It all began with For Y’ur Height Only, a no-budget Filipino Bond rip-off starring an 83cm tall Primordial dwarf named Weng Weng. Cult movie aficionado and guerilla filmmaker Andrew Leavold recalls happening across an “8th generation VHS tape of the film in the early Nineties”, a fateful event from which an obsession grew, leading Leavold deep into the Pinoy film sector to unearth the truth behind the legend that was Weng Weng. Seven years in the making, his documentary The Search for Weng Weng chronicles the journey, from the bewildered faces of those who have no idea who Weng Weng was to the palaces of Imelda Marcos to the dark truths about the diminutive actor’s brief stardom. Ahead of his films’ screening at the Sydney Underground Film Festival, Leavold chatted with SCREEN-SPACE about the extraordinary project…
How many forms did the film take over the long course of the production’s history?
When I started shooting in 2006, I had absolutely no idea how the narrative would take shape. I was stumbling around in the dark trying to piece something together. Initially I kept running into brick walls and suspected that the "search" part would end up just that: a collision into a wall of silence, indifference or forgotten memories. It was only on the second trip to Manila in February 2007 that Weng Weng's story began to take form. His personal details, childhood, his rise to fame and subsequent betrayal by his producer/manager/adoptive parent figures. I knew that I was sitting on a dynamite story but didn't have the detail, or the narrative frame, to piece it all together. That took another six years, right up to the end of editing, to nail properly. So you could say it's taken many shapes over the years, not least its morphing into Machete Maidens Unleashed for three years! I thanked (Machete Maidens… director) Mark Hartley for that at our MIFF screening. Machete Maidens freed up the film, (allowing us) to focus on the personal journey.
What is your take on the role played by Peter and Cora Caballes, the husband/wife team who controlled Weng Weng’s career? At best, they emerge as estranged parental figures; at worst, a film industry version of the freak show operator.
I desperately wanted Cora on camera, giving her side of the saga to give the documentary an even-handed focus. She issued me a challenge over the phone: come to California and talk to me face to face. So after two phone calls to arrange an interview, Daniel (Palisa, co-producer and co-writer) and I flew to the US and rang her answering machine every day with no response. To this date, I have received no replies to hundreds of emails. Instead, we have the testimonies of several of her closest team members - the two directors for the Caballes' Liliw Productions, who both call them "Godmother" and "Godfather", who say some pretty damning things about their lack of care and financial culpability. Also, you hear Weng Weng's brother telling the family's side of things so personally, I think that speaks for itself.
When the home-video market exploded and action reined, every country had their enigmatic action hero. Was Weng Weng's success just a case of 'right place/right time' or did he somehow transcend the one-dimensional action hero figure he played?
In the Philippines and overseas, he was more of a novelty act that a bona fide action hero. His contemporaries and co-stars like Tony Ferrer, Lito Lapid, Ramon Zamora and Dante Varona would all enjoy 20+ year careers, (but) not Weng Weng. The peak of his fame would last less than a year, after years of playing sidekicks. The very fact that his novelty transcended the Philippine borders is very much a case of right time/right place, as it has everything to do with Imelda's film festival in January '82 selling his film to the world (pictured, below: press clipping from Manila media). That fuelled an intense fascination with Weng Weng in the Philippines but again, for a few months at the most. Primordial dwarves have a very limited lifespan, usually no more than thirty years. You can also apply that analogy to Weng Weng's career - short, intense, then POOF! - within a very finite time frame, he's back in his old neighbourhood, forgotten and ailing fast.
Your film begins small (the room full of locals bemused at this big Aussie and his obsession) and ends on a very small but achingly intimate moment, yet tells a vast story about celebrity and the Pinoy industry in between. Was it at all hard to remain focused on the personal journey at the heart of the story?
Some have criticized us for including too much "big picture" stuff. I disagree, as context is very important in understanding Weng Weng's place in Filipino culture. And for not concentrating on Weng Weng himself, which is absurd. We do give as detailed a portrait as is humanly possible, given the fact that the subject has already passed, archives have next to no material about him, and those closest to him have fading memories. I think those facts alone qualifies our film as a remarkable piece of research. A few audience members wanted more of me and the "search" so really, you can't win (laughs).
I'm glad you raised that because the current trend for documentarians to put themselves in their films frustrates me, yet you find a beautiful balance between your story and obsessive search and the focus of that obsession. Is it a tough balancing act?
To be honest, I wanted less of me in the film but structuring the film as a detective story rather than simple bio was an important narrative device. I deliberately avoided placing myself in front of the camera as much as possible, preferring to have my voice behind the camera as a guide rather than indulging in ‘Michael Moore’ moments like placing my hand on the grave or placing a polaroid of Weng Weng on Cora's doorstep. So yeah, it is a serious balancing act. From what audiences tell us, the majority think we got it right.
You must be heartened by the international acceptance and festival profile the film and your journey is enjoying?
2014 has been the payoff for what feels like seven years in the wilderness, staring at the sun and yelling to an empty desert about a two foot nine James Bond! To travel with the film, to share it with an audience and receive instant feedback, it's a dream. I'm sure Weng Weng, wherever he is right now, is clapping his hands together with pure glee. We took him back to Cannes after 32 years and last week took him home to Baclaran. We screened the film to his relatives, neighbours and classmates outside the house in which he was born and died. We fed the neighbourbood kids pizza and soft drink, then sat down with the adults with three bottles of brandy and got drunk with them! Seriously, you can't get more profound a moment than that. When the people who knew him best all say "good job,” it makes the assholes that doubt your sincerity pale into insignificance.
Finally, does this mean your obsession has run its course? The very moving narration you provide over those final frames and the local’s acceptance you just describe suggest a closure of sorts.
Not at all. The book comes next. I keep running into more players in the saga and besides, I don't have Cora on the record. I mean, I talked to one of his neighbours about the Santo Nino thing, and he claims he was healed by Weng Weng! There are still so many holes to fill in the story and then there's the bigger picture stuff to tell in more detail, so I think my fate has been sealed. The Philippines is truly my second home and it's all thanks to that two foot nine avatar of mine.
The Search for Weng Weng will screen at the Sydney Underground Film Festival on Sunday, September 7. Full details can be found at the event's website.