Present. Past. – The Cinema of Lav Diaz

Yesterday, I presented a brief overview of the cinema of Filipino director Lav Diaz as part of a webinar on arthouse cinema, organised by the Universiti Kuala Lumpur. I’m grateful for the invitation, which I received from Fauzi Naeim Mohamed. It was a thoroughly interesting webinar which left me with plenty food for thought. Those of you who have been with me for a while know that I have always struggled to fit my writing and my approach to Slow Cinema to the classic European/Western Eurocentric reading of films. I try my best to think out of the box, and I found a home yesterday. I have never had such engaging, such enriching discussions on Slow Cinema with scholars before. I was right from the beginning. The Anglo-Saxon world might have come up with a name for this form of film, but there is no real intent in understanding it. Again, my gratitude goes to Kuala Lumpur. Thank you!

Below, you will find my presentation in text-form.

Let me begin with a small anecdote about how I found my way into Slow Cinema. In March 2012, I prepared a weekend in Newcastle, north England. The bi-annual AV festival proposed a ‘Slow Cinema weekend’, a weekend focused on a specific form of arthouse cinema, which isn’t so much about driving the narrative forward, but about investigating and exploring characters’ and societies’ psyches.

At the time of preparing my trip south — I was based in Scotland at the time — I had spent two years familiarising myself with this form of cinema and planned to start a PhD on it the following autumn. It was a great chance for me to see films I hadn’t been familiar with and to get to know filmmakers I hadn’t heard of. When I flicked through the programme brochure I came across one name in particular, which would define much of my later professional life, but it also promised a unique and, let’s say, exotic challenge to my perception of cinema.

Advertised was a mini-retrospective of Lav Diaz, a filmmaker from the Philippines. The proposed films all had a length above six hours. The first film that struck me — Melancholia— was eight hours long and I have to admit that I took it a bit as a joke. Getting tickets for the film, I had no idea whether or not I would be able to stay for eight hours, let alone stay awake. At the same time, it was exciting. It’s not every day that you get the chance to discover films like this. I bought snacks and RedBull drinks, and I settled down, ready for this eight-hour long journey to and through the Philippines. And then, the lights were turned off and the screen brightened up.

A woman tends to her clothes on a bed. There are windows in the centre of the frame and to the right. The static, slightly tilted camera records the woman from the side or from her back. There is a hammering sound in the background. Except for this, nothing else happens. For a long time. And for an even longer time. I was confused as to when a cut would happen, but I was also intrigued by what I saw. I had seemingly all the time in the world to actually look at the image, to look at all the details. I began to wonder what time of day it was in the film. Was it lunch time? Afternoon? Who is this woman and where is she?

Once the scene ended and the first cut of the film occurred, I was immersed. I was also liberated. It is perhaps not fully correct if I say that I had time to actually look at the image in front of me. It would be much more appropriate to say that I was allowed to take my time, that I was _invited_to take a look around the image. This is the cinema of Lav Diaz. It is an invitation, it is a liberation for viewer and director alike, as we will see. It is a play with time and duration, a look at history and how the past has shaped the present in a country, which is, as we speak, once more rocked by an authoritarian president who resurrects the long, dark shadows of former president Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship.

The cinema of Lav Diaz is a cinema of past traumas, of present struggles, and of questions as to what the future holds for the Philippines.

Lav Diaz was born on 30 December 1958 on the island of Mindanao. His parents were teaching the poor in the region and substantially influenced the young Diaz. As did the regular trips to the local cinema to which his father took him every weekend. He was a student when he saw Lino Brocka’s Manila, in the Claws of the Night (1975) for the first time, and it changed everything for him.

Cinema, he realised, could be a tool to investigate and examine. It could become a tool to hold people accountable. And this is what he would go on to do, after a brief period working for Filipino film studio Regal. His first films, which he made for Regal have almost fallen into oblivion because what Diaz really became known for and popular in cinephile circles around the world is the length of his films, which regularly surpass the, let’s say accepted, length of a standard film: ninety minutes to two hours.

One only needs to pick up copies of Russian classics. Tolstoi, Dostoyevsky – authors whose books were long and heavy, very good and uncomfortable at the same time, if you were to read them in bed. More modern examples are the books of Turkish nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk. And then there is Lucy Ellmann, whose book Ducks, Newburyport consists of one long sentence, one long thought, with very few interruptions, all spread over almost 1000 pages. Literature has many examples of authors who cross the boundaries of what has been accepted and who challenge our idea of what literature can do.

Books can be long, films cannot, Lav Diaz once said a couple of years ago. “There is no long cinema, there is no short cinema. It’s just cinema,” he said. What books came to be known for, he wanted to do with cinema, namely an in-depth exploration of a character, a so-called vertical exploration, which takes a long hard look at a condition instead of a chain of events. One could also say that Diaz’s films are films of ‘Being’, not one of ‘Becoming’.

Why this approach is plausible and self-explanatory becomes evident once we look at Diaz’s films in more detail. Let me return to Melancholia now for a little while.

The film tells the story of relatives of the so-called desaparacidoes, the disappeared. What happens when someone you love disappears? Time stops. You find yourself in a curious limbo between temporal standstill and life outside your four walls that continues as normal, regardless of what you are currently going through. Disappearances of people in the resistance, in the opposition, have long been a favourite tool of authoritarian regimes. In Melancholia, Diaz explores the aftermath of disappearances for those who stay behind and don’t know what happened, where their relative is and, most importantly, whether or not he or she is still alive.

With the exception of its last part, the film dedicates around six to seven hours to following three characters through their trauma management. It is incredibly rare that a film spends this much time on trauma. In ‘Trauma Cinema’, trauma is usually an event: an explosion, an accident, a terror attack. Missing from the screen is always the traumatised person, the post-trauma, that which really brings those who face it to their knees.

The three main characters — Alberta, Rina and Julian — engage in an obscure form of immersion, or trauma therapy to tackle feelings of pain, loss and sadness. This therapy is also an attempt to find closure in light of the overbearing uncertainty of what has happened to their loved ones — resistance fighters on the island of Mindoro. The narrative unravels in a non-linear, non-chronological way, shifting between the past and the present without indication. Watching Melancholia makes for a disorienting experience. For most of the film, nothing is clear or explained. We don’t know who the three adults are. We don’t know what they are doing or why they are doing it. We don’t know where they are and whether or not they know each other. It takes around two to three hours before the picture of what is going on becomes a little clearer, but the aim is to keep the viewer in the dark.

This could, of course, be counterproductive. Eight or nine hours without fully knowing what is going on can be a real challenge. But this is also the key to Diaz’s cinema. The key is darkness. The key is absence. They key is to use aesthetics and narrative structure to transfer some of the burden, which the film characters feel, onto the viewer. The key is to make viewers feel.

There is one film, in particular, which I want to talk about because it shows this darkness and this suffering to an extent that it can become traumatising for the viewer.

When the Spanish Empire colonised the Philippines in the early 16th century, the native people were forced to give up everything which had, up to that point, made the Philippines and made the people. Becoming a Spanish colony, the Philippines had to become Spanish, meaning the people were forced to learn the language and give their children Spanish first names. The native culture was first oppressed, then suppressed.

400 years later, the United States became the owner of the country, and I deliberately say “owner” because they bought the Philippines from Spain. English replaced Spanish, the dollar replaced the pesos. Spanish culture became American culture. When Japanese Imperial troops invaded the country during World War II, the Filipinos were once more forced to adopt and to adapt to a new culture.

When colonialism by external forces came to an end after the end of the war, it didn’t bring the end of suffering for an already brutalised and bruised country. President Ferdinand Marcos’ brutal reign in the 1960s and 1970s was the last straw.

“It’s like a repeated bashing of the head against he wall,” Diaz said of the colonial trauma when he presented his six-hour long film Florentina Hubaldo, CTE in 2012. With this film, Diaz looks at the nature of chronic collective trauma. More so than in his other films, though, he also comments on the effects on the present; on present day society, the effects on political decisions in the here and now.

We get to know Florentina as a young woman in her early 20s. Her father, an alcoholic and gambler, sells her to young men in the local area to earn money he needs to pursue his vices. Florentina is repeatedly raped and physically assaulted. But Florentina is not only a woman. She is also the Philippines. She is a country which was devastated and pillaged by colonial forces and which, after finally gaining independence, descended into darkness, into a hell of silencing the opposition, a hell of extrajudicial killings and disappearances.

Florentina Hubaldo CTE is six hours long, a little shorter than Diaz’s previous films but substantially longer than the average film in today’s cinemas. Some of this time is spent on two young men on a treasure hunt, but the bulk of the film’s running time is dedicated to Florentina’s plight.

In regular intervals, Florentina utters a monologue, in which she tries to make sense of what has happened to her and her mother. Most importantly, however, she tries to remember. She speaks about the violence against her, about the death of her mother, possibly at the hands of her father, and about questionable methods of abortion she has been through. These monologues are filmed in their entirety, up to thirteen minutes at times. It is excruciating to listen to Florentina. It is excruciating to see her suffering, to see her struggling to remember and her fight against forgetting. She repeats part of her story several times. Over and over again, she confronts us with the same facts, the same events. But the holes in her memory also become more and more evident. At some point, she cannot even remember when her mother died.

I will get back to those monologues in a minute. For now, I would like to follow the thread of listening, because this is how Lav Diaz positions the viewer during most of the film: as a listener, first and foremost, and only then as a viewer.

I said earlier that Florentina was repeatedly raped in the film. Diaz is a director whose films are violent without really putting violent images on screen. In this film, he transmits the violence through sound. Through long, excruciating monologues about atrocities, for instance. Or by forcing the viewer to listen to a number of rapes without showing corresponding images. Scenes like those jolt the imagination, and often our imagination makes things a lot worse than reality already is.

So, what happens when we see an old man, fragile, vulnerable, who sits outside a makeshift house while we hear Florentina being raped in the background? We hear her screams. We hear her shouts. We hear shackles. Above all, however, we hear pain and fear.

“I don’t want the action to be graphic,” Diaz says. It is easy to close your eyes when you see something horrible. Ears, however, at least in a normal environment, cannot be closed. Ears are a vulnerable target and Diaz is exploiting this to his advantage. Just as Florentina cannot escape her ordeal, so the viewer is trapped in an atrocious situation and has to feel.

Let me now return to Florentina’s monologues. Here, too, we’re not witnesses but listeners, and the almost endless description of violence against her, is difficult to sit through. And the more Florentina forgets, the more painful it becomes to us, because memory means survival. We are who we are because of memory. It forms us, it teaches us, it can strengthen and weaken us. But memory is vital to our life and to our survival.

Florentina will not survive. She will die physically and psychologically. The danger for the country she stands for is clear, and the current developments in the Philippines prove Diaz right.

Looking at his films shows us the keys to Diaz’s work: time and duration. There is something else as well. Diaz’s cinema is a cinema of transmission, which is an essential part of healing. Making films, seeing films – this, too, can become part of the healing process. In the words of Diaz himself:

For one, it’s a cleansing process, personally. And … the cleansing process adjusts to my culture, to my people. We need to confront all these things, all the traumas, all these unexamined parts of our history, of our struggle, so that we can move forward. It’s a kind of cure. … I always want to tell stories about these struggles. Personally, I want to cure myself of the trauma of my people.

Healing cannot happen in a vacuum. It needs a collective, it also needs culture to take part in the process. Through their specific aesthetics, which render us vulnerable and exposed, Diaz’s films contribute to a process of remembering and of healing and the director ask the viewer to become complicit in his projects.

Thank you very much.

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4 Comments

Bhaskar Jyoti Das

Of course another path breaking essay which is really great inspiration for me specially, I am trying to make slow film since 2014 but response was horrible here in India besides a bit positive response. I want to share my slow film if you are interested to watch and need feedback from slow film well wishers and specially like who is involved seriously at this moment.

Hello. I am a filmmaker In the United States trying to make a slow film with mostly negative responses. I would be willing to watch your film and give you notes feedback. You can email me at rustybaldwin37@gmail.com.

I have seen 3 films by Mr. Diaz, Florentina Hubaldo, CTE and Melancholia are among them. The latter has become one of my most cherished films. I enjoyed your essay on Diaz’s work, I did feel the pain he wanted me to feel, and do sympathize with his people. My people have gone through many horrors as well, mostly in wars, but I feel that there is not enough will to start a process of healing, cleansing… We witness only the repetition and recycling of cultural traumas in the media and historical books for instance, revisionism etc. My wish is that the same process that Mr. Diaz wants to enact in the Philippines starts in my country as well, and wish the same for the Filipinos.

Nadin Mai

Hi Hrvoje, thank you for your heartfelt comment. I believe that many countries have to confront similar histories, but refuse to do so. It is painful, infuriating, too. It’s easier to continue brushing things under the carpet. But the skeletons in the closet will want to come out eventually. Only a confrontation with the past connected to a healing process allows us to become more human again.

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