A Conversation with Lav Diaz
Interview by: Alexis A. Tioseco
AT: Why do you feel that Filipinos abroad have such an affinity or connection with the motherland? (more so I believe, than peoples from other countries)
LD: I’ll try to make a cultural dissection here. Culturally, the Philippines is a very displaced society. Displacement plays a major [role] on the migrant Filipino’s seeming great fixation to the motherland. I will use the word fixation, instead of affinity or connection, as a point of socio-psychological discourse here. Some may cite nationalism or love of the motherland as key factors here, but that idea seems so broad because inherently so, every Filipino loves the motherland, however there would be levels here depending on one’s understanding of the issues of race, of nationhood, of societies, of politics, including one’s ideology and economic standing. Of course, behavioral scientists will have a different view of this. An intellectual may look at these things quite disparately from a common Filipino construction worker in Saudi Arabia. The former would have a succinct discourse on such issues, drawing on conceptual and historical perspectives as practiced and developed by the so-called early great civilizations, as argued and perused by Greek philosophers down to the great contemporary thinkers. On the other hand, the latter would have such an ambiguous notion such that, most often, he can only account for his worries of the family that he is feeding back home, but his act is just as deep as the one who understands the concept of nationhood. Clearly, his concept of nationhood, or being Filipino, begins and ends in his family’s struggle, and just being responsible to his family is enough responsibility towards the country. But just the same, the intellectual is also struggling to understand the concept no matter how articulate he is or how eloquent he may be on the issue; a clear perspective on the issue is not measured by a succinct discourse and argumentation. A punk rocker’s ranting could be deeper than the polemics of a demagogue. Nobody has a monopoly of the so-called love of country. Fixation is acquired through experience.
Displacement could permeate a vicious injury to the psyche and unfortunately, the Filipino has been inflicted and is afflicted by that injury, an injury that is very physical and psychological; the proletarian Filipino and the bourgeois Filipino have had this injury, without exception, but again on different levels, particularly economically, sociologically, and politically. We have a very long history of displacement. Or rephrasing that: our history, recorded and unrecorded, is a history of displacements. The Filipino culture is replete with displacements, oftentimes directly caused by some of our most common traits.
I’ll cite a concrete Filipino trait which effected so much displacement— that of being too embracing of encroachments/trespasses/invasions. We are too embracing, too soft and too trusting of visitors or intruders; the classic ‘Filipino hospitality,’ they call it. Our cultural landscape is quite unique in this regard. We open our arms and before we know it, we are being colonized and abused. We have had to endure all of this quite passively. Why are we so open to intruders? Why are we so trusting? The archipelagic setup might have had an effect on this as argued by some quarters; the scattering of so many islands offers and creates openness. Or others say it’s the tropical weather, the perennial humidity, which encourages perpetual retirements so that whoever comes can just come in; there are no checkpoints, no so-called rigid entry points where a new arrival can be stopped and checked on his tracks? Welcome, find your place in the sand! Or could the walang pakialam attitude be the rationale for this? And where did we get this walang pakialam attitude? I think there is some truth to the belief that early Filipino Malays had so much— food, gold, vegetation, beaches, and they are so beautiful and gentle that they couldn’t care so much about encroachments. Such conditions made them lazy and apathetic and really giving to a fault. Pigafetta, the Spanish diarist/chronicler of the Ferdinand Magellan voyage cited such abundance and beauty of our land and people. In one of his entries, he said about the palm trees: “It could feed a family for a hundred years.” There were early pocket resistances, of course; this eventually happened when the abuses or seeming disrespect to ‘natives’ became intolerable. The first recorded resistance was Datu Lapu Lapu’s rejection and eventual butchery of the circumnavigator Ferdinand Magellan. Check Pigafetta’s gory details on this. Gory, man, gory. Before that, some Filipino tribes (the Tausugs of Sulu and Zamboanga, the Maguindanaoans of Cotabato, the Maranaos of Lanao, the Badjaos of Mindanao seas, some Tagalog tribes of Maynila and some Kapampangans of Tarlac) had already been conquered by Islamist Arabs. Weeks before the Mactan debacle, Magellan, fresh from an easy conversion of Datu Humabon of Homonhon, had been converting the Cebuanos with the ease of drinking tuba (palm wine) and leisurely lying on a white sand beach waiting for a sunset to hide all the rotting fruits and roasted boars and fish, leftovers of endless festivities; Pigafetta even relayed rampant orgies with beautiful Cebuanas as part of their all too easy conquest of our islas. The women, as insinuated by Pigafetta, were regular gifts from the datus. Pigafetta’s journals were cloaked with sexism and racism and were really bewildering, especially when he kept invoking his faith on some saints and miracles and the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ and God while describing the Cebuana and other Malay women in almost pornographic detail— the skin, the smell, the giggles, the breath, the sensuality of it all; Caligula’s romps on flesh would look dull. Man, who can blame the asshole. The archipelago was just too Freudian of a paradise then. It took us more than three hundred years to realize that we needed to be free from this demeaning encroachment. By then, the damage had been all too telling on our psyche— we’ve become so Vatican and half-baked Castilian. It was a major displacement, a cultural debacle. Then, Roosevelt and the Americans came with their “white man’s burden” credo, and again, they got us so easily. At the cost of twenty million pesos, and a grand mock Manila Bay battle to boot, they trampled on us for the whole of the 20th century. There was the bloody hidden war, of course, that killed almost a million Filipinos; it was the Americans’ first Vietnam, and, man, until now, they don’t want to talk about this and they are still controlling us— politically and economically. That was another major displacement. World War II was another one. It was all too brief, but all too bloody. And then, the other Ferdinand, the very charismatic Marcos led us down the scorching river Styx for twenty-one long and agonizing years. The dark Martial Law period caused a monumental displacement to our psyche. The period institutionalized everything that is so wrong with our system and our culture now.
These displacements have so effectively affected us— from the body politic down to the individual Filipino. And, ultimately, one major effect is the phenomenon of Filipino migration to other shores. The interminability of this sociological phenomenon is more profoundly equated to poverty than to other causes like political asylum, education, artistic pursuits, intermarriages (a big percentage of which is also economically-based) and/or simply, a form of escape. For the poor Filipino, the only escape is the proverbial greener pastures offered by western cultures. Poverty sums up all these displacements, not just economically, but in every aspect of the Filipino’s socio-cultural landscape..
And to go back to your question: why do we have such an affinity to the motherland? Why? I believe that the very core of our connectedness is awa, translated in Anglo as pity, sympathy, compassion. Every Filipino who lives or who’s been in other shores for quite a while is wont to express this. I call this the Pinoy pathos. They would always feel so sorry for the sorry state of the country, for the majority of Filipinos reeling in marginalized conditions in the islands. They’d always express their helplessness and frustration on the inutile and corrupt system. The oft-repeated lines are “kawawa naman ang Pilipinas,” “kawawa naman ang bayan natin,” “kawawa naman ang mga Pilipino,” “kailan pa kaya maaayos ang sistema sa atin?” and “kailan pa kaya magbabago ang kalagayan ng Pilipino?” We are a nation in mourning. We are a people that seem cursed to be in perpetual mourning for the motherland. The cross is on every Filipino’s shoulder. The struggle, the pain of being Filipino, we carry it everywhere. That connectedness, that love of the motherland, that fixation is borne of displacement. And as a Filipino who’s worked and lived in New York, I know the feeling. I am a displaced Filipino, albeit the displacement came early from my Cotabato experience— the Muslim-Christian strife, which destroyed everything we had. I know poverty. I saw it. I experienced it. And like all Filipinos, I dreamt of a better life for my family, of a better Philippines someday. In my experience, cultural dissection became clearer when I accidentally got out of the country in 1992, and later through attending film festivals all over the globe. I observed other cultures and I drew analysis from these observations to dissect our own culture. I am not saying that you cannot conduct a thorough analysis if you’re in the Philippines. Outside, it would seem easier because the comparisons would be quite clearer and more concrete, the outside-looking-in psychology, like a looking glass; you’re detached, but you see yourself. Because of the seemingly debilitating effects of isolation and geographical detachment, I was somehow forced or I forced myself to be more introspective and self-critical. It’s visceral. There’ll be answers, there will be questions up front on such fundamental issues of human functions and discipline— work ethics and attitude, the Filipino’s idea and concept of time, family values— to geographical attributes like climate (you have wet and dry seasons, while they have winter, spring, summer and fall)and aesthetics (what’s your role as an artist, as a Filipino artist? How will your art help shape a progressive culture?). And of course, struggle. You know you’re in a different milieu, in unfamiliar terrain, in a different world, in a different culture. Assimilation may be easy, as it has been said that the Filipino is the most assimilable of all Asians (I was quite unsettled when I found a Japanese restaurant in Sweden and it’s owned and run by a Filipino couple— a Japanese restaurant in foggy Swedish soil owned by Filipinos!), but there remains a fierce fixation to one’s origins; no matter how long the journey, how harsh the struggle in the loneliest of lonely distant shores, the motherland remains the ultimate destination for every Filipino. For most Filipinos in foreign lands, an attitude of transience has become a virtue, a perspective that approximates a level of spirituality, a yearning that liberates them from the burden of exile. They long to be home. And home is the motherland. The motherland is the irreplaceable image of home. That Pinoy pathos is the invisible and uncuttable umbilical cord connecting the Filipino to the motherland.
AT: In general terms, what is it like to work as an artist, particularly in the Philippine context?
LD: I respect other artists’ paths and struggles so I can only speak for myself, my own path, my own truth. It’s hard and it’s cool, man. It’s hard because of my chosen aesthetic, but that aesthetic is cool because it is my chosen aesthetic; I’m free, I am not compromising my soul. It’s cool because I am, in my own small way, fulfilling my role in our society; I am sharing this gift that I am capable of contributing to this culture.
AT: What are your thoughts on filmmaking today?
LD: With the advent of digital filmmaking, contrary to pronouncements that cinema is dead because of it, cinema is very much alive and has even leapt and advanced to greater and respectable heights. Freedom is the key. Digital freed cinema. The medium is now owned by filmmakers and not controlled by businessmen and idiots. Now we are seeing our own canvases.
AT: You’ve cited Lino Brocka as an inspiration and a strong influence, but I see deliberate strides in your work and mode of production to go against his legacy of social indictment as well as compromise. Lino did after all make over 70 films, with only a handful responsible for the legacy. Do you feel that history, specifically Filipino filmmakers, have misinterpreted Brocka’s legacy?
LD: Brocka’s greatness is not on aestheticism if his works [are to] be checked and critiqued earnestly. He never achieved the level of a true cinema aesthete because of his untimely death. Had he lived, I’m sure he could have became one. But his being unable to achieve that stature does not diminish his greatness. His greatness lay in his vision of using the medium to expose his milieu’s malaise. And he used it to the hilt. And he is a Filipino hero because of that. But he did compromise [the] majority of his works. We will have to accept that and be honest about it. He was just a human being after all. I read and I heard that he did say that to be able to survive in the Philippine movie industry, he would make five or ten movies for the producer to be able to make one good film for himself. I never knew him personally to really understand such [a] stance. But I am inspired by the persona. He was [a] fighter, a voice and a leader. And I consider Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag one of the greatest achievements in Philippine cinema.
AT: How difficult is it for you to continue to work as an independent filmmaker in the Philippines today?
LD: It is very difficult on an emotional level because most of the year, I am away from my children; they live in New York and I miss them always. But they understand the struggle; they understand our country’s struggle. So, on an emotional level, the words hard, harsh and cruel are an understatement. Add to that, of course, the difficulty of finding funds. I am not being sentimental about this. And I am not romanticizing my condition. I am a vegan; I live alone in a very small oven-like room, no secretaries, no cars, no publicity machine, I only have my books and guitars; I keep everything simple now. I live and make films on grants. It’s a choice. I will never be bitter because of this decision. I am a better person because of this decision. Again, I can only speak for myself. This is my path.
(Lav Diaz photo taken by photographer Darlene T. Lin at Kopi Roti, Tomas Morato, Quezon City, December 28, 2005. © photographer)
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