CINEMA OF CONSEQUENCE
By Andrew Maerkle
All images: Lav Diaz – Norte, the End of History (2013). © Raymond Lee & Lav Diaz.
Born in 1958, Lav Diaz is known for his films depicting contemporary life in the Philippines through an allegorical approach that draws parallels between present conditions and historical precedents such as the dictatorial regime of President Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the country from 1965 to 1986. Diaz recently visited Japan for a screening of his most recent film, Norte, the End of History, as part of the 6th Yebisu International Festival for Art & Alternative Visions 2014, held February 7-23 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. ART iT met with Diaz after the screening to discuss the film and the artist’s views on cinema.
ART iT: I’d like to begin by discussing the idea of emancipation. This is a theme that appears repeatedly in your works, and yet is never what it at first seems. In Century of Birthing (2011), for example, the cult promises spiritual emancipation to its followers, but the reality is actually a kind of mental slavery, while the intellectual photographer promises to emancipate the young woman from the cult, and so rapes her, destroying her sense of self. How do you see this theme as it relates to your works?
LD: Each and every one of us has his own application or perspective on liberation, emancipation, redemption. Who owns the real issue of emancipation? Nobody. It all depends on your culture, your background, your history and how you perceive life.
In my films I always want to humanize the characters. I don’t want to do caricatures. Even in the same individual, good and evil coexist. These are not perfect beings. These are the real characters for me. The photographer thinks he’s emancipating the woman but he’s actually destroying her perception of emancipation, and the same with the leader of the cult, who has a very twisted vision, but also believes that he’s helping humanity. There’s no judgment whatsoever.
ART iT: At the same time your films have a strong relationship to events in the history of the Philippines, and often function as an allegory of, or at least a commentary on, that history.
LD: Yes, the films are very allegorical. Each film is a discourse on how history affects humanity, and how it affects us as human beings, whether we realize it or not. Who you are now is a consequence of history – your cultural history, your nation’s history. You as an individual are a microcosm of that history, whether you like it or not. It’s an imposed thing based on experience.
ART iT: Do your films also try to point to a way out of history?
LD: We cannot escape history. It’s all about consequences. Hitler was a consequence of the evolution of German history, and it destroyed Europe and it destroyed the world. You cannot escape consequences.
ART iT: But in turning a lens, as in Norte, the End of History (2013), to the birth of the fascist Marcos, as represented by the character Fabian, does that create potential for viewers to recognize the fascist within themselves, or within their communities, and respond to it in some way?
LD: There are pros and cons to that reading. Some people won’t recognize it, while others can see it. It depends on who you are. You can feel negatively or positively about it. It’s just there. I am stating a fact to people that this thing started this way: there was a brilliant young guy who was desperate to change society, but he wanted to do it immediately in his own brutal way, and what we are now is because of that. In the Philippines a very dark period was born out of just such a fascistic, imposing, megalomaniacal perspective. So the film is allegorical, but it’s also real. It’s happening. I hope Filipinos can read it, and people from other nations can read it, too, because fascism is very real. It’s part of our history. It destroyed Japan, it destroyed Germany, it destroyed the world.
ART iT: At the same time, although your films are allegorical, they avoid taking a polemic approach.
LD: I don’t want to be didactic. That’s why I crave real characters. I don’t want to make a propaganda film. Propaganda has no place in art, especially in cinema. If you make your characters real, and then just present the discourse, people will get it. It’s better to present the dynamics of the discourse. It has to be Socratic. That’s what I want, rather than imposing a specific perspective.
ART iT: I was impressed to read that your father, as a young intellectual, dedicated himself to a career as a rural schoolteacher. I connect that to the idealism of the student movement in the postwar years here in Japan, where people were really driven to play a role in shaping society. I admire the commitment and sense of mission of someone like your father, who apparently risked his life to continue teaching in the midst of a civil war. Were you thinking of your father as an obverse side to the “Marcos” character of Fabian in Norte?
LD: My father was very altruistic. He constantly thought about educating people, and saving lives through education.
Evil is just around the corner, and things can turn for the worse if you don’t take stock of what’s happening. It’s happening again now. China is exerting its muscle everywhere in the region. North Korea is trying to scare everybody. Just one push and we will all be annihilated, everything destroyed. These are very dangerous times. You have nuclear armaments in all the major countries now.
Even what’s happening in our climate is foreboding, like this snowstorm today. It’s really dark.
Just this morning, we heard the tragic news that our friend died yesterday in a bus crash in Manila. He was a great activist, actor, comedian and politician, and he died yesterday. It’s because of irresponsibility. The bus driver fell asleep and then boom, 14 people are dead. It’s all about that. If you’re not careful everything will turn for the worse.
ART iT: I am sorry to hear about your friend. And yet already in Norte you had the scene where Eliza is killed in a bus crash.
LD: One of the points of the film is that it can happen anytime. [The film’s producer] Moira and I were struck that what happened at the end of the film just happened in Manila.
Life is tragic.
ART iT: Do you also think about it as a melodrama?
LD: Life alone is a melodrama. What we’re doing now is very melodramatic. We’re talking about real life. We can be very abstract about things, but humans are ultimately very primal. We feel everything, no matter how we create all these defenses. Things strike you in the moments when you’re not really aware. The emotions come before intellect. We always try to reverse it, try to intellectualize life, but the melodrama comes everyday. You see a poor guy asking for money and you feel for him, that’s very melodramatic – the emotion comes first. You see your mother waving goodbye to you, see how alone she is, and it’s very sad. These are very real things. You see your father drinking because he’s got nothing to do now – very sad. You see your friend descending into addiction, it’s very sad. You see your president embezzling all the money from the country, it’s very sad. This is very melodramatic. We try to avoid them, but these things are very real. That’s how I define melodrama: reality! It’s a very primal aspect of our existence.
ART iT: What struck me with both Century of Birthing and Norte was the idea of coexisting worlds or realities, which sometimes blur together in surreal ways, as in Century, and sometimes in very tenuous ways, as in Norte, where the lives of the primary characters are transformed simply because they happen to use the same neighborhood loan shark. There’s a fleeting connection, and then their worlds go off in different directions.
LD: That’s cinema. We could just frame you in the camera now, but beyond the frame there’s another world. Life is cinema. She is there, and you’re drinking coffee there, and I’m here, and if we push the frame back far enough so that we’re all in the same frame, then we can share the same world. We are all connected. We push and pull each other through this invisible gravity called life, and it’s a mystery that we can never really explain.
ART iT: What is the camera for you?
LD: It’s just my window. I want to film the whole world, but there’s only this very small frame, so you have to create a smaller universe out of this wide universe. But everything is connected. Cinema is life, it’s never ending, and I’m just trying to frame a very specific story within this whole universe. We have eight billion people and if I only frame three of them, you still have eight billion stories out there that are all connected. I wish we could just film the whole world and then watch it.
ART iT: Is there any division for you between reality and the fictions that you create?
LD: There’s no reality. There’s no fiction. We all have our stories, whether it’s a narrative or a documentary. I’m trying to get a sense of what’s happening in reality, so it’s still reality even if it’s fiction. When I film, I usually do only one long take, and if I do a cut-to-cut it’s just because I can’t move the camera anymore and have to connect it there. This is because I’m trying to catch the truth as closely as possible, without manipulating it. For me, the long take is about trying to catch a semblance of the truth. With actors also, that’s the experience that is recorded. They have to give their all when they perform the scene, because they know there’s just one take, and the director will not manipulate it later.
If you do a cut-to-cut, the way they still do in Hollywood, it’s very manipulative. It’s in the hands of a manipulator.
ART iT: In the question-and-answer session earlier today, you said that you are still a student of cinema, but could you discuss the development of your praxis from your first films to the present?
LD: Praxis creates a distance, so that at some point you will be able to see your own aesthetic, methodology, framework, process. Of course I started out making film-school-type cinema, with cut-to-cut, pans, the tilt-up. You do all the shots – the full shot, the medium shot, the close up, the cutaway – so that the editor can just connect things later. It’s a very tiring but easy way of doing cinema. You don’t discourse on how you will create the frame or how you will see it. You just throw it to the editor, following the script.
I struggled hard to create an alternative methodology or framework to the conventional way of doing things. That’s why the films are long, because if the scenes all take place in one frame, you cannot do it fast. They become long because you connect all these one-frame scenes, which are actually relatively brief. The films are in fact really short. You’re seeing just a small fraction of life. I want to involve the whole universe, not just follow the action of the characters. I want to see the whole universe and push the frame out to another world. Maybe I’m just framing three persons in one scene, but you have eight million other people moving at the same time. Cinema is just a small window onto the world that I’m trying to create.
But also with my culture, the Malay people are really slow. If you go back to our past, we don’t really have a concept of time. We just have life. We wait. We wait for the sun to come, we wait for our plants to grow, we wait for the harvest. It’s governed by what’s happening in our habitat.
ART iT: In that sense I am curious to know what you think about the possibility for so-called national cinema under the current conditions of globalization, with the rise of the Internet and the international film-festival circuit.
LD: You can still identify that this cinema is from the Philippines because of the filmmaker and the characters involved. You see Filipino society there. But I don’t know how to define national cinema now, because you can see everything through Vimeo, YouTube. Everything is globalized. National cinema is just an identification of who the filmmaker is. If the filmmaker is Filipino, then it’s Filipino cinema. If the filmmaker is American, then maybe it’s American cinema, but it’s just cinema, anyway. There are no boundaries any more.
ART iT: Then, in this context, what does international cinema mean to you?
LD: There is no international cinema, it’s just cinema. The word international is so absurd and embarrassing. People always put in their resumes “international artist.” What is that? What is international? Any story that you give, even if it’s about a small village in India or Indonesia or somewhere, people can always relate to it. There’s no border or race or gender that applies to it. There’s this whole small universe that you will show them, and they can relate to it, from the very primal aspects to the intellectual.
ART iT: At the same time, when you talk about your influences and you mention Tarkovsky, most people know who he is, but when you mention Lino Brocka, that’s more specific to the Filipino context. So to the extent that everything is international now, there are still different spheres of circulation.
LD: Yes, the concept of internationalism is more about borders as they used to exist, but now that we’re all breaking borders, there’s just one world, there’s just cinema. So now maybe we should change the title of Rotterdam International Film Festival to just Rotterdam Film Festival. Fuck “International.”
ART iT: Well, when we think about the classic idea of national cinema, it tends to be a cinema driven by a strong sense of mission and purpose to articulate the concerns of a specific community. The danger with globalized cinema is that it becomes about commercialization and consumption.
LD: Yes, the nation becomes the brand. When you watch something by Nagisa Oshima, you might see it first as a Japanese film. But when you watch In the Realm of the Senses (1976), and how Oshima critiques the values of the old Japanese system, it also has meaning for other cultures, so we can relate to that. It’s no longer Japanese cinema. It’s cinema about us, about humanity.
You watch Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), and the film’s discussion of the relativity of truth is valid in all societies. It’s just that the characters are Japanese, the story is in Japan and the director is Japanese. That’s very national. But when you watch it from the viewpoint that this is just about life and you can relate to it that way, then there are no borders anymore, no races. You erase the so-called national cinema.
We should push things to be post-border, post-truth, post-everything and erase everything, and then there’s nothing, just humanity, just life.
That’s part of the discourse of the character Fabian from Norte, and it explains why he became an asshole. He was so twisted that he couldn’t push his personal philosophy toward a better understanding of life. He’s so imposing and self-absorbed that he descends into a living hell rather than opening things up. So he became a fascistic guy. He didn’t open up; he created all these walls around him. And if he can impose his way then humanity will be destroyed. We’ve seen these guys before – Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Marcos – and we cannot accept it anymore.
Lav Diaz: Cinema of Consequence