A brief blog post to say that Lav Diaz’s Locarno winning film From What Is Before (2014) is now available for streaming on MUBI (globally) for the next 30 days. Please use the chance and watch this incredibly haunting film.
RPG Conference, University of Stirling, 4 September 2014
At the end of 1943, Primo Levi, a trained chemist from Italy, was arrested, and a few months later sent to Auschwitz concentration camp. At the end of the war, he left the camp as a survivor, but also as a living corpse. His treatise “If this is a man” became well-known and is a first-hand account of atrocities committed under Nazi rule. Levi writes about his day-to-day life in Auschwitz and about the many deaths he encountered. He also writes about the torment that prisoners were put through. “If this is a Man” describes the concentration camp as a place of slow death. In one part, Levi writes,
This is hell. Today, in our times, hell must be like this. A huge, empty room: we are tired, standing on our feet, with a tap which drips while we cannot drink the water, and we wait for something which will certainly be terrible, and nothing happens and nothing continues to happen. What can one think about? One cannot think any more, it is like being dead already. (28)
This is only one example of the regular torments in the camps. If not selected for the gas chamber, the prisoners waited for death through starvation, disease, hard manual labour and/or torture. The very focus on suffering and the delay of death shows strong similarities between life in a concentration camp and the life of characters portrayed in the films of Lav Diaz. In this paper, I will attempt to illuminate this ‘concentrationary universe’, in which Diaz creates conditions of fear, angst, torment and paranoia for the character as well as for the viewer. In doing so, I will draw from sociological writings on life in the concentration camps and a new field of research in the Humanities, which has its origins at the University of Leeds under the direction of Griselda Pollock and Max Silverman. I will also include parts of the interview I conducted recently with Diaz at the Locarno Film Festival, where I asked him specifically about the treatment of suffering in his films.
To begin with, the term ‘concentrationary’ is taken from the French ‘concentrationnaire’, which in itself stems from the title of the 1946 book ‘L’univers concentrationnaire’ by David Rousset, a former political prisoner of Buchenwald concentration camp. It has also been used extensively by Primo Levi in his last book ‘The Drowned and the Saved’, or rather by the translator Raymond Rosenthal, as far back as the 1980s.
Pollock and Silverman attempt a characterisation of the concentrationary by juxtaposing the specific uses of concentration and extermination camps during the Second World War. They write,
The extermination camp subjects its victims to immediate death, often within the hours of arrival at the extermination point. Its space is void of life, attended only by a small work detail and its SS guards. In the concentration camp, however, death is not the main object; terror and the enactment of the terrifying idea that humans qua human beings can become superfluous are its purpose and its legacy. (2014, 11)
In principle, concentration and extermination camps differed from one another in their uses of time. It was a difference of speed and slowness. In his book ‘The Order of Terror’, German sociologist Wolfgang Sofsky (1997) describes it this way:
The death factory was an apparatus that functioned smoothly, virtually trouble-free, working at high capacity and speed. A death train arrived at the ramp in the morning; by the afternoon, the bodies had been burned, and the clothing brought to the storerooms (259).
In the concentration camps, on the other hand, prisoners often died slowly, as a result of a continuous infliction of hardships. Paul Neurath (2005), survivor of Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps, contends, “The camp usually kills its victims in less spectacular ways. It is comparable not so much to a ferocious murderer who runs amok, as to a dreadful machine that slowly, but without mercy, grinds its victims to bits” (47-48).
As I am hoping to demonstrate in this paper, a major characteristic of Diaz’s films is the focus on suffering. His films represent characters who are or have been target of oppressive governmental forces, and turn into living corpses as a result of it. What stands out in his films Melancholia (2008), Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), and Florentina Hubaldo CTE (2012) is that the characters are caught in a web of persistent fear and terror. Death, while at times desired on the side of the persecuted, is prevented, or rather not granted.
Rather, according to Pollock and Silverman, the aim of the concentration camp, and in extension of the concentrationary universe, is “to submit inmates to a prolonged process of psychological disintegration, reduction to bare life and, hence, to becoming a living corpse” (Pollock, Silverman 2014, 11).
This focus on psychological processes in the characters is supported by the aesthetics Diaz employed for these films, first and foremost by the particular length of his films. The in-depth depiction of fear, angst, and paranoia over the course of, at times, nine hours is an aesthetic of Diaz’s concentrationary universe. It is further supported by the use of extreme long-takes. As Sam Littman (2014) contends with regard to contemporary Romanian cinema, “the long take len[ds] itself perfectly to expressing psychological realism.” There is thus a link between slowness and the concentrationary, which I want to explore in more detail now.
Analysing the concentration camp system as a site of terror, Wolfgang Sofsky (1997) points to the presence of an “endless duration that was constantly interrupted by sudden attacks and incursions. In this world of terror, a single day was longer than a week” (24). This very cycle of endless duration and sudden attacks is most prominent in Diaz’s six-hour film Florentina Hubaldo, which portrays a young woman being subjected to repeated rapes. The film follows her mental degradation as a result of CTE, a degenerative disease of the brain, whose onset stems from brutal treatment at the hands of her father.
Just as concentration camp or even Soviet Gulag prisoners were deemed to be more useful as long as they could work, so Florentina, too, is denied death foe economical reasons. Her body is a mere product her father sells in order to earn a living. Her treatment thus attempts to strike a balance between a sufficient degree of subordination without gravely compromising her ability to “work”. Diaz disrupts this endless suffering of Florentina with attacks on the viewer’s senses, mainly by shock moments delivered through high-volume noise or absolute silence. Juxtaposing almost endless scenes of Florentina’s suffering with sudden attacks delivered through sound, Diaz’s six-hour film is a close representation of the concentrationary universe in which Florentina eventually, after six hours, dies as a result of a continuous infliction of miseries.
Sofsky’s above-mentioned remark about the change of time-consciousness in the camp inmates is similar to the shattered time-consciousness one encounters in Diaz’s films. The very length of his films exemplifies the endless duration of terror and marks the characters’ entrapment in a world of fear and uncertainty about death. Time begins to stretch, a characteristic very similar to that of a traumatic event, which survivors often describe as a slow-motion effect. In the words of Diaz:
At some point, death will come. It’s like a premeditated thing. … hell is coming, and it’s always like that. It’s like a concentration camp. You’re compartmentalised; this is the new group, we need to orient them on how to work on these things, then, next compartment, we will not feed them, and the next compartment is the gas chamber where we kill them. So it’s a part of compartmentalisation. There is slow death.
He adds that the concentrationary “applies so much to the character of the Filipino psyche … It’s exactly the word for this kind of suffering.”
Sofsky argues that this slow pursuit of gradual destruction of the human being “allowed death time” (1997, 25). This argument can be extended to the treatment of characters in Diaz’s films. Neither Florentina in Florentina Hubaldo, nor Hamin in Encantos, or even Renato in Melancholia see a sudden death. Their death, which is not always visualised on screen, comes rather as a result of repeated inflictions of attacks, both violent and non-violent. Death always comes slowly, which aggravates the characters’ suffering to an unbearable degree.
What I would like to highlight in this context is Sofsky’s use of “death time”. Even though it looks unlikely that Sofsky meant to create an entirely new term here, I would like to read it as such as it makes for an intriguing factor in the analysis of slow films. Slow Cinema has been repeatedly discussed in terms of temps mort, or dead time, as a governing factor of the aesthetics of slowness. In very simple terms, dead time in film means that nothing is happening in a scene, often quite literally at the end of a scene, when characters have exited the frame and the camera remains focused on an empty setting. I would argue that more than any other slow-film director, Diaz uses “death time” more than “dead time” in his films. In doing so, he puts emphasis on the use and effects of terror on individuals as well as on entire societies.
The use of “death time” is most evident in Diaz’s eight-hour film Melancholia, a film about three characters, who have self-devised a coping mechanism to get over the loss of their loved ones; activists who disappeared. They immerse into different roles in society, “so that we could regain our feelings. So that we could survive. So that one day, we could live again” as Alberta, one of the main characters, describes it. The film ends with a ninety minutes long flashback of Renato, an activist, and two other resistance fighters trapped on an island, after the military surrounded it. In those ninety minutes, little happens on-screen. In fact, all we see is three men sitting and waiting for their death. Or else, we don’t see anything as Diaz resorts to night-time shots without artificial lighting.
Renato, one of the activists, writes letters to his wife, giving an insight into the conditions of the resistance fighters. He reveals that they are aware of death coming, but Diaz refrains from granting them the relief one of the fighters is demanding, as we will see shortly. Instead, Diaz follows the military’s play on psychological warfare and creates an unnerving situation for both character and viewer, through oppressive silence, lack of action, night-time shots, and endless periods of waiting. I want to show you a brief extract of the film, which demonstrates Diaz’s approach, and which also shows the effects of the persistent terror on the fighters.
What we could see in this extract is the mental degradation of one of the fighters, whose resistance has been crushed by psychological warfare. The certain death, yet uncertain point of death causes a slow degradation of the character’s mental state, in similar ways we can see in Florentina. The man loses his sanity, which is not only apparent in his erratic and incomprehensible movements and behaviour throughout the second half of this part of the film. Especially at night, his visual and aural perception is distorted by severe paranoia. Here again, as indicated in previous brief reflections on Florentina, Diaz creates a concentrationary existence for the characters.
He generates a so-called “torment of duration” (Ibid., 81), which Wolfgang Sofsky emphasised in his discussion of “camp time” that was very specific to the concentration camps. Time was manipulated; it was slowed down by endless roll calls every morning and evening, or experientially accelerated by sudden attacks and beatings. Diaz’ trilogy of post-trauma contains this very combination of what I would term “time terror” for the characters as well as for the viewer; seemingly endless long takes in which little happens are juxtaposed with sudden scenes that invoke shock.
In conclusion, I would like to refer to Matthew John (2014), who contends that “the horror of the concentration camp system lies not with the abrupt and immediate extermination of human life, but rather with the slow and agonizing decay of the body and mind” (83, emphasis added). This is precisely the feeling you get as a viewer if you have the stamina to sit through a Lav Diaz film.
I would also like to add that the concentrationary is a site of trauma. Just like trauma, “terror [and in extension the concentrationary] destroys the flow of time” (Sofsky 1997, 78). Trauma thus locks the survivor-victim into a continuous, cyclical past. And this is where the concentrationary meets my previous research into the representation of trauma, forming a new powerful framework, based on Diaz’s own experience under Martial Law in the Philippines in the 1970s. He was beaten, locked up in a school house with 150 other families without permission to leave, with the military deciding how much food the people receive per day. People were guarded like prisoners, and shot when they left the school yards because of “communist activities”. Diaz called it “our own version of the concentration camps”. He witnessed atrocities committed against men, women, and children and has lost several friends to torture and extra-judicial killings.
While Pollock and Silverman’s study into the concentrationary is very much limited to art that makes explicit references to Nazi concentration camps, I intent to broaden the area. I am not only led by the aesthetics of Diaz’s cinema, but also by David Rousset’s warning that “it would be duplicity … to pretend that it is impossible for other nations to try a similar experiment [as Nazi Germany did] because it would be contrary to their nature. … under a new guise, similar effects [of the concentrationary universe] may appear tomorrow” (1951, 112).
As I have hopefully demonstrated today, my thesis will, in parts, add to this new research into the aesthetics of the concentrationary, but suggests a different approach to it by focusing on the experience and the time-consciousness in concentration camps and in the films directed by Lav Diaz.
If you want to use any of the material above, please get it touch and cite it appropriately. Thank you!
Edit (22 September 2014): Lav Diaz pointed out that he was not tortured under Martial Law, as described in my paper. I’m not sure why this mistake has occurred. I suppose I start to mix up literature. Thank you, Lav, for clarifying this!
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.
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.
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…
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?
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.
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.
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.