The Salt of Tears (Philippe Garrel)

A young man at a bus stop glimpses a girl across the road. She gives him directions, and they board a bus together. There’s a spark between them. They look at each other, making sure their eyes don’t meet. The girl has fallen in love, the man hopes for a sexual encounter that doesn’t happen. “I’ll never forget you”, he says before he leaves town. Weeks later, the girl sends him a card, pouring out her feelings for him. He reads it and locks it up in a drawer without a thought. It’s hard to describe The Salt of Tears, or any of Garrel’s recent films for that matter, without running the risk of making it sound like a bundle of French art movie clichés. These films are all resolutely focused on romantic and sexual entanglements between young, heterosexual people and the seemingly infinite range of emotions they sustain in the participants. Digital black and white cinematography, a voiceover articulating the protagonist’s predicament and a sweet piano score all attest to a grand decadence at work. But Garrel is able to infuse these abstract, almost archetypal character relationships with a vitality, thanks to the extremely controlled actor gestures that concentrate the whole emotional force of these relationships.

Luc (Logann Antuofermo), the young man, aspires to study carpentry on the wish of his father (a wonderful André Wilms), whom he loves and looks up to. Something of a skirt chaser and a jerk—wholly inadequate words, for Garrel is interested precisely in a detailed exploration of what these judgments and coinages mean—Luc abandons Jemila (Oulaya Amamra), the bus stop girl, because he is too cowardly to tell the truth to his current girlfriend Geneviève (Louise Chevillotte), who gets to bed with him right after they meet. He abandons Geneviève too and tells himself that he was never in love because his feelings for neither woman could overpower his professional ambition or his bond with his father. So despite being focused on the sex, Luc has a little of the tragic romantic, looking for love even though he believes that finding it with wreck all his current certainties in life. It’s a characteristically French type, also seen in Jean Paul Civeyrac’s Le Doux Amour des hommes (2002), in which a world-weary young man wants to experience a love so Deep that it will rescue him from his emotional tundra.

The strength of the writing is that it doesn’t categorise Luc’s relationships into love and sex, and instead lets them hover on a fuzzy zone between and around these poles. Why he continues to stay with Betsy (Souheila Yacoub), his third girlfriend with whose male colleague he shares a ménage à trois, is no more a mystery than why he chooses to leave Jemila and Geneviève. What is sure is that Luc destroys one life after another with his behaviour, leaving the kind of lifelong scars he himself is unconsciously wishing for. When he does find in Betsy the love he was looking for, he loses his ties with his father, as he expected and wanted, but also becomes vulnerable, beset by jealousy and helplessness. Nuances of character description aside, much of the film’s pleasures are on its surface: in the way actors look at or hold each other, in the calming interludes with Luc or his father working on pieces of wood. There is a dance scene at a disco with Luc and Betsy that is a thrilling number hinged on Betsy’s energetic, sensual movement around the floor. Someone watching The Salt of Tears without an idea of who made it might take it for the work of a 21-year old. That, I suspect, is both its strength and weakness.

Uppercase Print (Radu Jude)

Found footage filmmaking, especially the kind that seeks to perform an ideological interrogation of the past, and particularly of a socialist past, seems to have a special power to produce some astoundingly lazy works. The end of the Cold War has meant that younger audiences cannot relate to accounts of life in communist regimes except in an ironic, patronizing way. We get it: the politicians are conmen, the people sheep, the fashion corny and the media so crude and manipulative. Nothing that a video search wouldn’t throw up. To be sure, Uppercase Print isn’t wholly a found footage film. Adapted from a ‘documentary play’, Jude’s film intersperses archival footage from Romanian television shows and news reports of the early eighties with dramatizations of a police case file from the same period. The case involves pro-freedom messages written in chalk on the walls surrounding the party headquarters. The security office takes accurate measurements of the messages written in uppercase, analyses the handwriting and convicts a teenager in the locality. Jude employs a set of gigantic sound stages designed like a pie chart. He has his primly dressed actors utter lines from the report—charges against the teenager, testimonies by his family and friends, and records of the security personnel tailing him—in a declamatory manner staring at either the camera or each other. The boy confesses, but claims he was inspired by messages on Western radio, while his parents chide him and urge him to recant. His friends and teachers turn against him and his seemingly innocuous deed marks him for life (and beyond). All this dramatization goes in circles, and is pretty testing, and saps all our interest before it moves ahead narratively.

Some of the archival material is thematically linked to the case files, as when a graffiti about food shortage is cut to a TV report about new refrigerator models. But most seem to have been picked as quaint documents from the era: street interviews with traffic rule violators, Busby Berkeley-style musical numbers, televised cooking recipes, countless clips of children singing and as many of pageantry organized in honour of Nicolae Ceaușescu. With these assorted extracts, Jude may have been intending to give a picture of life in communist Romania comparable to what Harun Farocki did in How to Live in the German Federal Republic (1990). But, unfortunately, Uppercase Print doesn’t have necessary spirit of synthesis. The critique is hardly earned, and the film is even less instructive about life communist Romania than a broad comedy such as Tales from the Golden Age (2009).

To be fair, the juxtaposition of archival footage and the case files is interesting on paper. It taps into a fragility and paranoia underlying the functioning of the state which triumphalist propaganda tries to conceal: that the state perceives a boy’s zestful scribbling as a security threat is so absurdly out of step with the paeans to youth beamed across television sets. But there’s hardly anything here that hasn’t been explored already, and much more successfully, by the work of Andrei Ujică. For a film leaning so much on television footage, Uppercase Print intriguingly omits the televised struggles of the Romanian revolution itself. That’s because Jude’s film is less interested in TV as a medium than the messages its shows convey, among others the gradual incursion of capitalism into everyday life. To this end, the narrative makes a startling leap from 1985 to present day. As the camera pans across a cityscape in which large commercial banners cover drab, low-income housing, we hear the actors playing the security personnel justify their actions (of surveying and recruiting schoolchildren as informers), the implication being that these regime criminals have succeeded in blending into the anonymity of the new market economy. Nothing prepares us for this critical coup, though, and it’s a tedious journey by the time we arrive there.

Summer of 85 (François Ozon)

Whether Summer of 85 is in autobiographical in any way or not, I don’t know, but it certainly gives that impression. Adapted from the 1982 novel Dance on My Grave by British writer Aidan Chambers, the film tells the story of Alexis (Félix Lefebvre), a timid working-class teenager who finds love in a Jewish boy named David (Benjamin Voisin) after the latter rescues him from a boating accident. The year is 1985 and Alexis is 17, just about the age Ozon was at the time. When the film begins, he is in police custody, talking to us in a voiceover. As Ozon cuts between this gloomy present and the sunny few weeks preceding it, we are drawn into the mystery that looms over Alexis’s current situation and his relationship with David. We share Alexis’s confusion as David, aided by an excessively indulgent mother, seduces him, convinces him of their closeness and persuades him to work at his shop, even as David’s professor (Melvin Poupaud, the star of Ozon’s previous film, By the Grace of God (2018)) at school urges him to continue his literature studies. David seals Alexis’s trust by making a pact with him: the one who outlives the other will dance over the latter’s grave.

The ‘mystery’ itself is of no great interest; it’s Ozon’s highly cinema-aware way of unfurling it that holds the viewer’s attention. Ozon is evidently a cinephile, and while this sophistication weighed down heavily on the laborious Double Lover (2017), it treads rather lightly here. There are, firstly, the direct references to Joseph Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer (1959, which features two queer stars, not to mention gay icon Liz Taylor) in the film’s title, the poster in David’s bedroom, the plot elements of David’s mother ‘procuring’ boys for him and Alexis’s explaining the mystery through a therapeutic confession. Consciously or otherwise, Ozon also draws on several Hitckcockian elements here: a gay romance sealed by a pact (Rope, Strangers on a Train), the creepy, mollycoddling mother figure (Strangers on a Train, Psycho, Birds etc.), the beautiful sea cliff against which the action takes place (North by Northwest, Suspicion), a violent outburst at a fairground (Strangers on a Train, Stage Fright), an older teacher who solves the mystery (Rope), David’s remaking of the docile Alexis’s look (Vertigo) and Alexis’ obsession with exhuming David’s dead body (The Trouble with Harry, Vertigo). And the diminutive Alexis’s insecurity recalls Polanski’s reworking of Hitchcock. There’s a very morbid, very funny scene in a morgue involving a cross-dressed Alexis and David’s corpse that is something Hitch would’ve fondly approved of.

Like Hitchcock, Ozon seems to have precisely story-boarded his sequences to the last gesture, last glance, especially in the early stretch of the film, where the dynamic between Alexis, David and his mother is conveyed with great economy and efficacy. But Ozon is also trying to go beyond Hitchcockian mechanics to something more tender, less cynical. Once the film reveals its entire mystery about one hour in, it becomes something of a coming-of-age tale, turning its focus to Alexis’ heartbreak over David’s betrayal, his confusion with his sexual identity, his nuanced relationship to his blue-collar parents and his grief over David’s death, which was so far only a theoretical preoccupation for him and which is now seen as another betrayal. There is a good amount of nostalgia and a desire to imitate the ‘eighties aesthetic’ at work in the film, especially in its choice of costumes and colour composition, but Ozon’s sense of time and place, as always, is very sharp. Shot through what seems like a diffusion filter, the film captures the sights and sensations of summer in a memorable manner. Summer of 85 may be one of the few films set in the Normandy region that doesn’t provide a lugubrious image of the place. The muted colours and the low-income housing complexes, for once, don’t take on a moral quality. They simply are.

Genus Pan (Lav Diaz)

I haven’t followed Diaz’s work this decade as closely as I would’ve liked to. The few hours of The Halt (2019) that I saw at the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival was very impressive in the way Diaz turns the film’s poverty of means into an advantage: the low-budget sci-fi atmosphere is so muted that it feels strangely contemporary. Clocking at 157 minutes—practically a short film by Diaz’s standards—Genus Pan is even more rudimentary in its production values. Three working-class men, Baldo (Nanding Josef), Paulo (Bart Guingona) and Andres (Don Melvin Boongaling), travel across the fictional island of Hugaw, returning from their temporary job. Baldo is mercenary and extracts commission money from the younger Andres, who wishes to save for his sister’s treatment. Paulo is a devout Catholic, and acts as a moderator between the other two, going so far as to reimburse Andres on behalf of Baldo. Not unlike the three characters in Stalker (1979), these men of different temperaments and beliefs wander about in a jungle where paranormal things may be happening. Hugaw, we learn, is a scarred land with several historical layers of oppression, violence and debauchery: once a trading post for intra-continental smugglers, it was successively colonized by the Spanish, the Japanese and the Americans. Today, it is ruled with an iron fist by a ruthless general who kills dissidents.

Diaz, as is his wont, is dealing in allegory, and we imagine that the island of Hugaw stands for all of Philippines. But there is also something universalist about Genus Pan, which is a reference to the undeveloped brain of the human animal. A radio broadcast tells us that many of us haven’t yet outgrown the traits of the chimpanzee. While parts of the film recall Hesus the Revolutionary (2002), the work that might be closest to this bitter, slightly misanthropic vision is Diaz’s Butterflies Have No Memories (2009), where too the political critique turns sour. The film changes rhythm once Andres comes back home to Hugaw to announce of the deaths of Baldo and Paulo. Paulo’s wife (Merly Bucong) and Baldo’s daughter (Diaz’s AD Hazel Orencio)—two of the most helpless creatures in all of Diaz’s cinema—suffer in silence, while one of the general’s slimy lackeys, Inngo (Joel Saracho in one of those sleazy roles that Diaz writes and casts so well), exploits them to exact personal revenge on Andres. The film is set days before Good Friday, and solemn processions of self-flagellating believers amplify the mournful ambience around Andres’s doomed fate. I’m certainly missing much of the social nuances of the story, especially concerning the tribes on the island, but I must add that Diaz himself abstracts much of the details, such as the Andres’ background as a dissident. It could be that these details were established in Diaz’s contribution to the omnibus film Journeys (2018) from which Genus Pan reportedly derives.

Diaz’s modus operandi is familiar: shooting almost exclusively outdoors, he plants his camera at such an angle that a deep field is carved out in the frame. There are no camera movements or musical accompaniments. Unlike The Halt, however, the deep space here remains largely static as the action unfolds in the foreground. Much of the visual interest lies in the specific ways actors enter and leave the frame or, in scenes where they don’t walk, remain scattered across it. Because Diaz shoots in vast open spaces, at times, we aren’t sure about the scale of things until the actors appear in the frame. As the film shifts to the village, the shades of the forest make way for stark sunlight; I get the impression that Diaz has deliberately overexposed his shots a little which gives a bleached out, slightly uncanny aura to human figures. There are two instances of flashback—a device I don’t recall in Diaz—including one which dramatizes a false testimony. Instances of violence are directed in a very offhand, amateurish way which, combined with the broad characterization of the general, gives the film an imperfect, agit-prop, ‘Third Cinema’ kind of quality. Finally, while the action is leisurely paced, the editing is functional, hinting at a desire to end shots quickly and move on. I think that it’s refinement at work.

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]