Wang Bing – A filmmaker in today’s China (2014)

I quite like how much material there is in France about Chinese director Wang Bing. I had always thought that he was as invisible academically as is Lav Diaz, but that isn’t the case at all. He is very much so in the English-language world. But France proves itself to be a hub for good literature on slow-film directors. At least something good that has come out of my moving away from the UK! 🙂

The book Wang Bing : Un cinĂ©aste en Chine aujourd’hui (2014) is the result of a symposium held at Aix Marseille University. Despite is having its root in an academic symposium, the book is written for the general public. It is not a book which only film students would understand. It is not tirelessly theoretical either. It’s a joy to read, in fact, and it opens up the oeuvre of Wang Bing to whoever is interested, professional filmmaker or lay film viewer. What is particularly interesting are the interviews that have been conducted with the director. It’s not so much interviews even, they are more three conversations. I learned with Diaz, whom I interviewed for over three hours at the Locarno Film Festival in 2014, that this is how you get the most interesting facts out of a filmmaker, and this seems to be the case with Wang Bing, too. The book opens with the first interview which was conducted in summer 2013, and ends with a third one which had been conducted concerning Wang Bing’s Til Madness Do Us Part (2014).

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The first interview tells you a lot about Wang Bing as a person and as a director. It fits very well into my research of filmmakers (with a particular focus on slow film directors) telling silenced histories, histories which are not in school books or in official discourses. I know that Filipino director Raya Martin pointed out just how important this is to him. Wang Bing himself wasn’t aware of the dark history of his country. His work on The Ditch (2010) and Fengming, for example, stems from a book of testimonies he had been given. He read the book in one go on a flight to Paris. After that he noticed that he didn’t know his country. Interestingly enough, I’ve heard several filmmakers saying this, and it’s this not-knowing which leads to investigative feature and non-fiction films the way we see it in Wang Bing’s films, but also in Lav Diaz’s or Raya Martin’s.

Wang Bing often works clandestinely, which gives him the freedom he needs to make the films he wants to make. He points out repeatedly that going the official way in China would mean he couldn’t make any films. His small digital camera gives him the chance to go out and film when he wants. Having read this book, I understand that Wang Bing’s work is very organic. If something strikes him, he immediately goes out to shoot. Over and over again, he praises the digital revolution, which has helped not only him but many filmmakers around the world, especially those living in poor and remote areas.

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The three interviews plus the one conducted with the director’s producer Lihong Kim gives a detailed and very interesting insight into the director’s work. On top of that, for further contextualisation, the editors of the book have included, for instance, letters written by Jiabiangou prisoners which have then been used by Wang Bing for his film The Ditch. In two chapters, Wang Bing can express himself, which is great. There is a real collaboration apparent between the editors of the book and the filmmaker, something I value a lot. Especially now, after having read that Wang Bing initially received no money at all from the distribution of Tie XI Qu (2003) in France, a shameful and shocking practice (I’ve been told that this has changed in the last couple years and that the director is finally getting paid). Anyway, Wang Bing wrote a chapter on the image as evidence of the real. He speaks about two photographs from Jiabiangou he has been given, photographs which impressed him and which he used for The Ditch and his larger project on the history of the camp. The chapter is a poetic meditation on those images and the story they tell.

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The second chapter in which Wang Bing was involved is a thoroughly interesting one, because it is a project description of a film he hasn’t been able to finish yet, because of a lack of funding for the post-production. I’m very interested in this project because it feeds into my research into the concentrationary, which I discovered in the context of Lav Diaz’s films. The film’s working title is Past in the Presence Tense. As far as I can tell from the director’s project description, it’s going to be a film with a running time of eight hours or more. It is part of the filmmaker’s investigation into the history of labour camps in China, and is supposed to contain primarily interviews, possibly in the ways we have seen in Fengming, a Chinese memoir (2007). Wang Bing intends to create the most comprehensive history of Jiabiangou on screen. This sounds like a superb and very important subject. Sadly enough, the funding is missing and I wonder whether something could be done, and if it’s crowdfunding by is supporters. This sounds like a project that must be done by all means.

There’s plenty more good stuff in the book. The editors have managed to create a comprehensive work that is faith- and truthful to the director, who himself is involved in the project. There is material on Wang Bing’s use of space and time; on his desire to investigate a China he doesn’t know; on his tendency to show people on the margins of society; on his interest in showing the body, the human being, the way it moves, the way it struggles; and on the importance of being a mere observer. The book is slim but it is full of insights on the Chinese director, one of the most interesting personalities in current independent world cinema. Highly recommended (if you can read French!).

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…)

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 23 – A short film about the Indio Nacional (Martin)

I should have watched Raya Martin’s films much earlier. But better late than never. Not all of his films feel quite as slow as his feature debut, which he made at the young age of only 21 in 2005. A genius, if you ask me. A thought-provoking, powerful piece.

I’ve chosen this work mainly because of its aesthetics. I can connect it to earlier remarks of mine about the roots of Slow Cinema. Martin’s A Short Film… was shot in the style of a 1920s film. It’s in black-and-white. The frame edges are blurred. There is no dialogue. Instead title cards give us an indication of where the story is heading. The film is (therefore) accompanied by music only. Even the costumes of the characters look timely. You would never believe that this film was made in 2005 if you didn’t read about it on IMDB.

A short film about the Indio Nacional (2005), Raya Martin
A short film about the Indio Nacional (2005), Raya Martin

To be fair, the film starts off in colour. Well, it starts of in black-and-white, but after two scenes, we switch to colour. We’re inside a house, a woman (a daughter?) can’t sleep, and wants to hear a story. The long-takes are wonderful here. There is very little light in the frame, and we can barely decipher what we really see or simply make up. A man begins to tell a story, a metaphorical story about his country and the suffering it is burdened with. The man cries. We can gather that he is deeply moved by the state of his country.

Then we switch to black-and-white, and the 1920s film type. I don’t intend to go into detail about the content of the film. I think it is worth watching, and I’d hate to give it all away (which is a real struggle in general with slow films). I find the link to early silent films more interesting for now. The film is not slow because it is Slow Cinema. It is slow because it’s a black-and-white silent film. I’m aware that there had been silent films which were rather fast, but even this “fast” is a lot slower than today’s films. I mentioned the link to early cinema history somewhere already, and Martin’s film demonstrated this perfectly.

A short film about the Indio Nacional (2005), Raya Martin
A short film about the Indio Nacional (2005), Raya Martin

Slow Cinema is often seen in relation to neo-realism. It is also seen as a response to 9/11. But when I studied Diaz’s films in a bit more detail it became rather obvious that the actual roots are in early silent film. Martin’s A Short film… is the strongest proof of that. Well, technically, I wouldn’t even call his film a slow film, precisely because it reminds me of the early days of cinema, and we don’t call these films slow. We actually call them classics.

So Martin’s film brought up the never-ending debate again as to how suitable the term Slow Cinema is. It reminds me of stereotyping: just give a group of people (or films) a label that has a grain of truth, but without ever going into the details about their roots, their aesthetics, contents, etc

Back to square one.