A Conversation with Lav Diaz
Interview by: Alexis A. Tioseco
Indictment and Empowerment of the Individual:
The Modern Cinema of Lav Diaz
“The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility.”
- Vaclav Havel
From the first frames of his first feature-film— a memorable long shot of a man on his knees amidst an open field in the Dostoevsky-inspired Serafin Geronimo, Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion (1998), to the final frames of his last— the epilogue A Story of Two Mothers that closes Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (2005), Lav Diaz has been chronicling the crushing weight of guilt on those who seek redemption. Diaz’s cinema is modern in many respects, but none so much as in relation to the norms and history of Philippine society, culture, and cinema. In seven years and spanning seven feature-films (including the forthcoming Heremias), he has developed a body of work that stands alone in contemporary Philippine cinema, seeking out new ground both formally and thematically, and challenging the legacy left behind by the great Lino Brocka.
As a country, the Philippines has had a troubled and arduous past. Initially struggling to free itself from Spanish and American colonizers, it now, independence gained, wrestles with itself in search of identity and direction, pointing fingers when it ought to take responsibility. The shadow cast by Ferdinand Marcos’ imposition of Martial Law stills looms prominently over the country, nearly twenty years after the dictator’s reign has ended. Marcos created a legacy; not only of fame and wealth, but of stifled hands and silenced voices; a legacy of disempowerment.
Filmmaking in a country is often at its most gripping when its citizenry are in their most dire straits. Many Filipino filmmakers, from Ishmael Bernal (Nunal sa Tubig, 1975, Manila By Night, 1980 and Himala, 1982) and Mike De Leon (Kisapmata and Batch 81, both made in 1982) to Peque Gallaga (Oro, Plata, Mata, 1982 and Scorpio Nights, 1985), created their best works during Marcos’ rule. The most prominent filmmaker in the country during this period, both cinematically and vocally, was Lino Brocka. Brocka’s was, when granted the opportunity, a cinema of opposition; one that challenged the status quo, and painted a horrifying picture of society at its most desperate. Fighting to be heard amidst a crassly commercial industry and strict censorship, Brocka often had to sacrifice making several commercial features in order to make one work of substance
It is from these two strains—Martial Law and Brocka— that Diaz both gained his inspiration and begins his point of departure.
Diaz first encountered the power of cinema watching Lino’s Maynila as a college student. “That film changed my perspective on cinema” , Diaz imparted to me in a 2002 interview, “[It made me realize that] this medium is very powerful: you can use it to change people’s minds; their conditions; their perspectives. From then on I said I want to make good art films; for my people.”
Debuting to critical acclaim in 1998, Diaz’s Serafin Geronimo, Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion, announced the arrival of a major talent, and a possible new direction for Philippines cinema. Where Brocka had examined society’s effect on the individual, Diaz’s Kriminal looked at the effect of the individual's actions on his conscience. His Russian influences written on his sleeve— the film begins with a quote from Crime and Punishment translated into Tagalog— Diaz’s hero was akin to that of Dostoevsky but atypical of Philippine cinema; a quiet man with a guilty past seeking redemption in the present. With Kriminal, Diaz laid down his archetype character and began to plot the path of his aesthetic.
In 1999 Diaz completed two more films for Regal films (producers of Kriminal), the farcical Burger Boys, whose shooting actually began before Kriminal, and Hubad Sa Ilalim ng Buwan. Burger Boys, about a group of youths writing a screenplay about a group of youths planning a bank robbery, is a curious film, and one that seems most out of place in the context of Diaz’s oeuvre. Filled with close-ups, quick cutting, conscious camera angles, strange costume design, and oddball characters, it is most interestingly seen as a genre experiment by an anti-genre filmmaker.
Hubad Sa Ilalim ng Buwan brought Diaz back to more familiar territory. An ex-priest and failed husband (Joel Torre), whose daughter (played by starlet Klaudia Koronel) sleepwalks in the nude plagued by memories of being raped, questions his decisions and examines his past, as his life slowly crumbles before him in the present. Again, we have a hero, quiet, introverted, searching. The film received favorable reviews, and screened in the Berlin International Film Festival, but was also re-cut with additional sex scenes (shot without Diaz) inserted at the producer’s behest.
It was in the independently produced Batang West Side (2001), arguably the first modern Filipino masterpiece, that Diaz fully realized his aesthetic and first tackled, indirectly, the theme of Martial Law. At a startling five-hours, then the longest Filipino film ever made, and shot almost entirely in the US (save for brief but powerful dream sequences), Batang West Side dealt with an issue close to home for Diaz and many in his country, that of the Filipino diaspora abroad. The subject matter had been dealt with before (Laurice Guillen’s American Adobo, 2001), but here the issues and characters were more than melodrama and caricatures. Brilliantly sketched and cast, so fully realized on the screen; allowed to sit, stand, breathe, and exhale (a key motif throughout the film, including its final scene), they became cinematic equivalents of people you knew— your mother, father, brother, sister, cousin, lover, or grandfather. Diaz’s quiet unobtrusive camera registered every detail of Filipinos from all walks of life in the US. Treating every minute as precious, he utilized the films long running time to masterful effect, allowing scenes, moods, and relationships to sink in as deep with his actors as with his audience. West Side's plot, revolving around the death of a Filipino youth on a New Jersey street corner, served as a metaphor for the state of Filipinos today. Officer Mijarez, himself harboring a dark past, interrogates the entire Filipino community in search of the murderer, in search of truth, of a face on whom to place the blame. By the films end Mijarez’s investigation has drawn to a close, but nothing conclusive about Hanzel’s death has been determined. “If I push for the case, I’ll be killing a lot of Filipinos”, Mijarez says, and as the last frames roll out we understand why: we are all our responsible.
Diaz followed West Side, with another Regal Films production, Hesus Rebolusyonaryo (2002). Hesus was an ambitious science-fiction film set in a future not so dissimilar from the past (the year is 2010). Using as a recurring theme a song by the rock-band The Jerks that comments on the circular nature of history, Diaz projects his concerns, nay paranoia, for what the future will hold for a society that has not yet learned from its mistakes. The films complex story plays out less as a traditional futuristic thriller, than a psychological mind-game, as we witness the interplay of action and discourse between the three main characters —Kumander Miguel (Ronnie Lazaro), Col. Simon (director Joel Lamangan) and the revolutionary Hesus Mariano (Mark Anthony Fernandez). “Future Tense”: the title of film critic Noel Vera’s review of the film, aptly sums up its mood.
In April of 2003 Diaz returned to nine-year old unfinished work. Using DV in place of 16mm film due to lack of budget, he set out to complete an intimate epic set just before, during, and after martial law. In January 2005, the final cut of his 11-hour masterwork, the beautiful confusion Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (2005), premiered at the Rotterdam International Film Festival. Ebolusyon recreates scenes of rural life splicing them between and with harrowing historical footage from the period. "Is there a direct correlation between the historical footage presented and the lives of the characters in the film?", one begins to ponder, watching the film. While it is not hard to imagine the psychological implications a state imbued with fear brings, the direct connection between the two appears missing, a telling clue as to the point Diaz is making. One would commonly expect a film that deals with such an important period of a county’s history to focus on large-scale events. Boldly, Diaz points his camera in another direction, choosing not to make a reductive statement indicting the former leader, but instead demonstrating and dramatizing the effect individual choice has in the face of societal forces. At the same time that Diaz sympathizes with the burden that his people have borne, he also appears to declare the futility of placing blame for ones woes entirely on society. It is for this reason that such a disparity exists between the illustration of historical events and Diaz’s depiction of fictional lives. Diaz chooses not to show us the direct effects of key moments in history on the lives of the characters, but rather the role that their own choices played in determining the courses of their lives. Puring’s strength, her deep belief in the fertility of the land and the importance of education, Kadyo’s good-natured but misguided attempts at supporting his loved ones, Reynaldo’s departure from and return to his new family, the moving epilogue A Story of Two Mothers that ends the film; these are all sketches coalescing into a grand collage, a work of art that both indicts and empowers the individual in the face of oppression; declaring him responsible for his own salvation.
You can feel the weight of history, of the past, in every frame of a Lav Diaz film. It’s written in the worn wrinkles on the faces of his characters, in their stammered speech, their furrowed brow; their moments of silence. This is the key to Diaz’s cinema, and the well from which it draws its strength and importance. While many filmmakers in the Philippines, having been bred and influenced by the films and words of Lino Brocka (correct for their time, out of place now) seek to emulate the path of his career, Diaz has adapted and grown, stepped back and attempted to understand the present picture of our country and its people today. Twenty years ago, when under the rule of a sole dictator, we knew well whose wrists deserved to feel the sharp ends of our knives. Today, in a society so quick to judge and pass blame, the only flesh that remains to be examined is our own. Diaz’s camera, steadfast, unwavering, reveals the truths only found beneath the surface, and points us on the path to deliverance.
(The above text was originally commissioned for the 2005 Torino International Film Festival Catalogue for their retrospective on Lav Diaz. In the catalogue it was mistakenly (accidentally) attributed to Roger Garcia instead of the author.)
Alexis Tioseco: Who gave the workshop that you attended in Mowelfund?  And related question: who have been instrumental teachers and mentors for you in cinema?
Lav Diaz: The workshop was conducted by Surf Reyes, Nick Deocampo, Mac Alejandre and Raymond Red. There were guest speakers. I remember Peque Gallaga. Some experts in the different fields of cinema. Months later, Janetzko conducted a 16mm workshop. I was assistant director to Gil Portes in one of the movies he shot in New York. I had a short but very memorable gig with the late great Lamberto Avellana. It was really fun. He was a one-man-overload sort of a guy because he had so many plans, so many things in his mind—films, documentaries, TV series, TV commercials, educational modules, corporate modules, even radio jingles and Christmas carols. But most of the time it would just be listening to him talk and talk, not just cinema but also about libido, sex, women, his great love for theater. He was always laughing; he laughed hard. A very inspiring man, very intelligent. He was a speaker in one of the scripwriting workshops conducted by Mowelfund. Then, he invited me and Manny Buising to write for him. We were always at his office having fun, writing some concepts, in awe of this man, very free-flowing, and then suddenly he died. It was fast. And sad. The most inspiring lines from him that I remember [are]: “Hanapin ninyo ang sarili nating pagkantot. May sariling pagkantot ang Pilipino.”Some words of wisdom that have truly guided me in my search for my own aesthetic stand and philosophy in cinema.
The Mowelfund workshop was hazy and crazy to me. It was actually a very short workshop; they called it total filmmaking. Before that, I was attending a Ricky Lee workshop. There was an announcement of the Mowelfund workshop. Ricky chose three amongst the workshoppers. I was one of them. These workshops were hazy and crazy because nobody knew that I was a total junkie then. I wasn’t an addict but I was on heavy medication for complications in my lungs. I was practically eating and living on drugs. I have very weak lungs. I got lucky; in one of the routinary medical examinations being conducted when doing job applications, a hole and a growth was discovered in my left lung. So, for six months there was this very strict daily injection and popping of so many pills and tablets and liquids. The doctor warned me that if my lungs weren’t ‘cleared’ after the sixth month, there was a possibility that it would slide into lung cancer. I was high everyday, seeming to float when walking; my skin felt thick, numbed and itchy; sounds in my ears were muffled and magnified; my thoughts would go high speed and slow motion and backward and forward and up and down and east-to-west-to-north-to-south. I could walk for hours, I could go motionless for hours, I could be staring at a cockroach for half a day, people would look weird, my writing bordered on dementia, it was a crazy period. And Mowelfund was located then at the basement of the creepy Manila Bay Film Center of Imelda Marcos. Heard of the stories of the hundreds of workers buried alive there so that the ‘Madame’ could dance with George Hamilton on time, listen to the Russian piano prodigy and sing “Dahil sa ‘Yo” on a yacht going to Corregidor? Imelda is the supreme magic realist being.
Subliminally, my father was my film mentor. He is the quintessential cinephiliac. We were living in the middle of a forest in a far-flung village in Cotabato, Mindanao, but every weekend or [on] holidays we’d never miss [going to] the cinemas. There were four cinemas then in a nearby town, about two hours’ drive from the village, and they’d always show double bills and we’d watch them all and we’d talk about them after watching. And my parents are bookworms and storytellers and teachers. They read and read and read. My father was very much into Russian literature. They are very industrious and giving. So, yes, the dialectics and dynamics of that milieu have had lasting impact on my cinema and my view of this world.
AT: Tell me about your start in the film industry. You mentioned to me previously that you began as part of a team that wrote scripts for Fernando Poe Jr. actions films?
LD: During my early years of struggling to break into cinema, because there was no digital yet, and there was such a dearth of cameras especially the 16 millimeter--our camera of choice then, and even super 8 rolls were kind of expensive, to thrive as a filmmaker meant to go mainstream, the so-called ‘industry.’ And you know, the industry is the status quo and the culture there is very feudal. They protect their turf, they are wary of newcomers especially if you’re ‘schooled’. To break in was hardcore. That’s an understatement; I mean, it is really, really hard. More often, it’s more of swallowing your pride and accepting compromise as a norm. And if you didn’t know anybody, the only route was to write scripts and show them to people or enter them in competitions. And I won in one such competition, the FPJ-Mowelfund Screenwriting Contest, sponsored by the late Fernando Poe Jr., Philippine cinema’s so-called action king. Among the winners, he chose two to work with him in his next projects. I was part of the duo. A veteran writer also assisted us in our initial foray with the industry. It was an experience. I did another project, a comedy, with Regal. After that, I quit. Fernando Poe wanted me to stay with the team but I didn’t want to do it anymore. The other part of the duo, Manny Buising, wrote for ‘The King’ till his last film. Mr. Buising is a Palanca  hall of famer.
ebolusyon ng isang pamilyang pilipino