The different slowness in Evolution of a Filipino Family

After my initial thoughts on Lav Diaz’s Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004), I am now in the position to say a bit more about it, though I need more time studying the content. My time is now spent drawing up a shot-by-shot analysis, which, as you can imagine, takes ages for an eleven hour film. These things are incredibly helpful, but become a real pest if you work on Lav’s films 🙂

What struck me during the first two hours of detailed viewing didn’t strike me at all the first time round. I suppose we’re all agreed that Lav Diaz is a slow-film director, and we don’t question it. A look at the film’s aesthetics however shows just how much Evolution goes against the unspoken rules of Slow Cinema. And yet, it is a slow film. Why?

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The reason for this is – and I mentioned this before – the very narrow definition of Slow Cinema, which is based on only a handful of characteristics; long-takes, little dialogue, often static camera, no elaborate camera work in general, emptiness, both of characters and of the environment. Evolution contains long-takes, and the most famous is probably the scene in which Kadyo, bleeding from a wound inflicted by knife, first walks then crawls down a deserted street. That is a twenty-minute take. It feels endless, but it is one of the very few very long takes in the entire film. In fact, there are plus-minus 158 takes in the first two hours (interrupted by archival footage, the scenes of which I have not broken down separately). This, I think, is more than in his usual eight to nine-hour movies. I don’t want to quantify Diaz’s films. But my point is that he does cut quite quickly in Evolution. There are periods of six or seven cuts occurring in only sixty seconds. That is fast for Slow Cinema.

The film also contains substantial camera movement. There are persistent pans and tilts. There are even zoom ins and outs, an aesthetic characteristic you will not find in his later films. The cuts to radio drama studio recording completely disrupt the slow, rural feeling. There is very little “dead time.” There is always something happening, so there is nothing that could invite the usual “This is boring” argument, because Diaz does push the narrative forward and does not waste time in doing so. There are also very typical “mainstream” shots. Not many. But they are there; reaction shots, for instance. In Slow Cinema, you usually do not see what the characters see. We are not granted visual access to what the characters see. Not immediately. Nor are there usually changes from medium shots to close-up to make it clear what a character looks at or fumbles around with. Access to visual information is, in fact, limited in Slow Cinema. Evolution holds pretty much against it.

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We need to remember that Evolution is Diaz’s first real arthouse film, and I mean real. He made Batang West Side before, but Evolution looks like the beginning of a new era in his filmmaking. So his using these aesthetics is not bad at all, or things we should complain about. Rather, my point is that Evolution is a slow film without its complying to a lot of characteristics. If you take a very close look at it, you wouldn’t label it Slow Cinema. And yet, it is.

Slow Cinema is not only about the aesthetics. I’m inclined to say that it has more to do with the time consciousness that is created within certain films. Evolution‘s narrative stretches over ten years. The eleven hours running time give Diaz and the viewer immense time and space to follow a part of history. It is the subject matter that supports slowness, if the characteristics are not foregrounded. A repeated example I give is Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac I & II. It’s over four hours long, but it wasn’t slow at all. It was just long. The story of a nymphomaniac is not exactly a subject matter that promises and invites slowness. On the other hand, if you follow a family, and record their history over a period of ten years, then this is bound to be slow.

I’m obviously walking right into the trap here, because my argument could be read this way: only long films can be slow. This isn’t the case. Again, I would like to point to the time consciousness. This is not only achieved by time itself (via long-takes or length of films). It also comes with subject matter, and this does not only involve the mundane, even though critics of Slow Cinema make us believe this. Diaz is a good example of this. His films are not about the mundane at all. You will not find someone staring out the window for ages, as is the case in Béla Tarr’s films. You will not find yourself watching a character on the loo until his/her bladder is totally emptied, as is the case in Tsai Ming-liang’s films. You will not find characters traveling without doing anything else, as is the case in Lisandro Alonso’s films.

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None of those characters have something to do. They are waiting for something to happen. In Diaz’s films, something has happened already, and the characters react to it. They’re set in motion by an event, often a not very mundane event – we’re speaking of torture, for instance, or rape. But they are in motion, and they have been put into exceptional circumstances. The time consciousness here comes from the way Diaz treats the psychological development of the characters. Take Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012); repetitive monologues, degrading mental state, increasingly fading memory – time passes. In Encantos, Hamin shows more and more repercussions of the torture and persecution he had to endure.

Trauma is a very good subject matter for Slow Cinema, actually, as I argue in my doctoral thesis. Trauma Cinema, as it is defined by scholars, is usually characterised by flashbacks, rapid editing, shaky camera movements, etc Given these characteristics, Trauma Cinema cannot be slow. But trauma is slow. It is slow in its onslaught and in its development. The healing process is slow, too. This is where Diaz’s “time consciousness” and Evolution comes in. Despite its aesthetics, it is creating a sense of slowness by focusing on the development of trauma, not only in a single character, but in a whole family, and in extension an entire society. These things do not appear in a blink. They take time. In Evolution, it takes eleven hours.

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.

Day 14 – Nang Matapos Ang Ulan (Diaz)

It is strange to watch a (very) short film by Lav Diaz. I’m so used to his lengthy cinematic works that it is sometimes difficult to imagine to spend only ninety minutes in front of a screen. Or even less. Butterflies Have No Memories (which I might write about before Xmas) is only forty minutes long. But even this is too long compared to Diaz’s contribution to the omnibus Imahe Nasyon. Philippine directors were asked to make a film no more than five minutes in length, which should reflect their views on society after the 1986 revolution, now termed the People Power Revolution, in which president Ferdinand Marcos was ousted.

Imahe Nasyon Poster

Imahe Nasyon is a compilation of twenty films by twenty filmmakers, covering twenty years of post-revolutionary history. Imahe was released in 2006 in its own country, but has seen no release in the rest of the world. A real shame. The sequences are great.

Diaz contributed to the omnibus, and even though the film is only eight minutes long (yes, he exceeded the five minute mark), it has the feel of a real Diaz film. The film opens with a shot through an open door. The camera is at a low angle. It starts off in sepia, which is very interesting for his way of filmmaking. It stands in contrast to his other films. A voiceover supports the imagery.

Nang Matapos Ang Ulan (2006), Lav Diaz
Nang Matapos Ang Ulan (2006), Lav Diaz

A woman is standing with an umbrella at the entrance, seemingly waiting. A male voice explains that his mother had left when the rain stopped. Indeed, after a little while, she is seen leaving. She leaves the right hand side of the frame, and we see what looks like an empty, ravished garden.

There is nothing else happening for four minutes. We remain with the shot of the empty garden (though it could easily not be a garden…), shot through the open door. From time to time, we see cars driving past in the far background, but it’s actually a temps mort of four minutes. Until, after four-and-a-half minutes, a man comes from behind our viewpoint and leaves the house (disappears on the left hand side of the frame). The voiceover remarks: “I saw father leaving.”

There is an eerie, lengthy temps mort again, in which we don’t quite know what will happen next. Or rather, if there would be something happening at all. And yes, a lovely turn, in fact, happens towards the very end of the film. A young boy walks into the house, look towards the camera, thus towards us, and the voiceover states: “I found myself.”

Nang Matapos Ang Ulan (2006), Lav Diaz
Nang Matapos Ang Ulan (2006), Lav Diaz

Nang contains themes at the heart of every one of Diaz’s films; the history of his country, revolution, colonialism, the effects on today’s society. The young boy might have found himself, but he has most likely never seen his parents again. I imagine Diaz implied in his films that they had been killed. This is only an assumption, though. What makes me think this is the teenage girl seen in his eight-hour film Melancholia, basically an orphan after an unnamed revolution, in which both her parents disappeared (most likely got killed). She, too, has found herself (her self) in the course of the film, but not exactly in a good way.

As short as the film is, it is a to-the-point statement about the past (and present?) happenings in a deeply conflicting society that still suffers from the aftermath of political turmoil. For me, Nang summarises all of Diaz’s work. Nang is a (very slow) synopsis of Diaz’s engagement with Philippine history, society and politics.