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)

Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon – Lav Diaz (2014)

With Mula I have seen more Lav Diaz films on a big screen than of any other slow-film director. A bizarre situation, given that Diaz’s films are so very long that not many cinemas dare include them in their program. But there seems to be a special attraction to his films, though, and they keep popping up, especially in Europe. Perhaps it is the length, perhaps it is the subject matter. In any case, Mula received fantastic reviews after the first screening in Locarno last week. I find it rather surprising. Critics loved Norte because it was so different from his other works. In Mula, Diaz returns to the aesthetics we are very much accustomed to. Nevertheless, critics generally loved it. I hope this is the beginning of a genuine appreciation of his work.

To me, Mula is Diaz’s Film Zero. It stands at the very beginning of his filmmaking if you consider the topic of the film. It is set two years before the declaration of Martial Law in 1972. It completes a trilogy that was never intended to be a trilogy at all. Mula depicts the time before the declaration of Martial Law; Evolution of a Filipino Family is about life under Martial Law; and Batang West Side is a post-Marcos film that follows a detective who, while solving the murder of a young Filipino, struggles with his own traumas.

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I watched the film twice. The first time I found the ending incredibly frustrating, the very fact of which led me to think that the film is actually the beginning of everything we have already seen by Diaz in the past. My doctoral thesis focuses on the representation of trauma in Melancholia, Encantos and Florentina Hubaldo. The (psychological) wound has already been inflicted. What actually happened to the protagonists is hardly ever shown, but talked about. Something happened, and we see the characters’ suffering. Mula is, in chronological terms, set before trauma even occurs, which feels weird if you’re familiar with Diaz’s work.

But this very weirdness makes it so powerful. Truth is, Mula is about something creeping up on you. You know that Martial Law is coming. You know about the military takeover that wasn’t meant to be one. Officially. A lie, as we know. Yet, the point is that because I have seen almost all of Diaz’s works, I already knew the results of the “Filipino Nightmare”, as he described it in Locarno. It thus became a psychologically stressful film, more so than some of his other films. The reason for this is that you’re totally helpless. You know it’s coming. You know that the small barrio and its people will slowly vanish, and you also know that you can’t do anything about it. Again, as is the case in so many of his films, Diaz creates a slow tour de force for the viewer, often positioning him/her similar to the way he positions the characters.

With “only” 338 minutes running time, Mula is one of Diaz’s shorter films, but it’s very much in tune with his other works, with the exception of Norte, perhaps. He returns to black-and-white, which gives the film an impressive look of poverty and suffering. The film was shot and is set in a part of the Philippines that still has no electricity. It’s a dangerous part of the country. This shows commitment of director and crew – they risked a lot living there for a while to get the shoot done. On the other hand, for the first time, I believe, we see the beautiful coastline of the Philippines. An outstanding characteristic of the film, to me, is the use of a coastline – high waves, strong winds, rocks. They all contribute to the feeling of something ominous coming. A storm is coming, literally.

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There isn’t much I would like to say about the content of the film yet. I would run the risk of giving away too much and I will also need time to process the film. Aesthetically, Mula is once more a stunning demonstration of Diaz’s eye for capturing not only his Malay culture (he actually refers to him as a Malay filmmaker), but also the trauma of his people. One actress, in particular, stands out in her contribution to this feeling of imminent misery: Joselina, a handicapped person like no other, portrayed in such a realistic fashion that Diaz had difficulties arguing that the role has been played by an actress, who is not handicapped at all. Joselina is the character who makes you want to close your eyes and shut your ears. We see similar treatments in Florentina and Encantos. She is the embodiment of a battered society. I can’t put it into more powerful words, which her portrayal actually deserves.

Mula is a serious contender for winning the competition in Locarno. It is a strong combination of Diaz’s beautiful aesthetics, his exploration of the trauma of a country, and the comparatively short length. I witnessed a conversation between Diaz and a viewer of his films. The viewer said that he was overwhelmed by the power of the film, and that he would have liked to stay in the auditorium for longer. This is strangely enough always the case with Diaz’s films. The length of his films do sound ridiculous, but once you watch it you feel as if more should be said. Mula is no different. It’s a journey into the Filipino psyche, and Diaz cut to the end of the film before the trauma actually begins. There is more, a lot more, pieces of which you can find in several other of his films. Mula is merely the beginning, an exploration of a creeping nightmare that is yet to come. Just how will this nightmare end? Will it ever end? Diaz may show us…