MustSeeCinema presents an engaging conversation with Spanish director Sally Gutiérrez Dewar about her documentary “Do You Remember the Philippines?” (2017), conducted and written by Romanian writer and journalist Teia Brînză at the 58th Cartagena de Indias International Film Festival (FICCI).
In a lively and exotic Columbian patio at the Cartagena Film Festival, I met Sally Gutiérrez Dewar, the director of Do You Remember the Philippines? (Ta acorda ba tu el Filipinas?, 2017) – a documentary that was included in the festival’s special program War and Peace.
Exploring traces of the past and the present of a multicultural country as The Philippines, the film follows multiple layers of globalization. As the director herself refers to the film – it is “a tapestry” of different subjects overlapping – different languages and communities, different historic times and memories, distinct human lives and struggles, voices recalling layers of history in the bustling district of Quiapo, Manila, to an Internal Displacement Camp in the Zamboanga province.
Sally Gutiérrez Dewar is a visual artist from Madrid (Spain), her work being a mix between contemporary arts, visual experiments and documentaries. After she had finished her studies in Fine Arts at Compultense University of Madrid, she had moved to Berlin, being part of Mitte artistic movement. In 1998, she moved to New York (USA) for a Media Studies master. Returning to Madrid, besides her individual projects, Sally have created with her sister Gabriela the documentary – Tapologo (2008), selected for more than 60 international festivals and the webdoc – Villlalba Cuenta (2013).
You’re a visual artist and a multicultural person. How did that help you to approach the topic of your film?
Sally Gutiérrez: Actually, I am mainly a visual artist. For me, my films are something that lies between documentary, visual art and visual essays, and that’s why they are shown in festivals as well as museums and galleries, NGO’s. They come from the visual arts. They are not narrative and linear, but they are not super-experimental either. In the end, they are films that I want to be accessible to the public. But coming from the visual arts, you probably saw that the photography was very beautiful, very stunning. I worked with Raquel Fernández Nuñez, a very well-known Spanish DOP. All of the visuals and ideas and conception of working comes from the visual arts. I also have very good friends in the visual arts for whom I screened before the film was finished, so we can discuss it. I think there is a moment when a filmmaker falls in love with their own film, or they’re too tired to distinguish it. For me it’s always important to work with some collaboration.
Regarding the multiculturality… My mother is English, my father is Spanish, I have lived in Berlin and New York, I have also traveled to South Africa and the Philippines, and I am really interested in how the world in 21st century is being shaped – interested in those people who are under 25, who are outside the big colonial countries which are getting very old right now. They speak three languages – they speak their colonial language, their imposed language, and their dialect. That mixture is something which has also been part of my childhood. I speak Spanish, English, German. I am really interested in exploring it, talking about it, but not with the general universal values, but always talking about universal subjects through local stories – the fight of these women, this film also talks about, as we mentioned, Islamophobia and community building and etc., but from the point of view of this relationship, of these leftovers, between Spain and the Phillippines.
I want to ask you about the tools you’re using in the film to reconstruct the past – one is using language… Could you tell me more about that?
It’s an interesting question, this idea of the tools we use to reconstruct the past… The first thing that comes to my mind is that I don’t think there is any intention of reconstructing the past. The intention, as you saw, was very much talking about the present, very much contemporary Philippines and especially what globalization means now and has meant; the relationship, or what’s left over of the relationship, between Spain and the Philippines. It’s a very universal film, which touches many subjects which are very current and urgent in the world right now, with processes of peace, fires, wars, reconciliation, community building, empowerment of women and communities, house evictions, gentrification of cities and communities being pushed out etc. But through that, looking at the Phillipines right now and that relationship with Spain, there is also this tracing of the past. As I said when I presented the film, for me it’s more like a tapestry… The structure of film is a tapestry in which suddenly you’re talking about a fire happening right now in Mindanao, and the next minute you’re talking about a fire that happened in the Second World War. And the same way you talk about evictions, all these different subjects that overlap – wars, the destructive bombings of Manila and Mindanao. You realize that the present obviously can’t be constructed without knowing about the past. So for me, it’s more of this idea of overlapping and looking backwards and forwards, trying to reconstruct.
You also look into the future with a lot of dialogues, discussing how the situation will be in a few years…
Yes, and to begin with the Philippines – a country where the majority of people are under the age of 25. It’s a country full of energy and hope, people working, a country that’s going forward. As you saw, there wasn’t any kind of representation of poverty for poverty’s sake, or in any way trying to talk about the Philippines as a developing country, rather talking about it as the high-powered, intense place that it is. For me, it only made sense to talk about the Philippines, because I thought that this is a film that had to be made. No one from Spain had made a film about this. A lot of people tell me, “I’ve learned a lot about the Philippines”, but it’s not about that. It’s not a History Channel film, it’s more about these direct questions to the Spanish and Latin American public, the general public – “Have you forgotten about the Philippines, have you forgotten the relationship that we had… that we were there? What’s left of this presence?”. And that’s sort of a projection into the future. So, when we were discussing how to shoot the film, how to make it, it was very complicated. Because there were a lot of things to talk about, but I didn’t want it to be all over the place either.
We also talked about the idea of movement and stillness, the constant idea of movement in the water, movement in the trains, constantly crossing the territory, so you feel that actually the different characters are moving with you, the spectator, in their lives and the territory. There are also moments of stillness, of reflection, of silence, we also have this feeling of time – the past, the present, the projection into the future.
How was it to choose only a few characters, because they are all so interesting?
All protagonists, the participants, all the characters are incredibly powerful and important. In my last documentary that we made in South Africa, I co-directed it with my assistant Gabriella, the protagonists were a network of women who were HIV-infected nurses, who were very empowered and very strong, and were really taking the pulse of the community. My films normally have this feminist point of view, a feminist angle, looking at these situations that are very, very complex and could be seen as chaotic. This outside view, of really studying them with people who are actually building something.
There are many people I know that are building and rebuilding their country and their present. That’s why we chose them. The elderly man who beautifully unbuttons his shirt passed away, so it was important to have him in the film. Obviously, as a witness, him talking about the bombing and seeing his father die. The social worker, the performer (a.n.: Carlos Celdran), were very important too.
For me, it felt like a frame you can read a lot of diferent stories from. Even though you look at a lot of social problems in Columbia, you can relate them to the Phillippines. They are very related with Globalization…
It is very much a story of the 21st century, of globalization, but it’s also a story of the 21st century, looking at the 16th century. Language becomes this forensic territory, where all the layers of violence and imposition and greed are present. But then the marvelous thing about language is that it reinvents itself, in the end is a tool that people use and take a lot of. It doesn’t stay, it’s not an object in a museum, no something you can congeal and freeze. This is why I am so very fascinated by language and especially by Chavacano.
Speaking about visuals, there are many contrasts in the film – of new and old, degradating parts and new high-rise parts…
I was very careful. We wanted to really show the country with these worlds happening. But in the Philippines there is no more than a square meter of public space where there are no families living in the streets. We were very careful to not show and aestheticize poverty.
There is one where Manuel, the man who gives massages, is going to bed in the street. For me that was very important because that is one of the big realities in Manila. A lot of people live in the street, but I found it was so clean, there is so much dignity and respect. As a filmmaker, you have to talk about certain things and you have to show them from a deep sense of respect. The only other scene I think where poverty can be seen is in the Internal Displacement Camp, with Lina, but she is a refugee – so it’s very different from slums or people in the street.
You’ve mentioned at the Q&A session that the reaction of the audience was in a way controversial. Can you tell me more about this?
The reception in Manila, the presentation was fantastic. The film is very critical, as you saw, with Spanish colonization and with parts of the Catholic church and it’s legacy, which is very conservative in the Philippines. I think there were some people that were a little bit upset about this, or at least had mixed feelings – some parts they liked, some parts they didn’t like. But in general it was amazing, a very long Q&A, questions that wouldn’t stop. What was really impressive for me, was that I always thought it was a film that was made for the Spanish and Latin American public, and now Colombians tell me how amazed they were with the film and how it should be shown more in Latin America. I never thought that it was necessary for the Filipino public, because they know the story. A lot of film curators, artists and friends who were there, told me it was very different when someone makes this who is not from the Philippines. They thought that it should be shown outside the festival circuit and art – that it should be shown to the communities, the provinces, because there is so much about the relationship between the Islamic and Christian, the different religions and presence of the Muslim population that is normally talked about only in terms of violence and problems. Bringing it all together, weaving it all together, saying that it is all part of the same country, that was something that they appreciated very much. It was very intense, really amazing.
Interview by: Teia Brînză
Photos: Sally Gutierrez