In the cinema of Lav Diaz, his native Philippines is presented as a purgatorial space of dormant meanings, latent traumas and ongoing sorrows, as an ensemble of characters, whose solidarity and political consciousness have been systematically defeated through centuries of colonialism and decades of internal repressions, struggle on.
Introducing one of the four Diaz films that screened at the AV Festival, George Clark, who curated the festival’s Diaz programme, drew parallels between the director’s works and the venue in which they were exhibited, Newcastle’s Star and Shadow cinema: both concern a “cared for, maintained, community of resistance.”
Working outside the mainstream Filipino studio system since the early 2000s, Diaz’s body of work might be championed as one of resilience, and the films’ durations – 16 hours across three films, with a 60-minute feature screened later in the festival – demanded a communal commitment that was rewarded with a developing sense of collective initiation-cum-survival.
A two-hour cut of a work-in-progress, Heremias Book II (2008) is a self-contained piece in its own right, concerning a man, Heremias, who returns to the island on which he spent his childhood. Interspersed with scenes in which Heremias reunites with his sister, brother-in-law and their four children are flashbacks to his life as a boy, in which his father’s leprosy brings upon his family social exclusion and humiliation.
As an adult, Heremias spends the film travelling or sitting, observing or listening; the returner’s pilgrimage is one of contained emotion. An early scene sees the protagonist framed particularly at odds with fellow passengers on the speed boat on which he is travelling to an island. When he finally sees his younger sister again, a quiet melancholy pervades the scene. Flashbacks are not primed by a change in aesthetic; consequently, the past and its traumas are experienced as ongoing. As an audience, we have to adjust to this sense of overlapping temporality, whose respective functions are not immediately discernible in a level visual field of black-and-white DV.
Heremias’s father’s disease is physical, but it might also be a metaphor for a kind of spiritual decay at large within Filipino society. Heremias’s journey is one of loss and grief; in him, we find the everyman whose struggle transcends the personal and befits his country’s accumulated devastation throughout its history. Like the Philippines themselves, what remains of these people is a scattered debris of memories without closure.
In this sense, Diaz’s work confronts the collective non-remembrance of younger generations. Characters reference ancestors in the present tense; the continuation of superstitions – such as that in Heremias Book II involving a snake’s tail – and a return to folk traditions are questioned by means of perpetuation. At one point, the respect demanded by a character called Sir Shark is at once given and challenged, as he gives a monologue to listeners about God and a loss of faith; his authority is undercut by the tedious, rambling banality of his own argument and the implication that it’s fuelled by heavy drink.
Melancholia (2008), the centre attraction of the AV Festival’s Slow Cinema Weekend, is 480 minutes long. In it, three apparently disparate characters arrive in a small town at similar times: a prostitute, a nun and a pimp. As the nun (Malaya) drifts through the lonely, hilly roads of the town collecting donations, the pimp (Perry Dizon) pays tourists to stage seedy sex shows for paying customers; the prostitute (Angela Bayani), meanwhile, breaks down in tears in front of a client, an American stereotype who asks if she resents being a whore while stressing that he’s “not an animal”.
Allegories are present: the sex shows point to the exploitation and opportunism endemic to tourism in a country whose apparent physical beauty belies its political ruin; charity, of course, knocks at the door of the already impoverished, and finds its most willing donors to be the socially damaged; prostitution, meanwhile, is the political inevitability of a country whose struggle for independence is typically succeeded by the premature defeat of its revolution and the erection of a totalitarian government. Post-colonialism begets economic prostitution.
On a literal level, though, it is revealed that these three characters do, in fact, know each other. Failed revolutionaries, each is undertaking an everyday, performative enactment of another personality, a device chosen by them as a means of coping with their own trauma and grief, in the hope, perhaps, of coming to terms with personal and political losses.
The deferral of grief is a key theme here. Embodying an identity other than one’s own allows one to abandon the memories that haunts one’s daily life. That its relatively simple plot is stretched to eight hours of narrative time, with an unprompted, lengthy flashback towards the end that becomes a kind of organic entity in itself, means that we as an audience share its characters’ cumulative sense of devastation, a phenomenon experienced durationally as much as it is mentally or emotionally, with its consequences only revealed after some time.
Contemplative and exploratory, the film concludes with a flashback sequence in a jungle, in which three rebels wait out the tense final days of their struggle against the government’s military forces. With the odds stacked against them and their own resources inferior to those of their opponents, their plight is imbued with an increasing boredom and finally an insanity, as they slowly lose command of the visual composition, whose static framing makes us watch on as helpless historians too blessed with the irony of retrospection.
Embodying the AV Festival’s repeated thematic paradox between stasis and progress, Diaz’s films work towards a final meaning that’s open to debate. Discussions followed both Heremias Book II and Melancholia. The first was between Diaz, Clark and May Adadol Ingawanij, director of 2012’s Bangkok Experimental Film Festival, while the second took place as a more informal, fluid gathering between the director and his audience around a gathering of tables.
Both discussions probed Diaz with regard to his working method. During the discussion panel that began the Slow Cinema Weekend, the director had noted that he embraces “everything as cinema, you can’t be a purist. The production and the process is the important thing.” As such, questions pertaining to various aesthetic choices – the decision to make his films black and white, the decision to make them so long, etc. – were answered along the lines of personal truth: “Every methodology is valid in cinema – this is what works for me.”
What must be noted, however, is the difficulty of connecting with the films’ aesthetic, let alone their subject matter, because of technical shortcomings. So bad was the condition of the DV tapes from which they were projected that the films became more and more insufferable to sit through. Process and method over final product: discussing these films is more interesting than watching them.
Beyond this, though, the seemingly universal acclaim given to Diaz’s more aesthetic choices is bewildering. While Heremias, presented as a work-in-progress, could be mistaken and subsequently forgiven for technical crudities – not only in the tape’s glitches, but on an actual production level – their continuation by Melancholia and beyond is perplexing. The films seem to deliberately ignore standard narrative filmmaking practice: shots are composed without a level horizon, their canting angle not accentuated sufficiently enough to seem conscious; the lack of external mics means that whole scenes unfold with their sound obliterated by the wind. It’s fairly amateurish.
This might be the point, of course. One audience member in the Q&A that followed Melancholia remarked that it gave a self-reflexive element to the films, that they doubled as documents to the filmmaker’s process. Diaz was happy to leave the compliment unelaborated.
But such fundamentals are grating over the course of a six- or eight-hour film, because there’s no inherent strength in such technical primitivism. Several times over the course of the weekend, Diaz made damning reference to “the studios”; the suggestion that he was irrevocably dismayed by his experience of working within a studio system seemed clear enough. No doubt put off by the artistic compromises in a commercial industry, Diaz’s frustration is understandable, and his half-tongue-in-cheek “fuck the producers, we will burn them one day” remark got many laughs.
But, once removed or self-exiled from such commercial constraints, how easily does an editorial free rein lend itself to gross self-indulgence? The improvisatory feel of Lav Diaz’s films, combined with consistently terrible acting, risks egregious self-parody more and more as scenes are allowed to play out long beyond that point at which their intended and digested meaning drifts into calamitous absurdity.
Just as there’s nothing of inherent strength in this sort of glacial filmmaking, there’s nothing of inherent interest in an aesthetic built from flouted basics. Its “radicalism” is utterly false.
All art is as communicative as it is experiential, of course. And so when Diaz says on the one hand that he doesn’t make films for an audience, that he makes films for himself – hence its masturbatory feel, no doubt – and then, on the other, that his films are “about the experience” of sitting through a gruelling duration, his own artistic confusion becomes evident. There’s a vague ring of anti-intellectualism going on here.
Diaz’s working method seems to be that if you leave a shot running long enough, perhaps it’ll win you over. This is simply not true. To put it frankly, the dialogue and compositions here are not compelling enough, in spite of any other legitimate thematic intentions. Once familiar with the director’s aesthetic, the viewer can see at every moment that the films were made up as their productions crawled along.
“I am a storyteller”; “It’s about the experience”; “I make films for myself, without consideration for an audience”. The fundamental contradictions contained between these assertions arise from pretention if not self-delusion.
If Melancholia is as conceptually interesting as it is finally insufferable, the six-hour Century of a Birthing (Siglo Ng Pagluluwal, 2011) extends its director’s juvenile, intolerable incoherence with the inclusion in its double-strand story of a filmmaker who, predictably, is struggling to complete the post-production phase of his latest work. At one point, with a poster of Ming-liang Tsai’s What Time Is It There? behind him, the character has a conversation in which he says he is “not a deadline filmmaker” – is this Diaz seeking self-vindication? Later, the same character lists various cinematic qualities and has a dig at the mainstream’s “full coverage shit”.
“Truth is unknowable, okay,” the same character says. “It’s all just personal realities.” This conclusion is nothing new, and if the filmmaker is meant to be voicing Diaz’s own “personal reality”, then one must ask: who cares?
In one scene, a female character carries out an abortion on herself. The length of the scene makes it resemble some kind of exploitative homage to Bergman’s Cries and Whispers. The whole thing is thoroughly unpleasant. Just past the four-hour mark, a character ascends many steps to a statue, with the camera following closely behind. It might have been a rewarding scene had it been more considered and choreographed; but its horrendous sound levels and hand-held flimsiness makes it unendurable – the most audible thing is Diaz’s own behind-camera breath!
Writer-director-producer-soundman-editor-cinematographer-musician: Diaz is all of these, which makes each of his films a one-man argument against the notion that the auteur is intrinsically more artistically equipped than the artist working within and against industrial constraints. What’s more, this cinema is less edited and directed than it appears. While actors strain to fulfil the length of a scene, clearly undirected and un-rehearsed, the key question becomes: was there any footage left out?
The unintended hilarity of scenes, such as that in which a religious cult leader’s deputy wails out a song over the former’s (breathing!) corpse, or that in the inept Butterflies Have No Memories (Walang Alaala Ang Mga Paru-paro, 2009) in which a conversation between two people – and the in-camera mic – is overwhelmed by a nearby cock’s crow… These are the irritations that linger much longer than those haunted passages Diaz presumably intends to be the legacy of his work.