Ta’ang – Wang Bing (2016)

I’m on a Wang Bing roll at the moment. I have finally found the time to see his work, and all kinds of things run through my head at the moment. Ta’ang, un peuple en exil, entre Chine et Birmanie is Wang Bing latest film. Again a documentary, a form of cinema he is specialised in. Again, it is a political film. Again, he gives those on the margin of society a voice.  In Ta’ang I can see his patience for just being with his “subjects”, for listening, for waiting. And I haven’t even seen his 14-hour masterpiece yet.

Ta’ang is part of a growing work on refugees. Only recently have I seen the Berlinale winner Fire At Sea by Italian director Gianfranco Rosi, a film set on the island of Lampedusa. There is also Mediterranea by Jonas Carpignano which comes to mind, equally a depiction of refugees in their search for a safe place, away from war, away from oppression. There is a refugee situation over on the other half of the planet, too, but this is hardly ever mentioned in our spheres. Wang Bing’s new film, as one example, is a look into a fraction of what is happening daily on the border between Burma and China.

Wang very much relies on our interest and openness. Similar to Lav Diaz, he gives us very little background information about what we are about to see. There is a short text at the beginning of the film, but it gives us the basics. Nothing more, nothing less. If you want to engage with the film, you need to do more than see the images. You see what you know, it is said. If you don’t know anything about the Ta’ang, the images will give you little information about them. They are, as I have already noticed in Wang’s Fengming, rather dispassionate. The director refrains from framing scenes in a certain way in order to make you feel something. I could be wrong, of course, but I can’t help the feeling that this is the most neutral documentary I have ever seen. Nothing is ever entirely neutral. Not even a documentary, which, I believe, is supposed to show its subject unbiased. But Ta’ang gets pretty close.

Wang and Diaz are very much alike, but the bias is one thing which differs in their films. I see this clearly only now that I have dived into Wang’s films. In certain cases, such as parts of Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), Diaz follows a very similar path. He tries to be as objective as possible. As he said in an interview somewhere, he wanted to be journalistic in his depiction of the aftermath of typhoon Reming. But he did construct a feature film around the event in the end, which has implications on how the viewer reads the material. And then there is a shot in From What Is Before, a low level canted angle, something I had never seen before in Diaz’s work. A canted angle is never neutral.

You won’t find this in Wang’s Ta’ang. The camera tends to be on eye-level with the subjects it films. There aren’t any fancy aesthetics. If you love the photographic frames in slow films the way I do, you will be put off by the film’s look. But this brings me back to what I thought was important in terms of Fengming and her testimony: every aesthetical decision is an ethical decision. Rosi’s Fuocoammare aetheticises suffering and death. This isn’t the case with Ta’ang. You won’t find pretty frames. You won’t find something aesthetically pleasing. Wang shows the situation as it is: dirty, ugly, a disgrace. The Ta’ang are forced into nomadism. They left their homes in winter 2015 as armed conflict broke out in the border region between Burma and China.

What we see is their daily life. These refugees either sit and wait in makeshift tents until they can go back home. Or they move from one supposedly safe place to another all the while we hear gunshots and artillery fire in the background. I would say that a good half of the film is set at night, around a camp fire or candles. Or even torches. Maybe it only felt as if half of the film was set in the dark. Which brings me to an interesting difference between Wang and Diaz. Ta’ang‘s two-and-a-half hours feel incredibly dense. It felt more difficult to sit through them than through eight hours Lav Diaz. I had a similar impression after Diaz’s Storm Children which was much shorter than his usual film work. But it was a documentary, and an over two-hour long documentary without even a loose narrative but a simple depiction of daily life puts your patience to the test.

This isn’t a bad thing at all. I find it quite an interesting thought that feature films are easier to sit through. We’re habitual people. We’re used to a narrative. To sit through eight hours is hard work, but as long as there is a narrative that progresses and you have something that vaguely resembles a three-act structure, it is doable. As I keep saying, for most Lav Diaz films I didn’t mind the running time at all. Wang Bing seems to be a wholly different arena in my slow-film engagement. His films seem to come even closer to real life, both in terms of time and story. Besides, you’re stuck with the images of, say, a woman boiling potatoes. Because Wang does not focus on pretty shots, there is nothing you can admire while the actual action happening in front perhaps bores you. You have to stick with it. Several slow-film directors give you this “escape”, if you need it. Wang forces you to be with the characters, to be with their plight.

I start to become a fan of Wang’s work. His films are challenging, more than other slow films I have sat through. But this is precisely why they make me curious. Again, just as with Diaz’s work, I’m not sure I’ll be able to explain what I feel intellectually, but there is something that I’ll try to follow the next time I’m watching a Wang Bing film. There is something somewhere. I just don’t know yet what it is.

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!

The aesthetics of absence and duration in the post-trauma cinema of Lav Diaz

Now that the PhD has been awarded, I’m happy to make my thesis, the first coherent study of the films of Lav Diaz, available for you to read. I’m currently working on a monograph, which will use this thesis as a basis, but which will be more personal, less academic and which will contain one more chapter. I’ll write a little something on Diaz’s Locarno winner From What Is Before (2014) which I really thought needs mention in the context of post-trauma, but which I couldn’t really fit into my thesis. Please feel free to get in touch about the thesis if you want. Please feel free to comment or even recommend further reading which I would be happy about. Here’s the abstract of the thesis. You can find the download link below.

Aiming to make an intervention in both emerging Slow Cinema and classical Trauma Cinema scholarship, this thesis demonstrates the ways in which the post-trauma cinema of Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz merges aesthetics of cinematic slowness with narratives of post-trauma in his films Melancholia (2008), Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) and Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012). 

Diaz has been repeatedly considered as representative of what Jonathan Romney termed in 2004 “Slow Cinema”. The director uses cinematic slowness for an alternative approach to an on-screen representation of post-trauma. Contrary to popular trauma cinema, Diaz’s portrait of individual and collective trauma focuses not on the instantenaeity but on the duration of trauma. In considering trauma as a condition and not as an event, Diaz challenges the standard aesthetically techniques used in contemporary Trauma Cinema, as highlighted by Janet Walker (2001, 2005), Susannah Radstone (2001), Roger Luckhurst (2008) and others. Diaz’s films focus instead on trauma’s latency period, the depletion of a survivor’s resources, and a character’s slow psychological breakdown. 

Slow Cinema scholarship has so far focused largely on the films’ aesthetics and their alleged opposition to mainstream cinema. Little work has been done in connecting the films’ form to their content. Furthermore, Trauma Cinema scholarship, as trauma films themselves, has been based on the immediate and most radical signs of post-trauma, which are characterised by instantaneity; flashbacks, sudden fears of death and sensorial overstimulation. Following Lutz Koepnick’s argument that slowness offers “intriguing perspectives” (Koepnick, 2014: 191) on how trauma can be represented in art, this thesis seeks to consider the equally important aspects of trauma duration, trauma’s latency period and the slow development of characteristic symptoms. 

With the present work, I expand on current notions of Trauma Cinema, which places emphasis on speed and the unpredictability of intrusive memories. Furthermore, I aim to broaden the area of Slow Cinema studies, which has so far been largely focused on the films’ respective aesthetics, by bridging form and content of the films under investigation. Rather than seeing Diaz’s slow films in isolation as a phenomenon of Slow Cinema, I seek to connect them to the existing scholarship of Trauma Cinema studies, thereby opening up a reading of his films.

You can download the full thesis here.

Slow Cinema, trauma and therapy

I set up this blog in the autumn of 2012, at the start of my doctoral research. It’s funny just how much the original subject has changed in those three years. I planned to write a piece on Slow Cinema in general, but the subject became narrower and narrower and, as attentive readers may know, has then focused entirely on the films of Lav Diaz and his representation of post-trauma. Throughout those three years, I came across beautiful films with stunning cinematography and interesting stories. What started off as a research project and as a way to formulate ideas, has turned into a platform with reviews, interviews and research ideas. A lot of people have contacted me to ask whether I could take a look at their films. I’m eternally grateful to those people. Because of them, I have seen marginal, yet great films which showed me what cinema is or can be. All I can say is thank you, and please keep the films coming!

In the last year of my PhD research, something else became clear, though. Slow films became a form of trauma therapy for me, and I would like to say a few things about this now. I do not in any way attempt to publish my life story, but I find the link between Slow Cinema and trauma fascinating, and I’m hoping to dig deeper into it, now that the PhD is done.

In spring 2009, a chain of traumatic events triggered an abnormal stress reaction in my brain and I was diagnosed with PTSD in summer 2010. Until that time I had little idea what happened to me. I did know that life was even faster than before. I also knew that things were much louder than before. My senses were constantly overwhelmed, 24/7. My adrenaline level was much to high which caused anxiety and aggression. Panic attacks were the order of the day. Any kind of uncertainty drove me mad. If you think that life is fast those days, imagine it about ten times worse, and you may get an idea of the frenzy my brain was in until about three years ago.

I only noticed towards the end of my doctoral research that parallel to my post-trauma surfacing slowly, I became more and more interested and, at times, even obsessed with Slow Cinema. This was entirely unconscious. By chance, I read an article about Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007) and I was so curious that I just had to watch it. I watched it in summer or autumn 2009. I do remember that I watched Sátántangó (1994) that same year, in December 2009, with a 24h blood pressure measuring device because the doctors weren’t sure just why my blood pressure had been that high. A fascinating experience, to say the least!

In any case, over the months I struggled with whatever happened in my brain, I developed a real taste for slow films. Now it makes sense, and I think there are a few different things to it.

First of all, the slow pace of the films allowed me to record what was happening in front of me. I was no longer able to watch Hollywood blockbusters. My brain simply couldn’t record the events on screen. In general, whenever something became too fast, my brain shut down. I assume it’s a safety procedure in order not to get overwhelmed and overstimulated again. So, if I wanted to watch a film it had to be slower than the average. That kind of feeds in with my next point, namely the minimalist mise-en-scène, for instance. With my senses having been persistently overwhelmed, it was a blessing to look at something that was more or less empty. Those now famous, more or less empty long-shots of landscapes were bliss and contributed to a feeling of calm inside me. The fact that slow films tends to tell minimalist stories, i.e. stories the way they happen in real life without overly exaggerating everything and making the viewer believe that it is perfectly plausible to go through all emotions from A to Z in only ninety minutes, was perfect for someone like me. Don’t get me wrong, slow films say a lot. But they say it in a slower and more minimalist way, which allows the viewer to take his/her time to record and understand everything.

Not a lot of dialogue – perfect! I could contemplate the shots and took my time to study small bits which I personally found interesting. It is said that slow films are not exactly a form of escapist cinema for people. And yet, it was for me. It was exactly that: escape from everyday life. A life that was fast, overwhelming, overstimulating, loud, confusing and whatever else unpleasant. It’s funny that people whose life is fast anyway go see escapist fast movies from Hollywood. Yes, story-wise they’re escapist, but in the end, aesthetically they’re not. Slow films are, especially if you suffer from PTSD. They’re the ideal form of escapist cinema.

Now, the link between cinematic slowness and post-trauma may perhaps trigger an eureka effect in you, the kind of “Oh yes, it makes perfect sense!” Indeed, it does make perfect sense. But there is more, and this is my interest in the films of Lav Diaz. I owe him a great deal even though he didn’t actively do something apart from making films. But his films, in particular those I worked on for my doctoral thesis (Melancholia, Death in the Land of Encantos, Florentina Hubaldo CTE), are, to my mind and according to my experience, a correct representation of post-trauma. The issue with popular trauma films is that the focus is on speed, that means the unpredictability of intrusive memories, flashbacks, etc What those films don’t show is the slow part of post-trauma: the depletion of resources in the survivor because of an over-stimulation of the senses, the stagnation and paralysis because you repeatedly return, in your head, to the traumatic event, the inability to follow a linear life narrative, the draining away of your energy.

These elements are the main thrusts in those three films and especially when it comes to Florentina Hubaldo I have to say that Diaz is and remains the first director I have come across who puts PTSD the way I experienced it onto a big screen. Post-trauma is not a special-effect driven blockbuster spectacle. It’s an immensely slow and painful condition. Diaz’s films are by no means easy. Narrative wise they’re immensely hard to sit through. They’re painful, they drain you. They drain you the way post-trauma drains the characters he depicts. At the same time, however, watching them allowed me to understand myself, my condition, my suffering. I understood what was happening inside me and for once I felt understood. In effect, Slow Cinema and the films of Lav Diaz had an strong therapeutic effect on me, and I want to dig deeper into this, write about it, starting with a journal article, then maybe going further. It isn’t new that films can have a therapeutic effect, but it would be new to bring Slow Cinema in.

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?

Lav Diaz retrospective at Cinematek, Brussels

If you either can’t get enough of Lav Diaz’s films or want to get to know his kind of cinema or are simply desperate to find opportunities to see his films on a big screen, you will have plenty chances this autumn. The Jeu de Paume in Paris is no longer the only venue in Europe to set up a retrospective. Brussel’s Cinematek is following suite. Plus, because they have an immense programme planned for autumn anyway, they will need to start the retrospective very soon. We’re speaking of mid-September here.

The dates will be confirmed in the next couple days. They will screen around 10 to 12 films of his (if I remember correctly), including his documentaries Storm Children Book One and Investigation into a night that won’t forget, the latter usually being a rare sight. The retrospective will last until November. Diaz himself will be present, too, possibly in mid-November. Again, exact dates will be confirmed soon.

That’s TWO big chances for you to see the good man (and director!) this year. If you’re living in Brussels and think of attending, or if want to come around for the retrospective, please drop me an email (theartsofslowcinema@gmail.com). The same goes for Paris (I will be commuting back and forth the way I see it at the moment). We could meet up. I would appreciate all kinds of views on Lav Diaz for my book-in-progress!

Venues for Lav Diaz film strand wanted

Now that my thesis is almost on the way to the printer, I can start focusing on other things. After three years of research, I have noticed that the work I have done is, in effect, a solid basis for curating a strand of Lav Diaz’s films at whatever event or film festival. This is not so much about a retrospective, which obviously needs a larger scope and which I’m still hoping to organise in Manila (if I can find a venue!). This is about a specific part of Diaz’s work and his country’s history, so it allows an in-depth focus rather than a broad sweep over Diaz’s entire oeuvre.

In brief, I have an in-depth study of Diaz’s representation of post-trauma in the aftermath of colonialism and dictatorship in my rucksack. I link form and content, that means I focus as much on his now well-known and famous aesthetics as well as on the historical and societal background the films refer to. I also have the films Melancholia (2008), Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), and Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012) in my rucksack.

The idea is to travel around with this rucksack and give the audience a chance to get an in-depth view of the prolific filmmaker. I can introduce the film, but also lead panel discussions in regards to this. I’m hoping to set up something in Brussels next year and will also approach the Philippinen Büro in Cologne, which screened Diaz’s Norte last year.

If you know of a venue, or know an event this may fit into, please do get in touch via theartsofslowcinema@gmail.com Also, please do not hesitate to get in touch if you want more detailed information about what I have in mind. Oh, and please feel free to spread the word! 🙂 Thank you!

Storm Children, Book One – Lav Diaz (2014)

Just in time for the anniversary of the horrific disaster that typhoon Yolanda brought about the Philippines, the Guardian published a special report on life in the affected region twelve months after the typhoon struck. It is a bleak picture, but a picture you can only imagine when reading the words. The bleakest picture, literally, is drawn by Lav Diaz in his documentary Storm Children, Book One (2014), which premiered in September this year at the DMZ Documentary Festival in South Korea. Shot in black-and-white, Storm Children is a portrayal of suffering and devastation in the worst hit areas.

It leaves you numb, especially when you consider that Diaz shot some footage five months, some other three months ago. The only conclusion you can draw as a viewer is: nothing has been done to help the people. Diaz remains in the background. He records, speaks to a few people. But as practiced in Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), which was originally based on documentary footage, he remains in the background and lets the pictures speak for themselves. These quiet pictures speak one language. They speak the language of accusation. You won’t find overt accusation, but it’s there. The very fact that the ravished landscape in Tacloban still looks the way it does, so many months after the disaster struck, the very fact that children are still homeless and dig in the rubbish (where they could actually find bodies, mind you), is a silent accusation against all those who have promised help, but whose help has never materialised.

In Storm Children, Diaz uses his usual aesthetics. The very beginning of the film is a typical Lav Diaz shot – a long, wide shot of a flooded area, the sound dominated by heavy rain. The first seconds let you unmistakably know that you’re in the world of Lav Diaz, and you will never get rid of this feeling. As usual, the beginning of the film is slow burning. There is little happening, apart from children playing around in the mess, digging up rubbish, looking for something. The cuts are raw and give the impression that this is not necessarily the final version. Diaz’s films are always a bit raw, but Storm Children contains jump cuts, for instance, which feel awkward and which suggest that this film is more a draft and that it’s still a work in progress.

Only after an hour does the scenery become a real nightmare. It is rare that Diaz contextualises his work. The viewer has to wait before s/he knows what the film is about. And once you know this, you begin to feel horrible, but it is exactly at this point that Diaz hits you with the hard facts. More and more of them, until the very end. Youngsters speak about how they lost loved ones. They’re sitting in the shadow of big ships, tankers or ferries perhaps, that had been pushed onto land by the storm and the waves. These ships, which have also played a prominent role in the news last year, are icons in Storm Children. The overbearing, almost monstrous presence of those beasts of movement, which are now all but moving, are symbolic for the massive destruction the area has seen. They also show that Man is only a small element on earth. Nature is still the overpowering element, and Man is often helplessly exposed to its wrath.

This is particularly true of the Philippines, a country, which sees its lands ravaged by up to twenty typhoons a year. Knowing this, Diaz’s Storm Children can be read as a cinematic concern for the people. The typhoon season has started once more. Nothing has been done in Tacloban and surrounding. What would happen if yet another typhoon struck the same area this year? Who would take responsibility for all the dead and injured, for the homeless children and for the parents who couldn’t save their children? Storm Children has a persistent ‘what if’ at its core. Diaz not only records the present. Without making it overt, the film is a concern about the future.

And yet, the film’s ending is rather hopeful, and perhaps the most hopeful ending I have ever come across in Diaz’s work. In a long shot, we see children using the big ships as an opportunity for diving. They make the best out of the situation, as children always do. Only much later will they realise what has actually happened to them. Diaz uses slow-motion for this scene, capturing a strange sense of joy. After all, he once mentioned that Filipinos were resistant, had to be resistant. They do not give up easily. All these catastrophes do not allow them to give up.

The ending of Storm Children is the most explicit demonstration of this. Despite the gravity of the situation, there are small glimpses of hope and joy, leaving the viewer with mixed feelings. Storm Children is a cinematic documentation that needs to be seen. It proves that Diaz is a filmmaker who takes his responsibility as an artist serious and who proves that he is concerned about his people, using film as a means to convey his concerns and making visible to a wider public the fact that even though Tacloban and its people have disappeared from the news because they’re not deemed newsworthy anymore, they are still struggling and that they need help.

Prologue to the Great Desaparecido – Lav Diaz (2013)

It’s rare that Lav Diaz creates a short film. His contribution to a film omnibus for the Venice Film Festival last year was, I think, his shortest film to date, followed by his eight minute film (one take only) for Imahe Nasyon, another film omnibus. His thirty minute short Prologue to the Great Desaparecido sits comfortably in this range of short films, though it is difficult to judge whether this one can be seen as a stand-alone film. The title says it all – it is merely a prologue to a feature film.

The film had been produced with the help of dissidenz films with seat in Paris, and even though dissidenz is not a mainstream company at all, the film has a feel to it that is not entirely Lav Diaz. I’m not entirely sure how to describe. I can only say that I had a similar, albeit much worse feeling with Norte, The End of History (2013). You can kind of feel that there is a Western producer involved, I don’t know. You could call me paranoid, but I really had a weird feeling watching this.

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Anyway, Prologue is a rather difficult film in that it is a mere snippet of what the full-length feature will be like. Plus, it is a direct depiction of a historical event that may be totally unknown to most of the people who have seen the film so far. For all of Diaz’s films it is advisable to read a bit about the history of the Philippines. But I think that Prologue, and the coming feature film, demand a bit more knowledge about the revolution and Bonifacio’s role in it. I gathered that this film would be even less of a sit-down-and-eat-popcorn film than all the others. It’ll probably use more of your brain instead.

When I watched his most recent feature film, From What Is Before (2014), I had the impression that he began to experiment with the camera, which was no longer static and on eye-level. He used canted angles in Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), but there was one shot in From What Is Before that looks very deliberately artistic – something you hardly ever come across in his films. It’s something I always liked in a way.

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Truth is, signs of experiments are visible in Prologue already. I felt that there was generally more movement, which he did experiment with before – a handheld moving camera is particularly visible in Encantos. But the most striking difference to all other films is that many shots are low angle shots. You are always looking up to something. It brought a new feeling to his films, which was awkward at first, but only because I’m very used to his usual static eye-level camera shots. Are we looking up to the Heavens? Maybe…

Prologue, overall, makes little sense on its own. Because it is only a prologue, it feels very rushed for a Lav Diaz film. It is a snippet, and this is the one thing Diaz is usually not known for. He depicts conditions in detail. In slow and very long detail. Now, this is not to say that I didn’t like Prologue because it was short. I simply find it an unfortunate project that doesn’t quite live up to what it had promised. If it had been a stand-alone short, it would have been great. But this really deserves to be extended to a full-length feature film in order to get to the bottom of history again. So I’m looking forward to the final project. I kind of wonder just how long a woman can look for her disappeared husband. Hours (on screen), I guess.