A Conversation with Lav Diaz
Interview by: Alexis A. Tioseco

Indictment and Empowerment of the Individual:
The Modern Cinema of Lav Diaz

“The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility.” - Vaclav Havel

From the first frames of his first feature-film— a memorable long shot of a man on his knees amidst an open field in the Dostoevsky-inspired Serafin Geronimo, Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion (1998), to the final frames of his last— the epilogue A Story of Two Mothers that closes Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (2005), Lav Diaz has been chronicling the crushing weight of guilt on those who seek redemption. Diaz’s cinema is modern in many respects, but none so much as in relation to the norms and history of Philippine society, culture, and cinema. In seven years and spanning seven feature-films (including the forthcoming Heremias), he has developed a body of work that stands alone in contemporary Philippine cinema, seeking out new ground both formally and thematically, and challenging the legacy left behind by the great Lino Brocka.

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As a country, the Philippines has had a troubled and arduous past. Initially struggling to free itself from Spanish and American colonizers, it now, independence gained, wrestles with itself in search of identity and direction, pointing fingers when it ought to take responsibility. The shadow cast by Ferdinand Marcos’ imposition of Martial Law stills looms prominently over the country, nearly twenty years after the dictator’s reign has ended. Marcos created a legacy; not only of fame and wealth, but of stifled hands and silenced voices; a legacy of disempowerment.

Filmmaking in a country is often at its most gripping when its citizenry are in their most dire straits. Many Filipino filmmakers, from Ishmael Bernal (Nunal sa Tubig, 1975, Manila By Night, 1980 and Himala, 1982) and Mike De Leon (Kisapmata and Batch 81, both made in 1982) to Peque Gallaga (Oro, Plata, Mata, 1982 and Scorpio Nights, 1985), created their best works during Marcos’ rule. The most prominent filmmaker in the country during this period, both cinematically and vocally, was Lino Brocka. Brocka’s was, when granted the opportunity, a cinema of opposition; one that challenged the status quo, and painted a horrifying picture of society at its most desperate. Fighting to be heard amidst a crassly commercial industry and strict censorship, Brocka often had to sacrifice making several commercial features in order to make one work of substance

It is from these two strains—Martial Law and Brocka— that Diaz both gained his inspiration and begins his point of departure.

Diaz first encountered the power of cinema watching Lino’s Maynila as a college student. “That film changed my perspective on cinema” , Diaz imparted to me in a 2002 interview, “[It made me realize that] this medium is very powerful: you can use it to change people’s minds; their conditions; their perspectives. From then on I said I want to make good art films; for my people.”

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Debuting to critical acclaim in 1998, Diaz’s Serafin Geronimo, Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion, announced the arrival of a major talent, and a possible new direction for Philippines cinema. Where Brocka had examined society’s effect on the individual, Diaz’s Kriminal looked at the effect of the individual's actions on his conscience. His Russian influences written on his sleeve— the film begins with a quote from Crime and Punishment translated into Tagalog— Diaz’s hero was akin to that of Dostoevsky but atypical of Philippine cinema; a quiet man with a guilty past seeking redemption in the present. With Kriminal, Diaz laid down his archetype character and began to plot the path of his aesthetic.

In 1999 Diaz completed two more films for Regal films (producers of Kriminal), the farcical Burger Boys, whose shooting actually began before Kriminal, and Hubad Sa Ilalim ng Buwan. Burger Boys, about a group of youths writing a screenplay about a group of youths planning a bank robbery, is a curious film, and one that seems most out of place in the context of Diaz’s oeuvre. Filled with close-ups, quick cutting, conscious camera angles, strange costume design, and oddball characters, it is most interestingly seen as a genre experiment by an anti-genre filmmaker.

Hubad Sa Ilalim ng Buwan brought Diaz back to more familiar territory. An ex-priest and failed husband (Joel Torre), whose daughter (played by starlet Klaudia Koronel) sleepwalks in the nude plagued by memories of being raped, questions his decisions and examines his past, as his life slowly crumbles before him in the present. Again, we have a hero, quiet, introverted, searching. The film received favorable reviews, and screened in the Berlin International Film Festival, but was also re-cut with additional sex scenes (shot without Diaz) inserted at the producer’s behest.

It was in the independently produced Batang West Side (2001), arguably the first modern Filipino masterpiece, that Diaz fully realized his aesthetic and first tackled, indirectly, the theme of Martial Law. At a startling five-hours, then the longest Filipino film ever made, and shot almost entirely in the US (save for brief but powerful dream sequences), Batang West Side dealt with an issue close to home for Diaz and many in his country, that of the Filipino diaspora abroad. The subject matter had been dealt with before (Laurice Guillen’s American Adobo, 2001), but here the issues and characters were more than melodrama and caricatures. Brilliantly sketched and cast, so fully realized on the screen; allowed to sit, stand, breathe, and exhale (a key motif throughout the film, including its final scene), they became cinematic equivalents of people you knew— your mother, father, brother, sister, cousin, lover, or grandfather. Diaz’s quiet unobtrusive camera registered every detail of Filipinos from all walks of life in the US. Treating every minute as precious, he utilized the films long running time to masterful effect, allowing scenes, moods, and relationships to sink in as deep with his actors as with his audience. West Side's plot, revolving around the death of a Filipino youth on a New Jersey street corner, served as a metaphor for the state of Filipinos today. Officer Mijarez, himself harboring a dark past, interrogates the entire Filipino community in search of the murderer, in search of truth, of a face on whom to place the blame. By the films end Mijarez’s investigation has drawn to a close, but nothing conclusive about Hanzel’s death has been determined. “If I push for the case, I’ll be killing a lot of Filipinos”, Mijarez says, and as the last frames roll out we understand why: we are all our responsible.

Diaz followed West Side, with another Regal Films production, Hesus Rebolusyonaryo (2002). Hesus was an ambitious science-fiction film set in a future not so dissimilar from the past (the year is 2010). Using as a recurring theme a song by the rock-band The Jerks that comments on the circular nature of history, Diaz projects his concerns, nay paranoia, for what the future will hold for a society that has not yet learned from its mistakes. The films complex story plays out less as a traditional futuristic thriller, than a psychological mind-game, as we witness the interplay of action and discourse between the three main characters —Kumander Miguel (Ronnie Lazaro), Col. Simon (director Joel Lamangan) and the revolutionary Hesus Mariano (Mark Anthony Fernandez). “Future Tense”: the title of film critic Noel Vera’s review of the film, aptly sums up its mood.

In April of 2003 Diaz returned to nine-year old unfinished work. Using DV in place of 16mm film due to lack of budget, he set out to complete an intimate epic set just before, during, and after martial law. In January 2005, the final cut of his 11-hour masterwork, the beautiful confusion Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (2005), premiered at the Rotterdam International Film Festival. Ebolusyon recreates scenes of rural life splicing them between and with harrowing historical footage from the period. "Is there a direct correlation between the historical footage presented and the lives of the characters in the film?", one begins to ponder, watching the film. While it is not hard to imagine the psychological implications a state imbued with fear brings, the direct connection between the two appears missing, a telling clue as to the point Diaz is making. One would commonly expect a film that deals with such an important period of a county’s history to focus on large-scale events. Boldly, Diaz points his camera in another direction, choosing not to make a reductive statement indicting the former leader, but instead demonstrating and dramatizing the effect individual choice has in the face of societal forces. At the same time that Diaz sympathizes with the burden that his people have borne, he also appears to declare the futility of placing blame for ones woes entirely on society. It is for this reason that such a disparity exists between the illustration of historical events and Diaz’s depiction of fictional lives. Diaz chooses not to show us the direct effects of key moments in history on the lives of the characters, but rather the role that their own choices played in determining the courses of their lives. Puring’s strength, her deep belief in the fertility of the land and the importance of education, Kadyo’s good-natured but misguided attempts at supporting his loved ones, Reynaldo’s departure from and return to his new family, the moving epilogue A Story of Two Mothers that ends the film; these are all sketches coalescing into a grand collage, a work of art that both indicts and empowers the individual in the face of oppression; declaring him responsible for his own salvation.

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You can feel the weight of history, of the past, in every frame of a Lav Diaz film. It’s written in the worn wrinkles on the faces of his characters, in their stammered speech, their furrowed brow; their moments of silence. This is the key to Diaz’s cinema, and the well from which it draws its strength and importance. While many filmmakers in the Philippines, having been bred and influenced by the films and words of Lino Brocka (correct for their time, out of place now) seek to emulate the path of his career, Diaz has adapted and grown, stepped back and attempted to understand the present picture of our country and its people today. Twenty years ago, when under the rule of a sole dictator, we knew well whose wrists deserved to feel the sharp ends of our knives. Today, in a society so quick to judge and pass blame, the only flesh that remains to be examined is our own. Diaz’s camera, steadfast, unwavering, reveals the truths only found beneath the surface, and points us on the path to deliverance.

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(The above text was originally commissioned for the 2005 Torino International Film Festival Catalogue for their retrospective on Lav Diaz. In the catalogue it was mistakenly (accidentally) attributed to Roger Garcia instead of the author.)

Beginnings

Alexis Tioseco: Who gave the workshop that you attended in Mowelfund? [1] And related question: who have been instrumental teachers and mentors for you in cinema?
Lamberto Avellana?
Christoph Janetzko?
Nick Deocampo?
Gil Portes?

Lav Diaz: The workshop was conducted by Surf Reyes, Nick Deocampo, Mac Alejandre and Raymond Red. There were guest speakers. I remember Peque Gallaga. Some experts in the different fields of cinema. Months later, Janetzko conducted a 16mm workshop. I was assistant director to Gil Portes in one of the movies he shot in New York. I had a short but very memorable gig with the late great Lamberto Avellana. It was really fun. He was a one-man-overload sort of a guy because he had so many plans, so many things in his mind—films, documentaries, TV series, TV commercials, educational modules, corporate modules, even radio jingles and Christmas carols. But most of the time it would just be listening to him talk and talk, not just cinema but also about libido, sex, women, his great love for theater. He was always laughing; he laughed hard. A very inspiring man, very intelligent. He was a speaker in one of the scripwriting workshops conducted by Mowelfund. Then, he invited me and Manny Buising to write for him. We were always at his office having fun, writing some concepts, in awe of this man, very free-flowing, and then suddenly he died. It was fast. And sad. The most inspiring lines from him that I remember [are]: "Hanapin ninyo ang sarili nating pagkantot. May sariling pagkantot ang Pilipino."Some words of wisdom that have truly guided me in my search for my own aesthetic stand and philosophy in cinema.

The Mowelfund workshop was hazy and crazy to me. It was actually a very short workshop; they called it total filmmaking. Before that, I was attending a Ricky Lee workshop. There was an announcement of the Mowelfund workshop. Ricky chose three amongst the workshoppers. I was one of them. These workshops were hazy and crazy because nobody knew that I was a total junkie then. I wasn't an addict but I was on heavy medication for complications in my lungs. I was practically eating and living on drugs. I have very weak lungs. I got lucky; in one of the routinary medical examinations being conducted when doing job applications, a hole and a growth was discovered in my left lung. So, for six months there was this very strict daily injection and popping of so many pills and tablets and liquids. The doctor warned me that if my lungs weren't 'cleared' after the sixth month, there was a possibility that it would slide into lung cancer. I was high everyday, seeming to float when walking; my skin felt thick, numbed and itchy; sounds in my ears were muffled and magnified; my thoughts would go high speed and slow motion and backward and forward and up and down and east-to-west-to-north-to-south. I could walk for hours, I could go motionless for hours, I could be staring at a cockroach for half a day, people would look weird, my writing bordered on dementia, it was a crazy period. And Mowelfund was located then at the basement of the creepy Manila Bay Film Center of Imelda Marcos. Heard of the stories of the hundreds of workers buried alive there so that the 'Madame' could dance with George Hamilton on time, listen to the Russian piano prodigy and sing "Dahil sa 'Yo" on a yacht going to Corregidor? Imelda is the supreme magic realist being.

Subliminally, my father was my film mentor. He is the quintessential cinephiliac. We were living in the middle of a forest in a far-flung village in Cotabato, Mindanao, but every weekend or [on] holidays we'd never miss [going to] the cinemas. There were four cinemas then in a nearby town, about two hours' drive from the village, and they'd always show double bills and we'd watch them all and we'd talk about them after watching. And my parents are bookworms and storytellers and teachers. They read and read and read. My father was very much into Russian literature. They are very industrious and giving. So, yes, the dialectics and dynamics of that milieu have had lasting impact on my cinema and my view of this world.

AT: Tell me about your start in the film industry. You mentioned to me previously that you began as part of a team that wrote scripts for Fernando Poe Jr. actions films?

LD: During my early years of struggling to break into cinema, because there was no digital yet, and there was such a dearth of cameras especially the 16 millimeter--our camera of choice then, and even super 8 rolls were kind of expensive, to thrive as a filmmaker meant to go mainstream, the so-called 'industry.' And you know, the industry is the status quo and the culture there is very feudal. They protect their turf, they are wary of newcomers especially if you're 'schooled'. To break in was hardcore. That's an understatement; I mean, it is really, really hard. More often, it's more of swallowing your pride and accepting compromise as a norm. And if you didn't know anybody, the only route was to write scripts and show them to people or enter them in competitions. And I won in one such competition, the FPJ-Mowelfund Screenwriting Contest, sponsored by the late Fernando Poe Jr., Philippine cinema's so-called action king. Among the winners, he chose two to work with him in his next projects. I was part of the duo. A veteran writer also assisted us in our initial foray with the industry. It was an experience. I did another project, a comedy, with Regal. After that, I quit. Fernando Poe wanted me to stay with the team but I didn't want to do it anymore. The other part of the duo, Manny Buising, wrote for 'The King' till his last film. Mr. Buising is a Palanca [2] hall of famer.

beginnings
ebolusyon ng isang pamilyang pilipino
heremias
aesthetic
unfinished works
travel, cosmopolitanism
culture, cinema

Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino

AT: Tell me all about the evolution of Ebolusyon. I understand you envisioned a different story at the beginning of the film, that of a Filipino seaman who jumped ship in America. But let us start after the Manila scenes had taken prominence, and you had decided to focus on them. At this specific point in time, what was the general plot of the Philippine story? Where did you see the story heading at that point in time, and how close was that to the finished film?.

LD: Well, I had an outline not a plot, some notes to follow, which was quite ambiguous, vague, because I was playing it only in my mind; I was not writing it; I was very much into the organic process at that point, endlessly groping for threads so to speak. This was when I had decided to pursue the Philippine story and finish it; I mean I decided to pursue a Philippine story; and I would need to find the story. This was during the postproduction period of Batang West Side. So there was no general plot to really follow through. Everything was open—I had characters, had shot a lot of their scenes, mostly disjointed, disjointed by the long gaps in production, and so, where were they heading in the totality of the work. I had a premise, that of capturing the struggles of invisible Filipinos in this very dysfunctional, feudal and corrupt system; that was the focus, but there wasn’t a story yet. Honestly, there was a point when in utter exhaustion and frustration, my greater urge was just to shake the cross off—an unfinished work that was perennially begging to find closure or just to be disposed of. What I had then were mountains of footage as a result of protracted shootings through the years. Watching the footage alone was very tedious, fiercely daunting, and indeed, a test of patience. I had to watch them over and over and then play them in my head to make sense of all the chaos and gaps, taking note of the characters and their ages, the actors and their ages, who’s dead and who’s alive, continuity issues, and the eventual logistics. But, of course, the promise and possibilities offered by the images were inspiring enough to push me to really finish the work. Through time, they’ve somehow morphed into some kind of living canvases, the feeling that’s akin to discovering or rediscovering old photographs and paintings where you will experience a sense of connection with them, emotional and mystical. I thought they were haunting and beautiful and I felt keenly guilty leaving them gathering dust and heat, hanging and unfulfilled. They offer a kind of spiritual imperative and I didn’t want to lose them. I knew that I had something special. But it got stalled again when I shot Hesus Rebolusyunaryo (“Hesus the Revolutionary”). And then, through a lot of hassles, Batang West Side was finally ready and it was shown. During the show in New York at the Asian American Festival, the idea that I’ve been waiting for flashed in my head. I had found the thread that would finish the story. It was the idea of a character endlessly looking for gold; a great metaphor that I could work on in mirroring our people’s socio/political/spiritual/cultural struggle. It was an invariable trait, truly Filipino, and truly human, too—the endless search for redemption. This was the character of Fernando, played eventually by Ronnie Lazaro. From there, I was able to create linkages amongst the characters and the use of found footage, a continuum that would become the story; the use of time, the period and issues to be encapsulated had become clearer, and in the end, every element galvanized to appropriate the vision that I wanted to pursue for Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (“Evolution of a Filipino Family”).

AT: Ebolusyon depicts a crucial point in Philippine history, but focuses on the micro rather than the macro, and inserts footage from the period to give the film historical footing. Tell me about the structure of Ebolusyon, and the distinction and rationale for the insertions of 16mm and historical footage.

LD: The micro would provide substance to the macro; the macro is a mirror of the micro; the micro is the essence of the macro, and vice versa. Insertion of historical footage is a kind of landmarking or sign-posting to reinforce the period being tackled by the story, but I insert the footage, even the flashbacks or memories and dreams, unobtrusively, indeliberately; they are rhythmically free-flowing; they just come and go practically as the story progresses. There is no sense of chaptering in any manner; their role is to contextualize the characters; they amazingly point to a certain period of time in a very exacting way even without putting subtitles and dates. A woman i.e. Huling endlessly walking in the fields juxtaposed with the image of EDSA is very Filipino and it points to a very particular period of our history. Huling, despite her existence in a different milieu is authentically a representative of every individual marching in EDSA; the causality is distinctly Filipino because of the distinct period being represented. Huling and EDSA is analogous to Ninoy Aquino and Marcos, Lino Brocka and Marcos, the military, Marcos and Kadyo, the eternally transient and lost boy Raynaldo and the lost Filipino soul. All my works focus on stories about people, individuals, a milieu, a culture; to be very particular: about Filipinos, the Filipino struggle, the Filipino history. Micro characters like the deranged Hilda Gallardo inhabit these stories, and it is their story that would give meaning to a bigger backdrop, may it be sociological, political, economical and spiritual, or philosophical even. The story of an individual Filipino is the story of the Filipino struggle. In Ebolusyon, brutalization of the micro characters comes in the form of poverty, marginalization and utter neglect by the system; the brutalization is given more emphasis by a capsuling of an extremely fascistic period, which is Martial Law. The status of being poor by itself is overtly and covertly brutal, and then, here comes a system that is overtly and covertly dysfunctional. Using that premise made the vision of Ebolusyon easier to pursue. I have a very clear picture of that period and the characters’ struggles. I grew up during that period and I know the characters; I have tried to understand that period and I will continue to try to fathom it, and ultimately, with my works, I am examining and confronting it, and still struggling to understand it—can we save Raynaldo? Can we save the Filipino soul?

Structuring is never a problem. My process by then would be to write the daily struggles of my characters. I will just follow them, and oftentimes I would actually write the script, the dialogues a day before the shoot or during the shoot, oftentimes as instinct and common sense would suggest. Oftentimes too, I would reject intellectualizing creation in relation to the characters and culture they are representing: it must just be honest. In relation to traditional cinema language: no rules but my rules. I didn’t rule out theoretical discourse of course, because you cannot escape it, but at the end of the day, my overriding rule is just to search for the truth, which actually simplified the struggle, albeit it was a hard-won struggle. Of course, thinking of the footage then was very daunting especially during the postproduction. Also, there was the issue of mixing digital footage and 16 millimeter. And it was a big issue at first because I can actually see the difference. For a time, of course, I sank into the issue of celluloid versus digital, too. There was a disturbing discourse going on inside of me. The atmosphere was not unlike the times of the advent of sound in cinema where “the great debate” ensued. But ultimately, the issue is aesthetic—digital or celluloid, silent or sound, color or black and white--[because] the medium is [still] cinema. I focused on my materials. These are my materials, my footage; I might as well make the best out of them. I will make it work. My experience with installation art using found objects helped me a lot. During my years living in the East Village in New York, ninety percent of my friends were painters and performers, all struggling. And all of them are basically ‘found-object artists’—the kind who would work on what they have and what they can find; they thrive on their limitations and they made great art; we made great art in our own small spaces and even in the streets. This praxis, which is embraced by a lot of artists as a kind of ideology, has become very useful and a handy armour to me, too. I’m not afraid anymore. And so, I embraced digital.

During postproduction, with the kind of footage that was at hand, [it could only have been an] ellipsis in terms of structure. And Ebolusyon is truly elliptical with the interweaving of so many characters and different periods within the span of sixteen years, 1971 to 1987; even the historical footage was not chronologically arranged.

AT: Ebolusyon is the first film you’ve made with a digital finish, and the first feature-film of yours that you edited yourself (after having gone through two editors is it? before taking up the task itself). I understand that you have been highly involved in the editing of your films in the past, but how different was it for you this time as the actual hands-on editor, and how important was this in the shaping of the film? Had you had any previous experience as the hands-on editor on a film before?

LD: I haven’t had troubles or problems with past editors, or the proper term would be co-editors, because even with them cutting, I would be very much involved with the structuring, with the whole process. I’m in control. Every editor knows that the degree of freedom given to him/her, especially with works involving filmmakers who obstinately pursue and value their aesthetic, philosophy and vision, even politics and ideology, starts and ends in putting the pieces [together] as obliged by the maker. This is not to undermine the great role of true editors because a big part of being a great editor is a true understanding of the filmmaker he is working with. Everything will be and must be adjusted to that. That’s a given. Of course, in commercial studios, it would be very different. In the case of Ebolusyon, I had to do it myself because honestly, nobody could do it but me. Eleven years of protracted shooting, loads of footage, and without a proper storyline or script to follow, the task was just so overwhelming and intimidating; the first two editors who tried to help just disappeared, or dissipated in utter frustration. And so, I sat down in my own cramped studio for a year and did it. The difference was that I had no one to consult or argue with. There was Bob Macabenta, the fledgling but great soundman but his concern was sound. The experience was quite liberating; battling demons and gods and all in a room flooded with souls and images trapped in an eleven-year-struggle, crawling to be shaped into cinema. But the battle was bloody, very bloody, psychologically, and physically, too, considering that at the onset of postproduction, I was just recuperating from a very perilous cancer operation (a malignant but autonomous thymoma, 4.5 inches thick was taken out on top of my heart and in between my lungs). Late July of 2004, I had the first cut ready after six months; it was ten hours and fifty-five minutes long, and it was slated to close the Cinemanila International Film Festival that year. On the day we were laying-in the last subtitles--and we were in fact celebrating by then--the computer suddenly crashed and we lost everything. It was a shocker and a heartbreaker. Back to zero. It was that cruel, painful and hard. I went through the same process again—digitizing, syncing, mixing, rendering, cutting, dubbing, finding money, etc. It was that insane and petrifying, it could have been easy to just walk out and not give a fuck. The light of day came in January 28, 2005, the final cut; I celebrated the day numbed, weary, and dreamy, thirty thousand feet above the ground inside a Lufthansa jet going to Rotterdam.

AT: The filming for Ebolusyon began in 1994, as Ebolusyon ni Ray Gallardo (“Evolution of Ray Gallardo”), only seven years after the end of Martial Law. You are addressing a different audience now than from when you began; one more distanced from the events of the period. How has your perspective about the Martial Law period changed-- and the impact it has had on us as a people changed-- from when you started the work to now (and at points in between)?

LD: My view of Martial [Law] now is not different from my view when I started shooting the film in 1994. It has not changed at all. It remains the darkest period in the history of our people. It is the most devastating chapter of our nation’s struggle. It single-handedly created the greatest damage in the Filipino psyche. It remains that way. That’s the truth. I’m aware that the degree of passiveness and forgetfulness is growing, and keeps growing, and political immaturity has even gone to a moronic level now. Talk to the young and it won’t be a surprise anymore if you’d hear queries like, “What Martial Law?”, “Marcos who?”, “Ninoy who?”, “Lean who?”, “Rizal who?”, “Bonifacio who?” Very disturbing. And the most disappointing [thing] is that so many Filipinos now are openly saying, in a nostalgic manner, that we should go back to the Marcos years because they believe those were the best years of our nation’s political history. You ask the question, what kind of a political perspective does the Filipino have now? Most certainly, it is very retrogressive, tragically amnesiac and most tragically immature. You talk of the impact Martial [Law] had on us as a people? How do we measure that now? Psychologically, we’re back to the dark ages. Physically, Martial Law is history but its corrosive impact is imbedded in our culture and we need to correct that. Look at the Executive branch of the system, look at the Senate, look at Congress, look at the people in the streets, look at the people in the barrios, just simply look, man. It is imperative to look and examine what’s going on. It is imperative to examine the past. There is that urgency that we just don’t acknowledge. We need to have a critical sense of history to help redeem this nation. Ebolusyon’s vision is about that.

AT: How was your aesthetic, your mise en scene, changed? And how has time changed your perspective or concept of cinema, and what you want your audience to take with them after seeing your work.

LD: Like I’ve said, these three works—Batang West Side, Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino and Heremias—is a ‘realization’ of a framework that evolved out of a process that I’ve traversed through in search of my aesthetic and philosophy in cinema, the very familiar mise en scene—my use of camera, the duration, the rhythm, the sound, the choice of actors, the blocking, the texture, the kind of stories, the culture that I represent, my vision, the whole canvas. My cinema is as pure as I want it to be now, in my own terms, pure in terms of the degree of freedom that I put into it, the degree of struggle, and I’m fully aware of the degree of responsibility that comes into it. And like I’ve said, my cinema now is not into the stereotypical audience concept because I do not make cinema for an audience, as we know it--the box-office-return-of-investment dynamics, the ratings game, and most aversely, it is not seeking anybody’s imprimatur, or worse, a step-to-Hollywood-status-quo-trip-to-the-Oscars-moviemaking-exercise. Just like any piece of art of worth, my cinema’s aesthetic fulfillment is interaction. I create it, and so it’s there. It simply seeks to share a vision. For people who will come and interact with my works, I won’t have to explain anything to them. They’ll just have to experience it.

AT: For its entire sweeping story, there appears, to me, to be a very personal aspect to Ebolusyon. What are your personal memories of the martial law period, and the time thereafter?

LD: True. Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino is very personal to me. I know the characters. I grew up in a farming family, very poor farming families, both from my father’s and mother’s side. The struggles and travails of these people, I know so well. I’ve seen it; I’ve experienced it. I am very much a part of it. I grew up during the Martial Law years. And my experience of Martial Law was very brutal. I was in second year high school when Marcos declared [Republic Act] 1081 upon the land. In Cotabato, the year before the imposition, the pent-up tensions between the Muslims and Christians had exploded into a full-scale war. It was bloody, very bloody, terrifying, horrifying. And it became bloodier during Marcos’ reign of terror. While Christians and Muslims were on a rampage butchering one another left and right, the military entered the scene with an even unheard of fascistic fierceness and cruelty. They’d set up checkpoints in all directions; they’d hamlet communities; they’d be declaring so many areas as no-man’s lands and shooting any person seen at will, no questions asked. A classic practice was the singing of the National Anthem at every checkpoint. They’d line up civilians who passed by checkpoints and ask them one by one to sing the Lupang Hinirang, the Philippine National Anthem. For every mistake you make, you’ll get a slap, a kick or a punch from the perennially drunk soldiers, or worse, a bullet in your head. Another regular practice was the midnight scare. They’d come knocking in the middle of the night, force people to open their doors, and point guns on the heads of the slumbering civilians admonishing them, while evoking Marcos’ vision of a new society. I’ve seen people breaking down, begging for their lives, losing their minds. I’ve experienced being hit with an armalite rifle’s butt and then hitting the ground, gasping for air. Our barrio was attacked and bombed by fighter planes and decimated bodies were flying all over. I saw Muslim bodies, young and old, pregnant women and babies, being piled up near a highway after a massacre, their houses turned to ashes in the background. I saw tortured and burned bodies of Christians after a massacre, their houses still burning in the background. I saw soldiers continually lining up people and scaring them with their guns while evoking the greatness of Marcos. People vanished. Young people like me were forced to attend Kabataang Barangay [3] sessions and we stayed in rooms for days where all the walls were adorned with giant images of Marcos; all we heard were speeches of Marcos, his voice hovering even in our dreams, and literature you read was all about Marcos and Imelda. In schools, public and private, textbooks must bear their faces, words and signatures. The conditioning was so monumental. And you didn’t need a theorem to sum up what would going to happen to the country. The socio-cultural devastation was just so vast and unheard of, everyday it was staring at us, and really, it was just a mystery why it took Filipinos years to wake up. Why was there apathy? I didn’t believe in the popular belief that it was fear that brought the apathy or inaction to our people because the left and other progressive groups and individuals were really fighting against the regime. They put their lives on the line.

beginnings
ebolusyon ng isang pamilyang pilipino
heremias
aesthetic
unfinished works
travel, cosmopolitanism
culture, cinema

Heremias

AT: Heremias, your work-in-progress that you hope to finish this year, looks to be a very long work as well. Perhaps even surpassing the length of Ebolusyon. Explain to me the reason for the length of this film.

LD: Heremias will be another long film. I’ve shot roughly forty or fifty percent of the film already. Right now, I’m watching and studying the footage. I don’t know how long it’s going to be but it’s definitely going to be long. Again, this is not deliberate. The story is evolving; the characters are growing; new threads are appearing; doors are opening. I can’t do anything about it; I have become a slave to this organic process. Being a slave to the process doesn’t mean I’m trapped; on the contrary, it is autonomy, letting the canvas grow and fulfill some truths.

AT: You told me in previous conversations that Heremias is also the title of a Balintataw TV drama that you wrote in the early 90’s, if I remember correctly. Tell me about that script. What was it about? How similar are its themes and characters to the Heremias that you are making now? How does it differ?

LD: I wrote a teleplay called Heremias for the television series Balintataw in the late 80s, around 1989, if I remember right, when I was still writing for the now-defunct Jingle music magazine and freelancing as a film and music critic for the then-fledgling Manila Standard newspaper, and also, writing for popular comic magazines. It was a very personal play, an offshoot of my harrowing experience with polio. I was stricken with paralysis when I was about eight years old and I couldn’t walk for more than a year. I struggled to relearn how to walk and when I was finally able to walk, I had to deal with a very dysfunctional body motor system--the pain in the bones of the left side of my body, particularly the left foot, remains a recurring problem until today, especially in severe cold and humid conditions. The trauma and shock and stigma stayed with me for so long. It was hell, I tell you. I created a character based on that. The Heremias film that I am shooting now is quite different from the teleplay in terms of character background and the age level but the theme is quite parallel in terms of personal struggle—post-trauma-cum-Socratic-perspective. The Heremias of Balintataw is a young man while the latest incarnation is middle-aged. So, the obvious difference is on the level of wisdom. And the length, of course. I know that there’s still a copy of that episode somewhere because after the series ended its run on television, Balintataw continued to tour the episodes in high school campuses as part of an audio-visual educational program. I remember my eldest daughter telling me that she saw Heremias in their school.

AT: I visited the set of Heremias. While watching a particular long take on a monitor, its duration felt correct; though while standing there during the actual shoot of the scene, a certain impatience grew in me. Does the same happen to your crew?

LD: Impatience is inherent in every film production. It’s always there, whether it’s my shoot or other people’s shoots, whether it’s my mise en scene or an action director’s style of shoot or the so-called full coverage [of] directors’ insecurities. Filmmaking is hard work, whether you’re working in a big budgeted studio production or in a low, low budgeted independent work. The conception or the pre-production alone eats [up] so much time, then the shoot, and then the postproduction, and then showing it. Hollywood or big studios would shoot a scene with a lot of preparation and profligacy. I lived in a street in New York City before where one day, Hollywood shot a scene of Wesley Snipes. They started coming at dawn, the big trucks and hundreds of crew [members]. They covered two blocks, big lights all over, big cables, lots of policemen, lots of noisy assistant directors and production managers who were all trying to be busy, noisy and gaudy. It was like a whole day of chaos that disoriented us all living there, just the set up. I woke up and went for a walk at 4:30 a.m. while they were starting to set up; I came back after two hours, took a bath, cooked my breakfast, read the New York Times and some magazines, went to Barnes and Noble to check a new book, had coffee with a friend, visited a sick painter friend, went home at 2 p.m., they were still setting up and were a lot noisier. I slept for two hours, woke up and went to have lunch and coffee, went to work in Jersey City, back in New York at around 7 p.m., bought a dirtied book for a dollar in the street along Washington Square Park, had coffee with a friend, and finally, they shot the scene later that night. HMI lights screaming all over town, camera on crane, Mister Snipes comes out of the bar, he walks, Cut! Some more retakes. And then they packed up. It was a very brief shoot, but the preparation took them ages.

The process of film production is a test of patience. It’s never a breeze. Patience is a virtue in this medium. The story of Heremias has been with me since the late 80s. I started shooting it only last year. I shot Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino for eleven years, all in all, I worked with seven cinematographers and ten designers to be able to finish it. I wrote Batang West Side in 1996 and was able to shoot late 2000 up to 2001. Pre-production alone took eight months.

My staff and crew think I am a fast director, in terms of shooting a scene. I do make those long, long takes but my ratio would just normally be one is to one or just one take or at the most three takes for every scene. Oftentimes, newcomers on my set would be shocked. What? Just one take? Just three takes? Just one angle? No full coverage? You know, a lot of filmmakers practice the “full coverage” directing—shooting a scene in all angles, top shot, tilt down, tilt up, pan right, pan left, zoom in, zoom out, the dolly, the crane shot, and then do all the close ups, the medium shots, full shots, long shots, establishing shots, cut-aways, lots of reaction shots. They do that on every scene. They call it the sigurista [4] directing; you have everything; let the editor suffer the pointlessness of it all. The usual practitioners of this kind of filmmaking are movie industry people. And oftentimes, to be able to achieve this, people would shoot for 36 hours straight killing themselves to exhaustion. And they would light their sets like there are twelve moons at night and twelve suns in the morning. I am not saying that this is not valid, this full coverage exercise. It is still filmmaking indeed. But talk about impatience, man. This is fucking film school. This is a fucking television commercial shoot. This is a fucking product shot shoot. But then it works for them, so ya, man, let’s do the take 35 for that fucking close up, apply more make up and open the three HMIs to the maximum.

AT: How important is it for you that the people you are working with understand what you are trying to achieve, and the vision of the work as a whole?

LD: It is very important. But you are talking of the ideal set-up and condition. How cool would it be to have people who truly understand and embrace your vision. But in practice, specifically in filmmaking, it doesn’t work that way. Most often, meeting of the minds can only go as far as following a schedule, deadlines and fulfilling a process. Or, some people would want to work with you because they admire your work, would want to experience your process, or simply would just want to work and learn. But as far as vision is concerned, maybe yes, if you are working with a scriptwriter, a producer, a photographer, a designer or an actor who would go that extent—truly understanding what you are trying to achieve.

Always, always, pursuing a vision is a lonely path. You are alone. Even discourse and discussion wouldn’t work for you. Your thesis could fail. Your premise could blur. But ultimately, your work will speak for you. Your work will make them understand. Your work will make them realize eventually why you are such a fool.

AT: I understand that, in Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino, the great actress Angie Ferro, who plays the grandmother, is a Marcos loyalist. What was it like working closely on that film with someone whose viewpoint of the period it tackles is directly opposed to yours?

LD: Angie Ferro is one of the greatest actors of our time. She could delineate any role with her brilliance, with her madness, with her darkness. I worked closely with her not just in Ebolusyon but also in the television drama anthology Balintataw when I was starting. I was also lucky to have seen some of her theatre works and performances. She’s truly one of the greats. Her role in Ebolusyon, Lola Puring, is a simple apolitical barrio folk; her concern is her family, the education of her granddaughters, the return of a lost grandson, the ideology of the soil. It would be different if the character is anti-Marcos or an activist during the period. I’m sure Angie would object. Yes, she is a hardcore Marcos loyalist. I was shocked when I learned that she is one. I learned about this when I was still in Balintataw. Through the years, we had had heated and exhausting confrontations and shouting matches about the matter, about the sins of Marcos, about her blind faith. At first I was really frustrated and disillusioned because I love and respect her, but then I struggled to understand her. To her, Marcos is a great Filipino, maybe the greatest, and Imelda is the greatest patron of the arts. That stand is her greatest contradiction. Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile these things—greatness and contradiction. But think of Wagner, Heidegger and Nazism; Dostoevsky and gambling; Rilke and sexism; Van Gogh and the prostitute; Nora Aunor and shabu; Frank Sinatra and the parrot.

AT: Are there certain positions in the crew/cast that need to understand more than others?

LD: On a conceptual level, working as a team means everyone must know. But in practice, specifically in filmmaking, of course, the levels of discourse for each member of the team will be different. The scriptwriter’s perspective will be very different from that of the cinematographer and the designer and the actor. The level of understanding and knowledge that each of these very unique individuals will have for the work at hand will definitely be on different levels also. A director is not just a playmaker who fanatically pursues his mise en scene; he must also be a psychologist who probes his milieu, and a psychiatrist who conducts discourse with his ward. On the human side, I always look at people on equal terms. The director, the utility man, the photographer, the extra, we are all on the same level. Nobody plays god or diva or spoiled ass in my production. Each and everyone’s position and functions are clear and important. We struggle to work with dignity.

beginnings
ebolusyon ng isang pamilyang pilipino
heremias
aesthetic
unfinished works
travel, cosmopolitanism
culture, cinema

Aesthetic

AT: In an answer to an earlier question you mentioned “the endless search for redemption”. What is it about this theme, which some may say is a trademark in all your films, that strikes you so much?

LD: I believe that the greatest struggle in life is the struggle to become a good human being. That ideal is invariable despite man’s ironic variability. That belief, that premise, that stand, that aesthetic, that vision, that discourse, is central to that theme. The very core, the very essence of man’s existence is the battle between good and bad, within and without; this is inherent as an immediate and lasting effect of man’s intellect and pathos. This we cannot escape because we don’t classify ourselves as animals; we are rational and emotional, capable of creating poems of ironies and mystery and transcendence, capable of creating dark, brooding and mystical songs, capable of understanding epiphany in cinema, and capable of going to the moon; this you cannot escape if you truly explore man’s being, from the great discourses of history, philosophy, psychology, the humanities, theories and all to the very colloquial banter of a street bum; it’s all about that: the struggle for great humanism. We seek redemption, we seek goodness, we seek purgation, we seek answers; even the most misguided and disoriented and solipsistic and narcissistic, and maybe instinctive, destructiveness is all about that. It could get too abstract and ambiguous at some point, this issue of redemption, but in my case as a filmmaker, or simply a teller of tales, or a visual juggler, I struggle to concretize it by creating concrete beings, concrete characters, concrete conditions, concrete visions, concrete words, concrete pains, concrete sufferings, concrete vistas. I struggle to create characters and canvasses that could honestly represent humanity’s struggle. Culture is my retreat in understanding humanity. Or I should say, culture is the key to my struggle towards unlocking and understanding the mystery of human existence because culture seems the only concrete aspect of man’s existence. Culture is man’s history and dialectic and being.

And I believe, that at this point in man’s existence, he is still a big failure, it’s a capital F, insofar as humanism is concerned. I should qualify that statement by pointing to wars, despotism, disease, poverty, crimes, and all the injustices man continually and mindlessly inflicts on his being. You know, this is already the twenty-first century and it is truly mind-boggling that we remain primitive and barbaric and ignorant and insensitive and idiotic. Consider these: India building space rockets that cost billions of dollars while thousands upon thousands of its population are starving and homeless; Iraq, Tibet, North Korea, Africa, Aung Sang Syu Ki. The struggle of the first Darwinist human cell, or of The Adam of Eden, remains the same. Are we to conclude then that humanity’s curse is his being? That in the end, he will just self-destruct anyway? So, man is nothing? What’s the use of struggle for great humanism then if at the end of the long haul, we’ll just be relegated to nothing? What are we going to make of the likes of Marx, Jesus, Beethoven, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Andres Bonifacio, Jose Rizal, Dostoevksy, Kant, Socrates, Freud, Mohammed, Buddha, Che? Fools? How and what about the models and paradigms they’ve created for humanity? Why care?

The endless search for redemption is man’s gift and curse--because man can’t be relegated to the generic, to being a genre, to being just a dreaded cliché; because man comprehends the need for change, for progress; because man comprehends the perils of retrogression and relapse. And so, he struggles for the ideal. Struggling for the ideal means man will perpetually suffer, and thus, the vision of redemption becoming perpetually inherent to liberate him from that suffering. Hence, his concept of humanity is redemption. And his concept of redemption is great humanism. The thesis of my cinema gravitates to this discourse. Art is part of that struggle. I am trying to be part of the struggle.

AT: "Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self." – Cyril Connolly

You have remained astonishingly faithful to your vision in your two previous films, BWS and Ebolusyon, and in what I have seen in your current project, Heremias. An integral part of this vision it seems is the length. How important is the duration to you? Do you not feel that your films can still be honest and truthful works (i.e. to still be 'writing for yourself' as Cyril Connolly might put it), at a shorter length, which may enable them to appeal to a larger audience, and therefore affect more people?

LD: Duration is very, very important. I have created, or should I say, have embraced a framework for my mise en scene now and the very fulfillment of [the] application of such framework are Batang West Side and Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino. This framework came out very naturally through praxis, the very continual search for an aesthetic stand, an expression that would suit my idea of truth-seeking in my works. Of course, I am fully aware there are paradigms of this vein i.e. the treatise of Andre Bazin, the works of Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Angelopoulos, Ozu and lately, Bela Tarr (I’ve only seen Satantango), Tsai Ming Liang (I’ve only seen The Hole and What Time is it There?) and Hou Hsiao Hsien (I’ve seen A Time to Live and A Time to Die, City of Sadness, Goodbye South and Café Lumiere). But then there is no deliberate perusal of their works that may encourage an actual copying; they come only as inspirations to my own search and practice; integrity of their works is a key and a greater factor in trying to emulate them. The principle of non-compromise and the philosophy that art is free are my foundations. It is only now that I’ve come to realize a certain pattern in my praxis and aesthetic, hence a mise en scene inherent in my works. But I’m not going to slide into a condition where this framework, or some guiding structural and contextual lines, would become the cardinal form of all of my works, the very curse of dogmatism that I dread. No, the field is open; I will continually search for truths in that horizon. So, the issue of length is a non-issue at all. Batang West Side is five hours because it should be that way. Ebolusyon is ten hours and forty three minutes because it has just got to be that way. For some time--this is pre-Batang West Side--I grappled with the discourse on length/duration. In the end, the issue is just aesthetic, art, period; and even dialectically, reason pointed to a greater understanding of vision and that is to point to a non-compromising framework for a vision to be honest and truthful and relevant, and you don’t stop the discourse. And if one is thinking of a greater cinema, it’s hard to argue with that. I believe in that, simply, an understanding that cinema is art. And my cinema will continuously struggle to be part of that greater vision of cinema. And non-condescendingly, I am not making films for the stereotypical concept of audience. That concept of audience is very much a factor of that corrosive entertainment philosophy, a traditional status quo and feudal perspective that is bluntly exploitative of a greater mass (where Hollywood is monstrously the greatest practitioner, and whereof the term ‘movie industry’ had its beginnings) that needs to be educated on humanism and not on consumerism and escapism. With my works, I am only making cinema and all it needs ultimately is interaction, not an audience. The cause and effect are most definitely qualitative. Quality will sternly and surely inch its way towards quantity through the years. No rush. That answers the question why I am so stubborn with my works.

At the end of the day, the greatest way to understand art is silence; it will speak for itself. Reflection. Contemplation. Cognizance. Transcendence. These are better words to understand the mystery of art, its greater role in humanity. And an artist’s role isn’t just to create, but more importantly to unlock that mystery for the good of humanity, or simply to keep his own perverse sanity amidst the mystery of man’s existence.

AT: Why have you decided not to use music in your films?

LD: I am still using music but not in a traditional manner; the conventional extravaganza is gone, the so-called score. Musical scoring is a valid form but conventional application is so tedious and emotionally exploitative. Try studying how the form is applied especially in big-budgeted works, or in a lot of works, old and new. They are so overblown, emotional overkill to the hilt, noisy and nauseous. They just overwhelm every aspect of the mise en scene, why not go to an opera instead? Or, do a soap opera. This maximalist and gaudy perspective of putting music, I can never appreciate. The most glaring rationale, of course, is exploitation of the so-called audience; people who practice this play with the mass pathos bordering on the pathetic, they make the pastiche insanely generic and really it’s not music anymore. Most of the time, the music is used as a teaser, a punch line, reduced to a shameless cliché, or even a cover for some weakness in a scene or in the totality of the work. I believe that music, or if one puts a score, it could really work well if used ambiently, unobtrusively; it must not get in the way. In the case of my cinema right now, ambient sound is real sound, no score, sound that is inherently part of the canvass, an integral application, not the proverbial icing.

beginnings
ebolusyon ng isang pamilyang pilipino
heremias
aesthetic
unfinished works
travel, cosmopolitanism
culture, cinema

Unfinished Works

AT: How much footage have you shot for the American scenes of Ebolusyon?(Is Ebolusyon ni Rey Gallardo still the title?). And when would you like to finish the work?

LD: I can’t remember how much footage. I’ll dig [up] the archive. Some are in Manila and some are in Virginia. In my estimate, there’s about three to five hours’ worth of film there when cut. Haven’t worked on the title yet but I’ve decided to make a silent film out of it, or maybe an experiment on silent and talkie. I will be shooting some more scenes. I need to review the footage. I have some video transfers of the early shoots, around ‘94 to ‘96. The different shots of the faces of the Pinoy war vet ghost (Behn Cervantes) and the pitiful jump-shipper (Ronald Bregendahl) and the dead actor Mike Fernandez are haunting in black and white. The shots of the 90s East Village is haunting as well, really haunting and eerie at times, especially those with the Twin Towers as backdrop. Just walked around the East Village the other day, September 4, a Sunday. Some old buildings in my former neighborhood, the Bowery area (from Houston Street to 14th Street), are gone--appraised as ‘condemned buildings’ by the city government so they had to go. The great old East Village landscape is changing. Sad, man. CBGB is under siege, too; there was a long line for that day’s performances when I passed by. Albeit protesters include Steve Van Zandt, Patti Smith, and a roster of who’s who in the NY rock/punk scene, the greatest rock ‘n roll church will go. Dura lex sed lex. The law may be hard but it is the law, so CBGB must go. The only thing that they could do now is to look for a new venue. And I hear the latest development is that Mayor Bloomberg is offering some help for the transfer. I’m sad and angry. Long live CBGB! I lived just a minute away for three years, underground and on top of a building with no elevator.

I’ll start working on the cut middle of next year. But again, I won’t have or I can’t pinpoint an exact date of finishing it. I am really compelled now to add more scenes to make it a fulfilled work.

AT: Ebolusyon ni Ray Gallardo was not originally intended to be silent when you began. Why silent? How will you adjust it to make it silent—use of title cards?

LD: The maze of footage as a result of the long gaps [between the] shoots created sort of a puzzle and labyrinthine hieroglyphics that’s really hard to decipher. I tried and tried to decode it, but to no avail. What to do, man? Make it silent. Do the easy fix. That’s a joke. Silent film is no easy fix. It’s a great art. I am a great fan of that art. Lest we forget, cinema started silent. And during the advent of sound, there was monumental resentment amongst so-called purists then. This is akin to the advent of digital. Some people called themselves purists and they declared their fidelity with celluloid. But now they own [the] latest and [most] advanced digital camcorders. Like I told you, when I decided to exclude all the US scenes from the final cut of Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino--these are the footage shots from ’94 to ’98--I was fully aware that there’s three-hours’ or five-hours’ worth of film there. Yes, I’ve been mulling over the idea of making it silent since [the] middle of last year, been telling people every time they asked about the US scenes. And it has actually gained mythical status because of these talks: the other Ebolusyon becoming this very long silent film. The issue remains hypothetical though. But there’s [really] a greater chance of doing it silent after the viewings that I did with the old footage.

AT: Tell me about your two short films, Step No, Step Yes, and Banlaw.

LD: Banlaw was some sort of a thesis work for the Mowelfund workshop that I attended in 1985. Shot on super 8, three minutes running time. It’s the story of an idealist; again, a Socratic being. Looking back now, I realized that it was my first Socratic character. The protagonist was a young man who views the world with absolute goodness but also with a heavy pessimism. He believes that the world is going terribly malevolent and retrogressive. He watches television and he sees a Buddhist burning himself as an ultimate act of sacrifice to save mankind. He is well-aware that everyday his activist friends are going underground and some have been tortured and killed by the Marcos regime. He walks the streets of Manila and he sees hungry people, thousands of lost street kids, beggars. Inspired by the young Buddhist, he walks naked in protest and then kills himself. I love the rain effect that we did. I stole a shot from Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Time to ask forgiveness from Mowelfund: I stole the only copy [of Banlaw] before I left for the US in 1992. My act wasn’t deliberate though. I visited Mowelfund and I saw our works scattered on this long table. I mean, the films were scattered there--16s, super 8s, video tapes--and you know Mowelfund then, the doors were open twenty-four hours, and people were coming in and out, stoned, drunk, gaudy, haughty, hungry, horny and totally fucked up, or fucking each other, and spaced out. I saw Banlaw lying on the edge. It was actually on the edge of the table in its utter blackness and smallness, and a slight push would push it to oblivion. I was scared; I might as well get hold of it; I reckoned I would return it in better times. I grabbed it and slipped it in my bag. When I got to New York, it helped me connect with the struggling independents in the East Village; I have this badge, [this] little crude film to show them. It even saved me from going hungry; we’d do underground showings of shorts, in basements literally, and ask for donations. I kept transferring. I lost it in the process, in one of the basements in Jersey City, I believe.

Step No, Step Yes was a video work. The year was 1988. Mowelfund had just acquired video equipments and Larry Manda was in charge then of taking care of those equipments. We were excited with this new medium, not as expensive as 16 and super 8; we decided to shoot. I wrote a script with the writer Rey Arcilla. We shot three weekends in the squatters’ area in Pasay City called Leveriza, a very dangerous place then. On the last day of our shoot, a man was killed over an argument of his supposed nonpayment of a two-peso turon [5] he ate. Bloody and scary, but we finished the shoot. It’s the story of a whore and a peeping tom. I would say it was a very fulfilling exercise for us. I directed the work but I credited Larry and Rey as co-directors. A copy is still in Mowelfund; I haven’t seen it since. Well, when the Mowelfund guys did some interviews of us alumni, they ran it as a background visual when they were [interviewing] me.

AT: Tell me about your unfinished work—Sarungbanggi ni Alice.

LD: This will be the longest shoot of my life. Could be, I don’t know. Honestly, I’m not even sure now if I’ll be able to or how I’ll be able to find a sort of a culmination to the process. It’s a documentary and I started shooting in 1993; a three-hour, work-in-progress-cut opened the First Filipino-Arts Festival of San Francisco in 1994. The subject of this work is a Filipina book vendor in Greenwich Village. She’s been selling books in the streets of New York for three decades. A Filipina selling books in the streets of New York for three decades, man! I thought her story belongs to the pantheon of classic and quintessential Filipina struggles. Her name is Alice Morin. She’s from Masbate. I met her when I was working with the Filipino weekly paper The Filipino Express. Hers is a very unique struggle. I was shocked to learn that a Filipina is in the streets of New York everyday, winter, spring, summer and fall; oftentimes she’s the only woman amongst a majority of black vendors. She has three children with her many relationships with black men. I started shooting her immediately after her story came out as a feature in our paper. I’m still shooting her every time I’m in New York. In 2004, when I visited her in her regular spot along 6th Avenue and 8th Street, she was gone. She transferred to Virginia Beach according to her friends. I have made plans to look for her in Virginia but I haven’t been able to do it. Time and money issues again.

AT: What have you learned about her thus far? How did she first arrive in NY?

LD: She lives in Virgina Beach now according to the street book vendors of Manhattan. I’ll go look for her after Heremias. I did try to make contact through the mobile number they gave me but the number is not working anymore. Alice Morin’s life is the quintessential Filipino struggle, an epic of a struggle. Unbelievable. Her struggle is really sad and harrowing, but she is such a fighter; I know she’ll never succumb to life’s follies. She came to America via a Green Card when she a married a US soldier who was stationed in Olongapo City where the American base was before.

AT: Tell me about your unfinished work, Malamig ang Mundo (“The World is Cold”).

LD: Malamig ang Mundo was an exercise film, shot two weekends on betacam in Alexandria, Virginia; autumn of 1995. Admittedly, the exercise was really meant more for self-exorcizing. Though I had just nailed down the co-production agreement with Paul Tanedo for Ebolusyon and we had actually shot some scenes already, I had had recurring anxiety attacks every time I thought of the road ahead: I knew then that Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino was going to be a long, long trek of filmmaking. And so, for some release during the long breaks, I offered the story of Malamig to Rommel Simon, the Filipino who lent me his postproduction studio in Alexandria, Virginia where I did the video presentation cut of Ebolusyon. I told him of my plan: to shoot a sort of an exercise film; we’ll shoot in two weekends, cut it fast, and then use it as presentation material to raise funds and eventually shoot it on 35 millimeter. Man, it was a very fulfilling exercise. There were a lot of limitations like we worked on a two thousand dollar budget with the involvement of an inexperienced crew and lot of non-actors; I just gathered them at random, people who were available and made a fast and easy workshop on production. My greatest failure in that work was that I haven’t fulfilled my promise and responsibility yet--that of finding the fund for its eventual 35mm shoot. It’s been ten years. Malamig is a Filipino story set in the heartland of America; the premise revolved around the seasons of cold (winter, spring and autumn) in America--the alienation, solitude and loneliness, and even anger, it bestows on aliens like Filipinos. A Filipina who’s long been married to a white man but is unable to have a child finally decides to get her long-suffering mother from the Philippines. But once the mother arrives, memories of brutalities she experienced from her childhood returns to the woman. She becomes very vengeful and cruel to her mother. But more than the very physical attributes that the story shows like nature’s coldness and the woman’s beatings of her mother, the underlying theme was the pathos and cruelty of poverty, of course; again, the quintessential Filipino struggle ‘outside’ of the motherland, how do we deal with estrangements, detachments, with the past.

AT: The premise of Malamig ang Mundo is fascinating. What is the current running time of the work? How complete is the story as is? Would you continue it on DV or restart completely on film? Do you intend to shoot with the same cast? Are you still in touch with them?

LD: I can’t remember the length now, but it’s more than two hours. I wrote a full script; some people still have copies of it, I’m sure, the actors and the then de facto crew. I found a beta copy in our old house in Paranaque, sent it to Olaf Moller. Torino fest learned of it and got hold of the copy during the fest and they decided to make a surprise viewing but unfortunately, when they reviewed the tape, it snapped. I don’t have any plans right now. I will think about it after Heremias. I’m not in touch with the people who worked and acted in that film for the last ten years. Yes, Malamig ang Mundo is full of promise.

beginnings
ebolusyon ng isang pamilyang pilipino
heremias
aesthetic
unfinished works
travel, cosmopolitanism
culture, cinema

Travel, Cosmopolitanism

AT: This is a question I have always thought fascinating, but have rarely seen asked to filmmakers. How has the travelling you have done because of your films (i.e. attending festivals) affected you as a filmmaker?

LD: Besides the great film viewings and the unavoidable dizzying festival artifices that would oftentimes border on circus-like milieus, travel has continually broadened my perspective: the diversity, the contradictions, the uniqueness of cultures, the effects of borders on people ([and] on humanity as a whole), the complexities of geography, the beauty and mystery of language, the reality and myth of race, versions and revisions of history, political views, ideological lines, religions, architecture, seasons, economics, philosophies. For an artist, these are forces that somehow help enrich and broaden aesthetic discourse. Listening to disparate interpretations of struggle after a viewing of Batang West Side in Kaluga, an old town in Russia, was quite an eye-opener to me. I had had the same experiences in Zagreb, Croatia, in Goteberg, Sweden, in Berlin, in Turin, in Flanders, in Vienna, in Moscow, in Toronto, in Kuala Lumpur, in Singapore, in Hong Kong, in Cebu. The levels of discourse fascinated me. These cultures have acquired and developed different levels of appreciation for the arts. In some societies, they really acknowledge the role of the arts in shaping their culture, in shaping the very essentials of their lives. While some societies, specifically those that are still in the margins, have a vague notion of what art can contribute to their lives. Art what? What culture? You know, it’s hard to argue with a farmer who will tell you that a grain of rice is better than film. Why waste time in a ten-hour-forty- three-minute-long film like Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino when his family needs some grain? Who needs Da Vinci in a hungry Burmese village? But yes, I really appreciate these travels. Meeting and having discussions with filmmakers and scholars and street vendors in Torino helped in shaping a greater vision and aestheticism. These experiences affirm my belief that great art can create great culture. Great cinema is relevant in our struggle. Great film is great grain, I must tell the farmer.

AT: How do you intend to tell the farmer this?

LD: The farmer plants rice; he keeps the rice healthy and safe from drought and food and insects and animals to insure great produce; he sells the rice and feeds on the rice; it’s his life. It’s the simple philosophy of nurturing, feeding and living. What you feed on is what you are. You nurture our people with good art, or with good works; you feed our people on good art; naturally, we will have great culture. You nurture our people with Socratic ideals; we will have a great nation. We shouldn’t just fill the stomach; the soul needs nurturing, too. The rice functions on the former and art functions on the latter. How do I/we intend to do this? Application. Clearly, in my case, the struggle doesn’t end in making the film. With the kind of film that I’m making, there is greater struggle in propagation. We must bring the film to the people. Batang West Side was only shown here four times, maybe, five times; Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino, three times. The reasons are obvious; they are very, very long and no theatre would show it without me shouldering all the cost or some responsible sponsors. I’ve been trying to get grants, funds and sponsorships to have them shown here, to conduct a tour on campuses and villages.

AT: When did you first move to New York, and how much time have you spent there since you moved there? How has living there affected you as a filmmaker, and as a Filipino?

LD: I arrived in New York on the 21st of July 1992. Fate brought me there. It wasn’t planned at all. A commissioned video documentary I did on the street kids of Manila was invited to participate in a multimedia exhibit-tour of key areas of the US. When I got to New York, a Filipino newspaper invited me to be part of their staff. I stayed and worked as one of their editors. New York provided me some freedom, aesthetically and economically. My decision to live in New York has been all about pursuing greater heights for my art while liberating my family from the clutches of poverty. In Manila, I had reached a dead-end. I was practically killing myself working in newspapers, my last [job] being a deskman in a Tagalog tabloid, and [I was also] submitting scripts in television serials, writing unproduced screenplays, writing scripts for komiks[6]. I was a book salesman while studying law; I wrote serious stuff that won Palancas; I won screenwriting and essay writing contests. But for what, my family was starving. We lived in Krus na Ligas, a squatters’ area inside UP Diliman, cramped in a tiny, rented room; we had to sleep in one small bed, the five of us--my wife and my three kids--we had to put chairs on the edges to keep our feet from dangling and be bitten to smithereens by ghetto mosquitoes and rats. All I could do was curse in silence while looking at my friends from film school shooting while I was working as a full-time family man. I didn’t regret being a family man because I love my children very much but like I said, we were at a dead-end; there was no relief in sight. And there was no digital then. At some point, I thought I could never do my films. Abandoning music was already a very painful experience (I destroyed my guitar and burned all my songs) and if I were to abandon cinema, I didn’t know what I would do. I couldn’t afford to kill my soul twice. New York offered some answers: I can fulfill cinema and my family can live without the indignity of hunger. And living in New York didn’t lessen our being Filipinos. We remain fiercely Filipino. And I remain a Filipino filmmaker. I will forever be pursuing my discourse on our people’s struggle. I live in Manila half of the year; I live in New York half of the year. I don’t believe in borders now, I don’t believe in this very ancient idea of dividing so-called races, segregating peoples via visas and boundaries and color and language. This concept of border is not just ancient, it is very fascistic and feudal and absurd, especially the first world-third world concept. The concept of borders dehumanizes humanity. It created wars and dumbfounding atrocities. I can live wherever I want. But I firmly believe in helping and shaping cultures grow progressively. In the case of our struggle, the Filipino struggle, we must be more responsible and help it attain a level that is at par with other cultures. We must not rest until we become a great culture and be one with the whole world, till we can erase all borders, no more rich and poor, no more educated and illiterate, and ultimately, no more races. No more visa problems, these idiotic visas. I am grounded enough to understand that this vision is utopian and it can never be achieved. But art must dream of this vision. Art’s ultimate goal is perfection of humanity.

AT: Your films often have rural settings. I know that you grew up in Cotabato, Mindanao, but you have lived in the city, both in Manila and New York, for many years now. Why do most of your films continue to have rural settings?

LD: It’s not intentional. Not deliberate at all. I have a lot of stories set in urban milieus, too. It’s only that the stories with rural settings or stories with greater rural textures were the ones that were produced first. In fact, I’ve been trying to do my take on Manila; my Manila story, hopefully next year, after Heremias and my East Village, New York City story; there’s even a Davao City story and a Zagreb, Croatia story (I’ve shot some scenes already last December 2004 during the Human Rights Film Festival). Batang West Side is Jersey City. Hesus Rebolusyunaryo is mostly set in an urban area, even Burger Boys. Ebolusyon has Manila in it, specifically, Kadyo’s story. Well yes, all of these films have more dominant rural textures, albeit they’re a mixture of rural and urban localities. The characters especially, my characters, they have very bucolic origins. They have very rural backgrounds, but not necessarily archaic perspectives and traits, as are so often stereotypically pictured in very demeaning, inane movie industry works. I try hard to present as truthfully and honestly as I can real characters with earnest rural pathos and perspectives. My truths or my early truths are very rural; I have a very rural upbringing. It’s one of my essential verities, so to speak. When I speak of ‘my essential verities,’ I’m referring to things that are somehow immutable and inherent in me, acquired and inherited, albeit my temperament, disposition and demeanor now may look so urban. But my being an urbanite is quite underground; I’m afraid I know more of Manila’s and New York’s proletarian and hardcore underbellies than their so-called modern advancements or superficial adornments and refinements. Personally, I never really make distinctions as to what makes a place urban or rural besides the very obvious like transportations (buffalos and cars), structures (huts and buildings), dresses and manners. I grew up in the middle of a jungle down south, in the middle of poverty, in the middle of strife and struggle, and it’s the same when I settled in Manila and New York. These are the same jungles, with poverty, strife and struggle hovering in different incarnations. My films are very personal, so I guess, they come out naturally. My culture is my cinema. I am rural and I am urban. My art comprehends both milieus. My art will struggle to understand both worlds. I am the synthesis. I will be the synthesis. Or, my art is the synthesis. My art will be the synthesis.

beginnings
ebolusyon ng isang pamilyang pilipino
heremias
aesthetic
unfinished works
travel, cosmopolitanism
culture, cinema

Culture, Cinema

AT: Why do you feel that Filipinos abroad have such an affinity or connection with the motherland? (more so I believe, than peoples from other countries)

LD: I’ll try to make a cultural dissection here. Culturally, the Philippines is a very displaced society. Displacement plays a major [role] on the migrant Filipino’s seeming great fixation to the motherland. I will use the word fixation, instead of affinity or connection, as a point of socio-psychological discourse here. Some may cite nationalism or love of the motherland as key factors here, but that idea seems so broad because inherently so, every Filipino loves the motherland, however there would be levels here depending on one’s understanding of the issues of race, of nationhood, of societies, of politics, including one’s ideology and economic standing. Of course, behavioral scientists will have a different view of this. An intellectual may look at these things quite disparately from a common Filipino construction worker in Saudi Arabia. The former would have a succinct discourse on such issues, drawing on conceptual and historical perspectives as practiced and developed by the so-called early great civilizations, as argued and perused by Greek philosophers down to the great contemporary thinkers. On the other hand, the latter would have such an ambiguous notion such that, most often, he can only account for his worries of the family that he is feeding back home, but his act is just as deep as the one who understands the concept of nationhood. Clearly, his concept of nationhood, or being Filipino, begins and ends in his family’s struggle, and just being responsible to his family is enough responsibility towards the country. But just the same, the intellectual is also struggling to understand the concept no matter how articulate he is or how eloquent he may be on the issue; a clear perspective on the issue is not measured by a succinct discourse and argumentation. A punk rocker’s ranting could be deeper than the polemics of a demagogue. Nobody has a monopoly of the so-called love of country. Fixation is acquired through experience.

Displacement could permeate a vicious injury to the psyche and unfortunately, the Filipino has been inflicted and is afflicted by that injury, an injury that is very physical and psychological; the proletarian Filipino and the bourgeois Filipino have had this injury, without exception, but again on different levels, particularly economically, sociologically, and politically. We have a very long history of displacement. Or rephrasing that: our history, recorded and unrecorded, is a history of displacements. The Filipino culture is replete with displacements, oftentimes directly caused by some of our most common traits.

I’ll cite a concrete Filipino trait which effected so much displacement— that of being too embracing of encroachments/trespasses/invasions. We are too embracing, too soft and too trusting of visitors or intruders; the classic ‘Filipino hospitality,’ they call it. Our cultural landscape is quite unique in this regard. We open our arms and before we know it, we are being colonized and abused. We have had to endure all of this quite passively. Why are we so open to intruders? Why are we so trusting? The archipelagic setup might have had an effect on this as argued by some quarters; the scattering of so many islands offers and creates openness. Or others say it’s the tropical weather, the perennial humidity, which encourages perpetual retirements so that whoever comes can just come in; there are no checkpoints, no so-called rigid entry points where a new arrival can be stopped and checked on his tracks? Welcome, find your place in the sand! Or could the walang pakialam[7] attitude be the rationale for this? And where did we get this walang pakialam attitude? I think there is some truth to the belief that early Filipino Malays had so much— food, gold, vegetation, beaches, and they are so beautiful and gentle that they couldn’t care so much about encroachments. Such conditions made them lazy and apathetic and really giving to a fault. Pigafetta, the Spanish diarist/chronicler of the Ferdinand Magellan voyage cited such abundance and beauty of our land and people. In one of his entries, he said about the palm trees: “It could feed a family for a hundred years.” There were early pocket resistances, of course; this eventually happened when the abuses or seeming disrespect to ‘natives’ became intolerable. The first recorded resistance was Datu Lapu Lapu’s rejection and eventual butchery of the circumnavigator Ferdinand Magellan. Check Pigafetta’s gory details on this. Gory, man, gory. Before that, some Filipino tribes (the Tausugs of Sulu and Zamboanga, the Maguindanaoans of Cotabato, the Maranaos of Lanao, the Badjaos of Mindanao seas, some Tagalog tribes of Maynila and some Kapampangans of Tarlac) had already been conquered by Islamist Arabs. Weeks before the Mactan debacle, Magellan, fresh from an easy conversion of Datu Humabon of Homonhon, had been converting the Cebuanos with the ease of drinking tuba (palm wine) and leisurely lying on a white sand beach waiting for a sunset to hide all the rotting fruits and roasted boars and fish, leftovers of endless festivities; Pigafetta even relayed rampant orgies with beautiful Cebuanas as part of their all too easy conquest of our islas. The women, as insinuated by Pigafetta, were regular gifts from the datus. Pigafetta’s journals were cloaked with sexism and racism and were really bewildering, especially when he kept invoking his faith on some saints and miracles and the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ and God while describing the Cebuana and other Malay women in almost pornographic detail— the skin, the smell, the giggles, the breath, the sensuality of it all; Caligula’s romps on flesh would look dull. Man, who can blame the asshole. The archipelago was just too Freudian of a paradise then. It took us more than three hundred years to realize that we needed to be free from this demeaning encroachment. By then, the damage had been all too telling on our psyche— we’ve become so Vatican and half-baked Castilian. It was a major displacement, a cultural debacle. Then, Roosevelt and the Americans came with their “white man’s burden” credo, and again, they got us so easily. At the cost of twenty million pesos, and a grand mock Manila Bay battle to boot, they trampled on us for the whole of the 20th century. There was the bloody hidden war, of course, that killed almost a million Filipinos; it was the Americans’ first Vietnam, and, man, until now, they don’t want to talk about this and they are still controlling us— politically and economically. That was another major displacement. World War II was another one. It was all too brief, but all too bloody. And then, the other Ferdinand, the very charismatic Marcos led us down the scorching river Styx for twenty-one long and agonizing years. The dark Martial Law period caused a monumental displacement to our psyche. The period institutionalized everything that is so wrong with our system and our culture now.

These displacements have so effectively affected us— from the body politic down to the individual Filipino. And, ultimately, one major effect is the phenomenon of Filipino migration to other shores. The interminability of this sociological phenomenon is more profoundly equated to poverty than to other causes like political asylum, education, artistic pursuits, intermarriages (a big percentage of which is also economically-based) and/or simply, a form of escape. For the poor Filipino, the only escape is the proverbial greener pastures offered by western cultures. Poverty sums up all these displacements, not just economically, but in every aspect of the Filipino’s socio-cultural landscape..

And to go back to your question: why do we have such an affinity to the motherland? Why? I believe that the very core of our connectedness is awa, translated in Anglo as pity, sympathy, compassion. Every Filipino who lives or who’s been in other shores for quite a while is wont to express this. I call this the Pinoy pathos. They would always feel so sorry for the sorry state of the country, for the majority of Filipinos reeling in marginalized conditions in the islands. They’d always express their helplessness and frustration on the inutile and corrupt system. The oft-repeated lines are “kawawa naman ang Pilipinas,” “kawawa naman ang bayan natin,” “kawawa naman ang mga Pilipino,” “kailan pa kaya maaayos ang sistema sa atin?” and “kailan pa kaya magbabago ang kalagayan ng Pilipino?” We are a nation in mourning. We are a people that seem cursed to be in perpetual mourning for the motherland. The cross is on every Filipino’s shoulder. The struggle, the pain of being Filipino, we carry it everywhere. That connectedness, that love of the motherland, that fixation is borne of displacement. And as a Filipino who’s worked and lived in New York, I know the feeling. I am a displaced Filipino, albeit the displacement came early from my Cotabato experience— the Muslim-Christian strife, which destroyed everything we had. I know poverty. I saw it. I experienced it. And like all Filipinos, I dreamt of a better life for my family, of a better Philippines someday. In my experience, cultural dissection became clearer when I accidentally got out of the country in 1992, and later through attending film festivals all over the globe. I observed other cultures and I drew analysis from these observations to dissect our own culture. I am not saying that you cannot conduct a thorough analysis if you’re in the Philippines. Outside, it would seem easier because the comparisons would be quite clearer and more concrete, the outside-looking-in psychology, like a looking glass; you’re detached, but you see yourself. Because of the seemingly debilitating effects of isolation and geographical detachment, I was somehow forced or I forced myself to be more introspective and self-critical. It’s visceral. There’ll be answers, there will be questions up front on such fundamental issues of human functions and discipline— work ethics and attitude, the Filipino’s idea and concept of time, family values— to geographical attributes like climate (you have wet and dry seasons, while they have winter, spring, summer and fall)and aesthetics (what’s your role as an artist, as a Filipino artist? How will your art help shape a progressive culture?). And of course, struggle. You know you’re in a different milieu, in unfamiliar terrain, in a different world, in a different culture. Assimilation may be easy, as it has been said that the Filipino is the most assimilable of all Asians (I was quite unsettled when I found a Japanese restaurant in Sweden and it’s owned and run by a Filipino couple— a Japanese restaurant in foggy Swedish soil owned by Filipinos!), but there remains a fierce fixation to one’s origins; no matter how long the journey, how harsh the struggle in the loneliest of lonely distant shores, the motherland remains the ultimate destination for every Filipino. For most Filipinos in foreign lands, an attitude of transience has become a virtue, a perspective that approximates a level of spirituality, a yearning that liberates them from the burden of exile. They long to be home. And home is the motherland. The motherland is the irreplaceable image of home. That Pinoy pathos is the invisible and uncuttable umbilical cord connecting the Filipino to the motherland.

AT: In general terms, what is it like to work as an artist, particularly in the Philippine context?

LD: I respect other artists’ paths and struggles so I can only speak for myself, my own path, my own truth. It’s hard and it’s cool, man. It’s hard because of my chosen aesthetic, but that aesthetic is cool because it is my chosen aesthetic; I’m free, I am not compromising my soul. It’s cool because I am, in my own small way, fulfilling my role in our society; I am sharing this gift that I am capable of contributing to this culture.

AT: What are your thoughts on filmmaking today?

LD: With the advent of digital filmmaking, contrary to pronouncements that cinema is dead because of it, cinema is very much alive and has even leapt and advanced to greater and respectable heights. Freedom is the key. Digital freed cinema. The medium is now owned by filmmakers and not controlled by businessmen and idiots. Now we are seeing our own canvases.

AT: You’ve cited Lino Brocka as an inspiration and a strong influence, but I see deliberate strides in your work and mode of production to go against his legacy of social indictment as well as compromise. Lino did after all make over 70 films, with only a handful responsible for the legacy. Do you feel that history, specifically Filipino filmmakers, have misinterpreted Brocka’s legacy?

LD: Brocka’s greatness is not on aestheticism if his works [are to] be checked and critiqued earnestly. He never achieved the level of a true cinema aesthete because of his untimely death. Had he lived, I’m sure he could have became one. But his being unable to achieve that stature does not diminish his greatness. His greatness lay in his vision of using the medium to expose his milieu’s malaise. And he used it to the hilt. And he is a Filipino hero because of that. But he did compromise [the] majority of his works. We will have to accept that and be honest about it. He was just a human being after all. I read and I heard that he did say that to be able to survive in the Philippine movie industry, he would make five or ten movies for the producer to be able to make one good film for himself. I never knew him personally to really understand such [a] stance. But I am inspired by the persona. He was [a] fighter, a voice and a leader. And I consider Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag one of the greatest achievements in Philippine cinema.

AT: How difficult is it for you to continue to work as an independent filmmaker in the Philippines today?

LD: It is very difficult on an emotional level because most of the year, I am away from my children; they live in New York and I miss them always. But they understand the struggle; they understand our country’s struggle. So, on an emotional level, the words hard, harsh and cruel are an understatement. Add to that, of course, the difficulty of finding funds. I am not being sentimental about this. And I am not romanticizing my condition. I am a vegan; I live alone in a very small oven-like room, no secretaries, no cars, no publicity machine, I only have my books and guitars; I keep everything simple now. I live and make films on grants. It’s a choice. I will never be bitter because of this decision. I am a better person because of this decision. Again, I can only speak for myself. This is my path.

[End Interview]
---------------
(Lav Diaz photo taken by photographer Darlene T. Lin at Kopi Roti, Tomas Morato, Quezon City, December 28, 2005. © photographer)

beginnings
ebolusyon ng isang pamilyang pilipino
heremias
aesthetic
unfinished works
travel, cosmopolitanism
culture, cinema

Brief notes on the long journey of Ebolusyon:

December 1993 – Eric Gamalinda and Lav Diaz jam on the former’s idea of a rose-eating ghost of a Filipino veteran who haunts the room of a young Filipino illegally living in New York City. Eric finishes the script. Lav revises it before the shoot, but stays faithful to Eric’s premise.

March 1994 – First shoot, an obscure street called Lexington, in a New Jersey county, mostly interior scenes--restaurant, building and rooms of protagonist. 16mm, Aaton camera. Mark Galuzo on camera, Pablo Orendain and Feliciano “blu” Gallardo on production design, Ellen Aguilar is assistant director. Actors: Behn Cervantes, Ronald Bregendahl, Mike Fernandez, Cybill Princess Villanueva, Jed Merino, Luis Francia and a lot of extras. Lav works in a Filipino newspaper and moonlights as waiter and gasoline attendant to fund the shoot. A Filipino family provides additional funding. Pablo and Mark fight on issues of design and light. Mark and Lav ‘tried to kill each other.’ Lav decides that Mark must leave the shoot.

April 1994 – Still in Lexington, same location. Nils Kenaston now on camera, same crew, same actors. Co-producer abandons project. Shooting stops, money is gone.

May 1994 – Lav starts pitching/looking for new funding.

August 1994 – Negative rolls to Duart lab in New York. Footage viewed for the first time.

September 1994 – Video transfers, Lav leaves Jersey City, starts living in 4th St. in the East Village of Manhattan.

1995 – During the first quarter of the year, pitching and networking has brought Lav to many parts of the East Coast, mostly in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, once in San Francisco. Autumn of the year, Lav meets Rommel Simon of Alexandria, Virginia; Lav and Rommel cut a trailer and a presentation reel. Paul Tanedo attends a presentation in Rommel’s studio. The following morning, Paul commits to co-produce the film with Lav. Preproduction starts again. Protracted shooting starts with Nils Kenaston on camera. Later, Paul buys a second hand 16mm crank Bolex. Paul assumes cinematography work on insertions and additionals. Ed Lejano and Noel Cabigting are the new assistant directors; Art Victoria is production manager. Most of the staff are volunteers. Shooting is done in Manhattan, Jersey City, Virginia and Maryland.

1996 – Protracted shoot continues. Lav shoots Malamig ang Mundo (“The World is Cold”) early autumn during a long lull. Lav decides to shoot Philippine flashbacks. Late November, Lav leaves for Manila to prepare the Philippine shoot. Home at last after four years, Lav prepares his family for their eventual transfer to New York. December, Lav reunites with his Balintataw group (Angie Ferro, Joe Gruta, Noel Miralles, Suzette Doctolero) and they start preproduction (location hunt and auditions). Marife Necisito gets the Hilda role and nine-year-old Elryan de Vera from the slums of Smokey Mountain gets the part of the young Raynaldo Gallardo. Pen Medina is Kadyo. Angie Ferro is Lola Puring. Ray Ventura is the rebel leader. Joe Gruta and Ponz Desa are the drunkards. Noel Miralles is the military leader. Pani the Butcher from Gerona will eventually play the role of Kadyo’s friend. Suzette and Noel are assistant directors. Lara Diaz on sound.

1997 – February. With preproduction done, Paul arrives from Virginia. Philippine shoot commences on a ‘funny note’ in Sabang, Bataan. First day of the shoot, the group leaves Manila early; brief stop in Gerona, Tarlac, the hometown of Paul where many scenes will eventually be shot. They arrive around noon; Sabang is a depressed village by the sea and right near the Subic forest. Lav immediately spots the first location for the scene where mother and son (Hilda and Ray) frolic by the sea, the “ant scene”. The location for the drunkards is also identified. Rehearsals start. When Lav calls for a first take, Paul, with a bloodless face, feeling utterly embarrassed, tells him that the camera got left in Manila. Camera arrives before dawn. The scene of Kadyo and Ray looking for Hilda is the first take. Then, the drunkards: Joe, Pons and company are really dead drunk when their scenes were shot. Light is just the gas lamp and a bonfire. Next location is Gerona. Larry Manda visited and he shot some scenes for three days only. After Gerona, some scenes were shot in San Juan and Manila.

By winter, Lav is back in New York, some more scenes are shot in Jersey City and Manhattan. Paul on camera.

1998 – Lav is back in Manila. Organizes the first post-production work at Lawrence Cordero’s Blue Cord Avid suite in Makati. Glen Cruz is co-editor, Jun Sabayton on sound. Lav requests Paul to shoot footage of Manhattan streets. Lav couldn’t make a first assembly, tells Paul and the group that they need to shoot more scenes; he is looking for a thread that will connect everything, the long gaps. First post is abandoned. Lav shoots Burger Boys and Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion for Regal Films.

2000 – Actor Mike Fernandez dies of lung cancer in Jersey City

2001 – Libby Fernandez, wife of Mike Fernandez, dies of bone cancer in Jersey City. Like Mike she was very involved in the Jersey City shoot of Ebolusyon as make-up artist, casting and catering. Lav lived in their Jersey City house from 1993 to early ’94.

October 24, 2001 – Ray Ventura dies of bone cancer.

2002 – Autumn. Batang West Side is part of the Asian American International Film of New York. Lav invites Paul to New York to watch the film. After the viewing, Lav tells Paul he finally found the thread to finish the story of Ebolusyon and he plans to shoot early 2003 on digital. Lav is back in Manila after Christmas and starts preproduction.

January-February 2003 – Lav reviews all footage, decides not to include the US scenes in the eventual final cut.

March 2003 – Start of the final phase of shoot, the digital shoot. This is a very young and energetic crew. On camera now is Bahaghari (aka Richard de Guzman, his camera work will eventually comprise 60% of the final cut), Albert Banzon is assistant cameraman; designers are Rishab Tibon, Patty Eustaquio, Jun Sabayton, Cristina Honrado; assistant director and production manager is Lorna Sanchez; soundpersons are Raffy ‘bulan’ Luna and The Bob Macabenta; actors—Pen Medina, Angie Ferro, Elryan de Vera (now age 16), Ronnie Lazaro, Banaue Miclat, Lui Manansala, Sigrid Bernardo, Roeder, Angel Aquino, Dido dela Paz, Erwin Castillo.

Shooting commences in Gerona. Then, the group goes up to the perilous northern mountains and to pocket mining man-made tunnels of Antamok and riverbank villages of Itogon, both in Benguet. The tunnel shoots are very, very dangerous. More scenes are shot in Marikina; on some days, Albert Banzon is the cameraman. Then, the Manila City Jail shoot with the special participation of Joel Torre and the prisoners playing themselves. Then, back to the Baguio, Antamok and Itogon locations.

October 2003 – Post studio is set up in Project 4, Quezon City. Glen Cruz is editor.

February 2004 – Project 4 studio is abandoned. Cubao studio is set up. Lav is now the editor. Bob is sound engineer.

April 2004 – Itogon shoot ends.

June 2004 – Toronto International Film Festival programmer Steve Gravestock visits the Cubao studio and watches the film on the computer, with Directors Guild of Philippines president Carlitos Siguion-Reyna as interpreter. IBON Foundation donates footage—First Quarter Storm, Martial Law, milititarization, Ninoy Aquino Assassination, EDSA People Power, Mendiola Massacre.

July 2004Ebolusyon is closing film of Cinemanila International Film Festival. A week before the closing night, computer crashes, erasing the original 10 hours fifty-five minute final cut. Lav and Bob start the post again. The Asian American International Film Festival of New York shows an eight-hour VHS copy, a very dirty copy.

September 2004 – Toronto shows the nine-hour version of Ebolusyon, the only Filipino film selected in the fest in 2004. Lav and Paul in attendance.

November 2004 – The last shoot. Antipolo and Bicol. The train, river, rice fields, mountain and forest shoots. Lav on camera, Bob on sound, Noel Miralles, Joy Domingo, Sigrid Bernardo and Cristina Honrado (Antipolo shoot) on design. The Bicol Arts Guild provides heartening support to the motley crew. Three days after the group boarded the train back to Manila, the train falls on a ravine killing scores of people. Malou Maniquis lends an air conditioning unit for the post.

December 17, 2004 – The Philippine premiere at the University of the Philippines. While Lav is dubbing out the film from the computer to mini DV (12 tapes in all), Bob is the lagarista [reel delivery boy] without a bicylcle or a car. He had to anxiously and frustratingly wait for a taxi from Cubao to UP, UP to Cubao; this caused the long gaps between tapes.

January 28, 2005 – Post ends. Lav leaves for the Rotterdam International Film Festival for the international premiere of the final cut, ten hours and forty-three minutes long. Lav, Paul and Bahaghari in attendance.

End Notes

[1] Movie Workers Welfare Foundation, Inc. (MOWELFUND). mfi.org.ph

[2] The Palanca Awards or Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature is the Philippines' most prestigious and most enduring literary awards and is dubbed as the "Pulitzer Prize" of the Philippines. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palanca_Award

[3] Literally means “youth community”

[4] Someone who always needs to be certain and takes no risks.

[5] similar to egg rolls, the turon is a Filipino snack of banana wrapped in lumpia wrapper (a thin "skin" made of flour or cornstarch, eggs and water) and then deep-fried. (http://web.foodnetwork.com/food/web/encyclopedia/termdetail/0,7770,3872,00.html)

[6] Filipino comics

[7] Literally means “without a care”

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