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

Saturday, February 27, 2010


An Overview of the Life and Films of Lav Diaz

By Jan Philippe V. Carpio

“I could never really believe that any artist could work only for himself, if he knew what he was doing would never be needed by anybody.”

“The only condition of fighting for the right to create is faith in your own vocation, readiness to serve, and refusal to compromise. Artistic creation demands of the artist that he ‘perish utterly’, in the full tragic sense of those words.”
 Andrei Tarkovsky

Unang Bahagi: Ang Alamat ni Taga Timog (Part One: The Legend of From the South)

Even though a once reliable memory betrays me for the exact details, some years back, somewhere in between films, some time after midnight, under roof or moonlight, perhaps over coffee (for at the time and until recently, he had sworn off taking any alcohol), Lav Diaz, the streaks of white much lesser then than they are now on his long, dark, rock star hair with or sans ponytail, narrowed his eyes that reveal a calm intensity as well as a deep sadness all at once for all they have witnessed and recorded up to that point, in a soft, low voice that reminds one of something encased in rubber and fuzz – but not at all artificial or unpleasant – said to me, “Filmmaking … It’s war man.”

Like any young person not wishing to displease someone he admires and looks up to, I nodded my head in agreement. Like any young person wishing to appear older and wiser beyond my years, I nodded my head as if I understood.

Nodding my head in agreement is pretty much all I am certain of to be true then since all I understood was the concept of the words, but it was only years later that, after my own experiences of bombardment, that I learned, in my own way, where their blood could be found spilled.

Southern Beginnings

Looking back at Diaz’s own beginnings, the statement relating filmmaking and war seems apt. He was born in Datu Paglas, Maguindanao, Mindanao, Philippines on December 30, 1958, the day Philippine National Hero Jose Rizal was executed by Spanish colonizers in 1896. One of the largest islands in the world, where the southernmost regions and provinces in the Philippines are located, Mindanao holds a paradoxical and misunderstood place in the country’s history and daily life. It is perhaps the greatest representation of the country’s undeniable multiethnic, multicultural background – composed of numerous indigenous tribes, ethnic groups, Christians and Muslims – but at the same time containing the long standing prejudices, and at times, deep hatred of each group for the other. One of the deepest centers for the country’s spirituality – indigenous, Christian and Muslim – it is also the site of numerous ethnic, political, religious and clan wars that have claimed many lives over the generations. Much of its natural life sustaining beauty is ironically preserved from commercial exploitation by this very situation of peace and order. It has a long and proud history of its people successfully fighting off Spanish and American colonizers, while more recently Muslim separatists have waged one of the world’s longest wars against the national government. Touted as the country’s food basket, it is also where some of the country’s poorest provinces are located, and a long history of being unfairly neglected by the national government when it comes to infrastructure development and distribution of resources. Containing areas in the country with the most potential for growth and development, it has also become a strategic military location and power playground for both the Philippine and American governments. Mindanao is an essential part of the country, but sadly, for the most part, for many of the citizens from the other parts of the Philippines, “what happens in Mindanao – the violence, the bloodshed, the suffering – stays in Mindanao. It has nothing to do with me.” All this seemed to change – albeit temporarily – last November 23, 2009 when Maguindanao became the site of the horrific Ampatuan Massacre. An electoral motorcade of around 60 people that included a local Muslim gubernatorial candidate’s wife and female family members, drivers, journalists and lawyers were on their way to file his certificate of candidacy at a nearby town. There were also a number of motorists who were not part of the motorcade driving behind them. Before they could reach their destination, they were stopped and pulled off the road by a large force of armed men, a private army allegedly under the command of the province’s reputed warlords, the Ampatuan family. (The Ampatuans are political rivals of the Mangudadatu family who were on their way to file the certificate of candidacy.) The private army was also allegedly in collusion with members of local law enforcement and the military. The victims were taken to a hill some distance from the road, horribly mutilated, shot and hastily buried along with their vehicles. National and international condemnation of the murders was so swift and intense that it pressured President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s administration – who has deep personal and political ties with the Ampatuan clan – to arrest their members and put them on trial. In an e-mail to writer Jessica Zafra regarding the massacre, Diaz wrote,

“Maguindanao… ang hirap, ang sakit. I’m numbed. Puro iyak at galit na lang ang nagagawa natin.” (Maguindanao… it’s so difficult, it’s so painful. I’m numbed. All we can do is grieve and be angry) (Zafra, 2009).

As a young man, Diaz had witnessed first hand the full price of loss from these conflicts when in 1971, while in high school in Maguindanao, a war erupted between Christians and Muslims where “he saw friends from both faiths killing each other.” The Diaz family became refugees and were forced to relocate away from the conflict to the town of Tacurong in the province of Cotabato (Manrique, 2006). In an interview with the late film critic Alexis Tioseco (2006), Diaz also recounted the deep wounds caused by the declaration of Martial Law in 1972 by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and how this exacerbated the growing armed conflict in the region.

“I grew up during the Martial Law years. And my experience of Martial Law was very brutal. I was in second year high school when Marcos declared [Republic Act] 1081 upon the land. In Cotabato, the year before the imposition, the pent-up tensions between the Muslims and Christians had exploded into a full-scale war. It was bloody, very bloody, terrifying, horrifying. And it became bloodier during Marcos’ reign of terror. While Christians and Muslims were on a rampage butchering one another left and right, the military entered the scene with an even unheard of fascistic fierceness and cruelty. They’d set up checkpoints in all directions; they’d hamlet communities; they’d be declaring so many areas as no-man’s lands and shooting any person seen at will, no questions asked.”

These experiences of conflict, violence, death, pain and suffering, and living up to their responsibilities and consequences would later become an integral part of Diaz’s life and work. Despite the extreme difficulties, Diaz’s parents, both pioneer public school teachers of Datu Paglas, worked hard to properly raise Lav and his siblings. The third of three sons and one daughter, he seemed almost centrally cast at birth as the perfect filmmaker to record and investigate “the nature of the Filipino soul”. Even though he was born and raised in Mindanao, his late father Mario Vigilia Diaz was an Ilocano (an ethnic group from the northernmost part of Luzon island), while his mother Maria Linis Indico Diaz is an Ilonggo (an ethnic group from the middle group of islands of the Visayas). By blood, culture and residence, Diaz embodies his country’s multiethnic and multicultural background. Sharing Diaz’s Ilonggo ethnic heritage, I recall a humorous story he told me from his childhood that illustrates the ethnic and cultural differences between his parents. It was some time in the evening in Datu Paglas. The Diaz family was spending a relaxing evening at home, when suddenly, the silence of the night was disturbed by the sounds of “Tiktiktiktiktik!” coming from somewhere outside. (In Philippine culture, the tiktik sound indicates the presence in the vicinity of an aswang – one of the many types of Philippine supernatural beings that feast on human flesh and blood. Although belief in aswangs is prevalent all over the country, according to Diaz, their mythological origins can be traced back to the Visayas.) Upon hearing the sounds, his mother began setting fire to small pieces of tire rubber. (This gives off a smell that reportedly drives away the aswangs.) She then grabbed a bolo (Filipino machete), ran outside, and began screaming into the darkness in the Ilonggo language for the aswang to leave them alone or die. Instead of joining her outside, Diaz’s father merely shook his head and remarked to Lav in the Ilocano language something like, “There goes your crazy mother again.” Whereas his mother’s devout Catholic faith and strong spirituality may have played a part in influencing the spiritual nature of Diaz’s films, he credits his public school supervisor father for instilling in him a love for the film medium itself. During weekends, his father would bring the children to urban center of the province where they would “watch up to eight movies in movie houses that had double features” (Manrique, 2006).

“My father was really a ‘film maniac’," says Diaz. "We would watch all the movies on Saturday and Sunday, and then we would sleep in the bus station. My mother would be mad at my father because we had mosquito bites all over. That was really my early education on cinema.” (Manrique, 2006).

“Subliminally, my father was my film mentor. He is the quintessential cinephiliac. We were living in the middle of a forest in a far-flung village in Cotabato, Mindanao, but every weekend or [on] holidays we’d never miss [going to] the cinemas. There were four cinemas then in a nearby town, about two hours’ drive from the village, and they’d always show double bills and we’d watch them all and we’d talk about them after watching. And my parents are bookworms and storytellers and teachers. They read and read and read. My father was very much into Russian literature. They are very industrious and giving. So, yes, the dialectics and dynamics of that milieu have had lasting impact on my cinema and my view of this world” (Tioseco, 2006).
His father’s love of “ … Russian literature and all things Russian …” led to Diaz’s own love affair with Russian artists who became his artistic heroes like the great writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the filmmaker he holds above all others, Andrei Tarkovsky. (Manrique, 2006). Once, while attending a film festival in Russia, some of his hosts, upon discovering his full first name was Lavrente, their eyes wide with shock, asked him if he knew what it really meant. He replied that he was well aware that his father had named him after Lavrentiya Beriya (the infamous head of the Soviet Union’s NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB) ( Perhaps a touch of ironic humor from his father aside, from the beginning, in the world Diaz grew up in, art eventually could have been perceived in three ways: one, as completely irrelevant in the face of horror, two, as an escape from the difficulties and conflicts of life, and three, as a way to make sense of the madness of life and somehow initiate a process of healing. Fortunately, from the beginning, Diaz had chosen to act upon the third more essential and deeper purpose. Healer and psychic Bong De La Torre once profoundly declared that for the islands and islands groups that make up the Philippine archipelago, Luzon is the mind, Visayas is the heart, while Mindanao is the belly where the fire rages. The same might be said of Diaz’s works which attempt to and have succeeded in combining all representative organs and their energies into one functioning organism of art, one film at a time. For a long time though, it was the fire from the conflicts in Mindanao and his early years there that had left their burn scars on Diaz’s life.

“I was stricken with paralysis when I was about eight years old and I couldn’t walk for more than a year. I struggled to relearn how to walk and when I was finally able to walk, I had to deal with a very dysfunctional body motor system—the pain in the bones of the left side of my body, particularly the left foot, remains a recurring problem until today, especially in severe cold and humid conditions. The trauma and shock and stigma stayed with me for so long. It was hell, I tell you” (Tioseco, 2006).

As a young adult, the war and the violence and suffering being experienced by friends and family there continued to afflict his thoughts. In order to be near to the scene of the tragedy, he decided to transfer from the Jesuit-run Ateneo De Manila University to its sister school back in Mindanao, Ateneo De Davao. Unfortunately, fraternity troubles caused him to get expelled. He enrolled at Notre Dame University in Cotabato where he eventually finished a degree in Economics (Manrique, 2006). Based on a lot of filmmakers’ personal histories, it seems a rare occurrence that one decides at a young age to become a filmmaker as one might plan to pursue other professions like doctor, lawyer, teacher. As Tarkovsky once declared, you should not choose cinema, it is cinema that chooses you. Diaz was no different. He originally wanted to become a musician and he pursued his dream vigorously by playing guitar in a band during his university years.

“The nascent Cotabato music scene embraced folk, rock, and eventually punk and Diaz, who was already composing songs by then—in English, Pilipino, Ilonggo and Maguindanao—formed a group called Cotabato. The band played local gigs, for which each member was paid P25 a night, along with a free burger and beer. Their goal was to make it to the rough and tumble Mecca of Pinoy rock, Olongapo City. The game plan was to immerse themselves in the ’Gapo club scene, get good and become the next Juan de la Cruz Band” (Caruncho, 2008).

Like a lot of university students in the Philippines, Diaz took Economics not out of personal choice, but as a way of fulfilling his parents’ wishes. Upon completing his degree, the next step would have been returning to Manila to take up music at the University of the Philippines. All this changed when he got married during his third year in college (Manrique, 2006). Based on the discouraging socioeconomic conditions in the Philippines then and at present, and unless one comes from a higher socioeconomic class (usually the elite), if choosing to take the path of the artist is extremely difficult to begin with, choosing this path while trying to raise a family at the same time is rare and usually at a tremendous personal cost, if not impossible at times. In his article on Diaz for the Sunday Inquirer magazine, writer Eric S. Caruncho (2008) recounts an incident one evening where after coming home from a band gig with the usual P25 honorarium (USD 1.84 as of the latest exchange rate), Diaz ended up smashing his fake Gibson guitar to pieces after getting into a terrible fight with his wife.

“Of course I regretted it the next morning, but it was too late. I lost interest in the band. I had a child, got a job. I got interested in literature, and then cinema. But I never stopped writing songs and poems. I can’t stop writing songs and poems—they’re the easiest for me to write” (Caruncho, 2008).

While trying to eke out a living for his family in Mindanao, his detour into writing paid off somewhat when one of his literary works won the Philippine equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize, the Palanca Award. Temporarily abandoning his musician dreams, Diaz set out to find the difficult balance between his personal artistic dreams and his domestic responsibilities as a husband and father.

Manila, Manila, I keep coming back to Manila …”

In the 1980s, the final side in his love triangle of art came calling for him across the islands and seas when he decided to move his family to Manila to pursue filmmaking (Caruncho, 2008). While attending scriptwriting workshops under legendary screenwriter Ricky Lee who wrote several of the classic films from the Second Golden Age of Philippine Cinema – the generation of Lino Brocka – Diaz took on several jobs to support his family. He became a journalist for two tabloids, People’s Journal and Taliba, and later wrote for two television programs: Balintataw, a drama program, and Batibot, a children’s show. Lee eventually recommended him and two other workshops classmates to take filmmaking workshops at the Mowelfund Film Institute (Manrique, 2006). Most of the universities at the time did not offer filmmaking as a degree course and apart from the long and arduous process of “working your way up” in the commercial film industry to become a director, government grants from the film fund of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, the only other avenue was the Mowelfund Film Institute. Diaz began attending workshops at Mowelfund in 1983, the year that fierce Marcos critic and hero Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino was assassinated as he stepped down from his flight from the U.S.A. onto the tarmac of the Manila airport (Caruncho, 2008). This prompted the largest funeral in Philippine history as well as encouraged further protests against the Marcos regime. His workshop facilitators included filmmakers of repute such as Raymond Red, Nick Deocampo and Christoph Janetzko. In one of the workshop seminars for scriptwriting, Diaz encountered National Artist for Film Lamberto Avellana who earned his reputation during the First Golden Age of Philippine Cinema. This meeting led to a memorable stint with the legendary filmmaker where Diaz gained much knowledge and inspiration on film, art and life in his search for his own personal aesthetics. He completed two short films at Mowelfund. The first film Banlaw was shot on Super 8 in 1985. The three minute film focuses on an early ancestor of the prototypical Diaz character: a good but deeply flawed man suffering from the terrible burden of a world gone mad on his shoulders decides to commit an ultimate act of sacrifice. In this case, a young man inspired by a television broadcast of a young Buddhist burning himself decides to walk naked and kill himself on the streets of Metro Manila in protest of the injustices committed by the Marcos regime. The second film “Step No, Step Yes” was shot on video in 1988 (Tioseco, 2006). Diaz’s recounted the experience of the “Step No, Step Yes” shoot:

“We shot three weekends in the squatters’ area in Pasay City called Leveriza, a very dangerous place then. On the last day of our shoot, a man was killed over an argument of his supposed nonpayment of a two-peso turon 5he ate. Bloody and scary, but we finished the shoot” (Tioseco, 2006).

More than the narrative that revolved around a peeping tom and a prostitute, Diaz’s account of the shoot seems to indicate the beginnings of his attraction for using technically and physically dangerous conditions and locations as valid but risky means for creating his art. The evidence of this artistic embrace of real danger continues to be present in his later work like shooting in the dead of winter for Batang Westside where the 35mm film camera gears would freeze, the dynamite blasting gold hunt scenes in Ebolusyon, shooting in actual typhoons and thunderstorms for scenes in Heremias and Melancholia, and the physical aftermath of super typhoon devastation along the slopes of the active Mayon Volcano in Death in the Land of the Encantos. (This affinity for extreme creative conditions – albeit on a technically smaller and more natural scale – Diaz seems to share with German New Wave filmmaker Werner Herzog.) In 1986, the Marco Dictatorship fell after the EDSA People Power Revolution. The Marcos family and most of their cronies fled the country. They returned later in the 1990s and exploited the Filipino people’s collective amnesia to unfortunately re-establish a significant amount of their fallen power and influence. By the late 1980s, Diaz was at least partially living his filmmaking dreams, but even while attending eye opening film workshops, gaining knowledge and experience from working with his classmates and mentors, artistic, professional, financial and personal difficulties continued to tear at him.

“Those were different times,” he recalls. “We were living on Basilio St. in EspaƱa. There was no digital video then. There were 40 of us in Mowelfund fighting over the one 16mm camera. There were seven 8mm cameras but no film. If you were rich you could buy film but a roll of 16mm film was 80 dollars. It was a dead end” (Caruncho, 2008).

“… and even super 8 rolls were kind of expensive, to thrive as a filmmaker meant to go mainstream, the so-called ‘industry.’ And you know, the industry is the status quo and the culture there is very feudal. They protect their turf, they are wary of newcomers especially if you’re ‘schooled’. To break in was hardcore. That’s an understatement; I mean, it is really, really hard. More often, it’s more of swallowing your pride and accepting compromise as a norm. And if you didn’t know anybody, the only route was to write scripts and show them to people or enter them in competitions” (Tioseco, 2006).

Diaz’s first frustrating encounters with mainstream commercial filmmaking came with an assistant director stint for a Gil Portes film shot in the U.S.A., being one of a duo of writers chosen to work for the “King of Philippine Movies” Fernando Poe, Jr., and a comedy for Regal films. After his project at Regal ended, he decided to stop working in the commercial filmmaking milieu (Tioseco, 2006). Apart from the lack of proper film resources and venues, Diaz’ health began failing due to a deteriorating lung condition discovered by chance during a medical examination for one of his job applications. His treatment of heavy medication took a great toll on him physically and mentally.

“… for six months there was this very strict daily injection and popping of so many pills and tablets and liquids. The doctor warned me that if my lungs weren’t ‘cleared’ after the sixth month, there was a possibility that it would slide into lung cancer. I was high everyday, seeming to float when walking; my skin felt thick, numbed and itchy; sounds in my ears were muffled and magnified; my thoughts would go high speed and slow motion and backward and forward and up and down and east-to-west-to-north-to-south. I could walk for hours, I could go motionless for hours, I could be staring at a cockroach for half a day, people would look weird, my writing bordered on dementia, it was a crazy period. And Mowelfund was located then at the basement of the creepy Manila Bay Film Center of Imelda Marcos. Heard of the stories of the hundreds of workers buried alive there so that the ‘Madame’ could dance with George Hamilton on time, listen to the Russian piano prodigy and sing “Dahil sa ‘Yo” on a yacht going to Corregidor? Imelda is the supreme magic realist being” (Tioseco, 2006).

At that point in his life, Diaz felt physically and emotionally burned out. On top of everything, there was also the constant difficulty of providing proper living conditions for his family. A bleak situation he graphically describes with mixed emotions:

“In Manila, I had reached a dead-end. I was practically killing myself working in newspapers, my last [job] being a deskman in a Tagalog tabloid, and [I was also] submitting scripts in television serials, writing unproduced screenplays, writing scripts for komiks6. I was a book salesman while studying law; I wrote serious stuff that won Palancas; I won screenwriting and essay writing contests. But for what, my family was starving. We lived in Krus na Ligas, a squatters’ area inside UP Diliman, cramped in a tiny, rented room; we had to sleep in one small bed, the five of us—my wife and my three kids—we had to put chairs on the edges to keep our feet from dangling and be bitten to smithereens by ghetto mosquitoes and rats. All I could do was curse in silence while looking at my friends from film school shooting while I was working as a full-time family man. I didn’t regret being a family man because I love my children very much but like I said, we were at a dead-end; there was no relief in sight. And there was no digital then. At some point, I thought I could never do my films. Abandoning music was already a very painful experience (I destroyed my guitar and burned all my songs) and if I were to abandon cinema, I didn’t know what I would do. I couldn’t afford to kill my soul twice” (Tioseco, 2006).

“… If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere …”

Diaz’s situation in the Philippines had deteriorated to the point of frustration and despair till one of his film works became the unplanned catalyst for a new direction and a new location in his life.

“I arrived in New York on the 21st of July 1992. Fate brought me there. It wasn’t planned at all. A commissioned video documentary I did on the street kids of Manila was invited to participate in a multimedia exhibit-tour of key areas of the US. When I got to New York, a Filipino newspaper invited me to be part of their staff. I stayed and worked as one of their editors. New York provided me some freedom, aesthetically and economically. My decision to live in New York has been all about pursuing greater heights for my art while liberating my family from the clutches of poverty” (Tioseco, 2006).

Aside from the video documentary on Manila street kids, Diaz later “confessed” that his first film from Mowelfund Banlaw also played an important part in helping him get some footing in the New York art scene – albeit in a more “unofficial” capacity than the documentary.

“Time to ask forgiveness from Mowelfund: I stole the only copy [of Banlaw] before I left for the US in 1992. My act wasn’t deliberate though. I visited Mowelfund and I saw our works scattered on this long table. I mean, the films were scattered there—16s, super 8s, video tapes—and you know Mowelfund then, the doors were open twenty-four hours, and people were coming in and out, stoned, drunk, gaudy, haughty, hungry, horny and totally fucked up, or fucking each other, and spaced out. I saw Banlaw lying on the edge. It was actually on the edge of the table in its utter blackness and smallness, and a slight push would push it to oblivion. I was scared; I might as well get hold of it; I reckoned I would return it in better times. I grabbed it and slipped it in my bag. When I got to New York, it helped me connect with the struggling independents in the East Village; I have this badge, [this] little crude film to show them. It even saved me from going hungry; we’d do underground showings of shorts, in basements literally, and ask for donations. I kept transferring. I lost it in the process, in one of the basements in Jersey City, I believe” (Tioseco, 2006).

His wife and children eventually joined him in New York in 1997.

“The interim five years in New York, before he was joined by his family, Diaz considers as “defining years.” “[Being in New York] was an accident, but it was also fortunate because, there, my perspective on cinema was solidified: that one should never compromise,” says Diaz. He stayed in East Village, a virtual commune of “struggling artists,” hobnobbing with such people as Jonathan Larson, the creator of the musical Rent. To complete his apprenticeship, he buried himself in film books and attended film retrospectives whenever he could, learning from such masters as Welles, Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Bresson” (Manrique, 2006).

It was at film screenings at New York’s famous art house theaters like the Film Forum where the further reaches and possibilities of cinematic expression began opening themselves up to him. Apart from his deep and almost religious devotion to Andrei Tarkovksy – whose works he claims to memorize by heart even though at one time owning only un-subtitled VHS PAL copies of the films – he also shared with me a personal first encounter he had with one of the works of the patron saint of independent filmmaking, the filmmaker I hold above all others, John Cassavetes. Sometime in between the years of his arrival and his family’s arrival in U.S., loneliness overcame him and he went out for a walk. He eventually found himself inside the familiar space of a movie theater watching a film by a filmmaker that he had never heard of. The filmmaker was John Cassavetes and the title of the film was “A Woman Under the Influence”. The film’s harrowing and compassionate emotional scenes completely crushed Diaz and helped illuminate many of his personal problems regarding his family that he missed terribly at the time. Like his experiences viewing Lino Brocka’s Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Light) and Tarkovsky’s works, “A Woman Under the Influence” reinforced his belief in the affective and transformative powers of cinema. Later, he told me in half laughter and half seriousness that to this day, despite the questions and incredulous looks of his guests, he keeps his copy of “A Woman Under the Influence” under the horror section of his film collection in New York. He channeled his renewed passion for filmmaking by embarking on several film projects, one of which would eventually become Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino which he began shooting in 1994. At one point, apart from his main job at the newspaper, he supplemented his income by working as a waiter and gas station attendant to help fund his film productions. Although the situation seemed to be improving for him in the U.S., during his first year in New York, unbeknownst to Diaz, tragedy had befallen his family back in the Philippines. Olivia, his only sister, perished in a car crash at the age of 31. His eventual knowledge of the accident, and deep shock over his sister’s passing put his own life into grave perspective.

"I was sitting on a bench in New York, one snowy day, and had lived, until then, the bohemian life. I had just gotten the news that my sister died. They had buried her without telling me. There and then, I realized that life is short. Just do what you have to do. Just put everything into praxis” (Manrique, 2006).

His re-immersion into life translated not only in his art but also his lifestyle as he became a vegetarian and completely gave up vices like drugs, alcohol and smoking (Manrique, 2006). Beginning from Batang Westside onwards, his production company Sine Olivia is perhaps named in homage to his late sister. A deeper homage to her can also perhaps be found in the character of the Hilda Gallardo, the insane woman whose rape and murder her son Reynaldo avenges but continues to be haunted by in Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino. Loss, though still ultimately lacking in the end, can perhaps find no better tribute than in art. An insight that would eventually find itself pushed past even the extreme limits of memoriam in Diaz’s subsequent films.

Jan Philippe “JP” V. Carpio is a writer, filmmaker, performer and teacher living and creating in Metro Manila, Philippines.


Caruncho, E. S. (2008, October 12). To Hell and Back with Lav Diaz. Sunday Inquirer Magazine. Retrieved February 18, 2010 from
Manrique, D. (2006, September 17). Lav Diaz: A Portrait of the Artist as a Filmmaker. from

Tioseco, A. (2006, January 30). A Conversation with Lav Diaz: Indictment and Empowerment of the Individual: The Modern Cinema of Lav Diaz. Retrieved February 19, 2010 from /interview_article.php?id=21
Zafra, J. (2009, December 22). Lav Diaz, filmmaker from Maguindanao, on Maguindanao. from

Wikipedia. (2009, December 2). from
Wikipedia. (2010, February 12). from

The article is from The Auteurs (

Thursday, February 11, 2010


By Film Angel

The nine-hour epic is my pick as best Filipino film of the 2000s. It has a great start (probably the best initial two hours of a Lav Diaz epic), and a great cliffhanger of an ending. In between are amazing images and captivating stories. The tale of a Japanese straggler and the legend of the scary lizard deserve to be turned into separate films. Credit must also go to Ronnie Lazaro's excellent performance as Heremias.

I love this Malay time-inflected film! It is a joy to see such laid-back film with lots of extended takes. French film critic Andre Bazin remarked that a long take allows viewers to settle on the shot and gives more freedom as to where to look. The freedom given to viewers is exhilarating. There is a danger though of viewers tuning out or growing restless.

The first hour sets the pace of the film. It consists of several 10-minute or so long takes. The static shots focus on a handful of Brahman bull-drawn carts traversing a highway. The somber black and white cinematography enthralls the moviegoer to take a meditative look on the swaying grass blades and the zooming motor vehicles overtaking the carts. The lushness of the ambient sound enhances the contemplative experience.

The film slowly lures us into the unhurried world of roving handicrafts vendors. I enjoyed this segment of the movie. Director Lav Diaz reveals beauty in the routine activities of the joyful vendors and their families. The local adaptation of the children’s song ‘Where is Thumbkin?’ has never been sung with much gusto as in this film. Songs, stories, food, and liquor figure prominently in the world of close-knit villagers. Eating and drinking become main occasions of communal life. The drinking sessions in particular are not only entertaining but flesh out the characters.

The titular character, Heremias, seldom joins the men on extended drinking sessions. Thus, he ends up being the butt of stories. The elder of the group advises the men to just mind their own business and leave Heremias alone. During the course of the trip, Heremias chats with the elder. He wants to veer away from his companions. Despite friendly warnings about possible mugging and the prospect of running straight into a supertyphoon, he defiantly changes course and chooses the less-traveled road.

There is a shot of the white Brahman bull plodding through the bumpy, rough road as seen from the eyes of Heremias. From that point on, the film shifts gear and thrust the viewer into the point-of-view of Heremias. The willing viewer gets to see and hear what he is experiencing.

Contemplative moments abound in this film. There is a majestic, meditative scene showing a seated Heremias wading in the middle of a river. He is looking at a distant mountain. This scene prefigures a similar scene of a young Heremias looking at the Mayon Volcano in Book Two of Heremias. These meditative moments compel the viewer to ask what is exactly bugging the problematic merchant.

Slowly, the character of Heremias comes to light. A dark deed in the past continues to hound him. Random encounters with people inevitably remind him of his past. Their tales allude to his dark side. However, his bouts with contemplation and a strong typhoon wash away anger in his heart. He withholds at the last second his plan to kill a suspected thief.

Heremias seeks out the person/s responsible for the theft of his goods and his bull. Just as night falls, a group of young people holes up in his stakeout place. What Heremias (and the viewer) will see and hear for the next hour is disturbing enough to make people walk away. Try to imagine seeing drug crazed people doing despicable acts for almost an hour. Add to that shattering experience the cuss words and lewd stories rifling out of their foul mouths. These acts are light-years away from contemplative moments experienced by Heremias. He may have been itching to walk away but cannot because he might miss out on something important. He (and the viewer) patiently waits. The waiting took the whole of the penultimate hour but no earthshaking info came out of it.

Paradoxically refreshed from the draining segment, I later caught on with the important plot info. The last hour of the film saw me eagerly anticipating Heremias’ efforts to rescue a young girl. After exhausting major means of saving her, the prophet-like Heremias gets kicked out of town by the police chief and left unconscious in the forest. Upon waking up, he implores God to save her. He hikes off to the mountains and vows to fast for 40 days. Redemption comes at last to the troubled wandering merchant.

I’ve seen a two-hour preview of Book Two and it lives up to the high standards set by Heremias [Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess]. I hope Diaz can finish Book Two so that viewers can finally grasp the answers to lingering questions such as: What happens to the young girl? What are the dark secrets of reticent Heremias? Will Book Two equal the excellence of Book One?

From the blog, the persistence of vision, February, 2010