“Troubled Ocean: Filmmakers Imagine the Pacific”

Viet Thanh Nguyen, in conversation with John Sayles and Vilsoni Hereniko, discuss Sayles’ and Hereniko’s films about the Vietnam War.

 


Here is the transcript:

Viet Nguyen:  John is going to read an excerpt from his novel A Moment in the Sun, which for those of you who have not read it or not seen it, it’s about 1,000 pages long and it’s an incredible epic about turn-of-the-century America, 1898 to 1902, which also includes Cuba, the Philippines, Hong Kong, North Carolina, Alaska, Hawaii. It’s an epic about the making of an imperial America, and its effect upon various Pacific neighbors, fortunate and unfortunate peoples.

Viet Nguyen:  We’ll start off with that and then after that we’ll have a conversation between the three of us about the making of your films and your careers as artists, filmmakers, and in Vilsoni’s case a playwright, too, and the relationship of all of that to the Pacific.

John Sayles: Okay, this is from a chapter that concerns one of the main characters in A Moment in the Sun, Diosdado Concepcion, who’s an educated kid who’s been studying in Manila, and without any military training finds himself a lieutenant leading a squadron of Filipino warriors from different parts of Luzon, who don’t necessarily even speak the same languages. It’s set right at the same time, but this is when the Filipinos were in a guerrilla war, retreat going north.

John Sayles: A rumor: A runner trots in from the west, looking exhausted. He sees Diosdado’s uniform, approaches and salutes. [foreign language 00:01:48] he gasps, catching his breath. You have a man here who speaks Americano?”

John Sayles: “I am that man.”

John Sayles: “They need you right away.” He points back the way he came. “Just down the road [foreign language 00:02:01] at the great tree.” Diosdado nods. “Stay and eat something before you go back.”

John Sayles: [foreign language 00:02:08] He leaves Sargento Bayani in charge and heads down the road to the west, refugees from Marilao eying him uneasily as they pass on their way to Bulacan. Hererra, who is the head of intelligence under General del Pilar, stands with a squad of bored-looking fusileros guarding an American prisoner under a huge kupang tree.

John Sayles:  The soldier is very young and very blond and very sunburned, looking scared and defiant at the same time as he sits with his hands bound behind his back. He doesn’t seem to be wounded. “Bring him out here.” Hererra’s men pull the boy to his feet and drag him out into the midday sun to face Diosdado. “You know what we want?” asks Hererra. Diosdado nods and walks around the soldier, who tries to keep a steady gaze, but has to blink as the sweat rolls into his eyes. “Your name?”

John Sayles:   “Winston Wall.”

John Sayles:  “What regiment are you in, Winston Wall?” The boy squints, frowns. “I don’t have to tell you nothin’.” Diosdado examines Wall’s uniform. They have good boots, all of them and go into battle with belts spiked full of ammunition. “You are a private in the Kansas Volunteers,” he says, “under Colonel Funston.” Wall tries to hawk on the ground, but can’t make enough spit. “Maybe I am, maybe I’m not.”

John Sayles: Diosdado speaks to Hererra in Tagalog. Some of the yanquis understand Spanish. “How was he captured?” Hererra smiles.”This yanqui cannot swim. We pulled him out downstream from the fight at Marilao.” Diosdado turns back to the private. The Kansas soldiers have already made a reputation. “It seems that your cupadres have abandoned you.”

John Sayles:   “I just got separated, that’s all.” The boy, taller by a head than Diosdado, lifts his chin and tries to look indifferent. “So you people going to shoot me?” Diosdado shakes his head but doesn’t smile. “Not now. Not here.”

John Sayles:  “Gone feed me then? I haven’t eaten for two days.” Diosdado nods at the fusileros, tiny-looking near the American, who follow their words with rapt incomprehension. Most have never seen a yanqui who wasn’t charging at them with a Springfield in hand. “When these men get to eat,” he says to the private, “I’m sure they’ll give you something. Did you fight at Caloocan?” The boy can’t help but grin. “That was one hell of a scrap. You boys give it to us pretty hot for a spell till they brung down the artillery on you and tore the hell outta that town. Then it was pretty much butt-and-bayonet drill.”

John Sayles:  “You executed prisoners.” They boy seems perplexed, frowning again. “I don’t know as how we held on to anybody long enough for them to be a prisoner,” he says finally. “Isn’t there some kinda rule about that?”

John Sayles:  “If a man is unarmed and surrendered, he is a prisoner. Such actions have their consequence.”

John Sayles:  “So you are gonna shoot me?” Diosdado looks up into the boy’s sunburned face. His nose has begun to peel. “That depends on what you can tell us.” The boy looks as if he will cry. “But I don’t know nothin’. I don’t even know where this is.”

John Sayles: “We are on a road between Marilao and Bulacan.”

John Sayles:  “I mean where this whole island is, like on a map. I never been out of Kansas till they shipped us out west, and I was sick on the boat the whole damn trip over. Come to that Hong Kong, they wouldn’t even let me ashore.” There isn’t much to know. The Americans are driving north and east from Manila and they had better rifles and better training and officers who speak the same language as their men, officers who weren’t constantly threatening to murder each other.

John Sayles “You had better think of something,” he says to Private Wall. “The people where they are taking you are very angry.”

John Sayles:   “I can tell you one thing.” The boy is shifting from one foot to the other and sweating heavily now. The yanquis have been in the country long enough to have the dysentery and if they stay through the humid months many will die. The Spanish cemetery in Manila is already full of muchachos who wasted away with disease and weren’t worth the trouble to ship their bodies back home.

John Sayles:  “I can tell you one damn thing,” he continues, “and that’s that you googoos don’t hold a prayer in this deal. Once Uncle sets his cap for something you can’t chase him off from it. We got an Army full of Injun fighters and wildass country boys and there ain’t a thing we like better than an old-fashioned rabbit hunt.” He jerks his head at Diosdado. “You’re as near to a white man as they got here. You ought to tell ’em they don’t have a show.”

John Sayles:                  Hererra, curious at the boy’s outburst, steps closer. “What is he saying?” Diosdado wonders how he would act if captured by the Americans, what posture of resolute defiance befits an officer of the Philippine Republic. “He tells me that we’re losing the war.” The captain smiles grimly. “I’ll pass that on to my superiors.” Diosdado gives Private Wall a last appraising look, then starts back to the village of Bulacan.

John Sayles:                  “Your prisoner is about to shit his pants,” he calls, “and then you’re going to have to smell him all the way to headquarters.” The first line of trenches in Bulacan is dug at the south end of the village, women and boys running with water held in joints of bamboo for their own men and for the soldiers who toil beside them. The Pampangano brothers have something resembling a tinola cooking, and many of the men are chewing on unripe mangoes they have knocked down. It is the time of day when Diosdado feels like he would resign his commission and surrender to the enemy in exchange for a café con leche and a bunuelo at La Campana on the corner of Escolta and San Jacinto.

John Sayles:  He had not appreciated the sweetness of his student days, the dreamlike quality of life in the Walled City, and now it is gone forever. “What was he like?” Asks Sargento Bayani, helping the men reinforce the trench walls with lengths of bamboo and palm trunks. “The prisoner?”

John Sayles:  “Big,” says Diosdado. “Like all of them. Giants. This I have seen.” Diosdado sits on top of the piled earth. His uniform pants can’t get any filthier. “Above all else, the americanos are not the Spanish.”

John Sayles:  “In what way?”

John Sayles:   “The Spanish are capable of wickedness. And they’re weary, 300 years of fighting us here.”

John Sayles:  “And the americanos?”

John Sayles:   “The americanos are innocent in the way a crocodile is innocent.” He has seen them shoot unarmed men, men begging to live, has seen them set fire to a palm-thatch hut to drive whoever is inside out onto their bayonets, but still they seem guileless, childlike in their murder. “Innocent and hungry,” he says. Bayani spits. “I grew up hungry. I mean hungry for everything. Hungry for our lands, our souls, hungry for the world. These people,” he waves to the south, to where he knows the Americans are marching, steadily moving forward, “they could devour every one of our islands and still not be satisfied.”

John Sayles: The capitan municipal of Bulacan shuffles up to Diosdado then, bowing twice as he approaches, and holds something out to him. It is a flintlock pistol from the time of the Peninsular War and smells like the cigar box it has been kept in. “My grandfather owned this,” he says. “He fought against the Spanish.”

John Sayles:  “All alone?”

John Sayles:  “Whenever they turned their backs. I offer it to the Cause.”

John Sayles:”Do you have bullets for it, hermano?” Asks Bayani. The man scratches his head. “My grandfather kept them hidden in a different place, so we wouldn’t be tempted to shoot each other. But he is dead now.”

John Sayles:  “After the battle has passed and you’ve come back,” says Diosdado, gently pushing the pistol back into the capitan’s hands, “send the children out into the field to pick up the shell casings. We have a factoria in San Fernando where they are filled and become bullets again.” [foreign language 00:10:32] “And when you talk to the yanqui officer who comes here to burn your village, tell him that you were forced to help us dig, that there were hundreds and hundreds of us and that you were afraid.”

John Sayles:  “If you wish, sir.”

John Sayles:   “When those boys who helped us raise the Filipino flag are a bit older-”

John Sayles:   “My sons, you mean?”

John Sayles:  “When your sons are a bit older, send them to join with us.” The capitan municipal is clearly troubled by the idea that the war may last so long. “But where will you be?”

John Sayles:  “With the Igorots,” smiles Bayani, “with the naked Igorots, the dog-eaters in the Cordillera. Sharpening our spears with the true Filipinos.”

Viet Nguyen:  We’ll have time for questions from the audience as well after our conversation. For those of you who did not see Vilsoni Hereniko’s film, The Land Has Eyes, it’s an intimate family drama about life on Rotuma, which is an island that’s a part of Fiji, which safe to say most people probably know very little about, but it’s also a place that was subjected to British colonization. John’s film is about American colonization in the Philippines.

Viet Nguyen:   The third film we’re going to show tonight is called Sunny. It’s a big-budget, Korean, romantic melodrama/epic about the Vietnam War, about the Korean soldiers who fought on the side of the United States, and very specifically about a Korean woman who decides that the only way that she can save her husband, who has volunteered to go fight in the Vietnam War, is to join a Korean pop band that’s going to go to Vietnam and entertain the troops, so that’s what she does. She volunteers and she travels across the ocean to Vietnam.

Viet Nguyen:   The reason that we had selected these three films is that we had wanted to talk about the varied experiences of colonization and warfare across the Pacific, but very specifically about histories that are not well known to people in the United States. Now the Philippine-American War has often been called the “forgotten war.” The histories of British colonization in Fiji are practically unknown here in the United States, and the role that Korea played in the Vietnam War has been totally forgotten, even though Korea was the US’s biggest ally during that time.

Viet Nguyen: My first question is, as filmmakers, as writers, John’s a novelist also and Vilsoni’s a playwright, what are the challenges of trying to make movies about history that your audiences for the most part probably will not know anything about? What are the challenges you were thinking of as you picked your subject and as you were making these films?

Vilsoni Herenik:            Thank you, yeah. For me, coming from a very small, minority group, the challenges I would say are enormous, but a lot of these challenges, I suspect, are the same for any filmmaker anywhere. For me particularly, for a start, it’s the fact that the way people act and behave and think about the world, and for example, the influence of the ancestors who are supposedly dead but are still very influential in people’s lives, the supernatural world, so to speak, is so dominant in people’s lives that to communicate that unseen world to a global audience in which that world is more or less very dim or dead or very distant, it’s a barrier that I find myself trying to bridge, perhaps not very successfully.

Vilsoni Herenik: Those of you who saw The Land Has Eyes will know what I’m talking about. The final scene, for example, with the spirit world being the final arbiter of justice is something that I think would be very foreign to many mainstream audience members. That’s just typical of the many challenges. For a start, the language barrier and the loss of cultural specificity as you try to meet the needs of a mass audience.

Vilsoni Herenik:  For example, the beginning of The Land Has Eyes the father starts telling the founding myth of the island by saying [foreign language 00:15:13] and then the family members say [foreign language 00:15:16] actually is an invocation to the spirit world to enter the father’s heart and mind so he would deliver words that would have power, would have manner, would have efficacy.

Vilsoni Herenik:   Now, to translate that to English, I thought and thought about how to do that, so I ended up with “once upon a time,” which to me is so reductive, and I’m so aware of how much that I’ve lost in that translation. That goes right throughout the films. There are one or two very powerful ancient proverbs, one that says [foreign language 00:16:00] which means, “When you’re up on the tree and you’re trying to break that branch that is full of fruit, whether it’s oranges or mangoes, make sure you break it,” because if you don’t while you’re stuck up there and the people down there aren’t going to benefit either, so all that is for nought.

Vilsoni Herenik: How do I translate that to an audience? I thought and thought, so it ended up becoming “You must complete what you set out to do.” That’s what the father tells the girl and that’s how I translate it, but for Rotumans when I was growing up for example, that proverb was what made me persevere and what made me determined to succeed. I know it was so powerful and meaningful to me, but when I translate it to “You must complete what you set out to do,” it hardly touches any part of my body at all in English.

Vilsoni Herenik:   Fortunately for me, I have the language to fall back on and to have that resonance that I know is missing. I will pass on to John, but that’s just one of the many challenges that I find myself facing.

John Sayles:  Yeah, I think for me, and I’ve done a lot of things, let’s say, outside my own culture or outside my own subculture. For me, in making a story of it, some of what you can do is for the audience’s sake, is lean on the audience’s own experience, not with the world that they’re seeing in the movie, but with movies themselves. That’s why very often some of the most successful movies that bring us into another world are generic movies.

John Sayles:  People can at least say, “Oh, this is like a Western,” or “This is a horror movie,” or there’s elements of horror movie magical realism in your movie. That is comforting in a way, but also just that people recognize recognizable human behavior. A lot of what I tried to do with Amigo is start with a very, very human story.

John Sayles:  I’ve often said that this is a movie that the character that Joel Torre plays, the Mayor, could have been set in France during the Nazi occupation, in Algeria during the French occupation, in Vietnam during the French-Japanese or American occupation, of that small village mayor who wakes up every morning wondering, “How much can I cooperate without collaborating and betraying my people and myself, and how much can I resist without getting killed and getting my people killed?”

John Sayles:  That’s a very human … There’s a line in Amigo where the colonel says, “We’re trying to win these people’s hearts and minds.” Most of us associate that with the Vietnam War. Teddy Roosevelt said that in 1900 and it’s from the Bible. There was some Roman officer in Judea when they were having trouble with the Israelites or whatever, who was saying, “Well, we have to win their hearts and minds first.” Then the next thing he said, “The hell with their hearts and minds, let’s just kill a bunch of them and maybe they’ll behave.”

John Sayles: You take those basic human things and then you do your historical and emotional research and try to get into the minds. It’s an unusual war movie in that you spend time with both sides. In fact, you can spend time with three sides, because you spend time with the people caught in between the villagers instead, and try to get into “What do they know?”

John Sayles:  A lot of what I try to do is, the audience has an advantage that none of the characters do, which is they can read the subtitles. They see scenes that the opposition never sees, so all of these people are acting in ignorance, not stupidity but ignorance. They don’t know enough about the other people probably to know they shouldn’t even be fighting each other.

John Sayles: The basic tenet of the Philippine-American War in the first couple years because it was volunteer soldiers, most of those soldiers had, out of the goodness of their hearts, some of them wanted to be warriors, but seeing pictures in the newspaper of Cubans who were held in concentration camps. That was the Spanish word for them, who looked like people from Auschwitz in our memory.

John Sayles:  They said, “That can’t happen in our hemisphere. I’m going to join this fight against the Spanish. I’m going to free the Cuban people from those awful Spaniards.” They waited a week or two too long and their unit happened to get shipped to Filipino and after a one-day fake war with the Spanish, all of a sudden they were told, “Oh, you know who our enemy actually is here? Those Filipinos.” Some of them bought it, some of them liked it, some of it did it despite the fact [inaudible 00:21:04] and some of them said, “What the hell am I doing here taking liberty away from the people I was supposed to free?”

Viet Nguyen:  You mentioned the figure of the mayor in your film as a common trope, the collaborator who is in a really difficult situation, but another figure was the translator, the father, the padre in the film. There’s also a translator in Vilsoni’s film-

John Sayles:    Both of them false translators.

Viet Nguyen:  That’s exactly right, they’re both false translators, they are really prototypical figures in colonialism. Can you trust a translator or is a translator going to betray you? They’re going to have an agenda [crosstalk 00:21:40] colonialism, right. I want you to talk about that, but also it seemed to me that both of you are also occupying positions as translators, too, because you’re telling stories to audiences that will most likely be, at least in the United States, will be uninformed about the stories and the histories themselves.

Viet Nguyen:                Inevitably, audiences will look at the two of you with hope that you would do a faithful job translating, of following through on the claims that you’re making about these representations that you’re putting forth. Yeah, maybe talk a bit about the figures of the translators in the films, but then also yourselves as possible translators, too.

Vilsoni Herenik:  Yes, in The Land Has Eyes the translator of course mistranslated. That is absolutely based on a real life incident in my own family. My father was charged with stealing coconuts and a translator said exactly the same words. Over the years that was passed down as part of my family’s history, and the shame that came with that. One of the reasons I made this movie is to redeem my father’s name, but part of the reason they mistranslate is because, in such a small community people are so interconnected.

Vilsoni Herenik:  A land in the case of Rotuma is not owned individually, it’s owned communally, copra being the only means of making any money. It was easy for people to steal each other’s coconuts, which seems like such a silly thing to be in court about. You can imagine that poor white officer who has to be sitting there all day trying to deliberate who steals whose coconuts, right? It’s a situation that lends itself to forging alliances with those in power, which tends to be what happens in that case.

Vilsoni Herenik: That incident is based on a real life event that happened to my family. For me as someone who, as you say, is trying to translate my culture to film or to plays or into stories that I write, I’m aware of an enormous responsibility as an artist to portray my people, the Rotuman people, with complexity, as fully human, right? There’s some of us that are wonderful and some that are evil, and some that are caught in between.

Vilsoni Herenik: Before I made The Land Has Eyes, I thought that my people were just absolutely wonderful until I went to make it there and all the obstacles that stood in the way of my making the film. I should acknowledge my wife’s contribution, Jeannette Paulsen, mostly because I would not have made that film without she believing in me. Can we ask Jeannette to please stand up? There she is, yes, yeah. Thank you.

Vilsoni Herenik:Jeannette found all the money, but the thing is, I never went to film school but I’ve always been interested in storytelling right from an early age. My father is the father in the story telling the family the myths and legends of the island, so with Jeannette’s empowerment of me and the fact that she believed that I could venture into filmmaking, that was why we ended up making that. In making that I was fully aware that I had to represent my people as accurately as I could.

Vilsoni Herenik: Of course, whatever we put out there is always a partial truth, because you can never accurately and completely portray a complexity of a whole culture, of a whole people, but knowing that that is the ideal that you aim for and also the fact that I had been teaching a course on representations of Pacific Islanders in film, I’m very aware that I needed to deliver a better representation, a more accurate representation than perhaps most other filmmakers who have not had time to reflect and to analyze and to critique the way native people have been portrayed over the years.

Vilsoni Herenik:  If I can just mention a screening that we had in Moscow in Russia, and watching the Russians seeing the movie and having someone translate it simultaneously. You could hear a pin drop. No one made any noise. It was all very silent and quiet. I wondered if they were seeing the same movie that I was seeing. I was actually quite worried. I thought, “Wow! Here I am amongst the people,” and one of the questions someone asked was, “Are the colors really like that? They just seem too green or too blue.”

Vilsoni Herenik:            I was so aware of the huge chasm between my culture and Russian culture and the fact that, for these people, that was the only representation they would ever get about my culture and what a huge responsibility for me to do as best a job I could in those circumstances. Yes, as a translator you try your best not to mistranslate, but sometimes, because it’s not just you doing your job, other people will have to bring their own reading of whatever you are doing. Sometimes I think there’s a disconnect there and there’s not much you can do about it.

John Sayles: Yeah, translation’s a really interesting thing. The first short story that I ever had translated into another language was a story called The Anarchists’ Convention, and it’s in first person. It’s narrated by a woman in very thick, New York Jewish, left-wing dialect, and it was translated into Japanese. I have no idea if they did a good job, but I know they didn’t get the rhythm. It’s impossible to get that rhythm except in that rhythm.

John Sayles: It’s almost like you took the music soundtrack off of a movie and you’re watching the movie. What I also know however, is I’m a huge fan of Akira Kurosawa’s movies, and watched most of them more than once and feel like I know them very well, but then I’ve sat with somebody Japanese and talked about those movies. They’ll say, “Wasn’t it wonderful that the kimono the guy was wearing, the [foreign language 00:28:30] the guy was wearing had this design on it. Of course, that means that he’s a Buddhist.”

John Sayles:    I realize I’m getting maybe 70% of the movie and that somebody Japanese who understands that Ronin period or whatever, is going to get closer to 100%. What you hope is that there’s enough there. That’s why I was talking about that basic human thing, which is the Russian audience wanted to know what happened next to that little girl, and they got caught up in her story, so of course there’s things that they don’t get.

John Sayles Of course there’s things that the people on the island are going to get and they’re going to think are funny or inaccurate or totally accurate or whatever, that nobody else is even going to notice, but there’s still that basic human thing. I think it’s one of the reasons that we tell stories. Very often in my movies, and this is one of the things that is why I’m still an independent filmmaker, meaning somebody who can’t get money to make movies, that’s how you translate that phrase, is that I’ve made a bunch of movies where there are subtitles because there’s not another way, if somebody is just speaking English with a thick accent, to believe that the other person really doesn’t understand what they’re saying.

John Sayles: I’m interested in the things that separate us as human beings and that we allow to separate us from human beings, and language is one of them. A translator, they may even be trying their hardest, but it’s like your translator, he doesn’t speak the native language very well. He’s been gone too long and the chiefs are laughing at him at the end. “What’s he talking about? Where did he learn how to speak our language?” It happens all the time, is somebody may mistranslate not because they have an agenda, but just because they claim to speak the language better than they actually do.

Viet Nguyen:   I have many more questions but let’s see if there’s any questions from the audience.

Audience:  [crosstalk 00:30:34] About six years ago I watched Matewan and that was one of the early films that I watched. It inspired me to be a filmmaker, and now that you’ve released Amigo and I’m thinking what advice would you give someone who wants to make a film about colonial [inaudible 00:30:53] Filipinos?

John Sayles:  My main practical advice is to do something like I did here, which is I studied for my novel the history of the entire Philippine-American War, but when I went to make a movie there I set it on a village level, because I could afford it. This is a three-horse army movie. It’s a war movie with a limited number of people in it, but I felt like there’s a good story that stands for something bigger and stands for the bigger conflict, so that you’re not spending all your time and money on the scale of the thing, but on the human importance of the story that you want to tell.

John Sayles:   When you’re thinking about it, you condense your feelings about that mentality and then you say, “Okay, what’s a good arena to tell that story in? Can it be a single family?” This movie is really, you see a neighborhood. You don’t see the whole island, and at the end the girl says, “Well, most of us are related to each other.” You really see only about three or four families interacting, and that’s one of the reasons that everything is so heavy, because these people can’t move away from each other.

John Sayles:   I think a lot of it is to say, “Let’s bite off something that I can chew. Let’s make my first movie cost $40,000.” I had that budget and I said, “What can I do well for $40,000?” rather than “What’s the most ambitious thing I can think of and how am I ever going to raise that much money?”

Audience:In Amigo, I think I counted maybe five languages being spoken, so continuing with the theme of translation as a writer, as a director, what are the challenges of directing in so many languages?

John Sayles:   Well, I do speak Spanish, so that wasn’t a problem. I do speak English. What’s an interesting thing, I had made a movie called Men With Guns, [foreign language 00:32:57] in Mexico, set in an imaginary Latin American country. A lot of my actors were not speaking either Spanish or English. They were speaking indigenous languages that I don’t understand. One of the things that I learned from that was that there was actually an interesting advantage in directing when, although I knew what the scene was about, because I had written it, and I had for instance asked the actors to translate it into [foreign language 00:33:28] or [foreign language 00:33:28] or whatever language was being spoken.

John Sayles:  I could forget about the musical note that I thought they should hit on a certain word that directors fight to not have in their head, but it’s hard not to, and really look at that performance in terms of emotion and focus. When I auditioned the Filipino actors for this, I auditioned them in Tagalog. We had a very good local guy who did a translation and the actors would come in and say, “Oh, this is really deep Tagalog. This is like my grandfather spoke,” because I asked him to write it not only in Tagalog, but period Tagalog, appropriate to the character’s educational level and personality and stuff like that.

John Sayles:  They would do their parts. One of the women there, the woman whose daughter is killed and goes crazy, she doesn’t have hardly any lines, so I wrote in English, half page little monologue about a woman who goes to the hospital and she thinks her daughter just has the flu or something, and is told that her daughter died. I said, “Go out, I’m going to give you half an hour. Translate this into Tagalog and come back and do it for me.” She came back and made me cry in a language I don’t speak. I said, “She’s hired.”

John Sayles:  Some of what it is, is that there’s a quality of truth and emotion that an actor can have that has nothing to do with the words they’re saying. A lot of what I did in this case is, as I was cutting it, I cut it without having it translated first. Then my assistant editor, Mario Ontal, and Tagalog’s his second language but at least he speaks it, he listened very carefully and every once in a while he said, “I think you’ve got one word on the end of this cut and the same word on the beginning of the other, and so we have to slide things around a little bit,” but I had the emotion of the scene and the rhythm of the scene the way that I wanted it to.

John Sayles: Then the other thing that you have to deal with is, what do people do when they’re talking to each other and they don’t speak each other’s language? How does that affect them? The nice thing is that most of my American actors, their characters had to deal with Tagalog speaking people, they read the script once, and then they forgot what the other guy said in English and they used the two-language script.

John Sayles:  They really didn’t understand what the person they were speaking with was saying, but they had to watch them for “What do I think he’s saying? What are those physical things that he’s giving me?” There’s a different kind of attention, unless they’re the character who just says, “[inaudible 00:36:22] I don’t even want to listen to what this person is saying. I can’t understand it. Why doesn’t he speak English? What is he, stupid?” That’s another character-appropriate reaction.

Viet Nguyen: Yes, this one.

Audience:  Hi, I’d like to ask a simple question [inaudible 00:36:45] The movie mentioned you have to win the hearts and minds of the people and the other movies you have to work harder for the subtext. Anyway, my question is [inaudible 00:36:59] and during the night time, one side moves out and the other side comes in. They say, “We’re so hungry, we cook with some food and we hide some weapons in the barn. Don’t tell anybody.” Then in the daytime they move on and the other side comes in and then they say, “Oh, you fed the enemy. You’re a traitor.”

Audience:  Then, “Did you hide any weapons? Did they hide any weapons?” What choice do they have? If they say no, if they find the weapons they will be killed. You say show the weapons and the other side comes in [inaudible 00:37:40] and “Oh, you told them where our weapon is.” They kill them all, so what choice do the people have in between those [inaudible 00:37:49]

John Sayles: Yeah, it’s one of the reasons this movie I mentioned before is called Men With Guns, and it doesn’t say one side or the other. It’s truly about the people who are caught in between. If you live in one of those villages, you’re pretty far from the political center of thought in your country. When men with guns show up, it doesn’t matter what uniform they’re wearing or whether they’re occupiers or from your country, it’s bad, it’s trouble.

John Sayles: All I think it is, I feel bad for those people. Most of the people who are victims in war are not combatants, whether they die from being caught in the crossfire, or from starvation because the fields haven’t been tilled, or from disease after wars, which is the history of the world, their bad luck is to be caught in between some awful civil war or war between countries or crusades or something like that.

John Sayles: What you try to do is, people try to survive however they can, to protect their own families if they can, and they have the resources or the courage or whatever. They try to protect some other people. They do the best they can, is the only answer, but what I think is important, what I try to do in this is, it’s very hard to judge people who are in that situation. Filipino historians are all now struggling with this thing, is “Who are our heroes? Who was a sell-out?” At what point Aguinaldo, when he surrendered, who was the big general and the President of the Philippine Republic, he said, “Okay, they caught me. Everybody give up.”

John Sayles:  Well there were Filipino generals all over the islands who said, “Well, they didn’t catch me. We’re fighting for another two months.” There was one Filipino general, Ricarte, who never gave up, went into exile, was jailed by the Americans, went and ran a restaurant in Japan, came back with the Japanese, and ended up working for them, killing Filipino guerrillas who were fighting against the Japanese. As far as he was concerned, he was the only person who wasn’t a sell-out, even though most Filipinos said, “This guy is a madman.”

John Sayles: It’s so hard to judge and that’s mostly what I think when I look at those situations is, I don’t know what I would do if I was caught in that situation. As I said, the guy wakes up every morning and he says, “Well, what can I get away with? What do I have to do? What’s the best thing for my people?” There’s no honorable or right way out of it. You just play it by ear the best you can, and in this movie there really wasn’t a way out for him, because he had that position.

John Sayles: One of the things that inspired me to do this movie is I ran across the statistic that hundreds, if not thousands, of these [foreign language 00:40:55] these village mayors, were killed by one side or the other during the Philippine-American War because they couldn’t please both sides.

Viet Nguyen: That was certainly true for Vietnam, too, I think, for all these kinds of conflicts. Did you want to answer that question?

Vilsoni Herenik: Yeah, if I could just use an analogous situation, many of you probably know that Fiji at the moment is a dictatorship. We have had four military coups since the British gave Fiji independence in 1970. A large part of the reasons, particularly for the first three coups was because there are two major races, the Fijians and the Indians, about 50-50, so racial tensions and conflict was one of the reasons why the country was falling apart. The Rotumans, my people, are caught in the middle of this struggle for power between the Fijians and the Indians.

Vilsoni Herenik:  We have often, as an ethnic group, tried to stay neutral in the middle, but we find ourselves being pulled in different directions. The Chief Justice for example, in the most recent coup, came from our island, a Rotuman. He ended up being a casualty of this struggle and he lost his job and he’s fled to another island. That’s just as an example, but also for the Rotuman people, we are sometimes seen as indigenous to Fiji, right, because we have our own language and our own culture, and we had been forced in a way to be part of Fiji.

Vilsoni Herenik: We see ourselves as very different and that sometimes works to our disadvantage. For example, at the moment the government rules by decrees, right, so you wake up one morning and all of a sudden everyone in Fiji who’s a citizen is supposed to be called Fijian, right? A large part of the reason is, because that would work to their advantage of the Indians, all right, to be called Fijians, because they would feel more connected to the land, having lived there for more than a hundred years, many of them.

Vilsoni Herenik:  However, for the Rotuman people, my own people, we don’t want to be called Fijians because we were Rotumans. To be called Fijians by decree would mean a loss of our own identity. Anyway, that’s just an example of how being caught in the middle is a no-win situation quite often.

Viet Nguyen: Vilsoni, John’s made 18 movies. He makes it look very easy. I’m sure it’s not, but he makes it look easy.

Vilsoni Herenik: Yes, I know.

Viet Nguyen:This is your first film. How hard was it to make this movie?

Vilsoni Herenik: Maybe if I can just touch him, through osmosis it will come to me. Well, as I said, I never went to film school. I think it was because my wife and I had just gotten married and we were madly in love. Both of us are storytellers that, I don’t know, looking back, if I knew how difficult it was then, I never would have done it, because I was just horrified at the huge leap of faith that we took.

Vilsoni Herenik: I can only say that the film was completed because we had the backing of the ancestors, of the spirit world, because of the number of things that happened, that to me are unexplainable, but through a series of events and coincidences, we were able to complete the film. For example, by the time we finished shooting we had run out of money and so the film was in the can for about two years. There didn’t seem to be any way we could finish it, and then some Maori woman heard about it and came through and offered us her editing suite in Coromandel in New Zealand, flew me over there for three years, got an editor, the third editor to cut the film.

Vilsoni Herenik: Somehow we managed to pull it all together. There are so many instances along the way that indicated to me that I was destined to make this film for the Rotuman people. There were angels along the way who came and rescued the situation. If I can give you one quick example of the first sign that came to me that I was supposed to make the movie, I pitched it to a Rotary Club in Fiji. There was no money in the bank. Told a story and there were about 11 men and one woman, business woman.

Vilsoni Herenik:  At the end of that an Indian man said to me, “Come to my office on Friday and we’ll talk about your film.” I went there and he said, “I know you don’t know me, but when I heard you tell your story about growing up and how you wanted to make a feature film drawing from those experiences, and how when the rain fell the roof leaked and you had to put a saucepan out there, I said to myself, ‘That is my story.’ Now I’m an architect, but those are the humble beginnings I came from, and I really want you to tell that story.”

Vilsoni Herenik: Then he reached under the table, took out a brown paper bag, and put it on the table and said, “Now, take this, open an account, and put it in the bank.” I said, “What’s in there?” He said, “$5,000, notes.” I don’t know what an architect is doing. Maybe it was drug money, I don’t know. I said “5,000?” He said, “Yes. I’m sorry, that’s all I can afford.” I just burst into tears, right?

Vilsoni Herenik:  I burst into tears because for a total stranger to believe in me, someone who’s never made a movie before, right, that I could pull this off, I was just … My first thought was, “Why would anyone believe in me?” Right? I said to him, “What do you expect out of this 5,000?” He said, “Well, when you have finished the movie, you invite me and my wife and give us two complimentary tickets.”

Vilsoni Herenik:  About seven years later I finished it, took it to Fiji, and I invited him and his wife to come and see the preview in Fiji, but that’s just an example of how all along the way I felt that there were signs that I was meant to make this film. Other than that, it was just pure passion, pure, I don’t know, stupidity, that made us make it. I think you have to be a little crazy to make an independent film.

John Sayles: There’s that line in the movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it, he will come,” and we’ve made a couple movies that way, where we started the movie thinking that we were going to get investors. Otherwise, we’re going to have to pay it for ourselves and we didn’t necessarily have the money to do it. Since I’ve been there I can tell you, sometimes he doesn’t come.

Viet Nguyen: Question in the back there, in the orange shirt.

Audience: Has this movie been shown in a place like Vietnam?

John Sayles: I don’t think it’s played in Vietnam. We premiered it in the Philippines in most of the major cities. I think we had the week between Avatar and a Harry Potter movie, so we had a one-week window to get into some of their better cinemas. It was a really interesting reaction. The press reaction was not so much movie criticism but “Well, let’s hear more about this history.” I hope one of the legacies that it leaves is inspiring Filipino filmmakers, of which there are many very good ones, and a lot of young people who are really starting to find ways to get things made by hook or crook, to get interested in this period, because there’s so many stories from this period.

John Sayles: It’s such an important part of Filipino history and why Filipinos are who they are, but no, it hasn’t played in Vietnam. An interesting thing happened in New York. We opened the movie in a commercial theater in New York City, and when you do these kind of things and you do Q&As, usually the person who’s the host says, “Don’t call on the lady with the big, purple hat,” because there’s somebody in the audience. I called the wrong guy and he got up and he’d made a documentary and just really started saying terrible things about the movie.

John Sayles: He was an Anglo guy and his problem was that it wasn’t anti-American enough. All of a sudden my 20-minute Q&A period, I didn’t have to say a single other thing because the audience started having an argument with him and they were all Puerto Rican people. They said, “This is our history. Shut up, and we want a movie like this about our island.” Where it gets out, I think people find, whether they’re familiar with this history or if it’s their history at all, they can find things in it that speak to their own situation.

John Sayles:  The other interesting thing that happened is, as we took it around the Philippines, the most troubled reactions we got were in the areas where there used to be US Army bases and there were often Catholic academies. What you could tell was young men would become very troubled and say, “You mean the United States was not the hero?” They’re thinking World War Two and you got the feeling that most of their family were in the American military and this seemed not only anti-American but anti-military to them.

John Sayles: They had so little of their own history, it’s been taught so little there. When the United States took over the country, we took over the education, did some wonderful things, made it much more democratic. Only rich kids got educated before the Americans came there, but the people who came were known as the Thomasites because they came on a boat called the USAT Thomas. They told the official story.

John Sayles: The official story is, and this is what Joel Torre, who is 50-something, who grew up with a good Catholic education was told. “Oh, the Spanish occupied us and colonized us for 300 years. Then they sold us to the Americans for $20 million.” No war, no resistance, no 15 to 20 years of killing. Yeah, as it goes around I’m always interested in what the reaction is because there’s that reaction of people who, “Well, I should have known this.” There’s that reaction of, “I don’t want to know this.” Then there’s that reaction of, “This has nothing to do with me except on a human level.”

Viet Nguyen:Time for one last question. Marcia?

Marcia: This is a question for Vilsoni. You said several times that the film was really telling your story and I wondered if you could talk a little bit about your decision to make it a young woman, a young girl, instead of a male and the implications of this?

Vilsoni Herenik: Yes, well, thank you. When I first started writing the screenplay, it was a young boy about the same age, and I was drawing very heavily from my own experiences. Then one day I got writer’s block and I felt that I had mined all those experiences that I’d had. I was telling my wife, Jeannette, and she said, “Well, why don’t you change the gender and make the boy a girl?” At first, I thought, “A girl? How can I think like a girl? I don’t know what it’s like to be a girl at that age,” but then I said to myself, “Well, I’m supposed to be a fiction writer. I should try this and see what happens.”

Vilsoni Herenik: I then changed the gender to be a girl and once I did that, a number of things started falling into place because as the young girl it seemed like it was easier for her to identify with the Warrior Woman, the first ancestors of the island that begins the story, and also the Ritual Clown at weddings, who’s always a woman who overturns the political hierarchy and relives, retells the story of the first woman.

Vilsoni Herenik: I ended up with these three generations of very powerful women and I think that was very good for the story. Then I started to think, “Okay, if she’s about 13, 14, she’s hitting puberty. She’s becoming aware of sweet fragrances, the flowers. Maybe she’s going to have her first period, which is where the blood comes from that she paints on her cheek, so I was beginning to enjoy feeling and thinking like a girl. It’s wonderful. We should all try it sometimes and change genders and see what it’s like.

Vilsoni Herenik:  In terms of the fiction writing, because if you’re not prepared to do that then you’re very much stuck in your own narrow world. I think one of the things that is good about that is it allows me to empathize more, even if it was just in my mind, thinking what it must be like. Also, in Rotuman culture, we are supposed to take turns, so if you are the youngest … I’m the youngest of 11 children, right, so those above me, older than me, are supposed to have the first opportunity, for example, to go to Fiji.

Vilsoni Herenik:  Her older sister, Hanisi, is supposed to be the first to go to Fiji. That’s what all that sibling rivalry was about. She’s boasting, “I came first in my class. I’ll go to Fiji.” She was rubbing salt into the wound, so to speak. Making her a girl meant that the obstacles are much more difficult for her, because boys are privileged over girls. The oldest of the three is the son, but he wasn’t very bright in school. Anyway, the point is that, by changing genders, the obstacles for Viki were much greater than it would have been if she were a boy. I think in terms of the story and there being the three generations and the obstacles that she had to overcome it was much better for the story.

Vilsoni Herenik: The other interesting thing is, though we shot this film before Whale Rider … Some of you probably have seen Whale Rider. Hands up if you’ve seen it. Wow! See, Whale Rider is perhaps one of the best known feature films made from Oceania, set in Oceania. It’s about a girl about the same age. Now, it just happened when our film was languishing in the can, Whale Rider came out. When it came out, my first thought was, “Oh, my God, what will people think? They’ll think we copied the story from Whale Rider,” whereas we had shot it first.

Vilsoni Herenik:  Anyway, in some ways it worked in our favor because we were able to ride on the crest of that successful wave of Whale Rider a little bit, so I think that was how it happened. Jeannette Hereniko is to blame for the change of the gender of the protagonist from a boy based on my childhood to that of a girl, but in terms of the incidents and the events that happened, a large part of that was drawn from my real life experiences.

Vilsoni Herenik: I should mention that I made Noa, the boy, a little younger than her, because I didn’t want to get into the stereotype of a love relationship developing between the two. I’ve also, if I can make a confession, I am partial to older women, because you can learn so much more from them. Thank you.

Viet Nguyen: Our next film is Sunny. It’s going to be at 6:15. It’s a spectacular and entertaining film. Hopefully, you’ll come back for that, but for now what’s going to happen is, John will do a book signing outside in the lobby. Hopefully the bookseller has shown up and you’ll have a chance to meet both of them. Also, there’s a lot of food out there, so hopefully you’re hungry. Please eat. If there’s leftovers, please take them home and then see you again at 6:15. Thank you to both of you. Thank you to Visions and Voices, too, for funding this program.

John Sayles: Thank you.

Vilsoni Herenik: Thank you.

 

Category: Interviews

 

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