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It Takes One to Know One: Experiencing Khavn de La Cruz's 13-Hour "Simulacrum Tremendum"

A one-time event at the International Rotterdam Film Festival inspires questions, observations, and ruminations about movie-going.
How does one write (critically) about ‘’a [truly interpersonal] reminiscence of a lifetime’’? Such was one of the questions I was posed to answer after experiencing Simulacrum Tremendum, by the Philippine filmmaker, poet and trained pianist Khavn de La Cruz. Marking Rotterdam Film Festival programmer Gertjan Zuilhof’s farewell, Khavn was granted the opportunity to screen and musically accompany his thirteen-hour long ‘’reminiscence,’’ as the director described it afterwards. And that’s what he did. Without a single break, Khavn live-scored the diary film he shot from 1994 to 2016.
To make fragmented films is, in its essence, to make films democratically. Every glance or shot has the potential to find its exceptional viewer. Each one contains a possible moment of interpersonal glory. Why interpersonal, you might ask? Because at this particular one-time event, I was the only spectator who didn’t miss a second of the screening. So, interpersonal in the sense of situations in which the exchange of sensibilities occur. For example: an interpersonal moment is what happens when the musician—in this case, Khavn de La Cruz—is confronted with a seemingly trivial image. It is as he is playing the piano, as that image emerges before our eyes, that he starts treating the keys with more feeling than he did up to that point.
The same exchange happened when the Simulacrum Tremendum entered its final part. By then, Khavn had not eaten anything yet, although the top of the piano was stuffed with fruits, vegetables, energy bars and numerous eggs. It made one wonder what he would end up using it for. As the color palette of his images on the screen for the first time in around nine hours become full of enlightening whiteness, the director-musician starts to eat. And as the breathing images engulfed us with their transparency, opposed to the darker scheme of what came before, Khavn devoured his first banana and enjoyed it thoroughly. The redemptive effect of this simple act of eating after many hours without sustenance becomes redemptive for the enduring spectator as well, as he is undergoing a trial similar to that of the performer.  
I think in that fact lies an interesting point. Although we didn’t know each other—the director-musician and me, the spectator—my awareness of personally being as old in years as the film before me radically modified my experience. And perhaps his as well. Without being conscious of it, we started to exchange things. As Khavn recalled in an interview, "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?" I was one of them. And in the midst of the screening, I sensed that I was as much a contributor to the experience as Khavn himself. By pouring in nothing but Enthusiasm.
The cinematic reminiscence shown at the festival was both confessional and devotional in every possible sense. As I was sitting right behind the director-musician on the first row, it was touching to see him shedding a tear from time to time—although I might have imagined it. From what I heard afterwards, I was mostly there on my own, with Khavn and a few others, being involved in a truly unique cinesthetic translation of a man’s stream of the subconscious. Or the ability to fictionalize such a long period of one’s life in order to learn how to cope with it. During this event, I filled something like fifty pages with notes and observations (even a couple of poems) inspired by the filmmaker’s confessions and experiments conducted between the music he played, the poetry written for the screen—physical copies were distributed beforehand—and the memories recorded. Many people walked in and out during the day, something which was, at least for me, quite disappointing to hear. If we wake up from our dreams several times throughout the night, we aren’t happy with that experience either, right? But we continue nonetheless. Or at least try to. 
After walking out of the film to then accuse the director of sheer laziness, as some did, is something that says more about the accuser than the accused. For me, Khavn embracing every possible apparatus he had at his disposal ("analogue, from ‘94 to 2000, then I shifted to miniDV in 2000, then GoPro, and it’s iPhone in the third part") is in itself an act of speaking out and showing his love and commitment to the moving image. And what is lazy about filming twenty-one years in a row, continuously, and then being forced to put so many years of living in just thirteen hours? Let me remind you of this: twenty-one years of living comes down to 184,082.068 hours. Attitudes of such kind worry me considerably, because they stifle many interesting and potentially great voices of cinema. But let me briefly give the floor to Greek American avant-garde filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos, who put it better than anyone else could:
‘’Problem: how to present Serenity in its present state. By this I mean, an uncorrected colour work print and all the faults that go with such a print. Perhaps, I should just announce that the film will be shown at such and such an hour at the Bleecker Theater; thus, permitting anyone interested in viewing the film. But who will understand the reasons for bad acting – there were no rehearsals permitted. Who will understand that the slight cuts heard on the screen were due to the editing of the incorrected colour print. Who will know that it was a film in which the image was photographed once and that was it. Who will know that the footage was not available to me until six months after the shooting was completed. Rather, the audience will arrive knowing what good acting is, what good photography is, what a story is, what editing is, what directing is. They will know all these things, and so I will show the film Serenity – for that one person who will brave the experiment. And if there appear to be others, I will be encouraged. What I demand is enthusiasm.’’
—Film as Film: The Collected Writings of Gregory J. Markopoulos, p. 99
With thoughts spurred by this paragraph, one is obliged to reconsider the context in which such a personal film as Simulacrum Tremendum was presented, and how so many spectators disregarded its relevance by treating its length as a mere gimmick. Because that is what happened. Everywhere the festival advertised it as: "A very special show that will easily make the Guinness Book of Records as the longest musical film accompaniment ever."
After sharing an early draft of this text with Petra, a friend of mine, she added:
"The nexus of festival politics and authorial vision. Maybe the flow of people, coming in and out of the screening, is the result of spectacularization of an art work. Can it function in such an environment? Does it matter? If people came, and few devotees did remain till the end, maybe the festival PR did a good job? Or: what would happen if it was announced differently, targeting those 10 people that would really be interested in it, instead of, let’s say, targeting 200 random people? Food for thought."
And by allowing Petra to contribute here, the interpersonal aspect of that screening overlaps with more than only Khavn’s performance. It becomes an incentive for a renewed and fresh discussion on how these exchanges of sensibilities can influence the projected image. I think that an attempt to criticize this accumulation of images, sounds, writings and feelings renders itself invalid. At least in this case, since somehow, due to its exclusivity, the experience is stretched for as long as we keep discussing it. As long as we keep re-imagining it. Because that is all that remains.   
Maybe Khavn didn’t mind. Maybe that was precisely the reason why he included scenes ranging from filming several women’s backsides to his most personal moments of loneliness, venturing through European cities, as he went from festival to festival, in a continent so distinct from his own. It is this wide breadth of honest images that express a viewpoint including all its vices and virtues. The only thing that can make a diary truly personal is by including and scribbling down—or in this case filming—everything one desires to put into it. And that should never exclude even the most disgusting or disapproving images. Because then one can start questioning: what is the use of documenting it in the first place?
I think of how every pixel of the film cried to be both remembered as much as be forgotten forever. And as I’m browsing through my notebook, from page to page, from poem to poem, I realize that slowness is a virtue. I was at times shocked by what might have happened if the digital revolution had been postponed, because without the means that emerged from that, Khavn wouldn’t have been able to illuminate all these cheerful moments of his life, and thus, his country. A country usually illustrated as poor and depressing. It struck me deeply. And also that cinema-making in this manner, by taking one’s time in an age where everybody feels guilty to do so, can be a place for the younger generations to reconcile with that possibility. Because that is what it is becoming, a sheer possibility, while a film like this gifts you with the overwhelming vastness of a lifetime.  
Put thou thy trust in Cinema. That is the thought I felt when, pretty far in, Khavn records a party he’s at with his youngest offspring. The happiness of the children, and the affection with which he is filming this momentum, opens up one’s chest. A steady stream of salty tears flowed its way down my cheeks, releasing the sadness and sorrow that has been held inside of me for many, many years. This is a film that, in the course of its runtime, seems to spill one’s youth. And I deeply value Simulacrum Tremendum because of it. Paths briefly corresponding, as Khavn de La Cruz looked back on just a segment of his life, while he helped me to do the same on the entirety of mine.

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