The Decade of Living Dangerously:
A Chronicle from Lav Diaz
by Brandon Wee
Lav Diaz mentions an unsettling encounter he had had on his way to Canada. En route from Manila, his connecting flight departing Tokyo had lost power on one of its engines an hour into flight. The situation was announced, whereupon he was duly roused from sleep by screams and curses. It is good they were honest enough to say that, the Filipino filmmaker reminisces unflappably. While others were in frantic prayer, Diaz confesses he was merely "in a daze" on account of fatigue. The plane returned to Tokyo in one piece, but the truth is, even if all engines of an aircraft fail, physics determines that it is quite capable of gliding to safety. Diaz's airborne distress might be viewed as trivial in this context, especially given the formidable experience that has underscored this particular journey.
Diaz was in Toronto in September 2004 to attend the world premiere of his sixth feature, Evolution of a Filipino Family (Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino) (2004) at the 29th Toronto International Film Festival. This is his second trip to the festival after presenting The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion (Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion) (1998) under the Festival's Discovery program in 1999. During this visit, at least one industry journalist has likened him to Wong Kar-wai with good reasons. The most notable: at the Art Gallery of Ontario's Jackman Hall ten minutes before its first public screening at 2pm, Ebolusyon's Virginia-based producer Paul TaZedo reveals that Diaz is still holed up in a lab fixing part of the film's sound and is thus unable to formally introduce it. Instead, he will turn up at midnight for the post-screening discussion. However, the picture can and will indeed start on schedule at least the first of its 12 portions. After all, the Toronto cut of Ebolusyon does run for ten hours one hour longer than erstwhile published.
Nevertheless, Ebolusyon's running time its most quotable attribute is only interesting insofar as one considers that with this latest work Diaz has surpassed his prior achievement of directing the longest Filipino film, a record held by his previous feature, the five-hour Batang West Side (2002). Besides, that he had protested his producer's abridgement of Batang West Side to three hours for commercial considerations may demonstrate his commitment in demolishing the notion that a film should be benchmarked between 90 to 120 minutes. For that, Diaz is shaping up as one of a handful of interesting antipodes to someone as laconic as Robert Bresson, who on all but one occasion did not direct a feature exceeding 100 minutes.
Filmed between 1994 and 2004, Ebolusyon fictionally essays a period of 16 years from 1971 to 1987 in Philippine history. Specifically, it examines the effect that former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos' controversial installation of martial law from 1972 to 1986 had on the country. At the film's core are the Gallardos the title's heroes who represent the preponderant Filipino underclass in all their wretchedness. As farming folk living out their days in crumpled barrios, the Gallardos wrestle less than dignified lives from Marcos' tyrannical regime of corruption and brutality. Already a precarious unit, the spread of civil unrest and guerilla terrorism effectuated by this additional oppression is readied to further devastate their lives. Headed by resolute matriarch Puring (Angie Ferro), the family's women are accordingly stronger and more resourceful than the men, who are shown as broken and imperiled.
There is Kadyo (Pen Medina), who is introduced through an act of valor as he intervenes to prevent his mentally incapacitated sister Hilda (Marife Necisito) from hurling her son Raynaldo (Elryan De Vera) and herself off a cliff. Yet, Kadyo is also an impetuous man given to avarice and whose life is eventually consumed by crime. Likewise, young Raynaldo's somber and introverted life is a path no less ruinous. Soon after witnessing the rape and murder of his ostracized mother, he leaves home without word. Raynaldo's lingering absence, persisting during the remainder of the film's epic arc, is thus centrifugally imprinted on his family's conscience as they resolve to seek his whereabouts. In portraying the family's protracted course of collapse and introspection, Diaz, who grew up during the Marcos era, does not want to objectify personal tragedy. Instead, he says he wants it to be known that Ebolusyon is a testament to the struggles and sorrows of generations of Filipinos during an era where poverty and dysfunction were omnipresent, and sadly, still are.
In fact, Batang West Side, which explores the crisis of the Filipino diaspora in North America, "prefigures" these concerns. In it, the magnification of the FilipinoAmerican experience is subtended by the death of a young male Filipino immigrant (Yul Servo) whose corpse is discovered on a Jersey City sidewalk. The investigation, undertaken by a Filipino detective (Joel Torre, who appears in Ebolusyon) is then used as a bold metaphor to mount an admonishing attack on the collective Filipino anima when the dead man's family is introduced and its unflattering history unveiled. In the process, the extent of troubles he unravels from this extended community of Filipino immigrants then transmutes into hard-hitting reflexivity when he is forced to turn the line of cross-examination on himself and face his past, which is no less flattering.
Although Diaz is in similar territory with Ebolusyon the symbolic cogency the absence of a central character has on others coupled with an urgent inquest into the Filipino condition the treatments are different. Viewers familiar with The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion's overarching flashbacks and Batang West Side's poignant grasp of a formal narrative must be prepared to forego all anticipation of similitude since Ebolusyon shifts and defies genre conventions blithely. Shot on 16mm and digital video in black and white, the picture excludes close-ups, quick-cuts and other reactionary editing strategies. Detachment is the order of the day, and a tall order it will be for those unaccustomed to a brand of cinema that observes minimalism as a central tenet. Instead, Diaz embosses the flow of time with archived footage of events he considers critical in shaping contemporary Philippines images which represent some of the most violent records the country has witnessed. In another elliptical strategy, family members are shown listening to campy radio soap operas in the barrios before the action consciously cuts to the studios where we see the farcical antics involved in the performances. In caricaturising this popular pastime, perhaps Diaz's observation alludes to how the family, fixated by the spectacle of melodrama, fails to realize that it is they who are in fact exigent subjects of empathy.
Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) programmer Steve Gravestock, who viewed one of the first cuts of Ebolusyon, says that Diaz's work is distinct within contemporary Philippine filmmaking because it breaks away from melodrama, a "dominant code" of the industry. Tellingly then, Ebolusyon was programmed under the festival's Visions category, socializing with works by Asia Argento, Catherine Breillat, David Gordon Green, Lukas Moodysson, Shinya Tsukamoto and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. He explains: "The film has a truly unique, epic approach to narrative, one that foregrounds the role nature plays in the lives of its primarily peasant characters. Moreover, its oblique approach to the politics of the period, and its mix of documentary and fiction footage, is also quite singular. Plus it's ten hours long." Adds Gravestock with this anecdote: "As a friend said after we saw the film for the first time, it's quite critical not only of Marcos but of Filipino politics in general and says some very important and trenchant things about the isolation and futility that appears to be ingrained within the political system. This approach is definitely courageous since [Diaz] risks alienating certain quarters in the Filipino diaspora."
In that sense, Ebolusyon is unlike Imelda (2004), in which Ramona S. Diaz (unrelated) resurrects the personage of Marcos' widow, Imelda Romualdez. Known popularly by her first name, here was a woman who knew how the excesses of beauty and charisma could buy the trust of millions in order to validate the divide between the rich and poor. At 75 but looking like she could be 57, it appears she guards this knowledge well. Despite Diaz's claim of impartiality in documenting Romualdez's life as a public figure, I am hardly convinced such a strategy is a sound one when profiling someone so suspect. True enough, the most telling sign of colour may be inferred from its title, which not only portends romanticism, but also presupposes reputation.
I have also read a review quote on an Imelda poster that compares its daring to Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), its author clearly confusing rhapsody with polemic. Yet, as Michael Moore has learnt: bad publicity is, after all, still publicity. Romualdez's denial of her family's criminal activities in politics may be breathtaking to the point of asphyxiation, yet this documentary seems content to babysit her delusions more than it can bring itself to confront the malevolence the Marcos regime has wrought on the Philippines. Then, there is the sorer point of the largely forgiving tone that permeates the picture. A scene of Romualdez purring like a cat over her husband's mummy in his mausoleum is rendered so ambiguously that for the sake of dignity, it would be better off excised. In another, the footage of Romualdez's acquittal in an American court over charges of plunder is made extraneous without also highlighting how the four successive Philippine governments after Marcos have failed to convict any of the family for emptying the nation's cookie jar, save the crumbs.
The offer to interview Lav Diaz came about because of the initial worry that Ebolusyon might not receive optimal publicity despite it being the festival's sole ambassador from the Philippines, not to mention its longest entry. As I learned from the film's publicist soon after, this concern was short-lived since interview spots were being filled as the days went by. On the day following Ebolusyon's second public screening, Diaz and I meet. The transcript that follows is based on an extended conversation that discusses the making of the film, but also engages aspects of Filipino filmmaking, politics, art and life. Indeed, it can be read as one Filipino's take on what it means to be Filipino. Also present at our meeting is the moustachioed and convivial TaZedo who stepped in late in the day as the film's producer a first for him and who also shares cinematography credit with two other individuals. For the two filmmakers, this particular Sunday is a day of relief. TaZedo, a photojournalist, is visibly content at having put this world premiere past them. On the other hand, Diaz's signature coolness is betrayed by what I can only suspect to be the upshot of anxiety and fatigue that has dominated the preceding 72 hours.
As Diaz ambles through our conversation in a calm and plaintive tone, it occurs to me that until now I have yet to meet anyone more conscious of their role as an artist, particularly one who is as sensitive perhaps even supraliminal to the socioeconomic reality of the Philippines as he is. At 46, his tenor may be seen as dignified by some, though certainly no less than self-flagellating by others. Occasionally, and in spite of his equanimity, his defensiveness is acute. At one point as remarked similarly to an audience member at the first post-screening discussion Diaz describes Ebolusyon as "a long poem" he does not have to justify. As I reflexively connect the dots in order to mentally interpret this figure, I wonder if Diaz might have once been an angry man of conscience and vigor whose fever has since mellowed with age. As a filmmaker, his work is often hailed as the revival of a socially conscious vision of cinema that the Philippines lost more than a decade ago, led by outspoken figures such as Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal whose untimely deaths had abbreviated their rhythmic discourse of remonstration on the state of the Philippines. If the buzz on this awakening is to be reckoned with, then what remains to be observed is how high Diaz's succeeding wave will ride.
Moreover, it is in this context that the man might be viewed as a lucky devil. In mid-November last year, I corresponded with Diaz, requesting more information for this piece. He responded to my queries, then volunteered another unsettling encounter: "Just shot five additional days for Ebolusyon down south of Luzon," he begins. He continues: "Quite a scary experience. We shot some scenes inside the train running from Manila to Bicol, 16 hours one-way. We arrived in Manila just last Monday morning. Today, just today, man. The scary and grim news the very same train fell on a ravine, killing almost two-dozen people. It happened at 4 a.m. in one of the barrios of Quezon province. It was an old, old train, '50s model. The trip alone is quite strenuous to the health; horribly bumpy (the springs are not working) and the odor is terrible."
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Brandon Wee: What was Ebolusyon's journey to the Toronto International Film Festival like?
Lav Diaz: I am a member of the Directors' Guild of the Philippines and whenever a festival programmer visits, its president would inform us to prepare our works. TIFF's Steve Gravestock came to Manila in April 2004 and asked for schedules and appointments from everybody. I said I did not have a film yet but that there was a rough cut eight hours long. I was cutting and it was still in the computer. He said he wanted to watch it anyway. So he went to my little studio with the head of the guild, filmmaker Carlitos Siguion-Reyna, who kindly acted as interpreter since a lot of parts were not subtitled. I told the sound engineer who assisted them, "Within 30 minutes, Steve is gone." It was 5pm. I went out and returned around 8pm. He was still watching. I went out again and got back at 10pm. He was still there. I brought them coffee and cheeseburgers. Steve left at 2am. He finished the work and thanked me for the experience. I invited him for another coffee but he said he just wanted to sleep. Before he left the country, he gave me his card. Then, by late June, I got an email from him. He said to send the film as he would be inviting it. And I was surprised since it was still work-in-progress. He asked if I could finish a cut. I said I would if he would schedule the film during the last days of the festival. He agreed and sent an official invitation two weeks later.
BW: Tragically, you then lost this cut. What happened?
LD: A week before the film was scheduled to close the Cinemanila International Film Festival in July 2004, our computer crashed and we lost everything. The final cut running ten hours 45 minutes was gone. It was a very painful loss: five months of post-production gone to waste. We were devastated. The assistant director, who was the only person to finish watching the whole film in one sitting as she transcribed and checked the dialogues, broke down. She disappeared. There was a lot of work to do. We had to re-digitise all 150 hours of footage and sound to the computer. Of course it got so fucked up, but we were able to re-digitise everything in about a week. The thing is that the process got so slow because the sound machine can only store about an hour of sound. During the earlier acts of the film's first screening in Toronto, I was still fine-tuning portions eight and nine of 12 in a very expensive studio.
BW: Ebolusyon took a decade to be realised. What was its genesis and development like?
LD: In 1993, I was working in Jersey City in this small community Filipino newspaper, trying to make a living so that I could send money back to my family. I wanted to do a film but I was ambivalent on the story I was developing. I was looking for better material. My novelist friend, Eric Gamalinda, a co-editor at the paper, said he had this story about a Filipino guy who jumps ship in Newark and who works in this Filipino restaurant where the owner exploits him. The guy lives in this old Manhattan building and in it there is a ghost of a Filipino war veteran who feeds on red roses. It is a very romantic and absurd story. And I liked the idea of a ghost of a Filipino veteran eating red roses. I asked Eric if he could develop that into a script, which he then went on to write.
We started pre-production in January 1994. In March we started shooting in Lexington, New Jersey. We were a motley crew from the East Village and Jersey City. The seed money for the rolls and rentals was from my savings moonlighting as a waiter, gasoline attendant and proofreader. A Filipino family provided assistance, food and locations. I revised 80% of the material, although I was still loyal to the story of the ghost eating the red roses. I shot those scenes and they are beautiful. After three weeks of shooting, I quarreled with the cinematographer on petty things like camera angles and the pace of the shoot. He had also voiced what seemed to me like an insult to Filipino filmmaking. We had a fight and almost killed each other on the set. So it ended that way, in a very negative manner.
When we eventually resumed shooting, the Filipino family quit. The assistant cameraman took over the DP job. I did not have money. Demoralization pervaded everybody and we stopped. Because the prints were in the house of the Filipino family, it took me a while to get them and I had to beg them to have these processed in a laboratory. I then had to write to and beg the vice president of DuArt, a film laboratory in New York City, to have the rolls processed. He was so kind to have the rolls "labbed" even as I was broke. I also asked him to give me video transfers so I could cut something out of it to pitch to people. He gave these to me despite the warnings of his billing department, who by then were issuing threats of suing me or burning the rolls if I did not pay. With the videos I was able to cut a demo. I started knocking on doors and gate-crashing parties and meetings, including the endless beauty pageants of rich Filipinos in the area.
I had gone as far as Pennsylvania and Virginia to pitch my crazy dream. Yes, some people actually looked at me like that a crazed artist with a lofty dream. A number of times, people would be whispering in giggles as I did video presentations in their homes or offices. Some even treated me like a beggar, giving me pocket money so that I would not bother them again. That was when I met Paul TaZedo, a Filipino photography artist in Alexandria, Virginia. He liked what he saw in the 16mm black and white footage and committed to support it. It was a simple talk over coffee very early in the morning. What hooked him were the black and white shots. Beautiful. Nothing beats 16mm black and white stock 7222. The grains and depths are fiercely powerful.
Paul and I shared the same vision: to create and contribute to cinema in the Philippines on an aesthetic level and not to the rotting commercialism and inanities of the majority of works in the so-called Philippine cinema industry. We had long discourses on issues concerning our homeland the arts, political and economic conditions, and our struggle. How could we help in our own small way? What are our responsibilities as Filipinos? Why are we in America? Why are millions of Filipinos struggling to get out of the Philippines? Why are 80% of Filipinos still reeling in dire poverty? What is so wrong with our culture?
Paul retrieved the rolls from DuArt and we started shooting again during late summer of 1995. In late 1996 when I went back to the Philippines, we decided to shoot flashbacks scenes in Manila. Pre-production began and in February 1997 we resumed shooting. It was a protracted struggle. We only worked when we had money. We shot some scenes again in 1998 and 1999 and then I had to stop. I could not solve the puzzle of the story. I was looking for a thread to finish it. The treatment of the film had become so organic that it could go on and on and I would not know where and when to stop. Actors were growing old and dying. I could not maintain personnel. There was the money issue, but more importantly, there was the issue of maintaining an aesthetic stand. In such a process where the gaps are so long, one might lose it on the level of the story and characterization, or even on simple continuity. I was facing a vast and elusive canvas. I was struggling with a cul-de-sac. In my dreams, I was drowning in a sea of unfathomable black and white.
And then, sick and cruel jokes started to circulate: Ebolusyon is the Lav Diaz film that can only be shown in unfinished footage; the film that he is going to bring with him to his grave. They said I called the unfinished work Ebolusyon because it was just like that an evolution that would keep on evolving like a myth; that Ebolusyon was a myth. Some people were hardcore enough to say that in my face. There were times when I saw myself shooting Ebolusyon in my dreams. The myth had become such a big cross on my shoulders.
By the time I was doing post-production on Batang West Side in mid-2001, finishing Ebolusyon had become an obsession. I started organizing a support group for young filmmakers and artists just so I could start filming again in order to finally finish it. I treated this like a workshop. It was very informal. I would gather young filmmakers for coffee and start a discourse on art and filmmaking, and then on the idea of finishing Ebolusyon. This was a sort of release, like meditation to ward off the frustrations. Ultimately, these were the people who helped me. A lot of them volunteered during the production.
Then, when Batang West Side was shown at the AsianAmerican International Film Festival in New York in 2002, I told Paul it was time to finish the film. I had found the thread. It was the idea of gold. Gold as a metaphor for so many things in the Filipino socio-cultural milieu: gold for greed, gold for "blindness", gold for redemption, gold for the soul. So I created a character obsessed with finding gold. The effect was so epiphanic. We shot for more than a year. On the last day of the shoot in April 2003, in the majestic mountains of the village of Itogon, Benguet province in northern Luzon, it rained beautifully. This final leg of the shoot proved very uplifting and inspiring in terms of the collective effort and volunteerism, for I had a community of young artists pushing me to finish the work.
Post-production proper began in January 2004. But then I added more scenes a week before the Toronto festival. We could have shot for two more days but the deadline was nearing and we had to stop. We will shoot more when we return to Manila and that will complete everything.
BW: In between this time, you made several other films.
LD: I made five: The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion, Burger Boys (1999), Naked Under The Moon (Hubad sa Ilalim ng Buwan) (1999), Batang West Side and Hesus, The Revolutionary (Hesus Rebolusyunaryo) (2002).
BW: Tell me about the Gallardos, the film's heroes.
LD: I based them on real characters. If you go to the barrios in the Philippines, the people of Ebolusyon are still there. A barrio is the smallest unit in the community, like a small village. Now we call them barangays because Marcos had changed the name. In the barrios there are usually 200-300 families. The Gallardo family represents the people who struggle to survive amid this big political backdrop. They are the invisible creatures of our society. We do not notice them. Or we do not care about them. They struggle, want to eat, want to go to school, want to be healthy, want to put their lives into safety the very fundamentals of living but are barely able to survive because they have a government that cannot help them. In the Philippines, the government has been a nonexistent entity for such a long time. They only serve and preserve the status quo. During elections, these invisible creatures suddenly become visible when politicians woo them for votes.
BW: The film's working title was Evolution of Ray Gallardo since Raynaldo was initially intended as the film's central figure, but you dropped this strategy. Why have you decided to dissolve him into the background? Even though his eventual absence becomes a compelling trope, he does seem interesting in the first few hours.
LD: He remains there actually. He just grew up over the ten years of the shoot. He was the same actor and character. But as we progressed with the protracted shoot, or as we evolved, Raynaldo had become this symbolic figure of an encompassing character. We see the whole family through three interweaving stories and of course, the political backdrop. The search for Raynaldo is still hovering but we do not see him throughout. We just hear about this melancholic figure the solitary wanderer and lost child. We feel him. I want to put him in that situation. The search to find and redeem him is a symbolic thing. It is the Filipino soul that needs to be saved. That is why at the end there is the story of the two mothers as a sort of epilogue. Raynaldo's real mother, who abandons him says, "Forgive me." We still want to search for Raynaldo. We ask forgiveness for that. It is still the collective guilt of Filipinos, just as in Batang West Side. Filipinos are like that. We are all Raynaldos. We are lost. We need to redeem that soul.
BW: There are many references to education, where it is shown to be a motif of desire. The elders want to send the youths to school, but we see that the kids are initially resistant.
LD: This is very Filipino. We put a premium on college education. Elders want their children to go to school. It is very important in Filipino culture, but sadly, quality education, especially in the present Philippine public school system, has become just a footnote. Again, poverty is the thread that dictates such a decline the poor get the worst education while the rich get the best. And again the guilty party is a government unable to set its priorities right. Every year since the republic was born, we have known that the problem was that the people of the House of Representatives and the Senate have been wasting and pocketing so much money from the so-called development funds, known more popularly as the "pork barrel". We are talking about millions lost here as a result of greed, corruption and apathy. However, the Socratic being is very much in the Filipino psyche and it is this sacrificing being who says, "Don't send me to school. Send my brother or sister. I will just help." This is very Filipino. A lot of Filipinos are working in places like Australia, Saudi Arabia, the United States or on the high seas with very little pay. Many are illegals living in dehumanizing conditions just to be able to send their siblings or relatives to school. That is very Filipino too. We sacrifice a lot. In fact, this condition has created a great cultural dysfunction in the Filipino familial institution. You have generations of young people growing up without mothers and fathers. Oftentimes, these mothers, fathers, sons or daughters die in foreign lands only to return to the motherland in coffins. And here is the biggest irony: the republic actually survives on their dollar remittances. That is the Filipino struggle.
BW: But you also show no restraint when attacking Filipinos. The line, "Marcos' plan for the country was great, but the Filipinos were stupid." What are you suggesting here?
LD: The unbelievable truth is that many Filipinos are still loyal to Marcos. They believe he had this vision of redeeming the Philippines. His credo, "The Philippines will be great again!" remains the sweetest music to many Filipinos and it is just so sad to confront this. Marcos destroyed us and the greatest tragedy is this perspective of the loyalists as espoused by that credo. Their stance that Marcos could have saved the Philippines is bullshit. A lot of loyalists still believe that Marcos was the Lee Kuan Yew of the Philippines and they are still saying we need a Lee Kuan Yew. These fascists want a strong leader who can control everything. But we do not need that. The Martial Law years was an attempt to do a Lee Kuan Yew but it failed miserably. Marcos had a brilliant mind. He was a master politician but he was Machiavellian. He wanted to change the system of government to a parliamentary one just like Singapore's or like Suharto's Indonesia. Those were his models, including Hitler's of course. He even kept Mein Kampf by his bed. It would not work for our people. Eventually, it did not work. During Martial Law, a lot of promising people and young leaders were killed, imprisoned, tortured or simply disappeared. Marcos put in prison all his enemies, like Benigno Aquino. He siphoned the treasury as well. He got everything. No matter what they say, he stole everything the money, our dignity. It is true. Marcos is an evil person. He destroyed us. The hardest part was that he was Filipino.
BW: Do you believe Marcos was behind Aquino's death?
LD: You cannot say outright that he did it or that he masterminded the deed, but definitely he is guilty. How can you explain 500 soldiers surrounding the tarmac without anyone witnessing the assassination? And these were his people. How can you explain that? The logic is that they knew and they saw. They knew Aquino was coming and they were prepared. Where did the fall guy come from? Flying on a helicopter? Parachuting with a gun? That is stupid. And you can hear the shouts when Aquino got out of the plane: "Pusila! Pusila!" ("Shoot him! Shoot him!") That is Visayan, a southern Filipino language. It was premeditated. But who was the mastermind? We do not know, but definitely the Marcos government is guilty.
BW: Just as in Ramona Diaz's Imelda, you have footage of the Aquino assassination and his funeral in your film. What is the significance of your inclusion?
LD: I want Filipinos to treasure and embrace history, to examine it no matter what one's ideology is. We must learn to grasp the significance of these events. We must have an historical perspective if we want to be able to move forward progressively as a people and as a nation. In the film I time-capsuled the years between 1971 and 1987. That was a very significant period in our history. During this time, many events that occurred shaped our country, which still have a bearing on our present conditions, such as: the First Quarter Storm, which saw violent rallies and demonstrations by the Left, radicals, and discontented quarters and sectors; the brutal Martial Law or the so-called Proclamation 1081; Aquino's death; the Epifanio Delos Santos Avenue (EDSA) People's Uprising; the ascendancy of Corazon Aquino, and of course the Mendiola massacre of farmers.
How could the authorities kill the farmers, shooting them heartlessly right at the doorsteps of Malacanang Palace, the seat of the Philippine government? I weep and bleed every time I see that footage. I come from a family of farmers. This massacre happened during Cory Aquino's second year in 1987. That was a very sad event. It symbolized a heavy debacle, not just in the system but in whatever values our culture ever treasured. On that day, everything seemed to have vanished. As a young man, I remember watching the news the same footage I used and feeling numbed. I lost my faith in the Filipinos. I was angry. It took me years to regenerate that faith. I struggled to understand what had happened and what went wrong. There is a need for an examination of the Filipino psyche: what connects, divides and empowers us, and what makes us a nation of more than 7,000 islands this archipelago of a puzzle. And so I read more of our history and psychology. I talked to Filipinos in the Philippines; to Filipinos I had met in Berlin, Hong Kong, Singapore, Russia, the United States: the poor, the rich, the prostitutes, the killers. It was a discourse. The exercise gave me back my faith. History gave me back my faith. I want Filipinos to remember all those events. It is an imperative. I want to share that experience in my films. That is the vision of Ebolusyon.
BW: Which explains why you have integrated archival footage throughout the film, not just of political figures but also of artists like (1) Lino Brocka, whom we are "introduced" to in an extended interview session. Why have you chosen Brocka?
LD: Lino was a spokesperson during the time for artists. He organises the Concerned Artists of the Philippines (CAP), a group that protected the interests of Filipino artists where they could air their views on the country's condition. He compelled artists to speak up, and to fight censorship and corruption. And we owe that to him. We should honor him for his work and we should not forget that. His actions practically tell you that artists must be responsible for their people and country. Given the condition of the Philippines now, we should be very responsible. How can people sleep? How can people do commercial and inane works in a country where the majority is in poverty and which has a very low appreciation of the arts? How can we sleep in an atmosphere of ignorance? Exploiting ignorance is a mortal sin. In my country, a lot of people make millions out of the masses' ignorance: producers, actors, directors and businessmen. We need to help our people culturally. We need to free them from the bondage of ignorance. And cinema has great potential to help them.
BW: Brocka also talks about how the Marcos regime reacted with disgust when his film Insiang (1976) was invited to Cannes in 1978 since it dared to portray the recesses of poverty. This is fascinating for me, especially since Insiang remains one of the most powerful melodramas I have seen.
LD: Those are true events. He shot Insiang in 13 days with a budget of just 800,000 pesos, I heard. But of course, that amount was quite substantial then when the peso was still strong. Insiang remains a strong statement. This was the time when Imelda Marcos was espousing her deluded vision of the Philippines as the land of "the true, the good and the beautiful", the time when everything was covered up: squatter areas walled in and hidden when the Pope visited; the tragic collapse of the film center building that was rushed up for the first Manila International Film Festival foreign figures were dancing and drinking for days oblivious to the fact that workers were buried alive underneath their feet; the so-called desaparecidos or "missing people" usually those who were suspected of alliances with the Left or with communists or just plain people who had aired their views against the dictatorship who were silenced with guns or who had just vanished. And while Imelda was flying all over the world, here was Lino and his little film about our miseries. It was a big film of course. The dictatorship had made moves to stop its showing, especially in Cannes. Lino was a sensationalist, a loudmouth, a great agitator, and so he made things even more dramatic when in 1984 he showed up at the Cannes premiere of another of his films, My Country: Gripping the Knife's Edge (Bayan Ko, Kapit sa Patalim) (1984) wearing a barong with the map of the Philippines in glaring bloody red. It was a show, and though some quarters at Cannes criticized the stunt as desperate and embarrassing, the point was made. They could not silence Lino. Then, during the Cory Aquino years, Lino did Fight For Us (Orapronobis) (1989). Again, it was not released theatrically in the Philippines but shown only at the University of the Philippines. Up till now it has not even been shown theatrically in our country.
BW: Brocka must have gotten into trouble quite a lot during his time. That is frequently the case for people with real balls.
LD: Always, because Lino spoke a lot. He spoke so hard against the dictatorship and against censorship. But he also compromised with producers. He would do five to ten commercial works so that he would be given the freedom to do one good work, and he did that. He sacrificed his aesthetics to be able to do one good work for the country. It was a big sacrifice for him. The conditions back then forced him to do that. The issue was also the survival of our voice and he was one of our voices. Cinema was his medium. Sadly, he died in a car crash in 1991 under mysterious circumstances. His death was so sudden. Sadly too, some filmmakers are using that practice now: do ten or 20 commercial works for the industry and beg for one good work. Oftentimes, greedy producers will not even give that one pitiful deal to these weaklings. They are using the name of Brocka in vain. They are invoking it as some kind of a dictum to validate their stupidity. Brocka did it then because he was dictated by harsh conditions. It was the Marcos years. It was a political move. To practice that now is wrong, even evil.
BW: In a previous interview with Alexis Tioseco, you talked about watching Brocka's Manila in the Claws of Neon (Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag) (1975) and how you realised that this medium could be used to transform people's minds. Surely Marcos must have reacted the same way, but for a different reason.
LD: I was in first-year college and our literature professor assigned us to watch Maynila and make reviews. I was stunned. It was so powerful that time. I remember discussing the film passionately with my classmates. Yes, Marcos knew the use of media and the arts. He knew the dynamics of control and the principle of myth making via these mediums. He was a master of the concept of conditioning. He was very much into that culture the Animal Farm type and so, Lino was an enemy and a threat. Marcos saw it in works like Insiang. Marcos in fact produced a film about his life called Written By Fate (Iginuhit ng Tadhana) when he first ran for president in 1964. He created a myth that he was a war hero. I remember watching it with my parents and my siblings in a jam-packed theater where people were applauding, some hysterically. There was a scene where he annihilated an entire company of Japanese attackers. He used the most popular actors then: Luis Gonzales and Gloria Romero. The film was shown all over the country. Of course, people believed and he won the presidency in a landslide. With its help, he became this strong, charismatic leader. It was such strong propaganda and mass entertainment since Marcos knew the power of the medium. Whether one is in the aesthetic or entertainment domain, cinema is a very powerful medium. It can change peoples' minds and perspectives, but sometimes blindly, as in Marcos' use of it as a political tool.
BW: Another line in Ebolusyon goes, "There are thousands of Hildas and Raynaldos in this country, and unless this system is crushed, this will not stop." What is the regime's most incriminating action that has further paralyzed the poor, thus giving this line its resonance?
LD: Marcos institutionalized corruption in our culture. He practically said, "You can steal; if you are not caught, it is okay. You can kill; if you are not caught, it is okay." He crashed our culture with that philosophy. He did not say that, but he did it. He stole a lot of money. He bribed and silenced people. He instilled those in our culture and they are still there. They are everywhere. Institutionalization of corruption paralyzed the system and our psyche. That is the single most evil thing he did.
BW: Marcos' Executive Order 868 is invoked. What was this pile of bureaucracy about?
LD: He wanted to control the entertainment industry. You submit a film's storyline, treatment or screenplay to the government and they decide if it could be produced. Every artist wanting to do a film had to submit everything. And if they made a film without going through this, it would not be shown. It was a fascistic executive order, just like a lot of the other laws Marcos had enacted during his regime.
BW: Besides censorship, I understand that one reason why Filipino films from the past are largely invisible today is because there have been problems in preserving the works of previous generations of filmmakers.
LD: The thing is we did not have an archival system then. We lost a lot of good works because of neglect and ignorance. There is an organized group called "Sofia" which is conducting archival work now. But it is too late. We have lost practically all of Gerardo de Leon's work. Nobody can see any of it. You can only see maybe three works Sanda Wong (1955), The Moises Padilla Story (1961) and El Filibusterismo (1962), but these are in bad shape. And these may not even be representative of his aesthetic. His being a great director has become a myth. People can only say, "Ah, he is a great director. I saw his work in 1966. It was great." But you cannot see his work now. The same with Gregorio Fernandez only a few of his works survive. The most unfortunate case is Manuel Conde. Almost nothing is left of his oeuvre. Miraculously however, Manuel Silos' Blessings of the Land (Biyaya ng Lupa) (1959) is in good shape. Moreover, it is a good thing that the films of Lamberto V. Avellana are being preserved by the film company owned by the family of Mike de Leon. That is what Mike is doing now. He is cleaning, digitizing and preparing Avellana's works for the public to see. He might mount an Avellana retrospective soon. We met once and he told me the works are great.
BW: On the subject of aesthetics, you hardly use close-ups in Ebolusyon. Is that a choice?
LD: It is a choice. I avoid close-ups when treating the characters I create in my films. I prefer long and oftentimes static takes, just like stasis long, long takes in real time. My philosophy is I do not want to manipulate the audience's emotions. I want them to experience Ebolusyon the way they would experience their normal lives. My goal as much as possible is that I want them to enter my film the way they enter their normal milieus. That is why I do not use a score to supplement, reinforce or heighten an already emotional situation. This is Hollywood's paradigm of drama, where resonance is manipulated and pathos is contrived. Nevertheless, any device is valid depending on one's view of the mise en scPne. Of course, on the level of discourse, it may be argued that manipulation cannot be escaped since the acts of choosing actors, locations and camera angles, and then of shooting and the editing process are already acts of manipulation.
The answer is that in creation, you will have a thousand and one options that represent the truths of your process assuming you, the maker, are the one who makes the decisions. It is a process that would culminate in an eventual dynamic between the film and the viewer, and the viewer and the world. And if you believe that your work can truly be elevated in an aesthetic domain and that it can sustain itself, then its potential for meaning is vast and limitless so that it would be complete. My stand stays on that level. My struggle will stay on that level. I want the audience to see the truth and to discover their truths by experiencing the realities that I am presenting or re-presenting. I respect the audience's capacity to understand, think, be open to a broader view of life, embrace different milieus, cultures, new principles and philosophies; or at another extreme, to confront them, create an atmosphere of discourse, introspection and criticism; or at yet another, to be simply immersed in what they are watching.
Cognition, like culture, is organic, where meaning can flow without imposing manipulative forces or elements. Humankind's capacity to grasp meaning is organic too. Cinema can create this culture. But the real power of cinema comes when there is honesty in the work. You can use or discard all the theories, philosophies and verities that have sprung out of this great modern art but I believe that its greatest value will be that of honesty. And qualifying honesty must always be on the level of responsibility. The search for the truth must always go hand in hand with responsibility. In the case of Filipino audiences, they are always at a losing end, always underestimated and treated like morons who are undeserving of serious works. We have a very irresponsible and dishonest cinema culture in the Philippines. It is all business and bullshit.
Well, I did have close-ups in the early shoots but I used them in the realm of dreams.
BW: But then how do you reconcile the paradox of getting audiences to engage with the "truth" given that cinema can never be "real"?
LD: I believe in the power of the arts, especially cinema that it can change or influence people's perspectives. Cinema is such an encapsulating experience. You go inside the theater. You are immersed in the story. You follow the characters. You are lost in those frames of images. Oftentimes, you will be carried helplessly by that current into a new world discovery, or be carried back to a former world nostalgia. Immersion means living that illusion, and that represents transcending the unreal to the real.
BW: I did feel a measure of discomfort seeing some of your 16mm scenes. They look so ethereal alongside the piercing, high contrast of the digital video ones. Was consistency an issue?
LD: You could not help but compare, I know. The debate is on. I struggled with this and eventually decided to do digital. We did not have much money to do 16mm anymore. It was too expensive. Digital is here and now. Its advent and ascent in the field of filmmaking has become formidable. Nobody can escape digital because it is part of cinema now. You just have to embrace and accept it, and even be a part of it. I struggled. You know, a 16mm image can be quite imposing in its depth and reach. The argument at first would start with issues of logistics but it would then go on to traverse all of cinema's discourses such that the exercise would be pointless. Film is expensive and digital video is cheap. You would need more people in film but you can shoot alone with digital. Film has more depth. Digital is flexible. The prophets of both issues can cite, recite and preach their treatises, theses, hypotheses, agendas and commandments, but the argument must stop because in the end, as in all processes of creation and of doing art, application is the key. Practice is the real medium ultimately. It is up to the maker, the creator, or the artist. You qualify 16mm by application. You qualify 35mm by application. And you qualify digital by application. I have embraced digital video as an inherent part of cinema. There is only cinema.
BW: Three members of Ebolusyon's cast and crew have since passed away. Who are they?
LD: Rey Ventura, the rebel leader, died early 2004. One of the lead actors in New York, Mike Fernandez, died of lung cancer in 2001 when we were shooting Batang West Side. So did his wife who had helped in the production with make-up and food. She died of bone cancer. The couple died in the same year. The last time I saw Rey, he told me, "Take care of me in the film." I did not understand then why he said that. Ebolusyon would be his last film. When he was dying, I did not visit him. I am a very emotional person.
BW: How did Rey die?
LD: He died of complications from bone cancer in Manila but at first doctors did not realize that. They opened his belly twice and took things out. It was a big mistake. It was not his belly but his bones and they realised it was cancer too late. It was plain neglect and irresponsibility on the part of the medical people. They opened him up because he was having some trouble down there. He was a hard drinker, an alcoholic, but a great actor. He drank and chased girls every day. He was like Fassbinder who got out of the bars at dawn. Incidentally, during the inaugural edition of the Manila International Film Festival mentioned in the film, some people said they saw Fassbinder. He was around but did not attend the festival. He was in Malate, the red district, chasing boys. There is a legend that he was lying drunk in the streets, but I do not know if all this is true.
BW: During the making of Ebolusyon, friends no longer became friends. You also went through a divorce. You have been asked this before, but would you volunteer a similar experience if it would mean sacrificing so much?
LD: Yes, this is cinema. This is my life.
BW: But surely life is more important than art. Do you not think you have bigger responsibilities to your loved ones?
LD: I must be responsible for both. One should not neglect something just to be able to do another. I love my kids. I love cinema. They are the same. I love my kids. They are my life. I love cinema. It is my life too. The marriage broke down because of a question of principles. She wanted me to stop cinema. That is death for me. The end of the union was death for me.
BW: Why did she want you to stop cinema?
LD: She got tired after watching me do Batang West Side. It was crazy because I used a lot of our savings for the shoot when we had little of it. And during pre-production, a lot of people were staying in my house in New York. She saw the chaos and maybe the futility of what we were doing. That was one year of chaos. I can understand the condition she was in then. But I have to preserve my self-respect. I am an artist. How am I going to leave cinema? I do respect her decision.
BW: But do you regret her leaving?
LD: There is always regret but you have to accept trade offs. If you do things, especially when guided by an ideal perspective or in an uncompromising stance, then you just have to accept the trade offs. These are not easy but are in fact painful. Things will happen. Be ready. You will lose friends. You will lose maybe a family member, like what happened to my wife and I. You will lose your sanity, like Van Gogh. You will lose your life, as did Vigo, Tarkovsky, Pasolini, Nick Drake and Rilke. But what can you do? That is a trade off. That is life actually. Somehow, one has to move on, but it is extremely painful. There is always this unfathomable sadness because you are perennially alone. Solitude. You die but your art will live. I believe in that. For every work you do you die and then your art lives.
BW: Do you feel that Ebolusyon lives in the hearts and minds of the Toronto audience?
LD: I think they liked it. They have been enlightened and have experienced a new form, especially for Filipinos used to watching formulaic two hour Hollywood and Philippine industry movies. They were shocked to see it but the response has been good, except for some people who had questioned the length. An old man, a Filipino, kept bugging me, "Why is it so slow? Make it faster." He was funny but also seriously angry, or should I say disturbed. He said Filipinos were not like that. He could not figure if his concern was the length, the context of the film or the almost real time treatment to many scenes. I just laughed and tapped his shoulder. I expected that. It is an initial reaction. But I am glad they were disturbed and more importantly, that they were able to sit through the story because this is all about our struggle and history. It will tell you some truths about our people. This is not commercial entertainment or the usual escapist crap. I do not see myself entertaining people. And I definitely will not entertain people on the basis of my people's miseries.
BW: I tend to think of your recent films in terms of flying times rather than running times. Long haul flights may want to consider screening them. Is there a motive for mounting such provocative durations?
LD: The hardest thing in art is to capture the truth: to present a truth, to catch even a semblance of truth, or to be part of truth. Truly, it is not easy to find meaning, to present meaning, or to embrace new meaning. We can thus ask, what then is essential in art? Vision? Truth? Representation? Or simply expression? Where do we place nature, dreams, feelings, experience, death all these realms that connect us to our existence? Is truth then just a concept? Is art then important at all? Even the greatest philosophers struggled with those problems while the greatest artists struggled to fathom the most complex and simplest of life's ironies, paradoxes and ambiguities. It is really hard to capture the truth, to find answers, and to grasp meaning. And it is even harder to present your truth.
And to go back to your premise that cinema is never real: if it is never real, then why struggle for the truth, why strive to find meaning? And if cinema is never real, do we have to struggle for the real? I answered this question a while back. I described the process of the unreal becoming the real by way of transcension: through presentation or re-presentation and then by experiencing the fulfilment of a dynamic. And I also said that the foundation of a truthful work should be honesty and responsibility. My struggle lies here: my so-called vérité or aesthetic stand.
In Ebolusyon, I am capturing real time. I am trying to experience what these people are experiencing. They walk. I must experience their walk. I must experience their boredom and sorrows. I would go to any extent in my art to fathom the paradox that is the Filipino. I would go to any extent in my art to fathom the mystery of humankind's existence. I want to understand death. I want to understand solitude. I want to understand struggle. I want to understand the philosophy of a growing flower in the middle of a swamp. My cinema must explore and confront all my questions and discourses in a no-nonsense manner. How I wish I could do a 15-hour film about walking characters. In the film's central death scene, I want the audience to experience the afflictions of my people who have been agonizing for so long under the Spaniards for more than 300 years, under the Americans for almost 100 years till now, under the Japanese for four years, and then under Marcos for more than 20 years till now too. I want people to experience our agony. That is the death scene of the Filipinos. I wanted it longer, believe me. It could have been longer if not for a kid with a bicycle who came in. I cut like seven minutes of it because the kid interrupted the shot. So that could explain the "flying time" concept. It is more of a vision than a motive.
BW: Will Ebolusyon travel after Toronto?
LD: There are official invitations from Rotterdam and Göteborg, as well as Singapore and Hong Kong. This is amazing. It is not complete and people are inviting it. That's cool. It has been hard work over the last ten years, but it is sad that we had to delete the US scenes so that they are not part of the story anymore. When I was watching all the footage and structuring things in my mind, I realised they could not fit.
BW: Ebolusyon runs the risk of not being able to reach out to as many people as intended for obvious reasons. At the post-screening discussion on the first night, there was a pressing question precisely about this from a young Filipino man this time where his point was that you want as many people to appreciate the film, but realistically, so few are able to command a ten-hour threshold.
LD: True. That is understandable. But if you cannot sit through ten hours this time, I will wait for you. Maybe ten years from now you can watch it. I will wait for that. Art can wait. There is no rush. We cannot rush. Filipinos have been watching the paradigm given by Hollywood and the industry for almost 100 years. It has been my people's food since they were forced to swallow it. How can you expect them to sit for ten hours? How can you expect them to immediately understand that cinema is not just a two-hour affair that there really is no cardinal rule if you do art? So there, it is okay. We will wait. Art can wait. Ebolusyon will always be there. Ten years from now, 50 years from now, people will be watching. People will be able to catch up. They are very capable of that. I was accused of being so stubborn. But that is the truth. Art must be stubborn.
1. Lino Brocka is in fact portrayed in a series of re-enactment interviews by Filipino film critic and scholar Gino Dormiendo, whom Diaz asserts is an absolute dead ringer for the late director where looks and impersonation are concerned. If not for Diaz's revelation, audiences unfamiliar with Brocka would be none the wiser for recognition.
Alexis Tioseco, "An Interview With Lav Diaz", Indiefilipino.com, December 18, 2002.
Lav Diaz Filmography
The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion (Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion) (1998)
Burger Boys (1999)
Naked Under The Moon (Hubad sa Ilalim ng Buwan) (1999)
Batang West Side (2002)
Hesus, The Revolutionary (Hesus Rebolusyunaryo) (2002)
Evolution Of A Filipino Family (Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino) (2004)
Step No, Step Yes (1988)
© Brandon Wee, November 2004
Brandon Wee lives in Toronto.
Salutes to Vinita Ramani and Steve Gravestock for their support and assistance.
This article first appeared in Senses of Cinema 2004.