Season of the Devil – Lav Diaz (2018)

Those of you who have been with me for a couple of years already know that I have been a huge Lav Diaz fan. Melancholia, my first film by Diaz, thoroughly impressed me and when I began to see his other films I felt that there was something very special in there. I wrote my PhD thesis on three of his films and on the director’s use of duration and absence. I wrote two book chapters on him, conducted an interview with him for publication. But there was a point when I was worried that Diaz would change his style, regardless of what he said in interviews, in order to attract a wider audience. Norte, the end of History was the beginning of something that became more and more obscure. For the first time, a Lav Diaz film was hailed as a masterpiece outside his hardcore fan circle.

I wasn’t a fan of Norte and often expressed my concern about the future of Diaz’s filmmaking. It wasn’t the use of colour, which irritated me, but the fact that the storyline had little surprises. It was an easy film, not as bad as Hollywood, but the viewer nevertheless didn’t have to do much work. The next film, From What Is Before, was a superb counter-argument to a potential decline. But, in fact, this was the true beginning of the end because he began to make films that were everything he had always rejected in interviews. The mentality changed. Friends, like me who did everything to help, became enemies. Success spoils people and the Berlinale Silver Bear for Lullaby to the sorrowful mystery was perhaps too much. It was a deserved award, no doubt. But something changed afterwards.

With Season of the Devil, Diaz returned to Berlin. The film was described as a rock-opera, but it is neither rock, nor an opera. It is a bizarre attempt at trying something new and hoping not to fail. I clearly remember some ecstatic reviews. As was the case with Norte, the positivity about the film comes from the simplicity of the film. There are no challenges, there are no question marks. Nothing is hidden. All cards are open on the table and everything the viewer needs to do is sit and let the images wash over him/her.

Season ‘s visual aesthetics are familiar terrain for Diaz fans. The black-and-white, often in high contrast, is a great visual support for a narrative set in the darkest of times for the Philippines. More than in his other films, I find, there is a link between past and present. But what used to be pointed to, is turned into a clear mirror image. What Diaz shows, the dialogues he wrote – all of this is happening once more in the Philippines. With the election of president Duterte in June 2016, the dark times of president Marcos’ dictatorship resurface. What happened, happens again and we can be certain that nothing, not even brutal atrocities, is ever over. In particular the extra-judicial army Diaz introduces at the beginning of the film is a clear pointer to what is happening in the country right now.

There is violence, there are disappearances, but there is also resistance. There are two distinct parts, I find. A quiet one, a real pause for breathing, and a part in which all dialogues are sung. And it is the latter that ruin the film, but continue the director’s drastic change (and the critics’ absolute joy about his films). Not so long ago, I saw The Woman Who Left, which stood out because of bad acting and a transparent narrative that didn’t engage the viewer. Devil goes even further. It remains an issue that Diaz now chooses actors and actresses, well-known in the Philippines, but who are just that: people who act. They do it badly. There is no sense that the characters we see live their roles. There is no sense that there is an experience on the side of the actors/actresses. It’s a bland role play, over-dramatic, over-theatrical, which makes it difficult to sit through it for four hours. The majority of shots follow a logical sequence. If there is a man sitting at the table and writing something, we expect to see in the next shot what he has written. Never before would Diaz have given us access to this letter. Now he does and these logical shots are the ones that create boredom (in me). It’s not the length of the film, it’s not the cinematic slowness. It’s the logical, linear narrative combined with bad acting.

What strikes me as most incomprehensible are the sung dialogues. They’re ill-placed and after two hours and dozens of “la la la la”, one cannot help but ridicule the entire film. One shouldn’t, of course. The subject of the film is important and if Diaz had made the film without singing it would have had a serious effect on the viewer. But the persistent, monotonous rhythm, the illogical “la la la” only to fill empty space and empty time, is the worst I have seen in any film in a long time. It simply doesn’t do justice to the seriousness of the story Diaz tells. It is an attempt-gone-bad at trying something new. If The Woman Who Left was a clear step towards the downward spiral of Diaz becoming an average director, Devil makes him a below-average one, having lost literally everything he still stood up for until about six years ago.

Season of a Devil is a film, not an experience. Even if it was an experience, it is certainly a bad one and it makes me wonder just where Diaz will take his new approach to filmmaking. It’s not a problem if a director decides to change his style. Many filmmakers have done so and even though it is disappointing to their followers, it usually accompanies a change in the director himself as well. This doesn’t seem to happen to Diaz, all the more striking because he still defends his original ideas he had when I started writing about him. He continues to speak negatively of Hollywood, of bad acting, of the stupidity of linear narratives in interviews all the while he more and more does the things he continues to verbally attack. The director who speaks is not the same who makes the film. And this, I find, is the most stunning change in a director I have come across since I started studying film about eleven years ago. Next week, Diaz’s latest film The Halt comes to French cinemas and I wonder what he has fabricated this time…

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.

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 in Manila

This is the first part of hopefully many that will accompany my journey through the organisation of a major retrospective of Lav Diaz’s works in his native country. While museums and galleries outside the Philippines commit to retrospectives – the next one to take place is that in Paris in November this year – his own country is still a bit behind with those things. Given his growing popularity, if you can use this word, time is more than rife for a retrospective in Manila.

When I met Diaz last August in Locarno, we played with the idea and I had been keen for a while to organise an event of such a scale, primarily for the home audience, in order to get a picture of the whole oeuvre of a director they now start to celebrate after the success of both Norte (2013) and From What Is Before (2014). It will also be a good end point for my work. I will submit my thesis in the next couple of months. Then I will turn the material into a book, which I plan to publish myself. The idea is to launch the book at the very latest at the start of the retrospective, which I am currently planning for August 2017.

If financially possible, I would like to invite one or two people who are as familiar with Lav’s work, which would allow me to step back without having to introduce every single of his films 🙂 I also work on the idea of a panel discussion, but not with scholars alone. I’m more keen on getting the viewers involved, possibly with no background in film. It is those viewers that often have the most insightful reading of films.

I have started to contact venues in Manila in the hope that there will be at least one which is willing to host the retrospective. Fingers crossed! In the meantime, I do some fine tuning on the programme and let you know once I have been successful to secure a location for this very long and slow endeavour. In worst case, I’ll bring a projector and we do pop-up screenings. In any case, this retrospective will happen!

Please share widely and rally for support 🙂

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.

The Art(s) of Slow Cinema in Locarno

A brief post to say that I will be traveling to this year’s Locarno Film Festival. The line-up looks great, and I’m hoping to catch the new Nicolas Pereda film, Los Ausentes, and the latest by Pedro Costa, Horse Money. Lav Diaz’s new film From What Is Before is running in the competition.

After the festival, I will publish some extracts of the interview with Lav Diaz, which I will conduct while in Locarno. It’s probably going to be an edited short version of the full interview, but I will let you know.

If, by any chance, you’re in Locarno from 6 to 10 August, please drop me an email (theartsofslowcinema@gmail.com), and perhaps we can meet up for a coffee (well, caffeine-free tea, for extra slowness) and have a slow talk about slow films.

Looking forward to it! By the way, excitement isn’t good for slowness. It ruins everything!