An artist’s journey in keeping the ancient Filipino script alive

An artist’s journey in keeping the ancient Filipino script alive

Kristian Kabuay and his documentary, ‘Sulat ng Malansang Isda’

HISTORY is one of the aspects that make a culture alive.  However, since past research may be lacking and/or new discoveries keep popping up, history, as we know it, may be incorrect and is forever changing.

Philippine history is not immune to inaccuracies and that is why a number of people have continued to delve deeper into it.  One example is the ancient Filipino alphabet, or as many have known before, the alibata.  However, majority of Filipinos don’t know that alibata was a term coined by a professor in the early 1900s To think that this writing system is of Filipino heritage is wrong, as it is named after the first three characters of the Arabic alphabet (alif-ba-ta).  The problem with alibata is that is that the script is rooted in India opposed to the Middle East.

Coming out from the discovery of this inaccurate historical fact is the baybayin, a pre-Filipino writing system.  Although the script has always been around and used by a few tribes in the Philippines, the baybayin is now subtly seen in government and company materials, as well in artworks.

One artist that is pushing for its continued resurrection is Kristian Kabuay.  Having discovered the baybayin in 1992 through old pamphlets about the Katipunan and the revolution, he made it his personal goal to learn how to read and write the script.

Through the years, Kristian built his life around promoting the baybayin—in his artworks, performances, tattoos, business, writing a book about it (2009) and more.  But for him, he needed to get deeper into the history than just studying it.

In 2010, Kristian went home to the Philippines and interviewed baybayin artists.  This led him to search more people and know their stories.

“In turn, they asked me what my story was,” he said.  “This lead to my idea of creating a film about my search.”

The film/documentary, initially called Baybayin was changed to something else.  “…My friend Kanakan Balintagos released a fictional movie with the same title.  In 2012, after showing footage and talking about my film, people wanted to know more about my personal story and the journey,” Kristian shared.

Explaining that one of his favorite quotes from (Jose) Rizal is “Ang hindi magmahal sa sariling wika, daig pa ang hayop at malansang isda,” it made him think about himself as a Filipino living in diaspora and cultural work.

“Am I a stinky fish for not being in the Philippines?  Are those in the Philippines who don’t appreciate their culture a stinky fish?  These questions lead to the title, Sulat ng Malansang Isda (Writing of the Stinky Fish).”

Kristian filmed in various locations such as San Francisco, Manila, the Visayas, Europe, Japan and Kansas City.  In his travels, he said, he discovered pockets of Filipino communities.  “In Madrid, the generations of old Filipino families, second generation young Filipinos trying to make a name in London, first generation young families in Brussels, and artists/activitists in Manila active during the Martial Law era.”

Although he intended to release the film in 2011, Kristian felt that it needed something more.  “(It is) Good for a National Geographic type education show but I wanted it to be entertaining and beautiful,” he said.  “I had the privilege of meeting the legendary independent filmmaker, Kidlat Tahimik a few times and take his advice.”

After his talk with Tahimik, Kristian decided to take his time and let the story develop naturally.  “I do think I’m close.  I’m expecting sometime in 2016-1017 for it to finally be completed,” he said hopefully.

Of course, challenges take its fair share of the toll in making the documentary.  Admitting that at the start he had no idea what he was doing, Kristian also shared that he has no fiscal sponsors to fund his film.  “Everything is out of my pocket,” he said and added, “I had to teach myself the basics of film making.”

Location shoots were also interesting, he said.  “In 2010, I had a small pocket camera that looked like a cellphone so it wouldn’t be obvious filming around the city.”

In between shoots and finishing the film, Kristian continues in his mission to promote baybayin.  He debuted a performance style of the writing system called Tulang Kalis (Poetry of the Sword) and introduced it as Filipino calligraphy at the Asian Art Museum in 2012.  He also has been invited to talk at numerous schools such as Stanford University, UC Berkeley, SF State University, UC Davis, Sonoma State, University of the Philippines, National Anthropology Museum of Madrid, and Tokyo University.  This April, he will be a guest speaker at the 1st Baybayin Summit in Pangasinan, along with President Aquino and Senator Loren Legarda.

Still, Kristian is pushing on and looking forward to releasing him film soon.

“…I’d like for this project (the film) to be a gateway to learn more about the pre-Philippines and for people to pursue their passions,” he said.

To know more about the film, baybayin and Kristian’s work, log on to, and/or

(SF February 27, 2015 SF Magazine pg.2)

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