Lav Diaz: Moving Forward by Going Back February 5, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Noypi, Prince Claus Fund.
From Siglo ng Pagluluwal (Century of Birthing, 2011)
In the Philippines, a country whose centuries of struggle against foreign aggressors often reflect the violence that the majority of its people experience at present, Lav Diaz rarely makes his presence felt. Similar to a handful of makers with intense dedication to their craft but hardly a drop of vanity to claim recognition, he seldom shows up at screenings and believes that his films already speak enough of his worldviews. His interviews, though articulate and illuminating, are loose threads compared with the sturdy and strapping fabric of his narratives, laid out over bleak backdrops of blood, sweat, and tears.
Diaz hails from Datu Paglas, a small town in Maguindanao, much like the dying village in From What Is Before (2014). His early films, made after moving to Manila from New York, have conformed more than resisted, as one is obliged to do to learn the rules of the game. Not much has been written about Serafin Geronimo, The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion (1998), Burger Boys (1999), Naked Under the Moon (1999), and Jesus, Revolutionary (2002) — all of which tanked at the box office — but they cannot be set aside simply for paling in comparison with his longer works. There he built the foundation that has come to define his highly regarded pieces, where the inclination to make deep and unsettling characterizations had taken root.
His later films are recognized not only for their length but also for their span, merging dimension and scale and having the precise skill to match their ambition. The stretch of lives in Batang West Side (2001), Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004), Heremias (2006), Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), Melancholia (2008), Century of Birthing (2011), and Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012) — shoveling through the heap of shameless political conceit, large-scale corruption, abject poverty, and trails of fading memory — is measured in blinks and breaths. Diaz navigates through miseries the way a boat sets sail, armed with readiness and optimism, his eyes always on the sky and sea. The passing of a storm owes more to nature than misfortune: luck is denied and tragedies happen for a reason. With a god to turn to, his characters understand their predicament and gradually come to terms with inherent injustice. The social cancer depicted by Filipino hero José Rizal in his novels is the same affliction pervading his films, only now, with more than a century between them, the infirmity is terminal and death is more certain than life. This is argued in powerful and searing clarity in Norte, The End of History (2013).
Diaz matters only to those who care to know him, whose lives have intersected with a screening of one of his films, and from then on have believed in his diligence and understood the urge that drives him to tell stories that run from five to ten hours. Whereas before, the concern is about having audiences for his films, now it is about finding venues and putting schedules in order to accommodate them, and such change of direction is overwhelming in itself.
One particular sentiment keeps hovering whenever a Filipino filmmaker achieves distinguished acclaim abroad — a question that seems to act, unfairly, as a litmus test. Is he the next Lino Brocka? This attachment to nostalgia is a distinctly Filipino trait, the tendency to overvalue the past, for after dying in a car crash in 1991, Brocka has been venerated to the point of worship, influencing a wide range of filmmakers including Diaz himself. Although the works of Ishmael Bernal and Mike de Leon are also as worthy of admiration, they do not possess Brocka’s social realism, and the national cinema of the Philippines, for better or worse, cannot exist and persist without this tradition. Diaz has answered this: he is not the next Lino Brocka, but his films, aware that going forward is the only way back, prove that such yearning has come to an end.
This short laudation is commissioned by the Prince Claus Fund, published in its 2014 Prince Claus Awards program. Lav Diaz is one of the 10 recipients of the prestigious prize, “honoured for his uniquely moving portrayals of the complexities of Filipino reality; for expanding and intensifying cinematic experience through his innovative approach to the art of filmmaking; for expressing truth and building a powerful cultural legacy for national healing and international understanding of the Philippines; for challenging the dominant commercially and politically driven uses of cinema; and for remaining true to his art and his intentions, providing inspiration for others working outside the mainstream.”