By Tilman Baumgärtel
Many argue that Lav Diaz is the most important filmmaker working in the Phiippines today. Film producer and critic Roger Garcia sees him as an "artist-as-conscience," an heir to Lino Brocka. Tilman Baumgärtel, an author and journalist, who teaches at the University of the Philippines, talks with him about his latest film.
Your new film Death in the Land of Encantos is a combination of documentary and narrative film. How did it come about?
In 2006, typhoon Reming destroyed the Bicol area on the Philippine main island of Luzon. It was the most powerful typhoon that hit the Philippines in living memory, and it killed hundreds of people. Whole families were wiped out. Four years ago, I shot parts of Evolution of a Filipino Family in the Bicol are, which Reming hit the worst. We also spend six months there, when we worked on my last film Heremias. After I realized that there was so much destruction in the area, where I shot much of my films, I wanted to go back. I went there a week after the typhoon struck, and found that many of the locations that we had used were completely destroyed.
Originally, the idea was just to shoot some footage of the destruction. After a few days of shooting, I went back to Manila, and watched what I had shot. I started to come up with some stories, and I decided to do a combination of a documentary and a fiction film rather then a straight documentary. So I invited three theater actors from Manila and started improvising on some ideas and some characters. Every night I would write the script, and the next morning we discussed it and then we shot in the areas where there was a lot of devastation. I had a vision of where the film was going, but I developed it day by day. It developed and developed, not just the film, but also the title; I started with "In Memoriam," then it was "Padang," the name of the village, "Our Death," "Death of a Poet," and finally Death in the Land of Encantos.
What does "Encantos" mean?
"Encantos" means "enchantment," but it is also a term for supernatural beings. The title already says a lot about the character of Filipinos. We live in a truly enchanted island, but there are a lot of contradictions: We are so rich, but at the same time, we are so poor. We are so beautiful, but at the same time, we are so ugly. We know the truth, but we cannot pursue it. That kind of character is very Filipino. We know that the Marcoses did so many bad things to us, but we cannot put them to justice. They are still out, they are dancing in the streets. The $30 billion that they stole is still in the banks in Switzerland and Singapore and Hong Kong. We could not get them. We were only able to get $800 million in the 30 years since they left. It is pathetic. Now they are coming out and claiming that they own all these hotels and the TV station GMA 7, because the new government compromised with them. Before the South Americans had this idea of magic realism - we already had Imelda Marcos! [Laughs]
So the film is about all these maladies that we have. There is a lot of misery in the Philippines, and then again there is so much splendor. We also touch on the extra-judicial killings of activists and progressive people that have happened in the last years. Lately, under the Arroyo government, they have this aim of destroying the Communist Party, and they allotted 10 billion pesos to the military to do it. They have a quota actually: In the next three years, they're going to kill 3000 people. The lead character is a victim of that - he was tortured by the military. I developed the story of the film around the destruction that the typhoon had left behind. It is about a Filipino poet, coming home after learning about the typhoon.
The film is also a discourse about beauty and aesthetics. In Bicol is the Mayon volcano. I think it is the most beautiful volcano there is, and if you live there, it is just beautiful to look at it. At the same time: the destruction, man! It killed a lot of people!
The film is more than 10 hours long, one of the longest narrative films in the history of cinema. Why are your films so long?
It is an aesthetic standard that I developed starting with my film Batang West Side. My cinema is not part of the industry conventions anymore. It is free. So I am applying the theory that we Malays, we Filipinos, are not governed by the concept of time. We are governed by the concept of space. We don't believe in time. If you live in the country, you see Filipinos hang out. They are not very productive. That is very Malay. It is all about space and nature. If we were governed by time, we would be very progressive and productive.
Where does this attitude come from?
In the Philippine archipelago, nature provided everything, until the concept of property came with the Spanish colonizers. Then the capitalist order took control. I have developed my aesthetic framework around the idea that we Filipinos are governed by nature. The concept of time was introduced to us when the Spaniards came. We had to do oracion at six o'clock, start work at seven. Before it was free, it was Malay.
I am a son of farmer and a teacher, and when I grew up in Cotabato on Mindanao, in the boondocks, I had to walk to school, ten kilometers every day, go back home another ten kilometers. Same thing in high school. I had to walk five kilometers every day. So this type of slow aesthetics is very much part of my culture. It is not just purposely done, to say I am versus this, or I am anti that. It is my culture. I am sharing this vision and this experience, this Lav Diaz experience.
Nowadays films seem to be getting faster and faster. According to David Bordwell the average shot length of many Hollywood films is less than two seconds now. Is your cinema an attempt to provide an alternative to this?
I find long, long takes more emotional and more fulfilling in terms of creating pathos. I could chop up a scene in so many cuts, but I find long takes very emotional and very deep. I am not saying all the other concepts of mise-en-scène are not valid. You can do it fast, you can do it slow. But this is the framework that really gives me all the things that I want to see in a film. In that sense, I represent my culture. That is what I want to share as a Filipino.
Are these films made for the cinema? Or could they be released on DVD?
It can be shown everywhere. I can show these films in cinemas or on DVD or in galleries. In Toronto, they will show this film in a gallery as part of a performance. Some people will interact, so it is evolving into something else. I am seeing a different kind of cinema, where we destroy the concept of audience. So many things are possible. Art is really free now.
I don't believe in the concept that you have to sit in the cinema for two hours and watch a story that is compressed in this period of time. Cinema can be anything. My films are not purposely done for the cinema anymore. You can watch them there, or in the streets, or... on a plane! Brandon Wee, a critic in Toronto, said, "Your cinema should be called the 'flying cinema,'" and I asked, "Why?" "Because it would be good for planes, if you are on a long flight." You can watch it at home, you can make love with your girlfriend for two hours, and when you come back, the film is still running. Or you could go the farm, plough the land, and when you come home, the film is still on.
So there are different concepts of viewing now. My films are just like paintings that are just there. Nothing changes. You can watch it for eight hours, and you can have a more fulfilling experience. Or you can leave the house, go to work, and when you come home, it is still there. I used to get really angry when my films were shown with intermissions. At the Rotterdam film festival they showed Heremias with breaks for lunch and coffee, but in the end the audience complained. They wanted to have an uninterrupted experience of the film, so after that they showed the film without any breaks. A lot of people bring lunch to the cinema, when they come to watch my films, so they do not need to go out of the theater when they get hungry.
Of course, if you are a purist, you want to see the whole thing. But you can also choose the scenes that you would like to see, or when you want to enter the cinema. If you just want to stay for 15 minutes, that's fine. When Abbas Kiarostami watches a film and sees a good scene, he is out of the cinema. Or take Godard, he only watches only the beginning and the end.
Is this method of working developing out of the digital video you work with?
Digital changes everything. You own the brush now, you own the gun, unlike before, where it was all owned by the studio. Now it is all yours. It is so free now. I can finish one whole film inside this room. We were flooded here four days ago because of the last typhoon, and the water went up to our ankles. But we were still able to finish the film. We do not depend on film studios and capitalists anymore. This is liberation cinema now. We can destroy governments now because of digital.
Many film makers do not like digital video because of its poor visual quality...
I think that's bullshit. I used to be into film. I shot on 16 and 35 millimeter, and I really battled with that. But in the end, it is all about application. It is just like in painting. You can do watercolors, you can do chalk. The pen can be as potent as the oil. In Hollywood, they might use the most beautiful 800 ASA footage, but the film will still be trash. Or a Japanese filmmaker with a VHS camera can make a masterpiece just inside this room - alone! Just look at the digital films as cinema. There are people, who are saying, "Oh, the film was shot in digital?" That alone compromises the idea. If you have that kind of issue, don't watch the film.
The relatively cheap digital video has started a cinema revolution in all of South East Asia. Not only in the Philippines, but in the whole region, a new independent cinema is emerging that works predominantly with digital video. Countries like Malaysia that never had an independent cinema are all of a sudden producing all these unusual films that are increasingly successful in international festivals.
Digital is liberation theology. Now we can have our own media. The internet is so free, the camera is so free. The issue is not anymore that you cannot shoot. You have a South East independent cinema now. We have been deprived for a long time, we have been neglected, we have been dismissed by the Western media. That was because of production logistics. We did not have money, we did not have cameras, all those things. Now, these questions have been answered. We are on equal terms now. Now there are new people, that are doing these very different things, such as Raya Martin, John Torres or Khavn de la Cruz in the Philippines.
But all your films have been premiered at Western film festivals, while they have rarely been shown in the Philippines. The majority of your audience seems to be in the West...
In Europe, actually.
How does this go together with the fact that you are trying to establish a Malay film aesthetic?
In terms of viewing such films, we are so backwards in the Philippines. Our theaters would not accept that kind of thing, because they only want to make money. I can only show my films at universities or the Cultural Institute of the Philippines. So, it is a question of venues. Of course, we still have our film industry, and our stupid television with its soap operas and noon-time shows. If you talk about the struggle to change aesthetic standards, it will take a long time, because we have been fed by Hollywood and by the Philippine film studios with trash for almost 100 years. Maybe it will take 50 more years for them to see that all the crazy things that we are doing are not really madness, but it is for them, for the culture. We are not rushing. It will happen. Culture is growing. So if you make good cinema, you help culture to grow. If you make bad cinema, you demolish culture. It is very true. If you create good things, you reap good things. But in the meanwhile, you don’t have money. [Laughs]
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