Well, he did it again, and Lav Diaz’s Berlinale entry Hele sa hiwagang hapis is, at the same time, his longest film since his nine-hour film Death in the Land of Encantos (2007). I’m grateful and flattered that the team thought of me for the German translation. It was a stressful piece of work, and even though I was miles away from the actual action, I could feel the tension all the way through my translation work. Even I got tense! The translation job had one advantage: I was able to see the film before it premiered in Berlin. Yet, it wasn’t the polished version, but regardless of that, I would like to say a few things about Diaz’s new masterpiece.
First of all, I need to be honest and say that I wasn’t all too keen on it. That was before I saw it. I heard a lot about it. I was aware that two mainstream actors played important parts in the film. I also knew that parts of the film was shot on a set. The team – cast and crew – was huge, so I was immensely worried that Hele would become another Norte, which I wasn’t a fan of, mainly because you could see that it wasn’t a full Lav Diaz film. Viele Köche verderben den Brei, we say in German, meaning that too many people working on a single project usually leads to a lower quality of the end product. I found that this was the case with Norte, although critics loved it and hailed it as a new era in Diaz’s filmmaking. They considered it a development in his aesthetics and in his approach to film. Thankfully, he made From What Is Before after that, with which he returned to his usual way of filmmaking.
Hele is a special film. Even longer in the making than Batang West Side (given the endless years of waiting for funding), Diaz was finally able to make his film about the Philippine’s national hero and revolutionary Andres Bonifacio, mixed with an investigation of José Rizal’s death, Spanish colonialism and the oppression of the people that came with it. With Hele, Diaz makes explicit what he pointed to in his metaphorical treatment of colonialism in Florentina Hubaldo, CTE. Spanish colonialism is not in the past, it is present for us in Hele. We see the oppressors for the first time. We experience their wickedness and just how little they actually care about the local population. It is an interesting direction in Diaz’s filmmaking that he approaches the subject so directly. But I found it necessary. After several metaphorical films, which I studied in my doctoral thesis, it seems appropriate to put faces to the atrocities Diaz has only ever pointed to. And, quite fittingly, the Spaniards are unlikeable characters throughout the first part of the film. I found it difficult to sit through the parts where the Spaniards were in focus. Part of it was also that they can be considered a rupture in Diaz’s approach to acting. The Spanish characters are much less at ease with their roles. I couldn’t feel the natural “living” of the role. The Spaniards acted, and perhaps that was intended, because in a way, it fits to the situation they were in. Spain was losing the Philippines. Economically, it became less and less viable. It was a disaster for the mother country. On top of that, Filipinos started uprisings. Of course, they could not show this. They had to maintain their dominance, their authority. So what is better than “acting” this role? This is precisely the feeling you get in the scenes which focus on Spanish characters.
There is a real shift in artifice-natural whenever scenes change to Filipino characters, Hazel Orencio as Andres Bonifacio’s wife amongst them. Or the tragic woman who helped the Spaniards to conquer Silang; a terrible massacre which cost many people their lives. You can feel the actors living their roles. They are the characters who they play, the usual feeling in a Lav Diaz film. This juxtaposition of acting in Spanish and Filipino characters makes for a really interesting reading. There is also the literally fantastic character of the Takbalang, whom I grew somehow attached to. I don’t know why. Perhaps it is the way Diaz has put this mythic figure of half man-horse into light, often, again, quite literally. Or perhaps it is the fact that I have never come across a real mythological figure embodied by a human character in Diaz’s films, so it is intriguing.
The visuals in Hele are at times stunning. The camera is not Diaz’s camera. It doesn’t feel like him. At times, it comes close to what we know from Norte. But at the same time, it is sometimes a camera which moves independently from the characters. Not quite as much as in Béla Tarr’s films. Nevertheless, there is a certain degree of independent camera movement apparent. There is also a play with light and shadow. The high contrast black-and-white reminded me strongly of Florentina Hubaldo. Hele is very similar in that respect.
Some of Diaz’s films are not accessible at first viewing. Some of them are deeply metaphorical, so that a straightforward interpretation would fail if you were to use standard Film Studies reading. In many cases, Diaz’s films demand that the viewer becomes active, reading up on certain issues, trying to find out more about the director’s country, his people, his society, his background. He is not the type of director who feeds you easily. You need to work for your food, and I do not mean by this sitting in a cinema for eight hours. You have to do more than this. Florentina was, and still is, perhaps his most enigmatic film, which baffled me when I saw it first. I had no idea what to make of it, until I started to enquire about what Diaz could have meant. Then the film became the most powerful film of his (in my view). Hele isn’t at all metaphorical, but it may be difficult for a Western audience to understand. The same goes for the local Filipino audience if they are not aware of their country’s history. It would perhaps be difficult to make out the characters. I was lucky enough to have done some reading on the subject during my PhD research but even that wasn’t entirely enough. This isn’t a bad thing at all. As I said before, if there is one persistent thread in Diaz’s filmmaking, then it is his demand on the viewer to leave the cinema auditorium and begin to do a bit of research. That is the beauty of Diaz’s films. They are a challenge. You cannot be a passive viewer. If you are, then it is no surprise that you find the films boring, or that you think the films are all the same. This is no different with Hele. It may be enigmatic, but once you push through those eight hours, it becomes a magnificent piece of work.
Hele is perhaps one of Diaz’s strongest films in recent years. For me, it doesn’t quite reach Florentina or Encantos, but it is also very difficult to put them into relation because they were made under dicferent circumstances. And they all have their very own, and very different, specialities. With Hele, Diaz has certainly proven that, after his last two films which were comparitively short, he hasn’t given up on endurance cinema. He’s still very much into it, and we can only wonder what Meryl Streep thought when she sat down for eight hours in order to see this film!