To make money is not the province of a novelist. If he is the right sort, he has other responsibilities, heavy ones. He of all men cannot think only of himself or for himself. And when the last page is written and the ink crusts on the pen-point and the hungry presses go clashing after another writer, the “new Man” and the new fashion of the hour, he will think of the grim long grind of the years of his life that he has put behind him and of his work that he has built up volume by volume, sincere work, telling the truth as he saw it, independent of fashion and the gallery gods, holding to these with gripped hands and shut teeth – he will think of all this then, and he will be able to say: “I never truckled; I never took off the hat to Fashion and held it out for pennies. By God, I told them the truth. They liked it or they didn’t like it. What had that to do with me? I told them the truth; I knew it for the truth then, and I know it for the truth now.”
Frank Norris, The Responsibilities of the Novelist
Through a series of now legendary jokes in which the old-timer’s caustic humour goes hand in hand with the tycoon’s matter-of-fact approach to filmmaking as a business, Sir Alfred Hitchcock perfectly illustrated, if not what Cinema is, at least how movies are made in Hollywood: first of all, mainstream commercial cinema is drama, and “drama is life with the boring bits cut out” – from which it descends that “the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder”. Concluding his sketch for a psychology of the motion picture, André Malraux invited the reader to always keep in mind that cinema is an art that is also an industry, and indeed Hitchcock’s aforementioned remarks pinpoint one of the most important principles at work within the filmic texts produced by the entertainment industry: narrative economy.
Let us consider a narrative fiction film produced by any film industry in the most abstract terms:
[it] presents psychologically defined individuals who struggle to solve a clear-cut problem or to attain specific goals. In the course of this struggle, the characters must enter into conflict with others or with external circumstances. The story ends with a decisive victory or defeat, a resolution of the problem and a clear achievement or non-achievement of the goals. […] Usually the classical syuzhet presents a double causal structure, two plot lines: one involving heterosexual romance (boy/girl, husband/wife), the other line involving another sphere – work, war, a mission or quest, other personal relationships. Each line will possess a goal, obstacles, and a climax.David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film, Routledge, London, 1990, p. 157. By “syuzhet”, Bordwell means the story-events as the narrator presents them, not necessarily in their (chrono)logical order.
Within this overall narrative structure, we will never see a five-minute shot of a man sitting around, saying nothing, smoking a cigarette from the first drag to the butt. Such a scene in a one-hundred-minute narrative fiction film to be sold as entertainment would be a useless waste of time for two reasons. Firstly, in the smoking scene described above there is no action moving the plot forward (“action” being “the outward expression of inner feelings”, i.e. the character’s attempt to get what he/she desires by means of physical behavior or speech).D. Bordwell, Janet Staiger, Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film, Style and Mode of Production to 1960, Routledge, London, 1988, pp. 15-16, quoting a screenplay manual written by Frederick Palmer in the Twenties. Secondly, even if the scene does communicate something about the character’s psychological state (e.g., he is probably pensive, or bored, or both), it does so in too anti-economic a way: instead of a five minute shot, the “pensive” or “bored” feeling could be synthetically and unambiguously enunciated by a line of dialogue, or by a much shorter montage sequence (close-up of the character with index and thumb on the chin, the passing of time on a clock, cigarette-butts piling up in the ashtray, and so on).
It is said that during the shooting of Greed (1924) Erich von Stroheim filmed everything in the attempt of building “a monument to realism”: if character McTeague had to go from his flat to the saloon, the director required the whole point-A-to-point-B movement to be captured on film – opening and closing of doors, McTeague descending flights of stairs, walking the streets… The fact that most of this “non-vital” footage allegedly ended up being burnt by greedy producers in order to get silver back from the film-reels is probably the best lesson about narrative economy one could be taught: industrially-produced cinema is the embalming of money.Cfr. Arthur Lenning, Stroheim, The University Press of Kentucky, 2000, p. 195 and Stroheim’s letter to Peter Noble quoted at p. 216.
Now a fiftyfive-year-old independent filmmaker working on his own terms, in his youth Lav Diaz, too, had to face studio executives lecturing him about movies being entertainment, entertainment being stories, stories being meaningful events unfolding in time, time being money, money being used by people to purchase two-hour maximum movies to watch in their spare time. As a matter of fact, Diaz’s enthusiastic embracing of cheap digital technology as a means to reach creative autonomy results from his disastrous working experience at Good Harvest Productions, a branch of Filipino film production company Regal dedicated to the making of exploitation films.
In the Nineties, while making a living as a journalist and cultivating a passion for film and music criticism, Diaz wrote a few award-winning short stories and screenplays, which allowed him to start his career as film director at Good Harvest in 1998, it being almost impossible for him to find funds and shoot his film-projects outside the studio system. He subsequently directed four features for Regal – Serafin Geronimo, Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion (Serafin Geronimo: The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion, 1998), Burger Boys (id, 1999), Hubad sa Ilalim ng Buwan (Naked under the Moon, 1999) and Hesus Rebolusyonaryo (Hesus the Revolutionary, 2002).
However, Diaz warns us that the word “exploitation” in Filipino filmmaking industry must be intended in its proper economical meaning, and not just as a slang-term for “genre-oriented film practice that produces low-budget movies characterized by risqué and/or lurid subject matters”:
The pito-pito (“seven each”) was one of the most exploitative and brutal schemes ever done in film production. Regal Films – one of the biggest production studios in the Philippines – imposed seven days of pre-production, seven days of shooting and seven days of post-production to us filmmakers. I’d seen production people collapsing from fatigue. During the shooting of Serafin Geronimo: The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion, I was having severe flu. I was drinking loads of antibiotics plus endless strong black coffee to stay awake and be able to finish it. I passed out on the last day of the shoot. Honestly, I thought I was dead. And everybody did it with very, very low salaries. It was hell. The process woke me up and so I left the movie industry, the so-called “system”. […] People compromise for a reason: at the beginning I was part of the system too. Things can co-exist and some people can live with contradictions. However, while working for Regal Films I understood that it’s easy to do exploitation stuff and then inject things there, make a lot of money and say “Hey, I’m just having fun and it’s only a movie!”. Yes, that’s possible and there’s been a deluge of that since the birth of cinema but I can’t do it: exploitation is never cool to me, both as a movie-genre and as a production method.Michael Guarneri, “Exploitation is never cool to me”: The Anti-Feudal Cinema. Interview with Lav Diaz, Summer 2011, http://www.lafuriaumana.it/index.php/2-uncategorised/38-lfu-9.
Such “b-movies” – in the Philippines as everywhere else – are often praised for being brave enough to deal with young/hip/counterculture subjects, challenging censorship, moral and religious taboos, or at the very least for allowing the public to experience some thrilling entertainment after a hard day’s/week’s work. This is of course true: for example, horror and science fiction have always been a privileged vehicle for social commentary, and denying the fascination every human being proves with watching naked bodies or gruesome violence on the screen would be hypocritical. We do ask for cinema to amaze us, excite us, scare us; we do watch movies just to relax and “turn off the brain”; we do want to live extraordinary vicarious adventures.
The problem is when an exploitative system is established, an industry in which exploited creative workers are demanded to produce low-cost movies that exploit sexual themes or gore in the belief that the audience is nothing but a bunch of mindless people hungry for blood and T&A.
As many colleagues of his, at Regal Films Diaz really tried hard to use the money and means of production he didn’t own to put forward his personal vision and address issues he considered important for his fellow countrymen to reflect upon. At a closer look, thematically-speaking, there is not much difference between Diaz’s debut feature Serafin Geronimo: The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion and his latest work Norte, hangganan ng kasaysayan (Norte: The End of History, 2013) in that both movies sort of adapt Dostoevskij’s Crime and Punishment to the present-day Philippines. Moreover, there are striking similarities between the title-character of Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012) and the sleepwalking girl played by Klaudia Koronel in Naked under the Moon, whereas in both Naked under the Moon and Siglo ng pagluluwal(Century of Birthing, 2011) Lav-Diaz-regular Joel Torre portrays a man of God facing vocation crisis.
However, while working for the studios, Diaz did not have much creative freedom and he was not at all in control of his work so, for instance, he couldn’t oppose Regal re-editing Naked under the Moon and adding a sex-scene shot by somebody else to “spice up” the movie and make it more “attractive” for the crowds.Alexis Tioseco, “Indictment and Empowerment of the Individual: The Modern Cinema of Lav Diaz”, in AA.VV., Catalogo XXIII Torino Film Festival, 11-19 Novembre 2005, Museo Nazionale del Cinema, Turin, 2005, p. 169. Also published online at http://www.criticine.com/interview_article.php?id=21. But do the crowds crave for sex scenes and the industry is just “giving people what they want”, or is it rather that the studios exercise control over production and provide only one kind of film for people to see? According to Diaz, there is no doubt about it: “In the case of Filipino audiences, they are always at a losing end, always underestimated and treated like morons who are undeserving of serious works. We have a very irresponsible and dishonest cinema culture in the Philippines. It is all business and bullshit”.Brandon Wee, The Decade of Living Dangerously: A Chronicle from Lav Diaz, February 2005, http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/34/lav_diaz/
Again, what is at stake here is not that industrially-produced, ninety-minute slasher movies, star-vehicle comedies or tear-jerking melodramas should not exist. What Diaz objects to is the “feudal mentality” of an industry “protecting its turf”, and preventing people from making/accessing films whose main focus is not on such narrowly defined entertainment. As implied above when talking about means of production, the “gatekeeping” is done by economic means: the studios are the only economical subjects able to face the costs of producing and shooting a feature on film, and having it distributed and screened around the country. So, basically, in the Nineties as in the previous decades, aspiring Filipino filmmakers would have to follow Lino Brocka’s advice and make some films “for the producer” in order to be able to finance one personal project – which Diaz initially did, penning scripts for the “action king” Fernando Poe Jr. and directing films for Regal while working independently on Batang West Side (id., 2001) and Ebolusyon ni Ray Gallardo, that was later to become Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004).For details about the shooting of Batang West Side in New Yorkand the ten-year making of Evolution of a Filipino Family, see the chronology “Brief notes on the long journey of Ebolusyon”,in A. Tioseco, A Conversation with Lav Diaz, January 2006, http://www.criticine.com/interview_print.php?id=21.
As already mentioned, it was the growing availability and relatively low cost of digital video filmmaking equipment (compared for example to the price of 16 mm and super8 film-reels) that allowed Diaz to become his own man and avoid compromising his vision.A very poetic, first-hand account of Diaz’s emancipation from the industry’s feudalism can be found in Tilman Baumgärtel, Lav Diaz: Digital is Liberation Theology, September 2007, http://www.greencine.com/central/lavdiaz. For digital piracy as a means of tearing down the industry’s monopoly over distribution, see M. Guarneri, Militant Elegy. A Conversation with Lav Diaz, Autumn 2013, http://www.lafuriaumana.it/index.php/29-archive/lfu-17/16-michael-guarneri-militant-elegy-a-conversation-with-lav-diaz That said, it is now my aim to point out some of the main features of Diaz’s independently-produced, black and white movies Evolution of a Filipino Family, Heremias: Unang aklat – Ang alamat ng prinsesang bayawak (Heremias, 2006), Kagadanan Sa Banwaan Ning Mga Engkanto (Death in the Land of Encantos, 2007) and Melancholia (id., 2008), and analyze the critique of the entertainment industry they put forward.
In Evolution of a Filipino Family, extremely lengthy shots taken from a single spatial viewpoint show us the members of the Gallardo family sitting still, listening to a soap opera broadcasted on the radio: together with the work in the fields, the radio program regulates the rhythm of their everyday lives, as they never miss an episode. What’s more, the fictional lives of the soap opera’s characters seem to be the Gallardos’ favourite talking point, as they prefer to discuss possible developments of the narrative rather than their own present and future as peasants under Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law. Here, Diaz implies that the seemingly-innocuous soap opera is an extremely effective instrument the Power uses to instill the Filipino people with the fatalism that has been keeping them slaves for centuries. Just like “[t]he various rituals of Holy Week […] were used by the Spanish colonizers to inculcate among the Indios […] resignation to things as they were and instilled preoccupation with […] the afterlife rather than with the conditions in this world”,Reynaldo C. Ileto, Pasyon and Revolution. Popular Movements in the Philippines, 1840-1910, Ateneo de Manila University Press, Quezon City, 1989, p. 12. the aptly-titled radio drama Hope awaits everyone keeps repeating that suffering is inevitable and poor people must endure because they’ll get their reward some day, in the “other world” if not in this life: as Theodor W. Adorno would say, the escape has indeed become the message, since mass-produced entertainment is being used to distract people’s attention from their miserable working and living conditions, and to keep them in a state of de-politicised passivity and apathy. Diaz is so clear about this that analyzing the documentary scenes chronicling the making of the radio drama would be a redundant exercise. What really matters is: what can be done to contrast the intoxicating, numbing power of the industry’s tv programs, radio broadcasts and movies? Given his personal experience in the “system”, Diaz chose to relentlessly attack cinema as “anaesthetic” entertainment, undermining the economic principles of mainstream narrative filmmaking.
Diaz is famous for the radical running times of his black and white features, with Evolution of a Filipino Family, Heremias, Death in the Land of Encantos and Melancholia adding up to some 37 hours in total. The “unmarketable” running time is of course the most blatant reaction against films as commodities to be screened for a fee at least four times per day in the course of a week: a commercial screening venue would never trade the opportunity to screen a US blockbuster or any Filipino mainstream movie four times in a day for showing Evolution of a Filipino Family once. And who would have eleven consecutive hours to dedicate to a movie anyways?
However interesting, I think the issue of the films’ running time constitutes the proverbial forest that prevents us from noticing the main characteristics of the single trees. That’s why I prefer to concentrate on the micro-level of single shots rather than on the macro-level of the film-as-a-whole: if Diaz’s movies are extremely long, it is because they are composed of a series of very lengthy shots, and the content and formal properties of these shots have often been neglectfully ignored in favour of general considerations about the duration of the viewing experience.
So, what does the typical “Lav Diaz shot” look like and what does it portray? As we can see in the four movies listed above, most of Diaz’s shots usually start by depicting the landscape – no human beings in sight. Then, after a while, one or more characters enter the shot and cross the frame by foot – left-to-right / right-to-left; or, background-to-foreground / foreground-to-background. Once the characters walk out of the frame, we are again left to contemplate the landscape for some time before the cut. The camera has remained fixed on its tripod throughout the shot, immobile (panning being rare in Diaz’s black and white movies). Heremias, for instance, opens with a series of three such “unipunctual” long-takes depicting peasants/peddlers crossing the landscape with carabaos and carts, and given the five-minute average shot length, Giona A. Nazzaro is right in pointing out that in this case classic cinema’s “establishing shot” has become a sort of “settlement shot” [insediamento]:Giona A. Nazzaro, “Heremias: io, un filippino”, in Filmcritica,n. 588, September-October 2008, p. 398. My translation. the fact is Heremiasand the other black and white movies by Diaz demand a place in the life of the spectator who decides to experience them – they demand time, that is to say attention and dedication; they refuse to be purchased and consumed as “an evening’s entertainment”.
Coherently, the very way in which Diaz makes these films is far removed from the pito-pito industrial production system he was part of in the Nineties. Instead of tight working schedules, one-week deadlines, rigorous daily plans and screenplays to be followed to the letter, he prefers taking his time, moving to and living in the shooting location area for a while (Diaz always uses real locations), letting the weather, the landscape, local people and even chance influence the mood of the film and the direction taken by the fictional events portrayed. This process he calls “organic”, meaning that his films are always “open” to what is happening in the real world:
I was living near the place where we were shooting Century of Birthing, a very desolate place. There was a very isolated village there, where I had shot some scenes previously. It was raining one day, so we went to this village to take cover from the rain. Suddenly, the place got crowded. We found out a meeting was about to start: the farmers from the village were having problems with a landlord and they wanted to organize themselves to face the problem. I thought this real-life situation really merged well with the struggle of the characters in the film, and me being a very “organic” filmmaker, I said “Let’s incorporate this!”. So I told the actors “Just join the farmers and I will follow you”. It happened like this: a very organic process. And it came out well in the editing, didn’t it? Take the scene in which the farmer comes to the shed where [actor Perry Dizon] is sitting, for example: that happened by accident. Then, I stopped shooting and I told the farmer and his friends “Can you talk about the problems you are having now, and about the problems you had under Marcos?”. They replied “Oh, sure, we know a lot about that around here!”, and they started talking. Thus, the assembly became part of the very structure of my work. This organic process allows you to see some lapses within the characters, within the story and within the other structures of the fiction film, and it works really, really well. That’s the insanity of things like that, and it’s pretty much obvious if you think about it: things are happening just… everywhere around you! […] I originally chose to shoot in this area because of the storm, you know. I was in Marikina, the town where I live, near Manila. I was having coffee, and it was very, very early in the morning, like 6 o’clock. I was waiting for Khavn de la Cruz, a fellow-filmmaker and a friend of mine who wanted to take a walk along the river near my place. So while I was having coffee, I heard two guys saying “Hey, there’s a storm coming in Central Luzon”. Suddenly, I found myself thinking “This could look great in the film”. I didn’t really know yet, but my mind started working. I had this image in mind: the Mad Woman and the Artist meeting in the storm. I called the two main actors at once, “Please, come, let’s shoot!”. Actress Hazel Orencio said “I am washing my clothes…” and I was like “Stop washing your clothes, come!”. Actor Perry Dizon said “I am going to Vietnam” and I was like “Cancel your trip, come!”. So we met at 7 o’clock and we went to Nueva Ecija, in the area where the storm was going to hit: there we stayed, waiting for the storm – I was ready to shoot, with my camera and an umbrella. [Laughs] And in the end, it was so good for the film. The collision between the two characters is really synchronized with the coming of the storm. I am very happy about it.M. Guarneri, Militant Elegy. A Conversation with Lav Diaz, cit.
[While making Evolution of a Filipino Family,] there was no general plot to really follow through. Everything was open – […] My process by then would be to write the daily struggles of my characters. I will just follow them, and oftentimes I would actually write the script, the dialogues a day before the shoot or during the shoot, oftentimes as instinct and common sense would suggest.A. Tioseco, A conversation with Lav Diaz, cit.
Diaz’s conception of the screenplay is particularly interesting, as it clearly shows the independent filmmaker’s rejection of the industrial production mechanisms. From official document and control instrument the studios use to draw up a day-one-to-day-seven production plan in order to rationalize and quicken the film’s manufacturing, the script becomes just a “general guideline” that can be modified at any time under the pressure of the shooting environment and new, unexpected ideas: with its frequent calls for additional shooting, Diaz’s working method sure isn’t time- and cost-effective, but that’s done on purpose, as his rebellion against the status quo is not just what we see on the screen but the whole, long, organic process – “the everyday struggle”, in Diaz’s own terms – of the making of the film.
The style of what we called “the typical Lav Diaz shot” tells a lot about the author’s refusal to adhere to mainstream narrative cinema’s modus operandi, too. In the Filipino film industry directors are encouraged by studio executives to take no risks and apply the so-called sigurista approach of covering a scene from all angles and let the editor reconstruct continuity in the post-production phase. This method has always suited the film industry pretty well all over the world, as it guarantees the accumulation of enough film material to make a scene work no matter what. On the other hand, according to Diaz, the “assembly-line” standardization of filmmaking practice does little to stimulate creativity, innovation and anti-conformism in Filipino cinema, thus reinforcing the feudalistic exploitation system we already described:
You know, a lot of filmmakers practice the “full coverage” directing – shooting a scene in all angles, top shot, tilt down, tilt up, pan right, pan left, zoom in, zoom out, the dolly, the crane shot, and then do all the close ups, the medium shots, full shots, long shots, establishing shots, cut-aways, lots of reaction shots. They do that on every scene. They call it the sigurista directing; you have everything; let the editor suffer the pointlessness of it all. The usual practitioners of this kind of filmmaking are movie industry people. And oftentimes, to be able to achieve this, people would shoot for 36 hours straight killing themselves to exhaustion. And they would light their sets like there are twelve moons at night and twelve suns in the morning. I am not saying that this is not valid, this full coverage exercise. It is still filmmaking indeed. But talk about impatience, man. This is fucking film school. This is a fucking television commercial shoot. This is a fucking product shot shoot. But then it works for them, so ya, man, let’s do the take 35 for that fucking close up, apply more make up and open the three HMIs to the maximum.Ibid.
That’s the main reason why, as an independent, Diaz never practices the “full coverage” and prefers to record the whole scene in one take, from one single camera position. And even in the rarest occurrence when he employs classical filmmaking routines, the conventions of the industry are sabotaged. In Heremias, for example, we witness the editing pattern “character watching something – thing being watched – character’s reaction” (A1-B-A2): the title-character is spying some thugs plotting a murder and he is troubled by what he sees and hears (A1 and A2); the thugs are shown from Heremias’ point of view (B). The only problem is POV shot B lasts sixty minutes and a few seconds of blank screen divide B from the thirty-second reaction shot A2 – possibly a parody of mainstream narrative techniques, definitely a far cry from continuity editing’s tempo and seamless, almost invisible transitions between shots…
Although Diaz’s being a great admirer of long-take virtuosi Andrej Tarkovskij and Michelangelo Antonioni, his cinema is not at all an attempt at updating the style of the “old masters” to the digital age, capturing on mini-DV tape super-long, carefully-composed shots in which nothing “big” or “relevant for the plot” happens. As statements like “In Evolution of a Filipino Family, 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”B. Wee, op. cit. demonstrate, for Diaz bringing to the screen huge blocks of real time is the operating principle of an anti-establishment program in which an anti-spectacular form is used for anti-escapist purposes. In fact, in his adoption of the long take, aesthetic and ethic concerns intertwine, as the presentation of “lumps of time”Andrej Tarkovskij, Sculpting in Time. Reflections on Cinema, The Bodley Head, London, 1986, p. 65. goes hand in hand with the decision of not cutting those “empty moments” of the everyday that mainstream narrative economy dispose of as if they were waste matter. Basically, with Evolution of a Filipino Family, Heremias, Death in the Land of Encantos and Melancholia, Diaz has been trying to re-instate life’s “boring bits” into cinema, thus making films closer to the actual lives of his fellow countrymen rather than to the economic imperatives and escapist agenda of the entertainment industry. Utopic as it may sound, through his filmmaking practice, Diaz is actively engaged in a battle for freeing time from capitalistic exploitation mechanisms:
My cinema is not part of the industry conventions anymore. It is free. So I am applying the theory that we Malays, we Filipinos, are not governed by the concept of time. We are governed by the concept of space. We don’t believe in time. If you live in the country, you see Filipinos hang out. They are not very productive. That is very Malay. It is all about space and nature. If we were governed by time, we would be very progressive and productive. […] In the Philippine archipelago, nature provided everything, until the concept of property came with the Spanish colonizers. Then the capitalist order took control. I have developed my aesthetic framework around the idea that we Filipinos are governed by nature. The concept of time was introduced to us when the Spaniards came. We had to do oracion [prayers] at six o’clock, start work at seven. Before it was free, it was Malay. I am a son of a farmer and a teacher, and when I grew up in Cotabato on Mindanao, in the boondocks, I had to walk to school, ten kilometers every day, go back home another ten kilometers. Same thing in high school. I had to walk five kilometers every day. So this type of slow aesthetics is very much part of my culture. It is not just purposely done, to say I am versus this, or I am anti that. It is my culture. I am sharing this vision and this experience, this Lav Diaz experience.T. Baumgärtel, op. cit.
The above autobiographical note confirms once more that the act of walking is crucial in Diaz’s cinema. But what makes Diaz’s characters hit the road and where are they going exactly? What does all this walking mean?
By adopting David Bordwell’s neoformalist approach to narration, it can certainly be affirmed that Evolution of a Filipino Family, Heremias, Death in the Land of Encantos and Melancholia all start as a quest for something/someone – a job, money, a carabao, missing family members or lovers… However, as hours of screen-time pass and the searchers go here and there, no progress whatsoever is made, no decisive trails are discovered, no magical helper pops up to save the day. And if the Filipino filmmaker puts obstacles on the heroes’ path (e.g., a tree branch in front of Heremias’ cart), it is not to create suspense via retardation, but to derail the traditional travel tale altogether: as huge delays and fortuitous encounters make the characters lose sight of the high road (i.e., the main plot-line), the concrete objects of the quest progressively rarify, changing half-way or being abandoned altogether, until any hint of narrative causality and teleology disappears, and characters’ actions become sheer quantity of energy dispersed into the landscape.
Heremias decides to make a living as a peddler on his own and quits the caravan of his fellow-villagers: he has to travel from point A to the town-market located in point B. For various reasons (bad weather, nightfall, hunger, thirst, need to rest, taking care of his carabao), he is forced to take several detours and one night, by chance, he discovers a murder plot. He subsequently tries to prevent the killing, but he cannot find any help from the local authorities. He is also robbed of all his belongings, so he can’t do anything but go away.
Hamin, a Filipino-born artist living in Russia, comes back to his native village after typhoon Reming killed his family and most of the people he knew since childhood. He walks among mud-covered ruins with two surviving friends, reminiscing the past and trying to decide what to do with the rest of his life.
Alberta is trying to overcome the loss of her husband, a member of a guerrilla organization who disappeared one day in the jungle while fighting against the regular army. She is also trying to raise Anna, a teenage daughter of desaparecidos who regularly runs away from home and prostitutes herself. In order to cure both her foster daughter’s and her own emotional wounds, Alberta is convinced by long-time friend Julian – an intellectual and former revolutionary mourning over the disappearance of his wife Patricia – to take part in some sort of role-play game. Acting as a prostitute and a pimp, Alberta and Julian travel around the country looking for adventures. Together with them is Rina, a depressed woman who plays the role of a nun and one day kills herself.
As made clear by the three examples above – taken from Heremias, Death in the Land of Encantos and Melancholia respectively – in Diaz’s black and white movies the plot’s causality-driven march towards a goal, outlined in the opening paragraph of the present essay, soon makes way for the non-structure Gilles Deleuze called “trip/ballad” [bal(l)ade], that is to say the aimless wandering of the characters in space. Indeed, for Heremias, Hamin, Alberta and the others, “[i]t is as if the action floats in the situation, rather than bringing it to a conclusion or strengthening it”,Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2. The Time-Image, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1989, p. 4. with the characters turning little by little into automatons moved only by their own inertia. And since “inertia can be defined […] as the inability to find a link between the permanence of movement and the movement’s inherent purpose and meaning” [l’inertie se définit […] comme une incapacité à opérer une jointure entre la permanence du mouvement et un sens qui lui serait immanent],Ludovic Cortade, Le cinéma de l’immobilité, Publications de la Sorbonne, Paris, 2008, p. 86. My translation. it is not surprising that Diaz calls his characters “lost souls and wanderers”, sleepwalkers, unsuccessful searchers condemned to endlessly walk the Earth.Vinita Ramani, “A dialogue in progress. Social/Personal Memory before Heremias”, in Kino, n. 21, http://www.e-kino.si/2007/no-1/preboji/dialogue-in-progress; Lim Li Min, 11 hours in a life’s cause, May 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/26/arts/26iht-fam.html.
Filipino film critic and scholar Gino Dormiendo, who played the role of Lino Brocka in Evolution of a Filipino Family, once stated that “any filmmaker that cannot make their [sic] point in two hours has a problem”.A. Tioseco, “Evolution of a Filipino Family”,in Ekran, 2005. Published online at http://ulan-shiela.blogspot.it/2008/01/ebolusyon-ng-isang-pamilyang-pilipino_12.html. It is true: Lav Diaz has a major problem with Filipino film industry’s conception of cinema as entertainment. As the present essay tries to explain by analyzing Diaz’s 2004-2008 output, to the “escapist lies” Filipino audiences have been fed for more than a century he opposed with an independent filmmaking practice concerned with stories of ordinary people told through an anti-spectacular long-take aesthetic.
Since the metaphor Diaz has been using over and over to describe his filmmaking praxis is that of the “struggle”, as a conclusion of sorts, one might be tempted to ask: is his rebellion against the industry being successful? Is the independent artist winning? The question is legitimate, but I think it is simply too soon to know. Only time will tell, and this is not just a pun about the filmmaker’s predilection for enormous running times and open endings. However one decides to evaluate the prizes Diaz has been collecting in film festivals around the world and the difficult accessibility of his films for most Filipino people, he is struggling, and that’s what is important: he has been testing miniDV, HD and full-HD cameras, upgrading his gear through the years; he has been experimenting with camera movement (the helicopter shots in Norte: The End of History seem to have raised quite a stir among Diaz’s aficionados) and colour; he has been exploring the documentary form with an ongoing series of films dedicated to slain film critics Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc, and he is financing his next fiction film The Great Desaparecido via crowdfunding (https://sineoliviapilipinas.wordpress.com/films/short-films/short-films-prologo-sa-ang-dakilang-desaparecido-p/), thus trying to directly involve more and more people in the cinematic struggle. As Heremias at the end of the nine-hour 2006 feature, Diaz, too, is marching towards the horizon in his endless search for redemption. It is still a long walk indeed, but as Filipino film critic Epoy Deyto told me once “True Lav waits”…
I would like to thank James Tucker for proofreading the text, and enrico ghezzi, Marco Grosoli, Dario Stefanoni and Epoy Deyto for the insights about Diaz’s movies.