Just in time for the anniversary of the horrific disaster that typhoon Yolanda brought about the Philippines, the Guardian published a special report on life in the affected region twelve months after the typhoon struck. It is a bleak picture, but a picture you can only imagine when reading the words. The bleakest picture, literally, is drawn by Lav Diaz in his documentary Storm Children, Book One (2014), which premiered in September this year at the DMZ Documentary Festival in South Korea. Shot in black-and-white, Storm Children is a portrayal of suffering and devastation in the worst hit areas.
It leaves you numb, especially when you consider that Diaz shot some footage five months, some other three months ago. The only conclusion you can draw as a viewer is: nothing has been done to help 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 the pictures speak for themselves. These quiet pictures speak one language. They speak the language of accusation. You won’t find overt accusation, but it’s there. The very fact that the ravished landscape in Tacloban still looks the way it does, so many months after the disaster struck, the very fact that children are still homeless and dig in the rubbish (where they could actually find bodies, mind you), is a silent accusation against all those who have promised help, but whose help has never materialised.
In Storm Children, Diaz uses his usual aesthetics. The very beginning of the film is a typical Lav Diaz shot – a long, wide shot of a flooded area, the sound dominated by heavy rain. The first seconds let you unmistakably know that you’re in the world of Lav Diaz, and you will never get rid of this feeling. As usual, the beginning of the film is slow burning. There is little happening, apart from children playing around in the mess, digging up rubbish, looking for something. The cuts are raw and give the impression that this is not necessarily the final version. Diaz’s films are always a bit raw, but Storm Children contains jump cuts, for instance, which feel awkward and which suggest that this film is more a draft and that it’s still a work in progress.
Only after an hour does the scenery become a real nightmare. It is rare that Diaz contextualises his work. The viewer has to wait before s/he knows what the film is about. And once you know this, you begin to feel horrible, but it is exactly at this point that Diaz hits you with the hard facts. More and more of them, until the very end. Youngsters speak about how they lost loved ones. They’re sitting in the shadow of big ships, tankers or ferries perhaps, that had been pushed onto land by the storm and the waves. These ships, which have also played a prominent role in the news last year, are icons in Storm Children. The overbearing, almost monstrous presence of those beasts of movement, which are now all but moving, are symbolic for the massive destruction the area has seen. They also show that Man is only a small element on earth. Nature is still the overpowering element, and Man is often helplessly exposed to its wrath.
This is particularly true of the Philippines, a country, which sees its lands ravaged by up to twenty typhoons a year. Knowing this, Diaz’s Storm Children can be read as a cinematic concern for the people. The typhoon season has started once more. Nothing has been done in Tacloban and surrounding. What would happen if yet another typhoon struck the same area this year? Who would take responsibility for all the dead and injured, for the homeless children and for the parents who couldn’t save their children? Storm Children has a persistent ‘what if’ at its core. Diaz not only records the present. Without making it overt, the film is a concern about the future.
And yet, the film’s ending is rather hopeful, and perhaps the most hopeful ending I have ever come across in Diaz’s work. In a long shot, we see children using the big ships as an opportunity for diving. They make the best out of the situation, as children always do. Only much later will they realise what has actually happened to them. Diaz uses slow-motion for this scene, capturing a strange sense of joy. After all, he once mentioned that Filipinos were resistant, had to be resistant. They do not give up easily. All these catastrophes do not allow them to give up.
The ending of Storm Children is the most explicit demonstration of this. Despite the gravity of the situation, there are small glimpses of hope and joy, leaving the viewer with mixed feelings. Storm Children is a cinematic documentation that needs to be seen. It proves that Diaz is a filmmaker who takes his responsibility as an artist serious and who proves that he is concerned about his people, using film as a means to convey his concerns and making visible to a wider public the fact that even though Tacloban and its people have disappeared from the news because they’re not deemed newsworthy anymore, they are still struggling and that they need help.