A Klee painting named "Angelus Novus" shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History
The past is never dead. It's not even past.
William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
Michael Guarneri: Let's start from the opening credits of your latest film. From What is Before received a grant from the Film Development Council of the Philippines: can you tell me about it? How did you get in contact with the Council?
Lav Diaz: Well, yes, I received a small grant from the Film Development Council of the Philippines for the making of From What Is Before. I have always been in contact with the Council in the past few years: they supported my travels to the Venice Film Festival for Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) and Melancholia (2008), and they also made it possible for my staff and actors to come to Venice with me during the Festival.
The current leader of the Council is a very good and sensible man. One day he told me: "If you have a film project in mind, we can give you a small grant to develop it". So we exchanged some e-mails about what was later to become From What Is Before,and that started it.
MG: So were you working on From What Is Before already, or did you start working on the film after getting in touch with the Council?
LD: I had a script, a general outline of the story. I tried to get funding from the Hubert Bals Fund – International Film Festival Rotterdam, but my project was not selected. I also tried to get money from other sources, but nobody really seemed to be interested in the film. Somehow, nobody was "picking it". Finally, the offer from the Film Development Council of the Philippines came, so I said: "Ok, I will use the Council's grant for the shooting". Then, I talked with my people – the small crew I work with: they are my friends, actors and staff all at the same time – and I said: "We only have this much money, so let's go and find a place where we can shoot the film". Basically, since we had the script already, we had to find the proper setting for the story.
After scouting locations for a while, we managed to find the perfect place, an actual Filipino village that in 2013 still had a Sixties/early-Seventies kind of look... It was this small barrio right on the top of the northernmost province of the Philippines. I liked the place very much, it really looked like the Maguindanao barrio in which I grew up: that was perfect, my childhood memories being the genesis of the whole film project.
So, early in November 2013 we started doing the pre-production and the casting, and by the first week of December we were shooting, under heavy rains, with mud and mosquitoes all over the place... You know, the usual... [Laughs]
MG: The Film Development Council of the Philippines was founded in May-June 2002, with the Republic Act 9167. From what I gather, the Council is an organization controlled by the Office of the President of the Republic, who elects the Council's Chairperson and three "regular members".
I think that it is amazing that you are given the chance to speak as a National Artist, since your cinema has always been dealing with issues of Filipino History and identity. At the same time, though, I imagine that receiving funds from the State involves pressures that may jeopardize your independence as an artist...
LD: Not really, not really. With the Council, you are free. The only limit is of course that you don't have much money, but I am used to making films with very small budgets, so I could totally use the small grant the Council gave me for developing my project.
You see, the good thing is that I have my own equipment: I have my own camera, I have the lights and the sound machines, so I can actually shoot anytime, anywhere, with very small budgets. Also, I don't work with a large crew now. I make my films with my friends, some of whom you have been meeting these days in Locarno: Perry [Dizon], Hazel [Orencio], Liryc [Paolo de la Cruz], Kim [Perez]. We are a good team, we get along fine. I own the means of production and I work with a small, close-knit crew: these are the reasons why making From What Is Before with the small grant I received was... doable.
MG: I am glad to hear that you were so free. You know, I read the text of the Republic Act 9167 establishing the Film Development Council of the Philippines, and I got kind of scared... The text goes: "The State shall promote and support the development and growth of the local film industry as a medium for the upliftment aesthetics, cultural and social values or the better understanding and appreciation of the Filipino identity. To achieve this end, the State shall formulate and implement policies and programs to upgrade the art and craft of film making and encourage the production of films for commercial purposes, intended for public entertainment, that seek to enhance the quality of life, examine the human and social conditions and contribute to the dignity and nobility of the human spirit".
LD: Luckily, it's just a mandate... [Laughs] It's just words on a piece of paper, really. You are actually free to do your own things now, nevermind the "local film industry", the "commercial purposes" and "public entertainment". I think we have to thank the current leader of the Council for this freedom we are granted: his name is Briccio Santos, he is a painter and also a filmmaker. He really understands that Filipino independent filmmakers need to be free to do what they want. They need to be free to pursue their vision.
MG: In the very same "mission statement" I mentioned, they say the Council's aim is to "reinforce and expand sustainability of Philippine Cinema as an art industry". Now, the term "art industry" sounds very weird to me...
LD: Yes, it is really confusing. We actually have this very clear distinguo in the Philippines about what's art and what's industry: in general, the understanding is that when you talk about "cinema" you mean "the industry", and "the industry" – you know – is the commercial works produced by the studio system. And then there's us, a bunch of filmmakers who are not interested in making commercial works, filmmakers who try to do something different with the medium. We call it "art cinema" because we are not the industry, we are not into selling popcorn. So, yeah, "art industry" is definitely a misnomer for describing the activities of the Council.
MG: Right at the beginning of From What is Before there is a voiceover narration from an unidentified narrator. Is it actually your voice?
LD: The first recording was mine, then I re-recorded it with Perry [Dizon]'s voice. It is Perry's voice you hear in the final version of the film. But in the end, it is meant to be an abstraction of so many things: it could be the voice of the present-day Filipino looking back at the past, the voice of "Lav Diaz the filmmaker", the voice of Perry's character Tata [Uncle] Sito... I am sure you can come up with your own idea... All interpretations are valid, it is a composite of so many things. As I said, it's an abstraction, it is a Filipino voice from somewhere in time and space...
MG: I think of it as the voice of the land, the voice of the archipelago... As Tata Sito says later in the film, "the knowledge is in the land"...
LD: Yeah, that's a good idea. You see, that's why I wanted to maintain a certain abstraction or ambiguity about who's speaking: you have to experience the film and find your own answers.
MG: In the director's statement, you say that From What Is Before is "based on real events and characters". Are there autobiographical elements?
LD: The film is based on what I personally experienced in my youth, when I was in elementary and high school, two years before [President] Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law in the Philippines. So what happens in the film are actual events, and the characters are real – I just changed their names. And of course, again, the characters are a composite. For example, the character of Heding, the peddler, is a composite of three actual persons that moved to our barrio in the late Sixties/early Seventies. One day a carpenter arrived in our village and started his business, followed shortly by two peddlers. After the proclamation of Martial Law in September 1972, we found out that the three of them were all incognito military agents. Can you imagine? They had been spying on us villagers for two years! And, obviously, we slowly realized that these undercover military agents were the guys behind the "mysterious happenings" in our barrio. It was all their doing. It's a military thing: creating confusion and conditioning people through fear. They were actually creating all the confusion – hacking the cows and killing people, burning down houses, making noises in the forest at night... It was them, not the Aswang [vampire of the Filipino folklore]. It was the military, not the Communists or the Muslim Secessionists.
MG: In September 1972 you were about to turn fourteen. What was the impact of Martial Law on you as a teenager?
LD: In 1972 I was in my first year of high school, so I didn't really have any political perspective. I was just an observer, I couldn't understand anything at all back then. I was just a kid observing my parents and the people around me, and what I saw was the utter confusion, as I show in the film. There was so much confusion in the country at the beginning of the Seventies that, when Martial Law was declared, people actually liked the idea. Most of the Philippine population liked Martial Law, except of course for the Communist Party, the Muslim Secessionist Movement and the activists. But what we may call "the general public" really liked Martial Law at the beginning. Most of the people in my barrio and all over the country were like: "Oh, finally order is put into place. After the confusion, the wailings in the forest, the mysterious killings, the arsons, we finally have peace and order".
MG: As a matter of fact, in 1973 there was a Martial Law referendum in the Philippines. 91% of the people voted "Yes" for the continuation of Martial Law...
LD: Well, yeah, maybe there was a referendum and maybe the numbers are real... I wouldn't be so sure because, you know, Ferdinand Marcos was a master fraud...
MG: Do you remember anything about the referendum? Did your parents vote?
LD: You know, my parents liked Marcos at the beginning, because they had been affected by the conditioning and fear just like everyone else in the country. But, slowly, they understood what Martial Law really was, and they eventually realized Marcos had manipulated everything and everyone to seize absolute power. And by the time my parents and the Filipino people realized that, it was just too late: we were all trapped in Marcos' political web.
Anyway, my parents were teachers and they kept on doing their teaching throughout the Seventies, when the situation was constantly exploding and imploding because of the militarism, the curfew, the Muslim Secessionists and the New People's Army [the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines]. My parents were very educated people and they continued to educate people no matter what.
MG: Did your parents have political beliefs?
LD: Well, my father was a socialist at the beginning, but he was a non-violent guy, so he never joined the Communist Party and the New People's Army. As I said, his thing was education: he felt his mission was educating Filipino people, no matter what happened. You know, there was war going on in the country, but he kept going to the remotest barrios teaching people how to read et cetera. So that was it: education was his thing. My mother is also like that: "Education is the key". However, to the very opposite of my father, my mother is a very religious woman, a very hardcore Catholic. So they were at the opposite extremes as far as religion was concerned. But eventually, when my father retired from work, strangely enough, he became a hardcore Catholic himself. I guess he was converted by my mother... [Laughs]
MG: One of Marcos' justifications for the declaration of Martial Law in September 1972 was the existence of a "Marxist-Leninist-Maoist conspiracy in the Cagayan Valley, in Central Luzon, in the Southern Tagalog Region, in the Bicol Area, in the Visayas and in Mindanao"...
LD: Yes, he said Martial Law was necessary for our country's good. He said that the country was in danger because of the Communist Party, the Muslim rebellion, widespread poverty... He listed all these things, and many more. Dictators are like that, you know? They rationalize their evil deeds with so many things...
MG: Marcos said Martial Law was needed because of the violence perpetrated by the Christians, the Muslims, the “Ilagas”, the “Barracudas”, and the Mindanao Independence Movement. Do you remember something about these conflicts and about leftist activities during your childhood and teenage years in Maguindanao?
LD: Not really. The Communist Party was rising and spreading all over the country, so the cadres were in my barrio too. Communist cadres were everywhere, but the thing is you wouldn't actually notice them. As a kid, of course, I didn't have any political perspective, so I met and talked with a lot of people, and only later I found out that it was a Communist cadre I was talking to.
It was the same thing with Muslim Secessionists, whose cadres were all over Mindanao Island and especially in Maguindanao, the province in which my barrio was. Not to mention the military agents working undercover, who were really, really good at their job and were impossible to unmask. So there was this very complicated role-play game going on: a political role-play game, with all these interplays of characters. It was almost like a movie... [Laughs]
MG: We never get to see the Communists and the Muslim Secessionists in From What Is Before... Why so?
LD: Yes, they are a hovering presence in the film, but they are never shown. I decided not to show the Communists because when I was little I couldn't actually tell who was a Communist cadre and who was not. As a kid, I knew Communists existed only because, from time to time, I would overhear my parents saying things like "Today a Communist cadre passed by...".
In From What Is Before I was really trying to use my childhood memories as a source so, in order to be faithful to my memories, I couldn't show either Communists or Muslim Secessionists.
The film is a recollection, so while working on it I had all these memories coming back to my mind: my father and my mother discussing with very intelligent young men and women, and cooking dinner for them in our house. At that time, I thought these people were just guests that dropped by to say hello and have something to eat: to me they were just nice people around the house, whereas in reality they were Communist cadres. Some other times, people would knock on our door and ask for food: they were Muslim Secessionists, but I didn't know back then.
That is the reason why I decided not to show Communists or Muslim Secessionists in the film: I wanted to adopt the point of view of myself as a kid, and I wanted to create an abstraction of the hovering political mess that was about to explode.
MG: When you say "Muslim Secessionists" you mean guerrilla groups, right? I mean, they were an army, they used violence...
LD: Yes, Muslim Secessionists had their own army, just like the New People's Army was the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Both the New People's Army and the Muslim guerrilla groups used violence: they were at war against the military, and also against fundamentalist Christian groups.
MG: This passage of Proclamation 1081 [Marcos' declaration of Martial Law] is worth reading: "The New People's Army is now imposing its will and asserting its sham authority on certain segments of our population, especially in the rural areas, through varied means of subterfuge, deceit, coercion, threats, intimidations, machinations, treachery, violence and other modes of terror, and has been and is illegally exacting financial and other forms of tributes from our people to raise funds and material resources to support its insurrectionary and propaganda activities against our duly constituted government and against our peace-loving people".
Why was Marcos so interested in the rural areas, in your opinion?
LD: I don't think he had a special interest in rural areas. I think he wanted to control everything in the country, and rural areas were just part of this "everything".
Back to the passage you quoted, it is absolutely true that the Communist Party and the New People's Army were gaining ground during those times, but Marcos was clearly overstating things in order to gain the sympathy of the populists, to rationalize and validate the act of declaring Martial Law with Proclamation 1081. He used the political turmoil in the country, he overstated things and lied for his own purposes.
MG: I didn't quite understand where was From What is Before shot exactly...
LD: I shot the film in a town called Abulug, in the northernmost part of Luzon Island, facing Taiwan and the Batanes Babuyan Islands. I found a small barrio there that really looked like the one I grew up in, including the terrain, the vegetation, even the mosquitoes. Everything was exactly the same as in my memories. Strangely, the houses in which people live today are the same huts made of nipa [palms] and bamboo I remember from my childhood in Maguindanao. The Abulug barrio is a very neglected place: the roads are unpaved and, since it is always raining, there are a lot of floodings and mud is everywhere... So I decided to shoot a film based on my recollections in this forgotten, forsaken place.
MG: In From What Is Before there's a great scene in which Tata Sito tells a military that the problem of the barrio is not "peace and order", but neglect. Can you give me some examples of this neglect, when you were a kid?
LD: Well, when I was a kid, in Maguindanao we had no electricity: we had power poles but no power lines. Roads were unpaved, we had no bridges to cross rivers, no classrooms... This is neglect. These kinds of things happen when a government does not reach out to the people. And I am not talking about my barrio, Maguindanao province or Mindanao Island only. I mean the whole country was neglected. So what did Marcos do about neglect? What did he do for the people after Martial Law was declared? Nothing. True, he did build a lot of highways, huge bridges and all kinds of massive infrastructures, but he didn't do it for the people. That was all about his desire of becoming a myth and perpetuating himself no matter what. It was all about building huge "monuments", so that people would remember him. Marcos' major public works and building projects are under our eyes and they will last, whereas the people he killed and the public money he stole throughout the years disappeared forever. It's not rare these days to hear Filipinos say: "Marcos cared a lot about the Philippines, he built this or that highway". Yeah, but you only see the highway and you forgot that he tortured and killed a lot of people, that he stole a lot of money, that he destroyed our democratic institutions... The roads and bridges are there, but what happened to the Filipino people?
MG: What I always find amazing is how your shots of the Filipino landscape could be from 2014 or from two hundred years ago indifferently. It really is an embodiment of your idea that the Philippine archipelago is not governed by Time, but by Space and Nature. At the same time, though, From What is Before has a very precise temporal setting – from 1970 to 1972.
I would like to read you a passage from an historical research I found on the Philippines Government Official Gazette: "All accounts indicate President Marcos' obsession with numerology: seven being his lucky number, he necessitated that Proclamation No. 1081 to be officially signed on a date that was divisible by seven. Thus, September 21st, 1972 became the official date that Martial Law was established and the Marcos dictatorship began. It also allowed Marcos to control history on his own terms".
LD: That's true. Marcos was a numerologist, he played with numbers a lot, he manipulated dates and figures all the time. He really was a political master: he knew that if you control Time you control History, and if you control History you can control the people forever and ever. That's why he established the date September 21st 1972: by turning himself into an historical figure, he wanted to become a myth and perpetuate himself forever, thus surviving death and oblivion.
At the same time, he knew that if one day he had to submit to the will of truth and reality he would be destroyed. That's why he wanted to perpetuate his dinasty – so that once that he's gone, there's gonna be his wife Imelda, his son Ferdinand Marcos Junior and his daughter Maria Imelda spreading lies about the past and nurturing his myth, the myth of the "Marcos' era". It's all about the control of Time and History, really.
MG: Talking about Time and History, in From What is Before one of the central themes is ancient Malay cults. Can you give me some background about these cults?
LD: You know, part of my doing this film is that I am trying to reclaim the past of the Philippines. I grew up in Maguindanao province and the three practices you see in the film (the shaman dancing, the mourning song and the burning of the dead body) I witnessed them all in my youth. So, for instance, when I was a kid this shaman-woman would appear in my barrio each summer. For ten years, I saw this lady appearing out of nowhere, every ten full moons: she seemed to never get old, and nobody knew her name nor where she came from... It was really a strange experience. She appeared, she treated sick people with her ritual dancing and then, after a while, she was gone.
As for the mourning song, it was an ancient local tradition to mourn over a dead body by singing a cappella songs chronicling the dead person's life. The mourning songs also included passages about your personal recollections of the dead, and about your grieving and pain... After the songs, the body used to be set on fire.
These three ancient Malay practices date back to the pre-Muslim and pre-Christian colonization period, and they were all banned during my teenage years, when Sharia Law was implemented in the South of the Philippines. I witnessed these three practices for years when I was a kid, but now they are totally gone because the Muslims forbade them.
MG: When you were in Milan last year, you played the guitar and sang a song that really sounded like the one in From What is Before...
LD: Exactly. It is the same kind of Malay singing based on repetitions. However, the one I used in the film is more adherent to ancient Malay practices, because it is a cappella, and because the text and melody – in spite of being composed by me – are based on actual singing I heard in my barrio as a kid.
MG: I remember you talking about people singing repetitive songs under the trees for hours, until they reached a sort of trance...
LD: Yes, that was another Malay practice. But it's gone now. It's all gone because of Sharia Law. Muslims banished these practices.
MG: Are they gone for good? They do not exist at all anymore?
LD: Well, there are artists in Mindanao Island, cultural workers who are trying to revive them. I don't know what is going to happen because ancient Malay practices are still banned by Muslim Law. You know, the players who perform the gongs in From What Is Before are artists from my place, and they are really trying to reclaim all these Malay practices. We are going back. We are trying to go back to our Malay roots.
MG: So these ancient Malay cults and Malay identity in general resisted not only Muslim colonizers but also Spanish, American and Japanese invasors up until the Seventies...
LD: Yes, they did resist. Colonizers changed our names and everything, but we didn't lose the language. I mean our dialects. This is one good thing about the Malays of South East Asia: Indonesians, Filipinos and Malaysians still have their own dialects, whereas in many places – for example in South America – Indios were forced to forget their ancestral language.
MG: How were the Muslims able to erase Malay cults in the Philippines? What was their strategy? Was Marcos against Malay practices, too?
LD: Marcos was not into erasing Malay traditions and practices. He didn't really care about Malay cults, as far as I know. His ideology was fascism, so he cared only about control. He wanted to control the economy, the politics, the army, the land, the country. That's him. He never banished ancient cults or traditions, I think. The erasing was done by the Muslims. In Maguindanao as in all the South of the Philippines, the Muslim clergy embraced a more fundamentalistic view of religion during the Seventies, so Muslims started banishing all the Malay practices. They would go from village to village warning you not to do this and that. In the case of the shaman healing, they would tell people it's forbidden because it is evil. A lot of those shaman healers disappeared because they were told to stop. I have never heard anything about people being killed for performing Malay rituals, they were just reprimanded not to do it anymore, until they eventually stopped.
MG: How could the Muslims be so powerful in a Catholic country?
LD: You see, the province in which I grew up is Maguindanao, which is located in the Mindanao Island. In Mindanao Island there were three major Malay tribes that were converted to Islam starting from Thirteenth century. One of them was the Maguindanao tribe, the ancestors of those living in the Maguindanao province of today. Then, in the nearby provinces – the Lanao provinces – the Maranaos were also converted to Islam, and so were the people from Tawi-Tawi Islands, Sulu Islands and Zamboanga – the Tausug tribe. These are the three major Malay tribes on which Muslim religion was imposed centuries ago. But strangely, if you want to see the very, very few surviving Malay practices in today's Philippines, you have to visit these three Mindanao tribes converted to Islam.
MG: In his bookPasyon and Revolution. Popular Movements in the Philippines, 1840-1910, Reynaldo Ileto writes: “The various rituals of Holy Week [...] were used by the Spanish colonizers to inculcate among the Indios [...] resignation to things as they were and instilled preoccupation with [...] the afterlife rather than with the conditions in this world”. Do you think that Marcos used Roman Catholicism in the same way European colonizers did?
LD: He definitely used Catholicism, but Catholicism is not really his thing. Religion is not his thing. Being a fascist, the military was his thing. Using the army to get what he wanted: that's his modus operandi. I would say that Marcos certainly “danced” with the Catholic system, but he was more into using the military as a tool to control the country. As a matter of fact, he put the military everywhere. I mean, he was so much into total control that he even put the military in business companies, corporations and industries: he would banish the Filipino owners and replace them with his friends from the army or with his relatives...
MG: Proclamation 1081 ends with the words “In the year of our Lord nineteen seventy two”, as if Marcos was the executor of God's will, the one and only owner of Truth...
LD: Invoking the name of God so that people would believe you and blindly follow you – that's a classic. Yeah, 80% of the Filipinos are Catholics, 10% Muslims and 10% Protestants, so he just used “God” so that people would say: “Oh, he is a God-fearing person, he can't be that bad”. What a God-fearing person he turned out to be!
MG: Dictators like Marcos are often portrayed as lunatics. You seem to consider him a very rational man...
LD: Marcos? He was a genius. He was a very intelligent person. Very well-educated, very articulate, very well-mannered. He could speak well, he could act well...
MG: There is this adjective that you often use to describe him: “clinical”.
LD: Oh, yes, he was very clinical, there's no other way to put it. He really knew what he was doing. He had been planning his coup d'etat since 1969. Nobody had any clue at that time, and it was only after Martial Law was declared, when you had the time to look back at what happened, that you realized he had just planned everything two or three years in advance: the conditioning, the fear, the paranoia, it was all part of his master plan... He had been planting them in people's minds since the early Seventies. Right before Martial Law was proclaimed, he even staged some fake ambushes against political and military heads, just to validate what he was going to say in Proclamation 1081. He used the military to create chaos all over the country, and then he blamed “the terrorists” – the Communist Party of the Philippines and the Muslim Secessionists. What can I say? Martial Law was clearly planned and executed by a political genius.
MG: Did Marcos also use the media in his strategy based on conditioning ?
LD: After Martial Law was declared, yes, he was free to use the media to manipulate Filipino people's thinking. Radios, television channels, newspapers, they were all controlled by the government during Martial Law [1972-1981] and up until the mid-Eighties, that is to say they were personally controlled by Marcos. Then, he would crush any act of dissent towards him. If a newspaper published an article against him, he would destroy the copies of the newspaper, the printing machines, the printing house. He would arrest the newspaper publishers and the journalists, and he would torture and possibly kill them... Of course, I mean he would do all these things through the military. He was very good at that, and since he controlled all the media, you would believe everything he said and fall into the trap.
MG: What about cinema? Did Marcos control cinema too?
LD: With radio, TV, magazines and newspapers, it was total control, whereas in cinema control was not so strict. In cinema there was a little more “tolerance”, so to speak.
I would say that he used cinema in a very peculiar way. For example, a lot of porn movies were released in the Philippines starting from the early Seventies. We called them “bomba films”. Porn movies, porn magazines, porn komiks: there was a proliferation of this kind of material during Martial Law years. Marcos was very good with the concept of divide et impera, “divide and rule”: you create a lot of distractions for the people, so that they cannot concentrate on the real, pressing issues of the country. You know, give people happiness for a few pesos, give them immediate satisfactions, give them entertainment. Focus on their libido: sex movies in every theater, sex magazines in every news-stand, sex scandals everywhere in the newspapers.
MG: Would you say that Marcos is the ultimate product of colonialism?
LD: Yes and no. In addition to his being a law school graduate, Marcos is a great student of History, so he knows colonialism, he knows its effects on our economy, psyche and culture. And since he knows colonialism so well, he knows how to play with it, he knows how to use it in order to get what he wants. For example, during his political career, he was able to dance with the Catholics and with the United States, obtaining their political and financial support; he took advantage of poor, exploited people's discontent to gain the support of the Filipino masses; he played on nationalistic feelings and patriotism to gain the support of the military... Right after Martial Law was proclaimed, he made a speech about the Coming of the New Society, the Beginning of a New Era, the Dawning of the New Philippines. He said stuff like: “The Philippines will be great again”, and all that kind of rhetoric. And of course at that time people were ecstatic when they heard his speech. Filipino people were really desperate for change. They wanted a new leader, a new world. In the early stages of the Martial Law period, Marcos really managed to bring Filipino people together: the country was clinging onto him – the new voice, the new leader who could really change the situation for the better. It was a very superficial unification of the country, but it worked well for Marcos' purposes. He had that charisma for pulling people towards him. He really was a great speaker. He was a perfectionist. He really raised the bar for everyone. His political perfectionism is unrivalled, I think.
MG: What do you think is specifically Filipino in his “character”?
LD: The very fact that he was able to convince the whole country that he was working for the Philippines' greater good shows that he managed to capture the Filipino psyche. He really captured the Filipino “sympathy” as no one else did.
I am using the past tense as I speak, but I am not really talking about something that is dead and buried. It doesn't matter if Marcos died more than twenty years ago, he is still present, he still affects us. You know, nowadays more and more Filipinos are saying things like: “Life was better during the Martial Law years”... We call these people “Marcos loyalists”, and there's so many of them around these days, even among young people. This is very dangerous, because Ferdinand Marcos' son Ferdinand Marcos Junior will be running for the Presidential Elections in 2016. Recently, there has been a survey that stated that in a five-way run between Ferdinand Marcos Junior and four other candidates, Marcos will win for sure because of the Marcos family's turf in the North of the country. According to the survey, Marcos' son will win the elections because of all the Marcos supporters among the Ilocano population [dictator Ferdinand Marcos was born in Ilocos Norte], the Ilocos provinces being so big, so densely populated and so loyalist. You see, the North of the Philippines is really Ferdinand Marcos' realm: his wife Imelda Marcos is a congresswoman from Ilocos Norte, the son Ferdinand Marcos Junior is the senator from Ilocos Norte, the daughter Maria Imelda Marcos is the governor of Ilocos Norte... So it seems that the votes of Marcos' tribe alone (my father was also an Ilocano, by the way) will grant Marcos' son the victory in a five-way Presidential Election. Not to mention the supporters Marcos has all over the country, because of the revisionist campaign his family has been putting forward since the late Eighties. Basically the Marcos family has been using its economic wealth to condition people through propaganda, distorting the truth about the Martial Law years and declaring that “life was better during Martial Law”, and that “we have to bring back another Marcos to lead the Philippines towards the future”. They say the great work of the great leader Ferdinand Marcos must continue through his son, who bears his very name. They are propagating these slogans through the media all over the country, so it's very dangerous, we have to be vigilant about these things.
MG: Do you plan to vote in the Philippines in 2016?
LD: Yes, absolutely. It is a responsibility.
MG: I find your discourse about "the past within the present" very interesting, and I'd like to get to the bottom of it. You always talk about the Martial Law period in terms of trauma. In very simplified Freudian terms, the "traumatic event" is an event from the past we cannot cope with, something so shocking we cannot approach by means of words, something we try to forget as part of an unconscious defense mechanism. In your opinion, is there a repression of memory at work in present day Philippines?
LD: Yes and no. Memory loss is of course a problem we have: people's memory is short all over the world, and we Filipinos are particularly lazy in terms of being dialectical about the past. We don't really investigate much about the past, especially the younger generations. So there's a lot of work to be done to make the Filipino people of today realize that this and that happened in our country not long ago, to make them confront and understand the History of our country. But I think that the problem isn't only memory and its unconscious repression: the problem is History itself. Because History is tricky, you know: there's the Truth and there are the lies. So, who owns Filipino History? Who's telling the truth and who's lying? It's a very selective process, and it is also very dangerous, because of the revisionist movement I told you about. Today, the main revisionists are the Marcos family and their associates: they have all the money, so they can use the media to spread this mantra that the Philippines were better off during "Marcos' era". They pay people to spread revisionist ideology and then they pretend it's happening naturally: they pretend that it comes from the streets, from the Filipino everyman, when it's actually a clinical work of conditioning through propaganda. The propaganda war is on, you know? 2016 is near, the elections are coming, and they use their money and influence to put another Marcos in power. So I would say that rather than a sort of collective amnesia, the real problem in today's Philippines is revisionism, that is to say the manipulation of the past.
MG: After Marcos was forced to leave the country, what was the Filipino spirit?
LD: There was hope.Throughout the Eighties, there was this revolution in our country called the EDSA [Epifanio De los Santos Avenue] Revolution. People forced Marcos to leave the country in 1986, and he fled to Hawaii. We were all very hopeful for real change back then. What we wanted was a new Philippines, but then we relapsed and, after a few years, we were back to the old problems. Of course, we have been having a relatively good situation after Marcos left, because we are not controlled by one man through the military anymore: on the issue of freedom, we are better off. But now we have to face the real problems – corruption in the system, above all. You know, the problems we are experiencing now in the Philippines are a direct effect, an after-effect, of the Martial Law period. It is very subliminal and at the same time so evident: all this corruption that is going on now in our institutions is still part of the Martial Law thing, because many people that were in power during Marcos' years are still in power today...
MG: In 1986 Marcos fled to the United States, where he died a few years later. However, you seem to think that he is still alive, metaphorically speaking.
LD: Yes, as a myth he is still alive. There's even a religion based on him, you know? Some people in Marcos' provinces are waiting for him to resurrect and lead the Philippines again. It is not a huge thing, it is just this small cult in the North, but that's a symptom. Apart from that, everybody knows of course that Ferdinand Marcos is dead and that he won't actually resurrect. But, as I said, he is still alive as a myth and his myth is being used by the Marcos family to put another Marcos – Marcos' son – at the Presidence of the Philippines.
MG: From What Is Before is about Marcos conditioning and controlling people through fear in the early Seventies. What do Filipino people fear nowadays?
LD: I would say that our fear today is based on who's going to be our new leader. In my view, the current President Benigno Aquino III is very honest, his integrity is intact and, although there are still many problems, he is really leading the country towards a better future. He's a very respectable man, he has been doing a lot for the Philippines. There are of course big political oppositions against what he's doing, because one of the biggest achievements of his administration is that he was able to take to trial and imprison very, very popular senators and politicians that were caught stealing public money. Also, the Philippine economy is jumping now. However, Benigno Aquino III has only a year or two left, and he cannot be re-elected, so who's next? Our problem lies in that. Are we mature enough to elect a good leader, a leader that will protect the legacy of Benigno Aquino III, and continue with a policy of change and honest government? So that's our problem and our fear: what if another Marcos is elected? If Marcos' son is elected we are back to the old ways...
MG: I read that in 2009 Martial Law was declared again in your native province Maguindanao...
LD: Yes, it was an emergency issue. There was a massacre perpetrated against media people for political reasons, so the military had to intervene. Martial Law was declared just for a few days, but it scared us because the President of the Philippines back then, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, was a very, very corrupt and irresponsible leader, so anything could happen, really. She is also in prison now, under house arrest, for embezzlement.
MG:Given your concern for History and Truth, I was wondering...From What is Before is about your real-life recollections, but it's certainly no documentary. I know you don't like labels, but if I had to define From What Is Before I would say that it is an historical drama...
LD: Exactly. One of the things I wanted to achieve was making a chronicle of the past that could be a document of the historical period in question, so that both Filipinos and non-Filipinos could understand what it was like to live in our country right before and after the declaration of Martial Law. From What Is Before is not a documentary, but it is based on my memories, so it is based on reality. I am working on the truth, I am struggling. It's my version of History played by actors, but I am trying very hard to be truthful about it. This is what I saw, this is what happened when I was a kid, and I just want to show it, without adding adornments. I just dramatize my personal experience in order to transform it into the experience of this small village, into the experience of my people. I am just trying to be very honest about it by recollecting what happened in my barrio. Dramatizing my personal experience and presenting a series of characters also allow me to investigate the Filipino psyche without being didactic about it. I am not the one and only owner of Truth, you know. I am just presenting my recollections in a dramatized form. If you don't like my version, if you want to oppose what happened, that's ok by me. If you have your own interpretation of the period, make your own film about it. People would say: "That's just Lav's version", and that's totally fine by me. Within me, I know I am being very honest about it. This is what happened when I was a kid, this is what I observed, this is what I saw, so... I guess the burden of Truth is on me.
MG: Talking about dramatizing historical events, you also have this ongoing project about Filipino revolutionaries at the end of Nineteenth century. Can you tell me about it?
LD: Yeah, it's been a long time now, we have been looking for funds all over the place for the past two years. The co-producers really want to help and they are raising money through crowdfunding on the Internet. I think we will do the initial pre-production later this month [August] or in September. Maybe we will have a “Chapter One” by December. I mean, the production thing, the shooting will start in December 2014, no matter how much money we will have raised by then. I am being very hopeful about it. As of now, we have very little money but, as I said, I can shoot with small budgets. Budgets are not a big problem for me. I am gonna try and shoot the film no matter what, I don't really care if the budget is 200.000 pesos or two million pesos.
MG: In my view, it's as if you are trying to go back in time with every new film project of yours...
LD: Yes, I feel it is my responsibility as a Filipino filmmaker. Our History needs to be chronicled; it needs to be recorded somehow. Again, as a filmmaker the burden of Truth is on me. I really want to chronicle this period, so I have been doing a lot of research for the past fifteen years about the Philippine Revolution against Spain, about these two so-called Filipino heroes Andrés Bonifacio and Emilio Aguinaldo, about Spain selling our country to the United Stated. At the same time, it is not just a matter of chronicling the past, but also of correcting mistakes and lies, because in the Philippines there is a lot of revisionism about what happened at the turn of the century, too.
I am just trying to present the truth about what happened according to my research: I read History books and written materials from the late Nineteenth/early Twentieth century, we did interviews with historians and relatives of Bonifacio and Aguinaldo... Now I am trying to piece things together – the burden of Truth, again – and then, after I shoot the film, it's there for people to see, comment upon or just ignore. You know, in the past two years there were two filmic versions of the Bonifacio and Aguinaldo story. One is called El Presidente [Mark Meily, 2012], and it is very revisionist. In real life, Aguinaldo killed Bonifacio, but in the film they make Aguinaldo look like a superhero. It is very, very revisionist, so that's why I want to do my own version.
We had four major cataclysms in our History: the Spanish colonization, the American rule, Japanese occupation during World War II and the Martial Law period. So we have to go back to these things, because they are events that affected and still affect us both physically and psychologically. We have to confront them in order to be free. Maybe after this project about Bonifacio and Aguinaldo, I'll do a Japanese-period film... [Laughs]
MG: Apropos of Filipino films about the Japanese occupation, how did you like Three Years without God (1976) by Mario O'Hara?
LD:Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos? That's the Japanese cataclysm. I really liked the film. As a total work it is a good work. The ending is not really cool to me, but it is still a very profound work.
MG: Why didn't you like the ending?
LD: There is some kind of superficiality in the last scene, when village people do this ritual thing in order to take revenge against the woman who supposedly collaborated with the Japanese. But it's Mario's vision and interpretation, and I respect that. I just don't like it.
Locarno, August 8th 2014
Thanks to: Salamat Hazel, Liryc and Kim. Special thanks to Perry for cigarettes and good, long talks.