Wednesday, December 26, 2007
By Robert Koehler
Cinema Scope Magazine
Time, it’s on Lav Diaz’s side. “Malay time,” he said after the Toronto screening of his nine-hour-and-five-minute Death in the Land of Encantos. “I’m a Malay as much—maybe more—than I am a Filipino. We Malays are governed more by space and nature than conventional time.” What underlies the shattering and disturbing reality of Diaz’s new work is a stunning 2006 catastrophe: nature, in the form of the profoundly devastating Super Typhoon Durian, combined with the explosive power of the Mayon volcano, wiped out physical space—the Bicol region on the central island of Luzon—along with thousands of innocents. In the face of this, and in the experience of watching Death in the Land of Encantos from beginning to end, time itself dissolves. In fact, Diaz controls the sense of time to such a degree that it no longer matters. In his hands, we all become Malay.
This is just one of the paradoxes to ponder about Diaz’s cinema, which has helped frame—though not imperiously define—the new independent Filipino cinema over the past decade. In a group of relative youngsters, Diaz is the wise elder, and his work, starting with Batang West Side (2002), gave permission to a generation to radically question the precepts of an overwhelmingly crass and commercial film culture whose past rebels, like Lino Brocka, are so rare that they’re treated like mythical heroes.
Now that Raya Martin, John Torres, and the rest have come into their own—forming the most dynamic and daring national cinema anywhere—it’s thrilling to see Diaz graze deeper into his own Malay ecosystem, where viewer adaptation to local conditions is absolutely essential, where certain categories can be tossed out with the trash. This creates some vexing, even hilarious, situations as festivals don’t quite know how to classify and exhibit the wild and roaming Lav. In Venice, The Orrizonti jury gave Encantos a special prize, but Venice programmers had slotted it in Orrizonti’s documentary category, even though Encantos is emphatically not a documentary. Toronto programmed it in a comfy, small screening room where viewers could stretch out, have a small table for food, and co-exist with the movie for most of an entire day. But Toronto’s catalogue note tried to titillate with some bizarre nonsense about “a graphic, extended lovemaking session,” while the well-intended idea to include the film in the festival’s new “Future Projections” section was a mistake. Sure, one could wander into the Spin Gallery to catch some scenes (then wander back several minutes later and think you were watching the same scene, even though you actually weren’t), but the film was plainly not served well.
The only real way to be with Diaz’s cinema is to sit in a pitch-dark room, watch, and let the outside world peel and drop away. Besides, a genuine epic is being told. In Durian’s wake, a poet named Benjamin Agustan (Roeder Camanag) returns to his home village, Padang, to see if any family members survived and if there’s anything left to salvage. Significantly, Benjamin is a leftist poet, a victim of torture by ruthless state security police, an exile who has spent several years in Russia. He returns to a place of apocalypse and ghosts, where the landscape has become downright lunar and the few trees left are awkward sticks in the ground, but also where, amazingly enough, a pair of old artist friends—sculptor Catalina (Angeli Bayani) and fellow poet Teodoro (Perry Dizon)—are trying to continue to live and work.
Benjamin has to adjust and dial down from the metropolitan, civilized but also odd and dislocating life he’s led in Russia (“Russians,” he tells Teodoro, “are a strange race—they’re Europeans, and not Europeans”) to this utterly denuded and tragic world, in which one’s sense of home has been ripped out and tossed away. Benjamin’s poetic instincts are both fueled and burdened by the memories of past lovers; an ex-lover looks very real as she’s nude, lying on her bed, but recurring images also seem to make her into a spectre, while a strange nighttime Zagreb setting is the basis for thoughts of another lost love. (Here, Diaz does something that Torres specializes in, salvaging footage from another film—in this case, an unfinished short about Filipino ghouls adrift in Eastern Europe—using it for other purposes and altering its context.) Benjamin’s memories grow especially intense concerning his family, including a mother who had long ago gone insane.
As he had developed over the course of making Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004) and Heremias (2006), Diaz establishes concrete reality and facts alongside a nearly mystical state of mind that at first occupies and eventually permeates the work. This shift precisely tracks the filmmaking process. Encantos did indeed begin as non-fiction; the former reporter Diaz dashed to Bicol (where he made his previous two films) two weeks after Durian hit to record the environmental and human conditions. Clearly, although he hasn’t said such, he discovered an extraordinary stage expressing a cosmic tragedy that called for some kind of narrative. The typhoon’s actual victims speak to Diaz’s camera, but the fictitious characters inside Encantos speak and walk inside a patiently conceived deep focus mise en scène, like somnambulistic beings out of I Walked with a Zombie (1943). They have enough time and space to ponder many things: the existence of a deity, the state of their country, the alchemy between nature and art (Catalina explains that she makes her sculptures from Mayon’s lava, as a way of taming it), how mortal beings become ghosts (Catalina to Benjamin: “You’re like a ghost—you go away, and then you reappear”).
There are many examples of how Diaz manages this interpolation of the concrete and ineffable, but one in particular stands out so impressively that it becomes a signature effect. His fixed DV camera, shooting in wide angle to better encompass a massive landscape, runs for minutes, sometimes even over ten, until something happens: a figure in the far distance appears. When does it appear? I’ve watched this phenomenon since Evolution, and despite intense concentration, I can never spot the exact moment when the character materializes on screen. It’s a cinema viewing experience without parallel, exactly recreating what happens if one were to stand in a large landscape and wait for a person to arrive from the extreme distance.
Several scenes have Benjamin suddenly emerging within such a space, reinforcing Catalina’s remark. By the seventh and eighth hours of Encantos, Benjamin is trapped between this reality and Bicol’s shadow world. Camanag stumbles around in a near-dead stupour, buffeted by the loss of his family, his failed attempts to make sense of his mother’s madness, and his inability to stoke some sort of love with Catalina, collapses in a heap as if the air’s been sucked out of him. Art has the last word: Catalina recites a vivid, stark chunk of Benjamin’s verse (written by Diaz, proving that he’s a poet of the first degree) that brings him back to life. Even a closing flashback of Benjamin being tortured doesn’t detract from the poem’s efficacy.
With such declarative expressions of art, Diaz is encouraging the viewer to free-associate with a basket teeming with cultural—mostly Western—associations. It’s impossible to consider his awed shots of the perfectly conical and gorgeously intimidating Mayon, in combination with Benjamin’s gradual dissolution, and not think of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Just as it is to gaze upon the impossibly rocky landscapes over stretches of extended time and not recall L’avventura (1960). Then there’s Rilke, whose apt quote, “Beauty is the beginning of terror,” opens Encantos. Images of Pudovkin and Tarkovsky tumble into the mind when Benjamin and Teodoro discuss Russia. And then there are the two great poles of theatre history, that are here elegantly folded into each other: Aeschylus’ voice of personal and national tragedy in the form of lament and pure grief, and Beckett’s existential comedy, the endless wait for the thing that will never transpire. But the wait, the wait…the bliss in that wait, the physical stamp—exhaustion, giddiness, discomfort—felt by watching that wait is the special, new thing that Lav Diaz has brought.
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
By Nil Baskar
In the global film festival circuit, the screenings of the works of the Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz have become somewhat of a cinematic festivity in themselves, a festivity of endurance, which brings into being a certain sense of solidarity between the viewers participating in such a banquet of cinema.
Demanding as they are, the works of Lav Diaz usually present a challenge to the logic of film festivals — for the most part a logic of consumption, where one often feels that the new cinema is being hastily processed and packed for further use. On such terms it becomes excessively difficult to see films such as Death in the Land of Encantos (Kagadanan sa banwaan ning mga Engkanto, 2007) for what they really are — a solitary beacon for an ethical cinema — and increasingly easy to dismiss them with all kinds of pretexts. The Ljubljana Film Festival thus certainly deserves a cinephile salute for not shying away from showing a nine-hour long film. However, the Slovenian Cinematheque, where the screening took place, deserves extreme admonishment: not only was the quality of the screening substandard (one would think that a state-subsidized pillar of film culture could afford to maintain a decent digital projection system), but the heating in the hall was turned off too, surely to save at least some of the taxpayers' money.
Despite that, Death in the Land of Encantos proved to be a wholly enchanting experience, both a lesson in cinema's capacity to profoundly shape time and space, as well as a rediscovery of its fundamental gestures, of conceiving and associating images with true artistic and political necessities. It confirmed that the work of Lav Diaz is not unique because of its epic length, but because of its original ideas and its confidence in telling a story with purely cinematic means — something that is becoming quite rare and even strange to observe in these times, when it seems that so much of contemporary cinema has elected a noncommittal and ironic detachment from everything and anything. Diaz's cinema, in contrast, is radically non-ironic (at least in the post-modern sense of irony, that is), committed and attached — perhaps even too attached: all of its many people, things, moments, ideas are equally important, all of them constitute an image of a world. This attachment is not driven by any kind of grandeur, but is merely an attempt to narrate in a dialectical way.
Diaz conceived the film as a document in the aftermath of the apocalyptic disaster that hit the Bicol region in 2006, where he had previously shot most parts of Evolution of a Filipino Family (Ebolusyon ng isang pamilyang pilipino, 2004) and Heremias (2006). After typhoon Reming devastated the area — including the town of Padang, where the film takes place — a mudslide from the volcano Mayon followed, burying whole parts of the town together with its inhabitants. However, little of the documentary footage — mostly interviews with some of the survivors — remains in the final film. In the face of destruction and atop of the ruins, a distinctly poetic voice is introduced to reflect on the disappearance and the pain. This is the fictitious character of the "great Filipino poet Benjamin Agusan", who returns after years of artistic exile to find his home gone, together with his family and his lover. What remains is a desolate, featureless ground-zero landscape, infused by the ghosts of the dead and dominated by the perfectly shaped volcano — a sublime appearance, both inspiring and menacing.
When Benjamin meets his old friends — poet Teodoro and sculptor/painter Catalina — this new landscape is slowly becoming repopulated. Memories, some comforting, others traumatic, are excavated, often without a clear demarcation between the past and the present. Take, for instance, the agonizing final shot of Benjamin being tortured by a secret police agent: is this a recollection of a past event, already alluded to, or is this the actual present of the film, the final scene of Benjamin's life, perhaps his execution? What seems clear is Diaz telling us that the executions of the Filipino political activists cannot be relegated to any kind of history, least of all because they are (still) happening right now (to a shocking extent, as we learn). While Nature's wrath is something we can ultimately deal with, the suppression of freedom, thought and art cannot but remain unresolved. This is the essence of Diaz's "non-reconciled cinema"; a refusal to surrender memories to a history, to detach any moment or body from its place in time or space.
Benjamin's wandering, rootless protagonist, haunted by memories and traumas, is, of course, a familiar figure in Diaz's oeuvre: in Batang West Side (2001) it is shared by both the detective and the murdered youth; it is the moving part of Evolution and a subject of intense examination in Heremias. Lost in their quixotic search for truth and redemption, these figures also belong to a distinct tradition of the silent and often mad philosopher, a kind of a premodern somnambulist, which goes about the land forgetting and remembering. The poet-philosopher of Death, however, breaks this silent spell, speaking and thinking aloud, to whomever wants to listen. There is a sort of an ongoing conversation — a discurso, as we learn it is called, quite appropriately — between Benjamin and his two friends, an often impassioned exchange on art, politics, culture, modern life and the world at large. Immediate and imperfect — as any conversation between good friends usually is (awkward, even naïve, rarely teleological in a narrative sense) — it also suggests something about Diaz's cinema itself, about the way it seems to come together as an inspired and generous reflection on art and life. Such sincerity of film-making and film-thinking is what makes Death — despite its existential gravity — the most outwardly dialogical of all the films Diaz has made.
Clearly, Diaz has allowed much of himself to enter the film (in some of the interviews he can be heard off-screen, explaining the film he is shooting), but this intrusion of the camera and the director isn't simply about detaching cinema from spectacle. In truth, there is no fiction and reality here, but more of a weaving of determined and potential realities, of vérité and fausseté, always with a natural, sometimes even prodigious ease. In one of the interviews, for instance, we encounter an actor from the second part of Heremias, whose character in the film — a prophet — warns against a disaster. His prediction, coming from a film which paradoxically isn't finished yet, is uncanny to say the least, more so since in reality he has lost everything except his life. Is this intrusion — from a film that is both past and future — a proof that cinema is somehow prophetic, or is it merely capable of detecting the future, already contained in the present? This ambiguity, a question whether detecting doesn't also mean rendering a certain (catastrophic) reality visible and thus possible, haunts the film; and while it cannot be answered, it can be at least re-imagined as a symbolic gesture. As examples, one can think of two of the most moving shots in the film — Catalina reading Benjamin's poem-testament for the camera, and her once more, painting and burning a portrait (presumably his). Both of these are rituals of remembrance and redemption, but also a spectacle, a staging of creation and destruction (much like Nature itself stages it, of course). A way of saying that there is no art without the spectacle of art.
Ultimately, one could hardly exhaust Death by only revisiting its symbolic concerns and suggestions. Much should be said about Diaz's mastery in visual composition and his use of black and white images, about the shades of grey which preserve the encountered world in a distinctly physical, voluminous way; also about his use of natural low-key light, which, ordered into digital textures, produces distinctly material aesthetics. One that bears traces of both the scarcity of its means as well as the urgency of its ideas — a digital liberation theology, as Diaz calls it himself. More could also be said how a work like this renders so much of contemporary cinema obsolete, immature or hardly substantial. The hours of pure cinema it has to offer are hours that matter most: they are the time of cinema in becoming, being thought, reclaiming its space, time and subjects.
Nil Baskar© FIPRESCI 2007
Nil Baskar writes for "Ekran" and "KINO!" film magazines, both based in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
‘Ebolusyon’ May Trigger a Revolution
By Lito Zulueta
Philippine Daily Inquirer
JUST to set the record straight: "Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino" took 11, not 10, years to make."
IN "EBOLUSYON ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino," Raynaldo (Elryan De Vera) is rescued as an infant from abandonment by a mentally unhinged woman, Hilda (Marife Necisito). She takes him back to her family in the countryside, where he grows up to witness and suffer the lot of Filipino farmers: enslavement to the land, getting caught in the crossfire of political conflicts and severe displacement. He flees and joins a mining family in the high lands. In his new world, he discovers that same plaintive reality of loss, suffering and dislodgement.
Thus, the thread that connects "Ebolusyon" from Lav Diaz's previous film, "Batang West Side," is dislocation and bereavement of place. If the Pinoy cop in
Torment and agony
"Ebolusyon" is a powerful movie. Nominated for best picture in the 28th Gawad Urian of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, it is a movie that makes us abide by the torment and agony that is Philippine history in the last 30 years. It relives the darkness of martial law, the dilemmas of the Aquino transition and the bedlam that constitutes the present. The movie explains much of the horror, the better for the viewer to confront it.
Of course, some will say that what connects "Ebolusyon" to "
Thus, the most distinctive aspect of "Ebolusyon" is also the most problematic-its chronological conceit. How could an important movie that is a veritable contemporary Philippine epic be so liberal with its narrative length that it risks losing the audience it seeks to affect and influence?
The answer is that there's so much liberality and comprehensiveness in the vision of Lav Diaz, that the audience can take the calculated risk of sitting through "Ebolusyon," imbibing its spirit that meanders through the alleys and byways of Philippine history, a tortuous path that, to critics of the film, may be reflected in the movie's rather tortuous length.
But "Ebolusyon" is too significant to be dismissed as a movie that takes its title too literally. It is an important contribution to world cinema, signaling both a refusal to be confined to the two-hour limit of commercial cinema and an embrace of the artistic potentials of digital cinema, particularly digital's capacity to release the artist from the servitude and conventions of the studio system.
The latter is perhaps the other distinctive aspect of "Ebolusyon"-the adamant, unabashed adoption of digital cinema, its limits and possibilities. No wonder, Diaz could hardly care about time. Digital knows no time; it just goes on and on. It is a technological stream of consciousness if there was one. It democratizes image-recording. And you know what St. Thomas Aquinas says about democracy: it tends toward anarchy.
It's a technology, too, that creates its audience. Part of the reason Diaz's work is not your ordinary two-hour movie is that it is not one: it hasn't been transferred on celluloid, unlike, for example, Laurice Guillen's "Santa Santita," which was shot on video but transferred on film for commercial release. "Ebolusyon" is therefore not meant to be shown in theaters. It's meant to be seen in video houses, on a more intimate setting perhaps, in episodic fashion probably, like the soap opera that is a funny metaphor that runs through the movie.
"Ebolusyon" is clearly not for movie marathoners. It is a movie that is not to be seen in a rush. Doing so may make one miss its other conceits. The subplot on the conspiracy to assassinate the filmmaker Lino Brocka for agitating the farmers in the land reform question is one delicious hyperbole. Obviously this is Lav Diaz's tribute to the power of cinema. Or is he lamenting that Brocka did not live long enough to trigger the revolution?
To be sure, some of the film's expansive peregrinations may reach a dead end, especially the rather distended episode of Kadyo (Pen Medina) when he leaves prison: after failing to integrate back to society, he returns to a life of crime and becomes a hired killer, but balks at the prospect of killing Brocka. The conspiracy turns against him, and as he makes his final bloody crawl to his death, we know he has been making the final gasp at life all along. He has been a living dead even without the fatal dagger wound. There's no need to belabor that.
There's also the historical lapse. After Kadyo informs us that he received word about the whereabouts of Raynaldo in 1988, we see him wandering into the Mendiola massacre, which took place in January 1987.
But never mind. "Ebolusyon" is an artistic rarity. A film like this only comes once in 10 years.
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(On) Time: Lav’s (R)Evolution
Cinema as an art or better yet as a language, as a system of items that can be articulated in ways that are semantically and syntactically meaningful, embodies time and is embodied in time. This now common place remark has been at the center of cinematic theory and critical debate since the birth of film itself, and has produced a noteworthy stream of theoretical reflections of huge relevance and influence, not only for the specific field of cinema, but also for the opening of new perspectives in philosophy at large, as in the case of Bergson's or Deleuze's work.
While the embodiment, reflection or representation of time have been at the center of much academic discourse involving the linguistic resource of cinema in articulating time, through camerawork, screenplay and mostly editing or absence of editing, or the codification and de-codification of the temporal dimension generated by those proceedings, it seems to me that much less effort and little critical output has been devoted to two other facets of the way time is sculptured through filmmaking. On the one side, the ever-perilous terrain of detecting and analyzing the audience's reception of time in film and especially of the time of the film itself remains widely unexplored: at the first level, this concern regards how the viewer, both correctly or wrongly, decodifies cinematic time, as in the process of applying and understanding a learnt set of conventions of reading patterns that sometimes might be also subverted or inventively redefined; at the second level, as for the reception of the time of the film itself, one has to encompass both the not-so-banal general questions of sociological and cultural determination in the actual practice of cinematic fruition and the more subject-oriented interrogations about the experiential and perceptual sides of inhabiting or being inhabited by time as duration, as the length of the film text.
On the other side, still little attention has seemingly been paid to deconstruct or at least put into question the very notion of time that is subsumed and often taken as given in our readings of cinematic texts. What I am arguing here is that we often tend to forget how and to what extent in cinematic analysis (and not only here), structurally basic, yet eminently complex notions of time and space, not to mention self, are or might be (over)determined by cultural encoding; something that is so deeply inscribed in ourselves that it might be difficult to detach or distance oneself from. Time as we know, conceptualize, live and of course apply it to cinema might thus be posited as a variant, a coordinate that possibly changes at different latitudes and longitudes on the cultural spectrum. Inevitably, then, one has to also raise the question of whether a preferred, habitual or even dominant determination of the codified meanings and perceptions of time is at work whenever cinematic texts are experienced by viewers or investigated and dissected by critics or theorists. Moreover, one might be also coming to terms with how the notion of time in film mirrors the inscription of cultural differences, changes in epoch or even the concept of cinema itself in the texts themselves and their readings.
Lav Diaz's ten hours thirty minutes Evolution of a Filipino Family (Ebolusyon Insiang Pamiliang Pilipino) provides a deeply resounding and stimulating challenge to the aforementioned assumptions and prompts responses that deal with all the questionings just raised. In addition to this, Evolution also symptomatically revolves around another, conceptually distinct issue connected with time and time in film, that of History and more specifically of the representation of History in film and the articulation of History through histories (here intended as both fictional narratives and accounts of individual lives).
All these aspects concoct a high textual complexity that undeniably exceeds the scope and ambition of this work. I therefore will not attempt to fully untangle these many intermingled nodes of complexity, but rather provide a framework from which further, deeper and more academically sustained approach might take reference and depart, while hopefully including at least some insights into Diaz's masterwork.
When a film exceeds the usual allotted landmark of 90 to 120 minutes, and stretches its duration more and more towards the three, four and even more hours, it starts to undermine a set of unquestioned assumptions about film. Assumptions intimately related to the status of cinema and the position it occupies both in the wider system of society and economy and in the daily life of individuals. On the one hand, in fact, the usual duration of 90 to 120 minutes is one that is today deeply connected to the unwritten laws of exhibition in theatres and broadcasting on television. This format is the one that, while keeping to the viewer's standard request and expectation of development in storytelling, to which he/she has been trained since his/her very first experiences of cinematic viewing, and historically since the establishing of the canons of narrative feature filmmaking in the ages of silent cinema (when the "excesses" of Von Stroheim where already harshly sanctioned by the industrial establishment), at the same time, maximizes the number of daily screenings in theatres and better fits into the flux of television schedules, allowing respectively the largest sales of tickets and multiple insertion of commercials. The urge of cutting films exceeding the "habitual" running time is evidenced by default practices adopted by producers, distributors, exhibitors or TV broadcasters and periodical querelles between them and the auteurs who struggle for the integrity of their work that punctuates the history of filmmaking. These days, such burning issues have been somewhat muted by the emergence of DVD as a proficient means of reintegrating sequences directors were striving to include in their films, but were denied to by the keepers of capital in the moviemaking industry. The sheer possibility of "adding" material lost or often just simply left in the editing room has ingenerated a somewhat dubious (and very profitable) fetishism for the so-called director's cut, which might make sense for opuses involved in troubling fates in the past, but which today has assumed the blatant and lavish aura of the "good selling point"...
Works such as Lav Diaz's Evolution of a Filipino Family, therefore, not only represent vindications of an auteur's integrity, but also implicitly defy the occupation and abuse of cinematic time by capitalism. The fact that Diaz himself insists that his work has to be seen in one breathe, in just one long seat, appears clearly as the ultimate act of an artist's self-consciousness, one that reveals his heartfelt concern with matters of tempo and crescendo in the fruition of his art (issues precisely related to the development in time of the film). One that might as well scare audiences away for its sheer "integralism" or "egotism" in robbing the viewer of one entire day of his/her life, preventing him/her from the customary multiplicity of activities in everyday routine or, as for the critic or cinéphile at a festival, depriving him/her of multiple visions. However, when re-positioning Diaz's demands on the viewer of Evolution of a Filipino Family in the larger picture of how capitalism has shaped the norms of cinema consumption and of the life routine itself, one can readily grasp the intrinsically subversive nature of this same artiste's "integralism".
On the other hand, in fact, when focusing on how capitalism, now in its advanced stage of late capitalism, has (re)modeled the daily lives of human individuals in contemporary, Western or Westernized society, establishing unquestioned routines forged according to imperatives of optimal time allocation and fears of wasting time, all underscoring the common place, but revealing the principle of "time is money" (and, on a more existential level, the horror vacui that prevents us to be reminded of the ultimate end, of death), devoting yourself for ten hours and a half to one single "activity" seems not only a Herculean enterprise, but also and mostly an unthinkable, unimaginable sacrifice. In other words, the loss of precious, non-refundable time feels even more painful than the physical tour-de-force itself. It is not so easy to realize, though, how the emphasis on and the concerns about time, time consumption and the value of time enforced by capitalist society, to an extent that they are almost encoded in our genes, are ones that reveal the full appropriation of both work and the so-called "free time" by capitalist logics. In the whole-comprehensive scheme of capitalism, when not occupied by labor intended to direct profit-making, individuals are supposed to engage in self-recreating activities of leisure and entertainment that are themselves, intrinsically, sources of consumption, and of course profit.
The industry or rather industries of entertainment that take (interested) care in providing individuals with services and products to occupy and consume their free time rely on a double concept of diversification; obvious diversification of products for their output, and also the diversification of prospected activities, in terms of consumer expectations. The commodification of free time and entertainment implies and inevitably leads to the same "sane and healthy" situation of competition verified in other sectors of the capitalist economic system; a competition that is particularly diversified and intense, since it involves an immensely wide variety of products and activities. A direct effect descending from this intense and integrated competition in conquering the free time of consumers is the social, cultural and economical pressure on the consumers themselves towards the diversification of activities (not only of entertainment), and conversely the stigma associated to obsessive, compulsive mono-activity. These mechanics mostly act in non-overtly commercial manners, operating at different levels in constructing a collective mind or routine that asks and compels individuals to engage or at least try to engage in multiple tasks and chores in their everyday lives, especially when it comes to re-creating and re-generating themselves in their free time through entertainment. Entertainment might therefore be profiled as the sensitive and crucial nexus of actual re-creation, re-generation and re-enforcement of the system itself (in particular when it comes to ideological aspects of the content of mass audio-visual entertainment).
As contextualized in this quick and certainly oversimplified framing, a film like Evolution of a Filipino Family - and of course its likes - appears as a disruptive, subversive and eye-opening agent provocateur. The commitment of spending ten hours and a half of one's own life watching a film goes far beyond personal cinéphile abnegation and sheer matter interest (say, in this specific case, the Philippines and their history); it implicitly appeals to one's own ability and will to detach from the superstructure of society and economy that perpetually and unperceivedly molds our existence. Films like Evolution of a Filipino Family open factually a space and time to abstract and disengage from the system we are constantly immersed in, allowing for the opportunity to become aware of the system itself and to realize how pervasively it works. The complicity and affinity matching the viewer and Diaz's film is one that at least for those ten and a half hours is capable of opening a window of subversion to the musts of emploi du temps in capitalism.
There is another aspect to the whole question of very long films that has to be addressed here, one that is specific to the case of Evolution of a Filipino Family: the very fact that this is a Filipino film. As previously observed, up till now it has been the almost exclusive privilege and credit of European or Western directors to accomplish the enterprise of disruptively breaking the conventions of duration in narrative feature filmmaking. Even the mentioned case of Egyptian Yousry Nasrallah's passionate epic of the Palestine nation La Porte du Soleil has to be further qualified as a project supported by European capitals and intended to be broadcasted by the French-German cultural network ARTE as a two-part TV series. In the light of this remark, the uniqueness of Lav Diaz's film, as a totally "homegrown"
If what I have here been labeling as the standardized canon of full-length feature filmmaking, the 90 to 120 minutes narrative fiction film, is clearly meant to define the product mainly catered by Hollywood, if not the greatest in output - Bollywood claims this leadership - certainly the most influential and invasive film industry in the world, one has to notice how the spaces of contention and competition against Hollywood and the format it imposes on global audiences both in the most overt and the most unconventional ways seem to be the prerogative of European or First World filmmakers.
Ten years in the making, Evolution of a Filipino Family provides then a truly un-compromised attempt at Third World filmmaking that advocates the right to trigger aesthetic and conceptual (r)evolutions without the good-willed, but often binding support of international funding. Although this might not have been meant or planned, the mere completion of Evolution of a Filipino Family without (in its funding) and against (in its form and aesthetics) global capital signifies the thorough achievement of a masterpiece without boundaries.
In the outlined context it might seem difficult, although eminently appropriate, to pose the question whether space for alternative or even resistant models is still allowed, either on a macro or a micro level of society, economy or culture. In the form of a film discourse, Lav Diaz's Evolution of a Filipino Family provides a double act of resistance to the normative, basic and essential conceptualization of time in modern, Western(ized), capitalist-oriented society: first, as mentioned above, through its torrential length, undermining the deeply encoded patterns of behavior (film viewing, multiple-activities scheduling); secondly, through an articulation of diegetic time in film narration that reflects a perhaps culturally-specific and non-Western, but certainly pre-modern and pre-capitalist conception of time.
Before being reshaped by European colonialism into the modern nations of
Quite an interesting example in this regard is provided by the persistence of an unusual "practice" of time in contemporary
Although Lav Diaz's Evolution of a Filipino Family might in some way seem to provide a cinematic reproduction of the culturally specific notion of jam karet, it actually does so by going straight to its perhaps forgotten roots. Characters in Diaz's film never live according to the logics of modern, capitalist, Western time, as embodied by the simulacrum that materializes and visualizes the passing of time, the clock or the watch, an object whose presence is never to be found in Evolution, and neither is any reference to timing and scheduling in hours or minutes. The characters of Diaz's film work, interact, wait, walk and die according to a different system of time, one that is at the source of jam karet, but actually goes even beyond its cultural specificity. The characters of Evolution of a Filipino Family are peasants still living in a pre-modern, rural space-temporal dimension, whose logics and tempo are those governed by the cycle of work in the fields, by the passing of days, months, seasons and years, as measured through the changing of nature and environment, and especially by the daily motion of the sun from dawn till dusk.
Since the characters live time according to sunlight, in Evolution of a Filipino Family the rendition of light itself acquires a crucial relevance that accounts for one of the most striking compositions ever seen in filmmaking. Light is light and darkness is darkness in Evolution; the whole film appears to have been shot carefully and rigorously using only natural light, thus creating a sense of density and grain meant to provide a perceptual correspondence to the peasant characters' experience of darkness and light. This virtual proximity becomes patent in the nighttime sequences, where only the fable flame of rudimental oil lamps lights the space, leaving the surrounding space in almost ominous pitch darkness. There one can really feel some sort of materiality of light through the rendition of film images and, at the same time, share an abstract correspondence with the perception of the characters.
The materiality of light in Evolution is nonetheless the emanation of a broader scheme to materialize Filipino peasants' experience of time. Since the very first sequences Diaz asks the viewer to attune to this "new", yet elemental and antique way of experiencing time, immersing him/her right away into the dull and slow course of work in the rice paddies. Diaz stretches the depiction of daily chores as well as breaks of lazy relaxation conveying a double effect of realism and abstraction: their nude and crude protracted duration stands for their real length and dullness, still they obviously cannot match a real time reproduction, hence they abstract real time duration by exceeding sensibly an economic employment of time in film representation. Throughout the film, the formal device of long takes makes the viewer systematically aware of time as a palpable presence that requires adjustment and adaptation. Although an unavoidable abstraction of the actual time experienced by Filipino peasants in the rice paddies, the time perception and dimension that Evolution of a Filipino Family strives to (re)produce and (re)create radically differs not only from that subscribed by standard filmmaking, but also from the one experienced daily by viewers in contexts of modern, urban(ized) and Western(ized) capitalist societies.
The declination of cinematic time in Evolution of a Filipino Family puts the (Western/ized) viewer in contact with a reality far-removed in space and time, subverting practices, tropes and conventions of the usage of time in filmmaking, thus undeniably putting into question the superstructure that over- and pre-determines them (film itself, as a product of modernity is indeed a Western medium, mostly submitted to Western encoding and decoding). Diaz's final aim is recognizably to appraise and pay homage to the pre-modern, rural roots of Filipino culture and society, from which his alternative cinematic rendition of time also originates. Pursuing this goal, however, he also enacts a manifest act of subversion and revolution: rewriting and inhabiting a modern, Western and capitalist medium through and with pre-modern, Filipino and rural codes.
Ileto focuses explicitly on the introduction of Catholicism in the
The theoretical framework and analysis of Pasyon and Revolution seem irrefutably fit for approaching the treatment of time as History in Evolution of a Filipino Family. Of course, the attempts at telling History through film, and of doing so even "from below" are innumerable, but one has to reconsider how these attempts were conveyed and how Diaz's differs from them. If we just take a look at our selective pool of very long films, and focus on those that thematize History or nation making, we will find a blatant divide. Syberberg's idiosyncratic Hitler left aside, either in Reitz's three installments of Heimat, Bertolucci's Novecento or even more in Giordana's La Meglio Gioventù and Nasrallah's La Porte du Soleil we are bound to encounter similar narrative patterns featuring (supposedly) ordinary characters who find themselves either on purpose or involuntarily mingled with the major happenings and traumatisms of their country's History. Protagonists in these films take either an active or a passive part in the events creating a direct implication of the macro level of History on the micro dimension of their (fictional) histories. The codification of this prototype fictionalizing the discourse on History dates back to European Romanticism, when the issue of nation-making came into absolute prominence and was felt as an inescapable obligation for the bourgeois middle-class that nurtured the intellectuals and literates that in those days were fashioning the codes of the modern novel. Even if this might sound as an oversimplified paradigm, it is undeniable that most of the ordinary characters in films such as Heimat or La Meglio Gioventù are actually not as ordinary as they are intended to be. By their very implication in History, they can be aptly profiled and tagged as "heroes", or rather "romantic heroes", as those featured in Romantic novels. The notion of ordinariness is of course symptomatically compromised, in ways that undermine and negate the actual enactment of narratives of History "from below".. The European, Romantic tradition that encrypts the individual self into the collective process of nation-making creates a generally paradoxical pattern of fictionalization that identifies the ordinary heroes' fates with the dominant paradigms of agency or emotional response to the historical events in question. For the mere ease of providing ready-made resources for identification through characters that shape as "heroes", and secondarily for offering (often involuntary) the means to uphold the dominant readings of History, this modern, romantic and bourgeois grammar has been fully embraced by cinema when dealing with History.
A truthfully contrastive example of History from below in cinema has however notoriously been made available to academic discourse by the films composing Hou Hsiao-hsien's "
Undoubtedly, Hou's approach to History in fictional cinema represents a pertinent parallel to Ileto's work in historiography, as it problematizes the sources of official History itself and privileges subjective, popular and non-normative memory over the compromises of dominant discourse. Hou's landmark trilogy has been casting a profound influence on Asian cinemas for over a decade now, both in terms of aesthetics and the conceptualization of History; by result of pure stimulus or sheer convergence, Lav Diaz's Evolution of a Filipino Family is no exception. Diaz's approach to History (the Marcos' years) replicates in many aspects Hou's, but also presents at least a couple of specificities or differentiations. Even more than in Hou's films, the characters of Evolution are far-removed from the main stages of History and their direct intervention in its course is nil: when Kadyo kills a group of sentinels to steal their weapons and sell them to guerilla militants, he is by no means acting out of ideological reasons, but just for the sheer necessity of granting basic survival to his family. The complete "alienation" of characters' histories from History plays also to a somewhat metaphorical extent, as it seems to be overtly evoked by Maria's impending blindness or Reynaldo's dreamlike meetings with the animated statue of José Rizal. This irreparable, yet meaning-pregnant fracture gives reason to Diaz's divergent strategy of inserting historical coordinates. In Evolution, for example, the radio plays a different but stronger and more extensive role than in Hou's films: although Diaz's characters extensively listen to it, their favorite broadcastings are soap operas, not news; Diaz thus stresses the power of the media in building collective consciousness or lack of consciousness of society, politics and History, for they provide the ruling power with vehicles of efficiently distracting mass entertainment. Diaz hence appeals to the more customary insertion of archive footage to document the salient episodes in the History of the
In terms of aesthetics, Diaz, as Hou, mainly relies on long takes shot with mostly fixed camera. Although this choice seems to reflect the same concern for giving time and space to the dynamics of human interaction, it is worth noticing how converging styles also envisage cultural specificities. Whereas Hou Hsiao-hsien's painstakingly-composed tableaux include blockings and an articulation of depth that reflect the arrangement of Chinese or Japanese-style housing in Taiwan, Diaz's compositions are for the largest part en plein air, exteriors that portray the communion of peasants or miners' characters with the environment they live in, a nature on which their culture is molded and their survival relies.
By the aforementioned means of plot configuration and style Diaz is thus able to come as close as possible to a cinematic, fictional rendition of the "History from Below" advocated by Ileto. This of course represents a further refusal and subversion of dominant modes of cinema, and of narration of History at large. Although Evolution of a Filipino Family is undeniably indebted to the groundbreaking precedent of Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Trilogy of Taiwan", Diaz's film displays a vital and consistently specific Filipino declination of this pioneering paradigm.
His murdering significantly follows his decision to abandon a plot aiming at the assassination of director Lino Brocka, a resolution matured after listening to Brocka's speeches recorded on the videotape provided by the heads of the plot. This is a deeply resounding and meaningful moment in the film, since at this point Kadyo is awoken to consciousness and acquires an awareness of the political and social system he lives in that no other character has experienced before. This enlightenment is the result of a "revelation" delivered by Brocka, the grandest filmmaker of the Philippines and for a long time the unheard critical conscience and an international delator of Marcos' regime; his presence in Evolution appears as Diaz's respectful and sincere tribute to a filmmaker whose cinematic style certainly does not represent a model for him, but whose commitment to his people and country impart a great lesson and profound inspiration.
Added to this, for once in the film, the staging of Kadyo's death, the final act of one of the histories in the film, occurs simultaneously with a key event in
Once the metaphorical mode of Diaz is exposed and set, what follows resounds in its full, disruptive potential. Kadyo's slow, protracted, exhausting death, staged as a continuous and iterated path of falls and subsequent rises, is none other than a new, contextually meaningful and rooted re-appropriation of the Pasyon, of the Passion of Jesus Christ. As Filipinos have been doing for more than a century, Diaz plies the visual motif and repertoire of Pasyon to comment upon History in cinema. As the nexus of a double identification, Kadyo's protracted sufferance and his long path to death not only stand for Christ's ascent to the Cross, but for the plight of the Filipino self in the course of History. As a coherent signature to his multi-faceted (r)Evolution of cinematic time and History Diaz once again stresses the pride of Filipino culture: Kadyo's body is collected and disposed of with the bodies of the victims of Mendiola Massacre by a crowd of youths in a sequence that replicates "Spoliarium" (1884), the grand masterpiece of Filipino painter Juan Luna.
By Alexis Tioseco
Batang West Side is an unequivocal masterpiece.
Read that again.
I know that it is common practice to allow a film to stand the test of time (people often say 10-20 years) before making such a claim, but I am that confident that this film will not only hold up over time, but be held in an even higher regard.
Why will Batang West Side challenge Philippine cinema? The film is long. Very long. It's 5 hours. 2 ½ - 3 times the length of a conventional film. Many quip at the very thought of watching a five hour movie, and persevere in their argument that it is self-indulgent and arrogant to expect an audience to sit through it. But what they need to understand, Lav explains ever-so-eloquently in his director's statement for the Hong Kong International Film Festival:
`Batang West Side is five hours long. For many this is an issue. A huge issue, and a headache to many here in the
Batang West Side is the antithesis of a present-day Filipino film, not only challenging our natural sensibilities on what the length of a film should be, but, even more so, challenging our sensibilities about how a (Filipino) film should be made. There is violence, but it is brief and subtle. There is a young couple, but there are no hot love scenes. There are parent-child arguments, but there is no melodrama. There are serious questions, but no half-assed answers.
How will Batang West Side change Philippine cinema? Precisely through challenging it. It is a common and acceptable practice for filmmakers to make films for an audience. To play to an audience's sensibilities (there's that word again), and make films that they will like and easily accept. But once in a while, just once in a while, you have to challenge an audience and hope that they grow with you as a result. Progress was never made without first attempting to defy the norm.
By making a film of this length, by making it in such a manner, by refusing to cut it, by the recognition it has received both here and overseas, the makers of Batang West Side serve as a shining example of the fortitude needed to reverse our cinema's current stigma.
There are no weak links in the film. Its narrative flows smoothly. Its acting, from both veterans (Joel Torre, Gloria Diaz, among others) and young actors (Yul Servo, Priscilla Almeda) alike is uniformly solid. The film's cinematography, courtesy of Miguel Fabie III, Tony Ponti, and Ruben Lee, is superb: a feat that should be commended to the high heavens if we are to believe the words of Diaz, that eighty percent of the film was shot with available light. Its editing by Ron Dale, despite the numerous complaints about the film's length, is brilliant, each shot remaining on the screen long enough to provoke and let linger the film's various ideas.
Batang West Side is about a lot of things. It's about Fil-Ams, the American dream, family, infidelity, secrets, Martial Law, drugs, reflection, decisions, friendship, identity, patriotism, responsibility, and the collective murdering of the Filipino soul. It's about questions more than it is about answers, and it's about making us think, probe, examine, and ultimately reflect.
The bulk of Batang West Side is spent following a detective trying to answer the questions behind the death of Hanzel, but the case is never resolved. Who did kill Hanzel - gangsters? Drug addicts? His mother's lover? Himself? The film doesn't attempt to give any answers, and it's only fitting that it doesn't. On numerous occasions, our protagonist, Mijarez, is asked tough questions-- by his therapist, by Hanzel's mother, by the documentarian, among others. His answer each time speaks volumes, of him, of us, of our mentality:
`I don't know'.
What director Lav Diaz has done with Batang West Side is craft a film so thorough in its dissection of its subject, and so engaging in its handling, that to watch it, in its entirety, is nothing short of a cathartic experience. It may just as well be us in the place of Joel Torre in the film's last few frames, he alone in the middle of the cold