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…)

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…