Stephanie Comilang is an artist living and working between Toronto and Berlin. She received her BFA from Ontario College of Art & Design. Her documentary based works create narratives that look at how our understandings of mobility, capital and labour on a global scale are shaped through various cultural and social factors. Her work has been shown at Ghost : 2561 Bangkok Video & Performance Triennale, S.A.L.T.S Basel, UCLA, International Film Festival Rotterdam, and Asia Art Archive in America, New York.
MultiplicityTO: What made you pursue film as an art form?
SC: I was always interested in film, even as a kid, and especially as a teenager, I got into all of the auteur filmmakers like Wong Kar-wai and Woody Allen — all of the directors who had their own style, and I thought that was a really succinct way of relaying what you wanted to say because it's something that you can sit down and watch, you don’t really need anything more. So for me it was an easy vessel, a good vessel to say whatever you wanted to say.
I also liked music videos a lot. I loved pop culture and how music videos were sort of short films to me, and they could be as conceptual as the director wanted them to be. That was something I was always into.
In university, I went to OCAD and I initially wanted to go into jewelry-making, but with my portfolio they had suggested I go into integrated media. I took zine courses, video art, performance and all of that stuff, so that’s what I guess made me think about production more instead of just being a passive watcher. I thought filmmaking was the perfect way to tell a story, that’s why I pursued it.
MTO: A lot of your work focuses on being in two different spaces. What made you pursue this theme in your work?
SC: I think there’s a common thread with my work and that’s the idea of migration. It came from a personal story of my parents immigrating from the Philippines to Canada, and growing up within the context of always being aware of that, and being aware of being one thing inside the house--in the domestic space--and outside of that, which is something different.
I think there’s a common thread with my work and that’s the idea of migration, which came from a personal story of my parents immigrating from the Philippines to Canada. Growing up within the context of being an immigrant, I was also aware that of being one thing inside the house, in the domestic space, and something different outside of the domestic space.
That’s something I always paid attention to, how the migrant was able to create space for themselves within newer spaces, just something migrants do as a necessity. How they create space, how they’re welcomed or not welcomed into that space, the sort of architectures that they build figuratively and physically — these are the things I am always thinking about when I’m travelling, when I’m walking around, when I’m thinking about my work. You can see this idea as a thread that goes through all of my films from Yesterday [//] in 2017 with Jose Rizal and Lordes who were the two main characters, along with Paradise who is also kind of been in and out of my work, being kind of this ghost migrant. These characters are always present within my films and I think they always will be. That is something that’s really important and just comes from a personal place.
MTO: Your film Lumapit sa akin, Paraiso (Come to me, Paradise) is a science fiction documentary, which is an interesting concept. How did you come up with the idea of mixing science fiction and documentary?
SC: Yeah, Come to me Lumapit sa akin, Paraiso (Come to me, Paradise) is a science fiction documentary that focuses on the lives of Filipino migrant workers in Hong Kong. Instead of just retelling a story, or documenting the difficulties of Filipino migrants in Hong Kong, I wanted to tell a different story. I wanted to add a new narrative on top of that, and that’s not because I didn’t want to focus on how upsetting and tragic it is and unjust, it’s because I wanted to tell something different. I wanted to create a new story. That’s where the science fiction part came up. I’m also really into science fiction in general. Science fiction for me is a good way to frame the story of women as outsiders, as Filipino domestic workers as outsiders, because a lot of science fiction does that. A lot of science fiction places the protagonists as minorities within a bigger society, and the minorities are trying to fit in or escape or do something. And the reason why they’re sort of in the margins, these minorities, is because they have a certain power that the majority are afraid of. So, I wanted to frame the story in Come to me, Paradise as the women holding a certain power. This is the sort of story that I wanted to tell as an alternate narrative to what is actually happening.
Another way that I added science fiction is to tell the story from the perspective of Paradise, who is the drone character voiced by my mother — she kind of became the narrator for the film. So you don’t see her in the film but you see her perspective while she is speaking about the women, about herself, where she came from and how they had to move to Hong Kong. She doesn’t really say why, but again, migration comes in there.
I use technology as a way to add a science fictional aspect to the narrative with the drone of course, but I also wanted to use the drone as a way to subvert the way a drone is usually used, which is for war and surveillance, and to give it a more feminized voice. She’s flown lower to the ground, she’s sympathetic, she’s empathizes with the women, she’s one and the same with the women. Those are just a few of the ways that science fiction comes into the story.
Trailer: STEPHANIE COMILANG, Lumapit Sa Akin, Paraiso (Come to Me, Paradise), 2016
MTO: Another question we had is about working with your mother. What led to the decision of having her as the narrator in Come to me, Paradise, or just having her present in your films in general?
SC: When I was making the film and deciding on the narrator’s voice, my mother — I live in Berlin as well as Toronto, and at the time I was in Berlin, and I was skyping with my mother often because she was helping me with translation. The idea to use her as the narrator’s voice kind of snapped into place and I thought that my mother’s voice was perfect 1. Because conceptually, it sounded right through skype with her sort of reading the translations aloud to me, so I just kind of started recording her voice over skype on my iphone basically, and that’s exactly how I used my mother’s voice. I kind of recorded that over skype and put it in the film, so that’s why it’s so cracked and disjointed and disembodied. Aesthetically it worked but also conceptually it worked as a mother figure, female voice. It just kind of clicked and worked really well. Now I can’t think of anyone else who could have done that.
MTO: As you just mentioned, you live between Berlin and Toronto. How is your relationship with Berlin as opposed to Toronto?
SC: Well, Toronto is a place that is my home home, you know. It’s the home I know best, because I was born there and I grew up there. My relationship to Toronto is that when I go back there it feels good, it feels like home. My family is there, friends are still there, I’m still working there, so I have all of these things that talk about home, or describe home. Berlin is more like a chosen home. Berlin is somewhere that I moved to because of a choice, and I decided to stay there so it doesn’t have the same feeling. The language is different, the culture, everything is different, but I have sort of been able to carve out a life I guess, but it feels like more of a second home. Now, I have been travelling more to the Philippines, which is now also a home, twice removed in a way, because my parents are from there so it seems very familiar, but I wasn’t born there. Now I’m coming more to the Philippines because I’m making work and I’m showing projects there, so I guess there’s this sort of triangular home thing that I’m doing, which is really fucked up, but also cool.
MTO: This idea of creating a home for yourself and belonging goes back to our idea for multiplicity where we’re talking about existing in multiples, and not being part of a binary. In regards to what you said, we’re going beyond the idea of home and not home, or having a space for yourself or not having a space. In what ways do you say you relate to this idea of not existing within binaries, whether that’s personally, or professionally?
SC: I think that this non-binary is so present with us, because so many people, especially in North America or not even, feel like they’re not just one thing, you know? My parents are from the Philippines — my mom’s from Manila, my dad’s from Baguio, which is another thing, he knows other dialects and comes from a different culture than my mother who is a city girl. They moved to Canada, which was a very new thing for them, but then in Canada there’s so many different cultures that you mix with already who have children who have had the same experiences as I have had in a way where their parents are from somewhere else but they’re adapting to this new place. So, you’re sort of caught in the middle, and I think in my experience as a child of immigrant parents, the interesting thing is your home life in comparison to your outside life.
Your home life is more similar to where your parents came from, because you’re hearing the language, the culture is contained and you’re living more within that world as opposed to leaving the house, where it’s a different world. It’s whatever Toronto means or whatever Canada’s identity is, which is even more mixed up because it doesn’t necessarily have an identity as it’s a new country. It’s such an interesting question for me, this idea of multiple identities and who we are, and migration which fits into that, as how we see ourselves and where we belong, and where we live. Because it just changes, that idea is so morphous, it’s always changing.
film still from Lumapit Sa Akin, Paraiso (Come to Me, Paradise), 2016
MTO: So you mentioned earlier with Come to me, Paradise, the Filipino migrant workers in Hong Kong congregate and make these spaces for themselves. In the film industry do you find that you have been accepted immediately in the industry or do you kind of have to make a space for yourself?
SC: I don’t really operate within the film industry because I don’t really do commercial film. So when I make my films they’re very much only on my terms. I raise the money, I hire the crew, and I don’t have a client. With the work that I’m making, it’s just me. So, in terms of carving out a space, I guess I’m carving out my own space. I don’t feel like I need to fit into any sort of mold, it’s more about trying to find my own voice, trying to find 1. A story I want to tell and 2. How I want to tell it. That’s what I’m doing, that’s what I’ve been doing and what I’m trying to do.
MTO: What is your process of creating film or art, is it different per piece or do you have a groove of when you do it, or does it depend on whatever the piece is?
SC: So usually what I make is based on real life things, so something in real life will interest me or something in real life will sort of capture my attention and then I go from there, usually that’s how it goes. A place or an object, or a person or a thing or something, I’ll become interested in something and then I’ll create something from that.
So right now I’m really interested in Manila Film Centre— it’s an amazing building that is now in ruin but was built during the Marcos’ dictatorship in the 70s/80s. Imelda wanted the Manila Film Centre to be built to parallel the Venice Film Festival. These buildings are huge massive, super crazy and brutalist concrete buildings, and they spent a lot of money on it, because they were really into culture and wanted to give the Philippines culture. That was sort of their mandate, “culture and beauty,” but in reality, they were really fucked up.
So, they built it really quickly and what had happened was they had built so quickly that some of the scaffolding had collapsed and ended up burying workers in the quick drying cement. Because she knew it would create an uproar with the media and ruin her image, Imelda didn’t allow any rescuers to come in for 24 hours until they had written up a proper statement. 24 hours later, of course not everyone is rescued and people were even remained buried because of the quick drying cement, and she continued to build on top of it anyway.
Anyways, the history of the building is crazy, there were only 2 film festivals that happened. After that, the government took away funding, there was a huge earthquake which further damaged the building, and then it was sort of left abandoned for a couple of years. It was taken over by a company called the “Amazing Theatre Company,” which basically showed drag shows to create tourists for a few years, maybe 10 years, and then their lease ran out and now it’s sort of a standing abandoned. It’s been overgrown and in ruin and there’s nothing in there — it’s supposedly haunted. It’s just super fascinating and all this time it was used as a cruising ground for the gay community.
I just wrote a lecture about this place for the Städelschule in Frankfurt, an art school, and the lecture was called “Paradise Lives in the Ruins of Dictatorship Architecture” and it’s about how I fly my drone in these places of imperial rule — in Hong Kong, Manila, at the film centre.
MTO: We’ll wind down with a few more questions. You previously mentioned Wong Kar Wai and these auteur directors that inspired you — what’s a film that’s been most inspirational in your life or career?
SC: Kidlat Tahimik, he’s the father of independent cinema in the Philippines. Perfumed Nightmare for sure, I watched that on VHS cause my father went to school with him so I think my dad had a copy on VHS, and I watched it as a teenager and I was blown away.
MTO: What are you working on right now?
SC: I’m taking German lessons [laughs]. I did the trailer for the Images Festival which is coming out in April, that was really fun.
I just finished a bunch of smaller projects. I had an exhibition in Berlin, where the mascot of Berlin is a bear, and the exhibition space was in the Bear Pit. Up until 2015 the Bear Pit held real bears, and it was in the centre of Berlin where you could go and look at the bear, which was really crazy. The bear died in 2015 and the city was wondering what to do with the space, so the city turned it into a contemporary arts space. After doing a site visit, I saw that the space was so weird, kind of a medieval brick structure surrounded by a moat, and it was sort of like a beautiful jail for the bear. You walk in and it’s all brick and there’s cages.
I wanted to hire a medium to create a piece from the perspective of the bear, who was named Schnute and was the last remaining bear. I hired a medium, interviewed the medium, and the medium was able to get a hold of the bear, and so I spoke to the bear. I asked the bear what it was like to live there, what home meant to the bear, where the bear was now. It was a 2 channel video installation. One of the videos was of me interviewing the medium, which was shown in one of the bear cells, and the other was from the bear’s perspective, which was a video taken from a drone flying through the space, with subtitles of the bear’s voice.
And then future, I’m going to be making work based around Babaylan, who are indigenous Filipino priests, Spanish shamans, who were all women — but I want to create and meld this into how to create a new A.I., and how that can become the new sort of advice or oracle.