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Miko Revereza: Reconciling Distance

The films of Filipino-American director Miko Revereza are fraught with the precarious relationship between the artist and his country.
Laura Davis
No Data Plan
Having premiered his most recent work at international festivals including Rotterdam, Locarno, and the Sheffield Documentary Festival, Filipino-American filmmaker Miko Revereza’s Open City Documentary Festival screening will be his first appearance at a festival outside the U.S. border. As of two weeks ago he left the States for Manila, a decision than enacted a personal exile or ban from the country, from his and his family’s home for the past twenty-six years. This now grants him the freedom to present his films and attend the OCDF Assembly development lab, where Revereza will begin work on his second feature Nowhere Near. An exciting new filmmaker to follow, Revereza puts into practice the thesis that the production of the moving image is only made possible by exercising the right to freedom of movement. Nowhere Near will be the first film he has made having crossed the U.S. border. 
When he was living in the States, Revereza was a so-called Dreamer. The DREAM Act, an acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, is legislative proposal that entitled undocumented migrants brought to the U.S. as children to some degree of citizenship. Although it was never signed into law, the DACA Obama era executive action temporarily provided relief to “Dreamers.” “But really,” he writes on his Facebook status, “they call us Dreamers because they want to keep us asleep, work for cheap and rob us with our eyes closed.”
Revereza tugs at the act’s semantics through the imagery of dreams, delusions, and disillusionment. His 2014 Super 8mm tourist-style film Droga! (Drugs!) explores cultural identity at the intersection of American pop culture and Filipino tradition. Taking its cue from the experimental Filipino tradition, it subsequently became part of Shireen Seno and Merv Espina’s Kalampag Tracking Agency retrospective program of Filipino alternative and experimental moving image practice. Damaged VHS tapes defamiliarize brand names and street signs: scratch marks from overuse, from the very perpetuation of the image. Nostalgia, it seems, can physically exhaust itself.  
“We lived and consumed the optimism of this dream,” Miko tells us in Disintegration 93-96 (2017), before cutting to a VHS tape of his father speaking to a camera to apologize for not sending enough money home. He does not have the proper papers to stay or permit to work. Child Miko sits next to him. This time the fuzzy VHS comes to resemble hostage videotapes, as if father and son were taken captive by none other than Americana. As such, Revereza’s VHS work explores the failure of the western capitalist model to export its values—egalitarianism, the welfare state, fundamental rights—as readily as it exports its self-image. 
Revereza subverts the romanticized depiction of America in No Data Plan (2019) via an Amtrak train journeying from Los Angeles to New York. Without the papers that would ordinarily get him on a plane, without wifi and a phone with an internet connection to escape Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) surveillance, Revereza uses the three-day stint to translate the felt experience into moving images. Cut in chronological shooting order, the journey reverses the great American west-bound road trip narrative. Revereza often places his camera at the back carriage with California receding into the distance. On the opposite set of tracks, a west-bound freight train crosses its path. The two locomotives travel at such a speed their carriages, in effect, slap. There is no collision and yet we are physically jolted. The conflict without contact of one train peopled with precariously-papered travelers and the other transporting shipping containers forcefully articulates the paradoxes and polarization of east/west trajectories: America is stockpiling its phosphates, pharmaceuticals, and frozen chicken while simultaneously exiling members of its own population.
Revereza’s moving images, made out of the limitations placed upon his moving body, exercise their own motion. For all the receding of the American landscape there is a narrowing-into gesture made within the trainscape. He defers to the stage-set around him: the light that passes through the carriageway, the costumes other travelers wear, the fingerprints and watermarks on the interiors. This first feature is made out of a passageway. It is not an “issue” documentary about immigration but, instead, carries the viewer along in its motion picture, the rattling dance of light and noise—its haunting spectacle, its occasional motion-sickness. The passing-through nature of the semi-autobiographical diary film refuses to capture the migrant who, by definition, eludes definition. Revereza reserves a sense of mystery by discarding with voiceover to leave just text-on-screen as a placeholder. He defers to his friends: one who recounts a recent dream, the other who offers their thoughts on Drake. These postcards from faraway relieve us of the heightened, thriller-esque tension of the train journey. We are not simply watching another immigration film. 
To no longer be simply the “undocumented documentarian” but instead to ask the viewer to voice the silent screen subtitles and, in doing so, guarantee that there will always be something missed—some brief flicker of moving image that escapes the eye—is a powerful enough gesture in itself. However, the very fact that the migrant is seen but not heard, that the artist effaces theirself, is perhaps also a tribute to Revereza’s eleven million undocumented co-patriots who do not have the platform to pen an autobiography.
Quantum Identity Politics (2017) opens with a block of text on screen, a letter addressed “to whom it may concern”: “in data (along with the 11 million people residing here illegally) / i am recognized as logistically invisible”. The shot then cuts to flashes of light, a wavering signal fighting to stay alive. The fragility of the light signal, here and then not here, conveys the immigrant’s psychological anxiety of being reduced to a sort of subatomic nothingness.
Returning to the data metaphor, No Data Plan takes its title from his mother’s “Obama” burner phone—strategically off the grid to escape customs officers. The tragedy implicit in this is that his personal and financial data exercises greater freedom of movement than he possibly can. As the director told Film Comment: “It shouldn’t be this complicated for people to get around when we can get cat litter delivered to our doorsteps in two days.”
Yet he takes advantage using Instagram stories frequently and uploading short films onto his public Vimeo profile. The bravery of instantaneousness, the speed at which he makes his films. Something like Jonas Mekas’ output, whose Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972)is one of the several films he pays homage to in Distancing (2019). In this short, which premiered recently in the Moving Ahead section of the Locarno Festival and will screen at the Berwick Festival in a couple of weeks, Revereza reconciles himself with his departure from Los Angeles. Shot in an airport at night, everything moves of its own accord: luggage conveyor belts, escalators, lift shafts, shuttle buses. It begins with a moment of hesitation as he says goodbye to his grandparents. It ends with illuminated emergency exit signs and Revereza walking around in circles.
But, as far as we’re concerned in the U.K., this is less of a departure and more of an arrival. This near-real-time filmmaking catalyzes international travel and the production of Nowhere Near. Making reference, perhaps, to “Nowhere,” a placeless place the Amtrak passed through in No Data Plan, Revereza continues to explore the semantics of “non-places.” Yet, as he tells us, his second feature also takes its name from is a Yo La Tengo song, the lyrics of which echo his feelings of displacement: “Everyone is here, but you’re nowhere near.”


Miko Revereza
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