Art/Style/Travel Diaries

From Kamias Road to Europe: On the set with filmmaker Khavn de La Cruz

As his Makamisa: Phantasm of Revenge competes in the Marseille International Film Festival this June, the author recalls very interesting times with the auteur

The picturesque Botolan town in Zambales was ideal for Balangiga. (Photo by Totel V. de Jesus)

John Lloyd Cruz plays Simoun Rizal in Khavn’s new film ‘Makamisa Phatasm of Revenge’. Photo from Khavn

Unknown to many cinemagoers who may not be familiar with the works of Filipino filmmaker Khavn de la Cruz, his latest film, inspired by Jose Rizal’s unfinished third novel, Makamisa, is already bringing honor to the country.

Titled Makamisa: Phantasm of Revenge, Khavn’s film will have its world premiere as part of the main competition in FIDMarseille, or the Marseille International Film Festival, a festival of documentary films from June 25 to June 30 in France. It will have three screenings on June 26, 27 and 29, competing with 14 entries from all over the world.

John Lloyd Cruz with Pinoy visual artist-actor Rox Lee and German actress Lilith Stangenberg during a break from shooting ‘Makamisa’. Photo from Khavn

The hand-colored 35mm silent film “about the fragmented colonial history of the Filipino people” is headlined by John Lloyd Cruz and Germany’s acclaimed multi-platform actress Lilith Stangenberg.

Cruz plays “the sad Filipino poet Simoun Rizal,” while Stangenberg is “an American madwoman named Sisa Bracken.” Khavn himself appears as Padre Agaton Damaso, described as the “evil Spanish priest.” Auteur Lav Diaz also has a role as Kristo Kastrado, a Christ-like character with “bloodied crotch and nipples,” as the film notes describe.

Acting in a film directed by Khavn has been one of Cruz’s dream projects.

In 2016, in the New York Asian Film Festival at Lincoln Center, during a talkback session for Erik Matti’s Honor Thy Father, where Cruz was co-producer and lead actor, the other half of the popular Popoy and Basha love team told the audience he’s looking forward to working with other acclaimed Filipino non-mainstream directors like Brillante Mendoza and Khavn de la Cruz.

“He’s awesome!” Cruz told the Lincoln Center audience, referring to Khavn, raising his left hand like a professor stressing a point.

At the time, Cruz had started collaborating with auteur Lav Diaz. In that forum, he didn’t name Diaz, only that his next role in a film was “a transwoman.” That turned out to be Ang Babaeng Humayo (The Woman Who Left), where he played an epileptic transwoman character named Hollanda.

His first was in Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis (Lullabye To A Sorrowful Mystery), which was shot as early as mid- 2015.

But who is Khavn, the “awesome filmmaker”?

Khavn has been making films long before Cruz became a household name—not only films, but also music and literary works.

It was in the mid-1990s when I was introduced to this aspiring poet-short story writer-musician-filmmaker, who was fresh from college at the Ateneo de Manila University. I was surprised because he insisted on being called “Khavn,” not with his surname that journalistic practice required.

At the time, the Eraserheads had just unknowingly ushered in the Second Golden Age of Pinoy Rock under the term “alternative,” and we were all young and restless.

The Itchyworms at Oracafe, from left, Kelvin Yun on bass, Jugs Jugueta on rhythm guitar, Chino Singson on lead guitar and vocals. Hidden in the background is drummer Jazz Nicolas. Photo from Khavn

A first-time entrepreneur, Khavn had just opened a bar, Oracafe, in his parents’ property along Kamias Road in Quezon City. The label “filmmaker” had yet to be attached to his persona, and he would use the name Kamias Overground for his film outfit.

A first-time entrepreneur, Khavn had just opened a bar, Oracafe…. The label ‘filmmaker’ had yet to be attached to his persona

It was called Oracafe because in the ’90s, bars with tarot cards were the “in” thing. Either you went to the legendary Club Dredd or Mayric’s Bar and the still surviving ’70s Bistro for the usual rock gig, or you went to Oracafe, where Khavn was manager-bartender and sometimes cashier.

Tarot Card corner frequented by Ateneans. (Photo from Khavn de la Cruz)

Of all the things he said, I remember Khavn, the wide-eyed Atenean, using the phrase “God will provide.” That was his reply to a customer’s question on how he would get more tarot cards for a section on the occult and mysticism at Oracafe.

“My classmates were the waiters,” Khavn said, referring to fellow Ateneans who were still finding their calling in life. When they said, “God will provide,” they meant it without sarcasm—they believed in the Jesuit philosophy and motto, “Men For Others.” In this case, in a literal sense, they were the waiters, young men for dining customers.

Pepe Smith jams with Nino Mendoza of the Blue Jean Junkies sometime in 1999 at Oracafe. (Photo from Khavn de la Cruz)

Oracafe became the alternative hang-out to bars with smorgasbord crowds of punks and rockers. It was where the literary “pa-artist type” would feel at home. Some would feel so at home they’d stay till the wee hours, long after Khavn hung the “closed” door signage.

A professor who I remember was in the faculty at the University of the Philippines (UP) College of Mass Communications loved engaging regulars in long, alcohol-fueled talk. He would keep Khavn and other customers up till 6 am. You couldn’t get away him because he’d buy you beer, and keep you with jokes and chismis from the academe.

On some nights, Khavn waits on tables at Oracafe, shown here with fellow musician Marc Laccay. (Photo from Khavn de la Cruz)

I still remember Khavn having breakfast while that UP professor was still finishing his 10th “one more for the road” beer.

It was backstage that band members of the upcoming Radioactive Sago Project started composing their biggest hit, Gusto Ko Ng Baboy

Oracafe was a lot of things to many people. If I remember right, it was backstage that band members of the upcoming Radioactive Sago Project started composing their biggest hit, Gusto Ko Ng Baboy. 

The story goes that while preparing for their set and tuning their instruments, the free refreshments served were healthy meals like cheese sticks and fish fillet with steamed tofu. Someone asked the waiter for a pork appetizer instead and blurted out the titular phrase, then all chimed in. The horn section composed of Wowie Ansano, Rastem Eugenio, and Pards Tupas came up with that jazzy intro, bass guitarist Francis de Veyra did a suave bassline, and lead guitarist Junji Lerma had a Paco de Lucia-John McLaughlin inspired riff.

Then journalist Lourd de Veyra, the vocalist who couldn’t carry a tune but came up with the wittiest lines and spoken poetry, did the impromptu lyrics. If I recall right, they performed the first version of that hit the same night.

A few months later, the section in the café, where there was a tarot reading table and a shelf with books on the occult and mysticism, were replaced with two dining tables. God did provide and blew away the competition.

Oracafe facade in 1998. (Photo from Khavn de la Cruz)

On some nights, Oracafe accommodated performance artists and the essential poetry readings where the likes of Vim Nadera would lord over.

Danton Remoto was then coming out with the first anthology of Ladlad poems he co-edited with UP professor J. Neil Garcia. In jest, he threatened Khavn that he would open another bar nearby as competition, and that it would be so successful Oracafe might have to close shop. Danton said he’d call it “Oral Café.” It never happened.

Two decades later, if you ask Khavn about it, he wouldn’t remember anything except Danton’s aborted plan.

Today the spot where Oracafe was has been divided into a pet shop, a laundry shop, a mineral water station, and other more steady businesses.

What I remember was, when Oracafe closed shop, the UP Professor with a penchant for marathon drinking lost a place where he could be just himself. And so did a lot of the regulars.

Freed from the concerns of running a bar, Khavn focused on his art. He wrote his poems, short stories, and songs that would win awards here and abroad. More important, he started shooting films, guerrilla style. The use of digital cameras had become the norm for indie filmmakers who couldn’t afford the expensive traditional film negatives that mainstream directors used.

Khavn was among the pioneers who used digital cameras, collaborating with a small crew, even employing men on the streets as actors. He founded .MOV (pronounced dot mov), the first international digital film festival in the country. He called his small production firm Filmless Films Inc.

Why Khavn doesn’t want to be referred to by his surname de La Cruz, deviating from journalism style, brings us back to his college years. He told us that when he attended a film class by auteur Eric de Guia, otherwise known as the future National Artist Kidlat Tahimik, he decided to use his “native” name.

Barbie Carpacio and Achinette Villamor receiving the FAMAS awards. Photo from Khavn

Long before the hit movie Barbie brought back childhood memories and drew mixed reactions among audiences, in the local indie film community, there was already Barbie Carpacio, glorified make-up artist, production manager, actor, and all-around behind-the-scenes “punong abala” in some of the acclaimed works by Filipino auteurs like Khavn and Lav Diaz.

Kulas, the main character of ‘Balangiga,’ is played by a boy from Tacloban City named Justine Samson. He won Best Actor in the 2017 QCinema Int’l Film Festival. (Photo from Khavn de la Cruz)

Scene from ‘Balangiga Howling Wilderness,’ a boy’s perilous journey to salvation at the start of the American Occupation. (Photo from Khavn de la Cruz)

I met him many moons ago during the last shooting day of Balangiga: Howling Wilderness, Khavn’s most locally awarded and accessible film to date. It’s been streaming on Netflix since December 2020.

It’s his take on the massacre of thousands of Filipinos in 1901 in a remote town of the same name in Eastern Samar.

It won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and other major awards at the 2017 QCinema International Film Festival. The following years, it gathered more best film awards, both local and international, from the likes of FAMAS to Urian to the Asean Film Festival. Erik Matti and Lav Diaz attest that it is among Khavn’s best works.

Some time in the “ber” months of 2017 was the last shooting day of Balangiga. As I promised Khavn, I’d go and cover the last shooting days.

The author somewhere in Botolan, Zambales, or what to him passes for ‘Middle Earth’ (Photo by Totel V. de Jesus)

Thankfully, the location was not in the actual town of Balangiga in Samar, but in Botolan, a picturesque town in Zambales where I’d never been, known for its most famous centuries-old resident, Mt. Pinatubo.

I left home in Quezon City at the crack of dawn to take the bus to Zambales and before noon, I was in a tricycle from the main highway of Botolan, going to a resort where the crew said I’d be picked up and brought to the site.

Khavn del a Cruz with cinematographer Albert Banzon on location shoot for ‘Balangiga Howling Wilderness’ (Photo by Totel V. de Jesus)

I hadn’t seen Khavn for some time. Or at least, not working on a set. There were times in early 2000 when I’d see him holding a camera, like a mad man randomly shooting anything that moved on Kamias Street and its neighboring alleys. There were no camera phones then and, using a shoulder-mounted camcorder, he’d film vendors, beggars, commercial sex workers, office workers, door-to-door salesmen, street children, anyone. Some would look at him in disgust or amazement. A few would smile and even wave before the camera.

These random shots would later appear in a short film with Lav Diaz as lead in 2004’s Pugot (Headless), which was released later in Munich

These random shots would later appear in a short film with Lav Diaz as lead in 2004’s Pugot (Headless), which was released later in Munich, Germany. Others would be included in the 2010 feature film Mondomanila, with veteran comedian Palito acting in what was to be his last film.

Palito died a few weeks after Mondomanila, essaying the role of a drummer named Pablong Shoeshine.  Some of these scenes that critics easily dismissed as “poverty porn” were also in Alipato: The Very Brief Life Of An Ember, which featured character actor Dido dela Paz.

So hearing that Khavn was shooting outside Metro Manila, especially in a mountainous scenic location, was a breather.

At the height of noon in a scenic town at the foot of Mount Pinatubo, I was on a battered Ford Fiera-type jeepney with Barbie, then purple-haired make-up artist-turned-production manager. He was my contact who’d bring me to the actual location. But first, Barbie had a few errands for the day’s shoot.

We scrounged the edge of picturesque Botolan for three live white native chickens. Native, not the white leghorn, was the instruction.

“Last week, pinahanap na ako ng limang puting native na manok, nakahanap naman ako kaso pinatay na nila lahat para sa shoot. Pero later, inulam di naman ng crew (They asked me to find five white native chickens. I was able to get them but they were all killed for the film and later eaten by the crew),” Barbie told me, as he lit his nth cigarette. Barbie is not from Botolan or anywhere nearby and had to ask the help of the local tourism office, the barangay officials, the gasoline boys, anyone.

Khavn is in the company of Diaz and other few surviving auteurs who dared to create works outside the indie film circuit. In the local film community, over the years, the “indie filmmakers” have become so common that they’ve become the new mainstream.

Shooting the most difficult scene of ‘Balangiga’ “Photo by Don Gordon Bell”

Despite the fleeting fame he had with Balangiga, Khavn still belongs to a group of Filipino filmmakers patronized outside the Philippines.

In 2014, he did EDSA XXX: Ganito Kami Noon, Ganito Pa Rin Kami Ngayon for Cinema One Originals, a sci-fi black-comedy rock opera on a fictional 30th Edsa Revolution starring Epy Quizon as the young president with a third eye. Hollywood Reporter described it “a musical satire about the political chaos in 2030 in a fictional nation based on his home.”

Tadanobu Asano (left) and Christopher Doyle (rightmost) listen to Khavn (middle) during the shoot of Ruined Heart. Photo from Khavn dela Cruz

Also in 2014, in a work celebrated abroad titled Ruined Heart: Another Love Story Between A Criminal and A Whore, Khavn was able to work with Japanese superstar Tadanobu Asano (Thor trilogy, 47 Ronin, Kate) and legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle (Fallen Angels, Chungking Express, Days of Being Wild, 2046, In The Mood For Love).

Foreign media reported how Asano and Doyle discovered Khavn’s works in festivals in Europe, and how they became fast friends. The two eventually expressed willingness to work with the Filipino director.

The Brockas, an avant-garde rock band composed of Lav Diaz on lead guitar, Khavn de la Cruz on keyboards and Rox Lee on electric hegalong. Photo taken in Berlin by Lilli Nass (courtesy of Khavn de la Cruz)

While Diaz, his good friend and bandmate in the avant-pop band The Brockas, has worked with famous and multi-awarded Filipino actors like John Lloyd Cruz, Piolo Pascual, Ronnie Lazaro, Bart Guingona, and Dolly De Leon, Khavn has worked with international names like Asano, Doyle, and most recently, German top actress Lilith Stangenberg, in his films.

Stangenberg recently played wife to John Malkovich’s character in German filmmaker Robert Schwentke’s Seneca, which tackles the story of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the Stoic philosopher of ancient Rome and mentor to Nero the Emperor. She has starred in Khavn’s more recent films shot in the Philippines, in between the series done during the pandemic lockdowns, namely 2020’s Orphea and 2021’s Love Is A Dog From Hell.

But going back to Barbie in Botolan.

Once tasked to find a one-horned carabao, he found not one but two carabaos. “’Yung isa pinatay pero yung isa, si Melchora, binuhay kasi siya ang bida.”

Every day, the tasks seemed daunting, Barbie blurted out. After the white chickens and the two single-horned female carabaos, Barbie, now nearly spaced out because of the bumpy road, said Khavn initially asked him for a (yellow phyton) and an albino carabao.

Barbie couldn’t produce a yellow snake and an albino carabao for the day’s shoot, so a regular single-horned female carabao would suffice. This, aside from a goat, a piglet, and more white chickens.

‘Ang bida kasi sa pelikulang ito mga hayop. Mas maraming hayop sa cast kaysa tao’

“Ang bida kasi sa pelikulang ito mga hayop. Mas maraming hayop sa cast kaysa tao (The real lead characters in this film are the animals. There are more animals than humans),” said Barbie, laughing at his own joke as he lit another cigarette.

He received an SMS from the production crew that was shooting in another part of town. “Ay nagpa-follow up sila,” Barbie looked at me. “Kung confirmed daw yung helicopter na ipapahiram sa amin. Kelangan na today (They are asking for a follow-up, if a helicopter would be lent to us. It is urgently needed today).”

Renting a helicopter should cost much more than bringing albino water buffalos from Subic, so they had to borrow one instead. I would learn later from Khavn that the chopper was not meant for actors, but only to create the wind effect. A former actress who found a second career as lawmaker promised Khavn she would lend one.

Barbie turned me over to the crew that would take me to the creek. He boarded the jeepney and disappeared in the rolling hills.

“The other day, they were nearly trapped in that hill. We had to call a rescue team from the town to extract them from the location. It was near midnight when Khavn and the crew were brought down to safety,” Achinette Villamor, line producer and de-facto all-around “punong abala” as well as Khavn’s wife, told me as we walked down toward the creek with some packed lunch for the crew. Achinette was co-writer of Balangiga, with Khavn and Jerry Gracio.

Achinette was pointing to a hill with a few trees. There were hills all around us, green and majestic you’d think you were not in Zambales, but somewhere in the setting of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

We were now near a creek with the clearest waters I had seen. It snaked its way to the middle of rolling grassy hills, or what looked like a portion of Middle Earth from TLOR.  I’d learn later it was on the other side of Mount Pinatubo in Zambales mountains, a privately-owned paradise the locals called Palacio.

Khavn greeted me with his signature “wazzak” fist bump and showed me an impaled piglet in the middle of a grassy portion of the creek. “Dito ang selfie station,” he said, in his usual shock-art gesture. If the setting was The Lord of the Rings, Khavn’s scene was nearly akin to Lord of the Flies.

Khavn de la Cruz giving instructions to stills photographer Gordon Bell. (Photo by Totel V. de Jesus)

Carabaos, pigs, helicopter, creeks, and rolling hills—you’d think it’s as humungous as Apocalypse Now. And there wa someone on the set who was there for Francis Ford Coppola’s classic film as part of production design crew. Don Gordon Bell, an American-Korean actor, was Khavn’s official stills photographer.

“Remember the scene (in Apocalypse Now) when the boat made an emergency stop because of the rain and Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) negotiated the pimp for the prostitutes to have sex with the crew in exchange for gasoline? It was shot here in Zambales,” Bell told me. He added he was an all-around-assistant crew member on the set of Coppola’s classic war film.

Pure coincidence, or it could be just how the universe aligned for him, but he’s doing almost the same roles for Khavn’s war film.

Like any Filipino writer who has done entertainment stories, more than about films as art, the male version of Marites in me prompted to ask Bell the burning question: Is it true that Coppola sired a son with a Filipina crew on the set of the film? And another: Did that Filipina actress really become the lover of Marlon Brando while shooting Apocalypse Now in Pagsanjan, Laguna?

Is it true that Coppola sired a son with a Filipina crew on the set of the film?

Bell whispered something in my ear that I’d rather keep till I die, but then again, life is short so if I remember it right, he said something about the brother of Coppola having a Filipina girlfriend among the film crew members. If that brother sired a daughter or son, I didn’t ask anymore. On the Pinay actress who had an affair with Brando, I couldn’t remember if he gave me a clear answer. And that was that, nothing more.

Like Barbie the all-around-production manager, Bell the photographer had to play the part of an extra in Balangiga. In a scene where dead, naked bodies were needed, Bell had to put down his camera and do the part. “I was the only one showing balls in the set, the others didn’t want to go naked,” he told me, giggling.

There was a drizzle that eventually turned into a downpour, and everyone took shelter. Khavn continued to shoot, taking advantage of the rain. Someone held an umbrella to protect the camera.

I joined them till night time when they shot the final scenes at Botolan’s church bell tower. I went back to Manila the same night on a bus, despite the invite from Khavn to stay and join the after-shoot party in the resort they’ve been staying in for weeks. They’d leave in the morning.

“Masarap pulutan, all kinds of dishes using carabao meat (We’ve prepared delicious appetizers using carabao meat),” he said. It was a tempting offer but I had work in the morning back then.

The next time I saw him and Barbie was a couple of months later. It was during Balangiga’s premiere night held at Trinoma Mall.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, Balangiga went on to win Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography and other awards in the 2017 QCinema. It was shown in mainstream cinemas nationwide, with some movie houses carrying it for two weeks, quite a feat for a non-commercial filmmaker.

Cast and crew of ‘Balangiga’ during the Gawad Urian night. Achinette Villamor gives a thank you speech that was praised by many. (Photo from Balangiga FB)

The following year, it also won Best Film and other major awards at Gawad Urian and FAMAS. And there’s more to these awards.

Could be pure coincidence, but on December 11, 2018, the three historic Balangiga bells—two from the US Air Force base in Cheyenne, Wyoming and one that was kept at the US Army’s Camp Red Cloud, Uijeongbu in South Korea—were returned by the Americans to the Philippines, about 117 years after they were taken by US soldiers as war trophies during the 1899-1902 Philippine-American War.

Four days later they were returned to San Lorenzo de Martir Parish Church in Balangiga, Eastern Samar, and have since become the town’s major tourist attractions.

Khavn never did another film that had the same impact as Balangiga for the local audiences. I think it’s one of those instances when everything fell into place. Funded by a local festival associated with the government, the film included the compromise he had to make that somehow contributed to what Balangiga has become. His non-linear avant-garde style took a backseat to what feels like something that college professors and high-school history teachers would recommend to students doing research on the Balangiga carnage.

While the “Netflix-lifespan” of some award-winning films by Filipino directors would last a year or two, Balangiga continues to be patronized and is now on its fourth year.

Fast forward to recent days: As of this writing, Khavn and wife Achinette continue to make films only seen by loyal followers of Manila-based independent, international festivals though honored in Europe and in other SouthEast Asian countries.

At the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) from January to February this year, they showed the documentary National Anarchist: Lino Brocka and the world premiere of an online avant-garde play Khavn created during the pandemic years with Tanghalang Ateneo, titled Makbetamaximus.

And there’s MAKAMISA: Phantasm of Revenge, which is actually the film component of Khavn’s cross-genre musical titled SMAK! SuperMacho AntiKristo: A Headless 100-Act Opera To Avenge All Bicycles Of The Universe According to Jarry & Rizal that was staged at Berlin’s Volksbühne Theater in the entire month of April, 2022.

After Marseille, Khavn’s next stop would be at the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna for a retrospective. Nineteen of his 50 feature films will be shown from July 3 to July 9. The lineup includes the Tadanobo Asano-topbilled, Christopher Doyle-colored Ruined Heart.

Khavn is on a six-month residency fellowship grant from June to November sponsored by the 61-year-old institution DAAD-Artists in Berlin Program. It is known for giving six-month to one-year long fellowship grants to established visual artists, filmmakers, musicians, and literary writers from around the world. The previous recipients include John Cage, Jim Jarmusch, Damien Hirst, and Mario Vargas Llosa.

And that’s how it has always been. You do your work, give your best shot, and never think of the audience. In an interview, Lav Diaz said the moment you think of pleasing other people, you compromise your aesthetics even before finishing your work.

Khavn, the Jesuit-educated artist, did something like that. From his Oracafe days to Balangiga to what he has achieved now, the God of Jacob did provide.

And I guess if he and Achinette would do another Netflix-worthy work, Barbie wouldn’t mind finding another one-horned albino carabao.


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