The Films Of Lav Diaz
Filipino director Lavrente Diaz is a very versatile artist. He started out as a guitarist (He recently released a music album to accompany his latest film), then wrote plays and short stories for television (a period he seems to hate, as is made clear in his works), later started writing poems (the poems that feature in his films are written by him) and then, in the early 90s, decided that he’ll be a professional filmmaker. The later films of the director present the same kind of problem to both commercial multiplexes and film festival screens – their length. His last four feature films have a total run time of around 36 hours! Diaz believes the long length of his films is an extremely crucial part of his aesthetic and radically alters the way in which the audience converses with his films. There is another specific problem in screening Diaz’s films world wide. That he is a very “Filipino” filmmaker. All his works are deeply rooted in the country’s history and politics. Any attempt to view the films in a de-contextualized manner is only futile. That makes Diaz one of the most uncompromising of directors working today. Diaz’s greatest ambition, as it seems, is to change the Filipinos’ (and rest of the world’s) perspective of their country and culture (He tells: “For me, the issue is: if you’re an artist, with the state the country is in you only have one choice – to help culture grow in this country. There’s no time for ego, you have to struggle to help this country. Make serious films that even if only five people watch it, it will change their perspective. You may make big box office but what do the people get out of it?”).
What is really striking about Lav Diaz is how vocal and frank he is about his ideology and his works. Most of modern mainstream auteurs and even festival regulars shy away from commenting on their work or on the ideas they present. Some of them bury their political concerns so deep within their films that they may simply be overlooked. Diaz, on the other hand, is like an open book. In all his interviews, he is always willing to discuss his films and explain what they deal with. None of this actually dilutes the impact of the films or the complexities they contain. Instead, it only opens up a wider and more pertinent band of response to the film. Furthermore, Diaz is also very transparent about his political views and even his personal life (His story is exactly the kind of success yarn pseudo-liberal Hollywood studios are looking for. But one sure has to appreciate the man for what he’s gone through and what he’s become). To say that he feels strongly against the Ferdinand Marcos’s rule of The Philippines till about two decades ago would be an understatement (“He siphoned the treasury as well. He got everything. No matter what they say, he stole everything – the money, our dignity. It is true. Marcos is an evil person. He destroyed us. The hardest part was that he was Filipino”). Diaz is also very optimistic about the role artists play in a political revolution and this belief directly manifests in his films in the form of artist figures present in the narrative.
I’d say that Diaz’s aesthetic stands somewhere in between Contemporary Contemplative Cinema and conventional documentary. Like the former, he prefers long takes shot from at a considerable distance, avoids the use of background music, includes stretches of “dead time” in his narrative and relies on mood and atmosphere more than exposition or psychoanalysis. He employs parenthetical cutting that allows a shot to run for more duration than the length of the principal action, but cuts soon enough to avoid the shot to parody itself. Unlike Contemporary Contemplative Cinema, there are long stretches of dialogue in the vein of early Nouvelle Vague films and the politics the films deal with are much more concrete. All his recent features have been shot in black and white as if they are historical documents and as if the vitality of its characters has been sucked out. His use of direct sound goes hand in hand with his use of digital video, which enables him to experiment with long shots. It is only in a blue moon that he uses close-ups and all his medium and long shots come across as clinical observations of his characters’ lives. That doesn’t mean his films lack empathy or compassion. But the way he generates them is more distilled and uncontrived. He composes in deep space and allows the viewer to get a complete sense of the film’s environment and time. He says: “There’s no such thing as the audience in my work. There’s only the dynamic of interaction. And in time, that dynamic will grow. The greatest dynamic is when people want to see a work because of awareness and they want to experience it; and in so doing, they may be able to discover new perspectives or just put these perspectives into a greater discourse.”
(NOTE: I’ve written here about all the films of Lav Diaz that I could get my hands on. However, I haven’t been able to see any his earlier works or his short films. The most regrettable omission of them all is Batang West Side (2001), which many commentators consider to be one of Diaz’s best films. I’ll append the entries for the missing films here once I get to see them)
Hesus Rebolusyonaryo (Hesus The Revolutionary, 2002)
Hesus the Revolutionary (2002) is set in the year 2010 and follows the titular resistance fighter (Mark Anthony Fernandez) whose loyalty and ideology are put to test when he is ordered by the leader of the movement to kill his cell mates and is subsequently captured by the military. The most noteworthy aspect of the film is that Diaz does not set the film in far future or alter the mise en scène to make it seem futuristic. The fact that the architecture and geography look very contemporary indicates that there has been no progress for quite some time. Additionally, he uses pseudo-newsreels as prelude to the narrative. All these moves aid Diaz’s vision of establishing the future as a mere variant of the past and the present. His intention is to provide a critical distance between the audience and the story and hence make them reflect on how the same kind of events have happened in the past and are still happening. The chiaroscuro driven mise en scène through which the protagonist secretly moves seems to have been derived from American noir films. Diaz films his characters in moderately long shots and uses a techno soundtrack (by the band The Jerks) that enhances the dystopian sense overarching the film. Even while working within the limits of the genre (thereby using some of its conventions), Diaz manages to suffuse the film with themes that he would progressively be concerned with. However, Hesus the Revolutionary, in hindsight, is only the tip of a gargantuan iceberg.
Ebolusyon Ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution Of A Filipino Family, 2004)
Running for almost eleven hours and twelve years in the making, Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004), which many consider to be Lav Diaz’s greatest work, is kamikaze filmmaking of the highest order. Mixing film and digital formats (which might be an economic decision), splicing the real with the surreal and weaving together documentary and fiction, Diaz concocts a glorious and flamboyantly self-reflexive film that slips seamlessly from one mode of discourse into another. The film’s central character is Ray (Elryan De Vera), a child found on the street by the mentally ill Hilda (Marife Necisito) and who goes on to live with another family of gold diggers. One could argue that Ray is the stand in for a whole generation of Filipinos abandoned by their “parents” and left stranded (Diaz himself calls Ray as the Filipino soul). Also central to the film is Hilda’s brother Kadyo (Pen Medina), who helps the resistance fighters by stealing ammunition from dead soldiers of the military. Interspersed among the sequences that drive this fiction are newsreels depicting rallies and riots against the then-existing Ferdinand Marcos regime, interviews of the legendary filmmaker Lino Brocka explaining political film movement during the Marcos rule and footage of artists reciting sappy, exaggerated and hilarious radio serials that everyone in the fictional world seems to be hooked to. Evolution of a Filipino Family is, as the title hints, a document – one that studies and critiques a whole era and suggests what’s to be done.
Diaz shoots almost exclusively in medium shots (to avoid any sort of manipulation, he says) and some of his compositions carry the air of evocatively rendered still life paintings. His soundtrack is even more remarkable and he edits it in such a manner that fiction regularly overflows into reality. Diaz throws in everything he’s got into this film. Examining a number of topics including commercialism versus art, the class struggle, art versus reality and the inseparability of past and present, Diaz creates a dense and incisive film that seems to announce once and for all what Diaz’s cinema is all about. At heart, Evolution of a Filipino Family is a film about resistance – political and cinematic. While Kadyo and the farmer army he works for exhibit their resistance by taking up arms against the military, Lino Brocka and his cohorts manifest theirs in cinematic terms. The link is very important, as Diaz himself has pointed out, since it is through the machinery of cinematic propaganda that the Marcos regime (as any totalitarian regime would) had reinforced its position among the Filipinos. If Hesus the Revolutionary set a fantastical revolutionary movement in the near future, this film uses the one that took place for real in the past. Diaz’s intention is not just to capture the spirit of the age, but, as in the previous film, to use this piece of history to study the present and understand the state of affairs.
Heremias (Unang Aklat: Ang Alamat Ng Prinsesang Bayawak) (Heremias (Book One: The Legend Of The Lizard Princess), 2006)
Heremias (2006) was devised as the first part of a diptych (the sequel is yet to be shot) and follows the titular merchant (Ronnie Lazaro) who decides to bid farewell to the group of artisans he is a part of and go his own way. After a near-mythical journey against the forces of nature, he lands in a shady town where his ox gets stolen and goods burned. After he comes to terms with the fact that he is not going to get justice from the corrupt police department, he decides to observe the scene of crime himself, with a hope that the criminal would come back sooner or later. It is here that he learns that the local congressman’s son is going to rape and kill a girl. And it is here – almost towards the end of this nine-hour film – that there is a trace of any “drama”. Heremias, petrified, tries to convince the local police officer and the town priest to do something about it, in vain. Diaz apparently built the film on the idea of paralysis (“the metaphor of being numbed”) and it is only during this final dramatic segment, where, for the first time, Heremias shows signs of concern and empathy, that he comes out of this (sociopolitical and historical) numbness. In a way, Heremias is the Jesus figure of the story who, after a drastic spiritual awakening, realizes that there are people worst off than him and becomes willing to suffer for the sake of others (Diaz believes this quality to be quintessentially Filipino).
Formally, Heremias deviates starkly from its legendary predecessor. Diaz seems to have found a new alternative to suit his long duration filmmaking style in digital video, where there is no worry of wasting film stock. He shoots in extremely long shots but mixes in close up. Diaz’s compositions early on in the film embody both fast moving objects, such as automobiles, and Heremias’ lumbering oxcart as if providing temporal reference for his kind of cinema. However, he also seems to be in a highly experimental mode, trying to arrive at an aesthetic that he might build his later films on. As a result, Heremias seems a tad derivative and falls a notch below the preceding and following films of the director. Where in later films he would fittingly cut after three or four seconds before and after a character enters or leaves the frame, here he provides a leeway of over a quarter minute, unnecessarily making the shots self-conscious (There is an hour-long fuzzy shot of Heremias watching a bunch of stoned teenagers partying, whose length, I believe, is not justified). But many of these shots are also highly rewarding and some even emotionally cathartic (for instance, the sublime shot where the light from Heremias’ lantern pierces the screen gradually). Ultimately, the film comes across as a minor, transitional (but nevertheless commendable) work that has a lot going for it thematically.
Kagadanan Sa Banwaan Ning Mga Engkanto (Death In The Land Of Encantos, 2007)
Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) was made immediately after the typhoon Reming/Durian devastated the town of Bicol (where the director had shot his previous two films), killing and displacing many families. The nine-hour film consists of two disparate threads the first of which plays out as a straightforward documentary where a filmmaker interviews the people affected by the disaster and gathers their opinion about the causes and consequences of the typhoon. The second thread in the film follows a fictional triad of artists who too live in the region of Bicol. Benjamin Agusan (Roeder Camanag) is a poet who has just returned from Russia and has discovered that his ex-lover has been buried under the outpouring of the volcano Mt. Mayon that was triggered by Reming. Then there are his friends Teodero (Perry Dizon), the level headed ex-poet who is now a fisherman, and Catalina (Angeli Bayani), a painter-sculptor who uses the debris spewed out by the volcano for her art. Benjamin is mentally disintegrating and has visions of his childhood and of his stay in Russia now and then. He is also hunted down by the government, which seems to have an agenda of killing all the soldiers and artists involved in the resistance, for his contribution to the anarchist movement. Diaz uses abstract time when dealing with sequences involving Benjamin wherein his immediate past, distant past and present (and possibly nightmares) reside in the same physical space, at times, like in The Mirror (1974) and The Corridor (1994).
Like in many contemporary works from around the world, fact and fiction reside alongside in Diaz’s film, even interpenetrating each other at times. Although this does reinforce the reality that the film is based on, Diaz views the marriage as a purely ethical decision intended to avoid exploitation of his people’s miseries (He had shot the documentary part before even deciding to make the film). As a result Encantos is like a Herzog film that encompasses its making-of. A peculiar thing that one notices about the film is that it is so full of artists – painters, sculptors, poets, filmmakers and writers all over. On that basis alone, one could say that Death in the Land of Encantos is Diaz’s most personal film. The film is built largely around long conversations that invariably end up discussing the role of artists in a revolution. Through the contrast between the two sections of the film, Diaz may just be exploring the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between artists and common folk that, as Evolution had elucidated, exploitative, commercial media have occupied. However, he is also very hopeful about the work of artists. Mt. Mayon is apparently symbolic of everything Filipino – both its beauty and its ugliness. Catalina making beauty out of its ugliness is what Diaz, as a filmmaker, seems to be attempting too – to embrace the state of Philippines in its entirety and use his art to correct its blemishes and restore its glory.
If Evolution of a Filipino Family delineated the Filipino political situation through the eyes of common folk (some of whom aid the resistance movement) and Death in the Land of Encantos revealed it through the point of view of the artists, Melancholia (2008) confronts the issue head on and presents the struggle from standpoint of the resistance fighters themselves. One gets the feeling that this is the film that Lav Diaz was working towards all along. Melancholia is divided starkly into three segments each of which takes place in different time frames. The first segment is set in the town of Sagada and simultaneously follows three seemingly unrelated characters. Rina (Malaya Cruz) is a nun who wanders the streets of the town collecting charity money for the poor, Jenine (Angeli Bayani) is a streetwalker who seems to be having some trouble doing her job and Danny (Perry Dizon) is a procurer who also surreptitiously runs live sex shows for willing customers. It is soon revealed that these personalities are only characters being played by the three as a part of a rehabilitation program initiated by Danny (actually Julian) to cope up with the loss of their kith and kin in the resistance movement. The progressively elliptical second and third segments of the film respectively show the time periods following and preceding the trio’s stint in Sagada and gradually reveal the actuality behind these masks that the three have put on.
True to its title, Melancholia is a film that wallows in sadness. It is also probably Diaz’s most cynical work to date (although Diaz is staunchly against cynicism: “There’s hope even if we still have a very corrupt and neglectful system. We cannot allow cynicism to rule us.”). It is, in fact, the film non-linear structure that reduces the intensity of this pessimism largely. By presenting the consequences before the cause, Diaz sets up an extended, enigmatic prelude that is put into perspective only after the third part of the film plays out. It is after the film has ended that we learn that these three characters have embarked on a process of unlearning, of shedding the knowledge about bitter realities and settling down into a state of ignorant bliss, of repudiating the harshness of truth for the comforts of illusion. And it is during the very final shot of the film, when the shattered and disillusioned Julian and Alberta move away from each other and out of the now-empty frame that we feel the entire weight of the seven-and-a-half-hour film being exerted on us. Melancholia is a purgatory of sorts – a limbo between the states of resistance and defeat – whose inhabitants can feel neither the vigor of life nor the solace of death. “Many people are like Alberta” tells one of the characters early on in the film. And that is the most disheartening part.
Walang Alaala Ang Mga Paru-paro (Butterflies Have No Memories, 2009)
The director’s cut of Butterflies Have No Memories (2009) is something of a misnomer. For one, Diaz had to shoot and cut the film so that it didn’t run for a minute more than the one-hour mark. As a result, it feels as if Diaz had one eye on his film and the other on his watch. There are shots that are abruptly drained off their life and some that feel perfunctory. But the film also seems to mark a turning point in Diaz’s outlook towards the Filipino people. Perhaps for the first time, Diaz portrays the common folk (and perhaps a particular social class) as being almost completely responsible for their misery. In Butterflies, an ex-Chief Security Officer at the mines, Mang Pedring (Dante Perez), blames the mining company, which has withdrawn production after protests by the church and activist organizations, for the economic abyss he and his friends are living in. But it is also starkly pointed out to us that, while they were getting benefited by the mining company, these folks did nothing to set up alternate ways of business and earning and, as a result, find themselves foolishly hoping for a past to return, even when such a regression is harmful it is to the collective living on the island. Mang misguidedly plans to reverse time and reinstall the factory by kidnapping the daughter of the owner of the mining company (Lois Goff), who has returned to the island after several years and who calls Mang her second-father. What Mang tries to do overrides personal memory and disregards the fact that it is he who has lived like a moth, inside a cocoon. As, in the final shot, Mang and his friends stand wearing those Morione masks (which bring in the ideas of guilt, remembrance, conscience and redemption – so key to the film), they realize that they’ve gone way too far back in time than they would have liked – right into the moral morass of Ancient Rome.