Absence and Presence in Lav Diaz’s Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012)
9 April 2014, Research Seminar, University of Stirling
In summer 2012, I sat in the Edinburgh Filmhouse and waited for the screening of Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, the new film by Lav Diaz, writer-director from the Philippines, now perhaps best known for his latest film Norte The End of History, which screened at last year’s Cannes festival. In fan circles and for somewhat hardcore cinephiles, he is most famous for his lengthy metaphorical treatments of Philippine history and the country’s social malaise: Melancholia, eight hours; Death in the Land of Encantos, nine hours; and Evolution of a Filipino Family, ten hours. And this is the average. He is, in fact, working on a film that has a running-time of fifty hours at the moment.
In any case, I knew Lav’s eight-hour film Melancholia from a screening in Newcastle. Sitting in a comfy seat, I felt prepared with food and drinks to my feet. What I wasn’t prepared for was the new kind of power he has infused his new film with, a power he transmitted by a unique choice of aesthetics, which he has never used before. After a six-hour traumatic ordeal, for both the viewer and the main character, the film ends with a young woman, Florentina, sitting in a chair, her nose bleeding and her left cheek swollen. She experiences difficulties to retain her posture while keeping a cool cloth to her head. Looking directly at the viewer, she mutters: “My head hurts. My head never stops hurting. It never stops.”
Florentina repeats herself over and over again. She speaks about having been beaten by her father, about having been chained to her bed, strangled, and about having been sold to men. After a twenty-minute static long-take, the young Florentina loses her strength and her consciousness.
Florentina Hubaldo is a metaphorical treatment of chronic trauma as a result of 300 years of colonialism. Rather than transmitting the theme of trauma through aesthetics such as flashbacks and rapid editing, as is the case in contemporary trauma cinema, Diaz represents trauma through the use of repetitive loops in the present narrative, a slowness evoked by long-takes and the overall film length, as well as through the play of presence and absence of sound and images.
What is particularly striking in this film is the absence of on-screen violence. The film uses the rape of a woman as a metaphor for the rape of the country under Spanish, American and Japanese rule. If anything, you would expect the depiction of rape being the centre piece of the film, especially if you’re familiar with Diaz’s films and know that he tends to stage painstakingly realistic representations of rape in his other films, such as Century of Birthing. In Florentina, he deliberately positions the viewer as listener rather than as eye-witness. He puts emphasis on sound; Florentina’s screams, her cries, and the sound of the chains her father ties her to bed with. Throughout the film, Diaz stresses the role of listening – of listening to Florentina’s repetitive monologues about her ordeal, of listening to her being raped without being able to see her, of listening to both atrocities and peace.
For this reason, I want to analyse Diaz’s unique juxtaposition of sound and silence as a means to convey the ideas of trauma, loss and mental decline, caused by CTE, a degenerative disease of the brain that develops slowly and gradually over years as a result of persistent brain injuries. Before I go into a detailed analysis I want to show you an extract of the film so that you get a feeling for the film’s atmosphere.
This extract is an example of Diaz’s juxtaposition of sound and silence, a juxtaposition of joy and sadness, of the Giants and Florentina. The Giants are giant paper-mâchédolls, which are the main attraction during the Higantes Festival, an annual celebration near Manila in honour of San Clemente, the patron of the fishermen. They are an indicator of past events and belong to Florentina’s childhood, in which she regularly seeks refuge.
And indeed, Florentina does find refuge in the Giants throughout her ordeal of repeated beatings and rape. At the end of the film, she recounts that she is always with the Giants, especially in her dreams. They keep returning and they dance together. But the Giants also appear in hallucinations, which arise from Florentina’s mental decline. In several scenes, Florentina interrupts her actions because she appears to see something. Diaz does not make use of traditional eye-line matches here, so he refrains from making explicit what exactly Florentina sees. But he leaves clues for us.
Scenes such as those are often altered with images of the Higantes parade. Handheld shots show children looking up to the Giants and trying to grab their huge hands. Florentina also looks up to something or someone. She holds out her hands as if she tries to grab something. She repeatedly dances around just as the Giants themselves do. Her behaviour – though evidently trance-like – is that of a child’s at the Higantes parade, and therefore an indicator for her hallucinatory imagination of past events.
So, what exactly does this juxtaposition of sound and silence evoke in the viewer?
For once, if you sit through the film, it is a deeply unsettling experience. The sudden switch from sound to absolute silence in scenes such as these disorientates the viewer as sound functions as a unification of images. Moreover, silence disrupts temporality. This is very similar in the case of trauma, which equally disrupts temporality and a linear narrative of the self, which is locked in a temporal loop.
Confronted with a disrupted temporality, linearity and unity, the viewer is left in a position similar to that of the on-screen character. Florentina appears disoriented and in a trance-like state. She is abandoned and has no means of protection. Similarly, there are no reference points for the viewer. As Diaz positions the viewer predominantly as a listener, his denial of auditory information leaves us nothing to go by with. Together with Florentina, we are entirely naked and struggle to find sensory information to hold on to.
Over the course of the film, Diaz alters scenes of absolute silence and scenes of sound three times. Two of these alterations have a direct connection to the Higantes festival. The parade of the paper-mâchédolls and people accompanying them with brass instruments , as we have seen in the extract, creates a scene of what I would call acoustic stress. The volume of sound appears not only higher in contrast to the absolute silence that preceded it. Overall, the sound volume throughout the film is much lower. In some cases, it even needs a manual increase of volume through the remote control in order to hear ambient sounds. The sound of the parade, on the other hand, appears artificially, and deliberately, heightened for the purpose of rupture. They function as shock moments, and as attacks on our auditory senses.
Similar to repeated attacks on Florentina’s body and mind, the viewer is forced to go through a similar ordeal. We are confronted with repeated attacks on our senses. Acoustic stress occurs mainly in alleged scenes of joy, which is indicated by the children, who repeatedly try to grab the hands of the massive dolls in order to walk alongside them.
In contrast, scenes of absolute silence often succeed scenes of acoustic stress. Half an hour into the film, Florentina takes care of the goats in her father’s backyard. She puts them into a small shed, and then turns around to face the viewer. Her eyes seem to follow something, and a cut discloses that she is imagining two Giants in front of the garden.
The sound does not fit the image because it contains children’s voices and the sound of instruments. They are absent from the image, however. This scene is followed by absolute silence; a close-up of a hand, which tries to grab a Giant’s hand. But it is not a child’s hand we see, as we would expect from the context. In a handheld shot, we see Florentina’s hand attempting several times to hold one of the Giants’hands, but she fails repeatedly. Her failure is juxtaposed with a scene of severe noise. The use of acoustic stress not only wakes Florentina from her dream or hallucination. It is also a reminder for the viewer that scenes of absolute silence do not belong to the realm of the real. Drenched by heavy rain, Florentina stands in the woods and stares into nothingness.
Florentina is a character who sees rather than acts. She has little control of her situation. When she wants to gain control of her plight, for example through escape attempts, she is subjected to violence at the hand of her father, which renders her passive. She is merely an observer, which means that she cannot control the events she is subjected to. If we were to apply this to trauma theory, we can also say that Florentina’s passiveness is an indicator for disembodiment. She observes situations from the distance and with detachment so as to supposedly minimise the impact of traumatic events. This is a common means in trauma survivors, especially in rape victims.
Returning to the juxtaposition of sound and silence in relation to Florentina and the Giants, the sudden rupture in the soundtrack not only acts as a literal loss of sound; it refers simultaneously to a much deeper and more symbolic loss: Florentina’s loss of childhood. This is implied in the alteration of scenes of joyous children and Florentina’s lonely walks at night through the streets of an unnamed city. It is also underlined in scenes in which we see Florentina’s hand failing at grabbing a Giant’s hand. Before she loses consciousness at the end of the film, Florentina reveals that “The Giants keep on returning. I asked for their help. I hope they come back. Those Giants. I hope they come back. Because they will help me.” It is suggested that being able to hold a Giant’s hand, as all the children do, would generate a feeling of security for Florentina. It would indicate hope and a relief from suffering, but she fails at securing this several times until close to the end of the film, when her brain functions are failing more and more.
Silence in Diaz’s film thus appears to be an indicator for Florentina’s loss of childhood. Yet, in fact, he alters the meaning of silence throughout the film. While the absence of sound can function as a metaphorical image of the loss of childhood and of innocence, in other scenes silence implies the reverse.
After Florentina disclosed some of her horrors for the first time in the film, a straight cut brings us to the woods, in which a small girl, supposedly Florentina, jumps around as if playing. Indeed, later in the film she explains that “we [the Giants and Florentina] are always playing. We play hide and seek in the forest. We run around the rocks. We frolic under the stars. We dance.”Her child’s play in the forest amidst absolute silence underlines the themes of peace and innocence. The forest thus plays an essential role in the creation of a feeling of innocence and peace. It is a repeated motif of refuge in the film.
It is established as such at the beginning of the film, when Florentina flees from the hands of a man, who wants to buy her. She escapes into the forest and waits for her grandfather. Later in the film, when she makes an attempt at running away from her father, she hides in the forest again. She tries to find a hiding place behind bushes and trees, and then crouches at the right hand side of the frame. A little later, she lays on a rock as if resting. These scenes are accompanied by peaceful ambient sounds, which emphasise Florentina’s feeling of safety, and which also gives the viewer a moment of escapism.
Yet, the forest is only a place of assumed safety. Florentina is caught by her father, dragged home on a leash, and chained to her bed. She also discloses that “Mother and I always hide in the forest. We crawl on the ground …but father saw us, and caught up on mother.”Hence, on the one hand, the forest is an idyllic place of peace for Florentina, in which she repeatedly seeks refuge and seemingly plays with the Giants, who give her a sense of joy and childish innocence. On the other hand, the forest fails to protect Florentina and causes her, her mother and her grandfather harm. Her mother is beaten to death following her escape to the forest. Her grandfather, too, is beaten. Thus, the forest is merely a fairy tale escape, which, in reality, aggravates Florentina’s suffering.
In conclusion, then, I would like to point to a statement by Lav Diaz made in an interview: “I want them to struggle also.”With them, he means us, the audience, and the range of sound he uses – from acoustic stress to absolute silence – forces the viewer to struggle in metaphorically similar ways to the film’s main character, Florentina.
The sudden disruption of sound, and its replacement by absolute silence is used to convey aspects of trauma, in particular the effects of disorientation and loss of temporality.
The scenes of absolute silence have two main functions. First, as sound can support a preferred reading induced by the director, absolute silence allows the viewer to read a specific scene in his or her way. Second, the absence of sound deprives the viewer-listener, of the main sensory information, rendering him or her as helpless as Florentina.
It is the first time Diaz has experimented with the power of sound and silence. Throughout his six-hour film, Diaz exposes the audience to repeated shock situations, which are similar to the chain of traumatic events Florentina has to endure; a repeated bashing of the head against the wall, as Diaz describes it, sowing the seeds for a slow degeneration of the brain and the gradual loss of memory, sensory perceptions, and, eventually, of life.
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