In the Past, on Arrival
By A.E. Hunt

NYFF 2023:
An Interview with Miko Revereza (Nowhere Near)

I once wrote about El Lado Quieto (2022), a film Miko Revereza co-directed with Carolina Fusilier. In that personal essay, I worried that my father and I, having grown up separated from Filipino culture, would never feel like more than tourists in the Philippines. I no longer relate to what I wrote. We will remain outsiders, and I no longer feel guilty about that fact. But I’ve accepted that a record remains for scrutiny from when I did.

Near the very end of Revereza’s latest feature, Nowhere Near, the filmmaker confesses he no longer relates to the very film that that we have been watching: moments and narrated observations from when he lived in the U.S. undocumented as well as from his return to the Philippines with his lola to track down their family gravestones and ancestral land. The film is the culmination of a decade of work—including three shorts (Droga!, Disintegration 93-96, Distancing) and a debut feature film (No Data Plan)—that explores this aspect of his life. Perhaps, too, it is the last of its kind. He has, at least at the time of our interview, exhausted his capacity to express himself in the diaristic form on this particular subject.

Nowhere Near reminds us that filmmakers can grow apart from their work long before it meets its audience, sometimes even before it’s finished. It is a vibrant personal record of his and his family’s journey. And it is a reminder of how far his expressivity and sense of humor can reach beyond the diary margins. Also considering his music videos—in which he has produced awesome abstract animations or tested the limits of early video camera sensors, staining the films’ surfaces with glitchy noise and color—the possibilities for Revereza’s future work, free from the intimate form he has so far assumed and found institutional support for, feel excitingly manifold. It’s clear from the following conversation that he has already moved on from Nowhere Near. But in his first interview about the film, he must again think back to the memories he chose to contain within it and explain: why these memories, in this way—and why they may be the last ones he exposes on the screen?

Reverse Shot: How long ago did you start shooting footage for Nowhere Near?

Miko Revereza: I started accumulating materials around 2017. A long-ass time. The first time I went out to test this camera is the first shot of the film. It’s just the streets of downtown L.A. A big part of my practice is filming without any sort of intention: going on walks, testing the camera, and seeing what kind of photographic images I come across—not really thinking about meaning or the significance of a larger project. But over time, the types of images changed. Definitely the locations of the image changed. The places within these walks and travels inform the collection of images.

RS: Marlon Fuente [director of the 1995 Filipino filmBontoc Eulogy] once advised me not to make a personal doc with the intention of making a Great American movie. Instead, simply accumulate footage. Maybe later you’ll realize you can make art from it. And if not, you have home movies for yourself.

MR: Part of me is making this home movie and seeing where it goes, but at the same time it doesn’t feel like a home movie in the sense that there are not always people in it. In my experience, home movies tend to be really optimistic, or showcases. Diasporic home movies tend to show relatives in the Philippines how well you’re doing.

RS: How had you seen the Philippines, whether it be in home movies, photographs, or Hollywood and Filipino movies, before returning?

MR: Even though I moved to the U.S. when I was five, I feel like I have a pretty good memory of my time there, which was reinforced by my family’s archive of photos. My idea of the Philippines kind of stayed in the era of the Philippines in my memory, the late ’80s and early ’90s. There has been so much development, especially in Manila, from the early ’90s to 2019, when I returned. My grandmother goes back to her hometown in Pangasinan and sees that it is completely different. Time makes it impossible to go back to the home you have in your memory.

But I want to return to the Marlon Fuentes thing, because it’s interesting that he said he wasn’t going out to make a Great American movie. Neither did I, but I did feel this desire to make a Great American Indictment. It was very difficult to navigate being an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. It was a real source of anger, and I had a desire to present our perspective on screen, in a way to sort of indict the immigration system—to show that it hasn’t functioned for us for a long time. I can trace that back to the 9/11 era. This film has taken forms of abstraction and vagueness. But this voice over—this text—was necessary to say precisely what we experienced and how it has implicated our lives—how it was nearly impossible to just exist and continue on in that state. That’s why I had to leave.

There’s a way that this film relates to an issue documentary; I never set out to make an issue documentary. I’m telling my personal truth of random diary footage and walks, but it is implicated with my stay in the U.S. and current exile from the U.S. I have a complicated relationship with how this film gets labeled, gets circulated, or gets interpreted with its political content and formal decisions… This is like a brand-new film, and this is the first interview so it’s interesting to talk about it inarticulately—fresh.

RS: You include inarticulate voice overs in both Distancing and Nowhere Near. In the former, you curse yourself for your poor Filipino language skills, in the latter, you frustratingly yell into a clarinet.

MR: I did this clarinet-playing exercise while I was going through a challenging bureaucratic process here in Mexico [where he currently resides]. I have developed bureauphobia from the U.S.; anytime I have to go through any sort of immigration system I want to scream or curse. I tried channeling that through the clarinet, literally screaming into it. Jazz is kind of big in my household. My dad plays keyboards. He doesn’t articulate his emotions well. But you can hear, in his piano phrasing and timing, these repressed emotional nuances. Being inarticulate verbally, but—and I can’t even articulate what it is exactly [laughs]— being able to emote through other forms. It’s not thinking about the audience. It’s like a hidden language that only one or two people know, or maybe it’s just there for me to think about over time—what is the significance of my emotional relationship to that phrase?

RS: When you and your lola struggle to find your great grandfather’s gravestone, the footage is underexposed and shaky, but your distracted camerawork in that moment is relevant to your story. It made me think about how much story docs neglect by leaving that kind of footage on the cutting-room floor.

MR: Pointing at the flaw, the reality of that moment. The technical skills and aesthetic guides that I have as a cameraperson go out the window sometimes. In No Data Plan, all of the shots are composed except towards the end, when border patrol boards the train. The sense of possession, being in this place where suddenly it feels like the camera is moving outside of my control.... I wish I did expose it better, that the image was stable, and that the sound was better. What if I put a lavalier mic on my grandmother that day? The sound might have been much better. Or if I had just exposed it a couple stops brighter… But that was the reality of that moment, being unprepared to face all this stuff and just going along with it.

RS: Since it’s experienced over a duration, we can never hold a whole film in our head. There are always holes in our memory and comprehension of it. How do you see this film, and the making of this film, in relation to your own memory?

MR: Making the film aids memory. How the editing software works is technically dealing with memory folders, file paths, and connections between, for example, a folder from 2017 and a folder from 2019. With time, my understanding and the context of these images grew. Maybe two to three years ago, I thought the church footage looked pretty unusable, and I was full of regrets. But given more time, my understanding of it deepened. Why was it shot this way? How did that relate to that moment of instability and the mystery of being in that location? There’s also this visual motif of double exposures, where two images are put against each other. It’s interesting to bridge space and time simply by putting two images on top of each other in the editing timeline.

I like the small projects, like No Data Plan, which I shot in three days. The digital memories from three days are manageable to organize. But a seven-year project… the organization of that memory—and shuffling it into a form—bordered on madness.

RS: Can you talk more about reprocessing those memories in writing?

MR: Writing was very important because it created different images than were possible on film. There are written layers that can zoom out, zoom in, or even take you to different locations while looking at an image. Like that church: you’re in this place, but you can also think about the relationship between the Philippines and Hollywood cinema. Sometimes I would write while watching the footage. What is the inner narration of the surface footage? All of the emotions and memories that are not visible in the frame can be explored through text. Sometimes I just remember footage and write so that they’re not in sync. Sometimes, when the battery runs out or there’s no more room in the camera, I write to make up for that missing space. Writing as the camera, documenting the memory. There’ll never be a photographic image of it, but I have this document of the scene.

RS: The earlier version of Nowhere Near that you sent me did not include your postproduction process. In the final version, you film yourself saying you no longer relate to the film, which, like you describe of the act of cutting, splits the film into two but fuses it with your more present self. Why was it important to separate yourself from the film within the film?

MR: As life was stabilizing, the story felt further and further away from me. If it’s not relevant to me, why should it be relevant to anyone else? I started to appear in the film, making the film, and having people advise me about it. It was interesting to flip it like that, but then it started to feel like I was taking possibilities and space away from the audience discourse that would occur upon release. That was a marker that the film was done and that I needed to rewind back. In the end, there’s a sequence of double exposures, a lot of it connecting to water, which has become a motif throughout the film. Revisiting significant moments from the past and setting them in the water, to move with the current. The last sequence is a gesture of letting go of the past.

RS: You expressed some trepidation earlier about how this film will be digested and compartmentalized by the industry, such as in articles like this one. What are you worried will happen?

MR: For a long time, I’ve been doing this personal story about my and my family’s migration. I feel very excited about the possibility of not doing that anymore. There’s a way that public reception continues to frame me as a diaristic filmmaker on the topic of migration. Filipino American undocumented immigrant. I don’t necessarily relate to that identity anymore. That is changing, and how I make and produce films should change. This is scary territory for me because it’s entering a moment of unknowing in my practice. Now I’m really excited about not knowing, and improvising has been a part of all the films.

Something that I struggle with continually in the process of the artist bio, or how to make my work legible to the public, is, do I really have to keep putting that I’m an undocumented immigrant and that it informs my film practice? Is it possible to just say I’m a filmmaker? Does the sustainability of my film practice have to rely on a narrative of being undocumented?

This film is taking off a little bit. It’s going to go through its cycles of discussion. But it is, at the point of its going out there, already in the past. It’s already a past self. Potentially, the discourse around this film will continue in a loop. I’m interested in breaking out of that loop and moving forward.

RS: I just helped a friend with a grant application that asked them to explain “why” their marginalization has affected their current position in the industry as well as their creative voice. It felt like they had to educate the institution.

MR: It took a long time to get to the moment of inclusion, so I don’t want to take away from it, but I think we’re now at a moment of exhaustion. Who can make a certain film? Who has the authorship to make a film? Does that mean the burden is on excluded populations to show their burden? You can make this film, now here’s the burden of representing your marginality. If that is the only thing we’re allowed to make, then that is not a place of being liberated as a person. It’s not a cure of the problems of documentary, of the history of the gaze, to then put that burden on individuals to visualize their historic burdens.

I’m reflecting on that upon the release of this film because it has taken so much out of me. It was like my soul. I’ve given too much to this project—this institutionally well-funded film. I’ve given too much of my story. I should have reserved some, held back, but I gave everything, and now I’m empty. Was that worth it? And was that fair? How is that transaction for myself or my livelihood? This is the final product, and I can’t give any more of my personal story.