Cinema of the Philippines


Experimenta

The ninth edition of Experimenta, the now-biennial experimental and avant-garde film festival of India helmed by Shai Heredia, took place between 25th and 29th of November in Bangalore. Besides the international competition section, the roster consisted of sidebars on the politics of film form, the materially violent personal films of Louise Bourque (curated by Lauren Howes), the digital-video and television-based experiments of Bjørn Melhus (himself), the tranquil cine-haikus of Helga Fanderl (herself) and contemporary Indonesian (Akbar Yumni) and Filipino experimental cinema (Shireen Sono), each of them introducing me to unexplored territories of the avant-garde. The festival also sought to respond to the recent happenings in the country and show solidarity with the student protests at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). Three realizations from the festival:

  1. Although a forward-looking curiosity to explore what the formats of the new century have to offer finds a salutary counterpoint from a tendency to militate for film (Melhus’ cinema, always in conversation with the latest technological developments, and Fanderl’s Super-8 partisanship that includes the act of changing-reels as part of the presentation), the exigencies of festival programming and the ease of breaking in to the filmmaking scene has, at least in this festival, rendered digital video ubiquitous (only 4 of the 30 films in competition were made on film, and these too were projected digitally).
  2. Dictatorship and state repression, for better or worse, continue to be very productive frameworks to work within and supply artists with perennial inspiration. The Philippines has come a quarter century since the Marcos regime, Indonesia’s been recovering for 17 years since Suharto’s fall and Thailand’s reeling from last year’s military coup. The films from these countries in the festival all respond to them in ways direct and oblique.
  3. Apichatpong’s opened a Pandora’s box.

(The following are some notes on 23 of the 30 films in competition. I could not see the rest and will update this post if I get to see them any time soon.)

 

32 AND 4 (Chan Hau Chun, China, 2015, 32min)

32 And 4Chan’s diaristic digital work is divided into chapters named after family members and unfurls as a process of piecing together of familial history. Through various confrontational interviews with her mother and father, the filmmaker attempts to understand their failed marriage, her strained relation with her step-father and the violence that has structured them both. Chan’s decision to put her entire life-story on film is a brave gesture, but the film closes upon itself, satisfied to be a melodrama valorizing personal experience over broader frameworks. (Consider, in contrast, the rigorous domestic formalism of Liu Jiayin or the socio-political tapestry of Jia Zhangke’s early work.) Chan misses the forest for the lone tree. Winner of the Adolfas Mekas award of the fest.

BEEP (Kyung-man Kim, South Korea, 2014, 11min)

BeepBeep assembles anti-communist propaganda material from the 60s and the 70s commissioned by the South Korean state that was based on the mythologizing of a young boy, Lee Seung-bok, slain by North Korean soldiers. With the unseen, absent boy-hero at its focus, Kim’s film depicts the dialectical manner in which a nation defines itself in relationship to an imagined Other. Kim makes minimal aesthetic intervention into the source material – our relation to it automatically ironic by dint of our very distance from the period it was made in – restricting himself to adding periodic beep sounds to the footage, producing something like a cautionary transmission from another world.

BLACK SUN (Truong Que Chi, Vietnam, 2013, 12min)

Black SunBlack Sun opens with a composition in deep space presenting a metonym for a country in the process of development: high-rise buildings in the background as a pair of actors in period costumes rehearse a scene in the foreground. In a series of Jia Zhangke-like vignettes of Saigon set in middle-class youth hangouts scored to pop songs and television sounds, interspersed with images of a metamorphosing city, we see the distance that separates art from reality and the middle-class from the changes around it. The film culminates in a complex, home-made long take following the protagonist across her house and out into the terrace, where she dances, presumably to the eponymous song.

CLOUD SHADOW (Anja Dornieden & Juan David Gonzalez Monroy, Germany, 2015, 17min)

WolkenschattenThe most challenging and elusive film of the competition I saw is also the most hypnotic. Cloud Shadow gives us a narrative of sorts in first person about a group of people who go into the woods and dissolve in its elements. The film is obliquely a story of the fascination with cinema, of the trans-individualist communal experience it promises, of the desire to dissolve the limits of one’s body into the images and sounds it offers. With an imagery consisting of sumptuous tints, and nuanced colour gradation and superimpositions, the film enraptures as much as it evades easy intellectual grasp. The one film of the festival that felt most like a half-remembered dream.

DOG, DEAR (Luca Ferri, Italy, 2014, 18min)

Dear DogFerri’s teasing, playful Dog, Dear appropriates the filmed record of a Soviet zoological experiment in the 1940s in which scientists impart motor functions to different parts of a dead dog. In the incantatory soundtrack, a woman – presumably the animal’s owner – repeatedly conveys messages to it, with each of them prefaced by the titular term of endearment. Ferri’s film would serve sufficiently as a blunt political allegory about the dysfunction of communism, but I think it’s probably fashioning itself as a metaphysical question: the dog might well be kicking but is he alive? His physical resurrection will not be accompanied by a restoration of consciousness. He will not respond to his master’s voice.

ENDLESS, NAMELESS (Mont Tesprateep, Thailand, 2014, 23min)

Endless NamelessPut together from footage apparently shot over twenty years at a Thai army officer’s residence, Tesprateep’s film shows us four conscripts working in the general’s garden. We witness their camaraderie, their obvious boredom, the empty bravado in entrapping small animals and intimidating each other. The misuse of power by the officer in employing these youth to mow his lawn reflects a broader militaristic hierarchy, as is attested by the youths’ casual violence towards the animals and their brutal torturing of a prisoner. Endless, Nameless recalls Claire Denis in its emphasis on military performativity and Werner Herzog in its juxtaposition of idyllic nature and seething violence, all the while retaining an immediate critical concern.

FICTITIOUS FORCE (Philip Widmann, Germany, 2015, 15min)

Fictitious ForceIn Fictitious Force, Widmann incidentally poses himself the age-old challenge of ethnological cinema; how to film the Other without imposing your own worldview on him? The filmmaker smartly takes the Chris Marker route, avoiding explanatory voiceover for the rather physical Hindu ritual he photographs and instead holding it at a slightly mystifying – but never exoticizing – distance. Widmann’s film is about this distance, the chasm between experience and knowledge that prevents the observer from experiencing what the observed is experiencing, however understanding he might be. Fictitious Force’s considered reflexivity carefully circumvents the all-too-common trap of conflating the subjectivities of the photographer and the photographed.

FISH POINT (Pablo Mazzolo, Argentina, 2015, 8min)

Fish PointFashioned out of footage that the artist shot during his visit to the titular natural reserve in Ontario, Fish Point comes across as an impressionist cine-sketch of the locale. The film opens with Daichi Saito-esque silhouettes of trees against harsh pulsating light – near-monochrome shots that are then superimposed over a slow, green-saturated pan shot of a section of a forest. This segment gives way to a passage with purely geometric compositions consisting of alternating browns and greens and strong horizontals and verticals. Forms change abruptly and tints become more diffuse and earthly. We are finally shown the sea and the horizon, with a rough map of the area overlaid on the imagery.

HAIL THE BODHISATTVA OF COLLECTED JUNK (Ye Mimi, Taiwan, 2015, 7min)

Hail The BodhisattvaA music video for a song that reportedly riffs on a holy chant and the traditional cry of the local ragman, Ye’s film starts out with shots of old women and men lip-syncing to the titular melody before turning increasingly darker. The rag picker of the poem progresses from accepting material refuse to buying off diseases, emotional traumas and even intolerable human characters. Ye builds the video using shots both documentary and voluntarily-performed that portray everyday life in Taiwan as being poised between tradition and modernity. The junkman of the film then becomes a witness to all that the society rejects and, hence, to all that it stands for.

IMRAAN, C/O CARROM CLUB (Udita Bhargava, India, 2015, 14min)

ImraanSet in a suburban Mumbai slum, Bhargava’s film takes a look into one of the reportedly many carrom clubs in the area where young boys come to play, smoke and generally indulge in displays of precocious masculinity. Where Imraan, the 11-year-old manager of the club, seems reticent before the camera, his peers and clients are much more willing to perform adulthood in front of the filming crew. While some of them are acutely aware of the intrusive presence of the camera, urging their friends not to project a bad image of the country, the film itself seems indifferent about the ethics of filming these youngsters, asking them condescending questions with a problematic, non-committal non-judgmentalism.

MASANAO ABE – CLOUDGRAPHY (Helmut Völter, Germany, 2015, 5min)

CloudographyVölter’s visually pleasing and relaxing silent film is a compilation of scientific documents of cloud movement over the Mount Fuji recorded from a static observatory by Japanese physicist Masanao Abe in the 1920s and 1930s. Abe’s problem was also one of cinema’s primary challenges: to study the invisible through the visible; in this case, to examine air currents through cloud patterns. The air currents take numerous different directions and these variegated views of the mountain situate the film in the tradition of Mt. Fuji paintings. The end product is a James Benning-like juxtaposition of fugitive and stable forms, a duet between rapidly changing and unchanging natural entities.

MEMORIALS (Korou Khundrakpam, India, 2014, 25min)

MemorialsThe most narrative film of the competition, Memorials situates itself in the tradition of 21st century Slow Cinema with its elliptical exposition, stylized longueurs, (a bit too) naturalistic sound and its overall emphasis on Bazinian realism. A young man revisits his father’s house long after his passing and starts discovering him through the objects of his everyday use, while a dead fish becomes the instrument of meditation and grieving. Though rather conventional in its workings, Memorials offers the details in its interstices fairly subtly and touches upon the usual themes of inter-generational inheritance and posthumous rapprochement, while also gesturing towards a necessary break from the past.

NATEE CHEEWIT (Phaisit Punprutsachat, Thailand, 2014, 20min)

ExperimentaPunprutsachat’s work is a straightforward document of the protracted rescue of a water buffalo from a man-made well on a sultry summer afternoon by dozens of village folk. Shot with a handheld digital camera and employing mostly on-location sound, the film presents to us the efforts of the villagers in chipping away at the edifice, restraining the animal from agitating and finally allowing it to go back to its herd. Natee Cheewit attempts to encapsulate the idea of eternal struggle between man and animal and, more broadly, between nature and civilization. The remnants of the demolished pit and the dog wandering about it are reminders of this sometimes symbiotic, sometimes destructive interaction.

NIGHT WATCH (Danaya Chulphuthiphong, Thailand, 2014, 10min)

Night WatchNight Watch is reportedly set in the days following the military coup in Thailand in May, 2014 – a period of state repression dissimulated by triumphalist propaganda about reigning happiness. Chulphuthiphong’s debut film showcases one quiet night during this period. Jacques Tati-esque cross-sectional shots of isolated apartments and office spaces show the citizenry complacently cloistered in their domestic and professional spaces, much like the sundry critters that crawl about in the night. Someone surfs through television channels. Most of them are censored, the rest telecast inane entertainment.  Night Watch underscores the mundanity and the ordinariness of the whole situation, which is the source of the film’s horror.

REPLY; REPEAT; REPEATED; DELETE; FAVORITE; FAVORITED (Ouchi Reiko, Japan, 2014, 6min)

reply repeat repeatedA rapid editing rhythm approximating the audiovisual assault of the information age, a visual idiom weaving together anime, pencil-drawing and Pink Film aesthetic and a soundscape consisting of reversed audio and noise of clicking mice and shattering glass defines Ouchi’s high-strung portrayal of modern adolescent anxieties. In a progressively sombre, cyclic series of events, a teenager navigates the real and virtual worlds that are haunted by sex and death around her. Ouchi’s pulsating, mutating forms and her preoccupation with the hyper-sexualization of visual culture are reminiscent of Nobuhiro Aihara’s work and the spirit of Maya Deren also hovers above in the film’s centralization of the female body and mind.

SCRAPBOOK (Mike Hoolboom, Canada, 2015, 18min)

ScrapbookOne of the high points of the festival, Scrapbook consists of videograms shot in 1967 in a care centre in Ohio for autistic children with commentary by one of the patients, Donna, recorded (and curiously re-performed by a voiceover artist at Donna’s request) in 2014. Donna’s words – indeed, her very use of the pronoun ‘I’ – not only attest to the vast improvement in her personal mental condition, but also throw light on the psychological mechanisms that engender a self-identity. For Donna and the other children-patients filming each other, the act of filming and watching substitutes for their thwarted mirror-stage of psychological development, helping them experience their own individuality, reclaim their bodies. Bracing stuff.

SECOND SUN (Leslie Supnet, Canada, 2014, 4min)

Second SunCanadian animator Leslie Supnet’s hand-drawn animation piece is an extension of her previous work First Sun (2014), with the monochrome drawings of the latter giving way to bright primary pencil colours. Like its predecessor, Second Sun extensively employs basic geometrical shapes to represent cosmic phenomena and is scored to an exhortative percussive soundtrack hinting at a ritual, a summoning. The figures move strictly horizontally or vertically on checkered paper as though underscoring their mathematically precise cyclicity, with the central solar circle spawning clone stars, moons, planets and an entire solar system. The overall impression is that of witnessing a trance-inducing cultic invocation.

THE ASYLUM (Prapat Jiwarangsan, Thailand, 2015, 10min)

The AsylumAccording to the program notes, the project brings together a real-life DJ who has lost her job after the coup d’etat in 2014 and an actual illegal immigrant boy from Myanmar at a secluded pond in the woods to allow them to do what they can’t in real life. We see the DJ perform for the camera, talking with imaginary strangers, giving and playing unheard songs, while the boy is content in tossing stones into the moss-covered pond. Like a structural film, The Asylum, alternates between the DJ’s ‘calls’ and the boy’s quiet alienation, taking occasional albeit unmotivated excursions into impressionist image-making, to weave a vignette about ordinary people made fugitives overnight.

THE BACKYARD (Yusuf Radjamuda, Indonesia, 2013, 12min)

The BackyardA Kiarostami-like narrative minimalism characterizes Radjamuda’s naturalistic sketch in digital monochrome of a lazy holiday afternoon. A young boy perched near the window of his house engages in a series of self-absorbed activities, while actions quotidian and dramatic, including a hinted domestic conflict, wordlessly unfold around him off-screen. A series of shallow-focus shots rally around a wide-angle master shot of the backyard to establish clear spatial relations. Literally and metaphorically set at the boundary between the inside and the outside of the house – home and the world – Radjamuda’s film is a pocket-sized paean to childhood’s privilege of insouciance and to the transformative power of imagination.

THE LAST MANGO BEFORE THE MONSOON (Payal Kapadia, India, 2015, 19min)

THe Last Mango Before The MonsoonThe shadow of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work is strongest in Kapadia’s three-part work about the cycles of life, death and reincarnation and the interaction between mankind and nature, between the real and the surreal. Set in various regions of India and in multiple languages and shot predominantly between dusk and dawn, the film has a beguiling though mannered visual quality to it, with its appeal predicated on primal, elemental evocations of the supernatural. While Kapadia’s superimposition of line drawings on shot footage to depict man’s longing for and transformation into nature demands attention, the film itself seems derivative and a bit too enamoured of its influences.

THEY’RE NOT FAVA BEANS, THEY’RE SCARLET RUNNER BEANS (Tânia Dinis, Portugal, 2013, 10min)

Fava BeansA potential companion piece to Porumboiu’s The Second Game (2014), Dinis’s digitally shot home movie unfolds as a commentary upon itself. Consisting of scenes from the everyday routine of the filmmaker’s animal-loving grandmother, overlaid with a spontaneous conversational commentary on them by Dinis and her rather talkative and humourous granny, the film is partly a tribute to the latter personality and partly a reflection on the capacity of cinema to preserve memory of people, time and place. Like in Porumboiu’s movie, cinema furnishes the possibility of continuity between generations and the opportunity to meditate on the similarity and difference between them.

WHAT DAY IS TODAY (Colectivo Fotograma 24, Portugal, 2015, 13min)

What Day Is TodayAt least as formally innovative as Rithy Panh’s The Missing Image (2014), What Day Is Today, made by a young film collective from Montemor-o-Novo based on testimonies from older compatriots, digitally carves out from newspapers and newsreels human figures that act out the history contained in them. Charting the course of Portugal from the fascist period, through the Carnation Revolution and up to its Eurozone woes, the film depicts a nation which overcame oppression, poverty, superstition and inequality only to lapse into a passive consumerist catatonia, in the process abandoning the vision of the revolution and letting itself be hostage to a host of external economic forces.

WIND CASTLE (Prantik Basu, India, 2014, 14min)

Wind CastleWind Castle opens with a complex composition made of an unfinished (or destroyed) building behind a burnt crater, with the moon in full bloom. We are somewhere in the Indian hinterlands, a brick manufacturing site tucked inside large swathes of commercial plantations. Basu’s camera charts the territory in precise, X-axis tracking shots that form a counterpoint to the verticality of the trees. Noise from occasional on-location radios and trucks fill the soundtrack. A surveyor studies the area and trees are marked. ‘Development’ is perhaps around the corner. But the rain gods arrive first. Basu’s quasi-rural-symphony paints an atmospheric picture of quiet lives closer to and at the mercy of nature.

(Images courtesy: Various film festival websites)

Batang West Side (2001) (West Side Avenue)
Lav Diaz
Tagalog/English

 

West Side AvenueThanks to West Side Avenue (2001), clearly Lav Diaz’s first major work, we now know what will happen if the Filipino filmmaker takes to genre filmmaking. Diaz takes the standard policier, blows it to a size beyond what the text can handle and, in essence, brings to surface the mechanics of the genre. Constructed as a (seemingly endless) series of interrogations and recollections, a la Citizen Kane (1941), the film presents itself like a sphere without a centre. (Like Charles Kane, the relationship of all the characters to the dead boy at the centre of Diaz’s film – which is developed strikingly with a plethora of parallels – becomes the guiding device.) The procedure becomes so routine and schematic, aided to a large degree by the repetition of spaces and compositions, that the lead detective (Joel Torre) becomes something of a Melvillian zombie trudging through generic structures. But then, talking about Diaz’s film in terms of the genre is not half as justified as reading it from a national and auteurist perspective. Firmly planted in historical and geographical particulars – Filipino youth living in and around Jersey City during the turn of the century – the film takes up the issue of disappearing Filipinos – a sensitive idea that would be pursued further in other forms the later films – and examines the historical deracination and alienation that marks these young men and women. The relationship between the various characters with the killed teenager reflects their own conflicted relationship with their homeland. The film, itself, is somewhat (and slightly problematically) neo-nationalistic in flavour, gently appealing for cultural consciousness, integration and a “return to one’s roots”. The narrative mostly involves the investigation of the murder of one Manila teenager, If one moves beyond its precise sociological ambitions, one also discovers the flourishing of to-be-familiar stylistic (and narrative) devices: Scenes in master shots, montage of long takes, monochrome passages in. video and use of total amateurs. (Oddly enough, my favorite scene in the film is among the most uncharacteristic of Diaz’s cinema: a breakfast scene cut with verve comparable to Classical Hollywood). However, the most unmistakable authorial trademark of West Side Avenue is also the feature that attracts me most to Diaz’s work: the candidness and enthusiasm about his politics and political engagement, in general, as well as that rare faith in and love for cinema. That is why, towards the end of the film’s five hours, when the detective and the filmmaker – two professions seeking to discover truth – catch up with each other and restore the hitherto-absent heart of the film, you don’t if Diaz identifies with the detective or the filmmaker. He’s both.

 

[Capsule added to The Films of Lav Diaz]

Ashes and Diamonds (1958, Andrzej Wajda)

 

Anguished Land (1967, Glauber Rocha)

 

Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004, Lav Diaz)

 

They all clambered into Mikolka’s cart, laughing and making jokes. Six men got in and there was still room for more. They hauled in a fat, rosy-cheeked woman. She was dressed in red cotton, in a pointed, beaded headdress and thick leather shoes; she was cracking nuts and laughing. The crowd round them was laughing too and indeed, how could they help laughing? That wretched nag was to drag all the cartload of them at a gallop! Two young fellows in the cart were just getting whips ready to help Mikolka. With the cry of “now,” the mare tugged with all her might, but far from galloping, could scarcely move forward; she struggled with her legs, gasping and shrinking from the blows of the three whips which were showered upon her like hail. The laughter in the cart and in the crowd was redoubled, but Mikolka flew into a rage and furiously thrashed the mare, as though he supposed she really could gallop.

 

“Let me get in, too, mates,” shouted a young man in the crowd whose appetite was aroused.

 

“Get in, all get in,” cried Mikolka, “she will draw you all. I’ll beat her to death!” And he thrashed and thrashed at the mare, beside himself with fury.

 

“Father, father,” he cried, “father, what are they doing? Father, they are beating the poor horse!”

 

“Come along, come along!” said his father. “They are drunken and foolish, they are in fun; come away, don’t look!” and he tried to draw him away, but he tore himself away from his hand, and, beside himself with horror, ran to the horse. The poor beast was in a bad way. She was gasping, standing still, then tugging again and almost falling.

 

“Beat her to death,” cried Mikolka, “it’s come to that. I’ll do for her!”

 

“What are you about, are you a Christian, you devil?” shouted an old man in the crowd.

 

“Did anyone ever see the like? A wretched nag like that pulling such a cartload,” said another.

 

“You’ll kill her,” shouted the third.

 

“Don’t meddle! It’s my property, I’ll do what I choose. Get in, more of you! Get in, all of you! I will have her go at a gallop!…”

 

All at once laughter broke into a roar and covered everything: the mare, roused by the shower of blows, began feebly kicking. Even the old man could not help smiling. To think of a wretched little beast like that trying to kick!

 

Two lads in the crowd snatched up whips and ran to the mare to beat her about the ribs. One ran each side.

 

“Hit her in the face, in the eyes, in the eyes,” cried Mikolka.

 

“Give us a song, mates,” shouted someone in the cart and everyone in the cart joined in a riotous song, jingling a tambourine and whistling. The woman went on cracking nuts and laughing.

 

… He ran beside the mare, ran in front of her, saw her being whipped across the eyes, right in the eyes! He was crying, he felt choking, his tears were streaming. One of the men gave him a cut with the whip across the face, he did not feel it. Wringing his hands and screaming, he rushed up to the grey-headed old man with the grey beard, who was shaking his head in disapproval. One woman seized him by the hand and would have taken him away, but he tore himself from her and ran back to the mare. She was almost at the last gasp, but began kicking once more.

 

“I’ll teach you to kick,” Mikolka shouted ferociously. He threw down the whip, bent forward and picked up from the bottom of the cart a long, thick shaft, he took hold of one end with both hands and with an effort brandished it over the mare.

 

“He’ll crush her,” was shouted round him. “He’ll kill her!”

 

“It’s my property,” shouted Mikolka and brought the shaft down with a swinging blow. There was a sound of a heavy thud.

 

“Thrash her, thrash her! Why have you stopped?” shouted voices in the crowd.

 

And Mikolka swung the shaft a second time and it fell a second time on the spine of the luckless mare. She sank back on her haunches, but lurched forward and tugged forward with all her force, tugged first on one side and then on the other, trying to move the cart. But the six whips were attacking her in all directions, and the shaft was raised again and fell upon her a third time, then a fourth, with heavy measured blows. Mikolka was in a fury that he could not kill her at one blow.

 

“She’s a tough one,” was shouted in the crowd.

 

“She’ll fall in a minute, mates, there will soon be an end of her,” said an admiring spectator in the crowd.

 

“Fetch an axe to her! Finish her off,” shouted a third.

 

“I’ll show you! Stand off,” Mikolka screamed frantically; he threw down the shaft, stooped down in the cart and picked up an iron crowbar. “Look out,” he shouted, and with all his might he dealt a stunning blow at the poor mare. The blow fell; the mare staggered, sank back, tried to pull, but the bar fell again with a swinging blow on her back and she fell on the ground like a log.

 

“Finish her off,” shouted Mikolka and he leapt beside himself, out of the cart. Several young men, also flushed with drink, seized anything they could come across—whips, sticks, poles, and ran to the dying mare. Mikolka stood on one side and began dealing random blows with the crowbar. The mare stretched out her head, drew a long breath and died.

 

“You butchered her,” someone shouted in the crowd.

 

“Why wouldn’t she gallop then?”

 

“My property!” shouted Mikolka, with bloodshot eyes, brandishing the bar in his hands. He stood as though regretting that he had nothing more to beat.

 

– Crime and Punishment (1866, Fyodor Dostoyevsky)

Serafin Geronimo: Ang Kriminal Ng Baryo Concepcion (1998) (Serafin Geronimo: The Criminal Of Barrio Concepcion)
Lav Diaz
Tagalog/English/Chinese/Filipino

 

Serafin Geronimo - The Criminal of Barrio ConcepcionDiaz’s debut, Serafin Geronimo: Criminal of Barrio Concepcion (1998), even without the burden of its successors, is a poorly made piece of cinema. It’s got all the trappings of a bad student film – laboured acting, ill-advised cuts, unwarranted zooms and an occasionally bombastic score – that only worsen its low production values. Very loosely based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Serafin Geronimo chronicles the titular criminal’s act of sin and his subsequent confession and redemption. Diaz chooses to externalize the moral conflict of the protagonist through a dental infection whose pain seems to grow unbearable. Additionally, there’s a lot of gratuitous violence – graphic and described – in the film (even in the censored version) that underscores the savagery of the world Serafin (Raymond Bagatsing), like Hesus, is caught in. Evidently, like the Russian author, the film wants to observe human suffering in all its brutality. But what the film does not seem to understand is that human suffering can’t be captured on film by merely recording mutilated bodies or the physics of their destruction. Such documentation must attempt to record the death of the soul – the internal through the physical – as well (Compare this film with the sublime, genuinely Dostoevsky-ian passage depicting Kadyo’s demise in Evolution). However, the scenes at the countryside, set in the past, are executed with certain affection and restraint. Diaz pushes his political ambitions to the background as the quest for personal justice and redemption takes precedence here over national issues. The use of curious, hand held camera and the staging of action in deep space during indoor scenes are few of the traits that would be carried over and refined in Diaz’s later, superior works.

 

[Capsule added to The Films of Lav Diaz]

Walang Alaala Ang Mga Paru-paro (2009) (Butterflies Have No Memories)
Lav Diaz
Tagalog/English

 

Butterflies Have No MemoriesThe director’s cut of Butterflies Have No Memories (2009) is something of a misnomer. For one, Diaz had to shoot and cut the film so that it didn’t run for a minute more than the one-hour mark. As a result, it feels as if Diaz had one eye on his film and the other on his watch. There are shots that are abruptly drained off their life and some that feel perfunctory. But the film also seems to mark a turning point in Diaz’s outlook towards the Filipino people. Perhaps for the first time, Diaz portrays the common folk (and perhaps a particular social class) as being almost completely responsible for their misery. In Butterflies, an ex-Chief Security Officer at the mines, Mang Pedring (Dante Perez), blames the mining company, which has withdrawn production after protests by the church and activist organizations, for the economic abyss he and his friends are living in. But it is also starkly pointed out to us that, while they were getting benefited by the mining company, these folks did nothing to set up alternate ways of business and earning and, as a result, find themselves foolishly hoping for a past to return, even when such a regression is harmful it is to the collective living on the island. Mang misguidedly plans to reverse time and reinstall the factory by kidnapping the daughter of the owner of the mining company (Lois Goff), who has returned to the island after several years and who calls Mang her second-father. What Mang tries to do overrides personal memory and disregards the fact that it is he who has lived like a moth, inside a cocoon. As, in the final shot, Mang and his friends stand wearing those Morione masks (which bring in the ideas of guilt, remembrance, conscience and redemption – so key to the film), they realize that they’ve gone way too far back in time than they would have liked – right into the moral morass of Ancient Rome.

 

[Capsule added to The Films of Lav Diaz]

Lav Diaz

Lavrente Diaz 
(1958-)

Lavrente Indico Diaz is a multi-awarded independent filmmaker who was born on December 30, 1958 and raised in Cotabato, Mindanao. He works as director, writer, producer, editor, cinematographer, poet, composer, production designer and actor all at once. He is especially notable for the length of his films, some of which run for up to eleven hours. His eight-hour Melancholia, a story about victims of summary executions, won the Grand Prize-Orizzonti award at the Venice Film Festival 2008. His work Death in the Land of Encantos also competed and represented the country at the Venice Film Festival documentary category in 2007. It was granted a Special Mention-Orizzonti. The Venice Film Festival calls him “the ideological father of the New Philippine Cinema”. As a young man, Diaz was particularly inspired by Lino Brocka’s Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag, describing it as the film that opened his eyes to the power of cinema. Ever since then, he made it his mission to make good art films for the sake of his fellow Filipinos. His body of work has led critics to call him both an “artist-as-conscience” and the heir to Lino Brocka. Diaz has also been compared to other great Filipino directors such as Ishmael Bernal, Mike de Leon and Peque Gallaga, whose films examined the ills of Filipino society (Image Courtesy: Rotterdam Film Festival, Bio Courtesy: MUBI)

 

Filipino director Lavrente Diaz is a very versatile artist. He started out as a guitarist (He recently released a music album to accompany his latest film), then wrote plays and short stories for television (a period he seems to hate, as is made clear in his works), later started writing poems (the poems that feature in his films are written by him) and then, in the early 90s, decided that he’ll be a professional filmmaker. The later films of the director present the same kind of problem to both commercial multiplexes and film festival screens – their length. His last four feature films have a total run time of around 36 hours! Diaz believes the long length of his films is an extremely crucial part of his aesthetic and radically alters the way in which the audience converses with his films. There is another specific problem in screening Diaz’s films world wide. That he is a very “Filipino” filmmaker. All his works are deeply rooted in the country’s history and politics. Any attempt to view the films in a de-contextualized manner is only futile. That makes Diaz one of the most uncompromising of directors working today. Diaz’s greatest ambition, as it seems, is to change the Filipinos’ (and rest of the world’s) perspective of their country and culture (He tells: “For me, the issue is: if you’re an artist, with the state the country is in you only have one choice – to help culture grow in this country. There’s no time for ego, you have to struggle to help this country. Make serious films that even if only five people watch it, it will change their perspective. You may make big box office but what do the people get out of it?”).

What is really striking about Lav Diaz is how vocal and frank he is about his ideology and his works. Most of modern mainstream auteurs and even festival regulars shy away from commenting on their work or on the ideas they present. Some of them bury their political concerns so deep within their films that they may simply be overlooked.  Diaz, on the other hand, is like an open book. In all his interviews, he is always willing to discuss his films and explain what they deal with. None of this actually dilutes the impact of the films or the complexities they contain. Instead, it only opens up a wider and more pertinent band of response to the film. Furthermore, Diaz is also very transparent about his political views and even his personal life (His story is exactly the kind of success yarn pseudo-liberal Hollywood studios are looking for. But one sure has to appreciate the man for what he’s gone through and what he’s become). To say that he feels strongly against the Ferdinand Marcos’s rule of The Philippines till about two decades ago would be an understatement (“He siphoned the treasury as well. He got everything. No matter what they say, he stole everything – the money, our dignity. It is true. Marcos is an evil person. He destroyed us. The hardest part was that he was Filipino”). Diaz is also very optimistic about the role artists play in a political revolution and this belief directly manifests in his films in the form of artist figures present in the narrative.

I’d say that Diaz’s aesthetic stands somewhere in between Contemporary Contemplative Cinema and conventional documentary. Like the former, he prefers long takes shot from at a considerable distance, avoids the use of background music, includes stretches of “dead time” in his narrative and relies on mood and atmosphere more than exposition or psychoanalysis. He employs parenthetical cutting that allows a shot to run for more duration than the length of the principal action, but cuts soon enough to avoid the shot to parody itself. Unlike Contemporary Contemplative Cinema, there are long stretches of dialogue in the vein of early Nouvelle Vague films and the politics the films deal with are much more concrete. All his recent features have been shot in black and white as if they are historical documents and as if the vitality of its characters has been sucked out. His use of direct sound goes hand in hand with his use of digital video, which enables him to experiment with long shots. It is only in a blue moon that he uses close-ups and all his medium and long shots come across as clinical observations of his characters’ lives. That doesn’t mean his films lack empathy or compassion. But the way he generates them is more distilled and uncontrived. He composes in deep space and allows the viewer to get a complete sense of the film’s environment and time. He says: “There’s no such thing as the audience in my work. There’s only the dynamic of interaction. And in time, that dynamic will grow. The greatest dynamic is when people want to see a work because of awareness and they want to experience it; and in so doing, they may be able to discover new perspectives or just put these perspectives into a greater discourse.

 

(NOTE: I’ve written here about all the films of Lav Diaz that I could get my hands on. However, I haven’t been able to see any his earlier works or his short films. I’ll append the entries for the missing films here once I get to see them)

 

Serafin Geronimo: Ang Kriminal Ng Baryo Concepcion (Serafin Geronimo: The Criminal Of Barrio Concepcion, 1998)

Serafin Geronimo - The Criminal of Barrio ConcepcionDiaz’s debut, Serafin Geronimo: Criminal of Barrio Concepcion (1998), even without the burden of its successors, is a poorly made piece of cinema. It’s got all the trappings of a bad student film – laboured acting, ill-advised cuts, unwarranted zooms and an occasionally bombastic score – that only worsen its low production values. Very loosely based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Serafin Geronimo chronicles the titular criminal’s act of sin and his subsequent confession and redemption. Diaz chooses to externalize the moral conflict of the protagonist through a dental infection whose pain seems to grow unbearable. Additionally, there’s a lot of gratuitous violence – graphic and described – in the film (even in the censored version) that underscores the savagery of the world Serafin (Raymond Bagatsing), like Hesus, is caught in. Evidently, like the Russian author, the film wants to observe human suffering in all its brutality. But what the film does not seem to understand is that human suffering can’t be captured on film by merely recording mutilated bodies or the physics of their destruction. Such documentation must attempt to record the death of the soul – the internal through the physical – as well (Compare this film with the sublime, genuinely Dostoevsky-ian passage depicting Kadyo’s demise in Evolution). However, the scenes at the countryside, set in the past, are executed with certain affection and restraint. Diaz pushes his political ambitions to the background as the quest for personal justice and redemption takes precedence here over national issues. The use of curious, hand held camera and the staging of action in deep space during indoor scenes are few of the traits that would be carried over and refined in Diaz’s later, superior works.

Hesus Rebolusyonaryo (Hesus The Revolutionary, 2002)

Hesus the RevolutionaryHesus the Revolutionary (2002) is set in the year 2010 and follows the titular resistance fighter (Mark Anthony Fernandez) whose loyalty and ideology are put to test when he is ordered by the leader of the movement to kill his cell mates and is subsequently captured by the military. The most noteworthy aspect of the film is that Diaz does not set the film in far future or alter the mise en scène to make it seem futuristic. The fact that the architecture and geography look very contemporary indicates that there has been no progress for quite some time. Additionally, he uses pseudo-newsreels as prelude to the narrative. All these moves aid Diaz’s vision of establishing the future as a mere variant of the past and the present. His intention is to provide a critical distance between the audience and the story and hence make them reflect on how the same kind of events have happened in the past and are still happening. The chiaroscuro driven mise en scène through which the protagonist secretly moves seems to have been derived from American noir films. Diaz films his characters in moderately long shots and uses a techno soundtrack (by the band The Jerks) that enhances the dystopian sense overarching the film. Even while working within the limits of the genre (thereby using some of its conventions), Diaz manages to suffuse the film with themes that he would progressively be concerned with. However, Hesus the Revolutionary, in hindsight, is only the tip of a gargantuan iceberg.

Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001)

West Side AvenueThanks to West Side Avenue (2001), clearly Lav Diaz’s first major work, we now know what will happen if the Filipino filmmaker takes to genre filmmaking. Diaz takes the standard policier, blows it to a size beyond what the text can handle and, in essence, brings to surface the mechanics of the genre. Constructed as a (seemingly endless) series of interrogations and recollections, a la Citizen Kane (1941), the film presents itself like a sphere without a centre. (Like Charles Kane, the relationship of all the characters to the dead boy at the centre of Diaz’s film – which is developed strikingly with a plethora of parallels – becomes the guiding device.) The procedure becomes so routine and schematic, aided to a large degree by the repetition of spaces and compositions, that the lead detective (Joel Torre) becomes something of a Melvillian zombie trudging through generic structures. But then, talking about Diaz’s film in terms of the genre is not half as justified as reading it from a national and auteurist perspective. Firmly planted in historical and geographical particulars – Filipino youth living in and around Jersey City during the turn of the century – the film takes up the issue of disappearing Filipinos – a sensitive idea that would be pursued further in other forms the later films – and examines the historical deracination and alienation that marks these young men and women. The relationship between the various characters with the killed teenager reflects their own conflicted relationship with their homeland. The film, itself, is somewhat (and slightly problematically) neo-nationalistic in flavour, gently appealing for cultural consciousness, integration and a “return to one’s roots”. The narrative mostly involves the investigation of the murder of one Manila teenager, If one moves beyond its precise sociological ambitions, one also discovers the flourishing of to-be-familiar stylistic (and narrative) devices: Scenes in master shots, montage of long takes, monochrome passages in. video and use of total amateurs. (Oddly enough, my favorite scene in the film is among the most uncharacteristic of Diaz’s cinema: a breakfast scene cut with verve comparable to Classical Hollywood). However, the most unmistakable authorial trademark of West Side Avenue is also the feature that attracts me most to Diaz’s work: the candidness and enthusiasm about his politics and political engagement, in general, as well as that rare faith in and love for cinema. That is why, towards the end of the film’s five hours, when the detective and the filmmaker – two professions seeking to discover truth – catch up with each other and restore the hitherto-absent heart of the film, you don’t if Diaz identifies with the detective or the filmmaker. He’s both.

    Ebolusyon Ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution Of A Filipino Family, 2004)

Evolution of a Filipino FamilyRunning for almost eleven hours and twelve years in the making, Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004), which many consider to be Lav Diaz’s greatest work, is kamikaze filmmaking of the highest order. Mixing film and digital formats (which might be an economic decision), splicing the real with the surreal and weaving together documentary and fiction, Diaz concocts a glorious and flamboyantly self-reflexive film that slips seamlessly from one mode of discourse into another. The film’s central character is Ray (Elryan De Vera), a child found on the street by the mentally ill Hilda (Marife Necisito) and who goes on to live with another family of gold diggers. One could argue that Ray is the stand in for a whole generation of Filipinos abandoned by their “parents” and left stranded (Diaz himself calls Ray as the Filipino soul). Also central to the film is Hilda’s brother Kadyo (Pen Medina), who helps the resistance fighters by stealing ammunition from dead soldiers of the military. Interspersed among the sequences that drive this fiction are newsreels depicting rallies and riots against the then-existing Ferdinand Marcos regime, interviews of the legendary filmmaker Lino Brocka explaining political film movement during the Marcos rule and footage of artists reciting sappy, exaggerated and hilarious radio serials that everyone in the fictional world seems to be hooked to. Evolution of a Filipino Family is, as the title hints, a document – one that studies and critiques a whole era and suggests what’s to be done.

Diaz shoots almost exclusively in medium shots (to avoid any sort of manipulation, he says) and some of his compositions carry the air of evocatively rendered still life paintings. His soundtrack is even more remarkable and he edits it in such a manner that fiction regularly overflows into reality. Diaz throws in everything he’s got into this film. Examining a number of topics including commercialism versus art, the class struggle, art versus reality and the inseparability of past and present, Diaz creates a dense and incisive film that seems to announce once and for all what Diaz’s cinema is all about. At heart, Evolution of a Filipino Family is a film about resistance – political and cinematic. While Kadyo and the farmer army he works for exhibit their resistance by taking up arms against the military, Lino Brocka and his cohorts manifest theirs in cinematic terms. The link is very important, as Diaz himself has pointed out, since it is through the machinery of cinematic propaganda that the Marcos regime (as any totalitarian regime would) had reinforced its position among the Filipinos. If Hesus the Revolutionary set a fantastical revolutionary movement in the near future, this film uses the one that took place for real in the past. Diaz’s intention is not just to capture the spirit of the age, but, as in the previous film, to use this piece of history to study the present and understand the state of affairs.

Heremias (Unang Aklat: Ang Alamat Ng Prinsesang Bayawak) (Heremias (Book One: The Legend Of The Lizard Princess), 2006)

HeremiasHeremias (2006) was devised as the first part of a diptych (the sequel is yet to be shot) and follows the titular merchant (Ronnie Lazaro) who decides to bid farewell to the group of artisans he is a part of and go his own way. After a near-mythical journey against the forces of nature, he lands in a shady town where his ox gets stolen and goods burned. After he comes to terms with the fact that he is not going to get justice from the corrupt police department, he decides to observe the scene of crime himself, with a hope that the criminal would come back sooner or later. It is here that he learns that the local congressman’s son is going to rape and kill a girl. And it is here – almost towards the end of this nine-hour film – that there is a trace of any “drama”. Heremias, petrified, tries to convince the local police officer and the town priest to do something about it, in vain. Diaz apparently built the film on the idea of paralysis (“the metaphor of being numbed”) and it is only during this final dramatic segment, where, for the first time, Heremias shows signs of concern and empathy, that he comes out of this (sociopolitical and historical) numbness. In a way, Heremias is the Jesus figure of the story who, after a drastic spiritual awakening, realizes that there are people worst off than him and becomes willing to suffer for the sake of others (Diaz believes this quality to be quintessentially Filipino).

Formally, Heremias deviates starkly from its legendary predecessor. Diaz seems to have found a new alternative to suit his long duration filmmaking style in digital video, where there is no worry of wasting film stock. He shoots in extremely long shots but mixes in close up. Diaz’s compositions early on in the film embody both fast moving objects, such as automobiles, and Heremias’ lumbering oxcart as if providing temporal reference for his kind of cinema. However, he also seems to be in a highly experimental mode, trying to arrive at an aesthetic that he might build his later films on. As a result, Heremias seems a tad derivative and falls a notch below the preceding and following films of the director. Where in later films he would fittingly cut after three or four seconds before and after a character enters or leaves the frame, here he provides a leeway of over a quarter minute, unnecessarily making the shots self-conscious (There is an hour-long fuzzy shot of Heremias watching a bunch of stoned teenagers partying, whose length, I believe, is not justified). But many of these shots are also highly rewarding and some even emotionally cathartic (for instance, the sublime shot where the light from Heremias’ lantern pierces the screen gradually). Ultimately, the film comes across as a minor, transitional (but nevertheless commendable) work that has a lot going for it thematically.

Kagadanan Sa Banwaan Ning Mga Engkanto (Death In The Land Of Encantos, 2007)

Death in the Land of EncantosDeath in the Land of Encantos (2007) was made immediately after the typhoon Reming/Durian devastated the town of Bicol (where the director had shot his previous two films), killing and displacing many families. The nine-hour film consists of two disparate threads the first of which plays out as a straightforward documentary where a filmmaker interviews the people affected by the disaster and gathers their opinion about the causes and consequences of the typhoon. The second thread in the film follows a fictional triad of artists who too live in the region of Bicol. Benjamin Agusan (Roeder Camanag) is a poet who has just returned from Russia and has discovered that his ex-lover has been buried under the outpouring of the volcano Mt. Mayon that was triggered by Reming. Then there are his friends Teodero (Perry Dizon), the level headed ex-poet who is now a fisherman, and Catalina (Angeli Bayani), a painter-sculptor who uses the debris spewed out by the volcano for her art. Benjamin is mentally disintegrating and has visions of his childhood and of his stay in Russia now and then. He is also hunted down by the government, which seems to have an agenda of killing all the soldiers and artists involved in the resistance, for his contribution to the anarchist movement. Diaz uses abstract time when dealing with sequences involving Benjamin wherein his immediate past, distant past and present (and possibly nightmares) reside in the same physical space, at times, like in The Mirror (1974) and The Corridor (1994).

Like in many contemporary works from around the world, fact and fiction reside alongside in Diaz’s film, even interpenetrating each other at times. Although this does reinforce the reality that the film is based on, Diaz views the marriage as a purely ethical decision intended to avoid exploitation of his people’s miseries (He had shot the documentary part before even deciding to make the film). As a result Encantos is like a Herzog film that encompasses its making-of. A peculiar thing that one notices about the film is that it is so full of artists – painters, sculptors, poets, filmmakers and writers all over. On that basis alone, one could say that Death in the Land of Encantos is Diaz’s most personal film. The film is built largely around long conversations that invariably end up discussing the role of artists in a revolution. Through the contrast between the two sections of the film, Diaz may just be exploring the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between artists and common folk that, as Evolution had elucidated, exploitative, commercial media have occupied. However, he is also very hopeful about the work of artists. Mt. Mayon is apparently symbolic of everything Filipino – both its beauty and its ugliness. Catalina making beauty out of its ugliness is what Diaz, as a filmmaker, seems to be attempting too – to embrace the state of Philippines in its entirety and use his art to correct its blemishes and restore its glory.

Melancholia (2008)

MelancholiaIf Evolution of a Filipino Family delineated the Filipino political situation through the eyes of common folk (some of whom aid the resistance movement) and Death in the Land of Encantos revealed it through the point of view of the artists, Melancholia (2008) confronts the issue head on and presents the struggle from standpoint of the resistance fighters themselves. One gets the feeling that this is the film that Lav Diaz was working towards all along. Melancholia is divided starkly into three segments each of which takes place in different time frames. The first segment is set in the town of Sagada and simultaneously follows three seemingly unrelated characters. Rina (Malaya Cruz) is a nun who wanders the streets of the town collecting charity money for the poor, Jenine (Angeli Bayani) is a streetwalker who seems to be having some trouble doing her job and Danny (Perry Dizon) is a procurer who also surreptitiously runs live sex shows for willing customers. It is soon revealed that these personalities are only characters being played by the three as a part of a rehabilitation program initiated by Danny (actually Julian) to cope up with the loss of their kith and kin in the resistance movement. The progressively elliptical second and third segments of the film respectively show the time periods following and preceding the trio’s stint in Sagada and gradually reveal the actuality behind these masks that the three have put on.

True to its title, Melancholia is a film that wallows in sadness. It is also probably Diaz’s most cynical work to date (although Diaz is staunchly against cynicism: “There’s hope even if we still have a very corrupt and neglectful system. We cannot allow cynicism to rule us.”). It is, in fact, the film non-linear structure that reduces the intensity of this pessimism largely. By presenting the consequences before the cause, Diaz sets up an extended, enigmatic prelude that is put into perspective only after the third part of the film plays out. It is after the film has ended that we learn that these three characters have embarked on a process of unlearning, of shedding the knowledge about bitter realities and settling down into a state of ignorant bliss, of repudiating the harshness of truth for the comforts of illusion. And it is during the very final shot of the film, when the shattered and disillusioned Julian and Alberta move away from each other and out of the now-empty frame that we feel the entire weight of the seven-and-a-half-hour film being exerted on us. Melancholia is a purgatory of sorts – a limbo between the states of resistance and defeat – whose inhabitants can feel neither the vigor of life nor the solace of death. “Many people are like Alberta” tells one of the characters early on in the film. And that is the most disheartening part.

Walang Alaala Ang Mga Paru-paro (Butterflies Have No Memories, 2009)

Butterflies Have No MemoriesThe director’s cut of Butterflies Have No Memories (2009) is something of a misnomer. For one, Diaz had to shoot and cut the film so that it didn’t run for a minute more than the one-hour mark. As a result, it feels as if Diaz had one eye on his film and the other on his watch. There are shots that are abruptly drained off their life and some that feel perfunctory. But the film also seems to mark a turning point in Diaz’s outlook towards the Filipino people. Perhaps for the first time, Diaz portrays the common folk (and perhaps a particular social class) as being almost completely responsible for their misery. In Butterflies, an ex-Chief Security Officer at the mines, Mang Pedring (Dante Perez), blames the mining company, which has withdrawn production after protests by the church and activist organizations, for the economic abyss he and his friends are living in. But it is also starkly pointed out to us that, while they were getting benefited by the mining company, these folks did nothing to set up alternate ways of business and earning and, as a result, find themselves foolishly hoping for a past to return, even when such a regression is harmful it is to the collective living on the island. Mang misguidedly plans to reverse time and reinstall the factory by kidnapping the daughter of the owner of the mining company (Lois Goff), who has returned to the island after several years and who calls Mang her second-father. What Mang tries to do overrides personal memory and disregards the fact that it is he who has lived like a moth, inside a cocoon. As, in the final shot, Mang and his friends stand wearing those Morione masks (which bring in the ideas of guilt, remembrance, conscience and redemption – so key to the film), they realize that they’ve gone way too far back in time than they would have liked – right into the moral morass of Ancient Rome.

[Death In The Land Of Encantos Trailer]

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