Hele sa hiwagang hapis – Lav Diaz (2016)

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.

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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.

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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!

Naked under the moon – Lav Diaz (1999)

Before some of you mention it, Naked Under The Moon (1999) is not a classical Lav Diaz slow film and it appears strange to add a review to this site, even though the film doesn’t correspond to my take of Slow Cinema. But I find the film decisive in Diaz’s development towards the filmmaker we know today and needs to be mentioned if Diaz’s approach to filmmaking is discussed.

Naked Under The Moon is a studio production and a commercial work of Diaz. Well, in effect, it has been turned into a commercial work. If you strip the film down to the narrative and to some aesthetics, Diaz’s vision of what cinema should be is slowly coming through. This becomes more obvious in his five-hour film Batang West Side (2001) which was his first proper arthouse film. Naked is a kind of prelude to this. The film starts with several long-takes with nothing much happening. There is no dialogue. We only see landscapes or the protagonists voyaging in a car. It’s interesting that even though the film is in colour and even though we actually see a car, which Diaz did not use in his later long arthouse films for his characters – which slows down the temporal perception of progression – it still feels like a beginning of a Lav Diaz film. When I saw those first scenes it also made perfect sense to me why the studio was keen on inserting a few sex scenes to make the film more interesting for the viewer. They must have thought that those long-takes of people sitting in a car would have surely bored the audience (and they wouldn’t have been able to make profit with the film).

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Naked is important in Diaz’s filmmaking career because it was a way of figuring out what films should look like, what stories they should tell. The film already shows the dark underbelly of society, though not to the same extent he would depict it in his later films. Rape features prominently (something he would pick up and develop more in Florentina Hubaldo, CTE),  though I wasn’t quite sure how to position it. It didn’t feel like an overt critique, which, I believe, is the case in Florentina. Rather, it shows the pervasiveness. It shows rape as a normality. In one scene, Lerma, a young woman who sleepwalks and was raped at the age of 9, tells her boyfriend, Ador, that this was still bothering her, in particular because she doesn’t know who the perpetrator was. All Ador says (though he says this in a nice, soft and supportive tone) is that she should let it go, she should forget about it, all the while making sexual advances to her. It seems as though this was the fate of women, and nothing could be done.

In general, sex has never featured that prominently in Diaz’s later films, and as I said earlier, those scenes were added to increase the appeal of the film. Indeed, there are plenty scenes of kinky Hollywood sex with standard male-female roles. The sex in itself isn’t a problem, as I would learn when I watched Diaz’s later films. He does include sex scenes, but few and more realistic. It reminds me of that really uncomfortable scene in Melancholia, or the long shot of Hamin and Catalina having sex in EncantosThese films were notably banned for nudity. So, kinky sex is fine, but realistic sex must stay in the bedroom.

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It was said of Béla Tarr that his filmmaking became more and more austere, starting from his social realist films to his last and ultimate film The Turin Horse (2011). This is true of Diaz as well if you look at Naked and then follow his (narrative) work up to From What Is Before (2014). Diaz has stripped his films of everything “unnecessary” (for his means): colour, music, close-ups, a fully finished script before the start of his shoot, even a whole lot of crew. The credits for Naked at the beginning of the film are almost endless compared to his later arthouse films. It’s by all means a studio production with a lot of people involved, and they all have their own view of how the film should be.

Diaz has certainly started his fascination with standard characters which he would use time and again in later films. He said at last year’s Locarno Film Festival that those were metaphors for the country, so it is of little surprise that they recur. The raped, at times mad, woman; the deaf mute; the priest. If you know Diaz’s now famous films, you can trace back those multi-layered characters to the very beginning of his filmmaking. He stuck with it, but elaborated on them. This is something Diaz added, in contrast to stripping his films of colour, music etc He added time. He added depth. He added psychology. A film like Naked would be unthinkable in two hours nowadays. Diaz would spend a lot of time on investigating why the situation of the characters, their background, their suffering – there’s plenty suffering in Naked, but sadly it’s cut short so that we see the end result of this suffering almost immediately after suffering has started.

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Nevertheless, Naked Under The Moon is a fascinating piece. It is not as underwhelming as I thought it would be. On the contrary. But if those kinky sex scenes had been replaced with more character time to explore their psychology, it would have been a better film. The strong filmmaker Lav Diaz is in there, and you can feel that he wants to get out of the (studio) box. Given his powerful, long films he has ended up making, films like Naked were absolutely necessary for him as a filmmaker. Without those, I don’t think Diaz would be the same director he is today.

Dates for Lav Diaz retrospective in Brussels

The schedule has finally been published and I’m happy to list the dates of the Cinematek’s Lav Diaz retrospective here, starting in mid-September and lasting until the end of November. Diaz’s films will be shown in chronological order, starting with is more commercial Naked under the Moon and ending with his Yolanda documentary Storm Children Book I. In connection to this retrospective, the Cinematek also shows a few other Filipino films in order to contextualise Diaz appropriately. I will also be involved in the Lav Diaz symposium at the University of Antwerp at which Michael Guarneri and I will give a lecture, followed by a screening of Storm Children and a roundtable discussion with Diaz.

Here are the dates for you:

10 September, 19.30 – A conversation between me and Tom Paulus from the University of Antwerp about Lav Diaz and his filmmaking. We will explore film aesthetics, Slow Cinema and Philippine Cinema in a bit more detail. The talk is followed by the screening of Diaz’s Naked Under the Moon at 21.30.

12 September, 17.30 – Batang West Side (2001), 315min

16 September, 18.00 – Hesus, Rebolusyanaryo (2002), 112min

20 September, 10.00 – Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004) [this film is cut into two parts and will give the viewer an hour’s break|, 593min

27 September, 13.00Heremias, Book I (2006), 540min

18 October, 13.00Death in the Land of Encantos (2009), 540min

25 October, 15.00 – Melancholia (2008), 450min

29 October, 21.30Prologue to the Great Desaparecido (2013), Butterflies Have No Memories (2009), 31min + 59min

1 November, 17.30 – Century of Birthing (2011), 360min

3 November, 20.30 – An Investigation into the night that won’t forget (2012), 70min

8 November, 17.30Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012), 360min

10 November, 10.30 – Lav Diaz symposium at the University of Antwerp

11 November, 14.00 – Norte, The End of History (2013), followed by a conversation with Lav Diaz

12 November, 19.30 – Manila in the Claws of the Light (Lino Brocka, 1975), preceded by a conversation with Lav Diaz

20 November, 17.30From What Is Before (2014), 338min

26 November, 19.30 – Storm Children, Book I (2014), 143min

For more info on the films and other Filipino films the Cinematek is screening, please refer to the official website.

Plenty going on and ample opportunities for you to see a Lav Diaz film on a big screen. I’m trying to be there for most films and introduce them as well. I will obviously also be around for the talk on 10 September and for the symposium on 10 November. Maybe I can meet some of you?

Interview with Lav Diaz (Extracts, Part II)

This is the second part of my rather long interview with Lav Diaz, conducted at the Locarno Film Festival. You can find the first part here.

Nadin Mai: What I find interesting is that you say you’re a kind of teacher, you want to open people’s eyes, to let them know what has happened in the country and what is still happening in the country. But then, in all of your films you have some really horrible scenes. Especially Florentina is exceptionally strong for that. Even though you don’t show anything explicitly, you would nevertheless like to close your eyes and ears. You just don’t want to be there. So how does this actually work? On the one hand you want to open our eyes, and yet you show something so cruel, where we say: we actually don’t want to see it.

Lav Diaz: It’s a confrontational thing. You have to confront the psyche. Fear is very inherent. And one thing that opens people’s eyes, their awareness, is to confront their fears, destroy the fear. That factor is always part of why people wouldn’t embrace history, the truth of history, because there is this denial thing. One way to confront it is just do it hardcore. You don’t show the thing but it’s there. So it’s one thing to confront the fears. I’m trying to be more dialectical. Destroy the world of fear.

NM: That’s the interesting thing. You don’t really show violence, not on screen. You convey it through aesthetics. In Florentina it’s mainly sound. Why do you not put violence directly on screen?

LD: I don’t need it. It’s there.

NM: Do you think it’s stronger if you don’t show it?

LD: Yes, of course. It’s stronger, because it’s more inert, more inside. The fear is more inside. The fear to confront it. If you see it, then it’s just a horror film.

NM: Do you think the viewer would lose a sense of realism if you showed it? Because he knows that it’s not real.

LD: It depends on the treatment. There are filmmakers who can show violence and it’s still very powerful. And there are filmmakers who don’t show it. And it’s more powerful. It depends on the treatment. You have to adjust to the flow of the story also. When that moment comes, then boom. It’s not manipulated but you gain that momentum and when it’s there then it will destroy their fear. … I want them to destroy their fears also.

NM: Is it perhaps also a budget issue?

LD: It’s a cliché [violence is a cliché]. To be cruel, doing all this gore and blood like Tarantino. And they’re enjoying all these things now. They enjoy the blood. They clap their hands: wow! Blood all over the walls. Wonderful! So the fear is very superficial. It’s not true anymore. While if you show it in a more primal way you gain that kind of momentum that evil is just around the corner. And you know it. Then it’s better this way.

NM: How often are your films screened in the Philippines? I know that Norte made big waves in the country.

LD: Yeah, it’s the most popular. Before that, of course, it was Batang West Side. But Batang West Side has gained this mythical status where people, even those who haven’t seen it, say it’s good. … As I said to you a while ago, only a small percentage of the population has seen my works. But I’m not complaining because I am aware that there is this struggle of, the issue of venues. The people are also so used to Hollywood … If you tell them that the film is five hours, they will not come. The people who come are the followers and the curious. … The curious will be converted or they will hate you more, depending on how they will see the work, depending on the condition they are in when they enter the film. …They cannot believe that there is cinema like that. Their understanding of cinema is Hollywood. So, I’m aware of that. I’m not complaining. But at the same time, like I told you a while ago, there is the burden, the guilt. They say, why do you not do shorter works so that people will see it, if you say you’re responsible? How can I be responsible when it’s already compromised? Cutting it to two hours just because you need to cut it for the audience, then it’s a compromised work already. It’s gone. Don’t do cinema at all. I’d rather be selling barbecues out there. Yes, it’s true. I don’t compromise the work so that you can have a so-called audience. No way.

NM: Why do you think Norte is so popular in the Philippines?

LD: Hard work, and it’s shorter. It’s four hours and thirty minutes, and the producer, Moira and the new owner of the film, they’re tireless. They keep showing the film. They’re very good at that.

NM: Where do you have your biggest fan base?

LD: Europe. Because of the festivals. … I’m very thankful of these people. The critics here in Europe who watch the films and do the programs.

NM: Do you think that Europeans can understand your films?

LD: Yes, of course. It’s also the culture. Europeans are more into digging things. To work hard. To understand cultures. I use the word, they’re not lazy. Europeans are not lazy. … We’re fucking lazy. And put this on the level of the critics. The critics here are more into it than the ones in Asia. There are no books in the country, no books about cinema. It needs to be addressed. How do we treat the works there? Imagine, there have been a lot of retrospectives of my work outside, but not inside the country. It’s insane. Even for me, I couldn’t fathom it. They’re been doing all these retrospectives… But in the Philippines, no. There’s jealousy, there’s resentment, like I told you.

NM: With very few exceptions – Norte is the most recent one – your films are all black-and-white. I personally see that as supporting the narrative of poverty and suffering. Is that why you use black-and-white?

LD: Yes, yes. Colour to me is very very deceptive. It creates a certain aura of lightness. It’s my perception as an artist. Yeah, it’s true. You got it. I want to do black-and-white to give justice to what the film is representing. Like poverty – it’s better in black-and-white. Suffering is better in black-and-white. And beyond poverty and suffering, for me, cinema is black-and-white.

NM: I remember from yesterday [the public conversation at the festival] that you sometimes watch colour films in black-and-white.

LD: Yes, I do that all the time. A lot of works, I don’t want to see them in colour, so I put black-and-white. Some works that are short, I put them on my computer and change the whole thing to black-and-white and watch them. Colour obscures my view. It allows me to not really understanding the work. But when it’s in black-and-white, I’m into it.

NM: You can focus on the story.

LD: Yeah. I’m into it, I’m into it. It’s just there. Maybe it’s just a fixation because I’m so used to watching films in black-and-white. It could be that. It’s just a fixation maybe. A fetish. It could be a fetish. For me, it’s that. Cinema is black-and-white. But I can make colour films. But if I do it, I’m very very careful. Just like Batang West Side, I put a lot of time doing the grading.

NM: Batang West Side had a limited colour palette. That’s completely different from Norte.

LD: With Norte, we did a lot of things in the grading to de-saturate so many things. Because it’s really beautiful, the colours there. So we sat down and I had to de-saturate on so many levels, in so many parts of the film. You see, it’s so beautiful, it’s obscuring the thing. So I have to de-saturate it. More and more and more. The graders are complaining: there’s no colour anymore! Put some more colour. It’s becoming black-and-white. Oh really? [laughs]

(Part III to follow, stay tuned)

Interview with Lav Diaz (Extracts, Part I)

I conducted quite a long interview with Lav Diaz at the Locarno Film Festival, where his new film Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon ran in competition and won the Golden Leopard; a big achievement not only for Lav Diaz, but also for Philippine cinema. I spent a couple of days with him, Hazel Orencio, Kim Perez, Evelyn Vargas, Perry Dizon and Liryc de la Cruz, which was a fantastic experience. Work being work, I was keen on finally getting this interview in order to understand his cinema better. The following will be extracts. The interview is too long and too broad in scope to publish all of it, so I selected a few interesting points he made in conversation with me. I withhold some parts as they will go into my thesis, and I don’t necessarily want to give everything away yet. Speaking to Lav is a journey, but not a straightforward one. You end up speaking about issues you never thought about before. If the parts below read jumpy…now you know the reason for it 🙂 My gratitude goes out to Lav Diaz. For everything. Final thing, the films I mention below are Florentina Hubaldo CTE (2012), Melancholia (2008), and Death in the Land of Encantos (2007).

Nadin Mai: You said in an email conversation with me that you wanted to make Malay films, but you have not yet completely achieved this goal. What would a Malay film actually look like? What would be the ideal Malay film?

Lav Diaz: Well, I would say that actually I achieved it through the long films without really realising it. I’ve been trying to really push myself too hard and too much, but it’s been there forever since, even with the early works like The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion and then Batang West Side. It’s all about the struggle of the Filipino. … in a sense, without being aware of it, I’ve been doing it. I have achieved it already, that kind of Malay aesthetic, the supposed objective has been achieved, I think.

NM: How much has your upbringing influenced your filmmaking?

LD: Well, it really is a big influence, especially the very sacrificing character of my parents, because they’re very intelligent people, especially my father. He is an intellectual. Instead of just staying in Manila, and be part of the bigger (…) system, he chose Mindanao. It’s still very raw there, very primal. No roads, nothing. He’s a young idealist. He wants to work with the people. His mission is education. They keep working and working. They focus on saving the tribes, on educating them, from hygiene to reading, from building houses to, you know, everything.

NM: So in that sense, do you see yourself as a teacher as well then, just like your father, just in a different way?

LD: In a way. My praxis is cinema. My methodology is different. But it’s still the same. I become my parents, in a sense. We all do. I couldn’t rest. I keep working, making films. There is this sense of mission just like them to just do things. At the same time, you integrate the issue of responsibility. Not just doing things because you want to do it. You have to be very responsible. There is the ethical issue.

NM: How conscious are you on set? Do you plan every shot in advance, the framing, the length?

LD: Sometimes, yes. The location becomes the template, the aesthetic template. So, in my mind I can actually plan ahead and also when I get to the set, everything flows, you know. Something will come up and then I follow it. Everything is very organic, so I can plan, or I can change anytime when I go there.

NM: I know that Tsai Ming-liang only cuts when it feels right. Are you the same?

LD: Yes, yes. If it needs to be cut, then push it into another direction, then I do it. I just follow things. I’m a slave of the process. I don’t want to manipulate or impose things, you know. I just follow it.

NM: I want to ask a question specifically about the three films I’m looking at in more detail. I see them as a trilogy of trauma with characteristics you cannot find in any of your other films. I read about your experience under Martial Law. That was an interview, I think, with Alexis [Tioseco]. You witnessed all kinds of atrocities, not only aimed at other people. You yourself were beaten, too, if I remember this right. Does filmmaking constitute some kind of therapy for you? Why do you feel you need to tell stories about torture, disappearances, you know, all these cruelties?

LD: For one, it’s a cleansing process, personally. And I adjust the cleaning process 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 you can move forward. It’s a kind of, you know, cure. I always want to tell stories about these struggles. Personally, I want to cure myself of the trauma of my people. And of course, just so that the Filipinos can also have a sense of examination. A more dialectical way of confronting our past, our struggle. Be investigative. Be vigilant. Be more, more…dig deeper. Dig deeper into your soul by seeking the truth about the past. And what are we now? Why are we like this? Why do we have this very, very dysfunctional system? Why do we have this very displaced kind of perspective? Why? Why? Why? So, you have to seek answers, and the answers are from the past. You have to seek the truth from the past, even the lies of the past.

NM: Have you ever experienced repercussions because of your films? Or of your filmmaking? Have you ever had to deal with intimidation because of your films?

LD: Not that strong. I’m just lucky that there are no venues showing the works in the country.

NM: So you see that as a good thing?

LD: Not really. I want Filipinos to really watch the films. But overtly, it’s just not there. You just struggle to show the film in the country. There are no venues. Even institutions…they don’t really help. There are a few who have, but you cannot only show it once a year, twice a year. So in a sense, these things save me. But I’m not asking for it. I’m asking for a better forum for the films. We need cinemathèques, you know. All these forums for the proper presentation of the works. I’m also aware that the situation is not like that. So we’ll have to wait. I know the condition. I also don’t want to compromise the work. I don’t want to cut the work into two hours. That’s what they want. If you can show me a shorter version of Evolution [of a Filipino Family], then I’ll watch it. Come on. And the theatres – if you can cut it into one and a half hours, maybe we can show the film on the weekend. How can you cut an eleven hour work to a two hour thing? It’s just horrible. It’s just stupidity. The film is there anyway. So it can wait. But at the same time, you’re negating the issue of educating your people as soon as possible. You have this thing. My upbringing is very catholic. There is this burden on me that, Man, I’ve done 13 works already and a minuscule part of the country has seen the works. The burden is on me also. But at the same time, I know that my works are very responsible to my culture. That allows the balance also.

NM: Where do you draw your inspirations from? I heard that you talk to older people as well. Is that where the stories come from?

LD: Part of the process is that I talk to a lot of people. People in the streets, people in the barrios. They have a different take on history. They have different versions of history. They have their own oral history. You have to balance that with the ones that are written by historians, the ones that are claimed by publishing it as our history. So you also have to balance that. Our tendency to revise history based on an agenda or a kind of perspective, whether ideological, political or just personal … But with all histories, I can feel a sense of, you know, although they are not so precise, there has been a lot of revision also. There is a sense of essentiality in what they’re saying, especially old people. There is this very very primal thing about people telling histories through their words, especially the old people. You can sense a real connectedness with the past, as opposed to those being written, which is sometimes too scholarly, and it’s so clean. But at the same time, you can actually salute or admire the work put in it. The research, the kind of scholarship that they did, especially the people who are really objective about history. You have to balance these things. The very primal oral history of people who don’t read, they just heard those things and the scholarship of real written history. So you have to balance these things also. I’m speaking for myself as an artist, as a worker, a cultural worker for my country. I want to balance these things.

NM: There is something very specific about the three films that I’m looking at. All main characters are in one way or another threatened by death. You trace the mental downfall of the characters, who suffer as a result of external forces and who barely cling to life. Why is it so important to you trace the aspects of suffering?

LD: Suffering is pretty much an inherent part, not just of the Filipino but of the human struggle. So it’s been there. We have just created our own defences. For my culture, our defense is being very overtly joyful but at the same time there is a lot of misery going on inside. I want to work on the reality of the soul of the Filipino, the psyche, which is sorrow, suffering. That’s one thing. And then, yes, they’re barely clinging to life, they’re actually living dead. I’m just mirroring what’s really…it’s the state of the Filipino. We’re almost dead. We cling to life. Politically we’re almost dead. Economically we’re almost dead. It’s a metaphor for everything that we are… It’s a kind of malady that has been there with us. It needs to be cured, but how? It’s a very systemic problem. We have to destroy the system so that we can actually regenerate everything. We need to destroy the system, so that we can move. It’s a system of dysfunction.

NM: Is that what you’re trying to do with your films, to destroy the system?

LD: Yes, destroy the system. I destroyed the Hollywood system so that I can create my cinema, so that I can represent my culture. So that I can liberate my cinema. I need to destroy the system that has been imposed. It has to be two hours, that you need a cut-to-cut to be able to cut the time, to manipulate time. I don’t want to do that. So I needed to create my own framework, my own methodology. Part of that is about that. Destroying the system.

NM: I find that you’re a rare species in Philippine cinema. A few years ago, Alexis already pointed out that there weren’t many directors in the Philippines who tackle the historical, political and social injustice to the same extent you do. I have seen Nick Deocampo’s “Revolutions happen like refrain in a song” and Raya Martin’s two films “Independencia” and “A short film about the indio nacional”. I have also seen Jet Leyco’s “Leave it for tomorrow, for night has fallen”. But these are really only a few films. Why do you think not more filmmakers go into this direction?

LD: They are more into something else. It’s also the background of these people who do things. A lot of young filmmakers now, their background is more like just being an artist, doing art for art’s sake. Their early works are just a preparation for the mainstream, to do so-called big works, to become big time in the industry. They have different agendas, they have different models. They’re not really doing films for culture. They’re not cultural workers. They work more for their ego. It’s a different breed.

NM: Are they maybe afraid of touching those topics?

LD: Yeah, because it’s dangerous. You defy the Hollywood system. Like, if you go beyond two hours you’re gone. It’s like suicide, a career suicide for them to serious works, to tackle history hardcore, or to move beyond the convention. They will not do that. They’re more worried about their career. They do things for their career. They don’t do things for culture. It’s a different perspective actually that defines these people. I’m not saying that all of them are like that. There are people who are trying to work, like Jet [Leyco]. Nick Deocampo has been there, although he is not doing things lately. He’s writing books. It’s more about their backgrounds really. Raya is a student of history, so you can actually see that in his works. I like history. He’s also trying to understand our culture. Raya is a serious artist. He’s one of the few who can really make good works among the new generation.

NM: Do you think there is, in general, a good generation of Filipino filmmakers coming?

LD: Yes, yes. You can mention Raya, John Torres, Anthony Sanchez, and Jet. They’re the real cultural workers.

NM: So there is a movement now?

LD: It’s a very informal movement. Nothing organised. But people are really working. They want to do things for our culture. They want to tackle history also. They want to be more dialectical about confronting and examining the Filipino psyche. I’ve seen some of the works, and okay, you can sense that they also have that ethical thing, the sense of mission for our country, for our culture.

NM: Would you say you’re an activist-filmmaker?

LD: I don’t even want to use that word. It has become so bastardised. Activism for me is just being pro-active about the things you believe, especially for culture. In my own small way, I’ve been trying to work hard to represent our struggle, to mirror the Filipino struggle, or the Malay struggle for that matter. In a way, it’s my kind of activism. It’s my role. I’m aware of that, and trying to work hard to at least fulfil a bit of an approximation of what needs to be done.

(Part II to follow, stay tuned…)

In defense of a lack of craft

I read a rather irritating article about Lav Diaz’s Norte, written by Adrian Martin for the Sight & Sound magazine. His reading of the film is good, but the last paragraph of the article makes me want to respond. I want to quote the passage in question first:

“There was a certain thrill to this – the kind that persuades you to endure eight-hour screenings, in search of a new kind of filmic epiphany. But as the years pass and the Diaz ‘formula’ hardens, it becomes more difficult to excuse the lack of inventiveness and craft in his work in the name of some spurious ‘neo-neorealism’. Diaz’s most vocal fans do him no favours in this regard: he might become a better, more self-critical director if people stopped reassuring him that every new film he makes is a deathless masterpiece.”

I know from responses on Twitter that Martin is not the only one who thinks that Lav Diaz’s films lack “inventiveness and craft.” I would like to turn this around and say that film criticism and film studies lack inventiveness and craft. In my articles on Norte (here and here) I stressed that the investment of money changed Diaz’s filmmaking. The film had to be profitable, and in a win-win situation for producer (not the filmmaker) and the viewers, Norte appeals to all those filmgoers out there who live in theories and frameworks they are familiar with.

The reception of Norte was positive, but this was precisely because it was different. According to Martin, it seems as if this is exactly what Diaz’s films needed, as all of his previous films were more or less the same, and any further steps on the same treadmill would have been inexcusable (so he’s not going to like his new film, to be honest). This argument is exemplary for the way critics and scholars treat films in their work. Not all of them, but a great majority sees films in comparison to other films. They want to see that x fits to y. If you can see Bazin’s or Deleuze’s work in films than these are superb and worth mentioning.

Lav Diaz isn’t the only slow-film director, who returns time and again to the same aesthetics, the same actors, the same overall story. The interesting thing is that it is only film critics who complain about this. Fans love the films, and I do not understand why they get accused of not doing their directors a favour. Truth is, every director is free to do what s/he wants, and rather than forcing the directors to return to the same themes, we “fans” simply support them for what they do. We do not ask them to change the way critics do just so that it makes it easier to write about them. We take the films the way they are.

The most pressing issue with regards to the films of Lav Diaz, however, is that there should not be any discussion about his craft or inventiveness. From Batang West Side (2001) to Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012) his films have shown a remarkable development of a filmmaker, who produces films with little means. Making incredibly powerful movies with no financial support, a small crew and indeed little hope of distribution is in itself a craft. Not having any support system that makes popular filmmakers go “from strength to strength”, as critics would say, Diaz’s filmmaking requires inventiveness. You need to be creative to make something out of nothing.

My family would say that I inherited this way of thinking from them and my grandparents – while Western Germany was living in American luxury, those in the East were left with nothing because the Russians took everything away. A kind of punishment for what happened in WW II, if you will. I was born too late to live through this directly, but I grew into this mentality because society has this mentality where I come from. I’m still thinking this way, and that fourteen stunning films come out of a Third World country without any support is a success, and should be acknowledged as such. But here we are again: this wouldn’t happen in the First World. We look down on those filmmakers, and see their films through our pink First-World capitalist-imperialist glasses. And as soon as money flows into production, it’s great for the critics.

Those people don’t really see Diaz’s films. Florentina Hubaldo, for instance, was the strongest Diaz film since the beginning of his filmmaking career. Other people may not agree to this, but for me he has stepped up his aesthetic gear in this film, if you want to call it this way. The narrative, the visuals, the play with sound and silence – all this was at a level of perfection. In between, say, Heremias Book I and Florentina a lot had happened in Diaz’s filmmaking. If you only look at the surface, his films will always look the same. But dive deeper, and you will be surprised by what you find.

One final point, which is dear to my heart: I don’t think critics and scholars should touch his films at all, unless they are willing to commit and open up. I’m in a rather awkward position as a PhD student, but I have a background in filmmaking, and I’m trying my best to steer my work away from theories and standard practice of academia, precisely because it is impossible to dissect Diaz’s films with what academia has established in film studies. We should not discuss the aesthetics of Diaz’s films. We should not discuss why he doesn’t seem to develop, which is untrue anyway. We should not wish for stronger distribution or higher investment into his filmmaking.

What Diaz’s films really need is an attentive eye of an attentive viewer. His films are representations of a terrible form of reality in his country. They are an in-depth study of destructive trauma, of unbearable suffering, of violation of human rights, of torture, of extra-judicial killings. They are a document of a society gone awry, mainly because of Western involvement. It started with colonialism and goes to dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was installed by the West. Lav Diaz’s films are documents of human rights violations and the effects on an entire society. These films are not made for entertainment. Nor should they be seen in the lights of traditional filmmaking.

Lav Diaz is a filmmaker who, with little means, creates documents that scream for help and justice. Why do critics and scholars want him to do it with stunning aesthetics? We have played a big part in what has been going wrong in the country. Demanding a filmmaker, who documents social injustice which has its origin in the West, to be more creative in what he does, is a demand that defies understanding. The main point of his films is the stories they tell. If we really expect a filmmaker, who wants to put the devastating struggle of his people on screen with something other than with the means he has, then it just proves that we, in the First World, have little understanding or knowledge (or even desire) of what is happening around us, and, indeed, it proves what an ignorant society we live in.

Norte – A Verdict

I was in the privileged position to be able to watch Lav Diaz’s latest film Norte, which was nominated in the category Un Certain Regard at this year’s Cannes festival. The critics were amazed. Nick James and Kieron Corless celebrated Norte as the best film of the festival in the July issue of Sight&Sound. There were also rumours that distributors were keen on Diaz’s film. What a great success for him!

Now that I have seen the film, however, it puts the reviews and the hype around his nomination into perspective. This is not to say that Norte isn’t a good film. Not at all. It is a great modern exploration of Crime and Punishment, filled with Filipino struggles and philosophical discourses. The tension slowly creeps up on you, and when you least expect it, it hits you. I find it astonishing that Diaz manages to do this both within four and within nine hours. And after I have seen Butterflies Have No Memories, a short, it seems as if he manages this in any time length you provide him with.

I would like to point to a few other things that struck me while watching the film, keeping the reviews in mind. I don’t want to give all too much away of the film, because you should see it by yourself. So I will have to make it short here, so as to avoid too many spoilers.

As can be taken from the screenshots that were released prior to Cannes, we can see that the film was made in colour as opposed to his black-and-white filmmaking. With four hours, Norte is considerably shorter than Melancholia, Encantos, or even Florentina Hubaldo. We have less scenes that begin or end with temps mort. It contains more dialogue, which keeps you going throughout the four hours. Little is left unexplained. It is fairly easy to follow Norte. The film is less Filipino in that it uses an incident that can occur anytime anywhere. Yes, there are mentions of revolutionaries, and the struggle of normal Filipino people as opposed to the rich, but, generally, I find that Norte is a bit like Tarr’s The Man from London, which was based on a widely acclaimed French novel and therefore made it more accessible to the audience. There are a few cinematic techniques I don’t want to go into detail about because it would give away too much. But I can say that it’s not something we’re used to see in Diaz’s films.

Now, this is a perfectly objective take on his film, and I point out these facts not because I wished Diaz would not have done the film the way he had. He is obviously a free man, and as long as he, as the director, feels fine with his decisions, it is alright. However, I want you to go back to the paragraph above and then link it to the reviews. What is evident?

For the first time, Diaz’s film was hailed as a masterpiece. Plus, as already mentioned, distributors were suddenly interested in the film. Is this not a bit of a coincidence that his film is a “masterpiece” now that it is a bit more “Western”? Compared to the films he directed after Batang West Side, Norte contains everything a typical filmgoer is looking for in order not to get bored. It’s colourful, it has a lot of dialogue that explains it all, it’s got special effects, and it is based on an internationally acclaimed book. I felt as if there was little I had to do in the process of watching the film.

If you put this into the context of the sudden celebration of his work, the critics’ reviews after an Americanised festival become pathetic and very sad. Diaz’s work should have been celebrated beforehand, not now that Norte complies with a bit more of our expectations. His films should have been celebrated for their individuality, for their task of putting the Filipino history and the Filipino struggle on screen to an audience that possibly doesn’t even know the capital of the country. He should have been celebrated for making films for the pure reason of making films, and if this means that he cannot secure film distribution, then at least the films are his version of cinema.

It goes to show that we only like and celebrate something that fits into our framework. Something that is easy to grasp. Everything else is dismissed or neglected. It’s dualistic thinking, and I’ve never seen it so clearly as I do right now with the example of Norte.