Lav Diaz in Conversation

with May Adadol Ingawanij, Grai­woot Chulphongsathorn, Wiwat Ler­twi­wat­wongsa and Alexis Tioseco

Intro­duc­tion

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

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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?

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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, 19932004), 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 [1976], 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.

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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 Ama​zon​.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.

[End, applause.]

Notes

Images by Jake Atienza.