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.

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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.

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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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