Over the last ten years Michael Guarneri has had a series of talks with Lav Diaz, gathering thoughts about the Filipino filmmaker’s craft, philosophy and politics. The result of these conversations has been published in Conversations with Lav Diaz (ISBN 9788864761022), available worldwide in January/February 2021. To celebrate Diaz’s birthday, to renew our pleasure in discussing cinema or just to make sure I receive a copy of this valuable book, Michael and I discussed some aspects of Diaz’s work via e-mail.
Michael, a few years ago you wrote me about your holy triumvirate in cinema: Pedro Costa, Lav Diaz and Wang Bing. I don’t know if this triumvirate is just one of those cinephile games we play, or a necessity to remember what is important in the midst of the storm of images. Can you tell me whether you find similarities in their work? For me, the three of them meet in a word that’s maybe used too much nowadays, a word like „resistance“.
Our memories are tricky sometimes, Patrick… I’m quite sure that I wrote you „holy trinity“… In any case, yes, Pedro Costa, Lav Diaz and Wang Bing are my three favorite filmmakers. In the past ten months I heard the word „resistance“ so much that it almost lost its meaning for me, so for now I would prefer to focus on another keyword, another meeting point between Costa, Diaz and Wang: freedom. I guess that I admire them so much first of all because of their freedom. We are talking about three men who understood their place in the world, and worked hard to reach a certain space, or niche, in which they can freely practice their craft or art or whatever you want to call it. Naturally they aren’t free in an absolute sense (who is, really?), but they have worked out their own strategies to tell the stories they want to tell the way they want to tell them. They worked very hard to achieve their freedom, and they are still working very hard to maintain it. First they struggled to get into the system, then they struggled to get out of the system, then they struggled to build their own system. You know, the means of production, the work relationships, the lonely work and the team work… This struggle for creative freedom is a never-ending source of inspiration for me. It’s something that goes beyond the single films they make, which I might like or dislike.
I understand what you mean, but I would still hesitate calling it „freedom“. I think that the world of film festivals is an industry with its own demands. Let’s take the case of Diaz, for example, a filmmaker with whom you had many talks for your new book Conversations with Lav Diaz. It’s incredible how Diaz comes out with a new film every year, almost like Woody Allen… Something has also changed in his filmmaking as far as I can tell, and this change came about at a moment when film festivals everywhere became vertically integrated key players for production, distribution and presentation. My question is: in your opinion, how far Diaz works inside this system, and how far he remains independent from it?
Yes, among other things, film festivals concerned with the idea of cinema as an art allow filmmakers like Diaz to convert symbolic capital into economic capital in order to produce new work. Some filmmakers work fast, like Diaz [but let’s not forget that it took him 10+ years to make Ebolusyon ng isang pamilyang Pilipino / Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004) and 15+ years to make Hele sa hiwagang hapis / A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016); other filmmakers work more slowly, like Costa and Wang. As film critics, you and I also contribute to these capital transactions (if we want to believe that somebody actually reads what we write). Some filmmakers then take advantage of the rules of the film festival game (industry? market? circus?) to make the films they want to make; other filmmakers get caught in the rat race and start serving masters other than themselves. For me, Diaz belongs to the former category. Let me know what you think about this issue. In particular, as you are much more an expert than me on the film festival establishment, I’d be interested to know more about your sibylline sentence: „Something has also changed in his filmmaking as far as I can tell, and this change came about at a moment when film festivals everywhere became vertically integrated key players for production, distribution and presentation“. Afterwards, we can also discuss a key aspect that you mentioned: distribution. Sadly, film festivals are often the only distribution venue for Diaz’s films, which makes it difficult for him to speak to his fellow Filipinos about issues of Filipino history and identity.
Well, I wouldn’t call myself a film festival expert (and not even a film critic because I’m not sure if such a thing exists anymore). What I tried to hint at was just that I feel that with digitalization (or at least around the time of it) came a change in the world of festivals. First of all, the amount of festivals increased a lot and, step-by-step, their function also changed. The idea that they serve as a market where potential buyers can buy films to bring to the cinemas is now only a part of the whole enterprise. The festivals have become the buyers themselves, they give out funds (I think Diaz received some of those in Europe) and create a system that works in itself and takes a powerful position in the world of cinema independent of film theaters and streaming services. There are so many festivals that don’t choose the films but just take what the festival market dictates. Films „make the journey“. So, what maybe changed first of all was the visibility of Diaz’s films around the world. I don’t know whether you know or discussed with Diaz the amount of screenings his films have on average. I guess, it’s still too little and, as you say, there might be a gap between international audiences and the reception in the Philippines, but it must be different now than it was with Batang West Side (2001). I don’t think that any of us involved can work independently of the demands of the festival world. Each time filmmakers travel around the world to present their work, talk with sharks and lovers, meet different cultures, are sucked from vampires, receive praise or criticism based on terms sometimes foreign to their idea of cinema, they will change. It’s not an innocent business and in no way does it protect the art. Of course, there is also Diaz’s switch to digital, which might have brought changes to his cinema… at least in my perception. Maybe you can tell me a bit about the way he works with digital tools and whether you spoke about the changes that digital made for his cinema. After that, I might be able to continue with my argument. After all, Costa, Diaz and Wang are also connected by their liberating use of digital tools.
Yes, digital tools were so important for filmmakers like Costa, Diaz and Wang to „own the means of production“ (a very old expression, I know) and to cut out for themselves this little space of freedom, to create these small production units in the style of Dziga Vertov, Robert Flaherty, Jean Rouch, the „television“ Roberto Rossellini… But then again, yeah, you are right, these films that they make end up on the market (festival, theaters, DVD, streaming, whatever), so ultimately they are a merchandise. I guess that the next step in the struggle is to see what can be done after production, further along the chain… Now that almost everybody can make films, „the issue isn’t anymore that you can’t shoot“ (as Diaz likes to say). Now the „bottle neck“, or gatekeeping, is at the levels of distribution, promotion and exhibition. You need a lot of money to promote your film and inform people of its existence „in the midst of the storm of images“. People who, like Diaz, generally work with low budgets find themselves in the paradoxical situation of needing more money to promote the film than to make it. You can always find a way to make a film… but to get it seen, to get people interested and to reach them… well, that’s a tough job. That must be the reason why several film festivals hand out money prizes to be spent on promotion and distribution.
How does promotion for a filmmaker like Diaz work? Are we talking about keeping in touch with the „right people“? In my opinion the change in his filmmaking I was hinting at has to do with having created a sort of brand in an admittedly rather small section of „world cinema“ and the world of film festivals. In his films I find at the same time an urgency and sincerity concerning political issues and the dealing with the history of his country, and I can’t help experiencing those films as documentations of a bunch of friends meeting and acting something out… it’s almost a game, hence his trying out of very different genres and so on. Maybe that’s like in Jean Renoir’s best films and maybe it’s a form of art for which the bureaucracy and economics necessary to make it happen are valued as much as the actual work. In this regard I find Diaz to be exemplary of certain tendencies within film festivals that have replaced the idea of grand auteurs who disappear and reappear with a film immediately hailed as a work of art with a strange studio-like regularity of production. It’s strange because it’s done without or with very little money. Yet, somehow it works (which makes this system very suspicious in my opinion). Since you said that you don’t like every film but it’s about the whole work, maybe also the attitude of those filmmakers, I would be interested to learn about how you discovered the work of Diaz and what triggered you?
If you create something that you want a lot of people to engage with, you have two options (I’m going to simplify things a bit now, please bear with me). You can work little by little cultivating personal links with fellow-minded people to slowly spread the word about your work over the years until you eventually reach a critical mass and make a name for yourself; and/or you can pay Google, pay Facebook, pay clickfarms, pay all these advertising companies to put your work „on the radar“, to put your „product“ on people’s „priority list“. And while there are price listings for social media advertising, how can you assign a monetary value to friendship? How much should I pay you for being my friend and for kindly accepting to have a talk with me to promote on your website this or that book I wrote? I think you, I, Diaz and his team are people who prefer to work with personal relations, an immaterial economy, but an economy just the same, because it takes time and resources to cultivate a friendship, a dialogue over the years (especially considering that the other option – the paid advertisement one – is much simpler and possibly more effective in the short term). But I feel we are dangerously close to that moment in which I start to complain about how dreadful the world we live/work in is and how much nicer it would be if we created a commune somewhere… Luckily you asked me about my first meeting with Diaz’s cinema and I can keep misery at bay by taking refuge in good memories. Back in 2007-2008 I began to get interested in Diaz’s cinema because the Italian State TV was broadcasting his films all night long during the weekends: Heremias: Unang aklat – Ang alamat ng prinsesang bayawak / Heremias: Book One – The Legend of the Lizard Princess (2006), Kagadanan sa banwaan ning mga engkanto / Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) and Melancholia (2008). They were broadcast as part of a program called „Fuori Orario“ („After Hours“, like the Martin Scorsese film), a kind of cinephile heaven that contributed a lot to my cinema education ever since I learned how to use a VHS recorder. So I watched these three films by Diaz and I was struck by the fact that they didn’t look like any other film I had seen before. The idea of style was very important to me back then: „style“ as in „stilus“, meaning the pen and the hand that holds the pen and uses it in a distinctive, unique way… I was a teenager back then and I felt a lot of sympathy and admiration for whoever was willing to do his/her own thing with art, be it music, painting, writing, cinema… So, instinctively, ever since the very beginning, just by watching the films without knowing anything about anything, I felt a lot of respect for Diaz because his movies told me that he was a guy who didn’t care, a guy who was going his own way, „seul contre tous“… Then, of course, I watched all the other movies by Diaz, I studied a lot, and I understood a lot more about Diaz’s films and their meaning… That’s when I discovered the other etymology of the word „style“, connecting „style“ to „stilo“, the dagger, i.e. to the idea of using the pen, the camera, the brush, whatever, as a knife, to open wounds, to slit open people’s eyes and make them see…
I like those two meanings of „style“. Maybe we can add a third one (even if that will ultimately lead us back to thoughts about the commune): style as a form of addressing somebody (with a title), to give a name to something. I think this relates to what I tried to say earlier about Diaz’s films. There is a sort of laziness among the film community and it shows as soon a director develops or changes. I have no empirical proof, but I feel that most of the texts written about Diaz today could have been written twenty years ago. So I think that his cinema is partly well-bedded in something that he doesn’t do anymore. There are certain automatisms in reception and this casts quite a shadow of indifference over his cinema. It’s the new film by Diaz and not a film showing or slitting open something. I don’t think it’s his mistake at all because his films change, he might be much more open to trying out different things than other filmmakers of his age and intensity. However, if you meet his films in the festival world, they have become a product, a „style“, and I wonder how to escape this?
The filmmaker as a brand, I understand what you mean. Yesterday I was taking part in an online conference about Italian cinema and there was an excellent paper presentation about Italian neorealism becoming a sort of brand in 1940s-1950s French film criticism: first there was the duo Vittorio De Sica – Roberto Rossellini; then the worship of Rossellini began; then, when Rossellini fell out of favor, some French critics tried to build a new „virginity“ for neorealism by focusing on the writer Cesare Zavattini… I’m simplifying things just to give a quick example, of course… but that’s the way things go in cinema. Especially now that cinema has lost its mass appeal and there are a million other things you can do in your spare time: you have to keep people „hooked“, and the filmmaker as a brand is one of the strategies to build „customer loyalty“. I don’t know if we (you, I and all our fellow critics) can escape this, but for sure we can be attentive spectators, ask in-depth questions to filmmakers, write with passion and accuracy, do our part to „elevate the discourse“ and fight laziness. We will probably fail to change the „system“, but people will say good things about us when we will be dead. On a more cheerful note, I’m curious to know: how about your first meeting with Diaz’s cinema?
My first meeting with Diaz’s cinema must have been a screening of Batang West Side at the Austrian Film Museum. As I understand, this institution has a very special relation to Diaz and especially to this film. The Austrian Film Museum screened a film copy, 35mm, and not unlike you, my first sensation was one of pure inspiration. I felt that cinema is a medium with which you can do everything. After this first encounter, I watched several of his films at home on horrible-looking files, but the sensation was the same. Then, there were one or two screenings at the Viennale: Norte, hangganan ng kasaysayan / Norte, the End of History (2013) must have been one of those, and I vividly remember seeing A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery at the Filmfest Hamburg. I was equipped like a mountaineer with food and drinks and I didn’t miss a single second of the film. There have always been these discussions (partly inspired by some of Diaz’s own statements) that it’s actually fine to go out, fall asleep and so on. I never agreed and I especially don’t agree with regards to his films in which a lot of things are going on plotwise. After the 485 minutes of A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery I drove my car for 7 hours and I didn’t get tired one time. Even if I’d like to say that the reason for this must have been my youth, I think that it has to do with Diaz’s style… I felt that he changed my perception of things. Now, I don’t think it’s very hard to do that in 485 minutes, we could say that time works on those things all alone, but with him there is an embrace of time (of its horror as well as its indifference) instead of a theoretical attempt that tries to highlight it. In relation to that, I’d be interested in your initial feeling that he is someone „who doesn’t care“. I want to know how this in your opinion relates to his dealing with time and/or with some technical „mistakes“ (I hate to use that word).
There aren’t many artists like Diaz around. Artists who have that inner calm and wisdom and courage to pursue their own vision no matter what other people think. At the same time, he is a man possessed by a desire to communicate with his fellow human beings, to really make them think, make them reason, make them remember, before it’s too late, before the light dies out and there can be no cinema anymore. From these clashes between the personal and the collective, and between the slow tempo and the urgency, is born a kind of cinema that I find quite unique. And I love it so much precisely because of its fundamental imperfection: too much wind in the microphone, a shaky handheld camera… In all these „mistakes“ I see the struggle – Diaz’s particular struggle as an artist and as a Filipino, and perhaps a more general reminder of „the inadequacies of our plans, our contingencies, every missed train and failed picnic, every lie to a child“. Have you ever heard of the Latin motto „festina lente“, „make haste slowly“? It’s such a wonderful description of Diaz’s cinema, and of my experience of it. It was so great to read your sentence „After the 485 minutes of A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery I drove my car for 7 hours and I didn’t get tired one time“. Every time I come out of a Diaz screening I feel energized, I feel like I’m ready to smash the whole world.
This fundamental imperfection reminds me a bit of early sound films when you can hear the sound of the dolly. When „mistakes“ occur in Diaz’s films I’m always trying to find out what made him keep that specific shot. In some way it helps to change my focus on the acting, or on a tree moving in a peculiar way, and I remember why cinema exists: maybe not in order to make a perfect shot but to see something. A lot of filmmakers I admire have a much more perfectionist attitude. Let’s take Hou Hsiao-hsien, for example. Everything is much more controlled and smoother. Nevertheless there is a similar interest which moves somewhere between capturing something in the world and being captured by something in the world. In both cases the effect is a sort of floating of image and sound that gives me freedom to see, to hear, to think, to feel, to be. „Festina lente“ sounds just perfect. Yet, we shouldn’t forget that the haste is about something. I feel that there is great anger in his films and a desire to speak to the present moment of his country or even more universally such as in Lahi, Hayop / Genus Pan (2020), which among other things also reflects on humanity in a more general sense. I wanted to ask you about cultural gaps in the perception of cinema. Do you think they exist and how do you deal with them?
I do think that cultural gaps in the reception, or perception, of films exist. Yet, at the same time, cinema has this power to connect with you, to communicate with you in spite of language and other cultural barriers. Back in 2011 I saw Kotoko (2011) by Shinya Tsukamoto at the Venice Film Festival and I was too tired that morning and I had a massive headache, so I watched the film without reading the subtitles. That’s the best way to see Kotoko: it’s such a primal and direct film, no words needed. And back in 2011 at the Venice Film Festival there was a bit of mumbling among the „Western“ critics about Kotoko because one of the main characters suddenly disappears from the movie, no explanation given at any point in the film. It’s something that doesn’t generally happen in „Western“ movies, or if it happens there is a highbrow, „intellectual justification“ (see Michelangelo Antonioni, Alain Robbe-Grillet, etcetera). It just doesn’t happen „like that“, „as if it was normal“. Somebody asked Tsukamoto about it at a press conference, because the disappearance of the character was so deliberate and everyone of „us“ thought that there must be some profound meaning, something that was maybe specifically Japanese, some hidden metaphor, something about Japanese history or theater or poetry or painting… but Tsukamoto just said: „Sometimes the people that are important to you simply disappear from your life“. I think that it’s important to watch movies, to pay attention, to articulate questions, to ask questions (even if we are afraid to appear a bit stupid by asking)… so we can discover new things and „fill the gap“. I mean, films are interesting for what they show/tell us, but also for what they don’t show/tell us. Films sometimes give us „homework“ to do… I love that. I remember back in 2016, after the gala screening of Ang babaeng humayo / The Woman Who Left (2016) at the Venice Film Festival, I was hanging out with Diaz and his team in the festival bar. Diaz was discussing with some of his crew and actors. I couldn’t understand what they were saying because they were speaking in Tagalog but it seemed to be something important, so afterwards I asked what the problem was. It turned out that somebody from the festival had tweaked the English subtitles of The Woman Who Left to explain the meaning of the word „balot“, which Diaz left untranslated on purpose so that the curious spectator would do some research on his/her own…
Is there an educational purpose for foreign audiences in Diaz’s films?
Being the son of two school teachers, Diaz is certainly using cinema for educational purposes, for his fellow Filipinos and for any person in the world who is interested in the history/culture of the Philippines and in the struggle of the Filipino people against colonialism, exploitation, authoritarianism, poverty and corruption. And, after all, isn’t the struggle of the Filipino people the struggle of most people in the world? Colonized people who have been exploited for centuries find „independence“ under the aegis of a neocolonial power, which leads to a kleptocrat dictatorship… You can find similar situations in most of South-East Asia, in most of the African continent, in Central and South America… I’m simplifying things perhaps, but Diaz himself is conscious of the worldwide outreach of his cinema. The leftwing rebel Renato in Melancholia is fighting for a specific cause relating to Filipino politics and yet, in his dying moments, he isn’t thinking about the Philippines alone, he is thinking about the whole picture: „Why is there so much sadness and too much sorrow in this world? Is happiness just a concept? Is living just a process to measure man’s pain?” That’s the beginning of one of the greatest monologues in the history of cinema, for me. In Genus Pan, as you mentioned, this world outreach is even more evident: the whole matter of being human is put into question. The film is set in a remote mining area in the Philippines, but it could well be set in the fields of Italy where both Italian and immigrant people are exploited to pick tomatoes for one Euro per hour. You can choose your own examples, I chose an Italian example because Genus Pan had its world premiere in Italy… Do you remember that old revolutionary slogan, „Let’s create two, three, many Vietnams“? With my writings I would like to inspire people and create ten, one hundred, one thousand Lav Diaz…