Norte – Lav Diaz (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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