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.

In defense of a lack of craft

I read a rather irritating article about Lav Diaz’s Norte, written by Adrian Martin for the Sight & Sound magazine. His reading of the film is good, but the last paragraph of the article makes me want to respond. I want to quote the passage in question first:

“There was a certain thrill to this – the kind that persuades you to endure eight-hour screenings, in search of a new kind of filmic epiphany. But as the years pass and the Diaz ‘formula’ hardens, it becomes more difficult to excuse the lack of inventiveness and craft in his work in the name of some spurious ‘neo-neorealism’. Diaz’s most vocal fans do him no favours in this regard: he might become a better, more self-critical director if people stopped reassuring him that every new film he makes is a deathless masterpiece.”

I know from responses on Twitter that Martin is not the only one who thinks that Lav Diaz’s films lack “inventiveness and craft.” I would like to turn this around and say that film criticism and film studies lack inventiveness and craft. In my articles on Norte (here and here) I stressed that the investment of money changed Diaz’s filmmaking. The film had to be profitable, and in a win-win situation for producer (not the filmmaker) and the viewers, Norte appeals to all those filmgoers out there who live in theories and frameworks they are familiar with.

The reception of Norte was positive, but this was precisely because it was different. According to Martin, it seems as if this is exactly what Diaz’s films needed, as all of his previous films were more or less the same, and any further steps on the same treadmill would have been inexcusable (so he’s not going to like his new film, to be honest). This argument is exemplary for the way critics and scholars treat films in their work. Not all of them, but a great majority sees films in comparison to other films. They want to see that x fits to y. If you can see Bazin’s or Deleuze’s work in films than these are superb and worth mentioning.

Lav Diaz isn’t the only slow-film director, who returns time and again to the same aesthetics, the same actors, the same overall story. The interesting thing is that it is only film critics who complain about this. Fans love the films, and I do not understand why they get accused of not doing their directors a favour. Truth is, every director is free to do what s/he wants, and rather than forcing the directors to return to the same themes, we “fans” simply support them for what they do. We do not ask them to change the way critics do just so that it makes it easier to write about them. We take the films the way they are.

The most pressing issue with regards to the films of Lav Diaz, however, is that there should not be any discussion about his craft or inventiveness. From Batang West Side (2001) to Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012) his films have shown a remarkable development of a filmmaker, who produces films with little means. Making incredibly powerful movies with no financial support, a small crew and indeed little hope of distribution is in itself a craft. Not having any support system that makes popular filmmakers go “from strength to strength”, as critics would say, Diaz’s filmmaking requires inventiveness. You need to be creative to make something out of nothing.

My family would say that I inherited this way of thinking from them and my grandparents – while Western Germany was living in American luxury, those in the East were left with nothing because the Russians took everything away. A kind of punishment for what happened in WW II, if you will. I was born too late to live through this directly, but I grew into this mentality because society has this mentality where I come from. I’m still thinking this way, and that fourteen stunning films come out of a Third World country without any support is a success, and should be acknowledged as such. But here we are again: this wouldn’t happen in the First World. We look down on those filmmakers, and see their films through our pink First-World capitalist-imperialist glasses. And as soon as money flows into production, it’s great for the critics.

Those people don’t really see Diaz’s films. Florentina Hubaldo, for instance, was the strongest Diaz film since the beginning of his filmmaking career. Other people may not agree to this, but for me he has stepped up his aesthetic gear in this film, if you want to call it this way. The narrative, the visuals, the play with sound and silence – all this was at a level of perfection. In between, say, Heremias Book I and Florentina a lot had happened in Diaz’s filmmaking. If you only look at the surface, his films will always look the same. But dive deeper, and you will be surprised by what you find.

One final point, which is dear to my heart: I don’t think critics and scholars should touch his films at all, unless they are willing to commit and open up. I’m in a rather awkward position as a PhD student, but I have a background in filmmaking, and I’m trying my best to steer my work away from theories and standard practice of academia, precisely because it is impossible to dissect Diaz’s films with what academia has established in film studies. We should not discuss the aesthetics of Diaz’s films. We should not discuss why he doesn’t seem to develop, which is untrue anyway. We should not wish for stronger distribution or higher investment into his filmmaking.

What Diaz’s films really need is an attentive eye of an attentive viewer. His films are representations of a terrible form of reality in his country. They are an in-depth study of destructive trauma, of unbearable suffering, of violation of human rights, of torture, of extra-judicial killings. They are a document of a society gone awry, mainly because of Western involvement. It started with colonialism and goes to dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was installed by the West. Lav Diaz’s films are documents of human rights violations and the effects on an entire society. These films are not made for entertainment. Nor should they be seen in the lights of traditional filmmaking.

Lav Diaz is a filmmaker who, with little means, creates documents that scream for help and justice. Why do critics and scholars want him to do it with stunning aesthetics? We have played a big part in what has been going wrong in the country. Demanding a filmmaker, who documents social injustice which has its origin in the West, to be more creative in what he does, is a demand that defies understanding. The main point of his films is the stories they tell. If we really expect a filmmaker, who wants to put the devastating struggle of his people on screen with something other than with the means he has, then it just proves that we, in the First World, have little understanding or knowledge (or even desire) of what is happening around us, and, indeed, it proves what an ignorant society we live in.

Slow Cinema at Cannes 2013

Apichatpong’s victory over the recently more and more Americanised Cannes Festival happened before my time as a slow fanatic…

So I see yesterday’s news as a fantastic thing: Lav Diaz’s new film Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Norte, the End of History) made it into the Un Certain Regard section at this year’s festival. Congratulations to Lav & team. What a wonderful achievement for them! It’s going to be his first trip to Cannes. With four hours and twenty minutes running time, I find this film to be quite short for his type of film-making, but it’s nevertheless quite a bite for a possibly untrained jury to watch. Apparently, the producer was very keen on submitting the film for the festival and good on him! I hope that Norte will also come to the UK at a later date. I have a feeling that it’s a good one. (Has there ever been a boring Lav Diaz film??)

Unfortunately, Tsai’s new film Diary of a Young Boy didn’t make it into the line-up this year, although there had been rumours it could be. It would have been nice, but, here again, I hope his film will get its release at a later date.

As I haven’t posted something fascinating lately, I leave you with a great interview of Lav Diaz, conducted at last year’s AV Festival. Research-wise, the project is moving forward, though I feel as if all my ideas for the thesis have been and still are being squeezed into abstracts and papers. It’s good. It helps me to develop ideas. But I can’t wait to sit down and expand on this writing. Before that, however, I’ll attend the Postgraduate Research Conference at Stirling University on 8th May, and the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network Conference in July in Norwich. Summer will be writing time for me. I plan to submit a decent draft of my first thesis chapter at the end of the summer. This should result in a few more blog entries 🙂