Letting the World Flood Through: Notes from The Lav Diaz Retrospective

Marcus Yee

September 11, 2017

The Lav Diaz Retrospective was programmed with the curious choice of not screening any of his films in their full duration. Rather, it took audiences on a search to surface moments of serendipity with the filmmaker, through sharing sessions with Diaz in The Making of Enchanted Moments, where selected scenes from previous films were screened, as well as a visit to the open film set of Henrico’s Farm, Diaz’s latest production with shooting locations in Singapore. Given the epic duration of his feature films that range between five to eleven hours long, one could make the obvious speculation that this curatorial choice was made to accede to the spectator’s impatience. More crucially however, as to K. Rajagopal’s participatory performance Lizard on the Wall held in SIFA’s pre-festival The O.P.E.N., the unconventional film programming of the Retrospective unmoored from the rituals of transnational performance and film-festivals, which remain entrenched in the shine of the cultural product.

In fact, the pedagogically- and process-driven programming resonated with Diaz’s filmmaking ethics. He tends to work minimally and spontaneously, new shooting locations could be announced hours before and his scripts are in constant revision. His eyes are attentive and unassuming whereby stories of humans are as much stories of landscapes. 

JeannieHoPhoto20170825 EnchantedMoments 7934

Image courtesy of Singapore International Festival of Arts, photographed by Jeannie Ho

During The Making of Enchanted Moments, Lav Diaz wore his signature white ponytail, black T-shirt and jeans. Initially soft-spoken, he bore no airs of an internationally acclaimed film director. Once warmed up to his position, however, Diaz became candid, unafraid to share stories of his elaborate caprices during casting and production, or to adorn statements with a few profanities here and there. One sensed that the Retrospective was not programmed to mystify audiences into a cult of the auteur, not to lead audiences by the hand, but rather, to allow one to traverse together with the living, breathing filmmaker, taking coordinates from the arts of noticing enchanted moments. 

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But where does one find enchantment in the cinematic worlds of Lav Diaz, with its cruel gallery of postcolonial and state repression, typhoons and volcanic eruptions, rape and torture, poverty and injustice?

Before the face of misery, elaborating on enhancement appears to be a mark of privilege, a gratuity. Gliding along this Mobius strip of rhetoric, the denial of enchantment feels equally cruel to those already suffering. In The Enchantment of Modern Life, Jane Bennett posits that “the mood of enchantment may be valuable to ethical life” where “in small, controlled doses, a certain forgetfulness is ethically indispensable”. While there are, undoubtedly, ripples of cinematic joy in Diaz’s films, their relentless duration are intended to portray the mind-numbing inertia in the Philippines, dredged by historical trauma and indefinite postponements. This has lead some to comment on the filmmaker’s uncompromising pessimism. The cinematic mood of Diaz’s work lean therefore, closer to the Bennett’s recapitulation of Philip Fisher’s  “moment of pure presence”, as opposed to joy, an an affect that teeters dangerously to naïve, or even enforced optimism. To quote Bennett in her elaboration on “pure presence”:

Thoughts, but also limbs… are brought to rest, even as the senses continue to operate, indeed in high gear. You notice new colours, discern details previously ignored, hear extraordinary sounds, as familiar landscapes sharpen and intensify. The world comes alive as a collection of singularities.

An archetypal scene are antlike human figures traversing through an immense landscape, framed as a long shot and lasting the duration of a long take. These temporal stretches, in addition to being social realist reflections of time, emanate other surface effects, such as the material impressions from the paddy, cogonal, nipa foreshore, waterways, rocky coasts, rainforests and mountains in the Philippine archipelago, the supple undulations of light on leaves upon leaves, weeds trembling around rain-soaked ruins. The fashioning of “slow cinema” or “contemplative cinema” ( a classification that Diaz himself rejects) finds itself counterintuitive given the thousands of pro-filmic micro-movements composed in every frame, teeming with intensity, and only noticeable, when the eye lets itself wander.

For May Adadol Ingawanij, the contemplative spectator that “slow cinema” privelleges is unproductive in comparison to “a critical language of realism attentive to different modes, tempos and directionality of bodies moving in space”. Ingawanij frames Diaz’s steadfast willingness to engage with site and materiality as “physical realism”, an ethical endeavour that “stays true not so much to reality itself as to the process by which the film acquires material life”. Taking into consideration the broken promises that constellate the national history of the Philippines, from colonial rule by the Spanish and Americans to Marcos’ dictatorship, these filmic cartographies bear the anticipatory mood of “physically incarnating a collective act of faith”.

With Diaz, enchantment surfaces, if only for a brief, finite moment inscribed within yawning stretches of time. The noticing of these moments, however, are not without the labours of patience. Enchantment and disenchantment are less of fixed nodes set in dialectical opposition than lines in motion, looping and lacing, in the helical process of re- and de-enchanting.

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On a Sunday, a minibus took an audience to the production centre in a shophouse at 11, Geylang Lorong 24a, before heading towards the yet-undisclosed shooting location. We were still reeling from the lost opportunity to sleep-in on a lazy weekend, caught in a somnambulant state, when Dan, our host in a floral shirt of satin indigos and pinks, assiduously shared the contextual details, such as stylistic choices, production habits and biographical notes of the filmmaker.

Born to a fervently Catholic woman and a Socialist intellectual, Diaz’s parents devoted their lives to schooling peasants in the remotest Maguindanao villages, Mindanao Island, Southern Philippines. Mindanao is also known as the “Land of Promise”, ironically, in spite of the civil unrest and abject poverty that plague the island. Growing up amidst quotidian suffering, one could infer the nexus of granular realism in his films. The filmmaker’s political milieu is complicated by his generational belonging. As a “martial-law baby” growing up during President Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship in 1972 to 1981, the tumultuous political history of his country was never far from consciousness. 

Greeting us at the production centre was an exhibition of the filmmaker’s archives, where his idiosyncratic production habits manifested as photographs, movie posters, period props and costumes, scripts, in the mix with other production equipment like walkie-talkies and clapboards. Through a poster of Melancholia (2008), Dan explained the undifferentiated labours of the production team, whereby each individual often took on multiple roles, regardless of prior training. In Melancholia, Diaz’s longtime collaborator, Kristine “Kints” Kintana played both production supervisor, translator and actor for the film. Dan himself, initially Production and Location Manager, became our host at the eleventh hour. The crew would affectionally call themselves “Slashers”, in tribute to the familial, tight-knit production culture formed around Diaz’s films.

Henricos Farm by Lav Diaz Lav Diaz with actress Shaina Magdayao Photo by Lei Yuan Bin Courtesy of 2017 Singapore International Festival of Arts

Image courtesy of Singapore International Festival of Arts, photo by Lei Yuan Bin

We were driven up to the shooting location for the day, which was a restored colonial mansion on Mount Pleasant. Built in the 1920s to house British expatriates during Singapore’s colonial days, it was said that the site also played a prominent role during the Japanese Occupation in World War II. The mansion, with its marbled tiles and ornate furniture, was nestled in a verdant but well-maintained forest. Our feelings of prelapsarian splendour evaporated as we were escorted around the building, to a separate domestic helper’s quarters where the scenes were about to be filmed. We were prompted to observe the modestly decorated set: folded clothes in stacked plastic containers, Philips cassette players, Revlon brown hair dye, family photos clipped onto the mirror’s edge and Balik Banyan boxes. More fascinating, perhaps, were things not present on set: lighting fixtures and studio monitors. The absence of equipment found in other conventional film sets attested to Diaz’s minimal production style, preferring the use of natural light (further dimmed through in-camera exposure reduction) and would rather handle the camera himself, according him a certain freedom from budgeting and manpower constrains.

We soon found ourselves in a room, faced with audio transmitters and two monitors streaming live footage from the set. One monitor displayed diegetic footage in Diaz’s signature dimmed black-and-white, whereas another monitor displayed colour footage from a documentarian. In this manner, one is presented with two views: the filmic, controlled under Diaz’s cinematographic purview, and the extra-filmic, through which one caught a glimpse of the performativity of filmmaking itself. Diaz’s performance as a director is kept lean, almost like a bystander with a camera, offering little directions to the actors, where high-octave emotions are not milked with multiple camera angles. He would let the actors step into the roles themselves, with an ambiguous “rock-and-roll” before each take, only letting out a peal of laughter if unsatisfied.

Henricos Farm by Lav Diaz Photo by Lei Yuan Bin Courtesy of Singapore International Festival of Arts 3

Image courtesy of Singapore International Festival of Arts, photo by Lei Yuan Bin

Henrico’s Farm follows the former domestic helper, Lani (Charo Santos-Concio) returning from Frankfurt to the Philippines and kept in anxious anticipation by the impending meeting with her son, whom she has not met in thirty years. As a reward for her service, Lani’s German employers granted her a holiday in Singapore, where she was introduced to other domestic helpers like Joyce (Karenina Haniel). For the shoot we attended, we learnt of Joyce’s emotional tribulations of her family back home.

Anyone who has observed a film shoot previously can attest to the boredom of sets— one must deign to become soundless and invisible, the only non-action unfolding is the crew’s tinkering with their equipment. That of Diaz’s was no different. Perhaps, even more lulling, given the emotional deferral, low-action pacing of his films where almost nothing—not nothing—happens. Yet, film curator Bee Thiam and actor Angeli Bayani, who played another role in the film, strived to carefully navigated these silences with a running commentary to much success. Yet, without a live translation of the takes, witticisms flew across the heads of non-Tagalog speakers, where one lost much of the nuances in the actors’ dialogues.

Henricos Farm by Lav Diaz with actresses Shaina Magdayao Hazel Orencio Charo Santos Angeli Bayani Karenina Haniel Photo by Lei Yuan Bin Courtesy of 2017 Singapore International Festival of Arts

Image courtesy of Singapore International Festival of Arts, photo by Lei Yuan Bin

Despite the language barrier, one could feel the intensity of Diaz’s concentration on set and the performers’ mastery over their characters. Lani comforts an emotionally distraught Joyce in one scene, after she reveals her ongoing struggles with her abusive and alcoholic husband. Lani brings Joyce close to her body, repeating the words, “Inhale… Exhale…” while soothingly patting her. The take was protracted in its duration, like a deep breath drawing out, echoing Bayani’s words on how Diaz “lets his actors finish”. Only when the emotional torrents were mellowed out, reaching denouement, did the director finally say, cut.

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On the final session of The Making of Enchanted Moments, founding festival director Ong Keng Sen made an observation on the spectrality of Diaz’s characters, especially with reference to Singapore’s appetite for low-wage transnational labour for its service economy, displaced Filipino women are found at every turn, rendered unseen, in restaurants, retail outlets and households. Like spectres they are the visible invisible, with their presence denied, kept out of sight and out of mind. Like the stifling humidity of the island city-state, this social reality hangs clawingly onto the pores of Diaz’s production of Henrico’s Farm.

From the brief snippets from the yet-uncompleted film, we see domestic helpers temporarily embodied, breaking down, toiling away but also forming camaraderie, becoming emotional supports for one another. These narratives, easily written off as naïve or nostalgic, are part of an ongoing struggle against a spectrality enforced upon them, linked to the extraordinary labours of ordinary people in a dehumanising workforce. Diaz’s camera finds itself in media res, bearing witness invisible masses without “facile inspirational uplift” or cold-blooded fatalism. He provokes the question of living, when one has to live like a ghost. There is a justice to bearing witness, just there is a enjoyment in letting things happen.

In The Promise of Happiness, Sarah Ahmed described the “contingency of happiness”, in considering its etymological roots in the Middle English word ‘hap’, which suggests chance. A view of enjoyment based good fortune feels archaic, since its modern conception is a reward for hard work—plannable, quantifiable and divisible. Ahmed calls this understanding of happiness “a defense against its contingency”. In Diaz’s cinematic worlds, happy accidents in seeing is given full accord and you feel, in the midst of noticing, the quiet rush of the world brushing against your skin.

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  • 2017