«Explotation is never cool to me»: The Anti-Feudal Cinema (2011). Interview with Lav Diaz by Michael Guarneri.
In the New-Philippine-Cinema panorama, Lav Diaz (Datu Paglas – Mindanao, 1958) is the oldest and most awarded director. He gained international attention with his second independent feature Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004), a ten-hour-long family saga chronicling sixteen years of Filipino post-colonial history. He then proceeded to define/refine his uncompromising style based on Mini-DV technology, extremely-lenghty static shots and non-linear narrative. He won the Venezia Orizzonti Competition for two years in a row: in 2007 with Death in the Land of Encantos and in 2008 with Melancholia, clocking 543 and 445 minutes respectively.
I approached Lav Diaz at the 67th Venice Film Festival, where he was part of the Orizzonti jury: instead of focusing on his trademark long-take aesthetics, I preferred to confront him about recent crime news from the Philippines.
The discussion continued through e-mail exchange during the following months, touching issues such as his early career in studio system and the revolutionary role of independent filmmakers in the so-called Digital Age.
Michael Guarneri: I noticed a similarity between the premise of your 2009 short movie Butterflies have no memories and the actual hijack of a Manila bus on August 23rd 2010: in both cases, a policeman who lost his job (by “job” I mean “money, respect, authority”) becomes a criminal and endangers the lives of innocent tourists. Do you think that what happened in Manila is a sad coincidence, just an isolated case, or it can be considered the result of precise socio-political, economic and psychological causes?
Lav Diaz: Man’s primal nature is fundamentally feudal on issues of power. Money, respect and authority are representations of man’s feudal culture. Take Putin, Gadhafi, Ahmadinejad, Ferdinand Marcos or the former Security Chief in Butterflies Have No Memories: it can happen anywhere. The specific case of the tragic Manila hijacking is a clear representation of a culture – the Filipino culture – that remains tragically feudal in nature. The character here is Rolando Mendoza, a military officer who was about to retire but was discharged without benefits because of his alleged involvement in a criminal activity, which he denied. He couldn’t accept losing his social status, so he hijacked a bus full of Chinese tourists and demanded reinstatement, i.e. to have everything back. In a survey that came out in the Philippine media (Philippine Daily Inquirer, March 28th 2011), the military establishment is the most corrupt of all the institutions in the country: a month ago, the ex-head of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, General Angelo Reyes, committed suicide (an unprecedented event in the country) after he was charged of pocketing hundreds of millions. So yes, the hijacking can be broadly webbed with the socio-political and economic conditions of the country. And, psychologically, Mendoza’s desperate act is not so unlike the murderous rampage of Gadhafi and the horrifying scheme of the former Security Chief in Butterflies Have No Memories: they are three primal beings who couldn’t accept losing their feudal privileges. The tourist bus, Libya and the island in Butterflies Have No Memories are the same, bloody and unfortunate venues to human beings who retrogressed to their barbaric animal origins.
M.G.: Your stories can’t be described as tales of hope, at least not in a classic happy-ending fashion: how do you reconcile the humanist aim of your cinema with its merciless depiction of endless sufferings? I mean, your movies could be (and actually are) accused of enjoying “the gloomy, decadent mood” like some sort of “poverty porn”.
L.D.: Tragedy and suffering are inherent part of man’s existence and death is inescapable. Only Truth is regenerating and liberating if you can find it and accept it. That’s why a culturally committed artist cannot escape the issues of his culture, and poverty and misery definitely are fundamental issues in my struggle against escapist lies Filipino people are being fed with. Through my movies I seek the Truth (which of course can be very broad, relative and subjective), and I hope to push the viewer to do the same and co-operate in the struggle. I’m trying to be responsible: my cinema is conscious of our culture’s struggle; all my films investigate, examine, confronts and challenge the Pinoy [Filipino] psyche.
M.G.: Who owns your movies? I saw that most of them can be illegally downloaded from the Internet. Is it ok for you the existence of these pirated copies? Can it be considered part of your “digital is liberation theology” theory?
L.D.: I own Heremias, Death in the Land of Encantos and Melancholia, and I’m a part owner of Evolution of a Filipino Family. Yes, the coming of digital liberated everything that is cinema. Uploading, downloading, copying, sharing, reproducing have become basic parts of the circulation dynamics. Cinema doesn’t just proceed from studios to theaters, malls, television, DVDs, museums and festivals now. The zeitgeist presents a whole new cinema universe. And contrary to what big business people keep saying ad infinitum – that downloading movies is killing cinema – it actually pushes cinema to greater heights just by the fact that one can watch everything now, which can lead to a greater understanding of the medium and of reality itself. The nature of the movie businessmen’s (and a lot of so-called independent filmmakers are actually businessmen) discontent is losing profit (but they continue to make millions!) while the viewing masses’ demand is to have cinema on their own terms, and they can actually own cinema now. This is because the filmmaker – now I mean the true filmmaker, the committed one – is liberated from the feudal setup of the old system. Digital made this possible, from the acquisition of filmmaking tools to addressing the demands of the audience, primarily on the issue of access. Accessibility is still a huge problem since in the Philippines like everywhere else 98% of the theaters are commercial ones, but digital is creating a cultural revolution in cinema. As reflected by the Digital Age, in this 21st century the struggle for liberation remains the most important vision and praxis. With the help of committed cinema, by the end of the century man must have eradicated all feudal setups: no more kings and queens, no more dictators, no more authoritarian regimes, no more monopolies, no more borders, no more landlords, no more gods.
M.G.: What did you learn during the “pito-pito apprentice period” at the Good Harvest Studio [a commercial branch of Regal Films, a production company for which young Diaz made his first movies]?
L.D.: The pito-pito (“seven each”) was one of the most exploitative and brutal schemes ever done in film production. Regal Films – one of the biggest production studios in the Philippines – imposed seven days of pre-production, seven days of shooting and seven days of post-production to us filmmakers. I’d seen production people collapsing from fatigue. During the shooting of Serafin Geronimo: The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion, I was having severe flu. I was drinking loads of antibiotics plus endless strong black coffee to stay awake and be able to finish it. I passed out on the last day of the shoot. Honestly, I thought I was dead. And everybody did it with very, very low salaries. It was hell. The process woke me up and so I left the movie industry, the so-called system.
M.G.: Given your experience in both mainstream/industrial/commercial and independent/arthouse cinema, do you think it’s possible for a movie to be both cool-90-minutes-exploitation stuff and a humanist reflection on contemporary hot topics?
L.D.: People compromise for a reason: at the beginning I was part of the system too. Things can co-exist and some people can live with contradictions. However, while working for Regal Films, I understood that it’s easy to do exploitation stuff and then inject things there, make a lot of money and say “Hey, I’m just having fun and it’s only a movie!”. Yes, that’s possible and there’s been a deluge of that since the birth of cinema, but I can’t do it: exploitation is never cool to me, both as a movie-genre and as a production method.
M.G.: I read that your next feature will be Agonistes. Can you tell me something about your next project?
L.D.: The working title is Agonistes. I’ve shot some scenes already in 2009. I may be able to finish it this year. Agonistes is about three poor men who went digging for a treasure.
© Michael Guarneri
© 2018 FelliniA Tierra de Cine