By Ruben V. Nepales
"But the wait, the wait…the bliss in that wait, the physical stamp—exhaustion, giddiness, discomfort—felt by watching that wait is the special, new thing that Lav Diaz has brought."
-- Robert Koehler, cinema scope magazine
VENICE, Italy— It made this Pinoy heart swell with pride that the screening of Lav Diaz’s Kagadanan sa Nanwaan Ning mga Engkanto (Death in the Land of Encantos) will be followed by an event honoring director Bernardo Bertolucci with a Golden Lion on Sept.8 at the Venice Film Festival.
As I write this on Sept.1, the red carpet at the Palazzo del Cinema is being prepared for the opening of the world’s oldest film festival. Like some actresses, this festival hides its true age well. Its 65th edition is actually its 75th anniversary, but World War II—and student protests in 1968—forced some skipping. (La Biennale di Venezia website, however, says “It is only in its 64th year, as it did not run for a period after the fall of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.-Ed)
Lav is not here yet - as he explained in his e-mail, “We’re still rushing the film’s dub-outs, and there are problems with the computer. ”‘Di pa kami nakakatulog, (We haven’t slept yet) and it’s crunch time!”
We hope the engkantos will help Lav finish his 9-hour film in time for its official screening. A mixture of documentary and fiction, Engkanto tells the story of a fictional Filipino poet, Benjamin Agusan, who returns to his hometown in Padang, Bicol in the aftermath of the destruction and tragedy wrought by super typhoon, Reming.
Below are excerpts of our interview with Lav, who managed to answer our questions before he boarded the plane to Venice:
RVN: Death in the Land of Encantos has the closing night honors in the Orizzonti (documentary) section of the Venice Film Festival. And you’re in the running for the Artistic Innovation Award for this film at the Toronto International Film Festival. Are you still jazzed up about attending film festivals? What are the best parts and the down side about them?
Lav Diaz: I love cinema. Festivals are always the best places to discover new works and rediscover old ones. The best part is watching films and interacting with fellow artists from other cultures. There’s also the opportunity to meet the masters.
I anticipated to see Ingmar Bergman appear in foggy Goteborg. The downside - going to festivals can be tiring and you spend so much. You feel sad about those endless partings, and the visa applications are the most insane!
Since Encantos is classified as a documentary, news stories presumed that its protagonist, Benjamin Agusan—a poet and a scholar who goes home after a study grant in Russia—is based on a real-life character. Was Benjamin Agusan inspired by your father who, I understand, is “a lover of Russian literature and all things Russian”? Is there a bit of Lav Diaz in Benjamin?
Encantos mixes documentary and fiction. I created Benjamin with no particular Filipino artist or persona in mind. My subconscious merely flowed with all the threads that ended up with the lead character in the nine-hour film.
But Benjamin’s journey is familiar terrain for the aesthetic traveler—the search for beauty, real love, redemption and for answers that could push humanity to greater heights.
The Russian bit is a send-up to my late father, although he never went to Russia. Yes, I know how it feels to be alone in distant lands—I know about solitude and sorrow, so I know Benjamin Agusan.
Hundreds of residents of Padang went missing as a result of super typhoon Reming. How many are still missing?
There’s no exact number to this day. Some say more than three hundred families were buried alive. The smell of death is still in my head.
Don’t you sometimes wish that you could just be like other directors who crank out films that are two hours or less in length?
Yes, I wish I can again create feature films shorter than what I’m doing now, and it’s easy to fulfill that if only I have the strength to manipulate or betray my mise en scene and just be part of the circus.
But I’m committed to my own cinema. So, I must fulfill my aesthetic stand—I can’t compromise it! Length is not really the issue—commitment is. By the way, I just did two short films—one is seven minutes long, and the other, five minutes.
Where does this passion to make films that are epic in scope and length spring from?
I don’t really know. There are stories in my head. They take on different incarnations in my poems, songs, short stories and essays. I put them in paintings, novels and cinema. Cinema appropriates those stories well. I love making films. It mirrors my ideology and how I understand the world.
What are the most amusing things that people do to sit through your films?
At Hope University in Kuala Lumpur, a “survivor” put up a virtual kitchen in front of him while watching the 11-hour Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino. He prepared well for the battle!
At the House of World Culture in Berlin, they mounted Ebolusyon from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. in a hall where they set up sofa beds, sleeping bags, big pillows and reclining chairs. Coffee was served all night, and masseurs were on standby to provide help. It was cool— even the two-hour discourse after the screening was great!
During Cinemanila’s world premiere of Batang West Side in Makati, it was full-house. People were standing for five hours. Fresh from the laboratory, Mike de Leon watched it alone at the now-defunct LVN studios.
You lost five months of post-production work on Ebolusyon when your computer crashed. Do you have nightmares about this incident? How do you ensure that this does not happen again?
That was such a nightmare! I almost turned my back on Ebolusyon. The sound engineer went insane; the assistant director broke down. After that debacle, I can never trust those robots and computers again—those post postmodern of modern man’s tools. Even the most sophisticated Macs and PCs are erratic and unpredictable. So, I’m extra careful when dealing with them now.
Your stories about pitching Ebolusyon in homes and offices in the US to raise funds and keep the project afloat are worthy of a documentary. To this day, what stands out in your memory from that experience?
The deep loneliness of being in such a struggle. Ang hirap! It’s hard to describe it—the uncertainty, isolation, desolation, insanity, the madness of it all when you’re pursuing a dream. The way I did it was quite fierce and scary. I’m not romanticizing that struggle—it was desperate and painful, but I did it!
I remember sitting in the Greyhound bus station in Philadelphia one winter night as I waited for this Filipino guy to pick me up. I didn’t know him, he didn’t know me. He was a fraternity brother from the Philippines who became very rich selling computers. Somebody hooked us up. And I wanted to show him the footage and ask him if he’d want to finance the film.
I stayed in one of his apartments for a few days. Finally he invited me to his big house and I started showing the footage. He and his wife watched my black and whites. They were appreciative and patronizing. And they fed me and gave me money that would feed me for a few weeks.
I remember hanging out on a Baltimore street for one whole day in the dead of winter just to wait for another rich Filipino. I kept calling him—but he never showed up!
Then in the café where I sat for hours, this woman came to me and offered me an obscure Rolling Rock beer and started talking about Edgar Allan Poe and “The Raven,” his alcoholism, and his Annabel Lee melancholia. It was surreal—I wanted to laugh and cry!
In what ways did working as a journalist in the Philippines impact your view about the challenges Filipinos have to cope with every single day? How different was your experience working for a Filipino newspaper in the US?
My stint as a journalist in the Philippines was quite brief, but it was brutal to the psyche. Every day you see and read all these stories, the everyday Filipino story. You were confronted by these realities and truths, the dysfunctions and displacements of our culture, and you’d need an iron heart not to get affected.
Also, you’re overworked and there was not much money to feed your family. I was doing so many things. I did police beat for two short-lived English and Filipino tabloids, desk job for Taliba, feature writing for Malaya’s Masa, music and film criticism for Jingle Chordbook Magazine and Manila Standard, writing komiks novels and short stories, writing teleplays for Balintataw, proofreading for a sports magazine.
Seeing Lino Brocka inside my beat, the Northern Police district jail, was unusual. He was arrested along with Behn Cervantes after an altercation with the police in Cubao during a massive jeepney strike. They were celebrities and you see all these movie stars, politicians, activists, intellectuals, students and groupies trooping to their small cell. The scene was hardcore camp and fiesta. I wanted to recreate that scene in one of my films.
The brief but close encounters with the late great Jose Burgos and Rogelio Sikat was unusual, too; Ka Roger became a good friend. He wrote letters to me while I was struggling in New York.
Working for the weekly Filipino newspaper Filipino Express in Jersey City and New York City was real hard labor, mentally and manually; you do everything, from writing to mixing chemicals for those old press machines and then the layout. But it still was a very rewarding experience. You see and experience the Pinoy diaspora in the area and my five-hour film Batang West Side is the result of that.
How is your faith in the Filipino holding up these days?
There’s hope despite the endless building of malls throughout Edsa and throughout the land. There’s hope even if we still have a very corrupt and neglectful system. We cannot allow cynicism to rule us.
What are your 10 favorite Filipino films? Which of these films made a big impact on you as a child?
Not just 10 . . . Maynila: sa Kuko ng Liwanag, Insiang, Kundiman ng Lahi, Matimbang ang Dugo sa Tubig, Galo Gimbal, Nunal sa Tubig, Kisapmata, Salome, Moises Padilla Story, all the early Dolphy and Chiquito movies. I love watching old black and white Pinoy movies, kahit na ano…
I don’t know why but this particular scene is just the most powerful cinema image that has forever hovered in my mind. I saw this as a child and to this day I kept going back to this scene from the black and white Fernando Poe Jr. movie, Matimbang ang Dugo sa Tubig, where two young brothers, who were kids, were accidentally separated by the confusion and chaos wrought to Filipinos by the coming of the Japanese invaders.
There was this truck; everybody was pushing...trying to hop on it and grab a space and escape; it was evacuation time; one of the brothers got in and the truck suddenly pulled away, leaving one of the brothers. He tried to run after the truck till it was gone from his sight. It was so sad and horrifying.
Another movie that really made a great impact on me as a young man is the Joseph Estrada starrer, Galo Gimbal. Great black and white images, very sharp contrasts in lighting, even good performances. It was that stunning then. There were just two characters, the criminal and the devil. Erap is the criminal and the late great Johnny Monteiro was Satan. The criminal was carrying a heavy wooden cross along deserts, forest, rivers and rough roads. The devil kept reappearing, teasing and engaging him on a great discourse about God, good and evil, suffering and pleasure. Wow. Where is this film now?
You will turn 50 next year. What were the high and low points of that past half a century for you on a personal and professional level?
December 30 next year, I’ll be 50. The high points are the births of my children. I still get high every time I think about their coming to this world. Low points? I know I have wasted so much time.
Non-condescendingly, I can say that I am quite satisfied now with my aesthetic struggle in my cinema...But the discourse continues every day. The struggle continues.
On a lighter note, when you go on long trips, what are your must-bring items?
A few black shirts, two pairs of pants, a toothbrush, a book, a guitar, a harmonica and a camera.
Have you been able to hang out with Quentin Tarantino while he’s in Manila? What do you think about his obsession for films by Cirio H. Santiago, Gerry de Leon and Eddie Romero?
No. I was holed up in my small studio doing post for Encantos during his stay here. But according to Tikoy Aguiluz, Tarantino’s must-see film, his choice, was Batang West Side. The date was set, he sat inside the theater waiting, but horror of horrors, the print of the film didn’t show up. He tried to watch a very dirty VHS copy but he gave up. He said he wanted to see the film in a more tolerable set-up and form.
Tarantino being “obsessed” with the B-movies of Gerry Leon, Eddie Romero and Cirio Santiago is amazing. Maybe he saw some unique verities in those Filipino movies to be that excited about them.
If you had the time, money and resources to do the ultimate Lav Diaz film, what would that film be?
I can’t really give a definitive answer because I do have a lot of dream projects. I will still make the same films, in my own framework, terms, aesthetic struggle and philosophical stand. Ultimately one’s oeuvre is just one whole representation of one’s view of life, one’s perspective on culture, contribution to help perfect or improve humanity, thesis on time, space and nature, or… a dialectic on the mystery of ego, the concept of self, why do we aim for greatness, why this world is so full of ego? That would be a great premise, the destruction of the self.
I struggle with that question—why am I making this so-called long cinema? Why must my cinema care? We struggle for the ultimate, even in orgasm, but in the end, the ultimate is just that, a concept that needs to be fulfilled.
Just like Philippine cinema, it needs greater fulfillment. Just like the Filipino, he needs to be saved. We must work harder. Push, and push more, and push for greater discourse. We must continue to push Philippine cinema to greater heights and make it truly relevant and representative of our culture.
Philippine Daily Inquirer, September 6, 2007
This is another unofficial site for Lav Diaz, "...the great Filipino poet of cinema." (Cinema du reel, Paris).
- X. Future tense
- IX. Batang West Side: The Space of Absence and the...
- VIII. Death in the Land of Encantos
- VII. Kagadanan sa Banwaan ning mga Engkanto
- VI. Land of the dead
- V. Lav Diaz's Ebolusyon, A Rearrangement of a Trou...
- IV. Death in the Land of Encantos (Lav Diaz, The P...
- III. Poetic Post-mortem
- II. A Dialogue in Progress – Social/Personal Memor...
- I. Interview with Lav Diaz
- ▼ January (10)