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!

Interview with Lav Diaz (Extracts, Part I)

I conducted quite a long interview with Lav Diaz at the Locarno Film Festival, where his new film Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon ran in competition and won the Golden Leopard; a big achievement not only for Lav Diaz, but also for Philippine cinema. I spent a couple of days with him, Hazel Orencio, Kim Perez, Evelyn Vargas, Perry Dizon and Liryc de la Cruz, which was a fantastic experience. Work being work, I was keen on finally getting this interview in order to understand his cinema better. The following will be extracts. The interview is too long and too broad in scope to publish all of it, so I selected a few interesting points he made in conversation with me. I withhold some parts as they will go into my thesis, and I don’t necessarily want to give everything away yet. Speaking to Lav is a journey, but not a straightforward one. You end up speaking about issues you never thought about before. If the parts below read jumpy…now you know the reason for it 🙂 My gratitude goes out to Lav Diaz. For everything. Final thing, the films I mention below are Florentina Hubaldo CTE (2012), Melancholia (2008), and Death in the Land of Encantos (2007).

Nadin Mai: You said in an email conversation with me that you wanted to make Malay films, but you have not yet completely achieved this goal. What would a Malay film actually look like? What would be the ideal Malay film?

Lav Diaz: Well, I would say that actually I achieved it through the long films without really realising it. I’ve been trying to really push myself too hard and too much, but it’s been there forever since, even with the early works like The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion and then Batang West Side. It’s all about the struggle of the Filipino. … in a sense, without being aware of it, I’ve been doing it. I have achieved it already, that kind of Malay aesthetic, the supposed objective has been achieved, I think.

NM: How much has your upbringing influenced your filmmaking?

LD: Well, it really is a big influence, especially the very sacrificing character of my parents, because they’re very intelligent people, especially my father. He is an intellectual. Instead of just staying in Manila, and be part of the bigger (…) system, he chose Mindanao. It’s still very raw there, very primal. No roads, nothing. He’s a young idealist. He wants to work with the people. His mission is education. They keep working and working. They focus on saving the tribes, on educating them, from hygiene to reading, from building houses to, you know, everything.

NM: So in that sense, do you see yourself as a teacher as well then, just like your father, just in a different way?

LD: In a way. My praxis is cinema. My methodology is different. But it’s still the same. I become my parents, in a sense. We all do. I couldn’t rest. I keep working, making films. There is this sense of mission just like them to just do things. At the same time, you integrate the issue of responsibility. Not just doing things because you want to do it. You have to be very responsible. There is the ethical issue.

NM: How conscious are you on set? Do you plan every shot in advance, the framing, the length?

LD: Sometimes, yes. The location becomes the template, the aesthetic template. So, in my mind I can actually plan ahead and also when I get to the set, everything flows, you know. Something will come up and then I follow it. Everything is very organic, so I can plan, or I can change anytime when I go there.

NM: I know that Tsai Ming-liang only cuts when it feels right. Are you the same?

LD: Yes, yes. If it needs to be cut, then push it into another direction, then I do it. I just follow things. I’m a slave of the process. I don’t want to manipulate or impose things, you know. I just follow it.

NM: I want to ask a question specifically about the three films I’m looking at in more detail. I see them as a trilogy of trauma with characteristics you cannot find in any of your other films. I read about your experience under Martial Law. That was an interview, I think, with Alexis [Tioseco]. You witnessed all kinds of atrocities, not only aimed at other people. You yourself were beaten, too, if I remember this right. Does filmmaking constitute some kind of therapy for you? Why do you feel you need to tell stories about torture, disappearances, you know, all these cruelties?

LD: For one, it’s a cleansing process, personally. And I adjust the cleaning process to my culture, to my people. We need to confront all these things, all the traumas, all these unexamined parts of our history, of our struggle so that you can move forward. It’s a kind of, you know, cure. I always want to tell stories about these struggles. Personally, I want to cure myself of the trauma of my people. And of course, just so that the Filipinos can also have a sense of examination. A more dialectical way of confronting our past, our struggle. Be investigative. Be vigilant. Be more, more…dig deeper. Dig deeper into your soul by seeking the truth about the past. And what are we now? Why are we like this? Why do we have this very, very dysfunctional system? Why do we have this very displaced kind of perspective? Why? Why? Why? So, you have to seek answers, and the answers are from the past. You have to seek the truth from the past, even the lies of the past.

NM: Have you ever experienced repercussions because of your films? Or of your filmmaking? Have you ever had to deal with intimidation because of your films?

LD: Not that strong. I’m just lucky that there are no venues showing the works in the country.

NM: So you see that as a good thing?

LD: Not really. I want Filipinos to really watch the films. But overtly, it’s just not there. You just struggle to show the film in the country. There are no venues. Even institutions…they don’t really help. There are a few who have, but you cannot only show it once a year, twice a year. So in a sense, these things save me. But I’m not asking for it. I’m asking for a better forum for the films. We need cinemathèques, you know. All these forums for the proper presentation of the works. I’m also aware that the situation is not like that. So we’ll have to wait. I know the condition. I also don’t want to compromise the work. I don’t want to cut the work into two hours. That’s what they want. If you can show me a shorter version of Evolution [of a Filipino Family], then I’ll watch it. Come on. And the theatres – if you can cut it into one and a half hours, maybe we can show the film on the weekend. How can you cut an eleven hour work to a two hour thing? It’s just horrible. It’s just stupidity. The film is there anyway. So it can wait. But at the same time, you’re negating the issue of educating your people as soon as possible. You have this thing. My upbringing is very catholic. There is this burden on me that, Man, I’ve done 13 works already and a minuscule part of the country has seen the works. The burden is on me also. But at the same time, I know that my works are very responsible to my culture. That allows the balance also.

NM: Where do you draw your inspirations from? I heard that you talk to older people as well. Is that where the stories come from?

LD: Part of the process is that I talk to a lot of people. People in the streets, people in the barrios. They have a different take on history. They have different versions of history. They have their own oral history. You have to balance that with the ones that are written by historians, the ones that are claimed by publishing it as our history. So you also have to balance that. Our tendency to revise history based on an agenda or a kind of perspective, whether ideological, political or just personal … But with all histories, I can feel a sense of, you know, although they are not so precise, there has been a lot of revision also. There is a sense of essentiality in what they’re saying, especially old people. There is this very very primal thing about people telling histories through their words, especially the old people. You can sense a real connectedness with the past, as opposed to those being written, which is sometimes too scholarly, and it’s so clean. But at the same time, you can actually salute or admire the work put in it. The research, the kind of scholarship that they did, especially the people who are really objective about history. You have to balance these things. The very primal oral history of people who don’t read, they just heard those things and the scholarship of real written history. So you have to balance these things also. I’m speaking for myself as an artist, as a worker, a cultural worker for my country. I want to balance these things.

NM: There is something very specific about the three films that I’m looking at. All main characters are in one way or another threatened by death. You trace the mental downfall of the characters, who suffer as a result of external forces and who barely cling to life. Why is it so important to you trace the aspects of suffering?

LD: Suffering is pretty much an inherent part, not just of the Filipino but of the human struggle. So it’s been there. We have just created our own defences. For my culture, our defense is being very overtly joyful but at the same time there is a lot of misery going on inside. I want to work on the reality of the soul of the Filipino, the psyche, which is sorrow, suffering. That’s one thing. And then, yes, they’re barely clinging to life, they’re actually living dead. I’m just mirroring what’s really…it’s the state of the Filipino. We’re almost dead. We cling to life. Politically we’re almost dead. Economically we’re almost dead. It’s a metaphor for everything that we are… It’s a kind of malady that has been there with us. It needs to be cured, but how? It’s a very systemic problem. We have to destroy the system so that we can actually regenerate everything. We need to destroy the system, so that we can move. It’s a system of dysfunction.

NM: Is that what you’re trying to do with your films, to destroy the system?

LD: Yes, destroy the system. I destroyed the Hollywood system so that I can create my cinema, so that I can represent my culture. So that I can liberate my cinema. I need to destroy the system that has been imposed. It has to be two hours, that you need a cut-to-cut to be able to cut the time, to manipulate time. I don’t want to do that. So I needed to create my own framework, my own methodology. Part of that is about that. Destroying the system.

NM: I find that you’re a rare species in Philippine cinema. A few years ago, Alexis already pointed out that there weren’t many directors in the Philippines who tackle the historical, political and social injustice to the same extent you do. I have seen Nick Deocampo’s “Revolutions happen like refrain in a song” and Raya Martin’s two films “Independencia” and “A short film about the indio nacional”. I have also seen Jet Leyco’s “Leave it for tomorrow, for night has fallen”. But these are really only a few films. Why do you think not more filmmakers go into this direction?

LD: They are more into something else. It’s also the background of these people who do things. A lot of young filmmakers now, their background is more like just being an artist, doing art for art’s sake. Their early works are just a preparation for the mainstream, to do so-called big works, to become big time in the industry. They have different agendas, they have different models. They’re not really doing films for culture. They’re not cultural workers. They work more for their ego. It’s a different breed.

NM: Are they maybe afraid of touching those topics?

LD: Yeah, because it’s dangerous. You defy the Hollywood system. Like, if you go beyond two hours you’re gone. It’s like suicide, a career suicide for them to serious works, to tackle history hardcore, or to move beyond the convention. They will not do that. They’re more worried about their career. They do things for their career. They don’t do things for culture. It’s a different perspective actually that defines these people. I’m not saying that all of them are like that. There are people who are trying to work, like Jet [Leyco]. Nick Deocampo has been there, although he is not doing things lately. He’s writing books. It’s more about their backgrounds really. Raya is a student of history, so you can actually see that in his works. I like history. He’s also trying to understand our culture. Raya is a serious artist. He’s one of the few who can really make good works among the new generation.

NM: Do you think there is, in general, a good generation of Filipino filmmakers coming?

LD: Yes, yes. You can mention Raya, John Torres, Anthony Sanchez, and Jet. They’re the real cultural workers.

NM: So there is a movement now?

LD: It’s a very informal movement. Nothing organised. But people are really working. They want to do things for our culture. They want to tackle history also. They want to be more dialectical about confronting and examining the Filipino psyche. I’ve seen some of the works, and okay, you can sense that they also have that ethical thing, the sense of mission for our country, for our culture.

NM: Would you say you’re an activist-filmmaker?

LD: I don’t even want to use that word. It has become so bastardised. Activism for me is just being pro-active about the things you believe, especially for culture. In my own small way, I’ve been trying to work hard to represent our struggle, to mirror the Filipino struggle, or the Malay struggle for that matter. In a way, it’s my kind of activism. It’s my role. I’m aware of that, and trying to work hard to at least fulfil a bit of an approximation of what needs to be done.

(Part II to follow, stay tuned…)

Norte premieres at Cannes Festival

For those of you who follow me on Twitter, this entry will be no more than a summary of today’s news. For everyone else: this is what slowness is about (sometimes).

Lav Diaz’s new film Norte, Hangganan Ng Kasaysayan premiered at the Cannes Festival today at 11am. It’s nominated in the category Un Certain Regard. I know how excited everyone was, especially Hazel Orencio, one of the actresses. It was nice to follow them virtually on their first ever trip to Cannes.

Slowness on the red carpet is a rare image, and indeed, I have to admit that the Norte team looked like the most interesting of the ones I have seen throughout this festival.

As mentioned in an earlier post, the film was four hours and twenty minutes long. Quite a short film for Lav Diaz. But Diaz explained in an interview with Salon Indien (2012) that there is no time, in terms of time doesn’t matter. A five minute film can be as good as an eight hour epic, and I fully agree.

It looked very much as if Norte shook the audience. Jonathan Romney, who coined the term Slow Cinema in a film review in 2004, wrote on Twitter: “Lav Diaz’s NORTE, what a triumph. Raskolnikov in the Philippines, beautifully controlled storytelling with an apocalyptic final left-turn.” And Nick James (Sight&Sound), who actually isn’t very fond of slowness in film said: “The 4-hour Lav Diaz NORTE is worth every second. Finally something transcendent. Amazing.”

The team received a five-minute standing ovation, which, I guess, says a lot. I haven’t seen the film, but I know Diaz’s style. That he received standing ovations for it at the Cannes festival is a wonderful achievement. Apparently, there are distributors interested in Norte. I hope that he can strike a deal, so that we can finally access Diaz’s films (legally).

The next step on the Slow Ladder

A few weeks ago, I have posted an entry about the success of the local Slow Art Day here in Dundee. I still feel like going back to the McManus and take an even longer look at one of the paintings. It has drawn me in so much that I can’t let it go anymore. I learned a lot about looking slowly and giving your eyes time to wander.

In general, the day had a positive outcome. I’m very proud of being an official volunteering member of the Slow Art Day group from now on. I will be the host outreach in the UK and help them with research projects they are starting. This is exciting for me. The UK was home to quite a few participating museums this year, but there could be more, and more people could benefit from looking slowly at art. I will try my best to increase the number of museums and galleries taking part in next year’s event.

In other news: Lav Diaz is on his way to the Cannes festival. He and Hazel Orencio, the lead actress in Florentina Hubaldo, had a farewell dinner with friends. For me, it is an obscure thought…slowness on the red carpet. But I will get used to it! There are more details about Diaz’s new film Norte emerging, though only in French. The film is about a man who is wrongly convicted of murder and put into prison. He comes to find his prison life more bearable, but his life is changed by a mysterious event.

To me, this sounds like a must-see film by Diaz again. It is the longest film shown in the category Un Certain Regard this year at Cannes. Surprisingly, this film doesn’t seem to be in black-and-white. The two screenshots that are available are in colours. I’ve never seen a Diaz film in colour, so I’m keen on finding out if the feel is different, and if yes, how. The colour should reduce the degree of simplicity. Poverty may not be as clear as it is in black-and-white either. But this turn to colour makes it even more interesting to me. It’s new, I’m excited.

Norte will be screened on May, 23rd at 11am (local time). I’m waiting for the reviews and from news from both Lav and Hazel, and will post updates here.