Norte – Lav Diaz (2013)

A couple of months ago, I have posted initial thoughts on Diaz’s new film Norte The End of History. I received a link for an online screener, which I happily accepted as I wasn’t sure if Norte would make it to the UK. Well, it did. In fact, it has become so popular that you find the film at almost all film festivals running at the moment. Not exactly the situation for the Lav Diaz who is known for his black-and-white epic films of eight hours or more. Rather, it’s a situation for a Lav Diaz, who is not in his usual element. 

In my earlier post, I have argued that it’s obvious why critics suddenly got hooked on the film. It is not a mainstream film, but it conforms more to classical filmmaking than all of his other films. Norte is easy food for the audience. It attracts the entertainment-seeker, not necessarily the intellectual cinephile who expects a typical Lav Diaz discourse on the struggles of the world and his people. It pains me to write this, because it may look that I strongly dislike Norte. This isn’t the case. What I dislike instead is the very obvious influence of money on alternative, small-budget filmmaking, which goes – by nature – down to the very basics, the essence of film, the truth; exactly what Diaz is always looking for. Money, on the other hand, seeks something else. If invested, the product needs to be turned into a profitable business. If you make it too hard for the audience to understand the film, you won’t make the film profitable. The director is forced to change his approach and his aesthetics. This is what happened with Norte, as far as I can see. 

Michael Guarneri conducted an insightful interview with Diaz. In it, Diaz speaks about the waste of money and how it has changed the approach to filmmaking. He explained: 

There was so much money wasted, and this is a thing I didn’t like about the shooting. We rented the camera package: very expensive… If we had bought it, the camera could have been used by me and by other fellow-filmmakers, or it could have been rented out by the producers to generate funds. Creating a flow of money and a circulation of ideas to develop film-projects and make more films in our country: to me this is a very important “political” aspect in filmmaking. It is part of the struggle.

So you see technology is an economic issue that has consequences on many levels. Clearly, it affects how the film looks: for example,Norte is a color film and there is much more camera movement than in my other movies. It is not the camera movement you find in commercial cinema, though. It is not flossy camera movement. It’s more about quietly following the characters. It’s still about duration and space as before, but at the same time it is something new for me.

The rented equipment led to tight schedules. Everything had to be rushed. Time is money, and that’s why money isn’t Slow Cinema. You can read the full interview with Diaz here

Returning to the film, though, I find that Norte is less a distinctly Philippine film. I may, in fact, go as far as calling it a “Russian” film. The thought popped into my head after I re-watched Diaz’s Encantos, in which one of the main characters returns to the Philippines after having spent seven years in Russia. He mentions Russian society, literature, cinema. He also says that the Russian and the Filipino struggles are similar. I think that with Norte, Diaz is pursuing his affection for Russian culture (especially literature and cinema) to a new level. 

The film is based on the remarkable Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky (if you haven’t read it, read it!). The story is obviously taken from the book, but so are the characters. Even if Russian and Filipino struggles are similar, I had troubles to see the Filipino character in the film; the character I got to know by spending hours watching Diaz’s films up and down, repeatedly, and by reading interviews with him. I think that in making the work more accessible by using a famous book as a background, the film neglects the actual Filipino. It is perhaps the case because no one would want to know about it, or no one would be willing to understand it. We’re all very aware of Russian literature, and while it’s not at all as mainstream as some English-speaking literature, it is at least more known and willing to be taken up by an audience than an entirely Filipino story. This is our indifference to little known cultures. We apply this to our taste for cinema, too. 

With that strong Russian background, we then also have a levitating character. A special effect that rubs into our face what Diaz would have normally said without special effects, without making it plain obvious what he wants to say. He would have normally been the literati, and suggested something without making it clear. But again, this film had to be profitable, so appealing to the audience’s intellectual thinking wasn’t an option. The film had to offer quick fixes. And before I lose myself in this discussion, I should mention that the levitating character is an homage to Tarkovsky, a director Diaz admires and was influenced by. So we’re not speaking about any special effect here. We are, in fact, again, speaking about Russia. 

The question that should be asked is not whether or not the film is good. Rather, how Filipino is it? How much does it betray its own culture in order to be profitable in the selling of distribution rights? And how is this going to change the filmmaking of Lav Diaz?

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.