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"Happenstance always takes precedence" when following poet Al Robles. APA interviews filmmaker Curtis Choy about his latest documentary, Manilatown is in the Heart -- Time Travel with Al Robles.
Curtis Choy's newest documentary film may be a stand-alone piece, but it represents a kind of culmination of his work and collaboration with the late Philippine poet/activist Al Robles, begun in the late 1970s. The contested space of Manilatown is definitely the larger picture addressed here, but for all intents and purposes, Robles played a pivotal role in weaving across different activist and artistic communities, channeling their stories – shared and individual alike – into poetry. His impact, as this film makes clear, is subtle, even muted, but undeniable. In making this film, Choy further establishes his own significant role in the telling of Asian/Asian American hi/stories. The interview was conducted one day before Al's passing on May 2, 2009.
Interview with Curtis Choy
May 1, 2009
Interviewed by Rowena Aquino
Transcribed by Timothy Natividad
Camera by Warren Kenji Berkey and Oliver Chien
Video by Warren Kenji Berkey
Curtis Choy: Hello, my name is Curtis Choy and I am the director of Manilatown is in the Heart, Time Travel with Al Robles.
APA: You just mentioned the subtitle of your film -- "Time Travel with Al Robles." Obviously, you've brought attention to how social histories revolve -- be it labor movements, the manong histories, even the beat poets. But it's also a kind of time travel with your own work since you include previous footage from the late 70s to show Al parts of Manilatown that are disappearing. Could you talk about why you chose to include that footage? Was it just an opportunity for you to re-evaluate its historical value?
CC: Well that's kind of reading into it.
APA: Or was it simply just because Al was there?
CC: Yeah, I mean, it's a story about Al. I spent two years finishing this film, but I started making it 30 years ago. At the time I didn't have the resources to actually make a movie. But I knew that if I could just follow him for three days, I would make a really dynamite ten-minute movie. So that simmered for thirty years, and after I finished the What's Wrong with Frank Chin? project, people kept asking “What are you doing next?” So I just kinda tossed it out there, "Hey, I'm doing a thing about Al Robles."
APA: What continues to draw you to Al Robles, as such a pivotal figure?
CC: Al was big in a lot of people's lives. He's affected countless thousands of people. He was my introduction to the international hotel, the I-Hotel. I didn't know about it before I got to San Francisco in 1969. By then, the struggle at the I-Hotel had been going on for ten years, and I didn't know about it. Asian American studies was new; I was new to it. Students were the original teachers of Asian American studies. Al was the guy who brought us into the community and allowed us to see the lives of these bachelor guys who had never been talked about. They had been shunned. And so here we are seeing reality. I kind of remember vaguely as a child being told by my grandma to stay away from those dirty old men. And now here I am as a young adult, meeting them and seeing what their lives are and examining history that has been ignored.
APA: Your title refers to Carlos Bulosan's America is in the Heart.
CC: Yeah, you caught me. I stole the title from him. (laughs)
APA: You read that story in preparation for The Fall at the I-Hotel. Can you talk about his influence in your work?
CC: I would have to say that Bulosan's approach is more touchy-feely rather than analytical, and I think that Al is that way. He's a very organic man, everything about him. He'll hold your hand, grab you and everything is of the moment; nothing is really planned. Shooting him is very difficult because you can't pre-plan where you're going to meet. Happenstance always takes precedence. So often enough, one meets Al by chance – on the bus, on the street. So I was living in Los Angeles, and I'd go up to San Francisco and plant myself there for at least a week, hoping that I'd get to spend one or two of those days with Al.
APA: What events in the film were planned? For instance, his poetry performance?
CC: Well his poetry performance wasn't really planned. I happened to know that he was going to be at that reading, so I engineered to have a second camera available. We made a big deal about lighting and shooting it well.
APA: It was obvious to me that that performance was the heart of the film, and it lasted over ten minutes. It's quite moving. Can you talk a little bit about the collaboration with Al? Did he have a hand in shaping how the film ended up?
CC: To the extent that he had a hand in shaping the film, he did his best to avoid dilemmas, especially if he knew the camera was running. We would never really get a straight-on shot because he would be avoiding it, and he would gesture in a way that was basically obscuring the lens. It was subconscious, and I had to figure out a way to get in front of his hand. He's really a modest guy. He doesn't like publicity or being celebrated. I think he was afraid that I would be exposing parts of him that he didn't want shown. I did my best to respect his privacy and to know where the boundaries were.
APA: Has he watched the film?
APA: What was his response to it?
CC: Well I would have to say that he secretly likes it [laughs]. It's sort of like looking in a mirror and kissing it, a bit weird. But I get the vibe that he's pleased with it, and his family is happy with it. So that's a good thing.
APA: During his poetry performance, part of why it's so moving is that his poetry becomes a sort of voiceover with the images on screen. Can you talk about how you organized it, where to fit what? For instance, archival footage, the interview session with other poets. Or was it just kind of organic?
CC: It was very organic, the organization of what they like to call “B-roll” over his poetry. I was trying to simulate or compliment his poetry. I wanted it to be kind of like a visual accompaniment, yes, but I was also just going to throw in random crazy stuff. Then I realized that his words were so powerful that the only proper way to do this was to try to illustrate what he was saying. In a sense, it was becoming literal, but most of my stuff is not that straightforward, not as elliptical as he is, but it tends to complement but not be a direct analog. It's meant to be viewed with an impression.
APA: Going back to your previous work on The Fall of the I-Hotel it seems like it's very much a companion piece. Can you talk about how Al played his role in that film?
CC: Al's role in The Fall of the I-Hotel is very large. He's the narrator of that film in a time when we hated narration. But there's so much history there that needs to be condensed so it makes sense in a short period of time. Nobody wants to read a 500 page book when you can get it in 50 minutes. I guess I wrote most of the narration for it. Of course, Al was free to change things. For Manilatown, it was really his connections that made that film possible. The footage of the manongs in the rooms, which I love, I couldn't use in The Fall of the I-Hotel. It just didn't fit the story. It would have been a sidetrack, so it was left out. So here I am thirty years later, and I get to use it. Everybody else gets to see this cool stuff.
APA: Did you have a lot of left over footage of the manongs in the room?
CC: Not a lot. That's kind of the extent of it.
APA: Your film is a testament to this erasure of histories. How do you evaluate the significance of your film now, given that there has been a lot of work in recuperating the manong's histories?
CC: Well when I start stuff, I don't know where it's going. The Fall of the I-Hotel was started in 1976. I had a small AFI grant, and that kind of kicked off that film. I made a ten minute, almost text-less, version of The Fall of the I-Hotel. I didn't know it was going to take six years to finish the Al movie. The good thing was that the film came too late to actually help in the struggle to keep the I-Hotel. But over those six years, my own thinking and abilities matured. I think it's a much better film because it took that long to make it. Had I finished it the first year that I started it, it would've looked like an okay student movie, but not a good film and not one that would've stood the test of time. The actual film is shown all the time in Asian American studies courses, which is great. I did something useful (laughs).
APA: Do you hope to collaborate with Al on making other films based on his life?
CC: No, I kind of think I played out what I can do with the whole Manilatown thing. Later on I actually counted and I have four films about Manilatown. They're short. One's called Manilatown that Lives which was several years after the eviction. Al started what he calls the Manilatown Senior Center, and the film was sort of a video to celebrate the opening of the place. It begins with a march to the I-Hotel pit. That was mid-eighties. In the early seventies, I got serious about doing stuff. So I actually went down to Tino's Barber shop, which was below the I-Hotel, and shot. There's actually a freestanding movie called Tino's Barber Shop, Quartet in Action. And these guys are playing their funky electric guitars. Tino's in there banging on a cymbal. Bill Sorrow is peeking in a window. All this stuff happening in a twenty minute piece.
APA: Do you still have left over footage that you could use? Or have you used most of it in Manilatown?
CC: There's still more footage. I have a lot of outtakes that could be used and have been archived. There's a lot more stuff of the I-Hotel being taken apart brick by brick. It's pretty agonizing to watch, but there's a fair amount of that.
APA: Al's ten-minute poetry performance could be a kind of short film itself. It pretty much serves as a stand alone and speaks for what the film is about.
CC: Yes, definitely. On the DVD you can go straight to the poem with the chapter breaks. Actually he also has a couple additional other poems. There's a reading he does, as well as tributes to him by Janice Mirikitani and Lou Syquia.
To watch the Manilatown is in the Heart trailer, click here.
Date Posted: 7/3/2009