An interview with Lav Diaz, the Filipino master of slow cinema

Known for the epic duration of his films, Lav Diaz returns to the BFI London Film Festival this year with Genus Pan, another of his visionary journeys into the contested past of his native Philippines.

Genus Pan (2020)

Uncompromising writer-director Lav Diaz’s latest feature is a (shorter than usual) 2½ hour journey across the rural island of Hugaw exploring the past and present of the Philippines. 

Following the physical and spiritual journey of 3 miners back to their home village, Genus Pan illuminates the struggles of the rural working class within the contested space of Filipino social history. Diaz has created a potent allegorical picture of human greed and its irretrievable consequences, with the stark black-and-white cinematography and tableaux vivant compositions lending a sense of universality and timelessness to the locally-rooted subject matter. 

With almost 40 titles under his belt, Diaz’s work since the early 2000s has been remarkably consistent in terms of both ethical stance and political indignation. The goal of his filmmaking is to explore how his own culture has been marked by the catastrophes of colonisation and dictatorship since the 16th century. 

For Diaz, confronting the traumas of the past and how they infect the present offers a path to redemption. A leading exponent of slow cinema, Diaz’s filmmaking reflects his commitment to capturing in real time the suffering and sorrow of his characters, meditating on the in-between moments of everyday life and resisting the constriction of conventional Hollywood running times.

Following last year’s 4-hour-plus The Halt, a sci-fi film set in a dystopian future Manila, Genus Pan deservedly won the Orizzonti Award for best director at this year’s Venice Film Festival. It’s a deep rumination on the violent, obsessive, territorial and narcissistic nature of human beings, serving as an urgent reminder that we must never give up the fight against exploitation and oppression.

Genus Pan expands on your 2018 short film Hugaw, which was part of Journeys, an omnibus project with Kidlat Tahimik and Brillante Mendoza. I understand that your work often evolves in a fluid and organic way, being adaptable to various unforeseen circumstances and forces of nature. I am curious to hear about the process of developing and transforming Hugaw to the stand-alone Genus Pan. 

Lav Diaz: It was a 37-minute short film – well, maybe 38 minutes or 40 – which became part of an omnibus commissioned in 2015, and only found fulfilment around 2017. That work was quite surreal, having no clear narrative, no clear denouement – 3 men journeying back to their cursed and forgotten island. 

I intentionally wanted just a feel, a more physical and visceral view of the extremely marginalised struggles and conditions of the inhabitants of the remotest spheres of the Philippines. I shot the film on a very far flung island. 

While shooting it, threads for a larger work started playing in my head. So, months after the short was done, my small crew, the actors and I were back on the island. I added characters and worked on a clearer narrative and a bigger discourse.

Genus Pan (2020)

Could you tell us a little more about each character? We sense that each of them perhaps embodies allegorical references rooted in Filipino society, and yet this might be difficult for outsiders to fully grasp.

The characters in the film reference common archetypes in the lowest strata of our culture. During the writing process, which I was doing during the shoot itself, I focused on creating a story on a distinct realm and culture, the lumpen-proletarian sector, who struggle invisibly in the rural underbellies, in the darkest and most perilous illegal mining grounds and a milieu obstructed perennially by controlling forces. 

I’m quite familiar with that kind of sociological structure and the characters involved in it as I grew up in such a setting. I worked more on fulfilling a discourse on the nuances and fractures of the marginalised and the helpless, and the imposing and imperious forces around them. The whole framework of the film would easily and fluidly take the form of an allegory, which could represent both the macro and micro structures of Filipino culture, specifically its very feudal and atavistic setup. 

The use of ‘sir’ in this film seems to be deliberate and to indicate cultural specificity, yet I wonder if this gets lost in translation somewhat through the subtitles.

Lav Diaz: Malay languages in south-east Asia commonly use some kind of prefixes on older/elder people’s names when addressing them, as gestures of respect. Tagalog, the language of the characters, profusely uses prefixes, and in the film, there’s an abundance of Mang and Kuya for an elder man or older brother, Manang and Ate/Ateng for an elder woman or older sister. Andres addresses the 2 older ones with Mang before their names. And there are the ubiquitous words po and opo often heard being spoken, which are also used for the same gesture and in addressing a person with distinct position in the community – for example, a teacher, priest, public official, military or police officer, village chief, doctor. For the subtitles, the nearest English translations would be sir for male and ma’am for the distaff side, and sir or ma’am for both po and opo.

Genus Pan (2020)

As is often the case, you were also the cinematographer for this film. Could you tell us about the aesthetic decisions you made for this film? For example, the camera is almost always in a fixed position (except for 2 scenes); the perspective is always a long shot, reminiscent of the age-old tableau vivant, which gives the film a mythical quality.

The camera takes the invisible observer and the placements or so-called framing are just there to reinforce a so-called narrative and a flow and show a world. I avoid using the camera in an ostentatious manner. I see cinema as an inherent part of the world’s course and narrative. So, when the camera suddenly moves in the last part of the film, it is because it becomes the perspective of Mariposa, with her Inggo-imposed account of the crime; it is now appropriating a part of the discourse, in this film, the dichotomy of truth and lie.

I want to ask you about the use of music. At the beginning of the film, we hear a type of folk song played by the miners, then towards the end we hear a hymn being sung. Since no other music is used in this film, which is the case in most of your films, it gives the scene a powerful resonance. Could you reflect on the power of singing in this film, and the importance of music as human sound in your filmmaking?

The film opens with a normal morning gathering of the miners, after they have had breakfast or just having coffee or preparing for work, and there’s the singing and sharing of a kundiman song. This is a very natural communal act. A kundiman is a very unique genre of Filipino ballad, usually melancholic; it is a commitment to love, to a relationship, a yearning for a loved one, a longing for a lost love, but it sometimes takes the form of a greater perspective, a dream of freedom for the country under the guise of a love song. The greatest Filipino revolutionary song was a love song called ‘Jocelynang Baliwag’. During the revolution against Spain (1886-98), the revolutionaries carried and sang this ballad in battle and in their grief.

The second song, the one sung by the woman healer, is a lamentation, albeit it remains communal as it is conducted during a visit by her tribe. She talks about the death of her husband and son. The song candidly tells about the brutal murders, the torment inculcated on the psyche of the victims’ loved ones, the struggle to get justice and the truth, and ultimately tackling the dream of emancipation for the displaced tribe.

The singing in the last part of the film is called pasyon in Filipino. It’s a ritual traditionally practiced during Holy Week or Lent. The pasyonistas, mostly women, would gather in a constructed hut called istasyon (representing the Stations of the Cross in Christian tradition), where they would read verses from the Bible (in the vernacular translation) on the suffering of Jesus Christ. They would do this daily through the whole week appropriating the day-to-day travails of Jesus leading to his crucifixion and ascent to heaven. The tune is usually improvised, and via repetition it will eventually morph into a sorrowful and enchanting chorus. 

By using music, hymns and songs as natural and real parts of the real narrative, not as technical adornment or decoration, they become fundamental parts of the discourse of the film. In this film, the discourse on community, lamentation and ritual is innately reinforced by the songs because they are coming from the protagonists themselves.