This is another unofficial site for Lav Diaz, "...the great Filipino poet of cinema." (Cinema du reel, Paris).

Sunday, February 24, 2008

XV. ‘Encantos’ Revisited

By Juaniyo Arcellana

“It is death to be a poet, to love a poet, to mock a poet.” — Sufi saying

As previously mentioned, one can watch Lavrente Diaz’s latest film Death in the Land of Encantos (sometimes also called Death in the Land of Poets) any which way, almost like a post-postmodern work that can be viewed at one’s own time and pace — a couple of hours or so, then off to work or chores for the next hours, then back for the last several scenes all the way to the credits. There’s no rush, really, so long as one gets a feel of the movie, maybe even catch it at its next screening at another venue to fill in the blanks of the missing parts.

This sort of random viewing as recommended by the director himself is most open to free interpretation, and recalls the landmark novel of the late author, Paris-based Argentine Julio Cortazar, whose Hopscotch suggests an alternative way of reading the work, that is, apart from the usual front to back, the reader can jump from chapter to chapter interspersed throughout the book, really like playing piko with the plot. And though we haven’t finished Hopscotch in its entirety in either style, we liked what we read.

This unconventional movie watching mode we were able to experiment on Feb. 6 when the National Commission for Culture and the Arts screened the nine-hour Death in the Land of Encantos at the NCCA in Intramuros as part of National Arts Month. We watched two-and-half hours before coming to work at nearby Port Area, then caught the last one and a half hours after helping put the paper to bed. A total of four hours viewing time, and we liked what we saw.

Arriving about 30 minutes late for the 1 p.m. start of screening, we began the film with the scene of a childhood friend welcoming the balikbayan poet Benjamin “Hamin” Agusan in typhoon- ravaged Bicol, the camera panning the two men against the desolate landscape, the friend reciting from memory a poem by Agusan titled “Alimuom.”

The poet Agusan has been gone for a long time, teaching in Russia and roving Europe for the past seven years, until he decides to come home shortly after typhoon Reming hits Bicol and buries entire barangays in mud and lahar flow coming from the slopes of Mayon volcano.

The painter Dante Perez, who is the film’s production designer and one of the supporting actors, had texted shortly after Reming lashed his beloved province: “Daming patay dito p’re. Pero ang ganda ng buwan. Full moon empty heart.” He added that the filmmaker Lavrente was in town to do a movie shooting vast acres of devastation, the backdrop for the story of the returning poet-hero who finds many of his loved ones gone.

Agusan’s friend is Teodoro, who stayed behind in Bicol, at the foot of the volcano. Against stormswept surroundings they reminisce about their childhood, how they would talk about art, the country, mammary glands. The subject drifts to a common friend, Catalina, a sculptor in another nearby town who is Hamin’s old lover, in fact she has a son by him.

Catalina uses as her material the cooled rocks from the volcano, sculpting the stone in her studio where she has some young men as assistants, who she uses as “parausan.” But she could hardly care about the village gossips, she’s an artist nurturing an ambivalent relationship with Mayon.

Hamin’s visit to the studio of Catalina is notable for the director’s use of available light, as the viewer can discern various gradations of light as the conversation progresses between the ex-lovers, when the sun gets partly covered by a cloud or when the scene is awash in sunlight.

Over glasses of basi, Catalina says how Hamin’s former partner Amalia, whom he had left for that teaching grant in Russia, had always looked after his studio waiting for the poet’s return, until she too got buried by the lahar flow along with the studio.

There are documentary-like sketches where the director plays interviewer and asks the villagers about the storm’s aftermath, how the relief goods were mere tokens of one-and-a-half kilos of rice, a couple of noodle packs and some sardines. “May ginagawa ba ang gobyerno? May gobyerno ba tayo?” the man behind the camera asks a villager, who also volunteers that the misfortune may have been caused by some neighbors’ refusal to give a glass of water to a beggar a few days before the storm.

There’s a beautifully framed sex scene between Hamin and Catalina, some seconds of humping and pumping for old time’s sake, but wait, the poet seems to have a problem, a kind of erectile dysfunction, and the coitus appears to be unceremoniously interrupted, an unforced error. The old lover says that it could be Hamin has too many things on his mind, his mother lost to dementia, his sister a suicide, his father dead from loneliness, and Amalia buried under lahar.

There’s much discourse too in the brownout scene, where the three friends — Hamin, Catalina, Teodoro — talk about patterns of insects and what humans can learn from such dialectics. For the most part what we see are three lighted candles, and the outlines of faces in the shadows barely discernible. The director shuns close-ups and soundtrack music, prefering the long-range shot and natural sounds of nature — whistling wind, cock crows, waves lashing the shore.

Diaz at times seems to be creating his own symbology, as with the boy kapre playing hide-and-seek with unseen playmates, possible the boy Hamin and his sister Theresa, running through the glade.

The last hour or so has the characters talking about the death of the poet, and how he had lost his mind before that. Hamin’s body was discovered atop the mound of lahar that buried his studio, his throat slashed, a suspected suicide.

The filmmaker interviews persons close to Hamin and other villagers to ask if they believed the poet had lost his mind and committed suicide. Catalina doesn’t believe he went mad, neither does Teodoro. Each recite a poem by Hamin, one of the last titled “In Memoriam,” the other a popular favorite, “Ang Bahay ng Mga Rosas.” Perez as Mang Claro is also interviewed.

Theories are brought up that maybe it wasn’t suicide, Hamin was a former activist whose works riled the establishment.

There are flashbacks, too, to a place called Zagreb, and the narrator comparing himself to a rat stalking a woman named Svita, the camera a bit wobbly and blurred on the backs of strangers, watched by the stalker among the DVD stacks. Towards the end there is a lingering shot on the nude body of Svita, a tall European woman with small breasts and a generous bush, asleep on an altar-like bed, the muse of a man condemned by his fate, the circumstances of tragedy, the not so merry-go-round.

The last scene with Soliman Cruz as the torturer giving the treatment to the bound Hamin in a safehouse, complete with the fascist’s singing of the national anthem while turning the poet round and round and tearing up his book, speaks volumes of the subtle political undertones of the film.

“God sees the truth, but waits,” is a quote from Leo Tolstoy that is repeated at least twice in the film. Just as the viewer has the choice to watch Death in the Land of Encantos in its entirety in one sitting, but waits.

Those who eventually do would be rewarded for their patience. Perez in a text message said, “nasobrahan yata ako sa art.” It’s the perfect antidote to a lot of the drivel being fed to us lately by the mainstream.

Philippine Star, February 25, 2008

Friday, February 8, 2008

XIV. The True Best Picture

By Conrado de Quiros

I saw a dazzling Filipino movie the other weekend. It's not one of the entries in the current Metro Manila Film Festival. I don't know when--or if--it will be shown in regular theaters. I understand it's all the people who made the movie can do to find a booking for it.

I'm talking of Lav Diaz's "Batang West Side," which is a record Filipino movie in more ways than one. The most obvious way being that it is five hours and 15 minutes long, which in fact makes it a record movie anywhere in the world. There have been longer movies, one Japanese movie, if I recall right, being more than 12 hours, but they are meant to be watched in installments. This one demands to be seen in one blow. And should be. It's not episodic, it's one very tight piece of work.

Lav would tell me later he figured we had fairly solid tradition of watching long movies, to go by the double features in the provinces. But double features are precisely two movies, not one, and are generally comedies and action movies. Not one that requires thoughtful and sustained attention.

Which is the reason "Batang West Side" is having problems finding a place for exhibition. I saw it in Glorietta 4, which is a small theater with a reputation for showing largely non-commercial films. I understand that is also the reason it hasn't found a place in international competitions--to which it eminently belongs--since festival organizers impose a time limit on movies. Even Francis Ford Coppola apparently had to trim down "Apocalypse Now" to less than three hours to meet that requirement.

I don't know what Lav can do to satisfy the demands of practicality and aesthetics, public acceptance and artistic integrity. But I do know his work deserves as wide audience as possible, preferably in its pristine state. I wish him all the luck in the world.

"Batang West Side's" length aside, I myself am curious to know how the general public would greet its theme. It tells of the life of a group of Filipinos in America, which may not be so easy for everyone to relate to. I personally am wondering if my having gotten deeply engrossed in it does not owe to my having caught a glimpse of that life too. Certainly, the mood of the movie--which is one of the things it does so brilliantly, capture the mood of that life in all its wintry starkness--struck a sympathetic chord in me. But I also imagine that the phenomenon of the overseas Filipino workers will allow many Filipinos to experience the shock of recognition when they see the movie. The differences between living in the United States and in the OFW destinations--Hong Kong, Saudi arabia--may be monumental, but not so the feelings of homesickness, alienation and a sense of drift.

In "Batang West Side," Joel Torre is a Filipino cop in New Jersey (West Point graduate and 10-year resident) who investigates the murder of a Filipino youth named Hansel Harana. The cop's investigation leads him to a confrontation partly with the world he left behind, and with a world he barely knows. The latter is the life of Filipinos in America, a life lived on the fringes, or margins, or pores, of society, with its huge pains and small triumphs, with its unrelenting drudgery and sudden bursts of violence, with its invisibility and assertion through drugs, particularly shabu, the gateway to power trips.

Above all, Torre's investigation leads him to a confrontation with himself, to his own demons, whose assaults have left him as emotionally crippled as shabu has done mentally to the objects of his sleuthing. The ending may be a little bitin to an audience used to straightforward resolutions--and which has waited for more than five hours to know what really happened to Harana; they might cry out "harang"--but I myself found it as it should be. I'll leave the reader with that mysterious comment as an enticement to see the movie.

Everything about the movie is dazzling. It has very few false notes. The writing--which was done by Lav himself--is taut, the dialogue crisp and biting. He is one fantastic storyteller, introducing his details with the deftness of a magician performing a grand trick, till they work a shimmering, lingering, illusion--or truth--in the mind. He is an equally fantastic director, the whole movie resonating with control. Even the sudden bursts of violence controlled--controlled fury is always more furious than a wanton one. The acting is uniformly excellent. Torre, of course, is his usual excellent self, but the revelation is Yul Servo, who essays the teenager Hansel. There's a boy to watch out for.

A fierce intelligence runs through this movie, an intelligence however that is not artsy-craftsy. On the contrary, it is one that has a lot of heart. I felt moved by this movie in ways most other movies have not moved me, local or foreign. It insinuates itself into the mind and heart so subtly you are not sure at what point you have yielded completely.

If I have any quibbles with the movie, they are very small ones. Chief of them is that characters in this movie have very dysfunctional backgrounds. I would have been curious to see the effects of living in America--I suddenly remembered Woody Allen's quip that he believed there was an intelligence in the cosmos with the exception of certain parts of New Jersey--among people with more "normal" backgrounds. Which is also the reason I thought Torre's revelation of--and coming to terms with--a truly dark past seems a little superflous. You do not need to have such a past to develop that kind of alienated behavior as a Filipino in America. But like I said, these are minor, and just quibbling.

Cesar Montano should stop complaining. If there is a milestone in Filipino moviemaking, it is not "Bagong Buwan," it is "Batang West Side." It ups the ante on quality, local movies that aspire for the moon henceforth having this to reckon with. If it isn't a runaway winner in next year's movie awards, I'll have the most serious doubts about the competence of our judges.

Philippine Daily Inquirer, January 3, 2002

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

XIII. Void in the Voices: The 44th Vienna 
International Film Festival

By Martina Lunzer and Barbara Wurm

If an annual festival like the Viennale were to be encapsulated by a general motto, this year’s edition might be called If there still is anything to say, how can we say it (in film). And although some of the most exceptional works like James Benning’s One Way Boogie Woogie / 27 Years Later (2005), Uruphong Raksasad’s Reanglao jak meangnue (Stories from the North, 2005) or Lav Diaz’ monumental Heremias, Unang Aklat: Ang Alamat ng Prinsesang Bayawak (Heremias. Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess, 2006) hardly ever need words to say what needs to be said, there is no doubt about the fact that there still is a lot to say. Against all odds and against an inner cinematic force which over the last (its first) century of existence so often and so convincingly has been trying to prove the complete uselessness of speech and words in approaching the real, the true, the evident. And, more than anything, against a political state of affairs that, despite its utter ambivalence and heterogeneity in the mirror of world cinema, catches its own reflection as a clear cut and unambiguous image – the image of total collapse.

In Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako (2006) for instance, premiered at Cannes and shortly after the Vienna festival successfully promoted by Austria’s exclusive arthouse distributor Stadtkino-Verleih, this linkage between innovative concepts of language in film on the one hand and the political as a question of utterance, speech-regimes and disruption on the other, becomes evident shortly after the film has started. A man, who – like most of the other protagonists of this fictitious lawsuit brought to big international financial institutions by African civil society representatives and carried out in the small backyard of Sissako’s own family – is not an actor, but an average Bamako citizen, steps forward to an improvised microphone of an improvised court and speaks. When told that he would have to wait until he was asked, he answers (a fortiori taking his time): “There are things that need to be said, and they need to be said at the time when you feel like talking. If you do not let them out immediately, they will never be the same.” Followed by several other courageous and extensive speakers, among them the famous Mali writer and former cultural minister Aminata Traoré, who directs the (likewise real) judges’ attention to the paradoxical fact that Africa needs to be considered not a victim of poverty but one of wealth and abundance, what the film then establishes is the smooth yet aggressive, sad yet funny way of life inside a court. A simple court, but an ambiguous one – not just because a modern water tap is put next to an old well (merrily co-existing side by side), but also because “court” here stands for a place where people live, work, hang around, love and split up, as well as a judicial place where people fight for their rights – in this case against the hypocrisy of third world financing programs and the horrible economic effects of the so called structural adjustment policy.

Reassigning local space its global status and thereby placing a very straightforward way of speaking against a complex topology of politics, Bamako is an outstanding allegorical attack on a global consciousness and a reflection on the way world cinema is challenged by it (and at the same time remains one of its last real challengers). The old man doesn’t give the slightest shit about what anyone could think of him or what others do or do not want him to say or not say. He obeys only one law, an inner law, maybe an ancient or local law, a law of a certain type of humanity and justice, the law of dignity and courage. His speech becomes part of a whole theory and practice of speech acts, challenging not only powerful international institutions like the World Trade Organization or the International Monetary Fund but also world cinema – referred to in a comical film-in-film called “Death in Timbuktu”, where Danny Glover meets (and shoots) Israeli filmmaker Elia Suleiman (among others). It is by an artistic and yet marked-as-artificial interweaving of both, the documentary and the fictional side of film, that Bamako is able to reach a genuinely new level of speech act knowledge and to become a front combatant of a left wing movement that today’s politics so scarcely seems to be blessed with. What happens at this court could never happen in a real court, because, Moscow VGIK graduate and the 2007 Rotterdam film festival “filmmaker in focus” Sissako states, “no real court would ever question the law of the stronger”.

Another African lawsuit, this time Cameroon-based and set in the real courtroom of Kumba Town, is portrayed in Sisters in Law (2005). In this direct cinema study women’s rights activist Kim Longinotto observes the many obstacles a judge and an attorney are confronted with while discovering the truth about child abuse. However, and quite in contrast to Bamako, which in this sense is Brechter than Brecht, the film never really takes into consideration that what happens in front of the camera could also be a fine performance of people who are pretty sure about their performance (and who also know that what is negotiated in a court is not justice as such, but ways of uttering, rhetoric gestures or speech formulas).

If at all (in)justice and its institutionalisation is a topic in a European context, we need to look for it in (meanwhile post-)Berlusconian Italy. Not only is it present in the audience award-winning Balordi (Hoodlum, 2005), Miriam Kubescha’s sensitive and cinematographically magnificent film about long-term prisoners in a Tuscany jail, but Vincenzo Marra also puts up with it. His documentary L’udienza è aperta (The Session is Open, 2006) uses footage from inside the Court of Naples and leaves all judgements about the deeply rooted mafia-practices to his audience.

Another Italy, an Italy recalling its divine existence, when the tactus de coelo, the flash that came down from heaven, hit the ground (and religious/mythical thinking hit communist author Cesare Pavese), is an authentic setting for Quei loro incontri (2006), Danièle Huillet’s & Jean-Marie Straub’s masterpiece, the very last one to be completed in their ingenious togetherness. Danièle Huillet’s death beclouded and at the same time enlightened the Viennale screenings of the new and the old experiments in setting Pavese’s Dialoghi con Leucò en-scène. Like in Dalla nube alla resistenza (1978) QLI always presents “a dialogue of two, speech and objection, never neutralised, in a natural setting, which remains distant from the characters” (Frieda Grafe). The Monte Pisano scenery transforms into an estranged home for the gods who talk about humans, about us. They envy the human kind, for “wherever they go to the efforts and words, a rhythm, a sense, a calmness is born”. What the Straubs explore (and what they have been exploring for their entire life) is the cinematic sense of language, its transformations through pronunciation, intonation and declamation framed by a camera, through confrontation with a setting and its sounds (its own private, natural or social speech acts), through temporal, rhythmical and structural invasion. The way Pavese’s complex dialogues are performed – they are spoken by local farmers, strictly regulated by an external rhythm, causing long pauses or long and difficult passages of text – forces the spectator to listen carefully, hyper-sensually, hyper-attentively. If close reading is a method of formalist literary theory, here a certain type of close listening (combined with an exceedingly intense close looking) is established, gradually turning into a sensual, maybe even synaesthetic form of reading.

The extraordinary status of both the spoken word as well as talking landscapes in Straub & Huillet’s films could be put in relation to two superb retrospectives of this year’s Viennale: whereas “Tales from the Jungle”, a program bringing together a wide range of films from Cooper & Schoedsack’s awesome Chang: A Drama of Wilderness (1927) to Sud Pralat (Tropical Malady, 2004) and Worldly Desires (2005) by Thai shooting star Apichatpong Weerasethakul, explored the sensual qualities of perception and non-linguistic communication induced by life in the jungle, another, somewhat national-heritage-orientated, retrospective “Nicht mehr fliehen” (“No more escaping”), named after Herbert Vesely’s 1955 take off point for the New German Wave, turned out to be a prominent site of film speech and its correlation to the political. The juxtaposition of the other and the self, the very far (ape man and cobra woman, tropes and Amazonas) and the very near (Austrian countryside and Berlin city life after WWII), the other and the self, was a pure stroke of genius in terms of curating – let’s not forget that Austrian Nobel Prize-winning author Elfriede Jelinek got a carte blanche, Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine starred in 18 films in a wonderful “Sisters act”-program, Peter Whitehead was selected for a tribute, and that, in cooperation with the Filmmuseum Wien, the Viennale organised a comprehensive Jacques Demy/Agnès Varda show as well as a special film program for Peter Sellar’s festival, New Crowned Hope.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s new oeuvre Sang sattawat (Syndromes and a Century, 2006), resembling James Benning’s One Way Boogie Woogie / 27 Years Later in its clear cut twofold structure (where one part echoes the other), telling the fragmentary story around hospital life “back then” and now, was one of seven films commissioned by New Crowned Hope. Its policy to let films communicate with each other by explicitly directing their topical orientation towards actual political problems from a post-colonial point of view perfectly matches the Viennale’s course to accentuate non-western film cultures. By the bye: however meritorious this might be, one cannot but regret – and object – the mere absence of Eastern European cinema at a festival taking place just a few kilometres from the former boarder to the “East” – apart from Russia’s 2006 documentary highlights Grazhdanskoye sostoyanie (Civil Status) by Alina Rudnickaya, Sergei Loznitsa’s innovative footage-dubbing Blokada (Blockade, 2005) and Dushanbe-born Orzu Sharipov’s noteworthy 11.000 km ot New Yorka (11.000 km from New York, 2006), and apart from Viennale evergreens Vitaly Kossakovsky, Otar Iosseliani and Aleksandr Sokurov (whose unfinished version of Elegy of Life. Rostropovich. Vishnevskaya would be worth a – rather unfavourable – discussion in extenso, especially when applying a psychoanalytic reading of his “Europe-mother-complex” …), apart from these few exceptions and one Romanian feature film, there were no contributions from Eastern Europe (which makes it a 0.02 percent participation – rather sad among the many record-breaking figures the Viennale has to offer).

But let’s go back to the two great retrospectives, back to “Tales from the Jungle” and “Nicht mehr fliehen”, back to the two sides of one problem, the problem of how can we say it (in film). The jungle, as has been suggested earlier, not only implies its own rules and techniques of encoding and decoding messages, of reading and leaving behind tracks and traces, but it also unfolds the ferocious logic of the survival of the fittest – superbly displayed and critically questioned in Chang: A Drama of Wilderness, and ironically treated and transferred into the realm of a (pre-?)sexually primal form of existence in W.S. Van Dyke’s Tarzan, the Ape Man (1931). When in 1925, after three years of expedition, Merian Coldwell Cooper and former Mack Sennett cameraman Ernest Beaumont Schoedsack finished their first portrait of the dramatic migration of the Persian nomadic tribe Bakhtiari, Grass – A Nation’s Battle for Life, surprisingly enough this non-narrative film became a box-office-hit. The following two years Cooper & Schoedsack spent in the Jungles of Northern Siam (now Northern Thailand), shooting an outstanding semi-documentary on the life of the Lao-tribe-members Kru and his family and struggle to coexist with Chang (Thai for elephant). This time the story was scripted and had three explicit cast members: “Natives of the Wild, who have never seen a motion picture”, “Wild Beasts, who have never had to fear a modern rifle” and “The Jungle”. The adventure starts off with a seemingly naïve scenery of “domestic bliss” and “bucolic Eden” (Ray Young), but soon unfolds the natives’ spectacular fights (for, with and) against even more spectacular animals, leopards, tigers, or cow elephants. Schoedsack’s camera work (apparently he was covered by Cooper with a rifle) is as breathtaking as the variety of animals observed and the subtle balance of brutal aggressiveness and unseen delight and tenderness. Even if “Tales from the Jungle” offered a whole lot of rediscoveries – like Glauber Rocha’s revolutionary pamphlet Amazonas, Amazonas (1966), Yves Billon’s ethnographical-investigative documentary La Guerre de Pacification en Amazonie (1973) or Arne Sucksdorff’s Aga-Scope-pioneer En Djungelsaga (1957) – the semi-documentary Chang sets the benchmark for all jungle films to come.

The same “semi-documentariness” is explored in the three best-of-this-year’s-Viennale-bests: Zacharias Kunuk’s & Norman Cohn’s The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006), Pedro Costa’s Juventude em marcha (Colossal Youth, 2006) and Lav Diaz’ Heremias, a 515 minute DV-cam-trip setting out on an ox drawn cart from Caromatan, Philippines, touching the core of private and social injustice and – since part 2, estimated to be some 11 hours, is yet to come – only transitorily ending at the very bottom of a pilgrim’s and our souls. Since one does not want to become a sinner, writing about this exclusive stranger in the abridging formulas of a familiarising film critic’s jargon, what remains to be said about this epic of retreat, downfall, devotion, and redemption is that spending one whole day in one and the same chair and in one and the same theatre was the best thing that could happen in the lives of the lucky few who were there. One cannot express it better than Philippine poet Cirilio F. Bautista in one of his poems, quoted by Olaf Möller in his homage to Diaz (disguised as a Viennale catalogue text): “Listen. Sketch the sound through the silence of sound / such that the syntax of nothing becomes speech.” (Cirilo F. Bautista: Sunlight on Broken Stones).

If Heremias is an exhaustive, critical and rebellious contemplation on modernisation, circling around its ruthless logic of linearity and progress and hereby establishing against it a miraculous time-regime which becomes essential for the anti-hero as an individual, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen displays a similar temporal time structure, but links it to the historical scene of first contact between social bodies. If Heremias’ inner personal estrangement is the background for the several first contacts he makes during a few days in today’s Philippines, the tragedy of Apak (Leah Angutimarik) and her father, the shaman Avva (Pakak Innuksuk), is related to the historical confrontation of the Inuit people with a group of Danish explorers taking place in 1922, and, even more challenging, with a group of converted, that is christianised, Inuit. Also shot with a hand camera, Kunuk’s successor to Atanarjuat (2001) is another mesmerising work of off-modern ethnic film, an experimental study not as much in visual anthropology as in finding images – majestic bright widescreen landscapes meet indigenous life meets alienated set ups of reality TV style – for the tragic loss of a rich cultural heritage and strong social, religious and cultural convictions. When his rebel daughter Apak finally gives in and defects, Avva can hardly bear the inner pain brought to the Arctic Circle community life by the intruders.

A third special event was the screening of Juventude em marcha, since last year’s Viennale brought a tribute to Pedro Costa which proved a full success. If one is familiar with Costa’s characters and non-professional actors (like Vanda from No quarto da Vanda, In Vanda’s Room, 2000) the latest magnum opus maybe opens up little faster than otherwise. On the other hand there are so many iconographical allusions in Juventude (for one of the most fascinating examinations see Andy Rector’s blog at that the “opening up” of this dense cinema d’auteur might seem a rather overdrawn enterprise. When Ventura – whose pilgrimage through the Cape Verdean slums of Lisbon we follow for a torturous period of 155 minutes – in one of the scenes wears a white bandage around his head, the whole film with its narrow space policy, its expressionist Caligari-like slant stage-imagery suddenly transforms into a bizarre comment on Aki Kaurismäki’s Mies vailla menneisyyttä (The Man without a Past, 2002). A seriously angry comment in fact, since in Costa’s world, like in Ventura’s, there is no place for romance – not even the laconic and doubtful pseudo-bourgeois romance of girls from match factories or the bohemian outsiders developed in Kaurismäki’s “loser” trilogy, the third film of which, Laitakaupungin valot (Lights of the Suburb, 2005) was also shown at the Viennale.

No more lights, not even dim ones, in Ventura’s life. Just a handful of “relatives” – Ventura calls them his sons and daughters – who he visits regularly … and, but only occasionally, talks to, because he prefers them to do the talking. Ventura is the perfect listener, he is an observer of the life of the poor (his own people), he registers every gram of heroin taken, every bottle of Methadone hidden, every inch of misery, but also every centimetre of improvement when it comes to social relationships. His only comment over most of the time remains his look – a look of a severe and haunted, yet quiet face, just as if it were only getting ready to burst out every second. By paying his relatives a visit he honours them and lets them regain their last little life-sign as a deprived human being – giving them back their voice. Juventude em marcha – how ironic a title, since these young people look exhausted and they are definitely not about to march – was probably the loudest of all silent outcries against social injustice.

If Heremias or Ventura are confronted with a world in which evil has, if at all, only a vague face, alternative German and Austrian cinema after WW II had its own private and public, political and aesthetical enemies. Summing it all up, the Straub & Huillet-film Der Bräutigam, die Komödiantin und der Zuhälter (The Bridegroom, the Actress and The Pimp, 1968) starts out with a short but effective graffiti on a wall: “Stupid old Germany,” it says, “I hate it over here. I hope I can go soon.”

In Germany, filmmaking only gradually became a matter of opposition and resistance. Radical statements against the establishment had to be put in radically disturbing forms, since fascism seemed all too deeply rooted in even the most innocent ways of cultural production. Maybe back then, for reviewers and critics they never seemed radical enough (at least that’s the impression one gets when scrolling through some early numbers of Filmkritik), but looking back at the beginning of the New German Wave of the late ‘50s and ‘60s one cannot but be awestruck by the variety of ways to conquer a seeming lost territory (to Hans Mosers and Marika Rökks, waltzes and enchantments). “Nicht mehr fliehen”, a retrospective carefully curated by avant-garde filmmaker and historian Hans Scheugl for the Filmarchiv Austria, dug out some crazy examples of yet another attempt to explore the connection between political action and the specific speech act possibilities of cinema. Ten programs revealed what one might call the gradual transformation from existentialist nihilism (Nicht mehr fliehen, 1955) to the “titanic excess of revolt”, as Werner Herzog commented on his anti-hero Stroszek (1976). And they set up a finely woven context and background for films we think we know by heart, but are now able to see from a totally different angle, like Wim Wenders’ Alice in den Städten (Alice in the Cities, 1974) or Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher (1969).

“Attention, World – this is Zero” is the last thing we hear in Herbert Vesely’s Cocteauesque pseudo-sci-fi Nicht mehr fliehen. The film is about the relicts of a world from which no one even tries to escape any more. Total standstill, total shutdown – a warning or rather a fractured and metallic swan song in the desert? It is only through a confrontation with the extreme closure of narrative traditions in Austrian and German pre- and post-war cinema that one can get a sense of how radically different avant-garde “absolute films” were. And yet they had to maintain a slight reference to their cultural backgrounds. One of these references, the main one, was an unbowed faith in literature. What might be surprising here is that side by side with new genres and traditions (like nouveau roman) early post-war German film experiments show a firm attachment to an older literary generation – like Franz Kafka in Vesely’s first film Und die Kinder spielen so gern Soldaten (1951; unfortunately not shown at the Viennale) or Georg Trakl in his second one, An diesen Abenden (1951/52), a mystified expressionist film adaptation of the poem Die junge Magd and the opening film of the retrospective. Surreal abstractions, an emphasis on sensual perception, the visual and the sound track – Vesely’s early films could also be considered Gerhard Rühm compositions, whose experiments in sound collage and twelve-tone music are another example of the new generation’s affiliation with pre-war avant-garde movements.

With its stylistic borrowings from Jean Cocteau or Maya Deren, An diesen Abenden and Nicht mehr fliehen demonstrate the international contextualisation of the New German Wave’s take off. Soon after, Heinrich Böll and other “members” of the “Gruppe 47” seemed the new warrantors. Not only Vesely’s Das Brot der frühen Jahre (1961), the official starting signal of the “Neuer deutscher Film”, also Straub & Huillet’s Machorka-Muff (1962) is based on Böll’s prose, obviously appearing adequate to produce “pictorial abstract dreams” instead of stories (as was the declared claim).

Portraying Vienna-born Vesely (who spent most of his life in Munich), lining his work up against Vlado Kristl’s queer surrealism (Der Damm, 1964; Autorennen, 1964; Arme Leute, 1963) or Straub & Huillet’s early German shorts, and leaving aside Ferry Radax or Marc Adrian or Peter Kubelka, the programming decision was to only marginally touch on the interdependencies of Austrian and German post-war cinema. Instead – and this seems to be the true value of this retrospective – it tried to point out the close affinity towards (and, undoubtedly, deconstruction of) industrial film, early TV documentaries, and Kulturfilm. One of the greatest discoveries in this sense was former Luis Trenker assistant Ferdinand Khittl’s Die Parallelstraße (1961), not by chance produced by his “Gesellschaft für bildende Filme” (“Society of educational film”). Not a third path, but a parallel street becomes the symbol of Khittl’s enterprise, a thoughtful and only occasionally winking meta-comment on metaphysics and documentary objectivity in film, sometimes extraordinarily hilarious, sometimes hardly able to get away from its deliberately starched setting. A group of young men is trying to analyse an enormous number of fragmentary film documents (shot by Khittl and his cameraman Ronald Martini during two extensive travels around the world in 1959 and 1960). The 308 “documents” – films about water and erosion, Brasilia, a volcano, rice in Asia or a meanwhile legendary Rosstäuscher (horse cheater) – are screened one after the after and intermitted by comments of the team members (who, on their part, are being commented by a supervisor). “In a Kafkaesque room five Ionescoesque people find themselves in a Sartreesque situation, trying to solve a Camuesque problem”, as back then pre-eminent critic Helmut Färber ironically described this setting.

Khittl, who in 1961 like Vesely signed the famous Oberhausen manifesto, puts the end of his film at the beginning (a device we can later find in Vlado Kristl’s works), signifying that despite its message – the team is supposedly bringing the recordings in a certain order – his film will never get a structure than could be overlooked. Another aspect touched by Khittl is the special role of different forms of media used for recordings. What today would be called a media theory of the archive in 1961 was referred to not on a theoretical but on a highly entertaining and poetic level. Subtext and meta-text run on parallel tracks. The same duplication can be found in Vesely’s short TV studies Menschen im Espresso (1958) and Die Stadt (1960). Traditional forms of documentary filmmaking (like a then-popular manner of burying every image under an avalanche of words) are performed on a serious and on an ironic level at the same time. In Die Stadt, radically “liberal” images, subtle observations, light-weighted movements and an air of freedom are not only enhanced by blues, jazz or experimental music but also put next to texts in which a dry “objective” sociological jargon more than once merges into highly poetical forms of speech as well as into wild political statements against the father generation:

Because you are weak, you called us “halbstark” (beatniks). As long as we were kids, you bought our silence, paying for ice-cream and movie-tickets. You did not serve us; you served yourselves and to your own convenience. But we want to make a row, we won’t cry for things you never taught us. Our riot is uncovered. It’s you who brutally fight each other in the dark. You are weak. Only the strong ones leave for the jungle and heal niggers, because they, like us, despise you.

The striking tendency towards challenging forms of speech and speaking demonstrated in so many films of this year’s festival could also be found in contemporary Austrian and German cinema, which only reveals the fact that many of these films are rooted in the tradition of the New German Film (Neuer Deutscher Film) and its exploitations of documentary cinema. Some of them are now discussed under what has been labelled the “Berlin School” (Berliner Schule) in the ‘90s, represented by Thomas Arslan, Christian Petzold, Angela Schanelec and others. Inviting Stefan Krohmer’s Sommer 04 an der Schlei (Summer ’04, 2006) and Valeska Grisebach’s purist and meticulous realistic love-story Sehnsucht (Longing, 2006) the Viennale has set the focus on Berlin School’s second generation, which together with Ulrich Köhler’s Montag kommen die Fenster (Windows on Monday, 2006) left a significant mark about new German films. By showing Rudolf Thome’s then latest film Du hast gesagt, dass du mich liebst (You Told Me That You Love Me, 2005) – in the meantime he and his favourite actress Hannelore Elsner have produced another one (as intimately set en-scène) – one could become aware of the close interdependency of the Berlin School with a German cinema once bred and cultivated in Munich, with films that only on their very surface might appear less “realistic” or less related to an abstract or structural understanding of social issues. Maybe Thome, who moved to Berlin in the ‘70s, is an exception, but it seems that the traditional Berlin-Munich-antagonism is – if it ever existed – history.

An even stronger engagement in realism (its modification, de-montage, destruction or dissimilation) could be noticed in current German documentary film. The aesthetic questions of how to work with emotionalised text as found footage and as fragments evidently lead to similar solutions like the re-embodiment or the re-enactment of somebody’s “real” experiences or actions. Anja Salomonowitz, Andres Veiel and Romuald Karmakar all used similar techniques of transmitting “real” events and once “really” uttered words into highly reflexive and minimalist, yet mannered forms of documentary filmmaking. This shall now be given a closer look.

In Kurz davor ist es passiert (It Happened Just Before, 2006), a film about female labour trafficking, Salomonowitz transferred the narratives of the affected women into other people’s physical bodies. Their environment thus forms the mise en scène, in which these protagonists (a cab driver, a bar manager) are staged to cite the victims’ statements. In terms of quotation it appears as if these sentences are freed from – but at the same time saved in – a familiar but still different setting.

Andres Veiel’s film Der Kick (2006) reconstructs the murder of a 16 year-old by his friends. His actors, a man and a woman, use quotations from court protocols and statements (of the accused, their parents and their neighbours) re-enacting the events in an empty building, without costumes or props. This minimalist method has been widely celebrated as a genuinely new form (which, one should add, it of course is not). It supposedly enables us to approach the “real” reasons – for the evil side of man and/or for a horrifying teenage reality scenario and its violent phantasmagorical origins (in fact, anthropological generalisations and social analysis seem to collapse in this scenario, becoming completely replaceable). What is so irritating about this technique is the fact that in all his statements, Veiel remains a perfect psychologist, a hermeneutical practitioner, trying to understand, trying to grasp the ungraspable, trying to get to the very bottom of things and sounds, and, finally, trying to cure (or at least reconcile a society / an audience remaining untroubled by “real” images). The more you listen to or read the director’s comments, the more you become convinced that his theatrical detachment of event and agent, this artistic staging of estrangement, is a mask behind which we’d have to expect the ultimate source, the final explanation of a fatal error.

But: whose error? Whose aberration? The method of depriving agents of their voice and transferring their testimonies into general propositions suggests that the lies are in words – but the sentences seem to have become too abstract for a specific social analysis, and yet they seem too singular, always remaining the words of a teenager, having watched too much American History X, or a woman, having tried to obey her husband’s patriarchal ideas, or a man, having spent too much time without work. (There is a film on the same Potzlow murder by young filmmaker Tamara Milosevic, Zur falschen Zeit am falschen Ort [Wrong Time, Wrong Place, 2005] not shown at the festival. Milosevic portrayed a close friend of the victim. Here the propositions – the same helpless way of expressing oneself, the same tragic absence of a human surrounding, the same parental and governmental failure – are also transferred to a different person, but they remain within the specific social setting and therefore in a complex sensual texture of relations and reasons.)

Unlike Der Kick the disconnected context of speech in Hamburger Lektionen (Hamburg Lectures, 2006) seems not a matter of socio-psychologically- but one of historically-rooted problems of cultural translation, of verbal translation as such. Romuald Karmakar’s text-based documentary, his usage of the technique of re-reading reflects the symptomatic ambivalence of its subject – the reading of the Koran.

Two video tapes were the basis for Karmakar’s documentary. They were made during the lectures of Mohammed Fazazi who in the ‘90s was Imam of the Al Quds mosque in Hamburg. In his prayer room Fazazi answered questions about how to apply the Koran on everyday Muslim life in Germany. The tapes taken from this and sold “under the table” are precarious, not only because of their legitimisation of terrorist acts, but also because of the fact that three of the four suicide pilots of 9/11 had attended the mosque regularly. To avoid an “iconography of evil”, as Karmakar calls it, he applied a method as follows: writing down what was said on video, giving the text to six translators, opening an intensive process of translation. The German text was then read from paper by the actor Manfred Zapatka. The reading was filmed in a simply lighted studio.

In succession of the events, the difficulty of the re-quotation is not only that it implements a cause-related timeline (since only later have we learned about what happened during 9/11). Karmakar has used this method also in Das Himmler-Projekt (2000), but taking into account the new situation, here it unfolds a specific difference. In contrast to Das Himmler-Projekt (based on a written speech by SS-leader Heinrich Himmler) this film deals with a text completely based on the spoken word. Zapatka, the actor, never acts out gestures – with one exception, when an obvious gap in the text is substituted by a gesture of cutting somebody’s throat. This scene literally exposes the formal blanks.

In all these films we notice a tendency of a hermeneutic approach towards the text. Meaning detached from the multiple tinges of expression. As Edward Said has shown, (1) the reading of the Koran itself since the 11th century has been subject to this discourse of re-interpretation. Since the imperatives iqra and qul (“recite” and “talk”) are commands inscribed in the book of god, interpreters had to decide whether they wanted to contextualise or to hermeneutically interpret the text, in order to absorb a timeless truth.

A different, physical experiment in documentary and portrayal was performed in Harald Bergmann’s Brinkmanns Zorn (2006). When grand German post-war beat-poet Rolf Dieter Brinkman (1940-1975) died, he left behind eleven hours of audio recordings (besides volumes of documentary material and numerous photographs). Bergmann has shortened these intense voice files down to 105 minutes. He has kept the audio and picturised it with imaginary reconstructions of the recording situation he assumed. So we see Brinkmann, performed by Eckhard Rhode, holding up his recorder, beating dustbins, shouting or scratching his wife’s stockings (to give sound a new materiality). Renowned photographer Elfi Mikesch caught these moments in illuminating, colourful pictures. Many of these realisations can be criticised, but whatever the image might try to complete, Brinkmann’s voice will dominate the space. And closing one’s eyes in the cinema will always lead to the point of what becomes the central sentence of this film, when Brinkmann angrily moans: “It is always this see-saw between the grand imagination and the shit that we face.” Not only in this sense, Brinkmanns Zorn, was one of the most honest documentaries of the 2006 Viennale.

The question of a post-revolutionary offspring after the late ‘60s/‘70s generation has been raised not only in a number of films but also public discussions. Filmmakers like Peter Whitehead and Kenneth Anger, both guests of the festival, were honoured for their constant contributions to the underground art scene of these days.

While Anger, born in Santa Monica, created magic and symbolic, expressive, homoerotic imagery, Whitehead on the other hand started his carrier in London, working on portraits of protest. Impressionistically but directly he fragmented and reassembled live recordings of the first meeting of American and European beat poets at Royal Albert Hall (Wholly Communion, 1965), footage of inner conflicts of Swinging London (Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London, 1967), the severe criticism of U.S. politics (Benefit of the Doubt, 1967) and material of the demonstrations at Columbia University, New York (The Fall, 1969). Today Whitehead has become a dedicated writer, and generously turned away from cinema, but he still fascinates as oral witness of his own story, being in constant conflict with his particular time. In that way Paul Cronin’s biographic documentary In the Beginning Was the Image: Conversations with Peter Whitehead – as indicated in the title, based on the artist’s own reflections – becomes an eventful, moving bright feature of 200 minutes. The retelling of Whitehead’s life creates its own process, full of narcissism and irony, deep insights and permanent reconsideration. In 1969 Whitehead wrote, “I have this psychological compulsion to make reality significant: I have to film constantly or write about it as well as experiencing it!” “However,” he resumes later, “I began to realise that in my role behind the camera I simply was a voyeur. So if I couldn’t change the world, maybe I should change myself.”

If Spanish director Albert Serra is necessarily a successor of the “Generation Revolution”, you can read his new film as a kind of poetic opposition. Rather than looking for significance, he chooses to go back a lot further, emptying the process of signification and systematically observing what is thereby left. In his second feature film Honor de cavallería (Honor of the Knights, 2006) (FIPRESCI rewarded) Serra staged Miguel Cervantes’ medieval novel Don Quixote in the Catalan countryside. He extracted a non-narrative telling from the adventurous plot, where windmills are substituted by a mere battle against the whistling wind. The non-action, the dramatic skies over the swathe of land, filmed on video in bright sunlight or darkest nights, the spare dialogues between Sancho and Quichote almost naturally seem to reflect upon the characters themselves.

After having gone through the contemplation of this film, silent and gentle as it is, it seems obvious that in this setting Sancho, the bondsman, can no longer remain the raw realist of the novel. When he is asked, “Would there be Sancho, if there was no Quixote?” the answer is already given. Moreover he becomes a soft, merely depressed but truly faithful follower of his lord. And also Quixote changes, as his visions are no more opposing a set civilisation. Instead he is surprisingly concerned to fight in the name of the Lord above: “Chivalry is civilisation”, he says to Sancho, “Chivalry is the reasoning of action.”

“The images and sounds we have gathered, assembled and put together, are not booty. They are an offer and an invitation, as temporary, beautiful, useful and extravagant as the world they are evidence of.” This was festival director Hans Hurch’s inducement. And there were plenty invitations. The Viennale 2006 showed 315 films in only two weeks, and it issued 88,900 tickets. Once again it proved its status as the city’s publicly most evoking cultural festival. Referring to what Senses of Cinema editor Michelle Carey in her report on the 2005 edition called a “cinephilic city”, it needs to be remembered that grounded on local institutions like the Austrian Filmmuseum, the Filmarchiv Austria, production companies, distributors, together with journalists, newspapers and sponsors, and a home grown scene of filmmakers, the festival is embedded in a multi-linked network enabling the Viennale to expand each year. It is this established paradisiacal infrastructure that allows a curating approach to keep the balance between contemporary artistic and continuous historical consolidation of cinema. Hence exactly this combination of strong local marketing and a highly demanding program produces strange contradictions: there are completely sold out minority programs like Ulrike Ottinger’s rarely screened Bildnis einer Trinkerin (Ticket of No Return, 1979), chosen by Elfriede Jelinek on one side. And the sponsored VIP-bags, meanwhile cult objects, sold by auction on eBay on the other. However, cultural glamour with baroque outlines is grounded in Vienna and the Viennale stands right in-between this clash of growing local interests and internal artistic or international aesthetic forms.

Therefore the speeches given at the opening gala were filled with remarks on local politics, as Viennale started shortly after the Austrian elections for parliament. It appeared suitable to open with Stephen Frear’s The Queen (2006) and what sounds like a political satire. The film concentrates on the days after the death of Lady Di. It tries to imagine how the Royal Family and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have dealt with the situation, in private and in public. But in this context The Queen also seemed to pose an important question about the nature of political cinema. Isn’t the strength that lies in satire its quick reaction and sharp opposition to an actual political situation? And isn’t exactly that (production time and money) the reason why satire is nowadays mainly reserved for other forms of art, like theatre or literature?

The Queen could not propose a different strategy. Instead it used the form of a romantic comedy that sometimes felt even displeasing (if you have to watch the Queen cry in front of a deer in a moment of lonely desperation). In this sense it seemed to get caught in a multitude of cinematographic needs (between tragedy and satire, between the personal and the political reconstruction) mainly affirmative, turning to concentrate on the (re)construction of settings or faces (yes, we love Helen Mirren!). On a dramaturgical level, the same conservative undertones could be found in the use of the “common sense” idea to emotionalise political figures (in order to explain their public acts). The film continuously followed each character’s process of personal rehabilitation, turning them from medial caricatures into bloody human beings. Telling us: in terms of our failures, we could all be Queens – or Kings.

The sensuous one-minute-Viennale-trailer was shot on grainy 35mm film. Leos Carax, the director, turns his back to the camera. He lights a cigarette and types on a computer. The blue light of the screen glows in the middle of a smoothly candle lighten room. “Tonight, I stop smoking”. When we read this sentence, we ultimately doubt his intentions. But Carax puts down his glasses, drags on the cigarette one last time, takes a revolver and – shoots himself. What a final victory for the insufficient human: the turnoff. It was a sign of radicalism in this black humour that there was never great laughter in the audience. But the minute is not over yet. The display changes, the computer automatically plays private super8 material, showing a young boy, while a French chanson starts up. Uncanny, in this final struggle, the machine pays Carax its last respect.


1. Edward W. Said, Die Welt, der Text und der Kritiker (German edition), Frankfurt am Main, 1997, p. 57.

Senses of Cinema, issue no. 42, jan-mar 2007

Sunday, February 3, 2008

XII. A River Runs Through It: Reflections on a Shot in Lav Diaz’s Heremias

By Alexis A. Tioseco

We walk a narrow dirt path lined randomly with fragmented rocks, working our way down to the point that runs parallel to a long river; a river that serves as a divide between the ground I walk on and the grassy terrain on side opposite. The landscape on this side rises up drastically: dirt, low-cost housing is being prepared on the main plain some twenty feet higher. Lav Diaz, sporting a worn back t-shirt, (which appears to have weathered many battles) and black jeans torn at the knees, his cinematographer (twenty-something Mara Benitez, daughter of a well-known underwater cinematographer) following suit, steps gingerly into the water. They cross to the midpoint in the narrow river, water reaching their ankles, their pants are rolled up just below the knees.

The soundman Bob Macabenta tests the levels of the DAT recording device (borrowed from cinematographer Neil Daza). There is loud noise coming from the construction going on in the main plain above us, and it dominates the audio. Rolly (the stout production manager), and Celso (the diligent AD and line producer), quiet the workers, asking that they halt their work briefly for the duration of the shot. They oblige, intrigued by what is going on, and watch intently the proceedings from their birds-eye position.

Bob sends Lav a thumb's up sign, signaling the sound is clear. Lav takes one more peek through the eyehole of the camera, a glance at the LCD display detailing the frame, then a final look at the river, whose water persists, tranquilly. He folds his arms in front of his chest, and in his typical crooked stance (he has muscle problems) yells out into the distance, “Action!”. The crew looks on, the construction workers are paused, watching, and I observe standing on the dirt road to the side of the river. We wait…

Since first watching the 5-hour “Batang West Side”, at its World Premiere during Cinemanila in 2001, I've been an ardent believer in the cinema of Lav Diaz. “Batang West Side” not only changed the way that I viewed cinema and the possibilities of Philippine cinema, but it was the film that made cinema matter to me, personally. It impact to me was like that of “Night and Fog” to Daney: a numbing revelation of the power this medium.

Diaz's long takes feel right. I've seen “Batang West Side” (edited by Ron Dale) three times now and the 11-hour “Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino” (edited by Diaz himself) four, and the rhythm of each shot seems timed to near-perfection. Diaz's shots linger long enough to let thoughts ferment and to let the eyes explore and wander; absorbing in equal measure the crevices of the frame, the ambient sounds of the world captured in it, and the audiences own personal reflections on the relation of what one is seeing now to what has been shown to him prior. They cut, in my viewing experience; at the moment when it feels ones attention may soon be diverted.
This, however, is the first time I am on the set of a Lav Diaz film…

As minutes pass, the frame remains stagnant, nothing changing, nothing moving, save for the natural ebb and flow of the river. Far in the distance on the dirt road in front of me there is movement. Heremias (played by Ronnie Lazaro) is walking forward towards me at a snails-pace, his cow trailing slightly to his side, guided by a rope he holds loosely. So beaten and worn is this character (by what we know not) that he has chosen to leave his band of traveling handicraft vendors and venture off on his own. His feet don't walk, they labor, and considering the incredible distances he must traverse (first with his cow, later alone), the toll it takes on the body and the mind must be incredible. This is solitude, this is loneliness, and it is the path he has chosen.

Heremias, feet dragging, head bowed humbly, has finally reached the point of entry into the river. He steps in first, legs weary, and dips his hand in the water as his cow trails him along the slippery path. He walks to the middle of the river, the center of Diaz's frame (which has remained stationary throughout), and places the shirt that has been resting on his shoulder on a rock, dipping his hands into the river to clean them. He turns again to his majestic cow, the soothing sounds of water flowing in the river in the background, and begins to wash him, gently dabbing water from the river on it's body, rubbing it over its torso and legs in an effort to cleanse it from the dirt it must have accumulated over the course of their journey.

Often when Diaz's characters enter a stagnant frame from a distance, the shot will be held until the character exits the frame; it is a pattern you become accustomed to and begin to expect when watching a Lav Diaz film. For the uninitiated it can be unbearable to endure, for those that have come to expect it, it is therapy.
Heremias pauses for a moment and looks out into the distance of the river…

Ronnie Lazaro has a magnificent body. It has nothing to do with muscle (which he has; his chest built like a gladiator) nor stature (he is not tall though neither is he short), but with the relation of his body, to the manner in which he carries it; the way he moves, sits, stands, pauses. Simple put— his way of being. He is representative of the every-Filipino: humble yet strong, quiet yet resilient. Sturdy, and able to endure.

Luc Dardenne, members of the Jury that awarded the short film he starred in, “Anino” (Shadows), the Palme D'or in Cannes in 2000, described Ronnie Lazaro as a beautiful, enigmatic image on the screen. I must agree with Dardenne, and I believe this enigma, this mystery, is borne out of the contradictions of Lazaro's body (imposing) and his nature (meek). But this meekness is not a manifestation of humility without conviction, but rather the opposite: it is the demeanor of one who has/is contemplating the world around him, and choosing if and when the proper time to act is. The body ensures survival while searching; the search leads to conviction in moments of action.

He turns back to his cow, placing hand on its shoulder, and looks diagonally to that which is beyond the scope of our frame (opposite from the side he entered). His head is barely taller than the back of the cow. The moment passes… and he returns to washing his companion, darting underneath him at one point to better wash his underside.

He then rests himself down on a rock near his cow. He seeks a moment to himself, once again, before his cow, equally noble in appearance and having hardly have moved at this point, nudges him slightly with his head, causing Heremias to turn and pat him lovingly on the nose. We are now 12 minutes into the shot at this point, and the crew all light up with smiles at this sight, as if the cow, reading their minds, was nudging Ronnie to say “get up, let's go!” knowing Diaz's modus operandi, that “cut” would only enter the vocabulary once they exited the frame.

Heremias sits undeterred by the prodding, and his cow then lowers his head resigned to wait and drinks from the river. After a beat Heremias walks to the rock where he placed his shirt, and puts it back on. Again, he takes a moment to sit, head-lowered, and let the water pass through legs…

Remember that the workers above have halted their grind and are watching, quizzically, as, in their eyes, nothing is happening.

I stand silent, alone in my thoughts, still in the same position I was in when the camera began its set-up. I am getting impatient at this spectacle, nervously glancing at the workers, bystanders, and various members of the crew. A devout cinephile and lover of long takes pregnant with meaning I am, not to mention a devout believer in the cinema of Diaz, but at this precise moment I am no better than any other person on the set. We all began the scene with intent concentration but at this point we've been broken. It is only Lav, Ronnie and the cow who remain in focus. Or maybe just Lav and Ronnnie…

Minutes pass and Heremias stands up, tugging the rope that is tied to his cow, leading him out of the river and back to the road in front of me; the road from which they came. They walk, slowly, continuing to preserve patient movement proper to the film. I didn't know this at the time, but the left side of the frame of the shot ends just before the dirt road begins; the view of the path that they walk is obstructed almost completely by shrubbery (as with many shots in his films, it is not a matter of seeing the characters that is important to Diaz, it is that we know they are there).

The crew waits with giddy anticipation, and as Heremias and cow wander far off into the distance, Diaz yells, “cut”. The crew applauds, the onlookers wonder why, and the construction workers resume their grind.

When I watch the finished film of Heremias for the first time I notice this shot. It was one of a small handful that I had the privilege to witness firsthand. In the film, the beginning and ending of the shot are abbreviated—we see Heremias and his cow, walking to us and away from us only briefly. I sink into the river while watching and listening to this scene, enraptured by the beauty of nature, entranced by the soothing sounds of the water flowing; feeling, understanding, what this moment means to Heremias. Diaz's air on set, his resiliency and belief in his art, in art period, represent the melding of what Ronnie Lazaro's body represents and his meekness seeks. There is humility in Diaz's patience, and a resiliency in his unwavering gaze, unwavering patience of his camera. It is a patience born from a conviction.

I did not concede to this on the set, but understood when watching the film. Standing on that dirt road, I was anxiously anticipating the word “cut”. Sitting in my cinema seat, I wish this shot could go on forever…

KINO Magazine, Slovenia, 2006

XI. Heremias

By Francis Cruz

Ox-driven carts full of native crafts line up at a concrete road. We painfully await each and every one of the caravans to finish their diagonal descent and disappear from Lav Diaz's immobile frame. Ten minutes has passed by, then another fifteen of the same scene of nomadic crafts merchants travelling from one end of the screen to another. The amount of time forces you to observe the surroundings of the traveling group: You delight at the clouds who also move slowly from right to left, the wild grass swaying in relaxed abandon, the majestic view from atop the hill. Before you know it, you share with these crafts merchants the pristine value of time: since you have so much of it. At night, you listen to their songs over a bonfire, their tales of girlfriends throwing away their vows of love to leave with a Japanese man, their worries that their little ones might catch a fever. Diaz pleads you to take a few hours to immerse yourself with their lifestyle; it's not exactly a harsh request as Diaz rewards you with beautiful scenery --- the still scenes may be likened to black and white post cards of rural life in the Philippines.

Titular character Heremias (Ronnie Lazaro) suddenly wants to separate from the group. He actually has no reasons why; the fact that a super typhoon is hitting the country within a few days makes the decision more brash, irrational and dangerous. Alone, he wanders about aimlessly. At one junction. he again makes an irrational decision of opting for the dirt road rather than the safe and predictable cement road. His ox seems wary of Heremias' choice of road, and needs to be pulled to the dirt road instead of driven comfortably. The typhoon arrives --- we actually feel its power (the non-stop downpour of rain, the frequent thunders, the deafening wail of the wind). Heremias and his ox take shelter at an abandoned building by the dirt road. The next morning, he finds his cart and his ox gone.

Lav Diaz's nine-hour masterpiece Heremias is only the first part of two films. If anything, it's one lengthy prelude to the main narrative. The main character is mostly an aimless character. It's quite difficult to grasp anything from the character as his interactions are mostly bare and pointless. Midway the film, we learn more about the film's geographic setting than the character. We learn that Barrio Hapon (the area wherein Heremias loses his ox and cart) was named so because it became a haven for Japanese stragglers after the Pacific War. Heremias' night companions detail how a certain Oshima was executed by military officials for being a vicious soldier during the Japanese occupation; the other companion debate on whether Oshima was really kindhearted or evil. On a bus stopover, the bus driver details to Heremias how a town called Prinsesa Bayawak (Princess Lizard) got its name; that a couple's daughter was taken away and was never to be found again, and in her stead, a lizard who can tell whether a visitor is of good or bad nature arrives.

When Heremias re-unites with his merchant companions and tell them how his wares got stolen, and how inutile and corrupt the local policeman was, one of his companions begin to tell another tale of how a woman was able to catch her husband's murderer by returning to the crime scene. Thus, Heremias again separates from his group to return to the abandoned house, hiding himself efficiently in the forests to begin a lengthy observation of passers-by. The observation culminates when a gang of teenagers arrive and start popping drugs, drinking, vandalizing, and throwing profanities. When the effects of the alcohol, the drugs, and the hype have died, they start plotting to rape a girl. All this, Heremias has witnessed, and like the biblical prophet of the same name, started to go about town telling first, the police, then the priest, of what is about to happen. His warnings are unheeded mostly because the supposed perpetrators are relatives of a high-ranking and dangerous government official. His last resort was God, and pleads to save the girl in return for his sacrifice to walk and fast for forty days.

It's quite hard to empathize with Heremias' situation. Diaz's visuals doesn't allow for close-ups, Ronnie Lazaro can only do much with bodily gestures and moans of supposed anguish. Yet with all the stylized distance Diaz reserves for his beloved character, there is this one point in the film that an unadulterated emotion aches with so much power, that it surpasses almost everything. Right after being driven away for merely wanting to save the girl, right after being punished physically and psychologically for his new-found knowledge, he struggles painfully within the darkly-lit and rain-drenched forest. Diaz makes you suffer with him; the same way he allowed you to feel how it is to die painfully in Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004). Amidst the blanketing greys (this is most probably a technical effect, rather than an artistic one --- Diaz never makes use of artificial lighting), we hear Heremias pleas to God (who is mostly absent from the film save for a few acknowledgements, mostly gathered from the Philippines being a traditional Catholic nation) and an occasional glance at his desperate face gathering bits of light making it distinguishable to the careful eye. At that moment in the film, Heremias finally bares his soul to us --- the effect is powerful and tremendous; it's almost akin to Faust dealing with the devil, but in this case, it's the exact opposite, Heremias transforms into a selfless individual and makes a contract with God.

A question arises: Is Heremias' sacrifice a useless one? Is there a God who would make true his end of the bargain? Diaz never really answers the question, or if he will, we'd have to wait another year (Diaz is currently shooting the second part of the film), and a few more hours of his meditative filmmaking, to know. In my opinion, despite the obvious absence of a God in the film, there is indeed a predestined design to have Heremias land in that particular situation. Heremias' sudden anxiety and discomfort with his life's transient nature, his decision against all notions of logic to separate from his group, the strong typhoons, those shared tales that discuss the distinguishable and the undistinguishable natures of goodness and evil, the tale of the woman who discovers her husband's murderer, Heremias' role as the world's solitary observer: all these were carefully placed to land the reactionary character in that moment wherein he would have to bet his life to ease that fate-driven burden of guilt knowing that a girl is about to be raped and killed. By a mile, this is probably this year's best film.

Ogg's Movie Thoughts, Lessons from the School of Inattention, 2006