C Magazine


Issue 142

“I am the colour of burnt pineapple, mango, lemon”: An Interview with Stephanie Comilang
by Heather Rigg

Yesterday, In The Years 1886 and 2017 (2017) is a two-channel video installation by Stephanie Comilang that collapses documentary and science fiction to tell a story about Philippine migration to Germany. The work is narrated in Tagalog by the film’s unseen protagonist, Paradise, who speaks from our future. Her past is one of reincarnations. She has lived as the lauded Filipino nationalist José Rizal, who migrated to Germany temporarily in the 1880s—a statue of whom was erected in the small town of Wilhelmsfeld in 1978—and the Berlin-based archivist and Filipina migrant Lourdes Lareza Müller, who relocated to Germany in 1968, both of whose lives are fictionalized here. José and Lourdes were two of very few Filipinos living in the country in their respective times.

Paradise lives in a space and time free from the oppression of colonization, heteropatriarchy and white supremacy. Comilang engages both historical and personal narratives, filtering them through a semi-fictive sieve as an imaginative decolonization strategy that at once forges an alternative archive of Philippine migration to Germany and points to a utopic future.

Heather Rigg: Your work often merges fiction and reality, in a hybridization that you’ve referred to as “science fiction documentary.” In Yesterday, Lourdes’ and José’s lives are reimagined, but unlike historical fiction where people’s lives are dramatically retold, here, fiction and documentary seem to overlap and entwine together without becoming each other. Can you speak about this aspect of the work and of your practice?

Stephanie Comilang: I like using the combination of words “science fiction documentary” because it evokes a clear picture of two opposing concepts. I’m interested in real-life stories and being told those stories by the people themselves. That’s usually a starting point for me: listening to a truth and then shifting the narrative to create a new one. For example, in Yesterday, the pineapple is an object that comes up in both Lourdes’ and José’s storylines that didn’t exist before. Lourdes talks about the fruit as a cherished food item from home that was exorbitantly expensive to buy in Berlin in the 1970s, while José tells the story of a bomb disguised as an ornate, jewel-encrusted pineapple that was offered to colonizers. In Lourdes’ original story, the pineapple was a chayote and in José’s, it was a pomegranate. The narrator in Yesterday, Paradise, also weaves a pineapple—a burnt one—into her own story, to describe the colour of her skin. The pineapple is a fruit which has travelled alongside histories of colonization; it follows a line from South America, to Europe and finally, Asia. The fruit has a migration history, one that echoes the movement and trajectory of the characters in this work.

HR: Can you tell me about what was happening in the Philippines and in José’s life that led him to move to Germany?

SC: José belonged to a class where it was possible for his family to send him overseas to study. But there was also political turmoil in his home country, and he was very critical of the ruling Spaniards. In the book One Hundred Letters of Jose Rizal to His Parents, Brothers, Sisters, Relatives (1959) is a letter he wrote to his brother Paciano on May 20, 1882, saying that he wanted to go to Europe to observe the different cultures, customs, commerce, industries and laws of the different countries so that he could use the knowledge gained there to free the Philippines from the tyranny of the Spanish.1

HR: Paradise speaks about her life as José by showing viewers the statue of him that exists in the small town of Wilhelmsfeld, Germany, stating: “That’s my body in stone. The year is 1886. My name was José Rizal. I left a home ruled by the colonizers and came here, to this small town in Germany.” I find it fascinating that this monument of José Rizal, a political revolutionary and a martyr, remembered for his dedication to his homeland and the mark he made on a certain moment in colonial history— but also a minority, migrant person while in Germany—exists there to this day. What do you know about the erection of the statue?

SC: I know, the statue is a funny inversion. In the West, monuments of brown people aren’t usually erected in small, predominantly white towns. At least this isn’t the narrative that we’re used to. In Cebu, Philippines, which is the first place Magellan landed and where the Spanish conquistadors first developed their settlements, the ceilings in the main cathedral depict the conquistadors “taming the savages” and [other acts] of Christian reform. It’s gross. Seeing the statue in Wilhelmsfeld felt like stepping into an alternate universe.

Created by Filipino sculptor Anastacio Caedo, it was unveiled on September 2, 1978. Franz Josef Weyand, who was president of the German-Philippine Association at the beginning of the ’70s, initiated the idea of erecting this monument, which came into being through his significant fundraising efforts, and with the support of the local community, who helped build Rizal Park where it would be placed. Rita Weyand, a core member of the Association, and then-Mayor Manfred Holzmann laid the first stone in the park. In the early 2000s, Holzmann, having since retired, banded together with Fritz Hack-Ullmer, the great-grandson of the pastor and former host of José in Wilhelmsfeld to raise money for the successful renovation, expansion and improvement of the park.

Lourdes was a part of the Order of the Knights and Ladies for Rizal, a group that started in the Philippines in the early 20th century and has since extended to 61 countries across the world. To this day, the group still activates commemoration events in Rizal Park twice a year—on José’s birthday and the day of his execution.

HR: What presence did Philippine migrants have in Germany at that time?

SC: The history of Philippine migration to Germany is fairly recent: in the 1960s, there was an influx of guest workers employed as nurses, in the 1980s, there was an influx of women migrants arriving through marriage migration. When José and Lourdes migrated to Germany in the 1880s and 1960s, they were pretty much one of a kind. When I was making Yesterday, I was thinking about them walking down the street and it being really exciting to be in a new space with no one familiar around, but also of the alienation that they possibly felt.

HR: How did you meet Lourdes? And how did you decide she would be a character in your film?

SC: The personal story of the migrant is a record that is always on repeat in my head when I spend time in a place, mainly because it’s what I thought about growing up. Being in Berlin has been no different. I knew Rizal had spent time in Germany so this spurred thoughts on the history of Philippine migration to Germany. I came across Lourdes in an article entitled “Meet Berlin’s Filipino Grandmama.”3 Of course I had to meet her.

When I visited her at her home in East Berlin, I knew the importance her voice would have in the film. Her home was filled with Philippine tchotchkes, family photos and newspaper clippings, and Philippine food was cooking in her kitchen. She showed me photos of herself in her early thirties, sitting in a classroom at The Institute of Documentation in Frankfurt where she learned the German library system. She showed me her life and I thought about how she contained an infinite number of stories around finding your own space in an alien one.

HR: The narrator, Paradise, is drone-like, hovering in spaces and places familiar to her from her lives as the other two characters. You’ve mentioned previously to me that she symbolizes the idea of home. How do notions of home function for you in this work?

SC: I like the drone for a number of reasons. In my films, Paradise exists as an entity who moves through history and [creates] alternate histories. As she interacts with and experiences people and places, the information she gathers through her encounters is held and stored within her cache. She is rendered as a supercomputer, carrying information as well as emotion. She becomes all of the things that get uploaded on to her. Because the things she lives through and the people she meets are constantly redefining what home is, Paradise is also continually altering her definitions of home, which is a shifting idea and concept to me as well.

HR: I have been referring to Paradise as female, as I hear her voice as such, and because of Lumapit Sa Akin, Paraiso (2016), an earlier film of yours that also employs a drone-like female protagonist (Paraiso/Paradise) that we also never see but hear. Could you speak about the “femaleness” of the narrator?

SC: When I initially thought of Paradise as a character, I was working through different possibilities of who could narrate the voice. During this time, I was in Berlin and my mother—who was helping me with translations— was in Toronto, and we would communicate over Skype. It wasn’t until I recorded her on my phone while she recited some translations to me and played them back that I heard the sound and voice that I wanted. And it made sense to me to use my mother’s voice. Paradise is maternal and watchful, a caregiver and an emotional cyborg. My mother embodies the idea of the character.

HR: In the last scene of Yesterday, you, quite literally, present Lourdes and José in an equal, horizontal manner, by focusing the two-channel installation on the statue of José on one side, and Lourdes in her backyard on the other. This is an especially poignant scene for me in that it monumentalizes Lourdes. What links are there for you between the narrator, the monumentalizing of Lourdes and a feminist futurism?

SC: For me, Lourdes is an archive. Much like her life’s work as the archivist at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, one of the largest libraries in Europe, her body also contains a multitude of information. When I visited her, she talked a lot about her work as an archivist. This made me think of how we all carry information within us, how our bodies are our own archives. Our DNA is encrypted with our histories.

HR: When reminiscing on her life as both Lourdes and José, Paradise often mentions skin colour. When living as Lourdes in Berlin, for example, she reminds us that her body and skin set her apart when walking down the street. When living as José, she wanted to escape the colonizers who were trying to “shape us to be like them … to brighten our golden-brown skin.”

There is a distinct before and after in Yesterday. Paradise explains that she now exists after the “bang” that occurred. She states: “Before the huge bang, white was prized. Whereas now, in this future time, white turns to dust. Unprotected skin, light skin, fair skin, is swallowed by the elements.” This bang, or apocalypse of sorts, allowed for a rebirth into a space and time that is free of white supremacy—a utopic place. Do you see this kind of utopia as striving to recalibrate our goals as a society? Or is this more personal than that?

SC: The piece references a recalibration of history through a certain “bang” that, as a result of the new environmental climate, favours melanin. Skin is a recurring theme in Yesterday. I thought a lot about José and Lourdes living in Germany, and how their skin colour would have set them apart. Both of them came to Germany as thinkers, pursuing academic careers, yet I am certain that they experienced positive and negative exoticizing. I think both of them must have been anomalies to the Germans that encountered them. Eugenics, an early 20th-century crusade that envisioned a blond, blued-eyed, white-skinned utopian society, was created by a German biologist and culminated as a result of the colonizing efforts of Germany in Africa in the 1880s. But in the “now” that Paradise speaks from, white skin is the anomaly. In the last line of Yesterday, she says, with bravado: “I am the colour of burnt pineapple, mango, lemon.”

HR: I love the poem that’s in the film. Your reincarnating protagonist unknowingly wrote the same poem twice, once in her life as José and once again while living as Lourdes.

SC: Yes, I was thinking about how things are passed down through shared culture and genetic memory. Or how, in reincarnation, a person has a very strong memory of an event or thing, but because it has nothing to do with their current life, [they presume] it must have been from a past life. Because the two protagonists are linked by spirit, culture and a closeness to literature and language, a poem seemed like a fitting way to reinforce this connection.

HR: When we spoke last you mentioned that Angela Merkel’s comment, uttered in 2010—that multiculturalism has “utterly failed” in Germany—is something that is countered in your work, in Yesterday as well as in forthcoming projects. Can you unpack this a bit for me?

SC: Berlin’s Preussen Park (aka Thai Park) is situated in the area of Wilmersdorf in the west of the city in a predominantly white, middle-class area. The park, a rather nondescript space in the colder months, flourishes and blooms into a Thai food haven in the late spring and summer months. The grassy expanse in the centre of the park turns into a market and food vendor utopia, selling everything from basic pad thai to Southeast Asian groceries. Berlin residents from all demographics fill the park and share the space in the most multicultural way. Far more mixed and integrated than the ghettoized neighbourhoods of Neukölln or Wedding, Thai Park seems to have proved the famous Merkel quote wrong. Here, multiculturalism has flourished and succeeded as a result of Thai women creating a space for themselves. And it seemed even more interesting to me that as a result of economic inequality—Thai women and German men, marriage migration and sex trafficking—came this utopia.

For a future project, I will be looking at Thai women who have migrated to Germany, and how under unfavourable circumstances these women have managed to create a space for themselves while also encouraging a space for others—flipping this idea of Merkel’s failed multiculturalism on its head.