Digital or celluloid, cinema is ultimately a medium made of time. Andrei Tarkovsky famously called it “sculpting in time.” While directors like Lanzmann and Tarr have in recent decades been working to extend the length of the feature film, the turn to recording images digitally has greatly expanded cinema’s ability to experiment with duration. The contemporary filmmaker who has taken this expansion the farthest is certainly Lav Diaz. He has become famous over the last decade for his works lasting six, seven and eleven hours, almost always shot in black-and-white in small towns and the countryside of the Philippines.
This epic length gives Diaz (b. 1958) a grand canvas on which to depict scenes from the life in the Philippines over the past half-century or so, a nation large in expanse and in population. But these epics are not tales of heroism; Diaz seems to draw inspiration from the 19th century Russian novel, especially the work of Dostoevsky, and the stories that his films tell contain not only great deeds but more typically, many small ones, some happiness and some woe, goodness and ignominy, miracles and catastrophes.
And just as Dostoevsky, Gogol and Tolstoy sought to depict “the Russian soul,” so is Diaz’s great subject the lives and suffering of the Filipino people, particularly during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos from 1965 to 1986, but also more recently. Part of what this means for Diaz is that his camera spends a great deal of time watching his characters going about their daily lives. Yet even during lengthy sequences in which “nothing” happens, there is a surface tension to Diaz’s filmmaking that draws the viewer in. The charge of his images stems in no small part from the fact that Diaz is a filmmaker with a mission: against the oppression of the Filipino people and against the inanities of the commercial cinema of the Philippines (and of other countries).
Despite long stretches of “slice-of-life” realism, Diaz’s films are not homogeneous, punctuated as they are by archival images, monologues spoken directly to the camera, documentary footage, interviews, clips from television and even the occasional pastiche of Filipino soap opera. Although it is Diaz’s use of time that is immediately noticeable, his use of space is just as remarkable, particularly given the dramatic beaches and jungles of the Philippines. Events happen offscreen or between sequences, as if just taking place before the arrival of the camera. Most remarkable of all are those moments when Diaz presents a landscape in wide shot only to have human figures seem to materialize in the middle of the frame, instead of entering from the edges of the screen.
With his twinned desires to bear witness to Filipino lives and to demand a better future, Diaz follows in the footsteps of Lino Brocka (1939-91), one of the first Filipino filmmakers whose work was seen internationally, and one whose work was both eloquent about the joys and indignant about the sorrows of life in the Philippines. More importantly, Diaz’s success at film festivals around the world has helped open the way for the multitude of slightly younger filmmakers who with Diaz make up a veritable Filipino New Wave: Raya Martin, Brillante Mendoza, Khavn de la Cruz, John Torres and others. – David Pendleton
All films presented without breaks, except Death in the Land of Encantos, Heremias Book I and Melancholia, which will each be presented with one 20-minute intermission.
This program is presented in collaboration with the Film Study Center of Harvard, with funding provided by the Provostial Fund for the Arts and Humanities.
Special thanks: Florian Wrobel, Regina Schlagnitweit, Alexander Horvath—Austrian Film Museum (Vienna); Hazel Orencio—sine olivia pilipinas.Film descriptions by David Pendleton and Jeremy Rossen
Directed by Lav Diaz. With Sid Lucero, Angeli Bayana, Archie Alemania
Philippines 2013, DCP, color, 250 min. Filipino and Tagalog with English subtitles
The vicious murder of a pawnbroker lies at the heart of the first of Diaz’s films to be released to theaters in the US. An overt reference to Crime and Punishment, the murder also proves the link between Norte’s two protagonists: a cynical university student and an impoverished street peddler. In color and running only four hours, Norte is somewhat of a departure from Diaz’s other recent work; nevertheless, the filmmaker remains as bristling with outrage as ever at the moral bankruptcy that sprouts from the political disarray of the Philippines, past and present. Even at a shorter length, Diaz’s mix of everyday episodes, moments of tenderness, off-screen events and sudden cataclysm startles and arrests. DCP courtesy of Cinema Guild
Directed by Lav Diaz. With Hazel Orencio, Kristine Kintana, Noel Santo Domingo
Philippines 2012, DCP, b/w, 360 min. Filipino and Tagalog with English subtitles
With its depiction of cruelty and woe, Florentina Hubaldo, CTE is one of Diaz’s darkest films, the third of a trilogy about trauma and its aftermath (after Death in the Land of Encantos and Melancholia).The title character is a woman held captive by her father who has forced her into a life of prostitution. Her story is intertwined with that of a couple of fortune hunters digging for buried treasure in a narrative scheme that is revealed only gradually. With chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) a progressive degenerative disease found in individuals who have received multiple head injuries, the film’s title becomes a diagnosis of the physiological reasons for Florentina’s mental decline. She herself is clearly an allegorical stand-in for the long-suffering Filipino people. The film’s brutality is a cry of anger at 300 years of colonial plunder and misrule. DCP courtesy of the filmmaker
Directed by Lav Diaz. With Roeder Camanag, Angeli Bayani, Perry Dizon
Philippines 2007, digital video, b/w, 540 min. Filipino, Bicolano, English and Tagalog with English subtitles
An engkanto, or encanto, is an often-malign spirit dwelling in the Filipino countryside, although in Death in the Land of Encantos, some of them have migrated to eastern Europe as exiles. Their human counterpart is the film’s protagonist, Benjamin (“Hamin”) Agusan, a poet who returns from years in Russia to search for the body of his girlfriend in the wake of a catastrophic typhoon and landslides. These 2006 disasters devastated the Bicol region where Diaz’s films have been set since Evolution of a Filipino Family, killing thousands. This film, which inaugurated Diaz’s “trauma trilogy,” includes documentary footage in an attempt to record the suffering of the local inhabitants. Courtesy of the Austrian Film Museum
Directed by Lav Diaz. With Pen Medina, Angel Aquino, Joel Torre
Philippines 2004, digital video, b/w, 292 min (Part 1)/362 min (Part 2). Filipino and Tagalog with English subtitles
This eleven-hour magnum opus is the film that earned Diaz international acclaim as an original—an independent filmmaker making extremely ambitious and demanding films without any institutional or industrial support. Evolution also marks the debut of the template for the Diaz films to come: exteriors in the Philippine countryside, shot in lustrous black and white. The film outlines the fortunes and misfortunes of the Gallardo clan, a family of poor farmers, from 1971 to 1986, years that stretch from the imposition of martial law to the end of the Marcos dictatorship. During this time, the family struggles with to make ends meet and to stick together as some leave for Manila. Diaz includes archival footage of the historical events that buffet the family, as well as including a wry tribute to Filipino radio soap operas and an interview with Lino Brocka. Courtesy of the Austrian Film Museum
Directed by Lav Diaz. With Joel Torre, Yul Servo, Gloria Diaz
Philippines 2001, 35mm, color, 315 min. English, Tagalog and Filipino with English subtitles
Widely considered Lav Diaz’s first major work, and the recent recipient of a 35mm restoration by the Austrian Film Museum, Batang West Side begins as a Filipino-American teenager is shot to death on the streets of Jersey City. The subsequent investigation is led by a detective, also Filipino, who finds himself forced to confront some demons of his own. The drug and gang elements that are subsequently uncovered are but surface level issues to the underlying question by Diaz of the current state of the Filipino diaspora in the USA, and beyond. Diaz uses the murder as an exploration of the current psychological state of an isolated Filipino community that is conflicted, angry, and unable to find redemption in their new surroundings. 35mm print courtesy of the Austrian Film Museum
Directed by Lav Diaz. With Perry Dizon, Roeder Camañag, Hazel Orencio
Philippines 2014, DCP, color, 338 min. English, Filipino and Tagalog with English subtitles
The latest of Diaz’s epic fiction features draws inspiration from some of the filmmaker’s early memories. Taking place over the two years before Marcos declared martial law in the Philippines in 1972, the film portrays a small coastal town in which the sense of community is slowly unraveling. After spending some time presenting the landscape and inhabitants of the village, Diaz introduces a series of mysterious occurrences that seems to portend a threat somehow both at hand and ungraspable. Against this uneasy backdrop, the film’s ensemble of characters responds to the unrest in a variety of ways, from ritual to crime. DCP courtesy of the filmmaker
Directed by Lav Diaz. With Ronnie Lazaro, Cid Lucero, Dante Balaois
Philippines 2006, digital video, b/w, 540 min. Filipino and Tagalog with English subtitles
Heremias is a wandering peddler whose fateful decision to separate from his fellow salesmen leads him to an abandoned house deep in the jungle and entanglement with the criminals and venal authorities of the nearby village. The protagonist’s name is derived from Jeremiah, the Biblical prophet who declaimed the corruption in Jerusalem in a vain attempt to prevent its destruction. The modern-day decadence that Heremias confronts is as vividly depicted as his attempt to right the wrongs he can and to atone for the rest. One of the most meditative of Diaz’s epics, the ever-lucid black-and-white cinematography serves to highlight the quasi-parable aspect of Heremias’ simple but sad story. Courtesy of the Austrian Film Museum
Directed by Lav Diaz
Philippines 2014, digital video, b/w, 143 min. Filipino and Tagalog with English subtitles
Lav Diaz’s latest feature finds him turning to non-fiction cinema, to document the devastation of the Philippine coastal town of Tacloban by Typhoon Haiyan (or Yolanda) in November 2013. Diaz follows three children as they weave their way in and around the aftermath of the destruction in search of food and friends. In spite of evidently dire circumstances, the children play amid the chaos and tragedy that surrounds them. The Philippines are battered annually by cyclones, but as so often in Diaz, the natural destruction serves to provoke a meditation on human suffering and to reveal governmental indifference to the lives of the poor.
Directed by Lav Diaz. With Willy Fernandez, John Elbert Ferrer, Lois Goff
Philippines 2009, digital video, color, 59 min. Filipino and Tagalog with English subtitles
The sudden closing of a gold mine leaves a rural community stranded. The newly unemployed miners spend their days drinking and pondering what to do, until the daughter of one of the mine’s owners shows up. Diaz here shows us his ability to condense storytelling and critique into an hour that feels both dilatory and dense.
Directed by Lav Diaz. With Hazel Orencio, Archie Alemania, Noel Santo Domingo
Philippines 2013, DCP, b/w, 31 min. Filipino and Tagalog with English Subtitles
The “disappeared one” of the title refers to Andres Bonifacio, considered the instigator of the revolution against Spanish rule, whose body was never found after his execution in 1897. This short serves to announce Diaz’s ambitions to make a film about Bonifacio’s death and his legacy.
Directed by Lav Diaz. With Perry Dizon, Angeli Bayani, Malaya Cruz
Philippines 2008, digital video, b/w, 450 min. Filipino, Tagalog, Bicolano and English with English subtitles
Divided into three sections, Melancholia follows a prostitute, a pimp and a nun who wander the countryside, distraught after the disappearance and loss of close friends or partners in a military conflict. A complex series of role changes within the characters ensues as they all struggle with an overbearing sense of grief, loss and longing. A hauntingly tense final section follows an army marching into the blackness of the jungle, knowing they are surrounded on all sides by the enemy, and as they sense their impending doom they struggle continue to march on into the abyss of certain death. Diaz explores the psychological terror of the many disappeared Filipinos over hundreds of years and the lasting psychological effect that it has had on the population. Courtesy of the Austrian Film Museum
Directed by Lav Diaz. With Hazel Orencio, Lav Diaz, Sigrid Bernardo
Philippines 2011, digital video, b/w, 90 min. Filipino and Tagalog with English subtitles
Like Prologue to the Great Desparecido, Elegy finds Diaz looking back to the Filipino Revolution of the last years of the 19th century. Here, he imagines a woman from that era visiting the Philippines of the present-day. Around her time-travel, Diaz weaves a three stories with characters drawn from his usual stock: a prostitute, a musician and three petty criminals. As so often in Diaz's recent work, Elegy looks back to the Revolution to measure the vast distance between the hopes of that defeated movement and the poverty, desperation and corruption (both political and spiritual) of the Philippines today
Directed by Lav Diaz. With Angel Aquino, Joel Torre, Perry Dizon
Philippines 2011, digital video, b/w, 360 min. Filipino and Tagalog with English subtitles
Century of Birthing finds Diaz taking stock of the creative process after three years during which he found himself unable to complete a film. The protagonist is a Diaz-like filmmaker whose struggles are juxtaposed with scenes from the lives of a Christian cult living in the countryside. Out of these storylines emerges a meditation on art and faith, the rational and the irrational, the purpose of creativity, and the relation between the political and the spiritual. The filmmaker finds himself growing more and more ensnared in a thicket of doubt until a madwoman enters the scene.