Lav Diaz in Conversation
with May Adadol Ingawanij, Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn, Wiwat Lertwiwatwongsa and Alexis Tioseco
In summer 2009 the Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz was invited to speak at a retrospective of his epic films in Bangkok. The event was organised in an informal, unorthodox fashion by a group of Thai cinephiles (the Filmvirus network) eager to experience the astonishing films he’s been making this past decade or so, each of which spans between 8 to 11 hours in running time. Narrativising time and again the sorrow and resilience of women and men who have no other alternative but to go on living amidst the wreckage of modern Filipino history, Diaz’s films have been slowly gaining the recognition they deserve — winning the Horizons Award at the 2008 Venice film festival for example. At this Bangkok retrospective, emphatically down-to-earth in tone and named with allegorical intent as if desiring to claim Diaz as ‘our’ filmmaker — Death in the Land of Melancholia, in this debris-strewn land — the post-screening conversations felt unusually engaged: the alchemy precisely of the filmmaker’s seriousness of political vision and the audiences’ gifting of their own time in a retrospective that could only have come into being outside the logic of the commodified film event. Amidst the kitschy delirium of Thailand’s capital city, those four precious, intense days of immersing ourselves in Diaz’s work felt like an act of claiming back space, time, and history in the full radical sense of the term.
Transcribed below is one of several Q&As Diaz generously gave himself to after the Bangkok screenings, accompanied by Alexis Tioseco, the Filipino film critic and much-loved friend of many people involved with Southeast Asian cinema. Alexis and his partner Nika Bohinc were killed just a few weeks after this event. For those of us in the Filmvirus network, this record of a conversation now stands as a precious reminder of the sense of having begun something with Alexis and Nika. How fleeting it all is. We were already hatching plans to do another film event together when we said goodbye.
Since this conversation took place after the screening of Diaz’s two-hour work-in-progress, Heremias Book II, I will just give the reader a flavour of the film and the one that precedes it. In Heremias Book I (2006), a timid yet resolute craftsman/vendor takes it upon himself to seek answers concerning the theft of his cow after it becomes clear that the police won’t give him justice. Heremias’s quest for truth results in lethal foresight: he finds out that the son of a local politician is planning to rape and murder a girl. Seeking protection for the girl, Heremias turns to the police, then the priest. Forsaken by representatives of secular and spiritual institutions of deliverance alike, the humble everyman then strikes a bargain with God. Occurring in the closing shot of the film we can’t know for sure whether his faith will be rewarded.
Heremias Book II portrays the time prior to the itinerant vendor’s challenge to God. As Alexis puts it, the film provides a context for Heremias’s action in Book I: ‘how a person’s history lives with them and affects the decisions that they make later in their lives.’ Diaz cuts between the story of the boy Heremias, the sense of isolation as leprosy claims both his parents, and the adult Heremias’s return to the island of his childhood. This rough cut is a distillation of Diaz’s characteristic themes and touches: the mutual haunting of faith and doubt that his characters experience; the slow progression of astonishingly framed images drawing the eyes into deep space; the way the figures in Diaz’s films pause, fall silent, make the minutest of gestures. Yet, somehow, in Diaz’s vision the image of a body bending down to brush his hand against the powdery earth in front of a gravestone carries with it such immense, unbearable grief. Witness this suffering, don’t look away. Nowhere more powerfully than the closing minutes of Heremias Book II does cinema show how much it can do, with so little.
— May Adadol Ingawanij, London, 2010
The following conversation took place after a screening of a rough cut of Heremias Book II in Bangkok on 31st July 2009. Speakers: May Adadol Ingawanij [MAI], Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn [GC], Wiwat Lertwiwatwongsa [WL], Alexis Tioseco [AT], Lav Diaz [LD].
GC, trans. MAI: Starting with some basic questions about the film first… Could you say something about the structure of Heremias II, particularly in terms of the film’s complex temporal relationships?
LD: I don’t really have a definite structure for Book II. The flashbacks are from a time when Heremias was a child, growing up on a Southern Island, and then from a time when he has grown up, returning to the island, checking on his family. I just follow some threads, organise the way life happens, you know, every day. There’s no plan, there’s no real outline to life anyway.
WL, trans. MAI: What are the elements that link Books I and II?
LD: Of course, there is poverty, and the emotional devastation of the characters because of the neglect of the system. It’s an overriding theme. These people are trapped in a very neglectful milieu, and that thread is the one that connects everything.
GC, trans. MAI: Related to what Lav was saying about poverty being the link between the two films, would it be appropriate to describe the family in the film as a family that’s been cursed in some way? Particularly in relation to the snake at the very beginning, the father’s illness and the mother’s leprosy.
LD: Yes, it’s a cursed family because it’s a cursed society, it’s a cursed culture. Filipino culture is very corrupt, everything there is very neglectful. The entire history of the country is very bloody, one of hard struggle: the colonial period under the Spanish lasted for more than three hundred years, then the period under American rule (even now, they’re still interfering in affairs), the four years of Japanese reign, the twenty-one years of Marcos… So it’s a cursed society in a way.
AT: Just a brief note on the connections between the two films: as you’ll see, if you watch Heremias I later, that film is really about a character who’s quiet and actively making decisions, and even though you don’t know the reasons behind them you see their outcomes. In this film, it’s more about getting to know the back story of the character, how a person’s history lives with them and affects the decisions that they make later in their lives.
GC, trans. MAI: A lot of Filipino films seem to be exploring characters in conflict with religion in some way. What is the relationship between Filipino society and the sorts of pressures that seem to be addressed in Filipino films concerning religion?
LD: 80% of the Philippines is Catholic, we’ve been Christians since the 16th century. 10% are Islam. It’s a very religious society. The whole Catholic thing is very much in our psyche. Everything that we do is about the doctrines of the Catholic church, and even though the landscape is changing now, if you see our films it’s still deeply ingrained. It’s our collective guilt.
AT: In relation to that, with regard to Philippine cinema in a broader sense, I think part of the burden that filmmakers have comes from dealing with the idea of a society that’s very Catholic but is also extremely corrupt, with an extremely high level of poverty. Many filmmakers are questioning how the Catholic religion functions in this society when we have such a huge disparity between the rich and the poor, and there is very little being done to bridge that gap.
GC, trans. MAI: In Thailand, we also have a society which is, in many ways, highly religious yet highly corrupt, and yet those two pressures don’t seem to be something that mainstream or independent filmmakers feel they have the language or will to explore. Leading on from that, it might be time to ask what seems to be the big question in relation to your work: why the length? This might be relevant because, in previous interviews, you have spoken of the length of your films in relation to an anti-colonial understanding of time and practice.
LD: I don’t really think about length when I make films. I’m a slave to the process, following the characters and the story and where they lead. It’s a very organic process for me, I just keep shooting and shooting once there’s an idea. When I watch the footage later, if I think there’s still more to be done I have to shoot it. I don’t think, ‘oh, it’s already seven hours’ or ‘there’s already fifty hours of footage.’ Perhaps I think this way because, with regard to the history of my people, we don’t really have a concept of time, we just have a concept of space.
MAI: Could you talk a little bit more about this conception of space?
LD: Yes, the pre-Islamic or pre-Spanish Filipinos, before we were colonised, didn’t really have the kind of conception we do now. Time is a very Western concept for us. The space in Asia is very archipelagic: we have the islands, we have everything, we’re governed more by nature than time.
WL, trans. MAI: Relating this issue to the reception of your films, how have people responded to the way your films ask them to experience a different kind of time?
LD: Of course, the first question is always: ‘Why is it long?’ It’s a very tiring question, one that gets repeated a lot. But I do understand why it is asked: convention tells you that a film has to be two hours, mainly for commercial purposes. If you can screen a film seven times in a day, that’s maximum profit. But I don’t have anything to do with commerce or the marketplace, I just make my films. [Alexis whispers in Lav’s ear as May translates.] Alexis has just reminded me of the most interesting response we get from people, that it’s a new experience for them to be sitting for eleven hours. It’s a struggle, an endurance. But people do also talk of the immersion of it, that it’s a “total cinema experience.”
GC, trans. MAI: As your process of filmmaking seems to take a very long time, with lots of interruptions, how do you maintain a working relationship with your actors?
LD: All my films have different characteristics in that sense. With Batang West Side (2001) we were holed up in New York City for almost a year, but we finally made the film in two months. I was able to contain the work very well because we were together all the time. The eleven-hour film (Evolution of a Filipino Family | Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino, 1993 – 2004), however, I shot [over] ten years: three actors died, and other people were growing up or getting old. It was very hard. We repeatedly had to call them up and ask: ‘Are you still alive? I have money now, we’re going to shoot again!’ During this process, we watched the footage again and again, and every time we restarted I had conversations with the actors to prepare them for the act of doing it again. It’s always a struggle.
Audience: What has been the most difficult struggle?
LD: It’s not actually the act of making the film, it’s more a question of trying to make people appreciate that you’re doing serious work, that you’re being responsible, that it’s not about money or commerce, it’s about culture. This aspect is the hardest part.
AT: When you say ‘people’, do you mean the audience, or also the people you work with?
LD: Yes, also the people we work with, because sometimes they too do not fully understand the process.
Audience: You said Ebolusyon took eleven years to shoot. Because of the length of time, have you ever had to work on a couple of films simultaneously?
LD: Yes, I made four films in the time it took to finish that one! We were almost waiting for the actors to die, hoping they’d survive. It’s an issue of schedule and logistics: raising money, geographical constraints (I was living in New York at the time), other commitments that the actors had, etc.
Audience: In Heremias II, there seem to be some conflicting views concerning religion. Some of the characters are criticising God, yet the last image seems to be be one that speaks intensely of religiosity. Do you, as an individual, have faith in God?
LD: I question the existence of God every day. I grew up in a hardcore Catholic family; my mother is like a saint, you know, she prays with the Novena Rosary every day. My father is a hardcore socialist, so I lived between two extremes. Still now, I’m not really sure… I do question, that is as much as I can say. The issue of redemption is also inherent in my work, particularly the question of whether people are seeking redemption through God or wanting to emancipate themselves from the pain that they’re experiencing. It’s not so much about God, it’s also about trying to liberate yourself. This is reflected in my work.
WL, trans. MAI: In comparison to your work, Thai political history hasn’t really been addressed by our cinema, and yet, certain things in your films, particularly in Melancholia (2008), are very close to political situations in Thailand. (For instance, the way society turned silent after the Thammasat University Massacre , failing to address its trauma.) What has been the reception of your work as political cinema in the Philippines, especially given the fact that we think there are still a lot of Marcos admirers in the country?
LD: Very few have seen my work, so I wouldn’t really know what their reaction would be. It is only really seen outside the Philippines — the only retrospectives I’ve had is here [in Bangkok], and cities like Paris, Berlin, Turin. In my country, I have shown my work only in schools, the University of the Philippines and the Cultural Centre of the Philippines, and the average audience I get is around fifteen to thirty people, of which maybe fifty percent are my friends, so I don’t know! The political situation in my country has been the same since the Marcos years: there have been many killings, and this new government is very cruel in the way it deals with activists. In the last three years alone, almost a thousand activists have been tortured or murdered, or have gone missing. Almost three hundred journalists have been killed in this period too, so it’s still the same. That lady president [Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo] is one of the most corrupt presidents that we’ve ever had.
MAI: What has been your experience of state power in relation to your filmmaking?
LD: Death in the Land of Encantos (Kagadanan sa banwaan ning mga Engkanto, 2007) was banned two years ago because of nudity, not because of its political content or its critique of our society. But state censorship is still very powerful — just yesterday, the Filipino film that was shown in Cannes [Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay (2009)] almost got banned, but at the last minute they were able to show it. Censorship is a big issue, but at the same time I think we are still very free in terms of expressing our perspectives or opinions: we can at least talk freely, we can attack that fucking government.
GC & WL, trans. MAI: This is a question for Alexis regarding Filipino cinema more broadly: Are there many more political filmmakers in the Philippines, and to what extent is self-censorship or timidity in tackling political issues a problem amongst Filipino filmmakers?
AT: I think there’s very few filmmakers in the Philippines in the vein of Lav Diaz and his work, at least in the sense that he tackles political problems whilst also presenting the broader context for them. Many filmmakers will just say ‘this is happening’ without trying to expand on that and ask why. There are certain political filmmaking groups, one of which is called ST eXposure, short for Southern Tagalog Exposure: their political stance is very hard, you know where they’re coming from (often from a communist perspective, or at least sympathetic to that cause). What’s interesting is that this group has tried to involve a lot of younger filmmakers who are generally apolitical in their work in making short films about the human rights situation in the Philippines, which has been a very serious issue over the last few years. One problem with these films, however, is that many of the filmmakers are only asked to make two-minute public service announcements — the initial idea was to show them on television, but they were banned after being awarded an X rating. Only when the filmmakers appealed were they allowed to show them publicly. Another problem lies not in the gesture of making the films but in how they’re made: these films are built upon very simple ideas, not asking questions but instead making very small statements, statements that aren’t necessarily new or challenging. In addition, the majority of the films being made in the Philippines, maybe over eighty percent, are by filmmakers who are around the age of thirty-three and below — a lot of them are very young, still maturing not just in terms of their aesthetics but also in terms of their understanding of society. You can see a lot of frustration in their work with regard to the political situation, but not necessarily a maturity in the way that they deal with it. Except for a few filmmakers who do have that nuance or touch, for example Sherad Anthony Sanchez, Raya Martin, and Lav Diaz of course.
MAI: Can you recommend some of Sherad’s films?
AT: Sherad Anthony Sanchez has made two feature films, one is called Woven Stories of the Other (Huling Balyan ng Buhi, 2006), and the other is called Imburnal (2008). I believe one or two of them might have been shown here in Bangkok. At the very least one of his short films has screened at the Thai Short Film and Video Festival.
WL & MAI: In rather fossilised Thai art discourse, there is a notion that art must always be “for the people”, summed up by the slogan “Art for Life”. This has become problematic now, as art that is seen to be removed from activism is open to criticism as a plaything of the bourgeoisie, whilst more obviously and stridently political works do not necessarily represent the most interesting work being produced. How do you relate to this kind of discourse regarding the place of politics in art, in your work or more generally?
LD: This could be a long discussion! I have made it a rule for myself that propaganda has no place in cinema, or in art. It’s a very personal move for me. But I also believe that art is very political, and that you can’t erase that connection. So, if your method is avant-garde, it’s still political: it’s a personal view of life, and how you deal with life is very political. So the way I do it is just to reflect on the struggle of my people. It has to be very individual also, I have to understand what I am doing, the milieu where the story works, the very issues that the characters are dealing with. I do also impose my political beliefs, like human rights issues, the struggle of my people against neglect, against poverty, against corruption, against post-colonial issues, everything, it must be there. But, you have to contextualise it by using stories where you don’t force the issue, it just has to be experienced. As a storyteller I don’t force, I don’t impose a political belief so it will look like propaganda. I just tell stories sadly, that’s the way I do it. I also believe that the artist has a responsibility in his society. You must work in the condition of your milieu, you have to be very responsible. Especially in my country, as we know our struggles so well, we have to be responsive to them and other people. Being responsible is already a political stance. And being responsible is also being truthful and honest about what is happening in your milieu – not being responsible to your producer or the market, that’s bullshit.
GC, trans. MAI: This is a question for Alexis regarding Thai cinema. Many Thai films suffer from the Bangkok-centricness of our political and economic structure, and films are almost exclusively made from the perspective, and the gaze, of middle-class Bangkokians. Is there also a sort of Manila-centrism at play in Filipino cinema, and, if not, what would you regard as the biggest problem plaguing Filipino cinema today?
AT: The idea of Manila-centrism is something that was very prevalent until a few years ago. I think in the last two years we’ve started to see a lot more work coming from outside Manila, which is very healthy, in large part thanks to Teddy Co, a film historian and curator who works for the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, who’s been travelling to the provinces and trying to bring films and people to Manila for a dialogue, to build a dialogue among filmmakers from all the different regions. It’s very interesting because you’re starting to see small distinctions between the style of films made in different regions: in the films being made in Davao, a city which is technologically advanced but socially extremely conservative, you can sense the repression but also a sensuality that you don’t see in their society. They show it in their films. In a city like Cebu, which is always fighting for its own pride and recognition, the films aspire to a Western aesthetic, a style of filmmaking that looks toward Hollywood. In Cebu, they have a very large film school started by a former Amazon.com executive that demands films are made in English, even though it is not spoken natively. And if filmmakers refuse to make their films in English, they have to pay to use the school’s equipment as opposed to using it for free. It’s quite backwards. And in another major city, Baguio, we’re beginning to see a style that relates to the way people there are, which is very aggressive, full of angst. A lot of these cinemas are still maturing, but it’s very exciting to see voices emerging from there instead of filmmakers from Manila going there and imposing their idea of what those places are like.
With regard to the type of films coming from a bourgeois perspective that you mentioned, the topic of films that explicitly deal with poverty has become a big topic in the Philippines now. People are suspicious, saying they’re being made for a Western audience. But what I think is sorely lacking in the Philippines are films that deal critically with the way the upper class operates — you don’t see films that look at them in a serious light, you only see love stories between the rich girl and the poor guy (or the other way round), films where everyone always works in an ad agency. You never see films that try to tackle those issues in a more serious manner.
I think the biggest issue in the Philippines at the moment has less to do with the films themselves, which are starting to be more challenging and diverse, but more to do with Filipino film culture, which is much weaker than the films are at this point. A lot of interesting films are being made, but there is not a culture which supports them by organising and attending screenings, or organising forums for discussion. Most of the work being done around film culture is being done by the filmmakers themselves, who aren’t necessarily always the best organisers [smiles]. Just to relate this to Lav Diaz’s work, I think that almost all of the films screening here have not been shown in the Philippines more than ten times. Ten individual screenings would be the maximum. At a South East Asian cinema conference that we held in Manila last year, one academic, who is a supporter of Lav’s films, questioned the fact that as his films are so long, and not many people watch them, can he really be a Filipino filmmaker? Is he really making films for Filipino audiences? To which I had to reply, very indignantly, that the point isn’t whether people are watching them, but: do you like the films? Do you want to watch them? Do you think people should watch them? And his answer is yes. The question then is: if you think it’s important, why aren’t you doing more yourself to create opportunities for people to see them? It’s not the failure of the film or the filmmaker, but the culture that doesn’t support it.