For Nika Bohinc and Alexis Tioseco
There are some people you like straight away. Nika Bohinc, editor of the Slovenian magazine Ekran for four years (2005-9), was one of these people. I first met her in July 2007, at a film event in Zagreb inspired by Movie Mutations, the book I co-edited with Jonathan Rosenbaum. She had made the trip from Ljubljana with several of her comrades – just one sign of the enormous dedication of Slovenia’s current generation of intellectual cinephiles. Nika liked the way I introduced films (by Ruiz and Garrel), and so – impulsively, empathetically, definitely, the way she seemed to decide so many things in her life and work – I quickly became part of her plan for a Summer School on Independent Cinema, held as part of the Ljubljana International Film Festival three months later.
I shall never forget the moment I arrived at the Festival centre. I looked up from the registration desk and saw Nika’s face – with that warm, grateful, complicit, cheeky smile I came to know well. Her instant embrace told me that mere comradeship was over; friendship had begun. Indeed, the entire Summer School turned out to be organised around Nika’s friends: Christoph Huber, Neil Young, Gabe Klinger – an unlikely coalition of critics from Austria, UK, Australia and USA. Plus one other key speaker whose relationship to Nika had moved past friendship: Alexis Tioseco, raised in Canada, resident of the Philippines. Nika told me, in a private moment outside a club, about her excitement, mixed with nervousness, about leaving Slovenia to live with Alexis in the Philippines.
Nika, almost 30, and Alexis, 28, are dead – victims of a gruesome murder in Manila on 1 September 2009. Shot in the doorway of their house by thieves, their death resonates eerily with the short film Butterflies Have No Memories by Lav Diaz – one of the Philippine filmmakers tirelessly championed and promoted by Alexis. Where Nika felt only intermittent closeness to her national cinema – she once boasted to me how she had managed to feature a certain new Slovenian release in Ekran without betraying her low editorial opinion of it – Alexis had taken up the New Philippine Cinema, indeed Southeast Asian cinema as whole, as his cause. The recognition that Philippine cinema has gained over the past few years belongs to filmmakers such as Diaz, Raya Martin, Khavn De La Cruz and Sherad Anthony Sanchez – but it also belongs to Alexis, who was the fervent critical spokesman for that movement. I can look up from my computer right now and, like many cinephiles around the world, see all the DVD copies of key Philippine films, new or old (but all independent) that Alexis sent to me.
I had first heard from Alexis, via email, in 2004. I spotted him in the audience a year later, in Singapore, at a conference on Hou Hsiao-hsien: like Nika, he was a committed follower of film culture, wherever it took him. Alexis was harder to get to know than Nika: he had a quiet, reserved, excessively polite and deferential side. His sense of loyalty to his family – even though the family’s wishes for his career conflicted with his own cinephile desire – was very clear and determining on his life-choices. But he was also a joker, with a fine antenna for gossip, a killer gift for mimicry (as I discovered, mortified, when he copied my dulcet Aussie tones) and a matter-of-fact willingness to tell you if you had got something wrong.
I chided Alexis when, in 2005, he launched his invaluable website Criticine by citing Olaf Möller’s hysterical denunciation of Movie Mutations (in a pre-Nika issue of Ekran!). But Alexis, in fact, made Olaf’s point made more eloquently and rightly: “It is necessary that the written word of writers native to a country’s cinema reach the world at large, for their insights – that can only be gleaned from one that lives and breathes the history, culture, and air of the work’s origin – is important. Cinema must be dialogue.” Fittingly, in light of that ideal, Alexis’ university teaching was legendary: he had students willing, indeed enthusiastic, to see a Lav Diaz film for the whole of a Saturday.
In a public letter that has been widely distributed on the Internet since that tragic day, Alexis declared to Nika: “The first impulse of any good film critic, and to this I think you would agree, must be of love. To be moved enough to want to share their affection for a particular work or to relate their experience so that others may be curious. This is why criticism, teaching, and curating or programming, in an ideal sense, must all go hand in hand.” Both of them lived by that creed.
Both of them, too, spent the short span of their adult lives fighting against the film bureaucracies of their respective countries – overbearing in the Slovenian instance, indifferent in the Philippine case. They experienced disillusionment with their myopic, local, national film cultures (as do we all), but found solace in a wider world, a fragile community of like-minds and soul-siblings discovered through Film Festivals, publishing and the Internet. Ekran, under Nika’s guidance, pursued this fine ‘line of flight’ – her final issue (February-March 2009), for instance, heralded Miguel Gomes’ Our Beloved Month of August, a Portuguese film she (like me) dearly loved, on its front cover. Nika was a tenacious internationalist, but also nobody’s fool; she shared with me her awareness (as another ‘small nation’ or second-world dweller, I understood it) that the ‘world cinema’ vibe in critical writing, far from being breezily reciprocal, was often (usually) a one-way-street: how many people in UK or USA, she wondered, would be interested to read in translation what even the best Slovenian critic from Ekran or Kino! had to say about the likes of Death Proof?
In 2007, Nika and I brainstormed a project, somewhere between a magazine and a website: we would ask people from all over the world to write about, precisely, the indescribably beautiful bit of their local cinema which had never been imported onto the Festival or art-event circuit, the precious part that resisted such easy ‘translation’ or commodification. The closest Nika came to this dream was the blog page Ekran Untranslated; a glance at the people, stories and cultural experiences represented in these ‘postcards’ from critics and filmmakers, printed in their original languages, will give you a sense of the internationalist dream she lived.
And her unforgettably poignant union with Alexis was another part of the same dream, extended into the most intimate realm of love. Something else I will never forget: when, in Ljubljana, a close but cynical friend of Nika’s confronted her with the dry wisdom that “the first flames of love die out fast. So, what then?” “Then”, Nika replied, “it goes deeper. It gets stronger.”
Alexis, I am proud to say, picked up on a quotation I fondly recycled in Ljubljana: Godard’s remark that cinema is “the goodwill for a meeting” – to which JLG added, “it is the love of ourselves on earth”. Cinema must be dialogue, and it must be love. I learnt this, more deeply than I realised at the time, from Nika and Alexis.
© Adrian Martin September 2009