Saw Sakay Sa Hangin, (Wind-Blown) Regiben Romana’s latest film last Wednesday. Regi is an old friend. I recently figured out that Regi and I each witnessed the other’s first meeting with the woman he married, a relationship that seems like it should have its own name. He is also a founding member of the Children of Cathode Ray, the technomedia collective and sound-art group that we formed with Maghiar Tuason, Peter Marquez, Blums Borres, and InterAksyon.com editor Jing Garcia, back in the early nineties when home recording still consisted of playing live into a cassette recorder. We don’t see much of each other these days, but his film has occasioned my discovery of another thing that should have a name — the specific satisfaction engendered by seeing a friend’s old consistencies and obsessions realized in large and sophisticated form after over a decade of acquaintance. Reg is an unabashed roots researcher. Even back in the days of Cathode Ray, he’d been obsessed by ideas of hidden Filipino histories and cultural practices; of recovering practices and ideas lost in the rush and crush of modernity. He and Peter used to take the group to their childhood stomping grounds in Luisiana Laguna. Apart from Reg and Peter, Cathode Ray were a bunch of citybred softies whose idea of roughing it was going without television, a fact that he and Peter courteously avoided rubbing in our faces. I remember us following a waterfall up a mountain to find veins of bluish chalk to draw with; demolishing a rotting log to harvest ku-ok, edible beetle larvae named for the knocking sound they make in the wood; and the dimly-lit room where he showed us an ilohan — a massive and surprisingly balanced piece of native machinery made of logs and boulders used to press plant leaves to make them pliable for weaving.
Regi has traveled quite a bit since those days. He’s attached himself as cinematographer to film projects in Palawan, Sulu and Zamboanga, even as far as Nepal in his pursuit of cultures and practices that have survived mass-produced modernity. In Sakay sa Hangin, it seems that he’s finally hit a kind of sweet spot, a place where kinship with the actors, and opportunity have combined to give him a space to explore at length the themes that have haunted him throughout his life.
I have to say at the outset though, that while the filmmakers (which include Waway Saway, the film’s putative subject, credited also as the film’s co-producer) describe it as a documentary, I unquestionably disagree with the label. Sakay Sa Hangin is clearly a work of fiction shot in a documentary style, using tribal actors, some of whom appear under their own names, period.
I find that this is an important point to make and get out of the way, because it gets rid of all the uneasiness that cropped up when I tried to think of it as a documentary, and God help me, I tried. I tried thinking of it as a “subjective documentary” that tried to tell Waway’s story from Waway’s viewpoint. I tried thinking of it as a “magical realist documentary”, I tried thinking of it as a “polemic documentary” that used “ethnic visual metaphors.” I tried a couple of other ideas, but every premise generated too many sentences that began either with “but” or “however” or “admittedly”. Calling it a documentary makes it a huge problem that the film shows the protagonist without any duties or obligations aside from those imposed by his quest. The fact that all social, economic and political aspects of Talaandig existence are excluded from the film means that the filmmakers have used Talaandig culture to paint an idealized picture of indigenous Filipino life. The interesting thing is that I believe those members of the tribe that helped make the film understand this. By all accounts, Waway is no more a naif than is Regi or Regi’s spiritual ancestor Kidlat Tahimik. Like Gandhi, a British-educated lawyer who wore suits before he gave it all up for homespun, all three are sophisticates who call for a return to tradition and spirituality from the position of a full acquaintance with contemporary urban Filipino life. In short, the film is propaganda, but it is not pure and simple propaganda. Nothing about the film or its filmmakers is pure or simple. Sakay sa Hangin is a polemic from a conscious and politicized tribal artist in league with a filmmaker who together are engaged in an attempt to stem the excesses of modernity.
So: Sakay Sa Hangin is a dream. A work of fiction made that makes heavy use of techniques associated with documentaries.
Once that issue is cleared up, we become free to enjoy the film. And we do, because Reg is a skilled and passionate filmmaker, and he and Waway are clearly in love with traditional Talaandig culture.
Regiben and Waway masterfully use the elements of Talaandig life to tell the story of a classic hero’s journey, and to draw a vision of indigenous Filipino existence as a kind of animist Eden. The tale’s protagonist, Waway Linsahay Saway is, like the film’s co-producer, also a musician of the Talaandig tribe. Waway goes from neighbor to neighbor, playing music, making instruments and communing with its animist presences, in search of a man who will teach him to ride the Saduk, a mythical vehicle that will bring him to the Babylon of Manila, where the trials of his quest await.
The film is a seductive, hypnotic celebration of Talaandig culture. It celebrates their land, their clothing, their rituals, and dwells with a lover’s obssessive intensity on the details of its music, it’s instruments, and everything in it that is made or done by hand. The camera dwells lovingly on the details of cutting bamboo, tuning the strings of the kutyapi, even the act of whittling a branch to make tinder for a fire. Aside from being an excellent cinematographer, Regi is one of the few filmmakers who is as alive to the poetry of sound as he is to that of the moving image. And while it is true that the soundtrack is still at the draft stage, the care with which he highlights the sonic details of Waway’s environment testifies to what I’ve said. The rasp of corn leaves against the skin, the scrape that enters the string’s voice as its tuning peg is turned, the bassy howl set up by a drum as a string is threaded through its skin. His sensitivity to sound also manifests itself in his editing. I was delighted to notice that Regi breaks the equilibrium of a shot by introducing a new sound almost as often as he does by cutting to another shot. Sound leads the picture as often as it happens the other way round.
One of the most intense passages of this cinematic love letter is the sequence that documents the making of a bamboo flute, from the cutting of the stalk, to the process of punching holes in the nodes to make a bore across several segments, to the burning of the finger holes with a heated iron bar. I particularly enjoyed the to the sequence that documented process of finding the positions of the finger holes using a grass blade to measure the tube’s length in terms of its circumference. Waway trims the leaf and marks the tube with a full-sized itak (machete) that he darts about the tube with a startling delicacy and worrying speed. Regi, the old farm boy, knows a thing or two about using an the itak and can recognize a master’s touch when he sees it; he has the good sense to pitch the camera where it has a full view of the proceedings, get out of the way, and let that baby roll a hypnotic and extended interlude onto tape.
Tad studied Zoology in the University of Hiroshima, and graduated with a degree in Philosophy from the University of the Philippines. He was a founding member of the seminal sound art band The Children of Cathode Ray and is a leading media artist who uses sound, video, programming and electronics in the creation of his films and installations, which have been exhibited in numerous local and international festivals and galleries. Email Tad at firstname.lastname@example.org.