If you’re done watching Lav Diaz’s long films and need a film to fix this problem, Sherad Anthony Sanchez’ three-and-a-half hour film Imburnal (2008) may be a good start. I wanted to see the film for a long time, and I have started it twice, I think. But for some reason I never finished watching it. It certainly wasn’t the quality of the film that had stopped me from going ahead.
I remember Diaz mentioning Sanchez in my interview with him; Sanchez as one of the few upcoming great directors in Philippine cinema. I can see why Diaz said this, even though I have only seen one film by him. But there is a feeling, a certain presence of the director, that makes it a very promising work in regards to the future. Imburnal is a rather different view on the Philippines than we know from Diaz’s films. Sanchez does not so much focus on the past and its effects on the present. His film is more an exclusive study of the present condition, with a view to the future. Sanchez focuses on the young; children, teenagers, who spend their free time in sewers. They smoke and drink whatever self-made mix they can come up with, inhale glue, and, seemingly their favourite past-time, have sex with whoever they can find.
No, the film doesn’t draw a nice picture of the young in the Philippines. But the film is not so much only an image of the director’s country. It uses Filipino youngsters, while – perhaps unconsciously – telling a story of deprived young people all over the world, with little hope for the future, little education, maybe even little ambition. This is one thing in the film: you don’t see any of the characters at school. The film is a portrayal of youngsters in the streets and sewers without their being homeless. It looks like the chosen battleground where the young fool around until they find out what they want to do with their lives.
The dominant theme of sex in the film reminded me of a book I read years ago, which was as worrying as was watching the film. I can’t remember the book’s title, but it was written by someone working for a charity that supports teenagers from deprived families in Germany (yes, we’re speaking about the First World here). What became clear after only a few pages was the teenagers’ obsession with sex. And I’m not speaking of the normal “I need to discover what this is all about” phase. The underlying problem was that they had little else to do. Sex gave them a release from harsh life. It was an escape, a form of entertainment they could get for free. This went as far as 15 year olds with 50 sex partners. I couldn’t help thinking that this was exactly what I saw in Imburnal; the kind of “I’m bored, let’s have sex” type of thing. There’s plenty to say about this, but I want to move on to the aesthetics of the film.
Sanchez has created a rather interesting cinematic journey that does not necessarily make for an easy viewing. He employs long-takes, often beautifully framed. Others, on the other hand, need to be deciphered. He inserts still images, which confused me at times: Is this really a still image or is simply nothing moving in the frame? It’s not as easy as you think! The still images increased the felt slowness of the entire film. And so does the music, a melancholic tune that plays over quite a few scenes. The slow tune wasn’t a necessity, but it serves the mood well and reinforced my sorry feeling for what I saw.
Sanchez – keen on playing with the viewers’ patience, you can tell – inserted a pause into his film. A literal pause. After about ninety minutes, the film cuts to black. A melancholic tune comes up, and then you sit and wait. And wait. And wait a little longer. I’m not sure how long I stared at the blank screen. Was it five minutes? Seven, perhaps? If I had watched this in cinema, that would have been the point of people leaving the auditorium. That is, if they had not been fed up with explicit sexual imagery of a teenager threesome in the sewers, masturbating guys (no, boys) on top of the extreme long-takes and the on and off use of absolute silence. The use of absolute silence strongly reminded me of Lav Diaz’s Florentina Hubaldo CTE. In this film, silence was an aspect of trauma. In Imburnal, I reckon the silence was simply the result of playing with different aesthetics.
I couldn’t figure out why Sanchez inserted the pause, but I sure liked his artistic endeavour. It added a real zen feeling to the otherwise rather unpleasant scenes (context-wise) before and after the break. Imburnal is surely an intimate film, in many ways. Not only in regards to the imagery. At times, the camera switches into a voyeuristic mode, positioning us as perhaps unwanted spectators. And then you can hear the breathing of the filmmaker/cinematographer in some scenes, which made me feel uncomfortable at times. I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it felt as though I was too close to the action. In any case, Sanchez is a director to look out for in future. I liked his play with aesthetics and this could have been only beneficial for his future projects.