Interview: LAV DIAZ

English Daily #1
Besides serving as the Jury President at GAIFF, film auteur Lav Diaz presents six of his films in a retrospective that honors the vast oeuvre of this Filipino film master. In addition, his 2008 opus Melancholia will be presented during the festival in installation form, alongside works by Armenian visual artists that evoke their own form of the titular melancholy that’s at the heart of Diaz’ film.

Mostly known for his lengthy black-and-white works that can easily cross the eight hour mark, it’s easy to reduce Lav Diaz’ form of making film to “slow cinema”, but that doesn’t do justice to the intrinsic quality of his work. Diaz doesn’t only challenge conventional notions of time and duration in film, he also raises poignant questions about the way film can address the vastness of physical space and can hone in on the many layers of stories under the surface of a specific locale. In his case, Diaz addresses the historical hubris of life in the Philippines, examining a history of violence traumatized by colonialism, dictatorship and populism. Even though his films can evoke some sort of calmness, a simmering rage is what ties Diaz’ oeuvre together. You can feel it in the colonial critiques of A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, the neo-noir revenge plot of The Woman Who Left and most recently in his indictments of the Marcos and Duterte era’s in respectively A Tale of Filipino Violence (2022) and When the Waves Are Gone (2022).

That latter film sees Diaz in an exceptionally angry form, returning to expressive 16mm celluloid cinematography to capture the evil forces that are roaming around the Philippines. It’s a story as old as time itself: about how violence begets violence, how history repeats itself in cyclical patterns and how escaping the confines of your own mind is seemingly impossible. As such, the hauntingly menacing When the Waves Are Gone is a perfect entrypoint in the rich tapestry of Lav Diaz’ filmography.

Even though many of your films are politically engaged, the feelings of anger are even more pronounced in When the Waves Are Gone, which reckons with the moral state of the Philippines right now. Is it a matter of letting your anger out through your work?

“Yes, it's a very angry film, and it's very personal to me. And indeed, you can see in the film that there is this pent up feeling, the gamut of all the anger that is going through my mind. Not just the anger of being a witness to what's happening in my country, but also being a witness to what's happening in the world at large. The shoot of this film coincided with the pandemic and then eventually with the war in Ukraine. I guess you could call it a witnessing of the world — that's what I'm doing with my cinema. So with When the Waves Are Gone, it's more of just letting it all out. Especially with the ending, where I just said that we are all criminals. We are all complicit to this thing. The murders of people, the murder of the earth, the murder of morality. It's all of us.”

What the film very succinctly shows is this downward cyclical, how things are turning gradually worse. You've been making films for a couple of decades now. Do you feel that's a thing you have to reckon with as well, that you make these politically engaged films and it can result in a sense of disappointment that the world is only seemingly turning for the worse instead of for the better?

“Yeah, there is this sense of desperation, actually, because we know that there are no answers. There's no resolution or solution. Mankind can’t even resolve its own problems. Even the issue of violence alone is unconquerable, in a way, and you cannot resolve it. So, yes, my cinema is very desperate at this point. you know. There is this sense that we're losing it, but we're also not giving up. That's why we're still making cinema. I don't want to sugarcoat it. I’m not saying ‘hope is coming tomorrow’, but we do have to move. We have to act. There's some kind of radical action that's needed. We need mass movements and intellectual discourse that get through to the masses. But it's not really happening. Intellectuals, the academia, the middle class, were all complicit to this thing. Even artists, cultural workers like me, we fail big time.”

With A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery and A Tale of Filipino Violence you go back to certain past time frames, respectively the colonial era and the times of the Marcos regime. What is your strategy or philosophy when you delve in the past of your country?

“For me, it's more about educating my people and educating the world. That's why I anchor my works to very specific epochs, specific periods in the history of my country.

Because these are the facts. And you can uncover the discourse on what happened to the Filipino struggle with these periods. Besides that, you can see that these periods still mirror what's happening today. They resonate so much to what's been going on, and we're just helpless about it. For me it's a responsibility. I can't just make another film where it doesn't really ruminates on these things. I have to do it. It's easy to do an avant-garde work, not caring about anything, you know? It's easy to do a blockbuster film that says nothing. It's just following the formula.”

Especially with Lullaby, partially due to its lengthy treatment of the material, there’s a sense that you can spend actual time with these historic characters that sit by a campfire, discuss courses of history or even break out in a song. Your work is reduced to statement about the length of your films, rather than engaging with what happens within them. Isn’t it a shame that people don’t see these films as an invitation to dive deeper into these story worlds?

“I agree. With Lullaby, it’s about the vastness. It's very rich, because I mix three different trajectories or three different stories. It’s so vast that I wish the film could be over forty hours. Because there's a lot more to it. There's so many threads to be unraveled on and I would like to keep that going.”

You've often went back to literature, channeling Tolstoj and in the case of When the Waves Are Gone adapting Alexandre Dumas. Within the world of literature, the length of a book is rarely discussed, so why do we still treat film with that same utilitarian, almost commercial regard?

“I don't know why we still have that kind of mentality about cinema. That it must be just two hours or less. I don't know what's wrong with that kind of psyche, that kind of limited perspective. I've been trying to resolve that as well in my mind. How can people not move to a level where film is treated like the novel, or is treated like an epic poem, or like a long psalm or long hymn?”

It seems like you want to bring film back to a kind of pre-modern tradition of transference via art?

“That’s how I use my film language. I treat it as some kind of a time-space thing, where it is not part of the current conventions. I create film in a way that it can manifest in our own daily lives. It's a long work, yes, but that work can be part of your entire life. Because the discourse in the film is part of your life. It’s not just entertainment. No, it must be part of your life. It must be part of the discourse of your life.”

Hugo Emmerzael