Reviewed by: Wiwat Lertwiwatwongsa
Editors Note: For a proper introduction to this writing, please read the editorial for Criticine 6.
They come from a long line of peasants, though they do not like to acknowledge this fact. They have already turned themselves into one of those tireless, anonymous construction workers in Manila. One morning after a heavy flood prevents them from reaching the site, tolerance runs dry for the world-weary Manoling and his friend Juan, who is tormented by the randomness of a friend’s plunge to death. Manoling suggests that Juan returns with him to his hometown, Bicol, a cursed land that can no longer be cultivated. His grandfather claims, however, that beneath its barren earth are buried treasures. For the men, to dig up those treasures would be better than toiling on worthlessly in the city.
Back in Bicol the men discover that Hector, Manoling’s cousin, has built a small hut on the land. He moved there with his daughter after she developed a lung disease, which meant she had to be removed from the community. All day and night the sound of the girl’s coughing strikes a terrifying note. The newcomers erect a simple canvas tent as their shelter, and immediately begin to dig with crazed concentration. In the evenings they would follow the father and daughter to the water’s edge, to sit listlessly, or they would stop by at the village stall to drink beer. Time passes in this rhythm until the girl dies, leaving the three men to throw themselves into an act that slowly turns hellish.
Having made several films of the length between 9-11 hours, Lav Diaz’s latest is comparatively short at five hours. The challenging aspect of the duration of this film, though, lies in the four hours or so of digging that viewers are asked to witness!
Diaz’s films can be grouped in this manner: Evolution of a Filipino Family and Heremias are twin portrayals of the masses – the peasants and the destitute from rural areas; Death in the Land of Encantos and Melancholia look at the Filipino intelligentsia and activists, especially their political roles and the psychological burden, or guilt, the individuals carry. With Agonistes, Diaz shifts his focus to observing those who have transformed themselves from farmers into labourers –who nonetheless remain desperate.
Agonistes begins with shots of the construction workers toiling under the pressure of erecting the tall building. From these sparse images of their physical burden, the film slowly builds up a picture of their wretched state, especially through their dialogues and long silences. Manoling and Juan make the long journey back to the hometown, carrying with them the hope of finding the ancient treasures buried beneath the arid land. There, Hector tells them they’re better off ploughing the land long accused of being cursed than digging blindly for treasures, guided only by an unfounded tale. Manoling and Juan reply that they are no longer peasants and have no interest in doing so.
They are no longer peasants, of course. The masses that once travelled from field to field selling their labour during the rice-harvesting season are no longer farmers; they have moved up in the world to become capital’s labouring force. Not only do they not wish to work the land, they can no longer sleep in humble huts as peasants do. (We could take at face value the implication that Manoling and Juan are nervous about contracting the disease from the girl, but that only serves to envelop the signification more deeply, especially when we consider that the men prefer to stay in the tent even after the girl’s death.) Being accustomed to transient abodes, to itinerant ways of living, seem to exhaust the advancement that they’d acquired as migrant workers.
To put it simply, the men in Agonistes are no different from those who have abandoned their peasant roots for a new urban identity. Although they are no better off than before, at least the mere fact of being a city worker places them a notch up the rung from that of the farmer. Now that they have returned to the homeland, they exert themselves as hired hands do. As rightful owners of this piece of land, they might have dug over the soil in order to grow things; but their relentless digging for treasures places them in exactly the same wretched state as they had been before, back on the construction site. Of the three, it is Hector who initially manages to hold onto a semblance of sanity, trying to dissuade Manoling and Juan from pursuing their blind quest. After the death of his daughter, however, Hector too begins to implode. Perhaps it is his form of realisation that the life of a peasant is one of endless suffering. At one point he says he has spent all his meagre savings on the medication for his daughter, but this was to no avail. After her death, the act of digging becomes his search for solace, his quest for a steady place to anchor his soul.
If Death in the Land of Encantos portrays the Philippines as a cursed land, it is probably appropriate to describe Agonistes as a story of its people lost in flight from their historical attachment to the land. Defeated by the city these people, the peasants, return to search for their original self – to reclaim an identity that is now reduced to a mythic image of buried ancestral treasures. They do not find that treasure, no matter how hard they dig. It is as if the notion of an original identity is a deception that is holding them captive. The meaning, the object, of their quest has been erased, and what remains is the ghost of a process that will consume them.
To describe the film this way is to dare to turn it into a mirror for Thailand. The more we try to unearth ‘Thai-ness’ (our absent origin?) the more we find ourselves caught in the effort to hold on to a spurious national identity that we have imposed on ourselves. We are now trapped in the blind excavation of something we naively believe will lead us back to our origin. What we have become, as a result, is a people who have forgotten our real history. We have thrown ourselves like fools into the frenzied defence of culture, of that emblem of our culture, and along the way we have become like those men who go on digging but can no longer recall why they are digging in the first place.
But then Agonistes leaves viewers to struggle with the duration of the digging – the long four hours which begins when the film abandons us at the mouth of the ditch, asking us to witness the barely perceptible pace of its deepening. Most of us at that screening found ourselves undone, merged eventually into the blunt thud of the spades cutting the earth, the repeated heaving sighs, the soft groans as the men’s bodies twist to lift the spades. Accompanying this is the rattling of plastic cups rested with their rims against the neck of large plastic water bottles, and of course there is the constant sound of rain. The images are still – the ditch slowly grows deeper until it is as if each man is digging his own hole. Each separate hole closes in on them in sharp lines like the contour of a cage, and the mound of earth grows between them. The earth dug up calls to mind two things: a vegetable bed that might have nurtured healthy plants had the men desired to grow them, or a graveyard whose newly dug, neatly lined holes are being prepared to bury the souls of the diggers. Every now and then punctuating the duration is the faint offscreen sound of music, perhaps coming from the stalls nearby. An invitation to dance, the music evokes the sense that life elsewhere has edged forward, but time is suspended for the diggers in their long days and nights. From darkness to light, from light to darkness, they carry on digging, resting in the tent when too exhausted to go on. Soon even Hector moves out of the hut to sleep outside. Eventually the holes are deep enough to bury the men standing. The camera slides down the side of the ditch, lower and lower until the bright sky, which appeared at the beginning of the film, slips out of sight. The camera observes the men’s sweat soaked bodies, engrossed in the demand of the endlessly repetitive gesture until it is as if in the last hour of the film the camera itself has passed on down below the earthly realm. .
All that they retrieve from this large, deep hole are the remains of a boot (a soldier’s boot?) and some unidentifiable bits of metal. These remnants seem to reference the Martial Law era - the rule of Marcos that has long past but lingers like a corpse rotting beneath the ground, leaving its stench of misery. The men also find a turtle in the hole; the creature slowly makes its way up to the surface, moving in the opposite direction, while the men dig further and further and show no sign of resurfacing. They tell each other secrets, in a scene that seems to equate this exchange with the erasure of history. In the act of telling, the secret that lies at the heart of world history, and Filipino history, becomes a lame joke, nothing more. The words evaporate into thin air, which passes by, and no one mourns their passing.
Why does each shot have to be so long? Questions such as this imply a certain criticism. Beyond the immediate reply that the challenging duration of his films is a matter of personal aesthetics, Diaz’s own way of seeing, Agonistes would seem to answer most readily to the charge the filmmaker is meant to be guilty of. The length of the digging sequences here slowly works on our unconscious. In the first two hours we might still cling to the hope that the men would find something, but the more time elapses the less hopeful their digging becomes. Eventually we too begin to watch them in a state of desolation, and it is only at that point that the mere movement of a leaf, or a bird taking flight, seems to transmute into a miraculous sight both for the men and for us viewers.
Compared to his previous films, Diaz seems to have made certain shifts with Agonistes. His earlier work rely on episodic narration to weave a complex tapestry of the characters’ fate, gently inserting his distinctive way of seeing into this structure. This time, however, Diaz has chosen to pare down all stories, leaving only those seemingly unending series of images, in the trust that the images themselves would furnish other stories.
Agonistes literally means to struggle, and implies a sorrowful experience rather than a heroic one. True to this word, Diaz’s film can be seen as a bleak portrayal of a struggle that can’t be resolved, a tale whose ending lies at the point where action loses connection with its past, and its future. Ultimately the film is about our human fate, the weight of guilt we carry - that which haunts us to our death.
Translated by May Adadol Ingawanij