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.

Sweeping Generalisations

I’m getting the last things ready for the 10th MeCCSA PGN conference at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. I will present a paper on my approach to Slow Cinema, and hope to gather feedback which would help me to further my research. If all goes well, I can publish an extended edition of the paper later in the MeCCSA PGN journal. I will also join the editorial board of Stirling University’s PG journal Stryvling, which should be a good experience. I’m hoping for a special Slow Cinema edition for 2014, but nothing is decided or clear yet. This is merely a proposal I made a few weeks ago. We shall see what comes out of it.

As summer looms over us, things become quiet in the news. As is the case with Slow Cinema. One of the few things that have appeared recently, is the editorial by Nick James in the latest edition of Sight & Sound. He writes

People do make sweeping generalisations after Cannes. I myself have remarked online that the absence of any film I saw there that fits the ‘slow cinema’ category – except Lav Diaz’s excellent Norte, The End of History – might signal the passing of that post-Tarkovskian approach to cinema. To which anyone might reply that one goose flying south does not make a winter.

No, one goose doesn’t make a winter. I find this indeed to be a sweeping generalisation. Cannes never has been a major platform for Slow Cinema. Béla Tarr’s The Man from London premiered in Cannes in 2007. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee won the Golden Palm in 2010. More than ten years earlier, Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole played in Cannes. If you look through the screening lists of Cannes, it is evident that slow films are screened here and there. Yet, we can’t speak of a major focus on Slow Cinema.

This was little different from this year’s festival, at which Lav Diaz’s new film was the only slow film shown. That this was the case does not at all indicate that Slow Cinema is in retreat. It is simply business as usual. Besides, the film critics don’t exactly help to keep SC in the public either. Two critics gave their Top Ten of the festival. Both of them ranked Norte at the top. But only one critic actually wrote something on the film. However, a mere eight sentence lot on the top film of the festival is for me poor critical and journalistic work.

That said, Norte is screening at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic at the moment. Literally. They are one hour in 🙂

Norte – A slow step towards public recognition

It looks as though Norte was good but not good enough for a prize at this year’s Cannes festival. A couple of people are surprised. Yet, knowing Lav Diaz, he most likely doesn’t care. He makes films not for awards, but for cinema. And this he did. I’m personally very happy that I can call him my ‘research subject’ 🙂

Although, I may, in fact, have to re-think this, because he crossed my plans. Norte seems to be different from his previous films I study for my research. His previous oeuvre led me to a unique approach to Slow Cinema. And now, he’s using colour in his film, and sweeping camera shots – this kind of goes against my plan. Thou shalt explain…

Anyway, colour or black-and-white, static or moving camera – I’m looking forward to seeing this latest masterpiece of his.

Let me give you a few extracts from reviews I’ve read since Thursday. These won’t contain spoilers, promised!

“Those who entered Diaz’s world swam somewhere else than the Riviera for those brief hours, and were rewarded with quite possibly the best film there.” (Daniel Kasman for MUBI)

“They took their seats, the lights went down, the movie came up, and I sat there. Two-hundred-fifty minutes later, the lights came up, I stood with tears in my eyes, and clapped as loudly as I ever have for any movie in my life. (Note: I’ve actually never clapped for a movie before.)” (Wesley Morris, Grantland)

“By comparison, the four-hour Norte is a miniature, but it’s also an accessible film, a superb piece of focused narrative that’s more immediately coherent than such digressive pieces as 2009’s Melancholia.” (Jonathan Romney, Screendaily)

In fact, it’s difficult to give you more than this because they all agree on the fact that Diaz’s film was magnificent. I’m glad that he had this experience, and I’m sure that Norte will be accepted at other festivals, too. If you want to read full reviews (which contain spoilers, beware!), you can find links in my Slow Tweets to your right.

As for the award, I’m a bit 50-50 about it. Of course, I would have liked to see him getting the award, or any award in the Un Certain Regard section. It may have been a bit too much all at once, though. I think the effect of his work for cinema will be more effective if he slowly creeps into people’s cinematic world and mind.

I want to end this brief entry with something Lav said in a recent interview with Keyframe. This says it all about Slow Cinema – why write a 80k thesis about it, if you can fit it all into a few sentences?

One of the greatest struggles in a human life is against time. We confine ourselves to some routines, we think it’s time—and it’s not, it’s just action. But if you think of time, it’s just about death and mortality and so are my films. I struggle with time but also respect space; they go together. For them to harmonize in my praxis I need to do long takes or one take. I’m trying to be truthful. I don’t want to manipulate time or space. I’m trying to subordinate the idea that [in cinema] we’re just following the characters. Look at the world, take your time! It’s all about seeing. Many young people don’t necessarily respond to that. ‘It doesn’t fit into my schedule.’ That’s a very important line nowadays.

Norte premieres at Cannes Festival

For those of you who follow me on Twitter, this entry will be no more than a summary of today’s news. For everyone else: this is what slowness is about (sometimes).

Lav Diaz’s new film Norte, Hangganan Ng Kasaysayan premiered at the Cannes Festival today at 11am. It’s nominated in the category Un Certain Regard. I know how excited everyone was, especially Hazel Orencio, one of the actresses. It was nice to follow them virtually on their first ever trip to Cannes.

Slowness on the red carpet is a rare image, and indeed, I have to admit that the Norte team looked like the most interesting of the ones I have seen throughout this festival.

As mentioned in an earlier post, the film was four hours and twenty minutes long. Quite a short film for Lav Diaz. But Diaz explained in an interview with Salon Indien (2012) that there is no time, in terms of time doesn’t matter. A five minute film can be as good as an eight hour epic, and I fully agree.

It looked very much as if Norte shook the audience. Jonathan Romney, who coined the term Slow Cinema in a film review in 2004, wrote on Twitter: “Lav Diaz’s NORTE, what a triumph. Raskolnikov in the Philippines, beautifully controlled storytelling with an apocalyptic final left-turn.” And Nick James (Sight&Sound), who actually isn’t very fond of slowness in film said: “The 4-hour Lav Diaz NORTE is worth every second. Finally something transcendent. Amazing.”

The team received a five-minute standing ovation, which, I guess, says a lot. I haven’t seen the film, but I know Diaz’s style. That he received standing ovations for it at the Cannes festival is a wonderful achievement. Apparently, there are distributors interested in Norte. I hope that he can strike a deal, so that we can finally access Diaz’s films (legally).

Slow Cinema at Cannes 2013

Apichatpong’s victory over the recently more and more Americanised Cannes Festival happened before my time as a slow fanatic…

So I see yesterday’s news as a fantastic thing: Lav Diaz’s new film Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Norte, the End of History) made it into the Un Certain Regard section at this year’s festival. Congratulations to Lav & team. What a wonderful achievement for them! It’s going to be his first trip to Cannes. With four hours and twenty minutes running time, I find this film to be quite short for his type of film-making, but it’s nevertheless quite a bite for a possibly untrained jury to watch. Apparently, the producer was very keen on submitting the film for the festival and good on him! I hope that Norte will also come to the UK at a later date. I have a feeling that it’s a good one. (Has there ever been a boring Lav Diaz film??)

Unfortunately, Tsai’s new film Diary of a Young Boy didn’t make it into the line-up this year, although there had been rumours it could be. It would have been nice, but, here again, I hope his film will get its release at a later date.

As I haven’t posted something fascinating lately, I leave you with a great interview of Lav Diaz, conducted at last year’s AV Festival. Research-wise, the project is moving forward, though I feel as if all my ideas for the thesis have been and still are being squeezed into abstracts and papers. It’s good. It helps me to develop ideas. But I can’t wait to sit down and expand on this writing. Before that, however, I’ll attend the Postgraduate Research Conference at Stirling University on 8th May, and the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network Conference in July in Norwich. Summer will be writing time for me. I plan to submit a decent draft of my first thesis chapter at the end of the summer. This should result in a few more blog entries 🙂