A Story of Four Cities and Three Films
By Jurij Meden
Notes written in early 2006, Slovenia
The following lines should not be read as a piece of film criticism... it is rather a very personal account of a certain, more or less chance journey through a cinematic landscape created by Lav Diaz. Now for all of you who don't know who Mr. Diaz is: he is, simply put, one of the most interesting and perhaps even one of the most important filmmakers of our times. Of course I have zero intention of convincing you and proving that via this writing – you'll just have to see one of his films by yourself to see that I'm telling the truth – but I do hope that my enthusiasm will be enough to actually convince you of doing so. To be perfectly honest I have had serious intentions of writing something more coherent and perhaps even more relevant, but pressed by the lack of time and a rather scatterbrained state of mind, all I can amount to are the following bits and pieces. But, as I have already said, perhaps still enough to convey my enthusiasm.
My story begins in the rainy spring of 2004 in Vienna (Austria) when, sitting in a dimly lit restaurant just around the corner of the Viennese Cinematheque (one of the finest establishments of its kind in Europe, by the way) I heard the name of Lav Diaz mentioned for the first time. A troika of good friends, passionate cinephiles, was discussing their experience of seeing Lav Diaz' "Batang West Side" earlier that year in the aforementioned cinematheque. Their excitement was thicker than the cigarette smoke above our heads and this inspite of the fact that we had each already plowed through at least one box of cigarettes that evening. Strangely enough I wasn't able to gather anything specific from their passionate exchange. They all seemed to have reserved a special place in their hearts for "Batang West Side" but I learned (or perhaps remembered... as the cigarettes weren't our only poisonous pleasure that night) practically nothing apart from the fact that the film is of Filipino origin, more than five hours long and a certifiable masterpiece.
Enough at least to remember the title and its creator and be on the lookout in the days to come.
I didn't have to wait long. An opportunity offered itself by the end of the same year when "Batang West Side" was shown in Zagreb (Croatia) as one of the highlights of the local human rights film festival (again, one of the finest establishments of its kind in Europe, by the way). The screening was announced with little pomp ... still a respectable number of people showed up and filled almost half of the large venue. Well, I didn't and don't want to sound cynical, but I nevertheless suspected that most of the people came only to satisfy their curiosity over this monstrously large piece of work... fully prepared to bail out as soon as the mechanics would reveal themselves. Following my good friends' heartfelt recommendations I was not only determined to sit through the film but to recognize it as a masterpiece. Still not being entirely sure of myself (had a long, cold and sleepless week behind me) I smuggled a bottle of cognac inside to keep me alert and warm through the evening. I could have easily done without it. "Batang West Side" fulfilled all the sky-high expectations and upgraded them into a truly unique cinematic experience. Where was the catch?
"Batang West Side" tells a gripping story of how history is never something you can completely escape from... but needs to be studied, digested, dealt with and incorporated into the present in order to make that same present function in a manner worth living it at all. History as a concept both personal and national... which is not to say that the two aspects are not irrevocably entangled. A universal truth, that is, but Diaz makes the experience special through his very own visual vocabulary and storytelling abilities. It is not an easy task, after all, to hold the viewers' attentions for over five hours straight (Diaz insists – and justifiably so – that all his films should be experienced in a single sitting), especially if you are operating with a small army of fully fleshed characters, each treated with equal care and concern... but Diaz succeeds smoothly. It is above all this care, the director's immense love for his characters and their situations (Filipinos in New Jersey haunted by their pasts, struggling to assemble their identities) that blesses the film with an almost palpable sense of urgency, passion and importance. Stuff that transcends any spatial and temporal boundaries and borders, the magic evidenced only in the works of the greatest: Dostoevsky, Dylan, Dreyer... and now Diaz. Love that trusts, love that respects, love that understands and, above all, love that never loses hope, no matter how harsh the circumstances. as a wise man put it: the pessimism or reason assumes the necessity of the optimism of will.
Oh, and did I mention that nobody left the hall during that screening in Zagreb?
A month later, in January of 2005, I traveled to Rotterdam (the Netherlands) to attend the European premiere of Lav Diaz' latest work "Evolution of a Filipino Family" which took place during the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The festival organizers were obviously unaware of the importance of this event... how else could one explain the fact that they held the first out of the two screenings of this more than ten hours long film in a tiny blackbox equipped only with chairs made of friggin' wood! The few excited spartans who knew in advance that we were up for a treat – comfortable chairs or not – had no luck convincing the unconsecrated to give it a shot. Some were disgusted by the film's length, others made fun of it, most kept rationalizing that in case of going for it one would miss five or even six other films which is apparently an inexcusable thing to do at the film festival. In vain we kept assuring them that "Evolution" is probably worth any five or six other films... that this screening here is an unique opportunity and that any hesitations related to the film's length can be nothing but a stupid prejudice forced upon us by the centenary rule of evil ideology equaling cinema with (nothing but) entertainment. A prejudice Lav Diaz buries in a single sentence: "For many /length/ is an issue. But not an issue anymore if we remember that there are small and large canvases; brief ditties and lengthy arias; short stories and multi-volume novels; the haiku and the Iliad. This should be the end of the argument." Indeed!
But if people consciously want to deprive themselves of great new things just because of such trivial things such a certain film's duration then that's their problem and not ours and there's not really much we can do about it... as long as they let others do what they please. Although it is more than just a bit sad to see that curiosity is becoming such a rare commodity nowadays. Anyway, back to the stuff that matters: "Evolution of a Filipino Family". Needless to say, our man Diaz delivered once again. Delivered big time. Over a decade in the making, "Evolution" covers sixteen turbulent years in the life of a rural filipino family: from the declaration of police state by the notorious Marcos in 1971 up until the fall of the dictatorship in 1987 (you can correct me if i'm wrong... not really an expert on Filipino political history you are reading here). Thematically and temporarily "Evolution" functions as a prequel to "Batang West Side" (reasons behind migrations to the States), but on a level of filmmaking and ambition it pushes all the qualities of the previous film into a yet-unseen dimension.
The whole issue of history as a looming menace that needs to be wrestled with in order to unearth true answers to all the whats and the whys and the hows and the whos is approached even more zealously and on a larger scale here. It's not only the history itself that is being subjected to a revolutionary treatment, even more important are Diaz' attempts to redefine the usual patterns of representing history within the medium of cinema. He is interested in the notion of cultural identity as an imposed product of modernistic discourse violently opposing tradition as something archaic, something that craves to be deconstructed. But Diaz understands that it is precisely this discourse that needs to be deconstructed, tamed and established on fresh grounds... grounds that neglect and belittle no one and nothing on principle... grounds that bear fruit along the lines of that famous Pasolini's ascertainment: the scandalous revolutionary power of the past.
With equal revolutionary thoroughness Diaz expands his modus operandi on a technical level of storytelling. If "Batang West Side" presented us with multiple characters within a relatively short and mostly linear time span and limited space, "Evolution" in this regard literally explodes in all possible and impossible directions while constantly, as if by some miracle, remaining perfectly clear, comprehensible, suspenseful and engaging. the number of characters is at least tripled (and we are still talking people here, as complicated and complex as they get, never sketches, stereotypes or sidekicks); as the family disintegrates the space multiplies accordingly; on top of everything the story keeps shifting back and forth in time. but not a single one of the many cuts and cracks in space and time is there to achieve any particular, immediate effect. they never function as a cheap trick, never as a simple flash-back or a flash-forward, never in accordance to some rigid, established rules of scriptwriting or dramaturgy... instead they represent the primordial, archetypical rules of any kind of poetic expression... always in tune only with its own deeper meaning, a stubborn quest for truth in this case. A quest fully aware that no actual road leads to truth; that the road itself is the truth. in its volume and ambition the "evolution" recalls nothing that was ever done in cinema before, its nearest cousin being "The Brothers Karamazov"...
Diaz also makes a significant step forward in terms of visual representation. If shots in "Batang West Side" were carefully framed and organized together to the point that on top of all the verbal exchange almost each and every one of them expressed vital new layers of information and emotion solely through the visuals... then "Evolution" retains this principle but upgrades it with a very special understanding of time. Almost every shot in "Evolution" is a sequence by itself. These shots are long, very often lasting for more than ten minutes, but this formula is not used as some generic aesthetic device designed to convey some mystical somber meanings (as is often the case with lesser filmmakers). Instead this technique springs in a perfectly natural and organic way from the treated subject matters themselves: the endless struggles, the long voyages, the steady rhythms of everyday existences. I often realized that i'm not watching your usual chopped-up narration but a very different (more truthful as Bazin would have put it) approach to reality only five minutes into the take, sometimes even later, when the shot would suddenly end and make one aware of the breathtaking splendor that has just ceased to exist.
So, to make a long story short or at least shorter: yes, "Evolution of a Filipino Family" is a masterpiece beyond any known major achievements in film history and if you ask me, the day is somewhere out there – perhaps not near but that's not really important – when it shall be officially recognized and hailed as such. We just need to keep screening it and keep talking about it and keep thinking about it and keep learning from it which is not really asking for much, right? After all, it's only us and the world who can gain, period.
Not quite finished with the story, though.
A year and a half has passed and it is already the late spring of 2006. We are in Izola (Slovenia), an ancient small seaside town which hosts a lovely little film festival every may ever since 2004 entitled simply the Isola Cinema Film Festival. Isola means island in Italian, Italian being the second official language in Izola aka Isola. But the name also perfectly rounds up the festival's policy of being an island, a resort for filmmakers and their films from all over the world that otherwise remain (unjustifiably so) overlooked, neglected or drowning in the sea of stupid commercial imperatives and stiffness of prevailing film discourse. It was right here that Lav Diaz had decided to show the eight hour cut (or was it nine? maybe eleven? I don't remember anymore but why care...) of "Heremias", his latest work-in-progress and the conclusion of the trilogy probing into his nation's soul which begins with "Evolution of a Filipino Family" and continues with "Batang West Side". I later learned that "Heremias" itself was to be split into two parts and that the work-in-progress on display in Izola was actually the completed first part.
Anyway... walking into the theatre again with nothing but highest expectations, I crawled out again with trembling knees and all those expectations completely shattered and surpassed in ways unimaginable. Holy Diaz! Truth be told, I was expecting the director to steadily progress in the direction indicated by the gap between "Batang" and "Evolution", meaning primarily an even more elaborate, complex storytelling in the vein of all the sprawl and the buzz and the riches of "Evolution". What we get here is equally impressive(!), yet reduced to the very naked bare bones of cinematic expression in all possible meanings of the word. instead of a mass of key characters we get one and one only: lonely old farmer Heremias. Instead of rivers of words we get silence, silence and more silence; Heremias barely speaks and the dialogues in general are reduced to the minimum. Instead of multiple spaces we get but one: space around Heremias who practically never drops from our line of sight. Instead of fragmented time we remain linear here: time progresses strictly hand in hand with Heremias' journey across his patria. Long lasting shots grow into immensely long lasting shots, taking sometimes up to an hour while retaining that invisible quality and the feel of organic spontaneity described already above. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that in spite of its totally stripped down nature film still manages to hold one's attention absolutely and without tolerating a single blink (not that one would have any desire to blink at any long time at all). Because there still remains much and what remains is important.
What remains is actually something that was very much present also in both previous film. It's just that it doesn't have to shine through the surface here anymore because now it's embedded into every single grain of every single frame, into every single second and every single chirp on the soundtrack, into every single step an every single gesture heremias makes. What remains is a desperate – yet never despairing – search for truth and justice in an untruthful and unjust world. Put even simpler: search for an answer to that fundamental question behind any human striving: what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a human being?
"Heremias" doesn't just pose that question in such a clear and resolute way that one starts gasping for breath in amazement... much like being fronted with the pyramids, the ocean or the love of your life for the first time in life... it embodies this question with every fiber of its existence, reminding one, anyone, what cinema, what art, what life is really about. We can't ask for more, can we?
Jurij Meden is the Editor-in-Chief of Kino Magazine, Slovenia