A Conversation with Lav Diaz
Interview by: Alexis A. Tioseco
Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino
AT: Tell me all about the evolution of Ebolusyon. I understand you envisioned a different story at the beginning of the film, that of a Filipino seaman who jumped ship in America. But let us start after the Manila scenes had taken prominence, and you had decided to focus on them. At this specific point in time, what was the general plot of the Philippine story? Where did you see the story heading at that point in time, and how close was that to the finished film?.
LD: Well, I had an outline not a plot, some notes to follow, which was quite ambiguous, vague, because I was playing it only in my mind; I was not writing it; I was very much into the organic process at that point, endlessly groping for threads so to speak. This was when I had decided to pursue the Philippine story and finish it; I mean I decided to pursue a Philippine story; and I would need to find the story. This was during the postproduction period of Batang West Side. So there was no general plot to really follow through. Everything was open—I had characters, had shot a lot of their scenes, mostly disjointed, disjointed by the long gaps in production, and so, where were they heading in the totality of the work. I had a premise, that of capturing the struggles of invisible Filipinos in this very dysfunctional, feudal and corrupt system; that was the focus, but there wasn’t a story yet. Honestly, there was a point when in utter exhaustion and frustration, my greater urge was just to shake the cross off—an unfinished work that was perennially begging to find closure or just to be disposed of. What I had then were mountains of footage as a result of protracted shootings through the years. Watching the footage alone was very tedious, fiercely daunting, and indeed, a test of patience. I had to watch them over and over and then play them in my head to make sense of all the chaos and gaps, taking note of the characters and their ages, the actors and their ages, who’s dead and who’s alive, continuity issues, and the eventual logistics. But, of course, the promise and possibilities offered by the images were inspiring enough to push me to really finish the work. Through time, they’ve somehow morphed into some kind of living canvases, the feeling that’s akin to discovering or rediscovering old photographs and paintings where you will experience a sense of connection with them, emotional and mystical. I thought they were haunting and beautiful and I felt keenly guilty leaving them gathering dust and heat, hanging and unfulfilled. They offer a kind of spiritual imperative and I didn’t want to lose them. I knew that I had something special. But it got stalled again when I shot Hesus Rebolusyunaryo (“Hesus the Revolutionary”). And then, through a lot of hassles, Batang West Side was finally ready and it was shown. During the show in New York at the Asian American Festival, the idea that I’ve been waiting for flashed in my head. I had found the thread that would finish the story. It was the idea of a character endlessly looking for gold; a great metaphor that I could work on in mirroring our people’s socio/political/spiritual/cultural struggle. It was an invariable trait, truly Filipino, and truly human, too—the endless search for redemption. This was the character of Fernando, played eventually by Ronnie Lazaro. From there, I was able to create linkages amongst the characters and the use of found footage, a continuum that would become the story; the use of time, the period and issues to be encapsulated had become clearer, and in the end, every element galvanized to appropriate the vision that I wanted to pursue for Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (“Evolution of a Filipino Family”).
AT: Ebolusyon depicts a crucial point in Philippine history, but focuses on the micro rather than the macro, and inserts footage from the period to give the film historical footing. Tell me about the structure of Ebolusyon, and the distinction and rationale for the insertions of 16mm and historical footage.
LD: The micro would provide substance to the macro; the macro is a mirror of the micro; the micro is the essence of the macro, and vice versa. Insertion of historical footage is a kind of landmarking or sign-posting to reinforce the period being tackled by the story, but I insert the footage, even the flashbacks or memories and dreams, unobtrusively, indeliberately; they are rhythmically free-flowing; they just come and go practically as the story progresses. There is no sense of chaptering in any manner; their role is to contextualize the characters; they amazingly point to a certain period of time in a very exacting way even without putting subtitles and dates. A woman i.e. Huling endlessly walking in the fields juxtaposed with the image of EDSA is very Filipino and it points to a very particular period of our history. Huling, despite her existence in a different milieu is authentically a representative of every individual marching in EDSA; the causality is distinctly Filipino because of the distinct period being represented. Huling and EDSA is analogous to Ninoy Aquino and Marcos, Lino Brocka and Marcos, the military, Marcos and Kadyo, the eternally transient and lost boy Raynaldo and the lost Filipino soul. All my works focus on stories about people, individuals, a milieu, a culture; to be very particular: about Filipinos, the Filipino struggle, the Filipino history. Micro characters like the deranged Hilda Gallardo inhabit these stories, and it is their story that would give meaning to a bigger backdrop, may it be sociological, political, economical and spiritual, or philosophical even. The story of an individual Filipino is the story of the Filipino struggle. In Ebolusyon, brutalization of the micro characters comes in the form of poverty, marginalization and utter neglect by the system; the brutalization is given more emphasis by a capsuling of an extremely fascistic period, which is Martial Law. The status of being poor by itself is overtly and covertly brutal, and then, here comes a system that is overtly and covertly dysfunctional. Using that premise made the vision of Ebolusyon easier to pursue. I have a very clear picture of that period and the characters’ struggles. I grew up during that period and I know the characters; I have tried to understand that period and I will continue to try to fathom it, and ultimately, with my works, I am examining and confronting it, and still struggling to understand it—can we save Raynaldo? Can we save the Filipino soul?
Structuring is never a problem. My process by then would be to write the daily struggles of my characters. I will just follow them, and oftentimes I would actually write the script, the dialogues a day before the shoot or during the shoot, oftentimes as instinct and common sense would suggest. Oftentimes too, I would reject intellectualizing creation in relation to the characters and culture they are representing: it must just be honest. In relation to traditional cinema language: no rules but my rules. I didn’t rule out theoretical discourse of course, because you cannot escape it, but at the end of the day, my overriding rule is just to search for the truth, which actually simplified the struggle, albeit it was a hard-won struggle. Of course, thinking of the footage then was very daunting especially during the postproduction. Also, there was the issue of mixing digital footage and 16 millimeter. And it was a big issue at first because I can actually see the difference. For a time, of course, I sank into the issue of celluloid versus digital, too. There was a disturbing discourse going on inside of me. The atmosphere was not unlike the times of the advent of sound in cinema where “the great debate” ensued. But ultimately, the issue is aesthetic—digital or celluloid, silent or sound, color or black and white--[because] the medium is [still] cinema. I focused on my materials. These are my materials, my footage; I might as well make the best out of them. I will make it work. My experience with installation art using found objects helped me a lot. During my years living in the East Village in New York, ninety percent of my friends were painters and performers, all struggling. And all of them are basically ‘found-object artists’—the kind who would work on what they have and what they can find; they thrive on their limitations and they made great art; we made great art in our own small spaces and even in the streets. This praxis, which is embraced by a lot of artists as a kind of ideology, has become very useful and a handy armour to me, too. I’m not afraid anymore. And so, I embraced digital.
During postproduction, with the kind of footage that was at hand, [it could only have been an] ellipsis in terms of structure. And Ebolusyon is truly elliptical with the interweaving of so many characters and different periods within the span of sixteen years, 1971 to 1987; even the historical footage was not chronologically arranged.
AT: Ebolusyon is the first film you’ve made with a digital finish, and the first feature-film of yours that you edited yourself (after having gone through two editors is it? before taking up the task itself). I understand that you have been highly involved in the editing of your films in the past, but how different was it for you this time as the actual hands-on editor, and how important was this in the shaping of the film? Had you had any previous experience as the hands-on editor on a film before?
LD: I haven’t had troubles or problems with past editors, or the proper term would be co-editors, because even with them cutting, I would be very much involved with the structuring, with the whole process. I’m in control. Every editor knows that the degree of freedom given to him/her, especially with works involving filmmakers who obstinately pursue and value their aesthetic, philosophy and vision, even politics and ideology, starts and ends in putting the pieces [together] as obliged by the maker. This is not to undermine the great role of true editors because a big part of being a great editor is a true understanding of the filmmaker he is working with. Everything will be and must be adjusted to that. That’s a given. Of course, in commercial studios, it would be very different. In the case of Ebolusyon, I had to do it myself because honestly, nobody could do it but me. Eleven years of protracted shooting, loads of footage, and without a proper storyline or script to follow, the task was just so overwhelming and intimidating; the first two editors who tried to help just disappeared, or dissipated in utter frustration. And so, I sat down in my own cramped studio for a year and did it. The difference was that I had no one to consult or argue with. There was Bob Macabenta, the fledgling but great soundman but his concern was sound. The experience was quite liberating; battling demons and gods and all in a room flooded with souls and images trapped in an eleven-year-struggle, crawling to be shaped into cinema. But the battle was bloody, very bloody, psychologically, and physically, too, considering that at the onset of postproduction, I was just recuperating from a very perilous cancer operation (a malignant but autonomous thymoma, 4.5 inches thick was taken out on top of my heart and in between my lungs). Late July of 2004, I had the first cut ready after six months; it was ten hours and fifty-five minutes long, and it was slated to close the Cinemanila International Film Festival that year. On the day we were laying-in the last subtitles--and we were in fact celebrating by then--the computer suddenly crashed and we lost everything. It was a shocker and a heartbreaker. Back to zero. It was that cruel, painful and hard. I went through the same process again—digitizing, syncing, mixing, rendering, cutting, dubbing, finding money, etc. It was that insane and petrifying, it could have been easy to just walk out and not give a fuck. The light of day came in January 28, 2005, the final cut; I celebrated the day numbed, weary, and dreamy, thirty thousand feet above the ground inside a Lufthansa jet going to Rotterdam.
AT: The filming for Ebolusyon began in 1994, as Ebolusyon ni Ray Gallardo (“Evolution of Ray Gallardo”), only seven years after the end of Martial Law. You are addressing a different audience now than from when you began; one more distanced from the events of the period. How has your perspective about the Martial Law period changed-- and the impact it has had on us as a people changed-- from when you started the work to now (and at points in between)?
LD: My view of Martial [Law] now is not different from my view when I started shooting the film in 1994. It has not changed at all. It remains the darkest period in the history of our people. It is the most devastating chapter of our nation’s struggle. It single-handedly created the greatest damage in the Filipino psyche. It remains that way. That’s the truth. I’m aware that the degree of passiveness and forgetfulness is growing, and keeps growing, and political immaturity has even gone to a moronic level now. Talk to the young and it won’t be a surprise anymore if you’d hear queries like, “What Martial Law?”, “Marcos who?”, “Ninoy who?”, “Lean who?”, “Rizal who?”, “Bonifacio who?” Very disturbing. And the most disappointing [thing] is that so many Filipinos now are openly saying, in a nostalgic manner, that we should go back to the Marcos years because they believe those were the best years of our nation’s political history. You ask the question, what kind of a political perspective does the Filipino have now? Most certainly, it is very retrogressive, tragically amnesiac and most tragically immature. You talk of the impact Martial [Law] had on us as a people? How do we measure that now? Psychologically, we’re back to the dark ages. Physically, Martial Law is history but its corrosive impact is imbedded in our culture and we need to correct that. Look at the Executive branch of the system, look at the Senate, look at Congress, look at the people in the streets, look at the people in the barrios, just simply look, man. It is imperative to look and examine what’s going on. It is imperative to examine the past. There is that urgency that we just don’t acknowledge. We need to have a critical sense of history to help redeem this nation. Ebolusyon’s vision is about that.
AT: How was your aesthetic, your mise en scene, changed? And how has time changed your perspective or concept of cinema, and what you want your audience to take with them after seeing your work.
LD: Like I’ve said, these three works—Batang West Side, Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino and Heremias—is a ‘realization’ of a framework that evolved out of a process that I’ve traversed through in search of my aesthetic and philosophy in cinema, the very familiar mise en scene—my use of camera, the duration, the rhythm, the sound, the choice of actors, the blocking, the texture, the kind of stories, the culture that I represent, my vision, the whole canvas. My cinema is as pure as I want it to be now, in my own terms, pure in terms of the degree of freedom that I put into it, the degree of struggle, and I’m fully aware of the degree of responsibility that comes into it. And like I’ve said, my cinema now is not into the stereotypical audience concept because I do not make cinema for an audience, as we know it--the box-office-return-of-investment dynamics, the ratings game, and most aversely, it is not seeking anybody’s imprimatur, or worse, a step-to-Hollywood-status-quo-trip-to-the-Oscars-moviemaking-exercise. Just like any piece of art of worth, my cinema’s aesthetic fulfillment is interaction. I create it, and so it’s there. It simply seeks to share a vision. For people who will come and interact with my works, I won’t have to explain anything to them. They’ll just have to experience it.
AT: For its entire sweeping story, there appears, to me, to be a very personal aspect to Ebolusyon. What are your personal memories of the martial law period, and the time thereafter?
LD: True. Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino is very personal to me. I know the characters. I grew up in a farming family, very poor farming families, both from my father’s and mother’s side. The struggles and travails of these people, I know so well. I’ve seen it; I’ve experienced it. I am very much a part of it. I grew up during the Martial Law years. And my experience of Martial Law was very brutal. I was in second year high school when Marcos declared [Republic Act] 1081 upon the land. In Cotabato, the year before the imposition, the pent-up tensions between the Muslims and Christians had exploded into a full-scale war. It was bloody, very bloody, terrifying, horrifying. And it became bloodier during Marcos’ reign of terror. While Christians and Muslims were on a rampage butchering one another left and right, the military entered the scene with an even unheard of fascistic fierceness and cruelty. They’d set up checkpoints in all directions; they’d hamlet communities; they’d be declaring so many areas as no-man’s lands and shooting any person seen at will, no questions asked. A classic practice was the singing of the National Anthem at every checkpoint. They’d line up civilians who passed by checkpoints and ask them one by one to sing the Lupang Hinirang, the Philippine National Anthem. For every mistake you make, you’ll get a slap, a kick or a punch from the perennially drunk soldiers, or worse, a bullet in your head. Another regular practice was the midnight scare. They’d come knocking in the middle of the night, force people to open their doors, and point guns on the heads of the slumbering civilians admonishing them, while evoking Marcos’ vision of a new society. I’ve seen people breaking down, begging for their lives, losing their minds. I’ve experienced being hit with an armalite rifle’s butt and then hitting the ground, gasping for air. Our barrio was attacked and bombed by fighter planes and decimated bodies were flying all over. I saw Muslim bodies, young and old, pregnant women and babies, being piled up near a highway after a massacre, their houses turned to ashes in the background. I saw tortured and burned bodies of Christians after a massacre, their houses still burning in the background. I saw soldiers continually lining up people and scaring them with their guns while evoking the greatness of Marcos. People vanished. Young people like me were forced to attend Kabataang Barangay  sessions and we stayed in rooms for days where all the walls were adorned with giant images of Marcos; all we heard were speeches of Marcos, his voice hovering even in our dreams, and literature you read was all about Marcos and Imelda. In schools, public and private, textbooks must bear their faces, words and signatures. The conditioning was so monumental. And you didn’t need a theorem to sum up what would going to happen to the country. The socio-cultural devastation was just so vast and unheard of, everyday it was staring at us, and really, it was just a mystery why it took Filipinos years to wake up. Why was there apathy? I didn’t believe in the popular belief that it was fear that brought the apathy or inaction to our people because the left and other progressive groups and individuals were really fighting against the regime. They put their lives on the line.
ebolusyon ng isang pamilyang pilipino