Norte – A Verdict

I was in the privileged position to be able to watch Lav Diaz’s latest film Norte, which was nominated in the category Un Certain Regard at this year’s Cannes festival. The critics were amazed. Nick James and Kieron Corless celebrated Norte as the best film of the festival in the July issue of Sight&Sound. There were also rumours that distributors were keen on Diaz’s film. What a great success for him!

Now that I have seen the film, however, it puts the reviews and the hype around his nomination into perspective. This is not to say that Norte isn’t a good film. Not at all. It is a great modern exploration of Crime and Punishment, filled with Filipino struggles and philosophical discourses. The tension slowly creeps up on you, and when you least expect it, it hits you. I find it astonishing that Diaz manages to do this both within four and within nine hours. And after I have seen Butterflies Have No Memories, a short, it seems as if he manages this in any time length you provide him with.

I would like to point to a few other things that struck me while watching the film, keeping the reviews in mind. I don’t want to give all too much away of the film, because you should see it by yourself. So I will have to make it short here, so as to avoid too many spoilers.

As can be taken from the screenshots that were released prior to Cannes, we can see that the film was made in colour as opposed to his black-and-white filmmaking. With four hours, Norte is considerably shorter than Melancholia, Encantos, or even Florentina Hubaldo. We have less scenes that begin or end with temps mort. It contains more dialogue, which keeps you going throughout the four hours. Little is left unexplained. It is fairly easy to follow Norte. The film is less Filipino in that it uses an incident that can occur anytime anywhere. Yes, there are mentions of revolutionaries, and the struggle of normal Filipino people as opposed to the rich, but, generally, I find that Norte is a bit like Tarr’s The Man from London, which was based on a widely acclaimed French novel and therefore made it more accessible to the audience. There are a few cinematic techniques I don’t want to go into detail about because it would give away too much. But I can say that it’s not something we’re used to see in Diaz’s films.

Now, this is a perfectly objective take on his film, and I point out these facts not because I wished Diaz would not have done the film the way he had. He is obviously a free man, and as long as he, as the director, feels fine with his decisions, it is alright. However, I want you to go back to the paragraph above and then link it to the reviews. What is evident?

For the first time, Diaz’s film was hailed as a masterpiece. Plus, as already mentioned, distributors were suddenly interested in the film. Is this not a bit of a coincidence that his film is a “masterpiece” now that it is a bit more “Western”? Compared to the films he directed after Batang West Side, Norte contains everything a typical filmgoer is looking for in order not to get bored. It’s colourful, it has a lot of dialogue that explains it all, it’s got special effects, and it is based on an internationally acclaimed book. I felt as if there was little I had to do in the process of watching the film.

If you put this into the context of the sudden celebration of his work, the critics’ reviews after an Americanised festival become pathetic and very sad. Diaz’s work should have been celebrated beforehand, not now that Norte complies with a bit more of our expectations. His films should have been celebrated for their individuality, for their task of putting the Filipino history and the Filipino struggle on screen to an audience that possibly doesn’t even know the capital of the country. He should have been celebrated for making films for the pure reason of making films, and if this means that he cannot secure film distribution, then at least the films are his version of cinema.

It goes to show that we only like and celebrate something that fits into our framework. Something that is easy to grasp. Everything else is dismissed or neglected. It’s dualistic thinking, and I’ve never seen it so clearly as I do right now with the example of Norte.

Sweeping Generalisations

I’m getting the last things ready for the 10th MeCCSA PGN conference at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. I will present a paper on my approach to Slow Cinema, and hope to gather feedback which would help me to further my research. If all goes well, I can publish an extended edition of the paper later in the MeCCSA PGN journal. I will also join the editorial board of Stirling University’s PG journal Stryvling, which should be a good experience. I’m hoping for a special Slow Cinema edition for 2014, but nothing is decided or clear yet. This is merely a proposal I made a few weeks ago. We shall see what comes out of it.

As summer looms over us, things become quiet in the news. As is the case with Slow Cinema. One of the few things that have appeared recently, is the editorial by Nick James in the latest edition of Sight & Sound. He writes

People do make sweeping generalisations after Cannes. I myself have remarked online that the absence of any film I saw there that fits the ‘slow cinema’ category – except Lav Diaz’s excellent Norte, The End of History – might signal the passing of that post-Tarkovskian approach to cinema. To which anyone might reply that one goose flying south does not make a winter.

No, one goose doesn’t make a winter. I find this indeed to be a sweeping generalisation. Cannes never has been a major platform for Slow Cinema. Béla Tarr’s The Man from London premiered in Cannes in 2007. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee won the Golden Palm in 2010. More than ten years earlier, Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole played in Cannes. If you look through the screening lists of Cannes, it is evident that slow films are screened here and there. Yet, we can’t speak of a major focus on Slow Cinema.

This was little different from this year’s festival, at which Lav Diaz’s new film was the only slow film shown. That this was the case does not at all indicate that Slow Cinema is in retreat. It is simply business as usual. Besides, the film critics don’t exactly help to keep SC in the public either. Two critics gave their Top Ten of the festival. Both of them ranked Norte at the top. But only one critic actually wrote something on the film. However, a mere eight sentence lot on the top film of the festival is for me poor critical and journalistic work.

That said, Norte is screening at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic at the moment. Literally. They are one hour in 🙂