EVOLUTION OF A FILIPINO FILM
By Alexis Tioseco
“Brakhage said of reading Freud, ‘The first thing I understood is that here was a man trying to save his own life.’ Brakhage later acknowledged that the quote applied to him: his films are made with an intensity, a kind of ‘wit’s end’ desperation, that suggests a consciousness on the brink. Brakhage was not a craftsman doing something he loved; he used his craft to try to come to an understanding of whether – and on what terms – he could continue to go on living.”
-- Fred Camper on Stan Brakhage
“We should acknowledge that our viewpoints about Kiarostami differ in terms of what kind of information we consider most important. For me, Kiarostami is first of all a global filmmaker and secondarily an Iranian filmmaker. For you, he’s first of all an Iranian filmmaker. Even though I’m interested in learning about Iran through Iranian cinema, and his films are certainly a part of that, I feel that I go to his films to learn about the world, not just Iran.”
-- Jonathan Rosenbuam, in dialogue with Mehrnaz Saee-Vafa
“If great films invent their own rules, reinventing some of the standards of film criticism in the process, Bela Tarr’s Satantango surely belongs in their company.”
-- Jonathan Rosenbaum
The above quotes, though in reference to three different filmmakers and (specificaly) one film, apply just as well to my appreciation of the cinema of Lav Diaz and (specifically) his film Evolution of a Filipino Family (Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino).
The first quote, taken from fred Camper's essay for the 'By Brakhage' anthology released by criterion, may relate just as well to Lav Diaz as it does to Stan Brakhage. While Brakhage's and Diaz's works are strikingly different, there are similarities in vision and purpose.
Diaz’s films express the same idea of a man trying to save his own life; trying to reconcile and struggle with himself, his demons, and his place in society as do Brakhage’s. Where Diaz differs, however, is that he paints his personal struggle within a much larger and broader canvass, one that looks at the individual in a historical, social, cultural, and global context (making him different from Brakhage, though not necessarily better or more important).
Diaz’s latest work, Evolution of a Filipino Family is the second in his ‘Philippine trilogy’. Though completed after Batang West Side (2002), its production began much earlier, and it effectively functions as the first part of the trilogy. Depicting the critical years of 1971-1987 in Philippine history, Evolution essays the struggle of the Filipino people; starting a year prior to martial Law, enduring the sixteen year Martial Law period, and glimpsing the unrest that prevailed in the year that followed it.
Batang West Side, shot entirely in Jersey City, New York (with the exception of a few dream sequences shot in the Philippines), utilizes a non-linear narrative and the investigation into the death of a Filipino youth in America to scrutinize the state of the Filipino people post-Marcos. It surveys the lives of the diaspora aboard, challenging the choices Filipinos have made and the ‘American Dream’ many of them long for, and confronting a past that we as a nation have yet to reconcile. Heremias, whose script was recently completed and which will begin production this year (2005), follows a single Socratic character as he suffers tragedy, witnesses evil, endures despair, questions God, and ultimately, offers himself as sacrifice. Binding themes from Evolution and West Side, Heremias examines the present state of the brutalized Filipino psyche.
Evolution witnesses the infliction of the wound on the Filipino psyche, Batang West Side examines its scars, and Heremias offers a remedy to cure its woes. Together, I undoubtedly believe, they will represent three of the most important works in contemporary would cinema, and in Philippine cinema history.
The second quote, which was taken from a dialogue between American film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and Iranian critic and filmmaker Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa for their book on Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, makes a critical point about the differing ways in which we receive works, and in turn, write about them. Just as Kiarostami is received by Saeed-Vafa primarily as an Iranian filmmaker and secondarily as a global filmmaker, so too is Diaz's work, universal and profound in its humanity and pathos, so ingrained in Filipino culture, with themes and issues tackled so relevant to Filipino people, that I, as a Filipino, first receive him as a Filipino filmmaker. Allow this to be a declaration and apology for my shortcomings: though my reception of Diaz will be primarily as a Filipino filmmaker, his work speaks just as poetically and universally about suffering, perseverance, reflection, humanity and sacrifice and the world we live in today as it does about the Philippines and what it means to be Filipino.
The third quote, taken again from Jonathan Rosenbuam (a critic whose writing has had a profound influence on the way I see and understand cinema), was said in relation to Bela Tarr’s astounding 7½ hour masterwork Satantango. Diaz’s 11–hour Evolution shares more than just its fondness for long takes, epic duration, historical footing and black and white photography with Tarr’s Satantango, it also similarly challenges our preconceived notions of the used of time in narrative cinema, and by its use of mixed formats and the long duration in which it was shot, forces us to strike-up new standards in criticism in our attempt to assess it.
When speaking to people about Evolution, it is length, without fail, incites violent reactions: “I wont watch that, I have better things to do!” “Why is it so long?” “Is its running time justified?” Even someone as well-versed in cinema as film critic Gino Dormiendo, refuses any attempt to understand the work, and he even appears in the film portraying Lino Brocka! “Any filmmaker that cannot make their point in two hours has a problem,” Dormiendo candidly declared in an interview on television. Dormiendo, a professor of film at the University of the Philippines (who had not seen that film itself at the time of speaking the above words), is not alone in his position however, as there are many others who share his sentiments. With those that simply cannot find the time to watch the film on one of its rare theatrical screenings, I sympathize. But those who dismiss the work on the basis of running time are buying into a shallow and narrow-minded concept of cinema; one so limited and constrained by the dictates purported and ingrained by the Hollywood machine so as to rule out even considering a work such as this. Prominent works of considerable length have existed as far back as the early feature works of D.W. Griffith. Who is to say that cinema hasn’t evolved enough in the past ninety years, or even more so in the past five-to-ten with the mass popularity of digital video, so as to dismiss radical changes in the utilization of the medium? Change was never wrought without first attempting to defy the norm. Evolution is a work of art that does not neatly fall into our standard definitions of cinema or video, and therefore must be scrutinized through an entirely different lens.
Camper’s assessment of Brakhage can be appropriated to Diaz. Diaz is not a craftsman doing something he loves, but is using his craft to try to come to an understanding of whether – and on what terms – both he, and the society he lives in, can go on living. Frustrated with the limitations – in production, content, time, aesthetic – and the exploitation involved in working in the film industry, and seeing no way of being able to wrestle creative control or the final cut from the hands of producers, Diaz drifted away and began his career as an independent filmmaker--a key move that led to great struggle, but marked the beginning of the fulfillment of his aesthetic, and full potential as a filmmaker.
Evolution, which is more than twice the length of his previous film Batang West Side, is so far removed in duration and aesthetic from our common notions of cinema, even more so from the melodrama and escapism rich cinema in the Philippines. It serves as Diaz’s rebuttal to the long-standing tradition of Philippine cinema. Producers, directors, and critics in the Philippines alike have long wailed in duress at the mired state of Philippine cinema. But at the same time they continue to churn out offensively mindless works of entertainment and fantasy that belittle audiences. When confronted and asked why they don’t produce more serious or quality films, the retort most often given is that “Filipinos don’t want to watch that. They go to the movies to be entertained, to escape; not to think.” Diaz’s cinema proclaims the opposite – that audiences do want to think, reflect, and change; that they do not want to live in stagnation, poverty, and a corrupt, morally bankrupt, society. His is a cinema that respects its audience by challenging them, and asking them to meet it halfway, to invest more than their time, but a part of their selves, into the viewing experience.
It is through the recorded image of his camera that Diaz attempts to make sense of the world, both for his audience and himself: “In Evolution, I am capturing real time. I am trying to experience what these people are experiencing. They walk. I must experience their walk. I must experience their boredom and sorrows. I would go to any extent in my art to fathom the paradox that is the Filipino. I would go to any extent in my art to fathom the mystery of humankind’s existence. I want to understand death. I want to understand solitude. I want to understand struggle. I want to understand the philosophy of a growing flower in the middle of a swamp.”
Evolution’s 11-hours running time is not merely for t he sake of shocking audiences or calling attention to itself at festivals. The length of the film and the aesthetic that it puts forth are directly tied to its intention. What Diaz is proposing with his trilogy, is that we have not taken seriously enough the grave events of our past, that we do not yet understand it, and have yet to settle as a nation. Even recent (and well received) cinematic depictions of the Marital Law era--Chito Rono’s adaptation of Lualhati Bautista’s The Seventies (Dekada ’70), which places the events of Martial Law in the light of suburban melodrama, and Ramona Diaz’s documentary Imelda, a portrait of the icon and wife of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos that revels in her charisma and charm--have been far more interested in entertainment and celebrity than healing and understanding.
The Seventies follows the life of a suburban, well-to-do family. Imelda, Celebrates and mocks the excesses of the lunatic cited in its title. Both films offer a view of the era through the eyes of the privileged. Evolution contrasts these depictions by framing its story around the lives of those that have been marginalized, both in cinema and in society – the underclass. It follows the lives of a single rural, farming family in an unnamed village, charting their stories over the course of the Martial Law period, and framing it with harrowing historical footage. Diaz’s Evolution, by far the most humane and touching portrait of Martial Law era Philippines, asks us not to view the lives of the characters in the film, but to live with them: to work, walk, wait, set, eat, cry, struggle, sing, rejoice, and reflect with them, to paraphrase Diaz: to experience what they experienced.
Evolution can, in a sense, be considered both Lav Diaz’s first and latest feature-film. Though it is his sixth completed feature-work (having made four studio works, and one independent film previously) it is also the first one to have begun production. Evolution was made over an 11-year period, beginning in 1994, not as the story of a Filipino family, but of a single character, Ray Gallardo, a Filipino seaman who jumped ship in New York. The scenes of Ray’s life in the Philippines were originally intended as flashbacks, but as the shoots progressed and the story developed, it began to take prominence in the mind of Diaz, who eventually decided to pursue the Philippine story and set aside the footage shot in America.
The reason for the long drawn out production of the film was entirely an economic one – Diaz and producer Paul Tanedo simply did not have the financial resources to shoot continuously. Shooting would stall whenever they did not have money and would resume again when funds were raised; a period of several years sometimes passing between shoots. Shot entirely in black and white, Evolution was originally photograph using 16mm film stock. In 2003, with the high cost of purchasing and developing the film, mounting production costs, the project having been dormant for nearly four years and the emergence of digital video, Diaz has decided to taker the grand leap from film to digital video.
All of these difficulties, however, have coalesced relatively seamlessly into the fabric of the film; making it all the more a fascinating and rich experience to see. The black and white photography of the film blends with the historical footage and paired down cutting pace to create a non-fiction documentary-like feel; one that is further enhanced by the duration it took to make the film. Because the production lasted for so long a period, no make up, special effects, or change of actors is necessary to portray the aging of the characters – the actors age along with the characters they depict; an affect most startling in the case of the character of the child Reynaldo (Elryan de Veyra).
Before viewing the film I feared that the discrepancy between the footage shot on 16mm film and that shot and DV and video would be distracting. The difference in quality is jarring, but it has been utilized to appropriate effect, and has thus become a fascinating aesthetic device that, for the most part works! Roughly thirty percent of the eleven hours is comprised of the early 16mm shoots, with the remaining seventy percent in various forms of black and white digital video. Though uneven at certain points (having used different video cameras), a relative consistency in the storytelling exists, as the beautifully rendered 16mm footage, almost ethereal next to the high contrast resolution of the digital video, represents either flashback or dream sequences. It is when, late in the film, Diaz introduces a dream sequence shot on digital video that causes one to be momentarily confused.
The early 16mm shoots are predominantly filmed in medium and close-up with shots rarely lingering for prolonged periods of time. The video shoots are often in long shot and done in long takes, sitting, waiting, and observing the daily routines of the characters. The feeling of watching and comparing the two is awe-inspiring, as one can chart not only the evolution of Diaz’s aesthetic – from brief medium and close-ups, to long shots and extended takes – illustrating his liberation from the constraints of commercial cinema; but also the evolution of the art form of cinema itself--and the possibilities afforded by the coming of this technology.
The relevance of the period to the current national condition is crucial, as so many of the problems the characters face in the film are still prevalent if not more pronounced in our society today. In one scene, Kadyo, played by Pen Medina, is speaking to the leader of a rebel group (Rey Ventura), after having sold him guns. The rebel leader congratulates Kadyo on a job well done, and asks him to join their group. Kadyo politely declines, telling him that he only did it for the money; in order to feed his family. The scene then cuts and we enter a bar, where Kadyo is at a table drinking. A bar girl, ‘Zsa Zsa’ is then brought to his table, and the two slow dance to crooner Eddie Peregrina’s rendition of Together Again. The passion of Peregrina’s voice, the flare of the grain black and white 16mm footage, and the look of blissful escape on Kadyo’s face, his hand sliding down to cares Zsa Zsa’s derriere, all combine to present one with the notion of a sweet memory. It is a magical scene, and one of the few ones of pure bliss in the film. Diaz is compassionate to the character of Kadyo, and understands that this is, just as the radio dramas are to his family, his only form of escape; his only opportunity to be transported away from the weight of reality. As sympathetic as Diaz is, though, the scene with the rebel that occurs prior to this one serves to illustrate Kadyo’s weakness, and perhaps that of us as a nation: for every step we take forward we take a step back or to the side, justifying our penchant for escapism by the gravity of our sorrow.
In another scene the family listens to the radio, hoping to catch the latest episode of an ongoing drama series. As one of the daughters learns that it is filmmaker Lino Brocka, she says his name off-handedly and disinterestedly, “It’s just Lino Brocka," and then changes the station. Brocka, considered by some to be the greatest of all Filipino filmmakers, is portrayed by one-time critic Gino Domiendo. Brocka was an outspoken artist and activist with a flair for the dramatic, and Diaz here has him speaking out against censorship; critical words that serve as a reminder to our society today. Where once film and filmmakers played a critical role in shaping the national consciousness, railing against the censorship imposed by Marcos and fighting to make serious works in the context of a repressive regime, today, many filmmakers tread shallow waters, with such prominent directors as Laurice Guilen and Marilou Diaz-Abaya, themselves contemporaries and colleagues of Brocka, espousing self-censorship by championing the banning of the film Live Show (Toro, 2002) by Jose Javier Reyes and praising SM Cinemas, the largest theater chain in the country, for their move to ban screenings of R-18 rated films in their cinemas. Acts that surely have Brocka turning in his grave.
After the last second video passes, the screen turns black, and a title card appears: The Story of Two Mothers (Ang Kuwento ng Dalawang Ina). A scene repeats from the film’s opening: Hilda finds a baby in the dumpster, full of ants. Her voice like that of a madwoman, repeating phrases, her appearance like that of a homeless junky; she takes the baby and walks away. A woman enters the screen, and we learn that it is the mother who abandoned the baby. We hear her speak in voiceover as she kneels to lay roses on the spot where she once left Reynaldo:
“For the past 16 years I’ve come back to this street.
This is where I left my child.
In a time of forgetfulness…
In a time of weakness….
Everyday I think of him.
Everyday, I am sorry.
The screen cuts to black, and the film ends with a quote: “Alam ko kung paano namatay si Jean Vigo” (I know how Jean Vigo died) – Taga Timog, filmmaker. Taga Timog, which in English translates to ‘from the south’, is the fictional alter-ego of Diaz. Evolution is an allegory, a tale that documents the tumultuous period wherein a country was broken, its people abandoned, and its psyche displaced. It is through the epic struggle to complete the film that Diaz has gained an understanding of just how Jean Vego died: trying to save his own life.