Imburnal – Sherad Anthony Sanchez (2008)

If you’re done watching Lav Diaz’s long films and need a film to fix this problem, Sherad Anthony Sanchez’ three-and-a-half hour film Imburnal (2008) may be a good start. I wanted to see the film for a long time, and I have started it twice, I think. But for some reason I never finished watching it. It certainly wasn’t the quality of the film that had stopped me from going ahead.

I remember Diaz mentioning Sanchez in my interview with him; Sanchez as one of the few upcoming great directors in Philippine cinema. I can see why Diaz said this, even though I have only seen one film by him. But there is a feeling, a certain presence of the director, that makes it a very promising work in regards to the future. Imburnal is a rather different view on the Philippines than we know from Diaz’s films. Sanchez does not so much focus on the past and its effects on the present. His film is more an exclusive study of the present condition, with a view to the future. Sanchez focuses on the young; children, teenagers, who spend their free time in sewers. They smoke and drink whatever self-made mix they can come up with, inhale glue, and, seemingly their favourite past-time, have sex with whoever they can find.

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No, the film doesn’t draw a nice picture of the young in the Philippines. But the film is not so much only an image of the director’s country. It uses Filipino youngsters, while – perhaps unconsciously – telling a story of deprived young people all over the world, with little hope for the future, little education, maybe even little ambition. This is one thing in the film: you don’t see any of the characters at school. The film is a portrayal of youngsters in the streets and sewers without their being homeless. It looks like the chosen battleground where the young fool around until they find out what they want to do with their lives.

The dominant theme of sex in the film reminded me of a book I read years ago, which was as worrying as was watching the film. I can’t remember the book’s title, but it was written by someone working for a charity that supports teenagers from deprived families in Germany (yes, we’re speaking about the First World here). What became clear after only a few pages was the teenagers’ obsession with sex. And I’m not speaking of the normal “I need to discover what this is all about” phase. The underlying problem was that they had little else to do. Sex gave them a release from harsh life. It was an escape, a form of entertainment they could get for free. This went as far as 15 year olds with 50 sex partners. I couldn’t help thinking that this was exactly what I saw in Imburnal; the kind of “I’m bored, let’s have sex” type of thing. There’s plenty to say about this, but I want to move on to the aesthetics of the film.

Sanchez has created a rather interesting cinematic journey that does not necessarily make for an easy viewing. He employs long-takes, often beautifully framed. Others, on the other hand, need to be deciphered. He inserts still images, which confused me at times: Is this really a still image or is simply nothing moving in the frame? It’s not as easy as you think! The still images increased the felt slowness of the entire film. And so does the music, a melancholic tune that plays over quite a few scenes. The slow tune wasn’t a necessity, but it serves the mood well and reinforced my sorry feeling for what I saw.

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Sanchez – keen on playing with the viewers’ patience, you can tell – inserted a pause into his film. A literal pause. After about ninety minutes, the film cuts to black. A melancholic tune comes up, and then you sit and wait. And wait. And wait a little longer. I’m not sure how long I stared at the blank screen. Was it five minutes? Seven, perhaps? If I had watched this in cinema, that would have been the point of people leaving the auditorium. That is, if they had not been fed up with explicit sexual imagery of a teenager threesome in the sewers, masturbating guys (no, boys) on top of the extreme long-takes and the on and off use of absolute silence. The use of absolute silence strongly reminded me of Lav Diaz’s Florentina Hubaldo CTE. In this film, silence was an aspect of trauma. In Imburnal, I reckon the silence was simply the result of playing with different aesthetics.

I couldn’t figure out why Sanchez inserted the pause, but I sure liked his artistic endeavour. It added a real zen feeling to the otherwise rather unpleasant scenes (context-wise) before and after the break. Imburnal is surely an intimate film, in many ways. Not only in regards to the imagery. At times, the camera switches into a voyeuristic mode, positioning us as perhaps unwanted spectators. And then you can hear the breathing of the filmmaker/cinematographer in some scenes, which made me feel uncomfortable at times. I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it felt as though I was too close to the action. In any case, Sanchez is a director to look out for in future. I liked his play with aesthetics and this could have been only beneficial for his future projects.

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…

Absence and Presence in Lav Diaz’s Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (Paper)

Absence and Presence in Lav Diazs Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012)

9 April 2014, Research Seminar, University of Stirling

Introduction

In summer 2012, I sat in the Edinburgh Filmhouse and waited for the screening of Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, the new film by Lav Diaz, writer-director from the Philippines, now perhaps best known for his latest film Norte The End of History, which screened at last year’s Cannes festival. In fan circles and for somewhat hardcore cinephiles, he is most famous for his lengthy metaphorical treatments of Philippine history and the country’s social malaise: Melancholia, eight hours; Death in the Land of Encantos, nine hours; and Evolution of a Filipino Family, ten hours. And this is the average. He is, in fact, working on a film that has a running-time of fifty hours at the moment.

In any case, I knew Lav’s eight-hour film Melancholia from a screening in Newcastle. Sitting in a comfy seat, I felt prepared with food and drinks to my feet. What I wasn’t prepared for was the new kind of power he has infused his new film with, a power he transmitted by a unique choice of aesthetics, which he has never used before. After a six-hour traumatic ordeal, for both the viewer and the main character, the film ends with a young woman, Florentina, sitting in a chair, her nose bleeding and her left cheek swollen. She experiences difficulties to retain her posture while keeping a cool cloth to her head. Looking directly at the viewer, she mutters: “My head hurts. My head never stops hurting. It never stops.”

Florentina Ending

Florentina repeats herself over and over again. She speaks about having been beaten by her father, about having been chained to her bed, strangled, and about having been sold to men. After a twenty-minute static long-take, the young Florentina loses her strength and her consciousness.

Florentina Hubaldo is a metaphorical treatment of chronic trauma as a result of 300 years of colonialism. Rather than transmitting the theme of trauma through aesthetics such as flashbacks and rapid editing, as is the case in contemporary trauma cinema, Diaz represents trauma through the use of repetitive loops in the present narrative, a slowness evoked by long-takes and the overall film length, as well as through the play of presence and absence of sound and images.

What is particularly striking in this film is the absence of on-screen violence. The film uses the rape of a woman as a metaphor for the rape of the country under Spanish, American and Japanese rule. If anything, you would expect the depiction of rape being the centre piece of the film, especially if you’re familiar with Diaz’s films and know that he tends to stage painstakingly realistic representations of rape in his other films, such as Century of Birthing. In Florentina, he deliberately positions the viewer as listener rather than as eye-witness. He puts emphasis on sound; Florentina’s screams, her cries, and the sound of the chains her father ties her to bed with. Throughout the film, Diaz stresses the role of listening – of listening to Florentina’s repetitive monologues about her ordeal, of listening to her being raped without being able to see her, of listening to both atrocities and peace.

For this reason, I want to analyse Diaz’s unique juxtaposition of sound and silence as a means to convey the ideas of trauma, loss and mental decline, caused by CTE, a degenerative disease of the brain that develops slowly and gradually over years as a result of persistent brain injuries. Before I go into a detailed analysis I want to show you an extract of the film so that you get a feeling for the film’s atmosphere.

[extract]

Main

This extract is an example of Diaz’s juxtaposition of sound and silence, a juxtaposition of joy and sadness, of the Giants and Florentina. The Giants are giant paper-mâchédolls, which are the main attraction during the Higantes Festival, an annual celebration near Manila in honour of San Clemente, the patron of the fishermen. They are an indicator of past events and belong to Florentina’s childhood, in which she regularly seeks refuge.

And indeed, Florentina does find refuge in the Giants throughout her ordeal of repeated beatings and rape. At the end of the film, she recounts that she is always with the Giants, especially in her dreams. They keep returning and they dance together. But the Giants also appear in hallucinations, which arise from Florentina’s mental decline. In several scenes, Florentina interrupts her actions because she appears to see something. Diaz does not make use of traditional eye-line matches here, so he refrains from making explicit what exactly Florentina sees. But he leaves clues for us.

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Scenes such as those are often altered with images of the Higantes parade. Handheld shots show children looking up to the Giants and trying to grab their huge hands. Florentina also looks up to something or someone. She holds out her hands as if she tries to grab something. She repeatedly dances around just as the Giants themselves do. Her behaviour – though evidently trance-like – is that of a child’s at the Higantes parade, and therefore an indicator for her hallucinatory imagination of past events.

So, what exactly does this juxtaposition of sound and silence evoke in the viewer?

For once, if you sit through the film, it is a deeply unsettling experience. The sudden switch from sound to absolute silence in scenes such as these disorientates the viewer as sound functions as a unification of images. Moreover, silence disrupts temporality. This is very similar in the case of trauma, which equally disrupts temporality and a linear narrative of the self, which is locked in a temporal loop.

Confronted with a disrupted temporality, linearity and unity, the viewer is left in a position similar to that of the on-screen character. Florentina appears disoriented and in a trance-like state. She is abandoned and has no means of protection. Similarly, there are no reference points for the viewer. As Diaz positions the viewer predominantly as a listener, his denial of auditory information leaves us nothing to go by with. Together with Florentina, we are entirely naked and struggle to find sensory information to hold on to.

Over the course of the film, Diaz alters scenes of absolute silence and scenes of sound three times. Two of these alterations have a direct connection to the Higantes festival. The parade of the paper-mâchédolls and people accompanying them with brass instruments , as we have seen in the extract, creates a scene of what I would call acoustic stress. The volume of sound appears not only higher in contrast to the absolute silence that preceded it. Overall, the sound volume throughout the film is much lower. In some cases, it even needs a manual increase of volume through the remote control in order to hear ambient sounds. The sound of the parade, on the other hand, appears artificially, and deliberately, heightened for the purpose of rupture. They function as shock moments, and as attacks on our auditory senses.

Similar to repeated attacks on Florentina’s body and mind, the viewer is forced to go through a similar ordeal. We are confronted with repeated attacks on our senses. Acoustic stress occurs mainly in alleged scenes of joy, which is indicated by the children, who repeatedly try to grab the hands of the massive dolls in order to walk alongside them.

In contrast, scenes of absolute silence often succeed scenes of acoustic stress. Half an hour into the film, Florentina takes care of the goats in her father’s backyard. She puts them into a small shed, and then turns around to face the viewer. Her eyes seem to follow something, and a cut discloses that she is imagining two Giants in front of the garden.

Two Giants in front of fence

The sound does not fit the image because it contains children’s voices and the sound of instruments. They are absent from the image, however. This scene is followed by absolute silence; a close-up of a hand, which tries to grab a Giant’s hand. But it is not a child’s hand we see, as we would expect from the context. In a handheld shot, we see Florentina’s hand attempting several times to hold one of the Giants’hands, but she fails repeatedly. Her failure is juxtaposed with a scene of severe noise. The use of acoustic stress not only wakes Florentina from her dream or hallucination. It is also a reminder for the viewer that scenes of absolute silence do not belong to the realm of the real. Drenched by heavy rain, Florentina stands in the woods and stares into nothingness.

Florentina is a character who sees rather than acts. She has little control of her situation. When she wants to gain control of her plight, for example through escape attempts, she is subjected to violence at the hand of her father, which renders her passive. She is merely an observer, which means that she cannot control the events she is subjected to. If we were to apply this to trauma theory, we can also say that Florentina’s passiveness is an indicator for disembodiment. She observes situations from the distance and with detachment so as to supposedly minimise the impact of traumatic events. This is a common means in trauma survivors, especially in rape victims.

Returning to the juxtaposition of sound and silence in relation to Florentina and the Giants, the sudden rupture in the soundtrack not only acts as a literal loss of sound; it refers simultaneously to a much deeper and more symbolic loss: Florentina’s loss of childhood. This is implied in the alteration of scenes of joyous children and Florentina’s lonely walks at night through the streets of an unnamed city. It is also underlined in scenes in which we see Florentina’s hand failing at grabbing a Giant’s hand. Before she loses consciousness at the end of the film, Florentina reveals that “The Giants keep on returning. I asked for their help. I hope they come back. Those Giants. I hope they come back. Because they will help me.” It is suggested that being able to hold a Giant’s hand, as all the children do, would generate a feeling of security for Florentina. It would indicate hope and a relief from suffering, but she fails at securing this several times until close to the end of the film, when her brain functions are failing more and more.

Silence in Diaz’s film thus appears to be an indicator for Florentina’s loss of childhood. Yet, in fact, he alters the meaning of silence throughout the film. While the absence of sound can function as a metaphorical image of the loss of childhood and of innocence, in other scenes silence implies the reverse.

After Florentina disclosed some of her horrors for the first time in the film, a straight cut brings us to the woods, in which a small girl, supposedly Florentina, jumps around as if playing. Indeed, later in the film she explains that “we [the Giants and Florentina] are always playing. We play hide and seek in the forest. We run around the rocks. We frolic under the stars. We dance.”Her child’s play in the forest amidst absolute silence underlines the themes of peace and innocence. The forest thus plays an essential role in the creation of a feeling of innocence and peace. It is a repeated motif of refuge in the film.

Florentina on rock

It is established as such at the beginning of the film, when Florentina flees from the hands of a man, who wants to buy her. She escapes into the forest and waits for her grandfather. Later in the film, when she makes an attempt at running away from her father, she hides in the forest again. She tries to find a hiding place behind bushes and trees, and then crouches at the right hand side of the frame. A little later, she lays on a rock as if resting. These scenes are accompanied by peaceful ambient sounds, which emphasise Florentina’s feeling of safety, and which also gives the viewer a moment of escapism.

Yet, the forest is only a place of assumed safety. Florentina is caught by her father, dragged home on a leash, and chained to her bed. She also discloses that “Mother and I always hide in the forest. We crawl on the ground …but father saw us, and caught up on mother.”Hence, on the one hand, the forest is an idyllic place of peace for Florentina, in which she repeatedly seeks refuge and seemingly plays with the Giants, who give her a sense of joy and childish innocence. On the other hand, the forest fails to protect Florentina and causes her, her mother and her grandfather harm. Her mother is beaten to death following her escape to the forest. Her grandfather, too, is beaten. Thus, the forest is merely a fairy tale escape, which, in reality, aggravates Florentina’s suffering.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, then, I would like to point to a statement by Lav Diaz made in an interview: “I want them to struggle also.”With them, he means us, the audience, and the range of sound he uses – from acoustic stress to absolute silence – forces the viewer to struggle in metaphorically similar ways to the film’s main character, Florentina.

The sudden disruption of sound, and its replacement by absolute silence is used to convey aspects of trauma, in particular the effects of disorientation and loss of temporality.

The scenes of absolute silence have two main functions. First, as sound can support a preferred reading induced by the director, absolute silence allows the viewer to read a specific scene in his or her way. Second, the absence of sound deprives the viewer-listener, of the main sensory information, rendering him or her as helpless as Florentina.

It is the first time Diaz has experimented with the power of sound and silence. Throughout his six-hour film, Diaz exposes the audience to repeated shock situations, which are similar to the chain of traumatic events Florentina has to endure; a repeated bashing of the head against the wall, as Diaz describes it, sowing the seeds for a slow degeneration of the brain and the gradual loss of memory, sensory perceptions, and, eventually, of life.


If you want to use this paper for your own research, please cite it appropriately. Thank you!

Norte – Lav Diaz (2013)

A couple of months ago, I have posted initial thoughts on Diaz’s new film Norte The End of History. I received a link for an online screener, which I happily accepted as I wasn’t sure if Norte would make it to the UK. Well, it did. In fact, it has become so popular that you find the film at almost all film festivals running at the moment. Not exactly the situation for the Lav Diaz who is known for his black-and-white epic films of eight hours or more. Rather, it’s a situation for a Lav Diaz, who is not in his usual element. 

In my earlier post, I have argued that it’s obvious why critics suddenly got hooked on the film. It is not a mainstream film, but it conforms more to classical filmmaking than all of his other films. Norte is easy food for the audience. It attracts the entertainment-seeker, not necessarily the intellectual cinephile who expects a typical Lav Diaz discourse on the struggles of the world and his people. It pains me to write this, because it may look that I strongly dislike Norte. This isn’t the case. What I dislike instead is the very obvious influence of money on alternative, small-budget filmmaking, which goes – by nature – down to the very basics, the essence of film, the truth; exactly what Diaz is always looking for. Money, on the other hand, seeks something else. If invested, the product needs to be turned into a profitable business. If you make it too hard for the audience to understand the film, you won’t make the film profitable. The director is forced to change his approach and his aesthetics. This is what happened with Norte, as far as I can see. 

Michael Guarneri conducted an insightful interview with Diaz. In it, Diaz speaks about the waste of money and how it has changed the approach to filmmaking. He explained: 

There was so much money wasted, and this is a thing I didn’t like about the shooting. We rented the camera package: very expensive… If we had bought it, the camera could have been used by me and by other fellow-filmmakers, or it could have been rented out by the producers to generate funds. Creating a flow of money and a circulation of ideas to develop film-projects and make more films in our country: to me this is a very important “political” aspect in filmmaking. It is part of the struggle.

So you see technology is an economic issue that has consequences on many levels. Clearly, it affects how the film looks: for example,Norte is a color film and there is much more camera movement than in my other movies. It is not the camera movement you find in commercial cinema, though. It is not flossy camera movement. It’s more about quietly following the characters. It’s still about duration and space as before, but at the same time it is something new for me.

The rented equipment led to tight schedules. Everything had to be rushed. Time is money, and that’s why money isn’t Slow Cinema. You can read the full interview with Diaz here

Returning to the film, though, I find that Norte is less a distinctly Philippine film. I may, in fact, go as far as calling it a “Russian” film. The thought popped into my head after I re-watched Diaz’s Encantos, in which one of the main characters returns to the Philippines after having spent seven years in Russia. He mentions Russian society, literature, cinema. He also says that the Russian and the Filipino struggles are similar. I think that with Norte, Diaz is pursuing his affection for Russian culture (especially literature and cinema) to a new level. 

The film is based on the remarkable Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky (if you haven’t read it, read it!). The story is obviously taken from the book, but so are the characters. Even if Russian and Filipino struggles are similar, I had troubles to see the Filipino character in the film; the character I got to know by spending hours watching Diaz’s films up and down, repeatedly, and by reading interviews with him. I think that in making the work more accessible by using a famous book as a background, the film neglects the actual Filipino. It is perhaps the case because no one would want to know about it, or no one would be willing to understand it. We’re all very aware of Russian literature, and while it’s not at all as mainstream as some English-speaking literature, it is at least more known and willing to be taken up by an audience than an entirely Filipino story. This is our indifference to little known cultures. We apply this to our taste for cinema, too. 

With that strong Russian background, we then also have a levitating character. A special effect that rubs into our face what Diaz would have normally said without special effects, without making it plain obvious what he wants to say. He would have normally been the literati, and suggested something without making it clear. But again, this film had to be profitable, so appealing to the audience’s intellectual thinking wasn’t an option. The film had to offer quick fixes. And before I lose myself in this discussion, I should mention that the levitating character is an homage to Tarkovsky, a director Diaz admires and was influenced by. So we’re not speaking about any special effect here. We are, in fact, again, speaking about Russia. 

The question that should be asked is not whether or not the film is good. Rather, how Filipino is it? How much does it betray its own culture in order to be profitable in the selling of distribution rights? And how is this going to change the filmmaking of Lav Diaz?

Leave it for Tomorrow… – Jet Leyco (2013)

How much I longed to see this film! Huge thanks goes to the director, Jet Leyco, who also agreed to answer a couple of questions about his film.

In some ways, I’m still debating with myself whether or not the film can be regarded as Slow Cinema. It’s precisely the limits of the term and the previously held debate around it that leaves me with a feeling of uncertainty. Yet, this film is “slow”. No, it doesn’t fit the usual criteria, but I have argued about the limits several times before and this is why I have decided to put up a comment on the film on this blog. Leave it for tomorrow is not Slow Cinema in its original terms. I’m somewhat inclined to say that the film is a new form of it. Or rather, it broadens the scope of Slow Cinema.

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Regardless of the validity of the term, though, Jet Leyco has created a powerful and mind-blowing film. A thought-provoking work about memory and suppression of memory. About the way the past comes back haunting you. There is no such thing as successful suppression. One day, memories will resurface; a process that is often slow and takes a long time to complete. Leave it for tomorrow adds to the current output of Filipino independent filmmakers, who use the cinematic medium to comment on or rewrite history. It is a film that adds to the oeuvres of Raya Martin and Lav Diaz, who are known for their aim of tackling the country’s past. It is easy to follow the examples of Martin and Diaz, but Leyco has managed to carve an aesthetic niche for himself, if you will. The themes of those three directors are similar, if not more or less identical in a way, yet they couldn’t be more different in their aesthetics.

It’s the first time that I slip into really sloppy language here, but I cannot describe the film better than “a slow mindfuck”. And this is entirely positive, I swear. I haven’t seen such a powerful film for quite some time. Leyco has created strong visual tableaus, switching smoothly between colour, sepia and black-and-white. At times he denies the viewer access to visuals and wants him to listen. He plays with our expectations, for example by disrupting the convenient method of showing the character who speaks. Instead, in a lengthy dialogue between members of a rebel gang, Leyco always cuts away and shows us a listening character. I’m not completely unfamiliar with this. In Leyco’s film, however, it was abrupt, thus making it force- and powerful.

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I know that quite a bit has been written about the use of sound in the film. This is because Leyco uses Star Wars-esque sound effects in most sequences when characters shoot one another. It has a comic effect, but to me it is also (once more) a game on our expectations. We expect violent fights, we expect pure realism. But Leyco is not giving it to us. He’s holding us hostage. He puts us on a leash, and we have to follow him, wherever he takes us. Also, the special effects can be a comment on how we see the past, especially a violent past: as a movie. This is – unfortunately – how many people learn about historical events; with the help of major blockbuster productions, full of special effects.

Particularly remarkable is Leyco’s play with absence in the film. It has a ghost-like, eery feeling. Is memory death? Is memory a ghost? It could be. Without being able to touch it, to see it in its real shape, memory is always there. The ending of the film is a powerful statement on this. You can’t find a better metaphor for it than the use of zombies.

I could write lots more about this hugely interesting film. But as I try to refrain from saying too much about the content (I don’t want to spoil it for you), I should better stop and let Leyco do the talking in a few week’s time. Stay tuned!

Day 14 – Nang Matapos Ang Ulan (Diaz)

It is strange to watch a (very) short film by Lav Diaz. I’m so used to his lengthy cinematic works that it is sometimes difficult to imagine to spend only ninety minutes in front of a screen. Or even less. Butterflies Have No Memories (which I might write about before Xmas) is only forty minutes long. But even this is too long compared to Diaz’s contribution to the omnibus Imahe NasyonPhilippine directors were asked to make a film no more than five minutes in length, which should reflect their views on society after the 1986 revolution, now termed the People Power Revolution, in which president Ferdinand Marcos was ousted.

Imahe Nasyon Poster

Imahe Nasyon is a compilation of twenty films by twenty filmmakers, covering twenty years of post-revolutionary history. Imahe was released in 2006 in its own country, but has seen no release in the rest of the world. A real shame. The sequences are great.

Diaz contributed to the omnibus, and even though the film is only eight minutes long (yes, he exceeded the five minute mark), it has the feel of a real Diaz film. The film opens with a shot through an open door. The camera is at a low angle. It starts off in sepia, which is very interesting for his way of filmmaking. It stands in contrast to his other films. A voiceover supports the imagery.

Nang Matapos Ang Ulan (2006), Lav Diaz
Nang Matapos Ang Ulan (2006), Lav Diaz

A woman is standing with an umbrella at the entrance, seemingly waiting. A male voice explains that his mother had left when the rain stopped. Indeed, after a little while, she is seen leaving. She leaves the right hand side of the frame, and we see what looks like an empty, ravished garden.

There is nothing else happening for four minutes. We remain with the shot of the empty garden (though it could easily not be a garden…), shot through the open door. From time to time, we see cars driving past in the far background, but it’s actually a temps mort of four minutes. Until, after four-and-a-half minutes, a man comes from behind our viewpoint and leaves the house (disappears on the left hand side of the frame). The voiceover remarks: “I saw father leaving.”

There is an eerie, lengthy temps mort again, in which we don’t quite know what will happen next. Or rather, if there would be something happening at all. And yes, a lovely turn, in fact, happens towards the very end of the film. A young boy walks into the house, look towards the camera, thus towards us, and the voiceover states: “I found myself.”

Nang Matapos Ang Ulan (2006), Lav Diaz
Nang Matapos Ang Ulan (2006), Lav Diaz

Nang contains themes at the heart of every one of Diaz’s films; the history of his country, revolution, colonialism, the effects on today’s society. The young boy might have found himself, but he has most likely never seen his parents again. I imagine Diaz implied in his films that they had been killed. This is only an assumption, though. What makes me think this is the teenage girl seen in his eight-hour film Melancholia, basically an orphan after an unnamed revolution, in which both her parents disappeared (most likely got killed). She, too, has found herself (her self) in the course of the film, but not exactly in a good way.

As short as the film is, it is a to-the-point statement about the past (and present?) happenings in a deeply conflicting society that still suffers from the aftermath of political turmoil. For me, Nang summarises all of Diaz’s work. Nang is a (very slow) synopsis of Diaz’s engagement with Philippine history, society and politics.

A long Lav Diaz Taster

I have mentioned the films by Filipino director Lav Diaz several times in the past, and I also said that his films, amongst many other slow films, are difficult to get your hands on. However, there is now a perfectly legal way to watch his six-hour film Century of Birthing from 2011, the year before he released Florentina Hubaldo CTE.

Century of Birthing, Lav Diaz (2011)

Mubi offers the film free to watch (conveniently in parts of one hour each) until November, 14th as part of the Dialogue of Cultures International Film Festival. If you haven’t got an account with Mubi yet, you should get yourself one. It’s an amazing film platform!

This is your chance if you haven’t seen any of his films, or if you haven’t seen this specific one. I do have to warn you, though. There is a sect in this film. All singing and dancing. Very brainwashing indeed! I can guarantee you you’re going to hum this song under the shower.