Norte picked up for int’l distribution

Nathalie Tomada - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Lav Diaz’s Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan has returned home for a series of special screenings after making the rounds of international filmfests to rave reviews and scoring distribution deals in the US, UK and France.

Loosely adapted from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Norte tells the story of Joaquin (Archie Alemania), who is rotting in jail for a murder he didn’t commit. The real perpetrator of the crime Fabian (Sid Lucero) — an “idealistic” intellectual embittered by his country’s history and the society — roams free. But the convict finds his “doomed” life more tolerable when mysterious things happen to him.

Norte initially faced difficulty securing a local playdate before it found a partner in Ayala Cinemas, which is showing the four-hour film once a week. Last Tuesday, the film was brought to Ayala Center Cebu with lead stars Archie, Sid and Angeli Bayani (who plays Joaquin’s suffering wife Eliza) in attendance. It’s slated to screen at Greenbelt 3 tomorrow, March 25, 6:30 p.m. and Glorietta 4, March 31, 6:30 p.m.  

After its world-premiere at the 2013 Cannes Filmfest (under the Un Certain Regard section), Norte had no trouble securing festival bookings from Tokyo to New York, as well as distribution deals with The Cinema Guild (US), New Wave Films (UK) and Shellac (France). Norte is finalizing a deal with a German distribution company.

According to producer Raymond Lee, “It’s a breakthrough because it’s the first Lav Diaz film that has been picked up for distribution.”

Lav was himself “shocked” to have The Cinema Guild, which is known to be a very discriminating distributor of documentaries and features of internationally-acclaimed filmmakers, buying its distribution rights.

Lee added, “Lav is very modest. He found it hard to believe that The Cinema Guild picked it up. The fact that it will be shown in cinemas (later this year) in the US, UK and France is an achievement because it’s a film that some people think is very hard if not impossible to release because of the length.”

Well-aware that the running time of four hours can be daunting to regular moviegoers, Lee said that even Lav, the award-winning auteur reputed for “epic-length films” like the eight-hour Melancholia and the 10-hour Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino, mulled over trimming the length for the Filipino audiences.

“We’re pragmatic and sobered from our experience in dealing films locally. We know the difficulty in releasing local films. So we really thought that maybe we needed to make a shorter version, or a version under three hours. We were open to that. But everyone who had seen and reviewed the film told us, no, you have to show it in its entirety,” said Lee, who is one of the owners of Origin8media, the artist-run film distribution and production company behind the 2011 sleeper hit Zombadings.

The running time has proven to be inconsequential based on ecstatic reviews of foreign critics. Time Out New York critic David Fear hailed Norte as “a movie that approaches (a) marathon-length running time yet still makes you wish it were twice as long.” Wesley Morris, a Pulitzer prize-winning critic, described it as “an honest-to-goodness masterpiece,” which gave him an unforgettable cinematic experience: “The lights went down, the movie came up, and I sat there. Two-hundred-fifty minutes later… I stood with tears in my eyes, and clapped as loudly as I ever have for any movie in my life.”

Norte also cracked the global polls that listed Best Films of 2013, among them the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound, Internacional Cinefila and Artforum.

James Quandt, a senior programmer at the Toronto International Filmfest and Artforum contributor, praised Norte as a frontrunner among the “cinematic gems” coming out of the Philippines recently: “Lav Diaz’s Dostoyevskian mini-epic… may prove the greatest work of the Philippine New Wave.”

The film marks many firsts for Lav, including the first time for him to take on a project wherein the idea of the story didn’t originate from him. “All of his projects, he was the one to initiate. The original idea was a true story about a prisoner whose wife stops visiting him. Every Christmas, he would make a parol, and through the years, the parols he made piled up. It was our starting point,” said Lee, who started out in the industry as a screenwriter for Star Cinema, whose impressive portfolio includes Milan, Kailangan Kita, D’Anothers and Tanging Yaman.

To expand the story, Lee brainstormed with Rody Vera (Death March, Niño, Boses), who became Norte’s writer, and Michiko Yamamoto (Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros, Magnifico, On the Job). 

At first, they considered Mario O’Hara to helm the film, but he passed away in 2012. The director who next came to mind was Lav, who has been working outside the mainstream cinema here but has attracted acclaim and a cult following in the world cinema with socio-politically-charged works like Batang West Side and Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino.

Asked about Lav’s directing style, Sid said during the Cebu presscon, “With Lav, you have no choice but to leave a big room for adjustments because it’s always flying papers on set. The atmosphere of the entire shoot was almost acting on reflex. And for me, that was nice. He gives me total freedom.”

As for Angeli, “(Lav) has this way of setting the atmosphere where you all feel it and you’re all in it together. He trusts the actors to bring their own brand of creativity. The first time I worked with him, I was astounded with the level of trust he gave me. You see, actors are really insecure. We always want affirmation. We want to hear whether it was a good take or not. With Lav, I don’t dare to ask.”

Archie, who’s more known in showbiz for his comedic roles, said, “I accepted the role for self-growth, because I always get comedy roles. (Norte) is the indie film that brought me to another country and gave me the rare opportunity to work with these great actors and Lav.”

As an independent producer and distributor, Lee has been a long-time fan of Lav’s work.

“I remember pitching the story to Lav in Dumaguete during a workshop at Siliman University. He loved it,” said Lee. “We wanted Lav to direct the film because we loved his films. I’m a fan of Lav. I hope this film will introduce Lav Diaz to much, much more Filipinos and the young generation. He really wants his work to be seen here.”











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