Death in the Land of Encantos – Lav Diaz (2007)

I believe that I keep mentioning this film, but I have never really made a proper (blog) case out of it. So let’s go into a bit more detail about Lav Diaz’s painful trip through the Land of Encantos.

Encantos is a docu-fiction hybrid, akin to the works of Nicolás Pereda, a Mexican slow-film director, who plays with our expectations of fact and fiction. Diaz’s film was, in fact, originally a documentary. It is set in the aftermath of typhoon Reming, which hit the country in autumn 2006, only a month or two after volcano Mayon erupted. The strong winds and heavy rain caused havoc in the cities surrounding the volcano, such as Legazpi City. The rain water mixed with the volcano ashes that have remained after the eruption, and produced a deadly lahar that swept through villages and cities. Over a thousand people died, many of them were buried alive.

Diaz ventured out to record footage of the aftermath. He also conducted interviews with survivors, which you see in the final film. You even hear him in the background asking questions. When he saw the footage on his computer, he decided to construct a fictional narrative around the disaster that befell the region. The final product is a film that uses the devastated landscape in order to mirror a devastated character; Benjamin, or Hamin, “the great poet” as he is called by his friends Teo and Catalina. He returned to the Philippines, supposedly to look for the body of his former lover Amalia. This is only a small piece of Hamin’s complex struggle against losing his sanity, though.


Hamin lived in Russia for seven years. In Kaluga, to be exact. He received a grant and residency for teaching. I’m not entirely sure whether I believe this or not. There are things that let me doubt his version of leaving the Philippines. Perhaps the most subtle pointer towards it is the fact that Kaluga used to be a place for exiled politicians during the period of the Russian Empire. It also used to be a place for prisoners. Put this into the context of Hamin being a persecuted artists for inciting a revolution, and you start to re-think his story of grants, residencies, and teaching.

Hamin is a broken man. Just as “broken” and devastated as the landscape that surrounds him. The framing and the camera angles support his mental decline. The frames are generally empty. It’s like what the mayor of Legazpi City said after the disaster: “We now call this a black desert”. Desert means death, and this is what you see in every frame. Houses are buried in lahar up to the rooftop. They have become coffins for their owners. The trees are bare. New rivers have formed as the water from the sea has swallowed substantial amounts of landmass. The camera is hardly set straight. It’s more tilted than anything else; an element that emphasises the idea of an upset equilibrium, both in nature and in Hamin’s mind.


The poet was deemed too dangerous for Philippine society. He was arrested, and tortured so as to break his spirit. His hand was crushed, his penis electrocuted, he was sexually abused, and – intriguingly – he had what he called acid injected into his brain (as I found out a fairly common strategy used by the CIA in the past). On top of this, guilt is crushing him. He never visited his mother, who was in a mental institution because of uncontrollable schizophrenia-paranoia. His sister committed suicide by jumping of a building. His father died of loneliness. It is a demonstration of what Catalina says later in the film: artists are selfish. They only care about their art but they care little about the people around them.

The film is, in fact, full of discourses around art and artists. It’s a discourse on colonialism and the influences of Western culture on Philippine society. It’s a discourse on political activism and the still very present threats of kidnapping, torture, and killing. Compared to Florentina Hubaldo, there are several different layers of discourse. I mean actual dialogue, rather than mere images. Encantos is rich, and it tackles so many issues of what Diaz calls the “Philippine struggle” that the nine-hour run time is more than justified. It could even be a tick longer.

The images are strong. Every single frame has its particular strength. The expression of Hamin’s struggle is visible in every frame, and if we only see an empty bit of devastated landscape. This landscape is Hamin. But on top of the visuals, the dialogues are heavy. Very philosophical. Very thought-provoking. This combination creates a piece which weighs heavy on the viewer. An intellectual piece which requires thinking and commitment. Only with thinking and commitment you get to the bottom of it (and you may actually want to watch the film more than once – ha, commitment!).

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  1. […] Agusan is a fictional poet in Lav Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos (2007). A great poet on the verge of losing his sanity. He is also, in some ways, the alter ego of […]

  2. […] Encantos was about extrajudicial killings and artists’ activism. Florentina Hubaldo CTE was an exploration of the effects of colonialism. Melancholia is quite explicit about the disappeared. The torture of not knowing drives Julian, Alberta and Rina into a coping exercise, in which they immerse into different personae. Aim is the resurrection of feelings. Rina described them as the living dead, as wrecked. She’s the most skeptical about this exercise and loses her faith in it, saying that “There is no cure for this!” Even though Hannah is not exactly a lead role in the film, her character is a great study of the effects of (forced?) disappearances in the Philippines. She’s struggling to cling onto a “normal” life. She steals and prostitutes herself. She’s in and out of psychological treatment. The psychological warfare that drove the men in the jungle mad draws much larger circles and effects those left behind. […]

  3. […] What initially put me onto a track of Mourning Cinema was Armstrong’s suggestion that “the mourning film is defined by the obscure play of the seen, the withheld and the opaque” (184). Nowhere is this clearer than in Lav Diaz’s films. This is exactly what I’m interested in and it comes up in pretty much all my chapters; absence. The use of absence and emptiness is a means in Diaz’s films to convey meanings of loss, grief and melancholy. The unseen is as important as the seen in his films. You cannot read his films by looking only at the visible. It is the invisible that brings to the fore the characters’ inner turmoils. Interestingly enough, in mourning films, according to Armstrong, geography plays a role. Mourning as an interior feeling happens against the exterior of the environment. This is perhaps most visible and most accomplished in Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos. […]

  4. […] remember Nicolas Pereda, who always moves between fiction and documentary. Lav Diaz did the same in Death in the Land of Encantos. And Michela Occhipinti approached Letters from the Desert in a very similar way. I assume that […]

  5. […] which will be used entirely for visuals. At the moment there are two photo sets of Lav Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos and Melancholia, but more will follow in snail time. No […]

  6. […] by Diaz in the past. My doctoral thesis focuses on the representation of trauma in Melancholia, Encantos and Florentina Hubaldo. The (psychological) wound has already been inflicted. What actually […]

  7. […] Final thing, the films I mention below are Florentina Hubaldo CTE (2012), Melancholia (2008), and Death in the Land of Encantos […]

  8. […] and turn into living corpses as a result of it. What stands out in his films Melancholia (2008), Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), and Florentina Hubaldo CTE (2012) is that the characters are caught in a web of persistent […]

  9. […] there is Caspar David Friedrich’s famous Rückenfigur that appeared in Lav Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), an overwhelming nine-hour film set in the aftermath of a natural catastrophe that finds […]

  10. […] experiment with the camera, which was no longer static and on eye-level. He used canted angles in Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), but there was one shot in From What Is Before that looks very deliberately artistic – […]

  11. […] the people. Diaz remains in the background. He records, speaks to a few people. But as practiced in Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), which was originally based on documentary footage, he remains in the background and lets […]

  12. […] October, 13.00 – Death in the Land of Encantos (2009), […]

  13. […] really uncomfortable scene in Melancholia, or the long shot of Hamin and Catalina having sex in Encantos. These films were notably banned for nudity. So, kinky sex is fine, but realistic sex must stay in […]

  14. […] making films. But his films, in particular those I worked on for my doctoral thesis (Melancholia, Death in the Land of Encantos, Florentina Hubaldo CTE), are, to my mind and according to my experience, a correct representation […]

  15. […] clearly only now that I have dived into Wang’s films. In certain cases, such as parts of Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), Diaz follows a very similar path. He tries to be as objective as possible. As he said in an […]

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