Lav Diaz: “Art is a commitment to the beauty of the soul”

The Filipino director of rich and often extraordinarily long films is busier than ever. He talks about his spiritual approach to filmmaking, which helps him follow a thread through a story, whether the shoot lasts several years or just two weeks.

Jonathan Romney

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Lav Diaz: "I love American cinema, it’s been my food for ever"

Lav Diaz: "I love American cinema, it’s been my food for ever"

The last year and a half has been a remarkably busy period for Lav Diaz – but then, it seems as if there’s no such thing as downtime for the phenomenally productive Filipino writer-director, whose films usually run to extraordinary lengths. But of late, it has also been a very rich time for Diaz’s admirers, in terms of how much they have been able to see from an often-elusive filmography. In February last year, Diaz’s 480-minute A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery played in competition in Berlin; only seven months later, his Tolstoy-inspired follow-up The Woman Who Left, entirely conceived and completed in the interim, won the Golden Lion in Venice.

This year, the director’s followers have been able to catch up with several of his films in an extended season on MUBI – his first online retrospective, including the ten-hour Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004), the two-and-a-half-hour documentary Storm Children: Book One (2014) and – currently showing – 2011’s Century of Birthing, with 2014 Locarno winner From What is Before to follow. In the UK in March, there was a Diaz exhibition at the University of Westminster’s London Gallery West, together with a symposium and the opportunity to catch Batang West Side (2002). Something of an anomaly in Diaz’s canon, this film is a vividly shot neo-noir drama in colour, set in New York among the Filipino diaspora, and involving an exiled cop’s attempt to solve the killing of a young man – an investigation that spirals out into a diverse panorama of Filipino characters and themes (exile, drug trafficking, corruption, identity, redemption).

A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis, 2016)

A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis, 2016)

When I talked to Lav Diaz during his London visit, it immediately became clear that, even after his recent burst of activity, he’s hardly been slacking. He has recently been working on a novel, provisionally entitled The Black Tower, involving a mysterious room that reveals a stash of writings by an anonymous poet: within the novel, Diaz says, will be “short stories, poems, directions leading to some investigations…” The only problem is working out how to finish it, as there are so many characters.

He plans to end the year by shooting a film in Japan, inspired by the experiences of his aunt, who survived a Japanese massacre of her village in World War II. But before that, Diaz is completing his new feature – a musical set in 1976 but which, he says, is essentially about the current president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, notorious for his aggressive pursuit of an anti-drugs policy that has resulted in thousands of killings.

The film, Diaz says, involves “a composite of power icons in the country – the stereotype village head, military head. I was alone in Harvard, in this big room, and I had my guitar, so I was writing songs. We were trying to shoot a film noir, but it changed. The actors were saying, ‘We thought we were going to play gangsters!’ It changed, what can I do? There’s an urgency to this work. We have to engage with this guy [Duterte] – in small ways, but with integrity.”

Norte, the End of History

Norte, the End of History

You use the word ‘urgency’, and you seem to seize every possible opportunity to make films. How do you do you live? What do you do when you’re not filming?

(Laughs) When I’m not making films, I go back to New York and I stay with my kids. They’re grownups and I have a grandson. I tend to my little garden in New York, and if I’m not there I have a little farm in the south [of the Philippines], in Mindanao. But there’s this militarisation happening there again now, it’s dangerous to go back. I don’t know what’s happening to my fruit now!

You have a unique way of making films – you are committed to a permanent activity in which a film could take any length of time to make.

For me, it’s like what I do with my kids, and tending my plants – it’s very spiritual, just making cinema my own way and having faith that it can at least help us. For me, it’s a very simple contribution, a critique of the human condition here and there. That’s the urgency to me – having that spiritual journey, doing my cinema, taking care of my kids and my rice field, it’s the same.

You famously make unusually long films that not only make particular demands of time and attention on the viewer, but that don’t fit easily into conventional festival programmes.

They’re physical, they’re corporeal, they’re demanding, you miss five other films if you watch one of mine. There’s a trade-off, of course – I can assure you that you can see humanity in my films, there will be something that you can maybe discover – about yourself, not just about my culture or whatever.

A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis, 2016)

A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis, 2016)

The films of yours that I’ve seen recently are all completely different. The Woman Who Left is realist, A Lullaby for the Sorrowful Mystery is a sort of magic realist fairy tale, Batang West Side a hard-edged crime story. They’re all unmistakably yours, but what’s the sensibility that connects them?

The one constant in my work is that I always go back to some epoch. In a lot of them, there are references to the martial law years [under Ferdinand Marcos in the 70s]. I grew up during that very, very dark period. Evolution of a Filipino Family is about a family who survived in the context of a very militarised authoritarian set-up. Batang West Side is set in a foreign milieu but it’s still about the trauma created by martial law.

Lullaby… is pretty much about the years of colonisation under Spain, but there’s a big reference also to the turmoil of the present, where it’s still very feudal – the ruling families maintain the status quo. From What Is Before is about the two years before martial law was declared, and the new musical is set four years into martial law. The vicious cycle is happening again, so we have to contextualise it now as a critique of this.

Batang West Side is partly about the traffic in meth (known as shabu) and there’s a massive drug war going on right now…

It’s the same drug. The government is using it as a pretext for killing all these people. [Duterte] promised to emancipate the masses from the curse of drugs and poverty and neglect. They don’t want uncertainty now, they’ve been hurt, they’ve been neglected, so now he comes and says, “You see, I’m cleaning up the mess, I’m killing the junkies…” It’s about maintaining the myth, that messianic perspective – it’s pure evil, working on the emotions of the masses.

From What is Before (Mula Sa Kung Ano Ang Noon, 2014)

From What is Before (Mula Sa Kung Ano Ang Noon, 2014)

Batang was your fifth film, after four studio features, but the first time you explored extended time. Why did you take that leap?

It wasn’t a leap. I was waiting for the chance. Even before that, the first film I started shooting was Evolution in 1993. I started doing that in Maryland, in New York, in Virginia, when I was a journalist. I bought this 16mm camera and every weekend I would buy these very expensive rolls of 16[mm], and we would shoot. I was only able to finish it after 11 years. I shot Batang in 2000 – I was waiting for a chance to impose that kind of framework.

Batang West Side very much feels like gritty US neo-noir, with echoes of Scorsese, Abel Ferrara, Michael Mann’s Thief… What’s your relationship to US cinema?

Of course, yeah, the darkness of Abel’s work, it’s there. I love American cinema, it’s been my food for ever – from B movies to the great works, they’ve been showing these things in Manila, and even in the place where I grew up.

Your films are sometimes very realistic, but you also use broad archetypes – figures who feel as if they belong in melodrama, who may be completely evil or completely virtuous, like the constantly martyred heroine of Florentina Hubaldo CTE (2012).

That’s cinema. Archetypes are important. If you do melodrama, then Filipinos will watch it – we’re very melodramatic. I’m not afraid to be sentimental.

You grew up in a Muslim area but you were raised Catholic, although you abandoned religion later. How much is your interest in redemption and spiritual themes to do with your upbringing?

A big influence for the idea of redemption and sacrifice is from my parents. They were young Christian workers, and when the government opened up Mindanao, which was still unexplored and uninhabited by so-called ‘civilised’ people, they volunteered. My father could have been a great leader if he had pursued politics, his mind is really great, but his altruism is really a ruling character of his life, so he dedicated his life to that.

The Woman Who Left (2016)

The Woman Who Left (2016)

We lived in places you wouldn’t think people could live – we lived in the middle of the forest. We questioned it when we were young: “Why can’t we live in Manila?” He said, “No, we need to educate these people.” For him, it was a commitment that you couldn’t break. It was only later that I understood, when I was growing up and I was going through the aesthetic domain of my struggle in the arts, I said, “Oh, that’s why my father’s like that” – and art should be like that. It’s a commitment to aesthetics, to the beauty of the soul.

Speaking on stage in London, you said it was fundamental to the Filipino or Malay mindset that everything is about cycles of destruction and recreation, because of the weather conditions in that region of the world.

Yes, it’s very cyclical. We have that cycle of death and rebirth, regeneration and destruction, and we’re OK with that. In the Philippines, especially in the typhoon belt, the southern parts, they believe in that. I lived in the period for more than a year, I shot three films there – one day the storm came and destroyed the whole village, 300 families, and the survivors just said, “We accept it, it’s nature, we’ll build again.” It’s a very Malay perspective. It’s not Catholic, it’s Malay. And we still have it.

What is your relationship with audiences in the Philippines? I know you’re now using commercially known actors such as John Lloyd Cruz and (veteran film and TV star turned media executive) Charo Santos-Concio.

In the last two works, yeah. John Lloyd played the transgender character in The Woman Who Left, and he was in Lullaby – so you’d expect the public to come, but no. They said, “It’s so serious, we couldn’t take it.” The Woman… had a one-week run in so many theatres, but you’d see five or ten people – you’d expect them to come because it’s got Charo, omnipresent on TV, and John Lloyd, one of the most popular faces in the country. Audiences are so used to commercial work, it’s such a long struggle.

Storm Children, Book One (Mga Anak ng Unos, 2014)

Storm Children, Book One (Mga Anak ng Unos, 2014)

How do your long films evolve in the making? I believe it often happens that actors drop out in mid-shoot, and you change your scripts accordingly, adapting to circumstances.

I learned that method when I was doing Evolution – it took 10 years, so I learned how to be organic, how to be fluid. When I was doing Evolution, people were dying, people were leaving, we had to adjust to that. You may not follow the original storyline, just follow new threads – if an actor died, I’d just study the footage and think, “Maybe I can connect this thing and that thing…” It’s the same as life, it flows that way, you can’t control it. If an actor leaves, I can’t do anything about it, but I will not stop doing the film. You follow another thread.

Between Berlin and Venice last year you made a whole film (The Woman Who Left) from start to finish. How did that happen?

I had a very brief moment with Charo in Berlin, and she said, “I want to act again if there’s material that’s really good.” That night I remembered the Tolstoy story, I thought it would fit her, although Tolstoy’s protagonist is a man. It was just an inspiration – after two days I wrote a storyline.

We prepared for two months, and the shoot was 14 days. Charo asked where I wanted to shoot, I said, “I’m thinking of [the city of] Calapan Mindoro” – I didn’t realise that she was born there. She said, “I haven’t been there for almost 40 years.” When we went there, she knew everybody – old people were crying to see her. And it helped the film, because she knew the culture of the place. It became so easy – I was writing the script every day, I would wake up at 2am and write four scenes for that day. Just following threads.

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