The World in Three Acts: An interview with Christopher Gozum

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In so many ways Dapol Tan Payawar Na Tayug 1931 (Ghosts and Ashes of Tayug 1931), the first film of Christopher Gozum after an absence of six years, is a fulfillment of the poet’s longing in Anacbanua (Child of the Sun), his debut feature in 2009: surfacing the writer slash filmmaker in his hometown – Pangasinan – to reclaim a restless generation’s memory through his reimagination of Pedro Calosa, the revolutionary leader of a ragtag band of peasants who revolted against an oppressive feudal system in Tayug. Employing different stylistic devices, Gozum maps a topography of histories, languages, and personifications that meditate on our current state – a product of a historical continuity that constantly seeks its identity and raison d’etre.

In the aftermath of the QCinema International Film Festival, New Durian Cinema’s Teng Mangansakan talked to Christopher Gozum to discuss the development and trajectory of his latest work.

New Durian Cinema: Your film Dapol Tan Payawar Na Tayug 1931 came six years after Lawas Kan Pinabli (Forever Loved). What happened in the intervening five years?

Christopher Gozum: I was an overseas worker in Saudi Arabia from 2007 to 2015. While in Riyadh, I started to develop around five materials in my “script bank.” One of the scripts is about the Pangasinense folk hero Pedro Calosa and the Tayug 1931 uprising. I was also simultaneously working on three other scripts dealing with Filipino migration in South Korea and the Middle East. Two other scripts deal with my native homeland of Pangasinan. As an overseas Filipino worker away from my family, I had plenty of free time after work. I used the free time developing these scripts.

When I finally returned to Bayambang, in Pangasinan, in 2015, after eight years of contractual work in an eye hospital in Riyadh, I concentrated on my family life. I built a cob or mudhouse for my wife and child and also found a job in the province. I continued to develop my five scripts. I was fortunate to have attended training and pitching platforms abroad like the 2015 Southeast Asian Film Lab, 2016 Berlinale talents, and the Seoul Film Commission’s Seoul Screenplay Development Support in 2016. Through these platforms, I was able to finish writing my scripts and present them to other film professionals.

NDC: How did you come across Pedro Calosa?

CG: In 2001, I started to focus all my creative energies to the new field of Pangasinan Cultural Studies. This was a conscious shift on my part as a young filmmaker who was educated and based in Metro Manila. I was influenced by a Manila-based Pangasinense poet, Santiago Villafania, who was writing and publishing poetry in the Pangasinense language. he was consciously returning to our Pangasinense roots, reading all the old and new books and publications about Pangasinan history and culture, and visiting many communities all over our province of Pangasinan to gather stories and ideas for his poetry.

I came across Pedro Calosa in 2001 when i was looking for a Pangasinense material to develop into a full-length play for the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature. I first came across the account of Pedro Calosa and the Tayug Colorum uprising in Renato Constantino’s book, as well as in Reynaldo Ileto’s Pasyon and Revolution. I researched further on the subject and read the works of other writers and historians like Milagros Guerrero, David Sturtevant, and F. Sionil Jose, who is also a Pangasinense. I also visited the town of Tayug and the religious communities at Mount Arayat and Mount Banahaw in order to understand the essence of Filipino folk spirituality.

NDC: What was different being in the director’s chair again after six years? We heard that it was your first time to work with a large production crew.

CG: I worked as a director with a big production crew and big cast for the film. in my past two feature films, i worked with a skeletal crew averaging to ten persons including the actors. But for this project, i worked with an average of thirty to sixty persons on three locations – Bayambang and Tayug in Pangasinan, and at Kabayan, in Benguet. it was also my first time as a director to work with a complete and professional film crew.

NDC: Can you talk about the production challenges?

CG: First, there was the budget limitation. We did not have a co-producer who was willing to invest in this kind of project. Second, we had to shoot all the three stories in nine days. Third, there was the language issue with my lead actors playing the main characters of the filmmaker (Fe Gingging Hyde), young Pedro Calosa (Cedrick Juan), old Pedro Calosa (Perry Dizon), and F. Sionil Jose (Soliman Cruz). They are not native speakers of the Iloko and Pangasinan languages. They had a hard time learning how to speak the words in the script correctly.

NDC: How did you decide on the structure of your film (past, present, historical and reimagined?)

CG: I did not want to present this kind of material as an epic like most historical films are presented in Filipino movies. I think it would not work and I would be uncomfortable with this form. I also wanted to frame this material from my point of view as a filmmaker. I wanted to see myself, the filmmaker, as a main character in the film.

I looked closely at the material when I was deciding on its structure. There was the twenties part when the uprising took place. There was the Sixties interview made by F. Sionil Jose and David Sturtevant. Then there was the story of the filmmaker in the present. I looked back at the history of world cinema. I have three stories set in three different periods. Why not use the prevailing film style of the period to present each of the three stories? In the early part of 2017, during the film’s pre- production, it became clear to me that I wanted to make a film essay or a creative documentary more than a narrative feature.

NDC: Like your previous film you shot the film mostly in monochrome. What is the reason for this?

CG: I feel that there is an ascetic or minimalist tone for monochrome or black and white cinematography. It gives the film a feeling of restraint and some kind of abstraction. It focuses the viewers on the ideas of the filmmaker and the discourse the film is trying to communicate. I believe it is hard to achieve these things with color. I believe using black and white helps bring the film audiences to verfremdungssefekte, a Brechtian device that creates an emotional distance (on the audience) when they are viewing the film. This would help them look at the film and the ideas the film is trying to communicate from an affective mode to a more intellectual or analytical mode.

NDC: Your films tend to be told in fragmented, elliptical narratives. How do you conceive the film? Do you start with an image, word, character, a poem, a character?

CG: I normally look at the material and then conceive the best way to tell the story in the cinema medium. My previous films are told in fragmented, elliptical narratives because the kind of material that I have is best presented in this manner. In my three films, I normally start with a character and from this point, I trace the plot trajectory.

NDC: It seems important that your images carry an emotional core, an existential baggage if you must. How do you arrive at your choice of image?

CG: I look at the actor’s physicality plus all the other natural elements in the location, including its people in order to compose an image. The location has to have a special bearing in my heart and soul as a filmmaker, otherwise, the image may look contrived or artificial. the location must be familiar to me, like it could be my native homeland of Pangasinan, or my adopted home in Saudi Arabia.

NDC: You’ve championed the use of Pangasinan language in your film. A language can put you in a particular state of mind, of being. How important is language to you?

CG: The Pangasinan or the Pangasinense language is the breath of life of many Pangasinenses like myself. Since film is an audio-visual art form, the conscious use of this native language in my films gives them an identity distinct from other Filipino films.

NDC: How much of your film is influenced by poetry?

CG: My first and second feature film were strongly influenced by poetry. Pangasinan-language poems were used extensively in the two films as voice over narration.

NDC: Like spoken language, there is a perception that films from the regions are misunderstood due to a specific aesthetic choice by the director or the use of a cinematic language that has a pronounced regional sensibility. Is this true in your experience?

CG: It may be true. Some of the reviews used the frame of narrative feature films in looking at my film. Tayug 1931 is an essay film or creative documentary. I think I am the only film in the eight circle competition films utilized this form. The rest are narrative feature films.

Some of the Manila critics have already seen the cinematic language used in Dapol Tan Payawar Na Tayug 1931, having used them in my two previous films (Anacbanua and Lawas Kan Pinabli).

Also, a few of the reviews pointed out the long running time of the film and its slow pace. The film’s pace is borne out of the material. Also, the material cannot be squeezed in a standard 90-minute running time. The film needs the entire 139 minutes or two hours and 19 minutes to be able to show the breadth and scope of the subject. I am surprised to learn that some audiences do not have patience to watch a 139-minute film. I have some reservations with cutting down a film to a standard (generally accepted) running time in order to conform to Filipino viewers’ expectations.

(This interview piece appeared on the print edition of New Durian Cinema which was published in November 2017.)

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