Unspoken Cinema 2012 banner

Monday, May 17, 2021

Conversations with Lav Diaz (Michael Guarneri) 2020

 Michael Guarneri just sent me this letter I publish here with his permission. He talks about Unspoken Cinema, Lav Diaz's films, and his interviews with him, which made it into a full-fledged book : "Conversations with Lav Diaz" (2020).

* * *

Dear Benoit,

hello, this is Michael Guarneri from Italy. I hope you are doing alright.

Back in 2008, after watching Lav Diaz’s Heremias: Book One – The Legend of the Lizard Princess (2006), Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) and Melancholia (2008) on Italian state TV, I did an Internet search and, thanks to a fellow cinephile’s recommendation, I began following your blog, which was (and still is) very useful for my cinematic explorations. Your "Auteurs" list introduced me to the cinema of Lisandro Alonso and other singular filmmakers, while your list of books and online resources provided me with plenty of food for thought.

I was honored to see that you have recently listed my book Conversations with Lav Diaz in your CCC Library, and I would like to tell you two or three things about it, in case you and your readers are interested in knowing more about my book and its making. This is just some ramblings, anecdotes and casual notes, I guess... But I hope that their free-floating, bal(l)ade-like nature blends nicely with the plotlessness that you described in your minimum profile of CCC.

My book gathers seven interviews with Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz, which I conducted over a period of ten years, from 2010 to 2020.* The inspiration for making this book mainly came from the fact that Lav often mentions the Greek philosopher Socrates as a key figure for him: the man who doubts, searches, researches, looks for truth, and tries to teach it to the new generations. As you know, Socrates never wrote down his teachings for posterity, he just talked and talked and talked with his fellow citizens until they got rid of him. So I thought: "Well, if Lav is a modern-day Socrates working with cinema to find the truth and pass it on to other people, maybe I can use my writing to preserve his teachings across the millennia, like Plato did with Socrates".** Too ambitious perhaps (especially the millennia part), but we must be ambitious with our undertakings... If we don’t believe in our own work, nobody will. Lav taught me so with his ten-plus-years-in-the-making, eleven-hour opus Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004) – a long, fierce struggle for a different kind of cinema to see the light. Long story short, my book is a decade-long series of Platonic dialogues concerned with film economics, film aesthetics, film ethics, Filipino history and Filipino politics.

The first conversation, “The Anti-Feudal Cinema”, took place via e-mail exchange between late 2010 and early 2011. Back then I had just finished writing my BA thesis about the existentialist roots of Lav’s cinema and I wanted to ask Lav a couple of questions, to know more about certain general – let’s say philosophical – aspects of his work. I first approached Lav at the Venice Film Festival, in the Palazzo del Casinò (life is a gamble...), in front of Sala Perla. We were both queueing to attend a screening there, I think it was Anti Gas Skin (2010) by the Kim brothers or El Sicario Room 164 (2010) by Gianfranco Rosi. Lav was in the Orizzonti jury that year, so he was very busy, but we exchanged our e-mail addresses and we corresponded for a while between late 2010 and early 2011. I really appreciated that he took the time to carefully and elaborately answer my somewhat convoluted questions, because the interview was not something done for promotional purposes, but just for the joy of discussing cinema.

The second conversation, “Militant Elegy”, took place in Milan, at Spazio Oberdan, in the afternoon of 7 July 2013, on the occasion of a Lav Diaz retrospective organized by La Milanesiana. My filmmaker friend Andrea Aglieri helped me recording audio and video, his logistical support was of key importance. 7 July 2013 was a Sunday, and there was an Italian premiere screening of Norte, the End of History (2013) at Spazio Oberdan, at 9 am or so. A film premiere on a summertime Sunday morning, at 9 am, around the same time of Catholic Mass, can you imagine? It was great because the screening was free and most of the spectators were elderly people who had no idea about what they were going to see. There were no walkouts as far as I can remember, and no post-screening complaints about the movie’s length. Actually, the only complaints I heard were about the excessively cold air conditioning in the movie theater.

The third conversation, “The Burden of History”, took place in Locarno, in Piazza Grande, on 8 August 2014, during the Locarno Film Festival. It was very early in the morning, I was walking down a steep road near Piazza Grande, I looked up and I saw Lav on the balcony of his hotel room. He made a gesture to say “See you downstairs”, and we had a talk about his film From What Is Before (2014), which went on to win the Pardo d’Oro. It was such a great summer I spent at the Locarno Critics Academy, and I learned a lot from mentors and fellow critics, especially from my roommate Julian Ross, a great researcher, writer and programmer.

The fourth conversation, “Philippines Year Zero”, took place in Venice Lido on 8, 9 and 10 September 2016, during the Venice Film Festival. Lav and his team kindly invited me to spend a few days with them in the flat they rented for the festival period. Spending a couple of days with the Filipino delegation, I discovered that every morning Lav cooked breakfast for his team – rice, bananas, beans, mushrooms and plenty of fresh vegetables. He said that cooking for cast and crew was the most important part of filmmaking.

The fifth conversation, “No Forgiveness without Justice”, took place in Venice Lido, in Regent Street Cinema in London and in Piazza Duomo in Milan between September 2016 and July 2017. I must thank May Adadol Ingawanij, who kindly invited me to London for this great event she organized called Lav Diaz: Journeys. I had never been to London before and I didn’t see anything of the city, I just watched Lav’s movies. A great journey indeed.

The sixth and seventh conversations, “A Nation without Memory” and “Rage against the Dying of the Light”, mostly took place in Vienna, in late 2019, from Halloween to the Day of the Dead, during the Viennale. At that time Lav suffered from a bad cough and repeatedly joked in the festival’s Q&As about “the dangers of the Duterte virus”, which was a quite apposite warning in hindsight, as in late March 2020 Rodrigo Duterte used the Covid pandemic to obtain autocratic powers from the Philippine Congress. I spent the afternoon of 2 November 2019 hanging out with Lav and Pedro Costa at the bar of the InterContinental: it was such a great day spent in the company of two gods of cinema that I decided to do myself a favor for once and quit smoking. From that day I have never smoked again, though the desire is always there and I often dream about chain-smoking like a maudit character in a CCC movie.

My book Conversations with Lav Diaz came into being thanks to the crucial help of my Russian-Italian friend Aldis, a very talented photographer and the editor-in-chief of publisher Massimiliano Piretti Editore. Like Lav himself, Aldis is a massive Andrei Tarkovsky fan, so he believed in my book project about Lav from the very beginning. Aldis and I agreed on making this book about Lav as a way to inspire people all over the world to have a free mind and follow their creative inspiration always. Ultimately, through my book, I want to show that a different kind of cinema is possible, we just need to have the courage to think it, write it, film it, edit it, promote it, distribute it, watch it, review it, discuss it...

Dear Benoit, thank you once again for your dedication throughout the years, speaking about films that are rarely spoken of with the care, precision and love they deserve. Keep up the great work!

All the very best,



* In addition to the seven conversations between Lav and me, the book contains a foreword (“The Monument of Black”) and an afterword (“The Last Filipino”) by Lav, and an introduction and detailed filmography by me. The book also has a B&W photo section called “Images of the Struggle”, with photos by Merv Espina, Buccino de Ocampo and others.

** Also, the blog Criticine by the late Alexis Tioseco disappeared from the Internet earlier last year, which made me think that, as a long-term-preservation strategy, it might be better to print a book and have copies deposited in public libraries. I don’t know, maybe it is just these morbid Covid times we live in... But I think that it is never too soon to think about preserving one’s own writings. Because it is work, it is hard work, and ultimately time does destroy everything.  

* * *

Michael Guarneri has a PhD in Film Studies from Northumbria University. He is the author of the monographs Questi fiori malati: Il cinema di Pedro Costa (2017) and Vampires in Italian Cinema, 1956-1975 (2020). A Locarno Critics Academy and Berlinale Talents alumnus, he freelances as a film critic for several outlets, including Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, Débordements and BOMB.

* * * 

The book he mentions was :

"Published in November 2020 by Massimiliano Piretti Editore (Bologna) and distributed worldwide by Idea Books (Amsterdam), Conversations with Lav Diaz presents the readers with the living voice of Lav Diaz through seven interviews conducted by Michael Guarneri over a period of ten years, from 2010 to 2020. In these in-depth conversations, Lav Diaz discusses not only his independent filmmaking practice and trademark black-and-white long-take aesthetics, but also the impact of the 1521-1898 Spanish colonization, of the 1898-1946 American rule, of the 1942-1945 Japanese occupation, of Ferdinand Marcos’s 1972-1986 dictatorship and of Rodrigo Duterte’s ongoing Drug War on the Filipino body politic and psyche. The son of two social workers who firmly believed in education as a key to a better life, Lav Diaz in fact has an utilitarian and humanitarian conception of culture: to him, artistic expression should not be an end to itself, a purely formalist exercise, but it must hold the mirror up to society and break the vicious circle of ignorance, poverty and violent exploitation of man by man to be found in most of planet Earth."


Read also on Unspoken Cinema :

No comments: