Norte – Lav Diaz (2013)

A couple of months ago, I have posted initial thoughts on Diaz’s new film Norte The End of History. I received a link for an online screener, which I happily accepted as I wasn’t sure if Norte would make it to the UK. Well, it did. In fact, it has become so popular that you find the film at almost all film festivals running at the moment. Not exactly the situation for the Lav Diaz who is known for his black-and-white epic films of eight hours or more. Rather, it’s a situation for a Lav Diaz, who is not in his usual element. 

In my earlier post, I have argued that it’s obvious why critics suddenly got hooked on the film. It is not a mainstream film, but it conforms more to classical filmmaking than all of his other films. Norte is easy food for the audience. It attracts the entertainment-seeker, not necessarily the intellectual cinephile who expects a typical Lav Diaz discourse on the struggles of the world and his people. It pains me to write this, because it may look that I strongly dislike Norte. This isn’t the case. What I dislike instead is the very obvious influence of money on alternative, small-budget filmmaking, which goes – by nature – down to the very basics, the essence of film, the truth; exactly what Diaz is always looking for. Money, on the other hand, seeks something else. If invested, the product needs to be turned into a profitable business. If you make it too hard for the audience to understand the film, you won’t make the film profitable. The director is forced to change his approach and his aesthetics. This is what happened with Norte, as far as I can see. 

Michael Guarneri conducted an insightful interview with Diaz. In it, Diaz speaks about the waste of money and how it has changed the approach to filmmaking. He explained: 

There was so much money wasted, and this is a thing I didn’t like about the shooting. We rented the camera package: very expensive… If we had bought it, the camera could have been used by me and by other fellow-filmmakers, or it could have been rented out by the producers to generate funds. Creating a flow of money and a circulation of ideas to develop film-projects and make more films in our country: to me this is a very important “political” aspect in filmmaking. It is part of the struggle.

So you see technology is an economic issue that has consequences on many levels. Clearly, it affects how the film looks: for example,Norte is a color film and there is much more camera movement than in my other movies. It is not the camera movement you find in commercial cinema, though. It is not flossy camera movement. It’s more about quietly following the characters. It’s still about duration and space as before, but at the same time it is something new for me.

The rented equipment led to tight schedules. Everything had to be rushed. Time is money, and that’s why money isn’t Slow Cinema. You can read the full interview with Diaz here

Returning to the film, though, I find that Norte is less a distinctly Philippine film. I may, in fact, go as far as calling it a “Russian” film. The thought popped into my head after I re-watched Diaz’s Encantos, in which one of the main characters returns to the Philippines after having spent seven years in Russia. He mentions Russian society, literature, cinema. He also says that the Russian and the Filipino struggles are similar. I think that with Norte, Diaz is pursuing his affection for Russian culture (especially literature and cinema) to a new level. 

The film is based on the remarkable Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky (if you haven’t read it, read it!). The story is obviously taken from the book, but so are the characters. Even if Russian and Filipino struggles are similar, I had troubles to see the Filipino character in the film; the character I got to know by spending hours watching Diaz’s films up and down, repeatedly, and by reading interviews with him. I think that in making the work more accessible by using a famous book as a background, the film neglects the actual Filipino. It is perhaps the case because no one would want to know about it, or no one would be willing to understand it. We’re all very aware of Russian literature, and while it’s not at all as mainstream as some English-speaking literature, it is at least more known and willing to be taken up by an audience than an entirely Filipino story. This is our indifference to little known cultures. We apply this to our taste for cinema, too. 

With that strong Russian background, we then also have a levitating character. A special effect that rubs into our face what Diaz would have normally said without special effects, without making it plain obvious what he wants to say. He would have normally been the literati, and suggested something without making it clear. But again, this film had to be profitable, so appealing to the audience’s intellectual thinking wasn’t an option. The film had to offer quick fixes. And before I lose myself in this discussion, I should mention that the levitating character is an homage to Tarkovsky, a director Diaz admires and was influenced by. So we’re not speaking about any special effect here. We are, in fact, again, speaking about Russia. 

The question that should be asked is not whether or not the film is good. Rather, how Filipino is it? How much does it betray its own culture in order to be profitable in the selling of distribution rights? And how is this going to change the filmmaking of Lav Diaz?

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Death in the Land of Encantos – Lav Diaz (2007) Slow Cinema in the News (February 2014)


Perhaps your question about this film is correct or has merit, but Lav Diaz approaches films with far different goals in mind than making a ‘Filipino’ film. See this quote from an interview that was taken in 2007,

‘Okay. People and society; communities and nations; the Philippines and Filipino peoples. How do we dissect that, the differences? Clustering them would be in this manner, and you will agree, of course: in one grouping would be people, the Filipino peoples and communities; the other group would be society, nations and the Philippines. We’re talking of the micro and macro here if you go by economics; the small and the big by geography maybe; the individual and the group in terms of unit, or to qualify it better, an individual culture and a group culture; and in terms of concept, naming a group and naming a country. Dissecting it further would be in terms of dynamic – an individual, his habitat, other individuals, his existence; a people, their habitat, other peoples, their existence; a community, their habitat, other communities, their existence; the Filipino peoples, the American peoples, the Chinese peoples, etc. My characters are very individual characters, and they are particularly Filipinos; but they are linked to their society’s histories, even if it’s just subliminal; they are very much a part of their country’s collective struggle; and then going further, the Filipino struggle is very much a part of humanity’s struggle. In trying to understand the struggles of Hanzel, or Mijares, or Kadyo, or Heremias, or Puring, or Hilda, or Hesus, one cannot help but embrace the Filipino struggle, too, or the Philippine struggle, or, ultimately, humanity’s struggle. Like I said, my works are very particular about the Filipino because that’s my culture. But I don’t make films for Filipinos. I make films for cinema, as art is all encompassing. There are no borders. I don’t believe in borders anymore. It’s the same as your belief that there are no nations. I can live anywhere in this planet and I can truly assimilate in time in other cultures as well. And I can embrace these cultures all the same. But in my work, I believe that I must represent the culture that molded my being and my responsibility is to help it grow and be part of a bigger growing culture. Cinema is my medium.’

Also, I just wanted to say I appreciate the work you do here despite this criticism, particularly posting up the poem for Death in the Land of Encantos. That was wonderful. Thank you,

Thanks a lot for your comment. I appreciate it.

I suppose that neither of us is right or wrong here. I am indeed aware of the interview of which you have quoted an extract. I would like to mention one crucial thing, however. In a personal correspondence, he said that he was trying to make Malay films, to put the lost Malay culture on screen, the culture that was suppressed by the colonisers. In some interviews he speaks about the concept of Malay time in the context of the long takes he uses. Aesthetically, he wants to create a Malay film. While I’m aware that this is not exactly Filipino, it is not international either. He said in an email that he was struggling to make a Malay film, but he’s trying his best. So, from this point of view, his films are meant to be rather ‘local’.

Another point I would like to mention is something that has little to do with Diaz himself. In his study of the body in Neorealist cinema, Karl Schoonover writes that “in realist cinema [as opposed to Hollywood cinema], by contrast, otherwise ocal histories of specific atrocities become an ‘experience that every man in every country immediately understands.'”

The point of reference here is the theme of violence in “realist” films. I’m not interested as such in what we do and do not define as “realist”, as I’m personally convinced that you cannot define it. Yet, assuming that Diaz’s films are “realist”, and I’m pretty sure they are always considered as such, being put into the historical context of Neorealism, then, again, his films are very local. And of course, they are. Subject matters always deal with local history. So now we have Malay aesthetics and local subject matter.

But as Schoonover writes, those films are almost always understood internationally, because they speak about humanism, and we all have a more or less similar idea of what humanism is and what it means. From this point of view, we all have the same background, and are thus able to understand his films. I believe this is what Diaz means when he says that his films depict the Filipino struggle, and at the same time the human struggle.

I don’t think he necessarily approaches cinema with different goals in mind. He wants to create Malay films. Norte is less of a Malay film for me than all of his other films. He has diverted gravely from his pursuit of putting Malay culture on screen. This is what I wanted to express in my blog.

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