Viennale 2021: Sermons from the Stomach – Lav Diaz’s Historya ni Ha

Religious themes don’t expressly dominate but subtly adhere to Lav Diaz’s Historya ni Ha. The way the boundless, deep-focus images offer themselves to be inhabited by the pious protégés of a charismatic puritan invoke the idea that there is always enough space under God’s roof. A teenage boy who can’t sleep alone, a sprightly nun, an apprehensive sex worker and a water-loving carabao find shelter in the firm presence of Hernando, a ventriloquist and his puppet, Ha. Hernando retires, breaks his relationship with speech and decides to only communicate through his vivified companion. 

There is a populist appeal in Hernando’s artistry, the faith in emancipatory entertainment for a powerless audience but one that seems to be distant from the reality of his work. As a popular star, Hernando grew to experience performing mostly as a routine of pleasing and schmoozing with the corrupt and the heartless. It is suggested that he was involved in the crushed Huk movement, an anti-imperialist, communist uprising in the 1940s and 1950s. Yet, his quiet resentment is not political bitterness; in fact, he retains a belief in pedagogy and the force of exemplary behavior and well-meaning advice. Hernando’s reclusion from bodabil – the Philippine variation of vaudeville – is rather to halt the degrading self-exhibition on international tours and in luxurious ocean liners where his appreciation is the primitive laughter of drunken plutocrats. His return to the Philippines from the last barnstorming in Japan is marked by revelations that signify insecurity in the country’s future and his private life as well: president Ramón Magsaysay – a Messianistic figure in the national canon – dies in an air crash and Hernando’s fiancée marries a wealthy man to help her family. He sets out on a journey, passing through a landscape of constantly reshaping creeks and increasing mud. The mise-en-scène intensifies, lamps flicker, the sound falters, stray dogs enter the frame. Hernando wades in the menacing tempest, going after a modest and useful life, or just letting himself be absorbed by an internal dialogue about the thinker’s responsibility or the rain itself. Eventually he meets these fellow travelers in need who hope to get to an island full of gold. Taking the hand of a lady who tries to stay standing on high heels in the middle of sweeping flood and guarding a boy’s dreams are more urgent for Hernando than purging solitude. 

Sanctity and intellectual connotations feel both attached to him – he could write lyrical letters to his fiancée about how the dilemmas he discusses with and through Ha are mirrored Hermann Broch’s Der Tod des Vergil or how he feels attracted to the self-subjugation of the characters in Lev Tolstóy’s Voyna i mir

But Diaz’s form is much more sparing and classical than Broch’s and his protagonist appears much less of an ideal than Tolstóy’s ascetic aristocrats. 

Around Hernando’s enormous soul, there’s flesh and blood: we see him dirty and witty; we see him desire and hazard. 

With its kicking directness, traces of a vital, storming production, themes of traveling and gold, Historya ni Ha aligns well with Diaz’s work and there’s even a motific continuation from Lahi, hayop. Yet, his new film is often light and warm, revering the orientational skills of vagabonds, paying attention to the ceaselessly moving ears of a carabao and concluding with the relevance of education. Violence is also reduced – only in one moment of piercing stylistic intelligence, Diaz silences the film and shows barbarity in a discreet yet devastating montage. In the quiet, we can hear the atrocities from inside sharper than is bearable. 

In the end, Hernando becomes a teacher, a profession (or vocation) that was extensively looked at in this year’s Viennale. I’ve long struggled with the dominant (and unanimously positive) notion of education’s role in contemporary progressive discourse. The trust in social mobility easily forgets that even in the most helpful pedagogic environment, the concept’s success is dependent on talent and performance, virtues of a system that necessitates social mobility, which is beneficial for gifted individuals but leaves the existence of their original location within society untouched – thus it will be taken by someone new, for whom such ascent is impossible. 

Similarly to the other defining (and real-life) teacher in the festival’s selection, Dieter Bachmann from Maria Speth’s Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse, Hernando provides an alternative. Gold is not the solution, he says to the angelic teenager who wants to support his entire family from his adventure to the distant island. The objective of Hernando’s persistent, ritualistic incantation and teaching of – what I understood as – the alphabet isn’t to arm the children with tools for competition and prevalence. It’s laying the foundation of what can be learnt together, a worthwhile common knowledge, a set of references and values that holds people together and enables them to share experiences and imagine a future through similarly understood words. And for him, it’s coming back to life and speaking his own voice again, it’s the choice to be around people instead of getting lost in the woods.