WrICE workshops, University of the Philippines, Diliman
Contemporary Approaches to Nonfiction
with David Carlin and John Hughes
This session examines a particular mode of nonfiction, the essay tradition, which is as strong in film as it is in literature. David and John begin the workshop by questioning where we come from in approaching nonfiction and opening it up for discussion, asking ‘how do we know what we know?’ and ‘who gets to speak?’
David prompts us to consider what kind of nonfiction is demanded by contemporary reality, suggesting that there may be an imperative towards open-endedness, self-questioning, being playful and exploratory. That the essay might be a kind of ‘critical play’. Speaking of his book Our Father Who Wasn’t There, he describes how he wanted the essays to be personal but not in a navel-gazing, self-obsessed way, rather in a way that the individual, himself, is always implicated. David encourages us to think about the epistemological imperative, considering ‘who am I to tell this story?’
John, an independent producer, writer and director whose many acclaimed works include an essay documentary, One Way Street, on the work and life of philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin (a work which John is revisiting during the WrICE exchange) describes his work as often polemical, what he calls ‘advocacy works’, though the essayist dimension is not located in those polemics but rather in the form. Quoting Walter Benjamin, John says ‘storytelling is about the ability to exchange our experiences.’
It is in this spirit of shared exploration that John and David ask the group to participate in a spectrum exercise. The question we are tasked with asking each other, and ourselves, is ‘what do you know about Manila?’ We all rise from our chairs, with the aim being that we will arrange ourselves in a line from who knows the most about Manila to who knows the least. After several minutes of discussion, we settle on an order. Unsurprisingly, having only arrived in Metro Manila for the first time the previous evening, I am at the end of the line with the least knowledge of the city.
We return to our seats, now sitting in a circle in the order we were arranged. David and John ask that we go around the circle, from the person who knows the least to the person who knows the most, and each contribute one thing we know about Manila. With each person who speaks, a new detail or memory or impression is added to form a compound image of the city. Some contributions are factual statistics, others deeply personal. I am completely absorbed into the place we are describing in these shared experiences.
With the knowledge we have gained from the exercise, we each begin to work on the opening for an essay about Manila. I find there is an alertness to form piqued by the approach we have taken to collecting information. David explains how we might gather these rich reflections like a magpie, and collapse the ones we found most moving and distill them into our own essays. This process highlights the importance of engaging with people for research, and the value of collective knowledge and the sharing of experiences in contemporary approaches to nonfiction.
This is not Manila in theory: the traffic, mythic in its magnitude, has a taste. But the main arteries – Taft, Aurora – form a stable connection to the city, structures that won’t change anytime soon. Libraries, fireworks, side streets, jeepney routes. She was very young and so brave, taking unknown routes and discovering a whole community living underground. Police precincts, rotundas, eskinitas, outskirts, big shots, grandmothers on Sundays, churches, dungeons, catacombs. A mixture of languages, faiths, cultures. In Chinatown, a crucifix is adorned with Joss sticks, hybrid iconography.
This is a city of opposites that create ironies, a place that feels unlivable until you leave and then want to return. Like your friend’s boyfriend: knowing too much will make you crazy. This is a city where history is contested, doesn’t get talked about. We became a nation with an execution.
She was raised in the middle of old Manila. There were two windows where they could sit and dangle their legs in the afternoon, watching the gang wars in the streets below. Once saw a man stabbed in the stomach, saw his innards spill out – this was the scenery of childhood.
My Manila is not your Manila. Rich Manila and poor Manila. A place for migrants, Manila is where everybody goes. Some statistics: there are 12 million people here in during the day, 10 million at night. There are 13 cities within Metro Manila. Shaped by the people who fill it and the people who leave it, a pastiche, a collage. A city of movement, it does not tolerate stillness. A city that shape shifts but doesn’t spill anything out.
This is a place for survival. So be friendly to security guards and waiters – trust me, this will go a long way.