Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Oteki Sinema interview (2014)

"Andrew Leavold’la The Search For Weng Weng Hakkında" 

[Interview with Can Yalçınkaya on the Turkish website Oteki Sinema, published 26/09/14. The original Turkish introduction and text is here]

Can: How did you first become aware of Weng Weng's work and decide to make a documentary about him?

Andrew: It was back in the dark days before the Internet when I first stumbled upon a ninth-generation bootleg of For Y’ur Height Only and I think my mind exploded the moment I saw a karate-kicking midget Bond in a pageboy haircut and white flared suit taking on an army of goons dressed in Hawaiian shirts and Seventies porn mustaches. It was transcendent, beyond absurd! At the same time there was something intangible about its star which I instantly connected with, and decided it may be my life's mission to find out everything there is to know about him. That was the early 90s and here we are more than twenty years later, and I'm STILL learning about the enigmatic Weng Weng!

Can: How did Weng Weng, a 2.9-foot Filipino man, become an internationally recognised action star?

Andrew: We can thank Imelda Marcos, former First Lady of the Philippines, for becoming a global phenomenon, if small-scale and short-lived (literally!). Her 1982 Manila International Film Festival was designed to sell Filipino films to the world - ironically, it was the Philippines' most idiot of films, For Y’ur Height Only, that actually sold. I mean, the film went everywhere - I even have a reproduction of a Turkish poster as well as advertising materials from Pakistan, Finland, the Middle East, etc etc... It may be the main reason why I tracked down Imelda to film her for the documentary. Other than being the most notorious character in Philippines' history, her DNA is forever linked with Weng Weng's - their fates are now forever intertwined, thanks to our movie!

Can: Do you think the political and cultural climate of the late 1970s and early 1980s in the Philippines was influential in his success?

Andrew: Most definitely. Much of the Philippines' movie output from the 60s to 90s were action-based, stunt-centric action or action-comedies. They call them "Goon" films, after the armies of apes in suits who are employed by the Contrabida ("Super-Villain") to beat up the hero. There are literally THOUSANDS of these Goon flicks in the Philippines, many of them lost forever, mostly following the same simple-minded, gloriously dumb formula. Weng Weng is the hero of these thousands of films, but miniaturized, and at the same time is able to perform all his own stunts and, thanks to the Marcos family making him a real-life secret agent, use his own custom-made .25 calibre pistol as a movie prop! Where else in the world other than the Philippines would these elements conspire together to create a character such as Weng Weng? ONLY in the Philippines! Also, when you really look at the period of Weng Weng, the Philippines was starting to emerge from a ten year period of Martial Law. They desperately needed to laugh, and Weng Weng was an accessable target of mirth. Freakishly tall or short, fat, anorexic, ugly, buck-toothed, all make ideal Filipino comic superstars.

Can: Do we know anything about Weng Weng's actual spy work?

Andrew: Only second-hand stories from Weng Weng's brother, and his directors Eddie Nicart and Dante "Boy" Pangilinan. But they all agree that his spy work was not just a novelty act or promotional gag...he was indeed trained by General Olivas, head of Manila's dreaded Metrocom, and relative of both Weng's producer Cora Caballes and President Marcos himself. Firearms, parachute training, the whole bit. As far as actual missions...well, that's still classified!

Can: What brought his downfall?

Andrew: Diminishing returns from his films - unfortunately for him he was indeed a novelty act rather than a long-term prospect - and his producer Cora Caballes entering politics. Weng Weng was sent back to his neighbourhood and languished in poverty and obscurity before becoming ill and passing away at an early age. I don't want to give away too many details from the documentary, but his final days are quite heartbreaking, particularly in light of his incredible achievements during his glory days of stardom, and the last known photo of Weng Weng when he's fat, balding and obviously in poor health, will haunt you.

Can: From the documentary (and the Q&A that took place after the SUFF screening) it sounded like you've become personally attached to Weng Weng and his surviving family's story. How did this affect the course of the film over the years?

Andrew: Of course you try to maintain a sense of objectivity, but it's difficult not to be personally affected by Weng Weng's plight. When you go deep into the story, become almost adopted by his family, and end up godfather to his great-great nephew, things can never return to normality! Ultimately it took all seven years to nail the details in the film which makes it such an affecting experience, those details which make Weng Weng come to life in the hearts and minds of the viewer. I always maintain that if the film didn't take seven years to complete, to become Machete Maidens Unleashed! and then morph back into The Search..., then the film would be a much more superficial exercise.

Can: You definitely created a picture of Weng Weng as a human being, rather than a mere novelty act in a few films. What has been your favourite moment during the time you spent filming?

Andrew: Favourite moment, singular? Impossible to choose! Top three? The eight years of visiting the Philippines is an ever-changing process of immersion.

Can: OK, top three...

Andrew: First visit to Weng Weng's grave. Second: being locked in a compound full of religious lunatics preaching the Second Coming of dead action star Fernando Poe Jr...the cameras weren't rolling that night! Third: screening the film outside the house Weng Weng was born in, to his family and relatives, then getting drunk with them afterwards and hearing stories from Unida Street. Every other moment spent in the Philippines come a close fourth.

Can: Emotional aspects of it aside I know this film was part of your PhD thesis. Did you start a PhD after you started filming, or did this project come about during your candidature? What are the reactions to your topic in the academia? Are you thinking of publishing the exegesis?

Andrew: The PhD's still going through the system, so I can't really comment on it right at this moment, sorry. [NOTE: My PhD submission was rejected around the same time as the interview and is yet to be resubmitted]

Can: Can you tell us a bit about your next project?

Andrew: It's in the pitch stage right now, so I can't give away too much. I can tell you it will be another documentary on fringe cinema, but with a much wider scope, and will go deeper into the dark hearts of the cultures it will explore. I CAN tell you that Turkey will be on its radar! [NOTE: Dani and I were pitching the aborted TV series Film Safari at the time]

Can: Looking forward to that! Lastly, where can people in Turkey watch The Search for Weng Weng? Will you be taking the film to any of the festivals there?

Andrew: The film will be on DVD before the end of the year, and if I receive an invitation to screen in Turkey before or after its release I'd be more than happy to accept. I can't wait to visit the land of Kilink.

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