the regular streaming options heavily used in 2020 but thankfully, there is a place to view his films legally:

Khavn De La Cruz films on vimeo demand.

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