Wake (Subic): An Interview with John Gianvito

By Aaron Cutler
Olhar de Cinema
une 7, 2016

John Gianvito is one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. His films register as records of a person reaching beyond himself. The American director’s work thinks through the damage that his country has inflicted upon the world and seeks out its sources with a hope for resistance to them. The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001) is a fiction film shot in New Mexico that sympathizes with an array of people from different races and social classes who have been harmed by the Gulf War. Profit motive and the whispering wind (2007) consists largely of visits throughout the United States to the gravestones of varied heroes and martyrs, giving a sense of how these people are being remembered at the present time. Far from Afghanistan (2012) is a film organized by Gianvito that consists of short works by several American filmmakers that view the Afghanistan War with anger, sadness, and frustration as they wonder what can be done to end it.

The director is also a programmer and teacher, and throughout his work, he seeks to educate himself along with others. Gianvito’s largest film project is a nine-hour work called For Example, the Philippines, which consists of two feature-length films, each one of which lasts over four hours. Together, they explore the impact of damage inflicted by toxic waste dumped from U.S. air and naval bases located in the Philippines, a former colony of the United States that that country’s government continued to occupy after colonization officially ended. Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010), named after Clark Air Base (which was abandoned in 1991), can be seen on YouTube in its entirety: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whgMegQX9Pk. Wake (Subic) (2015), named after the former naval base located in Subic Bay, will screen at Olhar de Cinema on June 10th and 15th: http://olhardecinema.com.br/2016/movie/despertar-subic/.

Gianvito shot the two films over the course of several trips he took to the Philippines. The films survey polluted land and patiently listen to people as they show and describe the impact of contaminated water upon they and their families’ minds and bodies. Still photographs and other archival materials are interwoven throughout the two films in illustration of the history between the United States and the Philippines, most notably the war of resistance by the First Philippine Republic against U.S. occupation known as the Philippine-American War (1899-1902). From his conversations with Filipinos, Gianvito discovers that this defeated struggle for independence is largely forgotten in the Philippines today, leading him to wonder how attitudes towards the current occupation of the Philippines would change if people were more aware of history.

The filmmaker approaches his work with great respect, both for the people that appear onscreen and for their film’s eventual viewers. Gianvito stays offscreen throughout, remaining present through the sound of his voice engaging with a broad range of Filipinos to learn about their circumstances. A question repeatedly appears in conversation – both explicitly and implicitly, and often without being answered – of what can be done to improve them.


Why did you make Wake (Subic)?

John Gianvito: This is a short question that would properly require a much lengthier answer than time permits at present. I can begin by simply stating that I could not not make this film, nor could I have made it differently. I speak with the voice that I have.

I had first read, in a 1999 Boston Globe exposé, the story of a tragedy that persists largely unabated until today.  For three summers between 2006 and 2008, I then traveled to the Philippines in an effort to document some measure of the human and environmental impact of toxic contamination around the site of the former U.S. naval and airbases in that country – the largest such bases that we had anywhere overseas up until the war in Iraq. Wake (Subic) completes a diptych first begun with my earlier film Vapor Trail (Clark). Together they comprise a nine-hour work which I call For Example, the Philippines; ‘for example’, because it documents a pattern of behavior and fallout that has been replicated in many parts of the world at many times.

As no story unfolds in a vacuum, the recounting of the frequently forgotten – though I would argue willfully suppressed – story of the Philippine-American War came to seem intrinsic to any proper understanding of the contemporary Philippines, serving as an object-lesson on the consequences of the erasure and contamination of history.


To what does the film’s title refer?

Gianvito: There are multiple resonances for me in this title. A wake is the trail left behind in the water after a ship passes. This film traces the legacy of the U.S. naval base’s departure from Subic Bay, and the title seemed to serve as an appropriate companion to that of Vapor Trail (Clark), which follows the similar impact of the closure of the Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

A wake is also a vigil held for the dead. I document a literal wake in the film, and throughout, respect is paid to countless fallen beings from the past and the present, including some dreams fallen to the wayside. As such, Wake also suggests a call to alertness, to wake up, rise up. Thus, embedded in the title is also a call to action.


How did you conduct the interviews included in the film?

Gianvito: The incorporation of interviews became necessary, since so many people had already passed away, and among the living it was not always evident from the outside what their illness was or how it was contracted. Throughout the process of making the two films, I was in continual conversation with representatives of an NGO called The People’s Task Force for Bases Clean-Up who had been intimately working within the affected communities for fourteen years prior to my arrival. While their role was initially as liaisons and interpreters, we came to work together much more closely than that, and early on, I made the decision to incorporate their stories as well.

As many of the people we visited spoke either limited English or none at all, I initially interviewed them through translators. I soon felt, though, that this would be visually problematic, as I would have to keep cutting every time the responses were being translated back to me. While there are various discreet edits in the interviews, I wanted to provide as much as possible the integrity of a sustained encounter with each person, not to reduce them to sound bites, or to being mere faces of statistics. Thus I encouraged the People Task Force representatives to conduct the interviews, as they well understood the kinds of concerns and questions I had. With people like the members of the Merino family in Wake (Subic), I intentionally aimed to move away from interviews and to try to offer a small window into the daily life and work of caring for disabled children. When conversations happened within the household, they just sprang up naturally, without a plan.


How does Wake (Subic) fit into your filmmaking? 

Gianvito: Like most everything I’ve done for the past twenty years or so, Wake (Subic) seeks to resurrect political history that’s been forgotten and suppressed as a means of critiquing State and corporate power. The form each work takes emerges rather organically, but I can say that they all grow out of a desire to make something that ideally resonates within the viewer long after the film has passed, not cinema to be quickly consumable and discarded. The goal is to examine the way the world works in a more layered fashion than we sometimes see, attempting to make the past answer to the present and perhaps vice-versa.

No matter how different each of my films may appear from one another, they seem to me recognizably part of the same family. Almost always there is exposure to the blight of what is wrought by the talons of insatiable imperialism, and almost always evidence of the myriad ways individuals strive and periodically succeed in pushing back. As the second part of a diptych begun with Vapor Trail (Clark), Wake (Subic) shares numerous parallel structures and connections with the former film. While each film is made to stand on its own, my hope is to eventually screen or package the films together.


The Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz composed music for Wake (Subic). How did that collaboration come about?

Gianvito: Lav and I had known each other casually for a few years, crossing paths at festivals in different parts of the world or sharing a beer with other Filipino filmmaker friends in Manila. It needs to be said clearly that I hold Lav in the highest regard as an artist and count his films among the most deeply poetic, most vital works of contemporary cinema, as well as among the saddest ever made. They are not only heart-rending but soul-rending visions, utterly unshakable once witnessed.

One day, the filmmaker Khavn De La Cruz gifted me with a CD that he had released of songs by Lav. It was a side of Lav’s creativity that I was less acquainted with at that time. After I had decided that I was making two films, not one, out of the material I was shooting in the Philippines, I also decided that there would be various mirroring structures within both works. I had already committed to the idea of incorporating a particularly stirring and non-traditional rendition of the classic Italian partisan song, “Bella Ciao,” in Vapor Trail (Clark). I played that version for Lav and asked if he might be open to the idea of recording a version in Tagalog. The eventual recording sessions were organized by our mutual friend, the late and great Filipino film critic Alexis Tioseco, a few weeks before he and his partner Nika Bohinc were senselessly murdered.

Not only did Lav agree to record his version of “Bella Ciao,” but he also wrote and recorded an additional song and sent it along as a surprise stating that it was a gift and I could use it, or not, as I saw fit. As you can imagine, I was incredibly touched—not only by the song itself (which was extraordinary), but also by such generosity, by such a gesture of solidarity. I ended up placing that song over the final credits in Vapor Trail (Clark).


What would you like to say to potential viewers of your film at Olhar de Cinema?

Gianvito: I recently happened upon a maxim shared by the documentary filmmaker Noriaki Tsuchimoto: “Remembering is Strength”. He believed this idea to be fundamental to the work of the documentary filmmaker.

I think that every country has its own story of suppressed and forgotten history, the consequences of which manifests itself daily in the world as we find it. I hope that viewers willing to venture into Wake (Subic) will not only become more aware of the on-going human and environmental tragedy unfolding in the Philippines and some of the reasons for its happening, but will also perceive some resonances with their own relations to concentrated state/corporate power and unchecked militarism. Remember that the film as an entirety is called For Example, the Philippines. Examples can be found almost everywhere you look, provided that you are willing to look.