Book Review: Laurel Fantauzzo’s The First Impulse

 Alexis and Nika (Photo by Chris Yambing)

Alexis and Nika (Photo by Chris Yambing)

In September 2009 two young film journalists, Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc, were murdered in their home in Quezon City. The couple had met at a film festival in Rotterdam in 2007, beginning a long-distance relationship that would lead Bohinc to leave her native Slovenia and join Tioseco in the Philippines several months before their deaths. Their case was among nearly five thousand reported homicides in the Philippines that year, many of which remain unsolved.

Visiting the Philippines in 2010, Filipino American writer Laurel Fantauzzo first learned about the couple and felt compelled to examine their story more closely. In The First Impulse, she attempts to piece together what went on behind the lurid media coverage and languorous criminal investigation, and what went on before: to understand how Tioseco, who was Filipino Canadian, moved to the Philippines as a teenager and chose to live there as an adult; how he became a respected film critic and champion of independent cinema, and later met Bohinc, editor of the Slovenian film journal Ekran.

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Drawing on varied sources, including news reports, interviews, essays, blog entries, text messages, emails, videos and photographs, The First Impulse combines elements of mystery, reportage, memoir, biography and elegy. It chronicles a journey and an investigation, offers a glimpse into a community and a society (placing these two deaths in the context of others) as it reconstructs Alexis and Nika’s lives as cinephiles and lovers. Meticulous in its storytelling, and searing in its social commentary, The First Impulse is probing and plaintive, its answers inviting more questions. It is at its height a meditation on identity, migration and art, and as much or more than it does or is any of these things, it is also a love story.

The Letter I Would Love to Read to You in Person

An early chapter invites us to imagine Alexis in the moment he begins to write “The Letter I Would Love to Read to You in Person.” In response to an assignment for Rogue Magazine to write about how he became a film critic, he addresses the letter to Nika, who is in Ljubljana, asking her to come to the Philippines. It is an origin story in the first person, a love letter and an appeal, with a coda of wishes for Philippine cinema. The scene unfolds in present tense, as do most events for which Fantauzzo wasn’t herself present, those recounted to her later on, or imagined to fill in the gaps between what is known or can be known. This is in contrast to events she witnessed or experienced herself as a participant or observer, which are reconstructed in the past tense. In this way the deeper past in the book feels most immediate, if not most vivid. As though alive in its pages, Alexis sits down to write; he glances at Nika across a hotel lobby; teases his friend Mia; wraps his arm around Manang’s shoulders; walks into the theater to see Batang West Side; nods off in front of the television, wakes up and rewinds the tape. The book is as much about past as present, as is often the case with grief, and with legacies of violence and corruption like those we’ve seen unfold in the Philippines, its consequences rippling through the archipelago and the diaspora.

 "The First Impulse" author Lauren Fantauzzo (Photo by Chester Tan

"The First Impulse" author Lauren Fantauzzo (Photo by Chester Tan

The First Impulse

The book’s title borrows a phrase from the letter, parts of which are excerpted throughout, along with fragments from Tioseco’s essays and journal entries, and passages from Bohinc’s work for Ekran. The book’s intertextuality, the ways in which it is shaped by and situated in relation to other texts, and also engaged with and informed by film, is one of its clearest achievements. It enacts a double movement: even as it draws the reader into a world, describing the spaces through which Tioseco once moved, and revealing Fantauzzo’s own interiority, her instincts and hesitations, it also gestures outward, directing our gaze and attention to work and phenomena beyond the page. Questions surrounding the meaning of whiteness and the reality of socioeconomic stratification in Philippine society contextualize the narrative. And work Alexis loved, like Erwin Romulo’s essay, “Confessions of a Space Boy,” and the films of Lav Diaz, Mike De Leon, John Torres, Sherad Anthony Sanchez and others, constellate around it. These references highlight Tioseco’s work as a critic and teacher, his contribution to Philippine film culture, which he used to define himself as a writer and as Filipino; it was for him inextricable from the joy he described of “[sharing] that which [one finds] beautiful with someone who otherwise wouldn’t have noticed it[.]”

Much of Tioseco’s work was about noticing, appreciating and also challenging modes within the local film scene he hoped would change. Fantauzzo too is one who notices. Her perspective as an outsider with a distinct kinship to the book’s subject and setting, her attention, curiosity and empathy and the sensitivity with which she pursues the story sustain The First Impulse. There’s an intimacy to the book, as the author reveals much of herself in its pages, and as it shifts from first to third to second person, not shying away from the occasional direct address to the reader, the police investigators and, at times, to Alexis and Nika. There are scenes that might be viewed from a longer distance, moments one could avert one’s eyes, where instead the author lifts hers, to look more closely or meet the reader’s gaze. Like certain letters, The First Impulse lays itself open and invites us in. It has something to show us.


 Marie La Viña

Marie La Viña

Marie La Viña has spent half of her life in the Philippines and half in the United States. She is an MFA candidate at Columbia University.