Evolution of a Filipino Filmmaker

A follow-up to this post.

Gleanings from print material on Lav Diaz:

As with Filipino society itself, the gap between rich (big films) and poor (small films) is noticeable and growing. In 1998, “Mother” Lily Monteverde, matriarch of Regal Films, set up the ultra-low-budget division Good Harvest to produce films on pito-pito (“quickie”) 10-day schedules and shoestring budgets of around P2.5 million (around $65,000) each, compared with the average Filipino feature cost of P12 million. Ostensibly genre pictures, but embracing a peculiarly Filipino mix of the lurid, political and religious, this initiative has produced some of the most promising mainstream films since the Seventies.

Good Harvest has launched the careers of young filmmakers like Jeffrey Jeturian, whose hit, Fetch a Pail of Water (Pila Balde) has Brocka’s social conscience and a touch of humour, and Rico Illarde, with his American-style horror action in El Kapitan, and made a star out of the well-endowed “bold” actress Klaudia Koronel. But it is with Lavrente (Lav) Diaz, with three Good Harvest features and a string of international festival credits, who has emerged as the major writer-director talent of this group.

Forty-year-old Diaz is a celebrated writer. His script for The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion (Kriminal Ng Barrio Concepcion, 98) and collections of short stories have won the prestigious Palanca award. Originally a guitarist, he toured with his band Kutabao for a couple of years in the south. His writing career began with music magazines, komiks and fantasy adventures such as Pinoy Ninja. Diaz began writing scripts in the mid-Eighties for TV drama, Regal Films and for the Philippines’ biggest star, Fernando Poe Jr.

In the early Nineties, Diaz lived in New York. He watched movies and crewed on independent productions. In 1994 he started his own film, the still-unfinished 16mm black-and-white Evolution (Ang Ebolusyon Ni Ray Gallardo), an experimental, personal epic about identity. It is one of several projects set in New York, including an English-language metaphysical thriller with a Filipino protagonist, The Villagers.

Diaz returned to Manila to make his first film for Good Harvest in 1997. Burger Boys (98) is about three boys and a girl who decide to rob a bank – until we discover they are actually writing a script about themselves robbing a bank. Crazily audacious, it applies a literary conceit to the teen bubble gum movie and then loads it with angst. It careens between drama, fantasy and the supernatural with the screwball abandon of a Hong Kong gangster comedy. In a sense it reflects how intellectuals and independents have used the pito-pito to enter the realm of populist cinema, and how they have broken many of its conventions.

Burger Boys’ chaotic comedy is uncharacteristic of Diaz’s subsequent dramatic films. However, its motif of a (fake) angel appearing to a boy when he worries about what he’s done introduces a key theme of Diaz’s work – the burden of conscience that haunts his later protagonists. The film also points to two important bearings of Diaz’s stylistic compass – he is a sly genre-flipper, and his scripts have an intelligence and ambition that go way beyond the pito-pito budget.

Inspired by Dostoyevsky, The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion began filming towards the end of the Burger Boys shoot. A peasant (Raymond Bagatsing) needs money for his sick wife and gets involved in a kidnapping that goes vividly and violently wrong. Unable to shake nightmares about this crime, he tells all to a journalist who is herself investigating political corruption.

The juxtaposition of poor people who are forced into crime and a selfish and criminal political establishment places the film squarely in the ambiguous moral space of film noir. Some images are surprising (Bagatsing’s worsening tooth abscess in the course of the movie is a metaphor for government neglect and decay), and the montage, slipping seamlessly from nightmare to reality to flashback, suggests both Bagatsing facing his guilt, and society confronting itself. In the context of the complacency and escapism of much current Filipino cinema, Criminal is something of a milestone – angry, intelligent, and critical.

There is a quietude about Criminal’s characters that suggests dark secrets. This sense forms the core of Diaz’s third Good Harvest film and most accomplished work to date. Naked Under the Moon (Hubad Sa Illalim Ng Buwan, 99) opens with a stunning wordless sequence as a family drives through a barren desert landscape, immediately signifying dysfunction and perturbation. They have left the city for the simpler and cheaper living of their rural home. One daughter, played by Klaudia Koronel, was abused as a child and is a nude somnambulist. The father (Joel Torre) has failed at being a priest and a businessman, and is impotent. The mother, who has had an affair with the village rake, kills herself. The other daughter is the product of this union. Diaz skilfully transcends the genre of this lurid sex melodrama to produce a Bergmanesque discourse on faith and a critique of Filipino macho.

Diaz tells the story from the points of view of daughter and father. The daughter played by Koronel has an affair with a local fisherman and in a vision imagines passionate lovemaking with him that turns into rape. It is an image of violent poetry, alluding not only to the relationships between macho men and “their” women, but also to the government and “its” people. At the end, Koronel walks through the town, cured of her affliction but still wondering about her abuser, whom she sees “in the face of all the men that I meet.” It is a politically and spiritually charged notion that practically defines Diaz’s cinema – why did this happen? Who is responsible?

As a failed priest, Torre grapples with his faith – he questions the existence of God and punishes himself for this crise de conscience, slashing himself in the local church. Spiritually empty, sexually impotent, and financially destroyed, Torre is living out the last, tragic stages of his life – an anti-macho portrait rarely seen in Filipino cinema. Again, Diaz’s imagery is startling and religiously charged – Torre dies while fishing by a pond. He has caught no fish. He leaves this life unfulfilled, as empty as the desert in the opening scene.

A country that has been abused and raped, a nation with a hollow centre, the search for moral sustenance – Diaz’s cinema resonates with these themes, a rich poetics in the poverty production values of the pito-pito.

Together with the work of independent filmmaker Raymond Red, the first Filipino ever to win at Cannes (he received the Palme d’Or this year [2000] for the short film Anino), Lav Diaz’s films show that the legacy of Brocka and the great Filipino cinema of the Seventies has not been lost. It’s just been waiting for some worthy successors. (p.54-55)
Garcia, Roger. “The Art of Pito-Pito”, Film Comment 36.4, July/August 2000, p.53-55.


Contemporary questions

The Filipino filmmaker today exists in a filmmaking world whose reality is much different from that of his forefathers. The affordability of modern cinematic technology, from DV and HD cameras to home editing suites, has made working independently a realistic and viable economic option. Today’s filmmaker, no longer working under the pretenses of a controlling martial law regime and graced with the tools that make working entirely outside the system a genuine possibility, need only to battle themselves, confronting personal ethical questions with regard to purpose, compromise, and their desired role in the status quo, in order to make the films they want to make. Many younger filmmakers, witnessing the difficulty their fellow directors have endured when attempting to work in the star-driven studio system have chosen to go the independent route, sacrificing financial security in the name of artistic integrity.

Commercial versus independent filmmaking

The current leading light and father figure of the independent filmmaking scene in the Philippines is writer-director, Lav Diaz. Although widely considered as the prime example of an independent filmmaker, Diaz actually made three commercial films – Criminal of Barrio Concepcion (Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion) (1998), Burger Boys (1999a), Naked Under the Moon (Hubad sa Ilalim ng Buwan) (1999b) – before embarking on his first full-length independent feature, West Side Kid (Batang West Side) (2002a). Ambitious for the time and conditions in which they were made, these works were well received critically, despite having been made on small budgets and extremely tight shooting schedules. Praises aside, Diaz himself admits that they left something to be desired and, often, a lot still to be shot and a lot left on the cutting room floor. In extreme instances, he has even expressed his love for the script and desire to shoot them again, as they were written to be longer films.

In 2000, Diaz linked up with wealthy accountant Tony Veloria, who was shopping for scripts that would be suitable to launch the career of young actor, Yul Servo. Diaz gave Veloria a copy of the Carlos Palanca Award-winning script West Side Avenue, JC (Diaz 1997), and not more than a week later, Veloria gave Diaz a check for the script. The script, West Side Avenue, JC, was an early incarnation of what would eventually become the Cinemanila, Singapore, and Brussels Best Picture winning Batang West Side – a thorough and engaging examination of the Filipino diaspora in the United States that, to quote film critic Noel Vera, addresses ‘the ultimate direction the Filipino people have taken’, engaging questions about the family, migration, and the future for Filipino youth (Vera 2004).

Batang West Side arrived at a decisive point in Philippine Cinema. The film industry had lulled cinema artistically into such a deplorable state that it had become nothing short of a miraculous event when any above average works were made. It is from this era that was born what filmmaker Peque Gallaga referred to in FLIP Magazine as the ‘Cinema of Intent’ – a cinema where works are lauded and deemed noble on the basis of their intentions – what they purport to have wanted to accomplish – and not for the actual merit of the finished work. Thus, all the more reason that Lav Diaz’s opus stood out. Clocking in at five hours, and the longest Filipino film ever made, Batang West Side was an anomaly in Philippine Cinema, not simply for its duration and aesthetic (as deliberately paced as the works of Taiwanese filmmakers Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang) but also, and more significantly, for its ambition in subject and scope, and the relentless defense of its length by its maker: "Batang West Side is five hours long … For many this is an issue. A huge issue, and a headache to many here in the Philippines. But not an issue if we remember that there are small and large canvasses; brief ditties and lengthy arias; short stories and multi-volume novels; the haiku and The Iliad. This should be the end of the argument" (Diaz 2002). With West Side, Diaz laid down the gauntlet for all filmmakers, independent or otherwise, challenging them to make serious, relevant works, and proving what recent years led us to believe impossible: that it could be done in the Philippines. In its quiet way the film resounded, serving as a wake up call to a sleeping cinema.

After completing one last studio feature for Regal Films, the ambitious science-fiction film Hesus the Revolutionary (Hesus Rebolusyonaryo) (Diaz 2002b), Diaz then proceeded to iron out his point about large canvasses by embarking on the completion of a work that first began production nine years earlier in Jersey City, New York, Evolution of a Filipino Family (Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino) (Diaz 2005). Set in the years 1971–1987, and shot entirely in black and white, in a mix of 16 mm film and digital video, the film has the feel of an intimate epic; examining the effects of the macro – martial law, on the micro – two rural families, documenting the turbulent turns each individual member’s life takes. The incredible length of time that it took to make Ebolusyon adds a realistic, almost documentary-like, feel to the work, as audiences bear witness to certain actors ageing along with the characters they portray. This quality is most evident in the young Reynaldo, who matures before our very eyes from a child into a young man. Financed entirely independently by Diaz and friend, photographer and first-time producer Paul Tañedo, a nine-hour rough cut of Ebolusyon was exhibited in the Asian American Film Festival in New York in July of 2004, with a finer cut of the film shown in the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and the final cut premiering locally in the University of the Philippines in December, and internationally at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in January 2005. By March of 2005, the film had already been selected for exhibition in festivals in Goteborg, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Torino, and is expected to travel to many more. (p.298-300)
Tioseco, Alexis. "Shifting agendas: the decay of the mainstream and rise of the independents in the context of Philippine cinema", Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 8.2, 2007, p.298-303.


This year's Turin Film Festival has just devoted a special section to Filipino writer-director Lav Diaz - whose 11-hour Evolution of a Filipino Family is billed as the longest-ever feature from Asia.

It also took 11 years to make. When production started in 1994, Diaz did not anticipate the marathon that lay ahead. "All I wanted was to look at the struggle of the Filipino people when the country was under martial law from 1972 until the downfall of the Marcos family in 1986," he says. "That was a time of poverty and political choas, an important era which defined the problems of the present day Philippines, such as corruption and apathy."

Unlike previous features dealing with that era, which focus on Ferdinand Marcos or his extravagant wife Imelda, Diaz's Evolution examines one poor family, the Gallardos, who are caught up in a political whirlwind over the course of 16 years.

The picture was filmed in black and white, initially in 16mm and later in DV and mostly with natural sound. It took so long to complete because of funding problems. "I filmed it the guerilla way, with scarcely any money," says Diaz. "I shot when there was money and stopped when it ran out. It's easier to raise money for commercial films in the Philippines, but not for serious work like Evolution. People call me stubborn because I refuse to yield."

During the making of Evolution, he completed five other films which were released commercially in the Philippines, except Batang West Side due to its long running time - although the five-hour thriller was named best film at the Singapore International Film Festival in 2002.

While Evolution has toured film festivals from Toronto, Gothenburg and Rotterdam to Singapore, Barcelona and Hong Kong, only three screenings have been held in the Philippines.

"I can't afford to screen it in theatres. It costs $1,800 (100,000 pesos) for just one screening due to its long running time. A cinema ticket only costs $1.30 - $4.50 (70-250 pesos). Where do I get the money from?" asks Diaz.

Now he is working on a new project called Heremias, the final part of the trilogy which started with Batang West Side and Evolution. Filming began in June but was stopped three months later when he again ran out of funds. He received $10,500 from Rotterdam's Hubert Bals Fund, as well as $12,000 from the Gothenburg Film Fund at the inaugural Cinemanila independent feature film co-production meeting last year.

He has just received a further boost in post-production funding from Hubert Bals, which will enable him to resume shooting towards the end of the year. About 40% of Heremias was completed during the three-month shoot and a work-in-progress was screened at Turin. Diaz is determined to plough on - through the trilogy he wants the Filipino people to look at their recent past. "Filipinos are apathetic people," says the director. "The young and the old seem to have forgotten about the past. Marcos has done many evil things to people. But no justice has been done to the people who suffered so much."
Wong, Silvia. "Evolution of an Epic", Screen International 1525, November 2005, p.11.


A l’ogre Brocka, quelle relève possible ? A la fin des années 1990, un nom est apparu : Lav Diaz, six films diversement remarquables et un chef-d’œuvre: Ebolusyon ng isang pamilyang pilipinoEvolution d’une famille philippine », 2004). Chronique courant sur seize ans de la vie d’une famille de paysans et de chercheurs d’or, épopée à forte teneur biblique, Evolution est un film impressionnant à plusieurs titres : sa durée (10 h 43), ses conditions de fabrication (Diaz a mis dix ans à l’autoproduire). Il n’a jamais cache que c’est en voyant les films de Brocka qu’est né son désir de devenir à son tour la conscience cinématographique de son pays. Capitale, cette volonté passe pour chacun par des formes très éloignées: concision, densité, volonté de se rabattre sur des formes populaires chez le premier, recherche de la plus grande radicalité pour le second, qu’obsède la passion du temps réel : Evolution est un long ruban de plans séquences étirés jusqu’à leur point limite, cousus grossièrement, parfois piqués de stock-shots contrebandiers (une manifestation, des militaires entrant dans un avion et tuant en passager). On y parle peu : dans cette société en lambeaux, le plus proche est devenu le plus lointain. Le plus dangereux ? Chez Diaz, l’amok ne guette plus seulement aux angles du plan, il loge au plus profond du cœur des personnages. (p.56)
Lequeret, Elisabeth. “Amok cinéma”, Cahiers du cinéma 609, Février 2006, p.55-56.


There remains but one film left to celebrate, among the greatest in Venice, and certainly the longest at nine-plus hours: Lav Diaz’s monumental memoir to suffering, Death in the Land of Encantos, a modernist mosaic cobbled together from the most modest of means. In 2006, a typhoon devastated the region of the Philippines where Diaz shot much of his last two works – so the filmmaker went back and began filming, although with no clear game plan. Eventually he developed a narrative about a generation broken by their country’s seemingly inescapable corruption: an assortment of the living dead wandering a landscape filled with the grief-stricken. Diaz’s protagonist is yet another of the festival’s schizophrenics, and manic-depressive in the bargain.

As in his 2005 Evolution of a Filipino Family, the filmmaker creates a massive tapestry, here incorporating documentary footage of typhoon survivors speaking out about the government’s neglect of their plight, as well as fragments from an unfinished short horror film shot in Zagreb in 2003. The latter concerns a lost tribe of Aswangs – ghouls of popular Philippine folklore – who have found a home in southeastern Europe. Little if anything at the Lido was as emotionally exhausting and exhaustive, as rich an experience and as crushing as Diaz’s film. (p.61)
Möller, Olaf. "Dust to Dust", Film Comment 43.6, November 2007, p.56-61.


A comparable feeling of displacement [to Mamoru Oshii’s The Sky Crawlers] permeates the first two hours of Philippine filmmaker Lav Diaz’s Horizons prizewinner Melancholia. We’re presented with a prostitute, a pimp, and a nun, none of whom seem to be who they appear to be. And indeed, they’re not: Alberta, Julian, and Rina are bourgeois professionals who get together annually to participate in a role-playing game devised by Julian as a kind of group therapy. Driven by the need to distance themselves from their own feelings of pain and loss, they temporarily take on the roles of others in the hope that, when they resume their regular lives, they can find themselves. The final three hours show Alberta and Julian drifting through their mundane existences, with the focus shifting from Julian – the author of a novel called Melancholia – to Alberta, whose husband has gone underground to join a group dedicated to overthrowing the government. The last two hours show what this struggle is like: underequipped men in torrential rain being hunted until they’re dead. But even in madness, at least they know who they are when the bullets hit. (p.61)
Möller, Olaf. "Minority Report", Film Comment 44.6, November 2008, p.58-61.



Updated with Silvia Wong's piece "Evolution of an Epic" from Screen International 1525 (November 2005), which is useful for info about funding and filming schedules. Not sure about the claim that Batang West Side was kept out of theatres solely due to its "long running time", though!