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

Thursday, January 24, 2008

X. Future tense

By Noel Vera

Lav Diaz broke a record when he made “Batang West Side” (West Side
Avenue)--with a running time of five hours, it’s the longest Filipino film
ever, one of the most complex, and certainly one of the most ambitious. On
one level it’s an investigation into the murder of a Filipino youth; on
another it’s a meditation on the Filipino-American experience; on yet
another it’s an urgent query into the ultimate direction being taken by the
Filipino people. Diaz continues to flout the rules of standard Filipino
filmmaking with his next project, “Hesus Rebolusyunaryo” (Jesus the
Revolutionary), possibly the first serious work of Filipino science fiction
ever made.

It’s set in 2011, nine years into the future, when the Philippines has been
taken over by a military junta; the leader, a General Racellos, wields tight
control over the country’s single TV station, radio station, and newspaper.
Racellos’ power is being challenged by Muslim secessionists, by the
Communist movement, and by a rival military group’ in the middle of this
turmoil stands Hesus Mariano (a quietly volatile Mark Anthony
Fernandez)--scholar, musician, sharpshooter, poet, warrior.

“Hesus” is an unusual blend of low-budget filmmaking and filmmaking
sensibility. Most of it was shot at night, in deserted city streets strewn
with garbage--deserted because it’s the cheapest way to shoot a film (you
save on extras), but also deserted because General Racellos has declared a
curfew, so while you see suggestions of crowded urban life (the piles of
garbage) you don’t actually see the crowds.

When you do see people it’s in places beyond the government’s control, like
the shantytown Hesus hides out in, an extraordinary combination of wretched
squalor and natural lakeside beauty--the makeshift houses are suspended,
Venice-like, over water, an entire community on bamboo stilts, eking out a
living. Nine years into the future, Diaz seems to say, and we have yet to
take our cue from the opulence of the surrounding Filipino landscape; nine
years, and we still insist on huddling close together, miserable in our
poverty and choking on the stink of our own waste.

“Hesus” is somewhat unusual even by the standards of today’s
science-fiction--except for the deserted streets and spray-painted graffiti
you won’t see any evidence of advance technology, any sign at all that it’s
almost a decade into tomorrow; if anything, things appear to have gotten
worse…which is exactly Diaz’s point.

“Hesus” is what you may call “dystopian” science fiction, a genre of SF that
depicts nightmare futures instead of idealized ones; in this sense, it’s
solidly in the tradition of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” or George
Orwell’s “1984.” Perhaps a spiritual cousin to “1984;” despite the
science-fictional elements--Newspeak, Big Brother, the video screen that
watches you as you watch it to name a few. Orwell’s novel is more concerned
with the present than it is with the future--“1984” is as much about 1948
(the year it was written) as it is about 1984, just as Diaz’s film is about
Philippines 2002 as much as it is about Philippines, 2011.

Even the storytelling in “Hesus” is unusual, with scenes of violent gunfire
interleaved with scenes of extended meditative stillness. The action is
fast and intense, but after a while you sense the repetitiveness, you notice
the improbable premise (Hesus fends off dozens of soldiers wielding
automatic rifles with a mere handgun). Then you realize that the action is
patterned after the popular “Counterstrike,” with Hesus rounding corridors
and descending stairways in the police-approved stance for handgun
shooting--both arms straight out, swiveling with the eye-line like a tank’s
gun turret--the only variation being the different settings where each gun
battle takes place. Firefights or action sequences in action movies, Diaz’s
seems to tell us, are like video games, and about as meaningful--you only
indulge in them to get to the next level. The film’s real concerns (aside
from making the aforementioned point) are elsewhere…though taken as action
sequences, the gunfights are paradoxically well done--cleanly staged and
coherently filmed.

One such gunfight is followed by a lengthy sequence where a Colonel Simon
(the always great Joel Lamangan) waits for the wounded Hesus to wake up from
a coma. Simon reads to Hesus one of his own poems, and while the moviegoer
may puzzle over this sudden break to do a poetry recital the poem is
actually the heart of the movie, the same way the song Jeanne Moreau pauses
to sing is the heart of Francois Truffaut’s masterful “Jules and Jim.”
Reading the poem Colonel Simon describes a simple meal of tomatoes, fish and
rice--he could almost be reading back to the prisoner Hesus’ dream of a
simple life, the same way Orwell’s protagonist, dreaming of a better future,
thought only of simple things: a mug of beer, a bit of bread and cheese, a
woman to lie in bed with. It’s a quietly epiphanic moment, and a quietly
moving one.

There is one more source of inspiration I see Diaz acknowledging with this
film, and that’s the godfather of all modern Filipino revolutionaries, Jose
Rizal. “Hesus Rebolusyunaryo” is Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” cast in
science-fiction terms; Hesus is a younger Ibarra, slowly learning to be
disillusioned not only with the society he has chosen to oppose, but with
the communists he has chosen to oppose society with (Diaz reveals that the
film’s premise was based on the 1996 purges in the Communist party, where
comrade accused fellow comrade, and entire cells were killed on the basis of
mere suspicion). Hesus’ commanding officer, Miguel (the extraordinary
Ronnie Lazaro), acts as a more mysterious, more malevolent Elias, whispering
subversive thoughts to Hesus, guiding him along paths of either sudden
damnation or eventual enlightenment (Hesus can’t be sure which).

A film about the future, mixing the influences of George Orwell, Jose Rizal
and video games! “Hesus” was made on a shoestring budget (around five
million pesos) and shot in roughly twenty days, but the ideas teeming in it
are enough for a half-dozen lesser films. It’s an action flick with an
attitude, a political satire with a philosophical bent, a science-fiction
drama with a committed political stance; it’s also, after all is said and
done, something of a surprise that films like this can still be made, in
this country, in these times. No, more than a surprise--it’s a freaking

Sunday, January 20, 2008

IX. Batang West Side: The Space of Absence and the Site Of Resistance

By Andrej Sprah

“Cognition, like culture, is organic, where meaning can flow without imposing manipulative forces or elements. Humankind’s capacity to grasp meaning is organic, too. Cinema can create this culture. But the real power of cinema comes when there is honesty in the work. You can use or discard all the theories, philosophies and verities that have sprung out of this great modern art but I believe that its greatest value will be that of honesty. And qualifying honesty must always be on the level of responsibility. The search for the truth must always go hand in hand with responsibility.”
-- Lav Diaz

A deserted night street, covered with a few inches of dirty snow, showered with the cold light of the street lamps…; and there at the very bottom of this image a human figure arises from afar, wandering in its long and slow arriving past the patient eye of the camera… This scene, so saturated with loneliness and emptiness that it hurts to the bone, represents not only the initial but also the most frequently used image Filipino director Lav Diaz confronts us with in his in-depth and extensive investigation into the unenviable reality of his people’s diaspora in the North American Jersey City: Batang West Side (2002). The film, which aroused the interested film public with its epic structure and monumental design, starts out as a classic whodunit - with a body found lying on the pavement if West Side Avenue and a detective handling the case in a committed and meticulous manner. The victim of an unknown perpetrator is Hanzel Harana (Yul Servo), a barely 21-year-old Filipino immigrant who had but two years before come to stay with his mother in “the promised land”. The detective is his countryman, Juan Mijarez (Joel Torre), who is not in the least left indifferent by the suffering, the lack of perspective and the tragic fate of his kinsmen. The death of this young man, in a deserted street late at night with no credible witnesses, turns out to be a complex, Rashomon case, whose investigation is with every new actor ever more removed from the rules of the genre and is slowly turning into a complex psycho-sociological drama with the main –symbolic - protagonist becoming the Filipino man himself.1 Namely, in his fourth feature film, Lav Diaz concentrates above all on the question of the (lost) identity of the Filipino man. He is our contemporary, placed in the now, which spares but the few wealthiest people in the world, and in a diasporal environmental, in a kind of paradigmatic community where its inhabitants' basic identity problems crystallize in a concentrated form. Namely, an individual abroad is never only a bearer of the subjective social role but is always also a representatives of his people. Through the investigation procedure, we, together with Mijarez come to meet with Hanzel’s family members living in the USA; with his mother (Gloria Diaz), his grandfather (Ruben Tizon) and – only by the way – his father, who comes utterly distort from the Philippines only to collect his son’s body. Besides the mourning, frustrated representatives of the divided family, the detective’s interrogations introduce us to Hanzel’s girlfriend, his closest friends and a number of individuals, be they Hanzel’s acquaintances and allies or his enemies – the key suspects of the case. The colourful collection of actors and companions of the tragical death soon proves to be a precisely conceived matrix of typical characters by which Diaz carefully sets up a paradigmatical structure of Filipino society as a whole. The selected protagonists, their relationship and their role and positioning in the unfolding of this complex narration bear evidence that nothing is left to chance and that the director exercises control over the extensive subject-matter of the five-hour film narration with incredible ease, certainly and confidence in himself and the medium of his expression. In this narration, Diaz’ subjective auteur vision comes to its full expression alongside his unflinching belief that an endeavour to restore the severed link between man and world is the precondition of creativity and the overcoming of the manipulative nature of the film medium itself: “…in creation, you will have a thousand and one options that represent the truths of your process assuming you, the maker, are the one who makes the decision. It is a process that would culminate in an eventual dynamic between the film and the viewer, and the viewer and the world. And if you believe that your work can truly be elevated in an aesthetic domain and that it can sustain itself, then its potential for meaning is vast and limitless so that it would be complete.” (Diaz in conversation with Wee).2 In his awareness of a film’s self-existence, Diaz comes very close to those conceptions in modern discussions of creativity that assign to a work of art a privileged place of the only thing in the world that sustains (itself): “[Art] preserves and is preserved in itself (quid juris?), although actually it last no longer than its support and matrials – stone, canvas, chemical colour, and so on (quid facti?). /…/ The work of art is being of sensations and nothing else: it exists in itself.” (Deleuze, Guattari 1994: 163-64) In Diaz’ case the aspect of self positing is at the same time a principle of an entirely concrete creative process – by letting the shot scenes come alive in all their greatness, a film rises above its subject-matter, is established as a whole and stands up on its own – independently and necessarily: “I couldn’t do anything anymore, that’s the work, that’s it.” (Diaz)3 The feeling of the necessity of the sequence of events is the driving force of the inner dynamics of Batang West Side, where the nature of police work itself reveal a network of relation running much deeper and entangled more fatally than it first appears in view of the seeming outer pragmatic looseness. In such a consonant composition the only “ dissonant element” of the film seems to be Mijares’ – accidental – meeting with a documentary filmmaker who, with his camera , is on the lookout for the truth of the Filipino people’s life in diaspora. “The camera will catch plenty of stories. Some even true, I hope”, is his motto in decisively opposing the detective’s initial aversion, which at the end of the film – when two meet again and at first glance surprisingly bond – bring us to the revelation of one of the key enigmas of the film. But the aforementioned tight composition, based on Diaz’ efforts to search for truth according to the valuation criteria of an artist’s honesty and his unflinching responsibility for man and world, is of the kind that is not supported by “ the laws of physics” or – in our case – by the normative controls of the established ways of film production. It is held together by the inner means supporting the work of art and that binding notion of “the ultimate cinema” , put forward by Diaz’ great role model Andrey Tarkovsky: “I see chronicle as the ultimate cinema; for me it is not a way of filming but a way of reconstructing, of reconstructing life.” (Tarkovsky 1994: 64-65)4 And in accordance with life itself the basic conception of Batang West Side – its need to reconstruct the life of the murdered young man – is permeated by the tragic determinations of death and bitter memory. Its key sound dimension is therefore a collection of cries, sighs, shivers, (self)-accusations and whispers…, its predominant emotional dimension is a combination of the feeling of grief, fear, loss, desperation and solitude… its elementary spatiality is a claustrophobic series of ghetto streets and temporary housing suffocating one even in the case of a lavish rich suburb villa… its central temporary is the momentariness of the opening letting the past emerge – both recent ( the last two years of Hanzel’s life ) and, above all, the time of Martial Law as one of the most traumatic periods of Filipino history. The various dimensions of Diaz’ accomplished narration continuously flow into each other in a permanent ellipsis and, at the same time, a constant – narrative superimposition. Ellipsis, as the actual characteristic narrative method of Batang West Side, as well as double exposure (which does not figure directly but as a specific form of double encoding, giving expression to the dramatical function specifying the essential determiners of Diaz’ narration: the coexistence of two levels of reality – concrete physical and imaginary, non-material) is a figure that besides its primary narrative function always conveys also the heterogeneity of film time.

This pervasion of time can be clearly seen already in the prologue of Batang West Side – the starting ten-minute exposition ending with a murder of a young Filipino as the initial plot set-up… “I grew without a father. I have a father, but my memories of him are all from when I was only seven years old. His image remains incomplete in me save for the rare picture my mother kept and for brief memories of him taking care of me. When I was seven, he left. My mother wept for a long time waiting, than looking for him. It almost drove her mad.”

These are words in the off field underlying the introductory sequence of the film, in which from the depth of the frame, along a deserted night street, an at first barely noticeable figure of a staggering, evidently “absent” young man slowly approaches. In the scene, filmed as a patient long take in full shot, which is one of the most typical ways Diaz shoots exteriors, we follow the protagonist – in whom we shall recognize Hanzel Harana, a soon-to-be victim and subject of a police investigation up to the immediate vicinity of the spot, about to become the place of his death. A cross cut takes us to a dream-like, breath-taking black and white scene in the Filipino countryside where grief consumes both a child and his desperate mother as well as a grown up man sobbing on the shoulders of a young man, collecting his falling teeth into his hand…Cutting back to a man dozing off in a parked car and the sound of a far off shot waking him, reveals that it was him we have just seen in the dream – i.e., detective Juan Mijarez, who obviously dozed off while on a stake-out. Mijarez diligently writes down his dreams and then checks whether his nightmare ( teeth falling out in a dream supposedly fortell death) harmed anyone. He calls the hospital where his mother is lying, connected to machines keeping her alive. Learning she is fine, he calls his wife, who he lives separate from and has not called in two years, to check on his two sons. Before leaving the stake-out scene, he receive a message from his partner about a murdered Filipino youth on West Side Avenue. When he arrives at the scene of the crime, he recognizes the victim Hanzel, whom he did not know personally but who was familiar to him from the indispensable “ inventory” of the streets. ( “I’m familiar with Hanzel Harana. I always see him at West Side Avenue. One time I bumped into him,” the detective recalls in inner monologue.) It is exactly this inner monologue as a particular kind of voice-over – providing to be a standard method of Diaz’ introspection – and the visual reconstruction of the moment when the policeman and the young man bump into each other that give the whole its specific meaning of a crucial scene. Not only because of the fact that this is the only scene in the entire film in which Diaz, as an emphasis, uses both slow-motion and replay at the same time, but also because it introduces the principle of retrospective reconstruction as the key narrative strategy of Batang West Side. It is clear now that the introductory monologue did not speak of Hanzel’s childhood (though his situation was exactly the same save him growing up without his mother), that it was detective Mijarez stressing his father’s absence and it is therefore he who at the very beginning proves to be the central (individual) protagonist of the film. It becomes clear also that the shot waking Mijarez from his nightmare meant the moment of Hanzel’s death. “Dissonance” between the visual and acoustic dimension of the scenes, on the one side, and on the other, the stressing of elements explicitly talking about the nature of film time – the sound of the shot for example has the function of a kind of acousmatic quilting point – are factors indicating that the passing between different time levels is the basic stylistic bravura of Batang West Side. At the same time the images of the sketched prologue material acquire a characteristic saturation with meaning, at first coming off more or less as one-dimensional, because of their of their ascetic visualization, but in the – subsequent or retroactive – contextualization within the whole, they reveal all their multiplicity of meaning. Such a complex structure, with all its registers of multiplicity, coming to its full the very first few moments, is a sign of an ambitious aesthetic conception giving itself over to organicity wherein the key emphasis crystallizes through aspects of temporality.

As mentioned before, one of the fundamental aesthetic elements of Diaz' film articulation is the long take, i.e. , the sequence shot, and the specifically, as he himself points out, the long take in real time.5 Between its two most common variants, the stationary or quasi – stationary long take and its mobile counterpart, the author favours the first. This is quite understandable if we take as a presupposition that it is principles of the first that give the director an opportunity for “integrity and patient intensity of his gaze” (Le Fanu). These are precious elements of liberating that gaze, embellishing Diaz’ endevours for an authentically cinematic image – such as abides in the binding principle of Andrey Tarkovsky: “The image becomes authentically cinematic when (among other things) not only does it live within time, but time also lives within it, even with in each separate frame.” (Tarkosvsky 1994: 68) With the patient arranging of everyday scenes in their basic time/space determinations – as a kind of observation “of life’s facts within times, organized according to the pattern of life itself" (Tarkovsky) – the author takes up a committed task of according the viewer’ s film experience to the immediate experience of his own ordinariness. In putting everything on the presence of time as the fundamental “tension“ of the shot, steadily persisting in its slow pace, putting forward the feeling of duration even when the “narrative logic” of a whodunit would dictate a dynamical build up of the visual pyrotechnics of lightening montage cuts, a specific relationship with the viewer is being established. Submitting to duration, necessary in order to establish the tension of the gaze that in his artistic integrity Diaz strives for, is a (pre)condition for opening up the viewer’ s perception – for his letting the filmmaker captivate him with his gaze. Such a mobilizing of the gaze – attainable through different film techniques – is intensified with the stylistics of long takes mostly when this is a means of those aspect of essentialization that reflect in a tendency towards presence as such.6 With the strict intensification of screen existence in the scenes of the simple moments of everyday life (where narrative time is usually prolonged and diegetic nullified), the reactualization of the interest in the ordinaries of life comes to its full expression, wherein the merely apparent banality of man’s everyday experience deservedly comes under a detailed investigation… His conscious and uncompromising focus on life in its immediacy places Diaz in a constructive dialogue with some important stands of contemporary film art. On one side, he comes close to elements of contemporary minimalism, which carefully exposing the social emptiness of a common man’s everyday and focusing on the here and now, reveals above all aspect of individual desolation – the consequences of catastrophic social “ development “. With redirecting its interest to immediate experience, minimalist art comes to clear stands on the nature of reality. Its essentialization is reflected in its apparent simplicity, as a result of a strict focus – the elimination of all superfluous factors. It is a process of careful distillation and concentration wherein “a sort of crystallized abundance” ( Motte ) is expressed. Minimalist art is not simplified and obscured but it actively transforms the very center of current values: “it locates profound experience in ordinary experience”. ( Serota, Francis ) In view of the correspondence between Diaz’ creative efforts and certain minimalist elements, we cannot talk about his visual asceticism as a reductionism or nihilism, on the contrary, it can be considered as a principle of substantialization bringing to its full expression above all the in–depth interest in presence as such. With it artistic activity turns again towards the questions of perception, which means there also comes to a reconsideration of the subject. On the side, a resonance of the current new realistic initiatives all over the globe, most notably perhaps the creative approaches of French new realism, can be sensed in Diaz’ coming close to the throb of reality. The most prominent place in French new realism belong to the so called realism of proximity (“un reel de proximate”), reflecting above all in the “documentary style of the observation” ( Powrie ) and in the thought–through selection of a film’s subject matter: individuals or social groups the director knows thoroughly. The film treatment itself is not an indirect rendition of an imagined experience, but rather the reality of an individual being endangered by the “achievements” of brutal capitalism coincides with the activity of the author who is himself often explicitly engaged in identifying and actualizing the pressing problems of socio–cultural reality. The characteristic new realistic elements of Batang West Side can be considered in view of the Brechtian conception of realism as an uncompromising “probing of reality”, originating from a need for the reconstruction of phenomena, penetrating the mere surface of things as a kind of speculum allowing us to probe the world. In doing this, it takes no notice of the set rules, “clichés” of opinion; Brechtian "…idea of realism is not a purely artistic and formal category, but rather governs the relationship of the work of art to reality itself categorizing particular stance towards it.” ( Jameson 1980: 205). At the same time the radical rejection or even undermining of conventionality presents an obvious manifestation of progressive film. Progressive in the context of a definition by Robert Philip Kolker, who stresses it is all about “…cinema that invites emotional response and intellectual participation, that is committed to history and politics and an examination of culture, that asks for the commitment of its audience; a cinema that offers ways to change, if not the world, at least the way we see it.” (Kolker 2001: 2) This illumination gives a wider contextualization and with it an “outer” argumentation to the director’s statement, which we dare take as a universal “programme declaration”, as his creative credo, wherein he decidedly emphasizes: “…that the foundation of a truthful work should be honesty and responsibility. My struggle lies here: my so–called verite or aesthetic stand”. (Diaz in conversation with Wee).7 Even in view of Diaz’ exciting concurrence with the most actual of present times it is by no means surprising that in his “programme guidelines”, there echo many principles from renowned chapters in film history, e.g., the postulate of “the artist’s responsibility” as conceived by Andrey Tarkovsky in the homonymous chapter in Sculpting in Time, where he emphasize that: “…the more he [the artist] aspires to a realistic account, the greatest his responsibility for what he makes.” (Tarkovsky 1994: 184) In line with the committed correspondence to certain characteristics of contemporary film searchings, defined above all by the awareness of the mutual responsibility of us all in the world and to the world – which is the precondition of an active partaking in the shaping of its structure – we can consider Diaz’ conception and expression of film time also as an opposition to certain tendencies in the “modernizing” conception of temporality caused by a massive progress in new media technologies. It is exactly the specifics of the long take with reference to the question of real time aesthetics that have been decisively ritualized due to the concord with some of the important current discussions raising the question s of change in the treatment of the real (time) conditioned by new technologies.8 The notion of real time, moving first from cinematic perception of continuity to the TV conception of “liveness”, had culminated in the computer time of instantaneity, and is now through digitalization coming back to film in the universal form of special effects. In the unconstrained process of technological progress, in which the question of reality moves right along the temporal axis, the insistence on articulating time such as is made possible by the long take is perceived as a kind of an opposition praxis. It is a form of resistance to the present which, placing everything on the presence of time ( in pure form ), opposes the new–technology tendencies towards “an erasure of memory and history”.9 It is exactly history and memory (as we have already mentioned and will see later on) that are among the key factors of Diaz’ artistic enlightenment project; his organic tendency towards the redemption of the Filipino soul, accurately captured in the form of his binding principle: “…I formulated my thesis that true cinema can redeem the Filipino soul.”

Though we assigned to the long take in real time a primary place in the aesthetic conception by which Diaz establishes inner continuity and quality of a particular scene – “For it is the continuous time, the real time in the long take which allows for the possibility of contingency, the unforeseen, the unexpected, in the cinema.” (Doane) – we must point out that Batang West Side is in a chronological sense a most non-continuous and non-linear work. The present of its diegesis is suspended through out with longer or shorter time jumps (as indicated by the above description of the key points of the points of the prologue). The central narrative line of the police investigation into Hanzel’s death – representing the temporal anchor of diegetic present – is subject to constant digressions with which Diaz explores the possibility of accessing the truth about the young man’s life. This is then also supposed to help reveal the truth about his death. The story of a short-lived “diasporal experience” of the young Filipino man comes to life in a certain narrative stratification of different time levels taking place parallel to the investigation into his death. The dispersed fragments of truth thus return to their original moment in a form of concentric undulation. And at the same time death itself opens up aspects of the past: on one side, in way of mourning, which in the memories of loved ones conjures up time past, and on the other, in a colorful series of manifold truths left by Hanzel’s presence on the face of the earth, among his fellow man. Diaz does not focus merely on the grieving family members and those closest to Hanzel, who with his death immerse in memory and self-interrogation looking for their share of the responsibility, an equally thorough investigation is also directed at the main suspects as well as the detective himself in whom the death of his countryman arouses a series of painful reminiscences of his own – obviously traumatic – past. Each protagonist Diaz introduces into the whole not only brings his individual “story” but is also the bearer of a certain period or (is the victim) of tragically events in the history of the Philippine people. “The story, its presence, is only a reason for memory and reflection. On the history Philippine people in the years covered by Batang West Side: it is hidden in the character – firstly as an individual, secondly as a collective memory/fiction -, who are projected into epically extended spaces if time in almost every scene; the memories as well as the speculations on the murder young man always – be the road ever so winding – lead (back) to the Philippines in time of the Marcos’ regime, which turned the riches nation of South Asia into the biggest poorhouse of the region, its only export goods now being people.” (Moller 2005: 6) First among the narrative strategies enabling the author to conjure the past and materialize it in the present is the elliptical loosening of logical connections of ordered time sequence, the connections of cause and effect, successions or the linear sequence of events. The basic stylistic approach with which Diaz subverts the established logocentric connections is retrospective reconstruction opening up time rifts and enabling a free transition between factual and remembered. But even in these transitions, in the modes of the reconstruction itself there reconstruction itself there is no inner logic, no causality. There are three predominant modes of reconstruction: sometimes it is parallel, when with the help of cross cutting, we at the same time follow the talked about events, but more often “classic” retrospection, wherein the reporting on an event melts into a visual reconstruction of the reported, and “anticipatory” retrospection, where the reported event is only later placed in the order of the whole, alternate. In between the pointed out narrative levels there sporadically intrude Mijarez’ dreams and occasional reminiscent flashbacks triggered by a certain situation in the present. These scenes of imaginariness have their counterpoint in film fragments the viewer shares in either directly – when protagonists watch the film on TV, or indirectly when - he is himself “addressed" as a firsthand witness or even as a “ camera-man” of the film within a film… Through the development of narration gradually the situations of unexpected or “ unexplained” transitions come to predominate in which the sequence of scenes is in complete “ accord” though the scene may be taking place on different time levels. Ever more often what is factual and what is reconstructed in memory seems to a kind of punctured whole conveying the coexistence of different levels of reality – physical and imaginary. And the more the laws of “logical” are undermined the deeper are the punctures through which the past comes flooding, the one that the authority is trying to redeem in order that through its “ active introspection” he contribute his share to the redemption of the Filipino soul 10 – according to “III. Thesis on the philosophy of history” by Walter Benjamin: “To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past – which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments.” (Benjamin 1940: 1) The viewer in this manifold yet extremely fragile composition – which is never in danger, though, due to its valuable bond being on one side, the author’s full responsibility and on the other, a strong emotional charge – gradually looses his firm footing. Due to such time “inconsistency” he is in a way struck floating in a time loop; yet it is exactly this subversion of a firm chronological support that makes him search more intensively for some other hold, which Diaz offers in the narrative’s emotional dimension. The viewer thus becomes more susceptible to the einfuhlung in the manifold film dimensions… By this we of course do not mean the aspects of a viewer’s identification, but have in mind the element of the “creative spirit of the audience” in the sense of Kiarostami’s “unfinished cinema”, believing in art as a possible – factor in “changing things” and presenting new ideas: “Art gives each artist and his audience the opportunity to have a more precise view of the truth concealed behind the pain and passion that ordinary people experience every day.” (Kiarostami 1995: 1)11 This principle not only directly corresponds to aspect of free creative activity (as a kind of a form resistance to the present), advocated by contemporary film thought headed by Gilles Deleuz, but it shares its conviction about the engaged viewer with the author of Batang West Side himself: “Give the audience real cinema so they can react and re-asses their lives, make them aware that they have choices and responsibilities.” (Diaz in conversation with Romulo) The reaction is actually possible only when a pledge is established between the film and the viewer which – as in any relationship – is based on trust. One of the key factors in attaining the viewer’s trust is the awareness of the free gaze:"…if people were allowed to see freely they would see truly” (Vaughan). The seeing itself is determined by far more than the eye can reach, for in it there is encompassed the whole of an individual’s experience, which the gaze of the filmmaker faces. The authentic gaze stimulates registers of seeing that are not subject to conventions of a certain mode of representation encoding the meaning of the images on screen, but are open to the awareness of the gaze itself; the gaze in which its representational aspect is accounted for in the “sum total” of the film act. Such cinematic authenticity, attainable only through the possibility of a confrontation as a fact of actuality, wherein the filmmaker’s gaze and the viewer’s seeing coincide, is the precondition of the free gaze. In it the fundamental time relations ritualize, wherein the need for impressions of reality declines while the need for impressions of presence intensifies. “What film archives, then is first and foremost a lot experience of time as presence, time as immersion. This experience of temporality is one, which was never necessarily lived, but emerges as the counter-dream of rationalization, its agnostic underside – full presence. Hence, time’s reality in the cinema is both that of continuity and rupture." (Doane 2004: 272)

Diaz takes great advantage of the awareness of the double nature of cinematic time in his treatment of the third, in the context of Batang West Side probably most important, aspect of time – history. With a characteristic time articulation the director strives towards such forms of “ conjuring the past”, or the presentation of its absence, as are not based only on narrative “digressions and subversions” but, as already mentioned, on opening passages through which history emerges in the narrative. Again we are not dealing here with a matrix, with a universal principle of “conjuring”, but there is once more at work here a heterogeneous series of ways of “activating the past”. Above all in Diaz’ treatment of history, it is almost never (but for the rare exceptions of dreams sequences, reminiscent flashbacks and film clips) a matter of direct representation or enactment of past facts and actions but merely of their transmission. When there is talk about a concrete individual experience of one involved in a historical event, Diaz most often uses the form of memory narration; when for example , the subject under consideration is the question of conflicting ideologies, the author metaphorically focuses on rival groups pushing shabu (crystal meth – specific “social” drug of the Philippines), religiously announcing their base “calling“ as the vision of a new prosperity for the Filipino man… The complex series of aspects of history actually shows that Batang West Side as a whole is the particular way of historical articulation; namely, the essential element of its structure are representations of the traumatic facts in Filipino history, as is also stressed by the author himself. 12 The characteristic of historical time in Diaz’ visual treatments is at first sight in an interesting harmony with Walter Benjamin’s “dialectical concept of historical time”. We have in mind his notion of the concept of history – from his prominent Theses on the Philosophy of History -, arising from the opposition to its evolutionist variant, based on the concept of progress, as a form of “progression through a homogenous, empty time” (Benjamin). “The ‘dialectical concept of historical time aimed not to preserve the past but to activate it. Benjamin’s theory of ‘dialectical images’ which flash up at the moment of danger was explicitly conceived as a historical pedagogy - a means of transmitting the past while drawing attention to the particular way in which the past is seen in the present.” (McQuire 1998: 178) The presupposition of the “moment of danger” in the context of Batang West Side refers to the treatment of certain parts in the film as the crucial scenes. These are on one side, the “intensified” situations in which the viewer’s interest is more strongly mobilized than in most others, on the other, the scenes wherein certain points of the story are meaning-wise and emotionally clarified. The example of the first, and by no means only, is in Batang West Side certainly the – already initially pointed out – sequence of Hanzel’s death.13 Aspects of the second can be seen, for example, in the representation of Mijarez’ reminiscence (late in the second half of the film), aroused by him touching the victims gun and culminating in a hallucination where it is him who fires the bullet into Hanzel’s brain. In this horrifying scene (the only one, despite the horrifying amount of violence in Batang West Side, we can consider in light of the definition of the so-called ultra violence), Diaz not only points out aspects of collective guilt when he shouts at us: “We killed Hanzel Harana”, but with his blasting the inner continuity of the scene – with which he throughout the film so patiently built the feeling of the presence (of time) – he also reveals the fundamental nature of his aesthetics and ethics: his aesth-et(h)ic stand, which he shares with the binding stand of permanent human responsibility: “We are not responsible for the victims but responsible before them.” (Deleuze, Guattari) The individual enactments, or better yet the intrusions of the imaginary, as a kind of Proustian memoire involuntaire, are contrasted with a massive material of voluntary memories. On closer view, the persistent methodology thus offers another aspect in considering Diaz’ conception of history: not to ascribe to the crucial scene a privileged role but to, despite its greater intensity, consider it as equal to the others. We thus return to the initial presupposition that the structure of the film stands up on its own exactly because of its composition “imbalance"… In the imbalance of the relationship between the concrete and the imaginary we can sense an echo of the subtle nuancing of Benjamin’s different between two premises in V. and VI. Philosophically historical theses. In the fifth Benjamin says: “The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again." The sixth begins: “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’" (Ranke). "It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger." (Benjamin 1940:2) In this duality, which of course does not presuppose difference but an important complementing, we can sense also the key “values” of Diaz’ treatment of history. Diaz succeeds in merging Benjamin’s presupposition of the evasiveness of the image of the past and its irretrievability, threatening to disappear every time it “is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns’, with his awareness that “in every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest the tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it” (Benjamin). The key means allowing for such a merging is a network of “parallel presents” erasing the transitions between different narrative levels. This network is also a net Diaz’ camera not only uses on the look-out for the present in which the image of the past will be recognized as one of its own concerns, but with the strengthening of the role of “individuals’ presents” in the film – when the focus on the events after Hanzel’s death predominate over the reconstruction of this – the center of gravity shifts towards the hear and now, towards presence as such. But this does not mean a subversion of historical perspective – quite the opposite. It is only through the tension of presence, in which the moments of danger (or crucial scenes) are not pointed out but considered equal to the rest in the entire complex structure of “conjuring the past” – saturated “only’ with duration, emptiness or feeling of loneliness, loss and suffering -, that another, perhaps the most committed gaze can open up. It is a gaze most uncompromising in the sense that the author does not hesitate to0 treat the present – which finally prevails on the diegetic as well as narrative level of the film – and with it himself as the actual stage where the past generations of his people “retroactively resolve their deadlocks” (Zizek). This is a conception that is as a reflection of Benjamin’s “dialectical notion of historical epoch" exposed by Slavoj Zizek in his paper The Fragile Absolute. In sharpening the opposition to the naïve evolutionist approach to historical development Zizek puts forward a thesis that the presupposition. “That the present redeems the past itself”, is not only a historically relativistic assertion, but that a characterization of a past era always encompasses also our present stance. “What we are claiming is something much more radical: what the proper historical stance (as opposed to historicism) ‘relativizes’ is not the past (always distorted by our present point of view) but, paradoxically, the present itself – our present can be conceived only as the outcome (not of what actually happened in the past, but also) of the crushed potentials for the future that were contained in the past. In other words, it is not only – as Foucault liked to emphasize, in a Nietzschean mode – that every history of the past is ultimately the ‘ontology the present’, that we always perceive our past within the horizon of our present preoccupations, that in dealing with the past we are in effect dealing with the ghost of the past whose resuscitation enables us to confront our present dilemmas. It is also that we, the ‘actual’ present historical agents, have to conceive of ourselves as the materialization of the ghost of past generations, as the stage in which these past generations retroactively resolve their deadlocks.” (Zizek 2000: 90 – 91)

The pragmatic reality allowing Diaz’ specific film structure in Batang West Side, where both his “proper historical stance”, as well as his “aesthetic stand” comes to its full expression, is diaspora. Its socio-cultural determinations are in the present context not important so much because of its characteristic of being “a nation in miniature” but above all because of the “concentrated” form of the identification manifold from which Diaz picks out only those nuances he needs for the desires result. Therefore it would be difficult to call Batang West Side a diasporic film. Even if we refer to the monumental research on “exilic and diasporas filmmaking”, An Accented Cinema by Hamida Naficy, we can see that Batang West Side can be placed somewhere between both conceptions, for it moves away from the strictness of both definitions. 14. Even though Lav Diaz himself has an individual diasporic experience, having for quite some time (between the years 1992 and 1996) lived and worked in the USA, we cannot declare him a “diasporic filmmaker". Namely, all his films, except Batang West Side, are labeled Filipino and he presents himself as a Filipino artist on a committed mission to “redeem the Filipino soul”. “To seek the truth, to cast doubt and, ultimately, to redeem the soul are the goals of Diaz’s art and he manages this in particularly spectacular fashion in his fourth film Batang West Side.” (Romulo) Therefore, in the present constellation, it is above all the marginal status of the Filipino (or any other) diaspora and the pure fact of the dislocation of Filipino that are of key importance to us. Both refer in a metaphorical sense to his “historical fate”; they represent both the authentic historical state of a Filipino man’s permanent struggle for his identity and integrity as well as his present unenviable reality. Marginality, a specific “state of being” not only of diasporic communities but any kind of minatory group (fundamentally defined by a difference in race, nationality, religion, sex, disease, age, culture, politics, ideology,… because of which their basic freedoms are under treat), is constituted above all as the place of resistance. In it the struggle against the dominant ideological practices and the (self) awareness of the need for a – retroactive- consolidation of one’s own identity is of the same importance as the resistance towards concrete oppression and oppressors. “Understanding marginality as position and place of resistance is crucial for oppressed, exploited, colonized people. If we only view the margin as sign, marking condition of our pain and deprivation, then a certain hopelessness and despair, a deep nihilism penetrates in a destructive way the very ground of our baring. It is there in that space of collective despair that resistance towards as concrete oppression and oppressors. Understanding marginality as position and place of resistance is crucial for oppressed, exploited, colonized people. If we only view the margin as sing, marking the condition of our pain and depreciation, then a certain hopelessness and despair, a deep nihilism penetrates in a destructive way the very ground of our being. It is there in that space of collective despair that one’s creativity, one’s imagination is at risk, there that one’s mind is fully colonized, there that the freedom one longs for is lost. Truly the mind that resists colonization struggles for freedom and expression. That struggle may not even begin with the colonize; it may begin within one’s segregated colonized community and family.” (Hooks 191:342) The gradation of social actress in Batang West Side – form an individual, family and household community to (symbolically) the whole nation proves that Diaz is well aware of the different levels of oppression and reification. But still the emphasis that at the end is shifted to the individual and the regaining of his lost identity as a form of self-identification is the historical key to solving the “difficult” questions posed by Batang West Side. That is why the fact of dislocation a form of identification through absence, lack, representation... is of great importance to Diaz as a filmmaker. And that is why the essential “recognitions” take place as film – acts – a form of the film within the film.15 On one hand, there are the documentaries of Taga Timog – a documentary filmmaker Mijarez looked upon unfavorable during the investigation, but whom he befriend after leaving the police force – on the fate of Filipino women driven abroad by the need to secure their children’s existence in the homeland (also the story of Hanzel’s mother). On the other, there is Mijarez’ self-exposure before the objective of the I film camera obviously inspired exactly by the watching of the mentioned documentaries. Mijarez’ confession, which h reveals his “historic” identify of a denunciate, regime’s deep penetration agent, torturer, rapist and executor who had with the help of a plastic operation changed his identity after coming to the USA, speaks of a “concealed fact of is past” accompanied by consents film as the truth exposing medium thereby bringing a concrete film act into accord with his enlightened convictions: “I want the audience to see the truth and to discover their truths by experiencing the realities that I am presenting or re-presenting. I respect the audience’s capacity to understand, think, be open to a broader view of life, embrace different milieus, cultures, new principles and philosophies; or at another extreme, to confront them, create an atmosphere of discourse, introspection and criticism; or at yet another, to be simply immersed in what they are watching.” (Diaz in conversation with Wee) Respect that Diaz points out here – the respect towards the viewer as well as the main subject of his film investigation: the Filipino man – is one of the basic conditions keeping the whole together before the viewer’s gaze. Especially in the case of such monumental and extensive work. And it is exactly the immense respectfulness reflecting even in the smallest detail t hat proves that the complex structure of his film venture, we have throughout considered above all in view of its social engagement and its dialogue with the current film trends, is not a work of a cold, analytical, calculating mind. Its standing-up-on-its-own is due mostly to Diaz’ refined feeling for “telling a story” and setting the mood. Every sequence of Batang West Side, the structure of every frame, the conception of every film gaze… prove that Lav Diaz is in his essence an insightful “storyteller” and above all an unsurpassable poet. But in his poetic vision Diaz, despite his commitment to history, acts from an oppositional stand towards “the totalizing quest of meaning” (Minh-ha) rooted in the established conception of poetry as a fulfillment of historical narration: “Poetry improves on historical narration because it creates order and thereby reveals meaning, which seems to remain hidden in ordinary lives.” (Barnouw) Diaz’ poetics on the contrary, is in is wager on presence and in its surrendering to disorder and the principles of self-positing identified as the poetry of ordinary life. This is, among other things, in accord with the binding presupposition of Vlado Skafar (Slovene director and film activist), who discovers universality exactly in ordinariness: "If you seriously devote your attention of the ordinary man, you always come to know how exceptionless he is. It is herein that universality lies.” And so in light of the poetry of the ordinary, echoing the profoundest of experience, Diaz’ famous principle of an active comprehension of the world: “Read poetry, man!” receives in Batang West Side its visual counterpart, “Watch poetry, man!.


1. In an (as yet unpublished) interview by Erwin Romulo Lav Diaz thus described the development of the script:”… I initially wrote a story that deals with the struggle and guilt of a mother and the death of her son whom she brought to America. Then it grew and grew until I made it into a Diaspore of Filipinos living abroad – the struggle of our countrymen detached from their homeland while at the same time using as a backdrop the Filipino struggle as a whole. The ore than 300 years of Spanish colonization wherein our ancient culture was erased, the 100 years of American intervention that further confused our culture, the 4 years of Japanese rape during World War II and the 20 years of Marcos terrorism were the things I wanted to tackler in one unified work. That was the vision: even if you had individual characters struggling with their individual lives, you can still see the while Filipino struggle from the very start.”

2. Although the above quotation – as well as the motto of this article and most of Diaz’ thoughts that follow-comes from an interview Brandon Wee made with Lav Diaz for Senses of Cinema on the presentation of his latest film, a more-than-ten-hour-long epopee Evolution of a Filipino Family (Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino, 2004), his discussion seems equally relevant to the film under consideration in this article. One side, because it lucidly recapitulates in a consider form the thoughts from some of his previous talks (e.g., with Erwin Romulo or Alex Tioseco for, and on the other – and above all – because of the fact that this time Diaz asserts his creative credo and his “aesthetic stand”, as he puts it, in an almost manifesto fashion.

3. The following description of the making of Batang West Side as Diaz’ “first fulfilled work”, can be read as a particular kind of articulation of the free creative activity principle; “... it’s the first work that I was able to push for what I wanted to do – my vision, the length, and the kind of aesthetic. I threw away all the theories and I just did it very organically. Especially during the shoots, we are not using lights and we’re just pushing thins. And then during the post-production I didn’t go for the warp factor editing, like doing fast cuts, no, no way. We just keep putting things together and the work just showed itself. It’s like a canvas; it just grew and grew and grew, and came out that way. I couldn’t do anything anymore, that’s the work, that’s it.” (Diaz in conversation with Tioseco)

4. In Diaz’ case the definitions of a cinematic image go hand in hand with the concept of “pectoral possibility”: “There is pictorial possibility that has nothing to do with physical possibility and that endows the most acrobatic posture with the sense of balance on the other hand, many works that claim to be art do not stand up for an instant. Standing up alone dos not mean having a top and a bottom or being upright (for even houses are drunk and askew); it is only the act by which the compound of created sensation is preserved in itself.” (Deleuze, Guattari 1994; 164)

5. “I avoid close-ups when treating the character I create in my films. I prefer long and oftentimes static takes, just like stasis – long, long takes in real time. My philosophy is I do not want to manipulate the audience’s emotions.” (Diaz in conversation with Wee)

6. In his radical investigation of the renewal processes of new world cinema, inspired by the oeuvre of Abbas Kiarostami, Jeanb-Luc Nancy assign the principle of “mobilizing the gaze” a privileged place of key changes in “cinema becoming the art of looking”: It is not matter of passivity much less of captivity; it is a matter of tuning in with a look so that we too may do the looking. Our gaze is not captive, and if it is captivated it is because it is required, mobilized. This cannot occur without a certain pressure acting as an obligation: capturing images is clearly an ethos, a disposition, and a conduct in regard to the world.” (Nancy 2001: 16)

7. Besides the already mentioned “kinship” to actuality we cannot ignore a surprising “agreement” between some of Diaz’ self-analysis and the reflections of Chinese director Wang Bing who is, with his nine-hour debut – dealing with the horrifying effects of the demise of heavy metal industry and the uncertain fate of thousand of workers in Northeast China – Tiexi District: West of the Tracks (Tie Xi Qu,2003), an author of a similar monumental film venture as Batang West Side and Evolution of a Filipino Family. “In Evolution, I am capturing real time. I am trying to experience what these people are experiencing. They walk. I must experience their walk. I must experience their boredom and sorrows. I would go to any extent in my art to fathom the mystery of humankind’s existence. I want to understand death. I want to understand solitude. I want to understand struggle.” (Diaz in conversation with Wee).

“What I discovered is that the search for truth is always characterized by a certain revelation. The revelation. The revelation is that truth is not something you can search for. Truth is something already out there, repeated by people every day./…/ And that constitute a life cycle. And that life cycle is what I mean by a certain speed and rhythm. Once you’re in that cycle, you’re with them [people]. And then you don’t feel time passing slowly, but you feel time just passing, and time passing on both sides.’ (Wang 2003: 24-26)

”The concept of real time seems to be ubiquitous at the moment – used primarily to convey a sense of the capabilities of new media, of new computer technologies with specific and distinctive relation to temporality. These relations hinge on the concept of “instantaneity’. Television news anchors frequently exhort their viewers to keep up with the news in real time by visiting the station’s or network’s website. ‘Real time’ here connotes immediacy, continuity, an intolerance for delay, and most of all, a certain solidity associated with the guarantee of the real. It would seem that only remaining residence of the real, in an age of simulation, the virtual, and the artificial, is the time.” (Doane 2004: 264)

9. "Why is the real no longer a matter of being there, but of being then? And why is it so crucial that ‘then is in fact a ‘now’ ? Such an erasure of memory and history would be the zero degree of the logic of innovation, a form of commodification in which the commodity itself, always already out of date, would be superfluous." (Done 2004: 281)

10. The psychoanalytical methods of “active introspection”, which Mijarez’s psychiatrist explains to him, is in fact very close to Diaz’ own film “introspection”: "I believe a man will be stronger emotionally, psychologically, even spiritually if he analyzes his memories. He acquires what I call ‘active introspection; Like an exorcism. We are possessed by dreams and memories and we have to confront them so there is a cleansing within."

11. ’’I believe in a type of cinema that gives greater possibilities and time to its audience. A half-created cinema, an unfinished cinema that attains completion through the creative spirit of the audience, so resulting in hundreds of films. It belongs to the members of that audience and corresponds to their world… If art succeeds in changing things and proposing new ideas, it can only do so via the creativity of the people we are addressing – each individual member of the audience.” (Kiarostami 1995: 1)

12. "I want Filipino to treasure and embrace history, to examine it no matter what one’s ideology is. We must learn to grasp the significance of these events. We must have a historical perspective if we want to be able to move forward progressively as a people and as a nation.’’ (Diaz in conversation with Wee) cf. also note 1.

13. ’’What happened to Hanzel is the same thing that is happening to the Philippines. Everything has no direction. The efforts of our heroes have gone to waste.” This tragic insight of Hanzel’s grandfather is in accord with some of the key interpretations of Batang West Side. “The specific identity of the murderer ceases to be the key question in the film and Hanzel’s death becomes a powerful metaphor for the attack on the Filipino soul. “ (Ramani) "The investigation, undertaken by a Filipino detective is then used as a bold metaphor to mount an admonishing attack on the collective Filipino anima when the dead man’s family is introduced and its unflattering history unveiled." (Wee)

14. “People in diaspaora, moreover maintained a long termed sense of ethnic consciousness and distinctiveness, which is consolidated by the periodic hostility of either the original home or the host societies towards them. However, unlike the exiles whose identity entails a vertical and primary relationship with their homeland, diasporic consciousness is horizontal and multisided, involving not only the homeland but also the compatriot communities elsewhere. As a result, plurality, multiplicity, and hybridist are structured in dominance among the diasporans, while among the political exiles, binarism and duality rule.” (Naficy 2001 : 145)

15. At the same time all other forms of film reference perform their “historical role”, : Batch ’81 (Mike de Leon, 1982), which we see on TV, and the posters from movies on the fate of Filipino women signed by the giants of Filipino cinema Lino Brocka, Mike de Loen, Ishmael Bernal. “If photographs, films or video tapes do preserve a past, it is t he trace of a past which was never simply present, but was always already heterogenous, discontinuous and forking: a time which reversed (deferred) some portion of its ‘being-present’ for unspecified future.” (McQuire 1998:173)


* Benjamin, Walter. (1940). On the Concept of History, Avaiable also at: http:/

* Diaz, Lav. 2004. The Decade of Living Dangerously: A Chronicle from Lav Diaz. Interview by Wee, Brandon, Senses of Cinema, (Melbourne), Issue no. 34, January – March.
Available at:

* Diaz, Lav. 2003. An Interview with Lav Diaz. Inerview by Tioseco, Alexis., (Manila), December 18th. Available at: http:/

* Deleuze, Gilles, Guattari, Felix. 1994. What Is Philosophy? New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

* Doane, Mary Ann. 2004. (De) realizing Cinematic Time. In Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film, eds. Egoyan, Arom, Balfour, Ian. Cambridge (etc): MIT Press, pp. 259-283.

* Hooks, Bell. 1990, Marginality as sit of resistance. In Out There: Marginalisation and Contemporary Cultures, ed. Ferguson, Russel (et al.). New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, Cambridge (etc): MIT Press, p. 341-343.

* Jameson, Frederic. 1980. Aesthetics and Politics. London: Verso.

* Kiarostami, Abbas. 1995. An Unfinished Cinema. (Pamphlet written for the Centenary of Cinema, December 1995, and distributed on Odeon Theater, Paris.) Available also at:

* Kolker, Robert Philip. 2001. The Altering Eye: Contemporary International Cinema. (Online Edition). Available at:

* McQuire, Scott. 1998. Visions of Modernity: Representation, Memory. Time and Space in the Age of the Cinema. London: SAGE Publications.

* Moller, Olaf. 2005. “Spomin na Filipine “(Memories of the Philippines”). Kinoplus, (Ljubljana), februar, p. 6.

* Naficy, Hamid. 2001 An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton Univ. Press.

* Nancy, Jean-Luc. 2001. The Evidence of Film: Abbas Kiarostami. Bruxelles: Yves Gevaert Publisher.

* Ramani, Vinita. 2003. “Batang West Side”. Available at:

* Tarkovsky, Andrey. 1994. Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema. Austin: Unv. Of Texas Press.

* Wang, Bing. 2003. Rust, Remants, Rails: Wang Bing’s Epic Vision of China. Interview by Kraicer, Shelly. Cinema-Scope, (Toronto), Issue no. 16, Fall, pp. 21-26.

* Zizek, Slavoj. 2000. The Fragile Absolute: or, Why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for? London, New Yorks: Verso.

Ekran Magazine, Slovenia, 2005

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

VIII. Death in the Land of Encantos

By Ronnie Scheib

"Ojalá que no se me escape ninguna pero creo que verdaderamente la mejor de todas es Death in The Land of Encantos de Lav Diaz, brutal..."
-- Michel Lipkes

Lav Diaz's latest black-and-white digital marathon, "Death in the Land of Encantos" (clocking in at nine hours), unfolds in the devastated landscape left in the wake of Super Typhoon Durian, the worst storm to hit the Philippines in living memory. Placing a threesome of fictional characters amid the rubble, Diaz measures the aftermath of this natural disaster within the larger trauma of the islands' history. Plunging the viewer into an alternate time zone where distinctions between documentary and fiction, stasis and action slowly dissolve, pic confirms helmer's status as a brilliant but consummately non-commercial artist.

Unlike Diaz's other works, which were carefully constructed over time ("Evolution of a Filipino Family" was nine years in the making -- and 10 hours in the viewing), "Death" sprang fully grown from the ravages of the typhoon in Bicol, where Diaz had lensed several previous films. Thus, the documentary elements could not be described as "interpolated," but rather form the very clay from which the drama (if such slight strands of narrative can be so termed) is molded.

Pic, with its themes of art and madness, is headlined with a quote from Rilke: "Beauty is the beginning of terror." Indeed, the region's Mayon Volcano -- which, under the onslaught of the storm, poured out mountains of rocks and debris, killed hundreds and buried whole towns -- remains one of the most majestic, perfectly cone-shaped structures in nature.

Pic traces fictional famed poet Benjamin Agustan (Roeder Camanag), newly returned to the Philippines from a lengthy stint in Russia. Two of his lifelong friends, a painter/sculptress (Anglei Bayani) and a fellow-poet turned farmer/paterfamilias (Perry Dizon) welcome Agustan home, and the trio starts to hang out together. The three, like everyone in the obliterated village of Padang, lost several close relatives to the natural calamity.

Specters from the past haunt the poet, including images of a beautiful naked woman who turns out to be the girlfriend he left behind who is now interred in his old studio lying somewhere beneath his feet.

Other visions haunting the poet are less explicable, like the nondescript street where the viewer finds himself stranded for stretches as Agustan stalks the Russian woman who left him after their child died.

More disturbing still are scenes of his mother's psychotic breakdown and his father's desperate attempts to drive out the evil spirits with loops of twisted wire hung from trees. Madness stalks Agustan, as death and desolation lie over the land, the nude topmost branches of trees sticking up out of the ground where lush foliage once flourished.

Diaz's stark black-and-white digital compositions frame a landscape so bleak and boulder-strewn, so empty of habitation that it is hard to believe the land was not barren from time primordial. Painful flashbacks to the region's past resurrect a lost Eden. The only thing more shocking than the extent of the damage is the ages-deep acceptance in the eyes of the survivors.

Variety, October 2007

Monday, January 14, 2008

VII. Kagadanan sa Banwaan ning mga Engkanto

(Death in the Land of Encantos)

By Francis Cruz

"Watching Kagadanan sa banwaan ning mga Engkanto thus surpasses a "mere" (nevertheless still absolutely unique) experience of cinema and becomes a fully fledged experience of life, an almost unbelievably sincere and courageous exploration into the heart of three grand existential matters: the meaning of love, the importance of hope, the redemptive power of art. All things of beauty – in a film of terrible beauty…"
-- Jurij Meden

"Great" is an adjective that is usually reserved for works of considerable degree and power, of immense import and significance. To the very few in the world who are open-minded enough to have braved sitting through Lav Diaz's latest nine-hour opus, the term "great" would be the proper and popular adjective to describe the film. I cannot disagree, Kagadanan Sa Banwaan Ning Mga Engkanto (Death in the Land of Encantos) is simply one great film, arguably the greatest film of 2007. Allow me to complicate things further, Kagadanan is not merely a great film, it is possibly one of the greatest films about love ever made. The love that subtly illuminates Diaz's black and white visual aesthetics over acres of land ravaged by the typhoon Reming (internationally referred to as Durian, the strongest typhoon to have ever hit the Bicol region, wiping out entire families and towns) is expansive. The love here is utterly romantic, blatantly destructive, hypnotically alluring, and fascinatingly sincere.

Kagadanan takes its cue from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novels (like One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera), where the men and women are all hopelessly romantic scavengers, traversing the Latin American wasteland of fractured colonial and political influences with gentle caresses of native magic and coincidences. Diaz evokes Garcia Marquez by draping the return of Bicolano poet Benjamin Agusan Jr. (played by theater actor Roeder Camanag), fondly referred to by his friends as Hamin, to his now desolate home town with the same overbearing atmosphere of a country completely collapsing from the burden of colonial influence and present political inutility. Diaz furthers this contemplation with a subplot involving memories of Hamin's mother (Gemma Cuenca), suffering supposedly from insanity caused by her romantic affair with an earth spirit castled in a mound of soil in their farmland. Insanity becomes a generational ill as Hamin himself is slowly degenerating into a rabid paranoid, consumed by a similar doomed love affair. All the other characters in Kagadanan suffer a similar fate, of being swallowed completely by an indefatigable obsession, an incurable enchantment of the land that Diaz pictures as insufferably beautiful yet compulsively treacherous. This is where Diaz tops Garcia Marquez. Diaz's magic realism is more familiar, more agonizing, more a product of a collective national experience than a singular imaginative mind.

Hamin meets up with his friends, Teodoro (Perry Dizon), another poet who has retired to become a fisherman, and Catalina (Angeli Bayani), sculptor of rocks spewed by Mt. Mayon and Hamin's former flame and mother of his kid. The three would indulge in prolonged conversations about neverendingly evolving topics (an evening conversation between the three friends would begin with a question about the severe blackout evolves into a complaint about kerosene lamps which evolves into a discussion on insects and their intriguing behavioral patterns which then evolves into musings about the government, about art, about passion and mysteries) over bottles of beer. These conversations distinguish the characters. Hamin is the romantic intellectual, experienced with the ways of the world (having been to Europe and Russia), yet secretive and guarded. Teodoro, on the other hand, has the temperament of a simple provincial laborer, unflinchingly loyal and beholden to his more successful friends (upon first sight of Hamin, he devotes a persuasive recital of a fondly remembered poem, lovingly and graciously delivered), yet his restraint is his wisdom. Catalina has a worldly demeanor which shrouds her maternal inclinations to both her friends. She is supposedly the most level-headed of the three, but she is fueled by emotions. Her art, carving from volcanic boulders valuable pieces, is a derivative of her passionate hatred for Mt. Mayon.

Although the friends are very close, there's an indescribable tension that overpowers their bonds. Between Hamin and Teodoro lies an uncomfortable merging of respect, disdain, and the acknowledgment that both of them have something the other will never have (Hamin's experiences abroad and acclaim, and Teodoro's comfort and stability). Hamin and Catalina share a son and a past romantic relationship, yet both of them are not in a position to give in to the simple comforts Teodoro has retired to. Both of them are fervent artists and activists who are unable and probably will never be able to descend to lowly concerns of plebeian livelihood and family. Sacrifice, that is the affliction that pervades the nine-hour picture. It is an affliction that resembles an unhealthy obsession, an interval of insanity, essentially leading to death.

Amalia (Sophia Aves), Hamin's lover who he abandoned when he for Russia, is peacefully sleeping naked. Hamin's voice-over is heard "You're the most beautiful" as Diaz's camera peers into every exposed area of Amalia's body. There's a faint echo of despair in Hamin's voice, as if he's trapped in a moment where he is deprived of fully enjoying the beauty that he is beholden to, unable to touch and embrace. In another similar scene, Svita, Hamin's lover while he was stationed in Russia, is peacefully sleeping naked. Again, Hamin's voice is heard declaring that Svita is "the most beautiful" with the same faint echo of despair while the camera peers into every exposed area of her body. These scenes (I'd think of them as vivid dream sequences that are laced with erotic motivations rather than memories of events that ensued) are always preceded or followed by visual meditations of the ruined land, of the majestic and perfectly coned Mt. Mayon and its terrible power, hinting of the indispensable connection between the love for a beautiful woman that has been left or has left, and the love for this beautiful yet wretched country that is slowly turning into a literal hell.

Within the nine-hour duration of Kagadanan are several filmed interviews (with Diaz doing the interviewing himself in a mannered and very journalistic method, eliciting answers and stories of considerable power and drama) of the survivors of the typhoon Reming. Depicted are the unthinkable horrors that ensued: of mothers persisting to dig up the bodies of their families, of entire towns being submerged in mixtures of water and volcanic mud, of both past and future livelihoods lost in a short period of time. More harrowing are the different reactions of the victims: an old woman suddenly wails when she is reminded of her uncertain future, a group of friends nonchalantly discuss friends who were buried underneath the rubble, a woman correlates the tragedy with the residents' worsening sinfulness. Diaz then plays around with form when he also interviews the three main characters as similar victims of the typhoon's catastrophe. The interviewer all of a sudden becomes part of the film, engaging in conversations and arguments with Hamin, Catalina and Teodoro. Diaz pierces the veil that divides fiction and documentary (the film got a special mention in Venice in the documentary section of the Horizons sidebar of the film festival), yet despite the use of such device, no intention of mockery or gimmickry is perceived. Instead, the blurred lines become drastic ruminations of the blatant absurdity of the very real situation: of an entire population wiped out and forced to evacuate, of a nation and government that simply does not care.

Kagadanan is possibly Diaz's most personal film. Unlike in Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2001) or Heremias (2006) where static long takes have become the comforting norm of Diaz's visual aesthetics, Kagadanan is more dynamic. While the contemplative long takes are still present, Diaz frequently engages in hand held shots especially in the scenes that are supposedly from the point of view of Hamin, like the first scene where we become accustomed in the muddied desolation caused by the typhoon, the several scenes wherein Hamin reminisces on his childhood, and the dream sequences with Amalia and Svita. The peculiar thing about this change in Diaz's aesthetics is that from mere observer in Ebolusyon and Heremias, he now partakes a more involved role, becoming Hamin if necessary (this is why Hamin's gaze on the female form is so complex (lustful, eager, curious and longing), because Diaz himself becomes Hamin). The evening banters and the philosophical musings are all Diaz's; a conversation with the director would feel like the humble discussions between Hamin, Catalina and Teodoro (only in that case, it's all Diaz in different personas doing the talking). The poems made and recited by both Hamin and Teodoro are also in reality, Diaz's.

Diaz is a very generous artist, too generous perhaps. Unfortunately, the naked sincerity and generosity in Diaz's filmmaking are often mistaken for self-indulgence, mostly because of his film's ungodly lengths. The sacrifices he has made for the love of his art is unsurpassed by any Filipino filmmaker, living or dead. The reason why the heartaches, the unbridled longings, the closeted insecurities, the disregarded relationships, the incomparable dedication for art and activism, the emotional and physical desolation are so palpable in Kagadanan, which I believe is Diaz's most personal film, is because they were cultivated not from manufactured imagination but through collected experiences.

"Ang mamatay ng dahil sa iyo" (translated as "To die for you"), from the Philippine national anthem sung with a rough and insulting baritone by a mysterious military officer (played with cartoonish viciousness by Soliman Cruz) while torturing Hamin, are the last words heard in the film before the images abruptly turn to black and the end credits start appearing. The way the words were sung connotes a harsh taunting, probably from the government forces to those whose activism is similar to Hamin's (and this part is rooted from a valid concern by most artists and journalists whose works are either censored because of its political messages or they themselves are mysteriously executed). The words also candidly express the affliction of sacrifice that has become the norm in such manner of living Diaz's characters and perhaps Diaz himself live. There can be no mistress for one's unmitigated love (or art) for the land despite its frequent treacherous ways, which is why Hamin can never fulfill the desires of consummating love with his women (Amalia, whom he left; Svita, who left him; and Catalina, who can never arouse him again), or inhabiting the role of father to his estranged son in Mindanao, or to give aid to his family members who all died in fits of insanity before him. That in itself is a maddening preoccupation, and the logical although painful recourse is to escape by consummating one's mortality. In this ravaged land of both magic and extreme reality, death is a cheap comfort.

Ogg's Movie Thoughts, Lessons from the School of Inattention, January 2008

VI. Land of the dead

By Noel Vera

"There remains but one film to celebrate, among the greatest in Venice, and certainly the longest at nine-plus hours: Lav Diaz's monumental memoir to suffering, Death in the Land of Encantos, a modern mosaic cobbled together from the modest of means... Little if anything at the Lido was as emotionally exhausting and exhaustive, as rich an experience and as crushing as Diaz's film."
-- Olaf Moller, Film Comment

Lav Diaz's Kagadanan sa banwaan ning mga Engkanto (Death in the Land of Encantos, 2007) might be the possible result if you took Spike Lee's 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke, recast it in Andrei Tarkovsky mode, stretched it to Bela Tarr length, added a dash of Abbas Kiarostami-like meta-cinema, sprinkled it with a few ideas from Mario O'Hara, and set it in the Bicol region. Possible, though I wonder if said bastard offspring will be anywhere near as strange as this.

It's ostensibly the story of one Benjamin Agusan ('Roeder' in the film's credits, full name 'Roeder Camanag'), a famed poet gone into some kind of self-imposed exile in Kaluga, a small town southwest of Moscow (Lav calls it an inside joke on behalf of his father, who was fascinated by Russia; the country's literature and sensibility has seeped into many of his previous films (particularly Serafin Geronimo: Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion (Serafin Geronimo: Criminal of Barrio Concepcion, 1998), his version of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment)). He returns home to the vacation resort of Padang, near Legazpi City, in the wake of the devastation wreaked by Typhoon Reming (international name 'Durian')--a devastation made worse by typhoon-triggered lahar mudslides from nearby Mayon Volcano, burying homes and families alike (Padang was the worse-hit of the towns). He meets his friends Teodoro (Perry Dizon) and Catalina (Angeli Bayani), and is haunted by memories of former loves--Svita, a Russian beauty; Amalia (Sophia Aves), his longtime companion in Padang; his dead father, mother, sister.

It's an often seemingly shapeless, meandering tapestry, but Diaz is working on a vast canvas, five hundred and forty minutes long (his previous film Heremias Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess (2006) was about the same length; his Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004) eleven hours long). Front and center on that canvas is Benjamin, the latest incarnation of one of Diaz's favorite characters, the restless wanderer--early examples included kidnapper-fugitive Serafin Geronimo (Raymond Bagatsing) and cuckolded husband Lauro (Joel Torre) in Hubad sa Ilalim ng Buwan (Naked Under the Moon, 1999). Murder victim Hanzel Harana (Yul Servo) was a younger version seeking a family to belong to in Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001); turns out Detective Juan Mijares (Joel Torre), the police officer investigating Hanzel's death, was a similarly lost soul. Reynaldo was an inscrutable figure entering and walking away from the lives of various families in Ebolusyon; the eponymous character in Heremias traveled in his oxcart full of handicrafts--alone, restless, almost entirely speechless, yet somehow able to give the impression that he was searching for something.

Benjamin, though, unlike Reynaldo or Heremias is a poet as well as a wanderer. With Encantos Diaz has discarded the taciturn probinsyano (hick provincial) protagonist for the more loquacious small-town artist, the creative intellectual who chooses to live outside of Manila while practicing his craft. Which is something of a relief--the Diaz character is prone to long periods of contemplation and in an eleven or nine hour film (such as Heremias, Ebolusyon, and this), where they have little else to say between the long bouts of silence, it can sometimes make for difficult viewing. This time we have not one but three verbose philosophers, able and willing to indulge in the one sport in which Filipinos demonstrate a natural, world-class talent: the freewheeling discourse. Hamin (short for Benjamin), Teodoro, and Catalina gaze at the blasted landscape and hold forth on various subjects--love, art, death, God, the social and political condition of the Philippines, the difference between Filipinos and Russians, mosquitoes; even science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick and horror filmmaker David Cronenberg merit a quick mention. Diaz supplies all the dialogue, presumably; from personal experience I know him to be a world-class raconteur, able to talk to the wee hours of the morning on any subject imaginable. His extemporaneous monologue on pre-colonial Filipino sex in John Torres' Todo Todo Teros (2006) was a both illuminating and hilarious highlight of that film; here the skill provides enough meat to sustain the soul during our long journey through the film's narrative.

It helps that the film is full of poetry. Possibly taking a page from Mario O'Hara's masterpiece Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000), where poetry and monsters haunted the imaginations of the protagonists, Diaz inserts verses here, there, and they function as lyrical commentary on and response to the film's themes and storyline (he had put poetry to memorable use once before, when Joel Lamangan gave an evocative reading of one of Diaz's pieces in Hesus Rebolusyunaryo (Jesus the Revolutionary, 2002)). Diaz at one point even has a kapre (a Filipino ogre) stalking his forest--you could almost imagine the creature wandering off from O'Hara's set and finding its way to Padang.

Sometimes the meandering nature of the discussions makes for surprising turns, creates startling connections. The three friends sitting in front of a lamp in utter darkness (it's night, and there's a brownout) talk about mosquitoes, how sliced raw onions sometimes drive them off, sometimes don't. Talk moves on to patterns in insect behavior, and Hamin tells of how writers and filmmakers seize on these patterns to tell postmodern stories of bizarre human activity (hence the mention of Dick, Cronenberg, and for good measure poet Ted Hughes). Catalina speaks out against such unfeeling fiction; she prefers to dwell in emotion and mystery. Talk shifts on that word to the mysteries of the rosary, and how the Philippines seem to be mired in what rosary holders call a Sorrowful Mystery (the Death and Crucifixion stage, to be exact). Catalina's reply to this is a vow to tell the truth the best she can, through her art; Hamin asks (rather sardonically): is she willing to die for her art? Catalina sits and stares, not answering; the talk, having moved from evening dark to practical considerations to literary and cinematic themes, rose into a broad philosophical debate that peaked with a declaration of redemptive action, then with the mention of the ultimate darkness plunges back into the surrounding gloom (which, of course, is but a reminder of the larger gloom).

Catalina often acts as foil, if not actual opponent, to Hamin's fatalism, her maternal and sexual life force countering his sense of despair. Against his insect behavior she responds with emotion and mystery; against his neglect of Amalia (who loyally cleaned and maintained his studio while he was in Russia, even insisted on speaking of him only in glowing terms) Catalina mischievously suggests that she'll mount an exhibit in tribute to the woman, displaying sculptures of Amalia's body parts, even private parts. There's sarcasm in Catalina's suggestion, but also something affirming: Amalia is gone, and this is a way of remembering her, keeping some portion of her vital, alive.

Against Mayon Catalina is all practical defiance; she acknowledges the volcano's beauty (it's considered the most perfect cone in the world), the same time she condemns the mountain for killing thousands of people over the years--is perhaps poised to kill thousands more (as Hamin notes, only one-fourth of the volcanic mud has been expended; the other three-fourths sits there, waiting for the next powerful typhoon). Knowledge of all that sludge waiting to bury her doesn't faze Catalina one bit; she just goes on working, taking mud from the volcano's slopes and using it for her sculptures, transforming it, taking material for potential death and giving it new life.

But the film's title speaks of death, not life; despite all of Catalina's (and Teodoro's, and Hamin's) artistic and creative powers, they can't stop Mount Mayon, or Typhoon Reming, or the Philippine government's more oppressive policies towards leftists (at one point it's mentioned that over 800 unarmed political activists have been killed since President Macapagal-Arroyo took power, a good portion of them Bicolanos). On a trip to Manila to find out what had happened to his mother (he knew she had died in a mental hospital, but didn't know the exact circumstances), Hamin again meets one of the paramilitary officers that had interrogated him, irrevocably changing his life (or so it seems).

As director Diaz shows more confidence in the black-and-white digital medium than he's ever shown before. He managed with a limited variety of lighting in Ebolusyon; in Heremias he learned to create more expressive lighting schemes, sometimes even in inclement weather (weather he often created himself, using a water truck and fire hose). In this film he has sunlight waxing and waning as Catalina and Hamin talk in her outdoor studio (the light rhyming with the waning and waxing of the discussion); he has the three friends stage an entire debate (the aforementioned insect behavior patterns vs. emotion and mystery controversy) in the light of a single lamp; in Manila he has the camera sit low, like a political prisoner squatting on the floor, while it watches Hamin and his former torturer (their silhouettes vivid against the harsh Manila sunlight) talk about their past, present, future.

The last scene demonstrates an interesting series of directorial choices--why doesn't Diaz give us a clear look at Hamin's tormentor? Why does he allow the officer to play the role so melodramatically, like a low-budget action-movie villain? Was the conversation the event that triggered Hamin's suicidal downward spiral, or was it yet another symptom--a decisive one--of said spiral? Did Hamin imagine the whole encounter, this being his way of putting the blame on someone, his way of evading feelings of anger and grief and guilt at the apparent neglectful death of his mother?

The mother's departure from their home is a defining event in Hamin's life, and Diaz treats it as such with his camerawork. In a single shot the camera follows Hamin from behind as he walks up to a girl and boy playing among the trees, and we recognize the young Hamin playing with his sister Teresa; the man walks to the right, the camera following, till he's facing his childhood home. Suddenly a doctor in white coat emerges from the left of the house, pulling his mother along, walking past him. Hamin walks to the left, the camera panning to follow, just in time to catch both doctor and mother disappearing into the forest, then turns to look back at the home his mother left behind. This is Diaz's second foray into Jose Rizal territory, into the iconographic imagery of Rizal's famed novel Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), his way in particular of evoking the figure of Sisa, the mother turned madwoman by the disappearance of her children and the tyranny of an unjust government. Diaz made this journey once before, with the story of Reynaldo's mother in Ebolusyon; fellow Filipino filmmakers Mario O'Hara, Lino Brocka, and Gerardo de Leon made the journey before him with their respective films (O'Hara's great Sisa (1998); Brocka's influential Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged But Found Wanting, 1974); De Leon's seminal Sisa and definitive Noli Me Tangere (1951 and 1961, respectively)). But where O'Hara, Brocka and de Leon's various Sisas were all helpless hysterics, singing folk songs when they weren't moaning after their missing children, Diaz's is the quieter kind, somehow kin to his gallery of straying loners (you could say mother infected son with her wanderlust). She goes on to meander in and out of her son's consciousness, leading him to his inevitable fate.

Beyond all this, though--beyond the melodrama and dialogue--is Diaz's apparent relationship with the Bicolano landscape. In Ebolusyon and Heremias he seemed to disagree with the landscape, struggle against it, carefully angle his camera to capture the bleakest, least flattering aspect of an undeniably lush vista. Returning to the same region with Encantos (you might say the film is a sequel to the first two) the struggle has been resolved; Diaz's camera gazes at the treeless, houseless, blasted landscape with a sense of propriety, almost a sense of fulfillment. It's as if Diaz has discovered that the desolation left in the wake of Reming (with Mayon collaborating) is the perfect visual metaphor for the political and spiritual wasteland he feels was left in the wake of Philippine society (with the present administration governing) in its downward spiral. This, Diaz seems to be saying to us, is the Philippines, nor are we out of it. One of the best--and most important--films to come out this year.

Critic-after-dark/Businessworld, 2007

Saturday, January 12, 2008

V. Lav Diaz's Ebolusyon, A Rearrangement of a Troubled Landscape

By Mauro Feria Tumbocon, Jr.

"Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino is the greatest film about the sorrow of the Philippines."
--Gertjan Zuilhof, Rotterdam International Film Festival

Perhaps, it is by cosmic design that the writing of this essay on Lav Diaz’s latest effort, Ebolusyon ng isang pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino family, 2004), should coincide with the broadcast premiere of Ramona Diaz’s documentary Imelda (2004) in the United States.1 (The two Diazes are not related.)

The two works, while they both deal with the Marcos years, either directly through the subject in the latter case or through a historical background in the former, assume contrary positions. Imelda, on one hand, attempts to humanize Imelda Marcos, considered the other half of the conjugal dictatorship, beyond the notoriety of 3,000 pairs of shoes supposedly found in her closet when the Philippine People Power stormed the Malacanang Palace in 1986. On the other, Ebolusyon, the ten-hour film dramatizes the plight of a peasant family living in abject poverty amidst the oppression and violence of the Marcos regime.

As both writer on film and as student of history, this is the most opportune time to provide some basis for a critical assessment of Lav Diaz’s work, so as to render an earnest judgment of the film.

My intention is not to make a comparative evaluation of the two works—although I foresee one in the near future—but to comment on that period of my homeland’s history with cinema as a medium of revelation. I must say, there is a risk in doing so. Given my temporal and spatial distance from the subject in question—I have lived in the United States for the past 12 years—I must recall past experience to be able to produce a thoughtful appraisal of the period and of the film.

True, the wounded psyche as Lav Diaz is wont to describe it, wrought by the Marcos legacy of pillage and murder, still remains to be expressed and manifested fully in Filipino artists’ creative works. (Ferdinand Marcos was elected president in 1965, then reelected in 1969. In 1972, a year before his second term should have ended, he declared Martial Law in his attempt to keep himself in power in perpetuity.) There have been various attempts, both then and now, in music, literature, theater and visual arts, that succeeded in conveying the sense of outrage and disillusion with state institutions.2 In film, a number of film artists made films that contributed to popular debate, even at the risk of their lives and careers: Lino Brocka (Bayan Ko/My Country, 1984), Ishmael Bernal (Manila, By Night, 1980) and Mike de Leon (Kisapmata/In the Wink of An Eye, 1981; Batch ’81, 1982)3.

Regrettably now, no major work has come up that is able to make a thoughtful and sober estimation of the Martial Law years in the Philippines. The historical distance, almost twenty years after the fall of the dictatorship, could have afforded us an opportunity to reflect on the slaughter of our citizens and the plunder of our nation’s resources arising from Marcoses’ greed for power and wealth, thereby enabling us to learn lessons from it, in a way that Western artists ponder on the Holocaust years.

Attempts are at best, modest: there is one, through the revisionist cinematic interpretation of Lualhati Bautista’s Martial Law classic novels, both of them directed by Chito Rono, Bata, Bata Paano Ka Ginawa (Child, How Were You Made, 1998) and Dekada ‘70 (The 70’s Decade, 2002); and another, through an anarchist critique of the Philippine revolutionary struggles in Gil Portes’s Andrea, Paano ang Maging Ina (How Does One Become a Mother, 1990), Joel Lamangan’s Bakit May Kahapon Pa (Why Does One Look to Yesterday, 1995) and Mario O’Hara’s Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000).4

It seems ironic to find another strand of creative impulse on the subject that is more recent: an outright denial of the “wounded” Filipino soul; if ever, it is capable of redemption, only if one forgives. This is exemplified by the religious incarnation of family drama in Laurice Guillen’s Tanging Yaman (Change of Heart, 2000) and the Christ-like representation of the hero in Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Muro-Ami (Reef Hunters, 1999).5

Along this line, what appears to be most disturbing is the tendency of a few filmmakers to put a so-called human face on the oppressor. This is exemplified by Imelda, where the filmmaker, Ramona Diaz has not only succeeded in recuperating the Marcos cult but has entirely diminished, if not trivialized, the long years of suffering of our people under the Marcos dictatorship. Implicit in the project, because Imelda Marcos was granted a forum to narrate her part in history (a few sound bites from a couple of progressive journalists do not suffice), is to exonerate her—or even the whole of Marcos family and their minions—of the sins of Martial Law. One asks, Whose sins were those then?
In the film’s final frame while the closing credits are rolling, we watch the Marcos children, Imee and Bongbong who are now public officials in their father’s home province, make their entrance in glee into an auditorium filled with their political supporters. As if saying, We are back!

The effect is both scary and devastating. To this writer then, writing this essay on Lav Diaz’s Ebolusyon becomes a moral responsibility.

It is in this context therefore, that one discerns the true worth of Lav Diaz’s ten-hour opus. By sheer length, Ebolusyon has no precedent. However, it is the audacity of its vision—thematic and aesthetic—that makes it one of the most important films in the history of Philippine cinema.

The ambition of Ebolusyon is not merely to chronicle one Filipino peasant family’s struggle for survival through the dementia of the Marcos’ Martial Law years but to document the Filipino people’s own. The time period, 1971-1987, assayed by archival footages, newsreels and the re-construction of actual events, e.g. interviews with the late activist-filmmaker, Lino Brocka, interspersed at various points in the film, corresponds to the events leading to the declaration of Martial Law through the upheaval that follows the People Power revolt. This provides a contextual framework upon which the filmmaker is able to dramatize the story of the Gallardo family against the tumult of the period, representative of the larger society.

Ebolusyon, shot in black & white, opens with Puring (Angie Ferro), the grandmother, and her three granddaughters on the farm, their drawn faces and bodies projected as shadowy figures obscured by the blinding rays of the sun. This sequence of shots sets the emotional tone of the film: pained, wounded, desperate. Nevertheless, this family of women, because the men in their lives have been beaten by fate or misfortune, remains the moral core of the narrative. Theirs are the lives, intertwined with others, that progress painstakingly slowly through the whole length of the film, signifying the impoverished, almost dead-end existence of the Filipino, but only punctuated by instances of violence.

The rape and murder of the mentally-challenged daughter, Hilda (Marife Necenito). The maiming, incarceration and eventual killing of the son, Kadyo (Pen Medina). The savage abduction of Carlos (Erwin Gonzales), adopted son of Fernando (Ronnie Lazaro).

In-between, while the narrative bifurcates into two main arcs—one, Raynaldo (Elryan de Vera) leaves after he shoots his mother’s rapist-murderers, and the other, Kadyo searches for Raynaldo in Manila after his release from prison—at the center of the film is the story of Puring and her three granddaughters: Huling (Banaue Miclat), Ana (Andrea Fernando) and Martina (Lorelei Futol). It is in their uncontained rage and fear of an uncertain future—an overall tone of resignation and despair - that enables the viewer to understand fully the brutality of the Marcos’ years.

Not a few may comment on the length of the film as an instance of directorial conceit. On the contrary, one has to make a case that it is the long novel format that affords us occasions to reflect on the impact of Martial Law on our present lives. Moreover, it enables us to experience the past, as if exorcising ourselves of the demons of the past.

There is pain in this process of recognition. A feeling of dread permeates even moments of quietude. The uneasy stillness of the rice fields, one barely hearing the wind, presages the savagery of the war between the government and the rebel forces in the countryside. The eeriness of the unhurried rain that accompanies Fernando’s trek to the mountains in search for gold foreshadows the impending tragedy in his family. These are scenes that resist the idyllic, pastoral spectacle of rural life commonly seen in both contemporary art and popular culture.

Devoid of a commercial film’s artifice—such as swelling music, special lighting, stylized editing and design—and entirely reliant on the almost real-time enactment of events, Ebolusyon compels us to look at film in a wider cinematic context as a form of resistance to mainstream narrative and style. Consequently, or because of it, the filmmaker allows us to examine the subject, the Filipino tragic past, with a sense of urgency, in a way that is more probing and thoughtful.

This duality of filmic vision—film both as document and fiction—raises the issue of cinema as an aesthetic and cultural medium. The employment of what appears on the surface as either unrelated shots or diversionary narrative contrivance—one recalls the use of actual news footages of the massacre of farmers in Mendiola in the vicinity of the presidential Malacanang Palace and the staging of the studio taping of the radio drama serials—serves to disrupt the process of fictionalizing; thus, it provokes us to comment, to see storytelling as a device to inquire into the larger issue of the human condition at a particular time-space.

The ubiquitous insertion of the radio drama serial for one, provides a necessary break from the drudgery of everyday life—both for the benefit of the characters and the viewer—in the same way that they/we find solace in their songs and in their stories. Nevertheless, it is the use of the radio drama serial, because it adheres to the conventions of storytelling—linear narrative, suspense-driven, hero-centered—that reminds us, observers and students of film, of the popular origins of the cinematic melodrama. Similarly, the frequent singing of “Sapagkat Mahal Kita” (Because I Love You) (words and music: Felipe de Leon), a popular kundiman (Filipino love song), and the jukebox playing of the current pop tunes of Eddie Peregrina and Rey Valera, underscores the use of music as an emotive device in conventional cinematic storytelling.

In Ebolusyon however, radio drama—as well as music—serves both as critique and a reconstruction of popular cinematic tradition and narratives. One points to the filmmaker’s particular selection of materials. One drama serial entitled “Habang May Pag-asa” (While There Is Hope), follows a young girl’s dream of being a movie star, her way out of poverty, and ends up in sex movies. The other, “Ang Lahat May Pag-asa” (Hope Awaits Everyone), tells of a young girl who gets seduced by her stepfather but is thrown out of the house by her own mother for her transgression. These drama serials represent two common narrative tropes in popular Philippine fiction, also cinematic melodrama, and serve to counterpoint filmmaker Lino Brocka’s assertions on what ails Filipino movies in particular, and the larger Philippine society. The typical closure that is characteristic of these narratives impedes any possibility of a critical assessment of the sociopolitical condition that defines them.

What Brocka suggests, in his words and in his more meaningful works, e.g. the aforementioned Bayan Ko and other films, Maynila, sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila, In the Claws of Neon, 1975), Jaguar (1986) and Orapronobis (Pray for us, 1989) 6—it may also be Lav Diaz’s concern—is the imperative to wage a sustained, even protracted, counterhegemonic offensive, both pedagogic and agitational, to alter/reconstruct attitudes and practices, eventually transform society. Implicit in this effort, are attempts to re-configure film, not merely as a marketable product, but as an instrument for social change…

Significantly, Ebolusyon, by directly rejecting formulaic conventions of popular film, is able to re-imagine cinematic space for its viewer with a grammar that is liberative and with a narrative that allows the interruption and contradiction inherent in the social realities to play out. Ebolusyon owes its potency to its consistent refusal to prescribe solutions, more or less letting opposing forces continually engage in a space of tension.

More than anything else, the eventual valuation of Ebolusyon lies not only in its repudiation of the formal characteristics of popular film, but in its courage to insinuate that film is what social critic Edel Garcellano refers to as “ … extension of the contemporary sociopolitical ferment of society.7” The film, by acknowledging the issue of land as central to social unrest, suggests that it is only through the peasant class reclaiming ownership of their land that the nation will find its own redemption.

The failure of institutions to make changes in people’s lives—be it government, church or the revolutionary movement—however, constitutes the film’s thesis. A visually powerful image of Kadyo’s almost twenty minute walk through his death after being stabbed is reminiscent of Christ bearing the Cross to the Calvary, thereby representing a collusion of these institutions. The futility of his death—a senseless, nameless death—evokes a feeling of unease because one does not find finality in it. There are no kins who are able to reclaim him. There is no closure. This, in effect, is the great Filipino tragedy.

It is only through the agency of art, the filmmaker making his film, that we, the viewers, are only able to redeem ourselves. Lav Diaz in Ebolusyon, has to let his protagonist Raynaldo come back to his cousins’ fold. He also has to retell the story of the baby who was left in the dumpsite many years ago. It was presumably, Raynaldo. He has to create the tale of the two mothers: the mother who bore him, the mother who saved him from the ants.

In the meantime, my country, my people continue to grieve.

1 Ramona Diaz’s Imelda was premiered on US public television on May 10, 2005 as part of the annual Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. In January, 2004 it was honored with a cinematography prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Lav Diaz’s Ebolusyon ng pamilyang Pilipino was screened in March, 2004 at the Pacific Film Archive (Berkeley, California) as part of the annual San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival .

2 Even during the Martial Law period, artists and cultural workers have produced works that convey the feeling of outrage against the US-propped government of Ferdinand Marcos, notably works of underground writers, Emmanuel Lacaba and Jose Maria Sison. But it was after the assassination of oppositionist, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, that a great number of artists—in music, visual arts, theater, film—joined forces with the proletariat to protest against the morally bankrupt Marcos government in the streets and through their art. To cite, Lualhati Bautista, the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA), visual artists Jose Tence Ruiz and Antipas Delotavo, Patatag.

3 Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal and Mike de Leon are widely considered the main figures in what critics often mention as the second Golden Age of Philippine cinema, 1970-1990. Brocka’s Bayan Ko (My Country, 1984), a story of a union workers’ protest in a printing press, was shown at Cannes Film Festival where Mr. Brocka created some furor when he wore a “blood-streaked” Philippine map-designed barong shirt (Philippine national costume). Bernal’s Manila, By Night (1980) dramatizes the impoverished lives of multiple characters in Manila. The Marcos government attempted to ban its exhibition at international film festivals because it is apparently a smear on Manila’s reputation as premier city in Asia. De Leon’s Kisapmata (1981), about an incestuous relationship between a retired policeman and his daughter, and Batch ’81 (1982), about the violence of a student fraternity hazing, are allegories of the authoritarian Marcos government.

4 Lualhati Bautista’s popular novels Bata, Bata Paano ka Ginawa and Dekada ’70 are considered feminist documents of the Martial Law period. Their filmization, both directed by Chito Rono, reduced their political significance by merely dramatizing the personal travails of a woman living through the tumultuous years of Martial Law. Portes’s Andrea and Lamangan’s Bakit May Kahapon Pa, both have a woman revolutionary as the protagonist, but presented her as too individual, emotional and crazed. O’Hara’s Pangarap ng Puso, while breaking some ground on non-linear storytelling, is really a pastiche of revolutionary iconography that is confused and directionless.

5 Laurice Guillen and Marilou Diaz-Abaya, in their earlier works, bore great promise and appeared to usher in highly valuable feminist perspective in popular cinema when they started making films in the early ‘80s. They left filmmaking towards the end of the decade—apparently in frustration over the state of the industry - and returned in the mid ‘90s with an entirely different attitude to cinema. Guillen’s work has since borne Marian (after Virgin Mary) thinking in film, notably Tanging Yaman with a scene of the grandmother seemingly ascending to heaven. Diaz-Abaya’s, on the other hand, has become a metaphysical rendering of social realities, notably in Muro-Ami.

6 Brocka’s Maynila, about life in the slums of Manila, was considered a landmark in Philippine cinema (cinematography was done by Mike de Leon). Jaguar, also screened at Cannes, tells of a lowly bodyguard of a politician, who gets involved in a crime. Orapronobis, a story of an ex-priest who tries to save the lives of his former lover and her son from the clutches of a demented paramilitary head, serves as an indictment of the Cory Aquino regime’s continued human rights abuses.
7 Garcellano, Edel E. “A Choice of Film Review (Or, Reviewing the Reviewer)” in Knife’s Edge. Selected Essays… University of the Philippines Press, Diliman, Quezon City, Philippines, 2001.

Ekran Magazine, Slovenia 2005