Lav Diaz (b. 1958) is a Filipino freedom fighter that chose the medium cinema as his weapon. Lav Diaz is a rebolusyonario that shoots films instead of shooting people.
A retrospective dedicated to this guerrilla filmmaker was held on July 6th and 7th 2013 at Spazio Oberdan in Milan: there I had the chance to meet him and ask him a few questions.
The following interview covers Lav Diaz's most recent work, from Century of Birthing (2011) to Norte, the End of History (2013). In sum, it is an attempt to chronicle the ethical and aesthetical struggle of a man with a vision and a digital camera.
I'd like to thank Lorenzo Ghilardi and Andrea Aglieri, whose kind help made the interview possible.
Michael Guarneri: Let's start with a curiosity: my friend Dario made me notice that the book The Tunnel by William H. Gass appears in Century of Birthing...
Lav Diaz: Yes, it does. I was reading The Tunnel at that time, I think I started reading it just before the shooting of Century of Birthing began.
The Tunnel took twenty, twenty-seven years for Gass to write and its protagonist is a writer in crisis, so there is a parallelism with the character Perry Dizon plays in Century of Birthing – Homer, the filmmaker in crisis who cannot finish his film. I'd say the appearance of the book within the movie is a good example of my “organic” way of working: I am reading a book and it ends up in the movie I am shooting... Anyway, I have to be honest, I haven't finished the bookyet. I have no time to reach the bottom of The Tunnel. [Laughs] I feel like I want to know William Gass, though. I want to know his oeuvre. I am intrigued by Gass' prose and basic philosophy.
MG: The “tunnel” is also a metaphor for the birth canal, and that leads us to the final sequence of Century of Birthing. After the late-night screening in Venice, me and my friends were discussing the enigmatic, abrupt ending of your movie: somebody said “The child will be born after all: there is hope”, somebody else said “The child will not see the light: suffering is never-ending”. Some other guy stated “The child is born: it is the film Century of Birthing itself”... The ending is so amazing because it is so open, and I do not intend to ask for explanations.
My question is actually about the assembly of farmers just before the very end of the movie: who are they? How did you meet them? Can you give me some background?
LD: I was living near the place where we were shooting Century of Birthing, a very desolate place. There was a very isolated village there, where I had shot some scenes previously. It was raining one day, so we went to this village to take cover from the rain. Suddenly, the place got crowded. We found out a meeting was about to start: the farmers from the village were having problems with a landlord and they wanted to organize themselves to face the problem.
I thought this real-life situation really merged well with the struggle of the characters in the film, and me being a very “organic” filmmaker, I said “Let's incorporate this!”. So I told the actors “Just join the farmers and I will follow you”. It happened like this: a very organic process. And it came out well in the editing, didn't it? Take the scene in which the farmer comes to the shed where Homer is sitting, for example: that happened by accident. Then, I stopped shooting and I told the farmer and his friends “Can you talk about the problems you are having now, and about the problems you had under Marcos?”. They replied “Oh, sure, we know a lot about that around here!”, and they started talking. Thus, the assembly became part of the very structure of my work.
This organic process allows you to see some lapses within the characters, within the story and within the other structures of the fiction film, and it works really, really well. That's the insanity of things like that, and it's pretty much obvious if you think about it: things are happening just… everywhere around you!
MG: Is it a movement of farmers spread all over the country or is it just a local thing?
LD: It is just this particular community of farmers – a village that is part of a town called Cuyapo, in Nueva Ecija, in the middle of the island of Luzon. These farmers are protecting their land from this greedy rich man, this landlord who tries to control everything: not just people's lives, the land and what grows on the land, but also the water of the rivers.
I originally chose to shoot in this area because of the storm, you know. I was in Marikina, the town where I live, near Manila. I was having coffee, and it was very, very early in the morning, like 6 o'clock. I was waiting for Khavn de la Cruz, a fellow-filmmaker and a friend of mine who wanted to take a walk along the river near my place. So while I was having coffee, I heard two guys saying “Hey, there's a storm coming in Central Luzon”. Suddenly, I found myself thinking “This could look great in the film”. I didn't really know yet, but my mind started working. I had this image in mind: the Mad Woman and the Artist meeting in the storm. I called the two main actors at once, “Please, come, let's shoot!”. Actress Hazel Orencio said “I am washing my clothes...” and I was like “Stop washing your clothes, come!”. Actor Perry Dizon said “I am going to Vietnam” and I was like “Cancel your trip, come!”. So we met at 7 o'clock and we went to Nueva Ecija, in the area where the storm was going to hit: there we stayed, waiting for the storm – I was ready to shoot, with my camera and an umbrella. [Laughs] And in the end, it was so good for the film. The collision between the two characters is really synchronized with the coming of the storm. I am very happy about it.
MG: And what about the film-within-the-film you incorporated into Century of Birthing? Does it exist as a standalone movie?
LD: It was intended to be a standalone movie called Babae ng Hangin [Woman of the wind]. I needed to shoot more to complete it, but main actress Angel Aquino didn't want to be part of the project anymore. It's all explained in the film Century of Birthing... The reasons why she quit, I mean: I incorporated them into Century of Birthing, in the scene in which Angel Aquino as herself talks with Homer, the director of the film-in-the-film. That is what actually happened between her and me. She called me up one day and she told me she couldn't continue working with me. You see, she is a very formalist actress: “We have a script and we should follow it” she complained. She resented the fact that I kept revising the script just before shooting. It was not the way she usually worked. She told me “If you revise the script over and over, I have to change my character over and over”, and I was like “Don't change the character, just keep it open”.
She is an actress very much in the movie-making industry, and we had this struggle in Babae ng Hangin, which is a film far away from the industry. She was great in the film, but she didn't like the idea of filmmaking as an open, organic process. So while I was shooting Century of Birthing, I prepared a scene based on the real-life discussion we had about her quitting the other project, and she agreed to play the part of herself. She was a sport and she's a great actress.
MG: About Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012), why did you change the title? The original title was Agonistes – The Myth of Nation, right?
LD: Yes, it was. But then again, while I was working on the movie I did revisions and the story took a completely different turn, so I thought it wasn't right to use the title Agonistes anymore.
MG: You also deleted “The Myth of Nation”...
LD: I deleted “The Myth of Nation” and changed the title into Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, but I used the phrase “Nation is a Myth” in my latest film Norte, the End of History. So you see, it's really a continuum. I consider the films I make as singular works, and to me each one of them is unique and special in its own way... but at the same time the process of making them is a continuum, so the traces show: photos from Heremias (2006) can be seen in Century of Birthing, part of the title of Agonistes became a line in Norte, and so on... This is because all my films connect in terms of vision and political perspective, in terms of how I see life. It's just like a farmer, you know: the farmer sleeps at his house, he goes to work in the field, he goes to the gambling area, he comes back to his house... The actions are different, but they are part of one single movement, and this movement is the farmer's life. That's why I like cinema, that's why I chose cinema as a means of expression: I like “the flow”.
MG: In the excerpt from your novel you read yesterday at the award ceremony, one of the keywords was “dialectic”, the struggle between opposites. Talking about myth, I am interested in your dialectic use of myth. In fact, in your films myth is something that creates illusions and delusions that keep people enslaved, but at the same time characters like Heremias and Florentina are exempla, they have a “mythic dimension” that may help people realize they are slaves.
LD: Yeah, the use of myth. Myths are used. They can be used. You see, myths are tales. Myths are stories that at some point become undisputable truths. That's how religion as myth works: it starts as an apocryphal tale – a parable for example – and then it becomes the one and only Truth: it becomes your faith, it becomes your fate, it becomes your life... You can call it your own “ideology”. People are worried about their future: that's why they desperately cling on to religion. So people keep repeating these lies, and something that is not real becomes a fact. Myths are not real, they are not facts. We create myths in our lives. Every day. Everything we do and say is about mythologies. Everything we say we regard as the Truth: “I am right. It's just like I say, it is true”.
But how can you find the Truth? What is the provenance of Truth? You make a statement. You say it is true. But if you go back, you find out there is no Truth, just an apocryphal story that got repeated over and over until it became a myth, until it became the Truth. There is this vicious circle of creating myths and Truths: the myth justifies the Truth, and the Truth justifies the myth...
MG: Are you trying to break this “vicious circle”?
LD: Not really. I am still trying to understand the role of cinema in this myth-making. I don't pretend that I know. I am still investigating the nature of the medium I chose to work with. I don't really know cinema. The question is there, though: what is cinema, really? André Bazin keeps asking, and I keep making films to understand the nature of the medium.
One of the greatest texts about cinema I ever read is by André Bazin, The Myth of Total Cinema. According to Bazin, we don't know cinema yet, but every development, every progress in this medium is a step towards the origin of cinema. The technological progress seems limitless, but at the same time every development brings us back to the question on the nature and the origin of cinema – so “Where is cinema going?” actually means “Where does cinema come from?”. I don't have an answer to that question. The only thing I know is that it's up to us to find out: we have to find... cinema's DNA! [Laughs] So my idea is “embrace what is coming”, embrace the new digital technology. Digital is developing and developing: if we embrace it, maybe we will be able to understand cinema, and put cinema on the right side, in the front line of the struggle. To be able to put cinema in the forefront, we have to use it, to test it, to see what it can do. This is why I am always happy to change my gear and my approach to filmmaking, to experiment with new tools…
MG: Indeed, you have been upgrading your shooting gear lately, most notably in Norte. Can you detail about this recent upgrade in relation to one of the main ideas of your filmmaking practice – the “political” aspect of the aesthetic choice of using digital technology?
LD: I’d say “economic choice”: in filmmaking, technology is first of all an economic issue. For Norte, I used that kind of camera simply because I could afford it. I shot it with that gear for economic reasons: I was offered money from the production.
The film Norte wasn't my idea at all, in the beginning. It was an idea by other people and they wanted to shoot the movie themselves. But in the end, they thought it really sounded like a Lav Diaz film, so they asked me to direct it. One of the guys involved in the original project was a long-time friend of mine: he called me up and told me “Lav, we have this film we are supposed to make, but it's really material for you. Why don't we meet and talk about it?”. So we met up and they told me the story. I liked the idea very much and we began to develop it together. Then they told me “There's money, so you can rent a camera”.
MG: You rented the gear, you don't own it...
LD: Yes. I told the producers to buy the camera, I told them buying the gear was more practical: if we own the camera, we can shoot more – we can shoot whenever we want, instead of planning a tight schedule and rushing things.
There was so much money wasted, and this is a thing I didn't like about the shooting. We rented the camera package: very expensive... If we had bought it, the camera could have been used by me and by other fellow-filmmakers, or it could have been rented out by the producers to generate funds. Creating a flow of money and a circulation of ideas to develop film-projects and make more films in our country: to me this is a very important “political” aspect in filmmaking. It is part of the struggle.
So you see technology is an economic issue that has consequences on many levels. Clearly, it affects how the film looks: for example, Norte is a color film and there is much more camera movement than in my other movies. It is not the camera movement you find in commercial cinema, though. It is not flossy camera movement. It's more about quietly following the characters. It's still about duration and space as before, but at the same time it is something new for me.
MG: Introducing Norte this morning, you used the word “canvas” in relation to the frame...
LD: Yeah, the canvas is the idea. I chose the locations for Norte because of the colors, because of the sunlight: I like the way light keeps changing in the island, I like how light reflects and affects the mood of the people there. The light was really important for the film.
MG: Do you paint?
LD: Yes, I started as a painter. But as any other medium, painting asks for great commitment, so I don't like the idea of painting just because sometimes I feel like it. I respect real painters, I respect their total commitment. That's also why I don't call myself a musician: I like to play guitar and I like to paint, but I am committed to cinema and my time is dedicated to cinema.
MG: I just had this flashback of the woman burning the painting she made in Death in the Land of Encantos (2007)...
LD: Yes, that's how I deal with it: if you are not committed to your work, you might as well burn it. Otherwise it's a lie. If you are not committed to it, you are a fraud and it's going to be a curse.
MG: About An Investigation on the Night that Won't Forget (2012), I heard you had doubts about the idea of screening it here in Milan, because the material is so specifically Filipino...
LD: Yes. Yesterday, when they were talking about screening An Investigation, I told curator Enrico Ghezzi that the movie is so specifically Filipino, because it deals with the murder of Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc – two persons that are not very known outside the Philippines. But then it was decided to screen it anyway and it was the premiere of the film outside the Philippines. In the end, we thought people could understand the general idea: Alexis and Nika were murdered, police investigation brought to nothing, the murderers are still free.
MG: If you ask me, I think it was a good idea to screen An Investigation here in Italy, because here in Italy we are still trying to figure out who killed Pier Paolo Pasolini, what really happened and why.
LD: There is definitely a parallelism between the two murder cases.
MG: And I can also see a parallel between Alexis and Nika's case and the case of Benigno Aquino Jr., whose real death “caught-on-camera” was incorporated into your film Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004)...
LD: Like Alexis and Nika's death, the murder of Ninoy Aquino is considered a “cold case” by the authorities. Five hundred soldiers saw Ninoy Aquino being murdered at the airport. Five hundred soldiers saw who pulled the trigger. The tragedy is nobody is telling the truth. The mastermind – whoever he is, if he's still alive – is free. Three men suspected of the murder had a trial, but they were given amnesty by the former lady-president of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
It is a staggering lie, you know: “nobody saw anything”. One of the supposedly greatest heroes of modern Philippines – Ninoy Aquino – was murdered in broad daylight, in front of five hundred witnesses, and nobody saw who did it? Even the camera that was there when the murder took place couldn't grasp anything: it is really amazing how truth gets blurred, until everything becomes dark and nothing remains. Only a “cold case”.
MG: Can you tell me more about An Investigation? I understood it is part of a larger project.
LD: I really want to pay tribute to my friends, Alexis and Nika. Ten days before the tragedy happened, they were together in Bangkok to present a retrospective. Alexis did the curatorial work together with the film critics of Thailand. Alexis and Nika had so much energy, they had so many plans, so many dreams: to create an archive for Filipino cinema, to publish a serial cinema magazine in the country, to set-up a small, intimate screening-venue to show their favorite movies from film festivals that year... Nika had already decided to relocate in Manila and she had left the Slovenian Ekran magazine – she was an editor for the magazine and she had resigned. A day before the tragedy happened, Nika was supposed to go up to Bosnia, just to study there for a few months before finally settling down in Manila. Then the tragedy happened: on September 1st 2009 Alexis and Nika were killed in their home. So... with all those interrupted dreams, young people dying a miserable death, and they were so brilliant… Suddenly this thing happened and cut down their vision, their perspective. I want to immortalize them, I want to immortalize their being relevant to cinema, even if they died so young.
An Investigation is part of an ongoing project, it is an ongoing work. I have already finished two films An Investigation on the Night that Won't Forget and Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution (2011), but the idea is making ten films about Alexis and Nika. I want to make a film every year about them, for the anniversary of their death on September 1st. September 1st this year is already too close – I don't know... most probably my next film about them will not be exactly on September 1st. Maybe I'll be able to finish another one this year.
MG: A film every year. Do you conceive the project as a “ritual” thing to do?
LD: Not really, not really. It's just that I am committed to finish it. It is called The Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc Project. I want to finish it for them. At the moment, I am still looking for a little fund for the next “episode”, the next part. But I am determined to finish all the ten parts. I am committed, even if as of now it is a dream.
MG: An Investigation reminded me of Wang Bing's He Fengming (2007) in its rigorous work on human witnesses and on digital cinema as a witness. There is this quote I like very much, it is from Shadow of the Vampire (2000) by E. Elias Merhige. It is a fiction film about silent film director Murnau directing a real vampire during the shooting of Nosferatu (1922). Anyway, the Murnau-character says: “We are scientist engaged in the creation of memory, a memory that will not blur nor fade”...
LD: We are, and if you have a good archive, maybe the memory will not blur nor fade...
MG: I was reminded of that quote by the fact that in An Investigation the witness Erwin Romulo says something like “It is a good thing that you are recording because my memory is already fading”. So I was wondering if, in your opinion, digital cinema is a memory so “perfect”, so flawless as it seems.
LD: I'd say that with digital we can transfer and transfer and transfer: it is easier than with film. Before going to Cannes, I was trying to remaster the original tapes of Death in the Land of Encantos, Heremias and Evolution of a Filipino Family because I found out they are already fading. The sound in particular is fading... I was like “Man, some music is gone here and there; in Ebolusyon [Evolution of a Filipino Family] some singing is gone. What's happening?”. I thought “This is dangerous, I have to do something, I have to go back to the tapes when they are still alive and remaster them”. So you see, even if you shoot in digital, your work is not safe: you have to remaster and remaster.
Luckily, the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna is collecting my works. They recently restored the 35mm film negative of my 2001 movie Batang West Side (I revised the subtitles etcetera). The restored film is going to be screened in Locarno next month, and I wish to dedicate the whole work to the memory of Alexis and Nika.
MG: I wasn't aware that the digital master tapes could show signs of decay so soon. What are the causes of this decay?
LD: I don't know, really. But if you think about it, decay is not just about films. Decay is also part of human condition. So I guess life fades, memory fades... and then digital fades, too. Technology can only approximate what is approximable. As for cinema, I don't think something definite exists, you know, some kind of “ultimate memory”, an ultimate data-storage thing.
MG: Maybe films will survive on YouTube...
LD: Maybe they will put the films in some kind of rocket and they will throw them into Space, I don't know: have them fly around in the Universe, so even if the Earth is gone, cinema will survive. Maybe the aliens will find the rocket one day: “What is this thing?”. They will check out the movies and they will be like “Wow! This is the Earth-before. This is what humans called Earth!”. They will watch “Earth Cinema”, they will watch... Rambo (2008) by Stallone. [Laughs]
MG: They should watch Rambo III (1988) and see Stallone helping the Mujahideen revolution in Afghanistan. And talking about revolution... Revolution is one of the central themes in Norte, the End of History. Some lines of dialogue in your movie reminded me of this quote from Mao Sergio Leone incorporated into Giù la testa (1971). The quote says more or less: “Revolution is not a dinner party, revolution is an act of violence”...
LD: Sergio Leone quoted Mao?
MG: Yes, he did. In the opening credits of Duck, you sucker.
MG: I had that Mao quote in mind because your latest film stages once again a very interesting dialectic between opposites. On the one hand, things have to change, evil must be overthrown. On the other hand, the distinction between “good” and “evil” is blurred, if the supposedly “good” feels entitled to do anything to kill “the evil”.
LD: It is the big question: can revolution survive without turning into violence, without devouring its own children? I don't know. The world is changing, ideas change, ideologies grow. Some can be very dogmatic, but at the same time everything is valid: it's up to you to use these things, to interpret them. Application is always the key: in everyday life, in filmmaking, in politics... You can have all the ideas and perspectives you want, but if you remain quiet and do nothing, it remains a theory: to me, that's an uncommitted perspective.
MG: This morning you said you shot Norte in the north of the Philippines because the zone is dictator Ferdinand Marcos' place. I didn't get exactly what you meant, if he was born there or what. Can you detail about that?
LD: Norte was shot in the north of the country, in the Ilocos Norte province. Ferdinand Marcos Senior was born there, and the place is still Marcos' family place. I mean, even if Ferdinand Marcos Senior died, the Marcos are still there: the son Ferdinand Marcos Junior is the senator from Ilocos Norte, the daughter Maria Imelda Marcos is the governor of Ilocos Norte, the wife Imelda Marcos is a congresswoman... So they are still in control, the Marcos still have the power.
The place in which we shot the movie is the area where fascism started in the country: in the late Forties, Ferdinand Marcos Senior started his political career as a representative of Ilocos Norte. And today the politicians and the administrators of the place are very violent. If you make the mistake of fighting with them, you are going to die: they will have people ambush you, liquidate you, assassinate you. If you visit the place, it looks so peaceful, so beautiful, so calm... but you have this foreboding that beyond the shadows, there's violence hollering: beyond the façade, there's evil watching you. That's the psyche there. That's why I used the title Norte, the End of History, because Norte is the place where the history of the Philippines ended, when Marcos destroyed us.
MG: As a matter of fact, I was surprised by the title Norte, the End of History, because “the end of history” seems to run against one of the main ideas in your cinema – the idea of something that grows and grows...
LD: The idea of birth, possibly “re-birth”, yes. But you see, it is the aim of the film to warn people about fundamentalism, about fascism. To warn people about extremism, about the coming of people like the character played by Sid Lucero: here comes Fabian the evil guy, he's going to be a dictator in the future, he's a manipulator and he's going to be a corrupt politician. So the film is a foreboding about dangerous ideas lurking around. That's the vision of the film: Norte is a warning.
MG: Is there any chance of a distribution of Norte in the Philippines, outside the festival circuit?
LD: We haven't screened Norte in the Philippines yet. I don't know with the producers, but it is hard to get theatrical release in the Philippines. It is beyond us I think, so I don't know. It could be shown like Part 1 and Part 2: “Just don't destroy the film” I said... Actually, I had this idea, I said “Here's the situation: if you plan to show it divided into two parts in this or that city or town, at least find one theater that agrees to screen the full movie, so people have the chance to see it in one séance”. The movie will be split into two parts in one theater and, at the same time, it will be screened full-runtime in another theater. It is a mess having the same film playing differently in two theaters, but they said “We could do that”. It is a compromise, but it is a winning compromise, I think. You can see only the first half and maybe come back for the second – or you can see it full, if you like. People have the choice.
MG: And what about a DVD release in the Philippines?
LD: I think they are going to release it.
MG: What is the price of a DVD in the Philippines?
LD: It is very low because of piracy. Personally, I am not against piracy: piracy is part of the cultural revolution in our country. You see, there are a lot of films that circulate only on pirated DVDs in the Philippines, and the pirates are selling these DVDs for one dollar each. Among other things, you can buy Tarkovskij in the streets for one dollar. You can buy Sunrise (1927) by Murnau for one dollar, if you want. It's a cultural revolution, it is very socialist, very equalitarian. Pirates are granting the masses access to films, pirates are bringing films into people's homes. If it wasn't for piracy, how could these films reach people in the Philippines? So the DVDs sold for one dollar help creating awareness of cinema in our country: people now are aware of Tarkovskij, of Pasolini... Sunrise, Blood of a poet (1930), they are all circulating in the streets, I saw pirates selling them. The price is one dollar, so why not buying and watching?
But it is not just the idea of selling films to the masses for a low price... What matters is something more than money. What matters is that pirates are challenging the status quo by doing what they do: they are fighting the system. Feudalism and tyranny must be destroyed, starting from the streets where DVDs are sold for one dollar. It always starts from the streets, you know. That's why I love the pirates: they are more into cultural revolution than the people in the academy or the status quo critics in the country. And in Norte you can see Joaquin, the innocent wrongly accused, selling pirated DVDs in the streets: he is a poor man trying to feed his family, but he is involved in the cultural revolution, too.
MG: I remember that scene. However, my favorite scene in Norte is the one involving Joaquin's wife: a lawyer is explaining her “the law”, but she can't understand a word because she doesn't speak English...
LD: Law in the Philippines is written in English and it is a jargon-thing, so only lawyers and educated people who are really into English language can understand it. There are translations but they are not propagated, they are just kept somewhere – in some books, in some libraries, in some schools – while they should be given to the people as a journal, for the masses to understand that they have rights. The masses are usually blamed for being ignorant, but the ignorance is propagated and exploited by the system, because we live in a system that is not working for the people.
Milan, July 7th 2013
Lav Diaz is currently crowdfunding his next feature film. A preview and more info here: http://lavdiaz.com/prologue-to-the-great-desaparecido/