A Conversation with Lav Diaz
Interview by: Alexis A. Tioseco
AT: This is a question I have always thought fascinating, but have rarely seen asked to filmmakers. How has the travelling you have done because of your films (i.e. attending festivals) affected you as a filmmaker?
LD: Besides the great film viewings and the unavoidable dizzying festival artifices that would oftentimes border on circus-like milieus, travel has continually broadened my perspective: the diversity, the contradictions, the uniqueness of cultures, the effects of borders on people ([and] on humanity as a whole), the complexities of geography, the beauty and mystery of language, the reality and myth of race, versions and revisions of history, political views, ideological lines, religions, architecture, seasons, economics, philosophies. For an artist, these are forces that somehow help enrich and broaden aesthetic discourse. Listening to disparate interpretations of struggle after a viewing of Batang West Side in Kaluga, an old town in Russia, was quite an eye-opener to me. I had had the same experiences in Zagreb, Croatia, in Goteberg, Sweden, in Berlin, in Turin, in Flanders, in Vienna, in Moscow, in Toronto, in Kuala Lumpur, in Singapore, in Hong Kong, in Cebu. The levels of discourse fascinated me. These cultures have acquired and developed different levels of appreciation for the arts. In some societies, they really acknowledge the role of the arts in shaping their culture, in shaping the very essentials of their lives. While some societies, specifically those that are still in the margins, have a vague notion of what art can contribute to their lives. Art what? What culture? You know, itís hard to argue with a farmer who will tell you that a grain of rice is better than film. Why waste time in a ten-hour-forty- three-minute-long film like Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino when his family needs some grain? Who needs Da Vinci in a hungry Burmese village? But yes, I really appreciate these travels. Meeting and having discussions with filmmakers and scholars and street vendors in Torino helped in shaping a greater vision and aestheticism. These experiences affirm my belief that great art can create great culture. Great cinema is relevant in our struggle. Great film is great grain, I must tell the farmer.
AT: How do you intend to tell the farmer this?
LD: The farmer plants rice; he keeps the rice healthy and safe from drought and food and insects and animals to insure great produce; he sells the rice and feeds on the rice; itís his life. Itís the simple philosophy of nurturing, feeding and living. What you feed on is what you are. You nurture our people with good art, or with good works; you feed our people on good art; naturally, we will have great culture. You nurture our people with Socratic ideals; we will have a great nation. We shouldnít just fill the stomach; the soul needs nurturing, too. The rice functions on the former and art functions on the latter. How do I/we intend to do this? Application. Clearly, in my case, the struggle doesnít end in making the film. With the kind of film that Iím making, there is greater struggle in propagation. We must bring the film to the people. Batang West Side was only shown here four times, maybe, five times; Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino, three times. The reasons are obvious; they are very, very long and no theatre would show it without me shouldering all the cost or some responsible sponsors. Iíve been trying to get grants, funds and sponsorships to have them shown here, to conduct a tour on campuses and villages.
AT: When did you first move to New York, and how much time have you spent there since you moved there? How has living there affected you as a filmmaker, and as a Filipino?
LD: I arrived in New York on the 21st of July 1992. Fate brought me there. It wasnít planned at all. A commissioned video documentary I did on the street kids of Manila was invited to participate in a multimedia exhibit-tour of key areas of the US. When I got to New York, a Filipino newspaper invited me to be part of their staff. I stayed and worked as one of their editors. New York provided me some freedom, aesthetically and economically. My decision to live in New York has been all about pursuing greater heights for my art while liberating my family from the clutches of poverty. In Manila, I had reached a dead-end. I was practically killing myself working in newspapers, my last [job] being a deskman in a Tagalog tabloid, and [I was also] submitting scripts in television serials, writing unproduced screenplays, writing scripts for komiks. I was a book salesman while studying law; I wrote serious stuff that won Palancas; I won screenwriting and essay writing contests. But for what, my family was starving. We lived in Krus na Ligas, a squattersí area inside UP Diliman, cramped in a tiny, rented room; we had to sleep in one small bed, the five of us--my wife and my three kids--we had to put chairs on the edges to keep our feet from dangling and be bitten to smithereens by ghetto mosquitoes and rats. All I could do was curse in silence while looking at my friends from film school shooting while I was working as a full-time family man. I didnít regret being a family man because I love my children very much but like I said, we were at a dead-end; there was no relief in sight. And there was no digital then. At some point, I thought I could never do my films. Abandoning music was already a very painful experience (I destroyed my guitar and burned all my songs) and if I were to abandon cinema, I didnít know what I would do. I couldnít afford to kill my soul twice. New York offered some answers: I can fulfill cinema and my family can live without the indignity of hunger. And living in New York didnít lessen our being Filipinos. We remain fiercely Filipino. And I remain a Filipino filmmaker. I will forever be pursuing my discourse on our peopleís struggle. I live in Manila half of the year; I live in New York half of the year. I donít believe in borders now, I donít believe in this very ancient idea of dividing so-called races, segregating peoples via visas and boundaries and color and language. This concept of border is not just ancient, it is very fascistic and feudal and absurd, especially the first world-third world concept. The concept of borders dehumanizes humanity. It created wars and dumbfounding atrocities. I can live wherever I want. But I firmly believe in helping and shaping cultures grow progressively. In the case of our struggle, the Filipino struggle, we must be more responsible and help it attain a level that is at par with other cultures. We must not rest until we become a great culture and be one with the whole world, till we can erase all borders, no more rich and poor, no more educated and illiterate, and ultimately, no more races. No more visa problems, these idiotic visas. I am grounded enough to understand that this vision is utopian and it can never be achieved. But art must dream of this vision. Artís ultimate goal is perfection of humanity.
AT: Your films often have rural settings. I know that you grew up in Cotabato, Mindanao, but you have lived in the city, both in Manila and New York, for many years now. Why do most of your films continue to have rural settings?
LD: Itís not intentional. Not deliberate at all. I have a lot of stories set in urban milieus, too. Itís only that the stories with rural settings or stories with greater rural textures were the ones that were produced first. In fact, Iíve been trying to do my take on Manila; my Manila story, hopefully next year, after Heremias and my East Village, New York City story; thereís even a Davao City story and a Zagreb, Croatia story (Iíve shot some scenes already last December 2004 during the Human Rights Film Festival). Batang West Side is Jersey City. Hesus Rebolusyunaryo is mostly set in an urban area, even Burger Boys. Ebolusyon has Manila in it, specifically, Kadyoís story. Well yes, all of these films have more dominant rural textures, albeit theyíre a mixture of rural and urban localities. The characters especially, my characters, they have very bucolic origins. They have very rural backgrounds, but not necessarily archaic perspectives and traits, as are so often stereotypically pictured in very demeaning, inane movie industry works. I try hard to present as truthfully and honestly as I can real characters with earnest rural pathos and perspectives. My truths or my early truths are very rural; I have a very rural upbringing. Itís one of my essential verities, so to speak. When I speak of Ďmy essential verities,í Iím referring to things that are somehow immutable and inherent in me, acquired and inherited, albeit my temperament, disposition and demeanor now may look so urban. But my being an urbanite is quite underground; Iím afraid I know more of Manilaís and New Yorkís proletarian and hardcore underbellies than their so-called modern advancements or superficial adornments and refinements. Personally, I never really make distinctions as to what makes a place urban or rural besides the very obvious like transportations (buffalos and cars), structures (huts and buildings), dresses and manners. I grew up in the middle of a jungle down south, in the middle of poverty, in the middle of strife and struggle, and itís the same when I settled in Manila and New York. These are the same jungles, with poverty, strife and struggle hovering in different incarnations. My films are very personal, so I guess, they come out naturally. My culture is my cinema. I am rural and I am urban. My art comprehends both milieus. My art will struggle to understand both worlds. I am the synthesis. I will be the synthesis. Or, my art is the synthesis. My art will be the synthesis.
ebolusyon ng isang pamilyang pilipino