Khavn played the piano for 13 hours straight and is set to break a world record – we caught up with the cult polymath to talk showmanship, endurance and holding it in
Filipino underground filmmaker, poet and musician Khavn has been a regular at Rotterdam Film Festival for years, showing off his abrasive filmmaking teeming with misfits from Manila’s underbelly. When he turns up for our interview, the director of cult faves Squatterpunk and Mondomanila is in typically flamboyant get-up, not hard to spot from across the room: a lime green overcoat with huge bees on it, a Philip K. Dick T-shirt, tiger-print trousers, silver shoes, and round metallic-lensed sunglasses.
He’s also sporting elastic plasters on his thumbs. But this is no mere look, it’s damage from having played the piano for 13 hours straight in accompaniment with the release of his new film. Shot over 22 years, this “portrait of a Filipino artist as a mongrel” is a doc-surrealism blend of his Manila life interlaced with 36 of his poems. One-off mega-performance Simulacrum Tremendum is undergoing certification and, if cleared, will make it to the Guinness Book of Records as the longest performance of musical film accompaniment ever. We sat down with Khavn to chat about showmanship extremism, and ask the all important questions like just what did he do when he had to take a leak?
How are your fingers?
Khavn: There wasn’t much pain during the performance, but the next day when I woke up my thumbs were really hurting. I felt like calling the emergency room saying asking them to come and save me! I tried everything, like putting toothpaste on them. Now they’re not so bad. The thumb and the little finger are not really meant for playing the piano – you hit the keys with the side of them. The day after I found that my sole of my foot also had sores because of the sustained pedalling.
Why thirteen hours?
Khavn: There wasn’t a plan for a thirteen-hour film. But I knew I wanted to make a feature with footage I had of my daughter. She’s now 17, and it spans her life. It’s my version of a Boyhood film (laughs).
Like, the Filipino punk version?
What made you start shooting all those years ago?
Khavn: My father bought me a Sony recorder for making home videos and I started documenting the world around me. This film starts at that time, around ‘94. It’s me, my life, family and friends. There’s also footage of me performing at other times, and footage I’d never used for other films. The film is divided into three parts. The first is all in analogue, from ‘94 to 2000, then I shifted to miniDV in 2000, then GoPro, and it’s iPhone in the third part. It’s chronological, but at the same time each of the three acts is nonlinear, like randomly shuffling up cards.
You’ve been in the underground creative scene in the Philippines from a young age, right?
Khavn: I started to play music very young, then went into fiction and wanted to write poems until the day I died. At one point I saw a short film, a black comedy that really blew my mind and I thought okay, I want to make films now. It was called Lightning and was about a corrupt politician killed by a giant flying pencil. I realised cinema can be an extension or different manifestation of my stories. It was only with writing that I really found my voice.
You’re still quite young – why did you decide to make this recap of your life now?
Khavn: Youth is becoming relative as I have friends who died early. I’m really a bad archivist and I was becoming worried about losing my hard-drives, my miniDV tapes, even the stuff I shot digitally. My hard-drives are crashing left and right, so I thought it was best to put some of this stuff all in one place.
Did you work out beforehand what you were going to play on the piano?
Khavn: There was a motif, a part melody, but that’s it. My longest performance before was around three hours. Sometimes I’d practice but not for that long, six hours max. I could have come more prepared for this (laughs). And I went through all the styles – classical, jazz, rock, punk, noise, everything ten fingers can do. You do everything. Sometimes I was emotional. It’s like your whole life passing through to now and it’s not a conscious thing either. I heard some sniffing behind me and I was thinking, are they really crying? Afterwards people were coming up to me and saying they were really touched by the film. It was cathartic.
How did you get by without taking any breaks?
Khavn: I had a big Thai breakfast of rice and meat before. And I had food stashed there too: eggs, fruit, energy bars and a litre of water.
And what about going to the bathroom?
Khavn: I went before.
So no Marina Abramovic-style seat with built-in toilet?
Khavn: Ha, no. Maybe I should have had an adult diaper!
Were the fest organisers worried whether you’d make it?
Khavn: They were a bit concerned with what would happen, whether I’d just fall off my seat.
That length also takes some real endurance from the audience...
Khavn: A handful stayed to the end, thes ones that the hardcore into it. Other people were coming and going. One of my best friends watched it and his programme was really twisted, he was watching my film, then a Japanese landscape murder film [AKA: Serial Killer], then went back into my film. An interesting day for sure!
And yours was a Guinness-breaking performance?
Khavn: Some Indian guy did like over 100 hours actually, but with film and music yes. The longest before is von Stroheim’s which is like four hours.
Will your next film be as long?
Khavn: There’s a short film called Filipiniana that will screen in Oberhausen that’s around 13 minutes long!
A bit shorter than 13 hours, then!
Khavn: Ha, yeah. And I will finish a feature, Of an Ember, a companion piece to Mondomanila. It’s about about a gang of kids, and it’ll show later this year. It’s all about momentum. When I started I saw a lot of frustrated Filipino filmmakers blabbering, talking about films but not making films anymore. The blabber comes when you stop and that talk can last forever - you need to keep the pace and be creatively active.