Til madness do us part – Wang Bing (2013)

It was difficult to find time for writing another review. I have been asked to write an essay on Wang Bing for Thessaloniki International Film Festival, which programmed an artist focus on the Chinese director. I am also contributing to a French-language edited collection on Lav Diaz, and have been offered to write a book on Slow Cinema. Writing spreads out, and the blog is, at the moment, not the only platform I need to take time for. If posts come at a slower rate than usual, you know why that is the case.

After the first hour or so of Wang Bing’s ‘Til madness do us part (2013), I knew that I didn’t want to write a review of the whole film. When the director introduced Ma Jian, who had been hospitalised for five months at the time of filming, I knew that I wanted to focus on this specific character. There is a lot just in the first quarter of the film alone. The images alone say so much. The behaviour of those hospitalised, some for over a decade, deserve a separate study. The different backgrounds of those hospitalised, too, deserve a separate study. Madness is such a rich film, disconcerting without a doubt, but this very film says perhaps more about the director’s country than any of his other films.

My main interest has long been the representation of trauma and the aim at representing a sort of concentrationary universe through the use of time (duration), and interaction between absence and presence, life and death. I wrote quite a bit about it in my PhD thesis, which you can download from the British Library. In my thesis, I analysed the ways in which Lav Diaz created a concentrationary universe in his films, in particular in Melancholia (2008), Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) and Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012). I argued, contrary to available literature, that the concentrationary doesn’t need an actual camp or a prison as a framework. The concentrationary is first and foremost based on a specific experience of time and space.

In Wang Bing’s Madness, you have the nature of the concentrationary right in front of your eyes without the director needing to create a particular mix of aesthetics in order to evoke it. Only a camera was needed, straightforward shots of inmates of a mental hospital, inmates whose reason for their being there is not always evident. Some men we come across – and this is striking because the film focuses on the male population of the institution – certainly struggle with their mental health. Some may be autistic, some violent. Some cannot shoulder a normal life on their own. Others seem perfectly normal, and, seeing this film in 2019, makes you wonder about the real reason for their stay. I’m thinking in particular of one Uighur, who, in one scene, is filmed while following his traditional prayer routine. Perhaps, the man would have gone unnoticed six years ago. Perhaps he could go unnoticed even today. Yet, with China ramping up their persecution of Uighurs and deporting them to concentration camps for “re-education”, Wang Bing’s temporary focus on this young man poses questions about the reasons for his internment. Was the internment in mental hospitals the beginning of concentrating the Muslim population? Was this young man there simply for his religious beliefs?

But let me return to the man I mentioned above: Ma Jian. A young man, who, in the first part of the film, reminded me of a nervous lion inside a cage waiting to be let out. Jian has a tendency to violence, although the question is whether he had been violent before his internment, or whether violence became a means for expressing his frustration with his being locked up. This is the first element one notices: in no way does this mental hospital look like one. Except for handcuffs, which, to be fair, do come into use here and there, the hospital has everything of a prison, including the barred doors. It’s nothing more than a building made of cold concrete with rooms which up to six people share at once. The bars along the hallways certainly prevent suicidal inmates from jumping off their balcony, but, as a viewer, it gives one a permanent feeling of being locked up.

Jian is a fascinating character, and I believe that he is autistic. His reasoning, his monologues (or even dialogues with Wang Bing), show his intelligence. He is fully aware of what’s happening around him and he is also aware of his not being in the right place. “How the fuck did I end up like this?” he asks. He seems sleepy, almost drunk, which could be the effect of medication they give him to calm him down, to sedate him.

“What kind of life is this?”

“The pain doesn’t make you want to live. How many lives I have? Nine!”

There is a lot going on in his head. Ma Jian is the character that touched me most in the entire film. At the time of filming, he had been interned for five months. When we see him first, we don’t know why he is there and for how long he will have to stay there. The immediate concern, from my side, was what will happen to this fragile character in an environment like this. It’s not at all about living, it is about surviving and following your basic needs. One man, struggling to keep on his feet, gets out of bed in one scene, stumbles out of the room into the hallway and pees right there. He didn’t go to the toilet. It didn’t matter. Life is nothing other than basic needs. The man has become a muselmann.

Nothing really matters in this hospital. The inmates live outside of time. They have fallen out of time, as David Grossman would describe it in his book on trauma. There is little to keep the patients busy. Most spend their time in bed, regardless of the time of the day. They are vegetating, and that often for years. Ma Jian attempts to fight against this state. He runs. He takes off his jacket, jumper and shirt and starts running. Wang Bing follows him, a magnificent long-take that, I believe, is the best scene in the director’s oeuvre. It’s spontaneous, it’s life and fight, it’s pulsating. It’s a rebellion. It’s a “no” to everything.

“This is a dead end. This sucks, how can anyone live like this? Come on, kill me. You could even butcher me like a cow or a chicken.”

One of the main characteristics of the concentrationary system: an increase in the death drive. But suicide is prevented, through bars and empty rooms. There is no escape from this degrading situation. Agony is extended. Frustration grows. There is no other possible end than madness in this hospital. ‘Til madness do them part. There is something about Wang Bing’s choice of film titles that strikes me every time I see another film of his. How fitting can a title be, how much can it reinforce every single frame that we see? I’m still wondering what has happened to those people in the last six years. Are they still there? Have some been released? Just how many have lost their minds?

And then there is this echoing title. Until madness do us part. Me and the people I have followed for four hours.

The Sacrifice – Andrei Tarkovsky (1986)

“Humanity is on the wrong road.”

Andrei Tarkovsky’s ultimate film, The Sacrifice, released in the year of the director’s death, is perhaps one of his bleakest films. Once more, I see a steady development towards an end; the end of a filmmaking career, a sophisticated development of ideas about the world and Man, a progress towards putting finishing touches on one’s oeuvre. I have seen this before with the final films of Béla Tarr (The Turin Horse, 2011) and Tsai Ming-liang (Stray Dogs, 2013). Sacrifice fits very much into this line as a sort of film that makes a final statement, a film that is, in parts, a recollection, a reminder, but also an outlook to the extent that there will be other filmmakers who will pick up on this and continue the story.

It was the second time I have attempted to watch Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. I didn’t finish it the first time. It’s funny to say this now, but the film felt incredibly slow. More difficult to watch than longer slow films. I tried it again yesterday, years later, now with a good number of slow films of all sorts under my belt, and it still remains one of the slowest films I have seen! And indeed, my husband agrees that The Sacrifice is Tarkovsky’s slowest film. The running time of just over two hours is nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary, and, above all, nothing that I haven’t sat through before. Yet, this feeling of slowness was heavier than in other films I have seen. There is a real weight to The Sacrifice, which slows down the film, a weight that goes beyond the running time, beyond the usual aesthetics for slow films. It is a weight, which (slowly) creeps up on the viewer through the various, countless, daring monologues and dialogues.

This is one aspect, which made The Sacrifice a challenging film; the often highly sophisticated monologues that ask you to ponder, to reflect, perhaps even to respond, cannot be taken lightly. You cannot not react to them. You cannot not think about them. Tarkosvky forces you to be engaged in discussing humanity’s failure, Man’s shortcomings, our desire for destruction. “Savages are more spiritual than us. As soon as we have a scientific breakthrough, we put it into the service of evil”, says Alexander, the main protagonist, who has, according to himself, a non-existing relationship to God, but who pleads with God to save his family from the coming nuclear war. In return, he offers to destroy his house, to give up on his family, on Little Man (his son), and he promises to never say a word again: “if only God takes away this animal fear.”

Silence – another important factor in The Sacrifice. Despite the number of thought-provoking monologues throughout the film, Tarkovsky has created a very quiet film. We can hear suspected war planes flying above the beautiful house, built right at the coast. At some point we can hear a television set. And yet, The Sacrifice is, very much like The Mirror and Nostalghia, a quiet film, almost silent, which, I know, sounds contradictory, but I believe this is precisely what the director was going for: to create a discrepancy, a contradiction that confuses the viewer, confused like the characters are once the imminent nuclear war is announced on television. The end is near… Otto, the postman, a good friend of Alexander, says early on in the film: “One shouldn’t be waiting for something.” Waiting – this is perhaps the essence of The Sacrifice.

Waiting for something that you know is going to come without knowing when it’s going to hit you. This is very much the point Lav Diaz makes in several of his films, perhaps most evidently in Melancholia (2008). Three rebel fighters are stuck in the jungle. They’re the remaining fighters of a larger group, the rest of which has been killed already. The island they’re on has been surrounded. They know what’s coming for them, but they don’t know when. It’s psychological warfare, a very effective type that, as Diaz shows, can drive people to insanity. What is the origin of this insanity? Fear. But fear of what? Alexander says, “There is no death. There is fear of death, and it’s a terrible feeling. If only we could stop fearing death.” The Sacrifice is a film about fear. It is a film about the unseen, about the feared; about a nothing that is full of something, namely danger; about the question of what it means to fear death, to mourn your life in advance.

Waiting, silence, heaviness – these are the three main elements that contribute to the exceptional experienced slowness. But there is something else that struck me when I saw the film, already when I saw it for the first time. The Sacrifice could also well be filmed theatre. Fittingly, it is pointed out pretty early on that Alexander used to be a theatre actor. He received a birthday card from former colleagues. All interior scenes, set in Alexander’s family home, feel like a filmed stage, a theatre stage. The set-up as well as the movement and the behaviour of the actors and actresses contributes to the feeling of seeing a stage play in front of you. Often, the speaking person walks towards the camera as do theatre actors/actresses often do, too. There is a theatricality to the film that, to me, supports the idea of a major psychological breakdown going on in the film.

Yet, after all, after the passing of the imminent danger, after the breakdown of Alexander’s wife out of sheer fear, after the ominous remark of postman Otto that only Maria (the servant) could help prevent the apocalypse, after all of this, there is one thing that remains: the circularity of life. Nothing ever stops. Everything continues, in one way or another. Alexander pleads with God and promises never to speak again. His son, Little Man, as he lovingly calls him, is mute throughout the film. It isn’t revealed why. There is vague talk of an operation, but Tarkovsky never fully clarifies this. What matters is that when Alexander falls silent, Little Man begins to speak. “At the beginning was the word. Why is that, papa?”

Continuity, circularity – everything continues, everything circulates, nothing ever stops, despite sacrifices by one man. Life goes on. If you leave something, someone else will pick it up and continue the work. It is as though Tarkovsky, dying of cancer at the time, sent us a message with this film: when he is gone, someone else will continue the work he has been doing. Perhaps not in exactly the same way. Nevertheless, his work will continue, and so it did with the likes of Béla Tarr, in particular. But also Lav Diaz continues the work Tarkovsky had started in the 1960s. And it will be continued by many more filmmakers from around the world.

The Woman Who Left – Lav Diaz (2016)

Hooray! I have finally managed to see Lav Diaz’s The Woman Who Left, which won the Venice International Film Festival about two years ago. I’m always a bit behind with those films now, as things have changed quite considerably since I finished my PhD thesis on the director. In any case, the main thing is that I still catch his films, albeit now with a delay of several years.

The Woman Who Left has been hyped quite a bit, similar to his other “short film” Norte, The End of History. It is a little under four hours long, and therefore comparatively accessible. I see more and more documentaries that last for hours and hours. It has become a thing now, and I quite like it. Especially for documentaries, time is essential. It’s about investigating, about exploring, and all of this takes time. In recent years, Diaz has reduced the running time of his films with the sole exception of his first Berlinale film Hele that was very much in line with his earlier films that have turned Diaz into a real challenger of traditional film spectatorship. The Woman is, I find, close to the story of Norte, and it made me wonder whether those two will, in the end, become part of a trilogy about crime and punishment, a theme that is very much at the heart of both films, a red thread, a line that the director walks us through over the course of the films’ running times.

Both films are about injustice, about the failure of the Philippine justice system, of arbitrary arrests and the subsequent destruction of a life. Of course, one of the major differences between Norte and The Woman is the use of colour in the former, and the use of black-and-white in the latter. The Woman is visually very interesting. From the beginning, there is a nice shift apparent in the way Diaz records his scenes. He uses a lot of light (if deliberately, I don’t know), which gives some of the scenes an interesting high contrast between light and shadow, while at the same time just shying away from actually overexposing the image. Also, Diaz continues his exploration of the night, which he does in pretty much all of his other films, and which has always struck me. A couple of months ago, I wrote another post on the use of the night, the use of darkness, and how it contributes to the “slow” experience of a film. The night in Diaz’s films always has something dangerous to it, as it does in real life in any case. Diaz makes sure not to use too much extra light. He shows the night as it is where he films: pitch black, dangerous, lurking, creepy at times. A time, a space where people hide, where people seek refuge, but also where people work.

The actual story of the film is quickly summed up: Horacio, falsely imprisoned for a murder she hadn’t committed, leaves prison and seeks revenge, wanting to kill the man who was behind her arrest and her trial. The film begins with scenes of Horacio in prison, teaching other inmates and children. 30 years – this is the time she had to spend behind bars for a murder that, in fact, a friend of hers committed, a friend who then framed her. 30 years – this is the time wasted, the time lost. Horacio didn’t see her children growing up. She sees her daughter when out of prison, but her son remains lost without a trace. Her husband died while she was in prison. 30 years – this is the time it took for her to lose everything she’s ever had. The obvious anger and thirst for revenge becomes one of the main themes, albeit Diaz stays away, as usual, from showing violence. The director focuses on the tension that is boiling underneath, the tension that is there, dormant and yet fully alive. It only needs a small kick in order to show itself.

Perhaps because of all the social work she had done in prison, Horacio (Renata in some scenes, depending on the person she is with) presents herself as the good person, as the helper, the sort of rock in a stormy sea. She’s drowning in thoughts of her own, but she’s nevertheless there for others. She helps her former caretaker to start a new life. She helps a homosexual after he had been raped and beaten. She gives money to a woman, who is clearly suffering from severe mental health issues, and also buys her food. But here it is: she does so in order to get closer to her enemy: Rodrigo Trinidad, her ex-boyfriend, who is responsible for her imprisonment. Horacio is a good woman, but she has also learned to be cunning, cold, and, above all, rational.

All of those elements – the mise-en-scène, the storyline, the aesthetics, the characters – make for a very good film. The Woman starts on a promising premise. Unfortunately, this is where the film remains: at its premise. As with NorteThe Woman is obviously hyped because it is an easy film. It is Diaz’s most accessible film. The storyline is easy to follow. There are no twists, no turns. The viewer knows what’s happening next. It’s a film that makes the viewer feel comfortable in his/her seat because there’s nothing lurking around the corner, nothing that can shock. Diaz favours a straight, linear storyline over a complex engagement with the actual subject the way we know it. What happens in the next scene is evident. What happens at the end is evident. The viewer doesn’t have to engage. S/he can sit back and have the film wash over him/her.

I found this quite stunning because I know Diaz’s stand towards popular cinema, but The Woman is very much in line with the concept of popular cinema. Minus the film length and the long takes, the way the story is constructed is spoon-feeding the audience, which he had always opposed. At the same time, I reckon that both Norte and The Woman are ways to make his work more popular, making it in turn more likely to receive financial support for his more arty projects. And going down this lane means, unfortunately, accepting a drop in quality of your own work. It is not just the easy storyline that made it difficult for me to watch this film. It is also the acting. Horacio, played by Charos Santos-Concio, was a difficult character to follow. Her acting wasn’t good, or rather it was what it was: it was acting. With the exception of the mentally handicapped woman and the homosexual, the actors weren’t very good. Contrary to actors in Diaz’s previous films, those characters weren’t living their roles. They did what they got paid for doing: acting. This has a detrimental effect on how the film is perceived, namely as a film, an artificial construct, not as an experience.

I have to say that, sadly, this was the most difficult film by Diaz to sit through. For me, personally, of course. I’m sure that other people think differently, and that’s perfectly fine. I have troubles seeing people try to fit into their roles, trying to be convincing actors and actresses for four hours. Trying to follow an easy storyline without falling asleep. Then I prefer eight hours of twists and turns, characters who don’t act but play themselves, and a storyline that doesn’t wash over me, but that keeps me engaged. I found eight hours Melancholia much easier than The Woman, because it kept me awake, it kept me engaged. The Woman is, as I said above, the easiest Lav Diaz film. That might be a good thing because people can discover his work. At the same time, he shouldn’t be judged on this film alone. He made superb films before. Difficult films, difficult to access, difficult to sit through. But if you really want to get to know Diaz, then you need to give those films a try after you have seen The Woman.

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.

Slow Cinema, trauma and therapy

I set up this blog in the autumn of 2012, at the start of my doctoral research. It’s funny just how much the original subject has changed in those three years. I planned to write a piece on Slow Cinema in general, but the subject became narrower and narrower and, as attentive readers may know, has then focused entirely on the films of Lav Diaz and his representation of post-trauma. Throughout those three years, I came across beautiful films with stunning cinematography and interesting stories. What started off as a research project and as a way to formulate ideas, has turned into a platform with reviews, interviews and research ideas. A lot of people have contacted me to ask whether I could take a look at their films. I’m eternally grateful to those people. Because of them, I have seen marginal, yet great films which showed me what cinema is or can be. All I can say is thank you, and please keep the films coming!

In the last year of my PhD research, something else became clear, though. Slow films became a form of trauma therapy for me, and I would like to say a few things about this now. I do not in any way attempt to publish my life story, but I find the link between Slow Cinema and trauma fascinating, and I’m hoping to dig deeper into it, now that the PhD is done.

In spring 2009, a chain of traumatic events triggered an abnormal stress reaction in my brain and I was diagnosed with PTSD in summer 2010. Until that time I had little idea what happened to me. I did know that life was even faster than before. I also knew that things were much louder than before. My senses were constantly overwhelmed, 24/7. My adrenaline level was much to high which caused anxiety and aggression. Panic attacks were the order of the day. Any kind of uncertainty drove me mad. If you think that life is fast those days, imagine it about ten times worse, and you may get an idea of the frenzy my brain was in until about three years ago.

I only noticed towards the end of my doctoral research that parallel to my post-trauma surfacing slowly, I became more and more interested and, at times, even obsessed with Slow Cinema. This was entirely unconscious. By chance, I read an article about Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007) and I was so curious that I just had to watch it. I watched it in summer or autumn 2009. I do remember that I watched Sátántangó (1994) that same year, in December 2009, with a 24h blood pressure measuring device because the doctors weren’t sure just why my blood pressure had been that high. A fascinating experience, to say the least!

In any case, over the months I struggled with whatever happened in my brain, I developed a real taste for slow films. Now it makes sense, and I think there are a few different things to it.

First of all, the slow pace of the films allowed me to record what was happening in front of me. I was no longer able to watch Hollywood blockbusters. My brain simply couldn’t record the events on screen. In general, whenever something became too fast, my brain shut down. I assume it’s a safety procedure in order not to get overwhelmed and overstimulated again. So, if I wanted to watch a film it had to be slower than the average. That kind of feeds in with my next point, namely the minimalist mise-en-scène, for instance. With my senses having been persistently overwhelmed, it was a blessing to look at something that was more or less empty. Those now famous, more or less empty long-shots of landscapes were bliss and contributed to a feeling of calm inside me. The fact that slow films tends to tell minimalist stories, i.e. stories the way they happen in real life without overly exaggerating everything and making the viewer believe that it is perfectly plausible to go through all emotions from A to Z in only ninety minutes, was perfect for someone like me. Don’t get me wrong, slow films say a lot. But they say it in a slower and more minimalist way, which allows the viewer to take his/her time to record and understand everything.

Not a lot of dialogue – perfect! I could contemplate the shots and took my time to study small bits which I personally found interesting. It is said that slow films are not exactly a form of escapist cinema for people. And yet, it was for me. It was exactly that: escape from everyday life. A life that was fast, overwhelming, overstimulating, loud, confusing and whatever else unpleasant. It’s funny that people whose life is fast anyway go see escapist fast movies from Hollywood. Yes, story-wise they’re escapist, but in the end, aesthetically they’re not. Slow films are, especially if you suffer from PTSD. They’re the ideal form of escapist cinema.

Now, the link between cinematic slowness and post-trauma may perhaps trigger an eureka effect in you, the kind of “Oh yes, it makes perfect sense!” Indeed, it does make perfect sense. But there is more, and this is my interest in the films of Lav Diaz. I owe him a great deal even though he didn’t actively do something apart from making films. But his films, in particular those I worked on for my doctoral thesis (Melancholia, Death in the Land of Encantos, Florentina Hubaldo CTE), are, to my mind and according to my experience, a correct representation of post-trauma. The issue with popular trauma films is that the focus is on speed, that means the unpredictability of intrusive memories, flashbacks, etc What those films don’t show is the slow part of post-trauma: the depletion of resources in the survivor because of an over-stimulation of the senses, the stagnation and paralysis because you repeatedly return, in your head, to the traumatic event, the inability to follow a linear life narrative, the draining away of your energy.

These elements are the main thrusts in those three films and especially when it comes to Florentina Hubaldo I have to say that Diaz is and remains the first director I have come across who puts PTSD the way I experienced it onto a big screen. Post-trauma is not a special-effect driven blockbuster spectacle. It’s an immensely slow and painful condition. Diaz’s films are by no means easy. Narrative wise they’re immensely hard to sit through. They’re painful, they drain you. They drain you the way post-trauma drains the characters he depicts. At the same time, however, watching them allowed me to understand myself, my condition, my suffering. I understood what was happening inside me and for once I felt understood. In effect, Slow Cinema and the films of Lav Diaz had an strong therapeutic effect on me, and I want to dig deeper into this, write about it, starting with a journal article, then maybe going further. It isn’t new that films can have a therapeutic effect, but it would be new to bring Slow Cinema in.

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 at Cinematek, Brussels

If you either can’t get enough of Lav Diaz’s films or want to get to know his kind of cinema or are simply desperate to find opportunities to see his films on a big screen, you will have plenty chances this autumn. The Jeu de Paume in Paris is no longer the only venue in Europe to set up a retrospective. Brussel’s Cinematek is following suite. Plus, because they have an immense programme planned for autumn anyway, they will need to start the retrospective very soon. We’re speaking of mid-September here.

The dates will be confirmed in the next couple days. They will screen around 10 to 12 films of his (if I remember correctly), including his documentaries Storm Children Book One and Investigation into a night that won’t forget, the latter usually being a rare sight. The retrospective will last until November. Diaz himself will be present, too, possibly in mid-November. Again, exact dates will be confirmed soon.

That’s TWO big chances for you to see the good man (and director!) this year. If you’re living in Brussels and think of attending, or if want to come around for the retrospective, please drop me an email (theartsofslowcinema@gmail.com). The same goes for Paris (I will be commuting back and forth the way I see it at the moment). We could meet up. I would appreciate all kinds of views on Lav Diaz for my book-in-progress!

Venues for Lav Diaz film strand wanted

Now that my thesis is almost on the way to the printer, I can start focusing on other things. After three years of research, I have noticed that the work I have done is, in effect, a solid basis for curating a strand of Lav Diaz’s films at whatever event or film festival. This is not so much about a retrospective, which obviously needs a larger scope and which I’m still hoping to organise in Manila (if I can find a venue!). This is about a specific part of Diaz’s work and his country’s history, so it allows an in-depth focus rather than a broad sweep over Diaz’s entire oeuvre.

In brief, I have an in-depth study of Diaz’s representation of post-trauma in the aftermath of colonialism and dictatorship in my rucksack. I link form and content, that means I focus as much on his now well-known and famous aesthetics as well as on the historical and societal background the films refer to. I also have the films Melancholia (2008), Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), and Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012) in my rucksack.

The idea is to travel around with this rucksack and give the audience a chance to get an in-depth view of the prolific filmmaker. I can introduce the film, but also lead panel discussions in regards to this. I’m hoping to set up something in Brussels next year and will also approach the Philippinen Büro in Cologne, which screened Diaz’s Norte last year.

If you know of a venue, or know an event this may fit into, please do get in touch via theartsofslowcinema@gmail.com Also, please do not hesitate to get in touch if you want more detailed information about what I have in mind. Oh, and please feel free to spread the word! 🙂 Thank you!

Between Suspense and Time Terror

As a result of the paper I gave at the University of Stirling at the beginning of the month, I looked more into aspects of terror. In my paper I used the term “time terror” to describe the feeling Lav Diaz generates in Florentina Hubaldo CTE (2012), Melancholia (2008) and Death in the Land of Encantos (2007). One question that came up in the Q&A after my presentation was for whom Diaz created this “time terror”. I originally only thought of the characters, who are always found in situations of anxiety, paranoia, fear, hopelessness, and uncertainty.

But then there is this odd feeling I get when I watch those films, and I concluded that the “time terror” applies to both film character and film spectator. It was in a different context, namely the use of endless duration in scenes of characters walking along roads, that Diaz one said he aimed at making the viewer feel time. I don’t think this is the only circumstance where this feeling of time comes into play. I see his films as trying to convey the sensation of what life is like for the characters.

In any case, I’m only playing around with thoughts, so I have by no way an answer to another really interesting (and helpful) question: what do I see as the difference between suspense and time terror? This is a very good point, and there is somewhat an agreement that Lav Diaz does not create suspense as such. It is something else, but what exactly is it?

I found a book I thought could be interesting, called The Aesthetics of Terror. It had very little to do with what I actually wanted. However, there was one argument in the book that made me think: terror comes quick, often without expectations. It appears as quick as it disappears. From that point of view, my idea of terror in Diaz’s films does not seem to fit. Not if we take the modern post-9/11 sense of terror.

My thought about terror stems from my reading on sociological and psychological aspects in concentration camps, where the prisoners’ time-consciousness was deliberately shattered so as to remove frameworks they could hold on to. The shattered time-consciousness led to disorientation. As I detailed in my paper, time in the camps was either experientially stretched by endless roll calls, or accelerated by sudden beatings. There was thus a persistent switch between slowness and speed. This was called terror, or totalitarianism, but because all writers came back to the same aspects of time, I termed it time terror, which suited my research, and makes this specific form of terror much clearer.

Now, you do find the same aspects in Diaz’s films. There is an endless duration in his films, obviously mainly evoked by extreme long-takes, but also by long periods of silence or little action. All of this together slows down the narrative and stretches time, often to an extreme. And then you have brief intermissions, for instance in Florentina, where those stretches of endless duration are interrupted by sudden violence. This is obviously not only felt by the character. It is also the viewer who is put into states of shock after periods of peace, followed by periods of sudden violence.

This all makes sense, and it only needs a few clarifications, which I’m working on in my head at the moment. But how about suspense? Hitchcock’s approach was mentioned…put the bomb under the table and have the family have dinner at it. You don’t need to see the bomb going off or anything. It’s just there. This is indeed similar to Diaz, who often prefers not to show violence, but who much rather creates sensations. So why am I speaking of ‘time terror’ and not of suspense?

I’m not entirely sure at the moment, and I’d be grateful for any thoughts on this. My own thoughts were going back to the play on time. I do see a link between terror/suspense and time. I do not necessarily agree with the above mentioned argument that terror comes quick. The actual act of violence comes quick, but terror is a much larger concept. If we face it, the (Western) world has lived in fear since 9/11. This is terror. The violent attacks that we have seen since then are only a part of it, but they are not terror in itself.

For me, time terror means endless duration first of all, often quite literally because we have no idea when something ends. I also think that terror is a long process, and it therefore goes well with Diaz’s extremely long films, in which he uses the time he has at his hands to create a sensation of terror. Suspense for me is more short-lived. We know suspense from pretty much all contemporary films; horror, thrillers, even comedies do contain suspense at times. But these scenes of suspense are short-lived. You do not live through hours of uncertainty before something may or may not happen. It is rare that you feel suspense for an entire two hour long film. Horror films may be a different thing to look at here. I’m not sure whether duration alone is enough to explain terror (as opposed to suspense). I think I could make a case for it, but I’m happy to hear any feedback on this issue that could help me explain my time terror theory in clearer terms.