A conversation with the great Lav Diaz
MANILA, Philippines - There was a time when, even to veritable cinephiles, Lav Diaz was known simply for making long films. There was a time when, to regular audiences, Lav Diaz was completely unknown because he makes long films. But the last two years have seen a surge of interest in Lav’s cinema. His latest film, Mula Sa Kung Ano Ang Noon, won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival last month — the highest honor ever bestowed on a Filipino movie (There will be special screenings of the Martial Law horror on Sept. 24.) Meanwhile, Lav’s Norte, Hangganan Ng Kasaysayan, is playing to sold-out audiences here and abroad. (The epic adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment will be released in theaters next Wednesday — a run that shall make it eligible for next year’s Academy Awards.)
Lav hasn’t changed his cinema one bit, but perhaps audiences are finally catching up to him. In a world overrun by homogenic superhero movies and cookie-cutter romantic comedies, Lav’s films bring a breath of fresh air to anyone willing to embrace them, and his growing number of followers will tell you the static, black-and-white master shots that mark his style carry more power than all of Hollywood’s exploding robots combined.
We sat down with Lav at his home for an intimate conversation on memory — memory being a recurring theme in his filmography. We talk about his beginnings, his relationship with history, and his horrific childhood in Maguindanao, which serves as the basis for Mula Sa Kung Ano Ang Noon.
What was your first memory of cinema?
We lived in this very remote area of Maguindanao. I grew up in the middle of the forest, but about two hours’ drive from our place, through a rough road, was Tacurong City in Sultan Kudarat. There were four theaters there, and my father was a movie addict. He would bring us on the weekends. We would get there by Saturday morning and go home Sunday night. We watched the whole gamut, all the genres — action, horror, Hong Kong movies, Hollywood movies, Filipino cinema. What I liked watching was action — Bruce Lee stuff, Fernando Poe, Jr. was a favorite then, James Bond, of course, and also the slapstick comedies of Dolphy and Chikito. All the fares in the theaters were double bills, so we were watching eight movies a week. It was virtually a film school.
At what point did you get the idea of making films yourself?
It started in college when I watched, and I remember what a strong impact it had on me, Godfather 1. I was like, “Wow. What is this? This is stunning.” I saw it at the Delta Theater. Then our teacher assigned us to watch Maynila Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag and write a reaction paper. With my classmates, we watched that film at the Coronet Theater in Cubao and then we talked about it the whole night, about how beautiful the film was and how good Lino Brocka was. This is where it started, where I got the idea, that, “Ah, instead of me doing music” — because music is what I really wanted to do, I was in bands — “maybe I can do cinema.” These two films were landmarks for me as a young man.
How did you get to make your first movie?
I had started working at the Journal, a newspaper, and I did a documentary on street children. One day, a Japanese foundation called me up and said, “We saw your documentary. We’re touring Europe and the US and we want to include your stuff.” I said, “Really?” (Laughs.)
I went to the US. Everything was paid for. When we were in New York, a Filipino newspaper invited me to stay and join their staff. They took care of my papers. So, I stayed there and I started doing stuff. I bought a camera, a very old 16 millimeter, and I started shooting. I made a documentary. I found a Filipino woman who was selling books on the streets of Manhattan. I said, “This is beautiful.”
In New York, I had everything. I would go to the New York library and watch old films there. I went to the Film Forum. I had friends who were independent filmmakers, and we just started shooting and shooting and shooting.
The first narrative films that you made, though (and some people may be surprised by this), were movies for Regal Films. When did you come back to the Philippines and how did you start working with them?
I came back in 1997, to get my family. I was able to get papers for them, after being away for four years. But before I came back, I started shooting Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino in New York, Maryland, and Virginia, and part of my reason for returning to the Philippines was to shoot the flashback parts of the film. Here, my friend Larry Manda, the cinematographer, told me, “Regal Films is looking for filmmakers. They have a program called, pito-pito — the pre-production is seven days, production is seven days, and post-production is seven days.” I said, “F_ _k, what kind of filmmaking is that?” He said, “Let’s go, let’s just have fun. Rock and roll.”
When people discuss your movies, one of the first topics that they talk about is, of course —
The length. (Laughs.)
Yes, the length. When you filmed “Ebolusyon,” which clocks in at over 10 hours, what gave you the idea, and the bravery, to break conventions?
It was a cross, man. When I was shooting, I said, “When will this end?” I kept adding and adding things. It was fun, that’s why. When you’re free and you have the rolls, you can keep shooting. And I had friends who didn’t ask to be paid. We were just having fun.
But even then, I considered cinema as art. It’s a discourse on my part. I struggled with it. I kept asking myself, “Why? Why is it just two hours or one and a half hours? Why do you have to limit this thing if it’s an art?” So right from the start, I set my cinema free. I don’t care about length. Even with the pito-pito films, in Barrio Concepcion, my cut was three hours already. I had a big fight with Mother Lily. I said, “Mother, it’s three hours.” She said, “F_ _k you! Nobody’s going to watch this. It’s my money! Cut it! Cut it!”
More and more people these days, though, are talking about your films for different reasons. Your latest, Mula Sa Kung Ano Ang Noon is nearly six hours long, but reviews focus instead on its content — its power, and its drama. Let’s talk about this. The film is based on your memories of growing up in Maguindanao, at the onset of Martial Law. What did you see?
I saw massacres in Maguindanao then. Even before Martial Law was declared, in some villages, war exploded. The Illongos and the Ilocanos created the Illaga Movement; they were militias armed by the military and they were fighting the black shirts of the Muslims. It was a vicious cycle — when a Muslim was killed, a Christian was killed, too, until the massacres became terrible.
When I was in first year high school, my brother and I were on the way home from General Santos, which is two hours away from our village, and the bus stopped. Grabe, sunog! The barrio of the Muslims had just been burned down. There were corpses on the street, from babies to old people. They were hacked at. It was horrible. It was scary. It was terrible.
Then, my village was hostaged by the Muslims, the rebels. We were taken away from our homes and put in this school. The government negotiated for our release, so we were released after two or three weeks. While we were at the school, the military started bombing the place — there were so many casualties. Planes came, they didn’t care about us, people were running — boom! Our baranggay chairman was killed, with his family. Muslims. Christians. Then, after we were released, the military came and started burning the whole place. It was horrifying. Nobody wins.
We forget that one of the seeds of Martial Law was the unrest in the south, sparked by the Jabidah Massacre, where Muslims’ army men were murdered by Marcos’ military. But people could hear your story and go, “Wasn’t Marcos right? The Muslims took you hostage!”
(Laughs.) It is scary, there’s this revisionist movement. They’ve been trying to rehabilitate that guy; that he’s a good man and he did good things for the country, and we were actually better off during Martial Law. It’s easy to say that now, but do you know what you’re saying?
I grew up during Martial Law and the whole thing is a memory of darkness. I saw how it started — the killings, the death of our village — until the death of Ninoy and the EDSA Revolution. Those years were very dark, man. And you can feel it in the film; the sense that hell is coming.
Towards the end of the Mula, there’s a character who talks about the loss of the village’s culture, and another character answers, “But we can reclaim it!” How hopeful are you for the Philippines?
There’s hope, with young people. It’s just that education is important. We need to educate young people about the past. With the advent of digital and the Internet, everything is fast, information is really fast, and you only get bits and pieces only of history. But we need to have historical perspective so that our country has a foundation to move on, to move forward.
You mentioned we live in a fast-paced digital age. How do you think your cinema fits in this world?
It’s part of it. I’m part of it. I embrace digital. It’s easier now to do these so-called long films because of it. More people are able to access my cinema because of it.
Have you noticed a change in your audience?
Yeah, culture is an organism and it grows. When I started doing these films, we’d see five people in the cinema. One screening in Thailand of Ebolusyon, there was only one person watching. But with the digital age and social media, the reviews are on the Internet, and it has been a big help. More young people are watching. In Locarno, the four shows, were really lined up for. It was like the whole town was watching; some people couldn’t get seats. And they finished the film. Norte is being distributed all over the world, and here, the screenings are always full. It’s surprising.
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This interview has been abridged for print, but Lav and I talked about so much more. To read the extended version of this conversation, visit http://pepediokno.com.