By Gabe Klinger
On Tuesday, September 1st, 2009, the film critics Nika Bohinc and Alexis Tioseco were murdered in their home in Quezon City, the Philippines. I will not focus on the details of this act; they can be found elsewhere. Instead I'd like to offer a personal eulogy to these two cherished individuals.
Nika and Alexis, Alexis and Nika: their names are now eternally linked. They had met at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2007. I know: I was there at that crucial moment. Before Nika told me over dinner one night how she felt about Alexis, I had already discerned from their body language that they were falling for each other. One evening of the festival, my friend Nil Baskar and I invited Alexis for a drink at the Hotel Central to try to talk festival stuff, girls, etc. As Nil observed to me in an email, he was reluctant to accept but was way too polite to decline. Soon we were all crowded in the smoky confines of Central, practically all toppling over each other on the couch: John Torres, Khavn, Raya Martin, Nil, Maya Krajnc, Nika, Alexis, and I. That night I remember coming to the realization that here was a real gentlemen in Alexis, really the best possible match for Nika.
Henceforth a partnership was formed, first at distance -- meeting at festivals and conferences -- and then in close proximity, after Nika took the plunge and moved headfirst from Ljubljana, Slovenia, to be with Alexis in his birth city of Manila, the Philippines, opening an exciting and occasionally uneasy chapter in her life. I know: I have the letters from her. She has a few of my envious and admiring responses, congratulating her on taking such an adventurous decision.
In November of 2007, when a few of us -- including Alexis -- were invited by Nika to part-take in Ekran magazine's Autumn Film School at the Ljubljana International Film Festival, we collectively acknowledged that things between them were serious. Now it was as if they had always been together. A twinkle in Nika's eye indicated to me that the move to Manila might be imminent. This was in some ways tied to professional challenges that she had faced in Slovenia. I suppose all of us face these challenges at beginning of our careers. But Nika felt things deeply; her resentment was growing and she needed a change.
Alexis was perfectly willing to facilitate the move. He was as close to a soul mate as she had ever talked about. I remember arriving at the Ljubljana airport at the same time as Alexis that November. Nika was there to pick us up. It was the first time I had seen them together since Rotterdam, and it was obvious their affection had grown. For our ride into the city, I sat in front while Nika and Alexis were cradled in each other's arms in the backseat. I remember trying to resist my glances and let them have their moment.
***Nika and Alexis became known as a couple, but I knew them first as individuals. I would have liked to have had the pleasure to introduce them but that was not so. The credit can be given to John Torres.
I first met Nika at the Viennale in 2004 sitting at a table with Christine Dollhoffer, from the Crossing Europe Film Festival in Linz, who introduced us. I no longer remember the precise conversation, but I remember Nika hunched over the table, smoking furiously, and talking passionately -- as she always did -- about the state of things. She was intimidating, but we soon broke the ice. After that, hearing Nika speak with fiery emotion was par for the course. If she was calm and not voicing her opinions, there was usually something wrong.
Nika had not yet been appointed editor in chief of Ekran magazine, Slovenia's oldest and most respected film publication. This came some time later. In the years 2004 - 2006 I knew Nika as someone who was anxious about her future as a film critic; "if I can't make a living at this," I once heard her say, "I'll always have a career as a publicist." From her own words, she was much sought-after by publicity firms in her home country. I, for one, was happy that she did not follow this route, and that she stuck to criticism and eventually dedicated herself fulltime to Ekran.
Nika followed the footsteps of former Ekran editor Simon Popek and contributing editor Jurij Meden in an attempt to create a truly international magazine. While largely published in Slovenian for a Slovenian audience (with occasional issues featuring English-language dossiers), Nika still thought it essential to recruit writers from all over the world. Soon the magazine's masthead regularly featured the names of writers known to many on the international festival circuit, including Markus Keuschnigg, Manu Yáñez, Adrian Martin, Neil Young, Olaf Möller, Christoph Huber, Michael Sicinski, and Mark Peranson, alongside fine Slovenian critics like Koen Van Daele, Popek, Baskar, Meden, and others. Nika brought us all together under her beautiful leadership.
Ekran held its offices at the time (they may still do) at the anarchist/squatter/workers-punkers conjunction of buildings known as Metelkova in Ljubljana. I never visited the offices (although parties were customarily held there during the film festival) but I often pictured Nika there at night, sitting with a full ashtray, contemplating the many nicely designed pages of the magazine (she, along with designer Maya Rebov, had totally rethought the aesthetic of Ekran). Nika raised the bar for the magazine, and gave the newly appointed editor huge shoes to fill when she finally left for the Philippines.
Nika and I had our disputes. She was tough and easy to please at the same time. A little bit of courtesy went a long way with Nika. When people were rude or abrupt, she was harsh and honest to them. I stood up Nika for dinner one night -- not intentionally, but consumed in film viewings with my friend Jurij -- and I'll never forget the way she let me have it in a cold corridor at Cankarjev Dom, the huge center where we all met every day. Later I sensed some regret from her in an email, but she was completely right. Film festivals can be tricky to navigate when one is running from place to place and film to film. Nika had a tremendous way of just sitting back, smoking a cigarette (a habit she had almost given up recently), and deciding she had seen enough films.
I remember Nika telling me that she was so overwhelmed when she arrived in Hong Kong for the film festival -- her first trip to that part of the world -- that she only ended up seeing one film (it was Pedro Costa's In Vanda's Room, a film that I think shook her.) For most of us traveling across the world to a film festival, seeing one film would be unthinkable, but Nika had her own process. And she was going through an important transition in her life with Alexis. This, I'm sure, took an emotional toll on her.
Earlier, in late summer 2007, I was going through a transition of my own. I had just restarted a relationship with my current partner, who I had spent some time with in Trieste. We were there for the Mille Occhi film festival and Nika arrived a few days in with Jurij. I was high on my new romance, though saddened since my partner had left back to Spain and to her day job. It was Nika's birthday the next day, and we went out for drinks so that we could toast to her at midnight. I'll never forget that night: it was the first time I felt we really bonded, all of us abandoning film to talk about our romantic relationships. In the wee hours of the morning we staggered around the empty streets to our hotels, knowing with a bit of anxiety that in a few hours we would be taking our role as critics again and talking about the usual this and that. However, things seemed to change. After that encounter, talking film with Nika always seemed of secondary importance. Our emails no longer included films as a first topic -- where we were and how we were feeling was now the priority. I knew I had found a real friend.
Nika regarded me as "American editor" of Ekran, a title I took very seriously, even if my collaboration was somewhat irregular. I remember feeling a duty to introduce her to everyone I knew, and sometimes in the pages of the magazine I saw that those meetings had led somewhere -- Nika knew how to charm people and follow-up with them in the hopes of new projects for the magazine and in her other pursuits (including organizing panels and conferences). She returned the favor many times, most recently by introducing me to IndieLisboa directors Nuno Sena and Rui Pereira which led to me being invited to their festival earlier this year. It's to the Portuguese festival that I owe my last chance to hang out with Nika.
In late April of this year, at indieLisboa, we spent about a week having breakfast every day together, and then going on to screenings and other events. In our movie-themed hotel, I was staying in the James Dean room, which I told Nika hoping to inspire envy. "Yeah," she said with restraint, and then pausing for a moment, "I have the David Lynch room." As hardcore auteurists, both of us acknowledged that that was much cooler. Our rapport was strong: I saw Nika was hopeful, telling me and my partner about all of the hurdles a person must deal with living in Manila. She was trying to get over the shock of living with a housemaid (a detail that I now recall with some tragic undertones in light of what has happened). The other big deal for Nika was the pollution, and how difficult it was for her to accept living in a place where one can't breathe well on the street. Other than that, Nika was enthusiastic about her unity with Alexis, their trips to the ocean and countryside together, and how living among filmmakers and artists in a close-knit and enthusiastic circle in the Philippines lessened her homesickness.
***Nika, aside from finding a soul mate in Alexis, the person, had also found Alexis, the brilliant writer and thinker. He was at the center of all critical discourse on Philippine film and, along with Noel Vera, became one of its most essential voices. The first time I heard from Alexis was in early 2005. He found my email through a mutual contact and wrote to me that he was accepted into the Berlinale Talent Campus program. I was part of the inaugural "Talent Press" section the year prior and Alexis was seeking some advice on how to go about things. He referred to me as "Mr. Klinger" in the email, and always thereafter, despite us being roughly the same age. He had an impeccable education and was always, no matter where we were, the most gentlemanly of gentlemen. He took pictures, lots of pictures, always with the same courtesy and respect for his subjects. In Ljubljana we were standing outside of a restaurant with James Benning and rather than snapping unapproved photos of the filmmaker, Alexis went up to him and said, "Excuse me, Mr. Benning, do you mind if I take your picture?" I remember James, a veteran of busy and rude festival atmospheres, was slightly caught off guard by his civility. That was Alexis.
At the Autumn Film School in Ljubljana, Alexis gave me a hard time about kicking some uninterested students out of the conference hall for using their cell phones. He said to me, half-ironically, "Maybe they were texting their friends to come see your lecture!" In a way, the sentiment behind his statement was right. Alexis would have never done what I did. He would have found a more productive approach -- and the evidence is clear that he was a well-liked and influential teacher. His legions of students have been posting emotional remembrances non-stop to his Facebook profile since the news hit on September 1st. I wish I had spent more time with Alexis in general, and that I had made it out to the Philippines to visit him.
My most pleasurable memory is of competing with Alexis in a futsal match in Rotterdam. Nika saw us in our uniforms and thought the whole thing was ridiculous-- kicking around a football instead of watching movies and writing, how shameful! Alexis appeared on the front cover of the Rotterdam daily with his team members (the image is included here). At our glorious dinner after the tournament, Alexis wandered around the table and made sure to give his palm to all of the various players. Again, he was the most gracious person in the room. It was one of the finest days I have ever had at a film festival, and it makes me joyful to think that Alexis was a part of it.
In his essay for Rogue titled "The Letter I Would Love to Read to You In Person", Alexis wrote the definitive manifesto on Philippine film. It's a document that will soon become a canonical piece of critical writing: it is at once a love letter to his partner, Nika, a personal remembrance of his voyage into film, and a national cinema proposal worthy of Glauber Rocha's "Aesthetic of Hunger" and of John Cassavetes' most impassioned statements. I hope you don't view my saying that as any type of hyperbole, because if you've gotten to the third part of his essay, the "addendum", you know exactly what I mean. It may be the greatest thing he ever wrote, and we are lucky to have such a sprawling case study and such luminous insights into his mind.
As my friend Dana told me on the phone today, there is something morally beautiful about all of this. The way the story is sweeping across the world. No words are adequate to explain what happened, nor to express our feelings about it. But let us gather, and build strength. I'll see you in Rotterdam, in Vienna, in Trieste, in Izola, in Ljubljana, in Torino, in the future, somewhere, and we'll have a drink, and laugh, and hopefully we'll have seen some good movies, and then we'll talk about that cute girl with the magazines tucked under her arms, or that handsome guy with the camera... Nika and Alexis, I love you both with all of my heart.