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Portrait of an Artist: Lav Diaz

By Will C. VanKoughnett, Contributing Writer

Lav Diaz is a Filipino independent filmmaker whose works primarily focus on contemporary social and political issues and their relations with the individual. He has won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, among other awards. He is currently working on a new film and a book during a fellowship at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The Crimson sat down with Diaz to talk about his practice.

The Harvard Crimson: Could you tell me about the book you’re writing?

Lav Diaz: It has many alterations or incarnations. At first I just wanted to work on something about our praxis in southeast Asia, because we have a very different way of doing cinema—an average filmmaker can make three to five films a year in that region without huge budgets. I know a lot of western filmmakers. Their usual process for the preparation alone will take them two years. Prepare their material, work on some funding, work on some casting, and it’s always that: two years. ... But if there’s no budget, then what are you going to do? They always lack that in the country [of the Philippines] and in the region, so it’s a model of necessity for us, to just do it. ... If something is engaging you, and then you wait, it will be f***ed up. So I thought, what’s the best way to negate this problem, this conundrum?

Around the early ’90s, I was working in New York as a journalist, and that taught me. I saw a lot of independent filmmakers around the area. They bought their 16mm camera, and they shot. When digital came, I said I was going to buy my own camera. The idea [of my book] is from that: a liberated cinema, how we are so different in our ways of doing cinema, and also the idea of not depending on the aesthetics of Hollywood. Cinema is still very young, so why do we have to follow all these so-called rules? The two-hour runtime thing, you know, “You have to make it fast, don’t make it linger.” I say, “Well, no, it’s art. We have to liberate this.” It’s that idea. I’m working on that.

THC: Would you call it theoretical?

LD: No, not really. It’s a mix: theoretical, praxis, perspectives. I cite examples: Malaysian filmmakers, Indonesian filmmakers, my own methodology, and comparing them all. It also connects with the struggle of the region, of our people. When I was writing it, it was becoming a novel.

THC: Do you think of yourself as a filmmaker or as a writer?

LD: No, neither. I’m just engaged. Cinema for me is my medium of engagement on this life, the best way that I can express myself. It’s just a medium to me. I thought to call myself more of a poet than a filmmaker. This is just the medium that’s easiest for me. I can do it, I can control it. ... I don’t even understand cinema at all. It’s like, okay, this is my form of engagement in life, as simple as that. If anybody asks me, what is cinema? It’s poetry, man. That’s it.

THC: But then maybe the book you’re writing is an answer. You’re working through that question.

LD: Actually this is the first chapter: “What is cinema?” Just like André Bazin. It all comes to that.

THC: In your films, you talk about discourse as something that must cooperate with practice, and I’m curious how being here at Harvard, in this academic community, fits into this cooperation. How do you like it here?

LD: I love it. At first I felt like an imposter. What was I doing here? I’m not an academic, although I graduated from college. I come from a family of farmers and some teachers. How could I immerse in this kind of milieu? It’s very mental, all intellect, all discourse. But I’ve adjusted well now. I can see the imperative––the importance of having these kinds of institutions in the world. It’s like inside [the world], looking in. I can see more the importance of aesthetics, of cinema, of engaging life and using the medium. I can see now how important cinema is. I can really see it now, very well. I have very intelligent and very engaging co-fellows. And they taught me that we must keep engaging life, keep engaging things. That’s academics. It can teach you that.

THC: Do you see your cinema as a popular art? Do you think about your audiences?

LD: I don’t know where it will lead me. I’m just telling stories anyways, so if somebody discovers my work, then it’s just about that. I think more of my audiences [as part of the practice]: the issue of engagement, the issue of discourse, but I don’t think of them in the sense that I want to do this for them, to please them, to make more money. ... It’s so nasty and dirty to think of cinema as just a product. I want it to be like what we’re doing now. You are here because of my cinema, so we’re talking about it. And we’re not just talking about cinema now. We’re talking about life, trying to question everything. That dynamic, I want to have that with my audience. Just a simple discourse with my audience—or with my grandson, maybe, someday.

THC: I have to ask about the current political situation, both here and in the Philippines.

LD: Everything is fucked up. It’s an abyss opened up, a slide towards barbarism every day.

THC: Before it happened, could you see it coming?

LD: Of course, if you see that there’s this huge wall of ignorance. Making cinema allows me to go to the countryside, to the islands. The biggest issue I can see is ignorance, this huge wall of ignorance, and it creates all these massive things. I’m always afraid that things are going to happen, and it’s happening. It’s our failure, it’s our debacle. I haven’t done anything yet [to confront it]. You see what’s happening all over the world, and you’re just this very, very tiny thing, the filmmaker or the poet or the writer or anybody. We have to confront life more. The biggest issue is that we have to destroy the wall of ignorance. ... Just yesterday alone, come on, just read the news. In Egypt, two bombings. In Sweden the other day, the truck. The bombing in Syria. It’s actually just going down. It’s an abyss of barbarism, and you wonder, it’s already the 21st century! You look at Harvard, where everything is moving forward intellectually, but then the world is moving away, sliding back to the age of darkness.

THC: But maybe art, or engagement, can hold it together?

LD: If you’re a songwriter, keep writing great songs. If you’re a writer, keep writing something that matters, that matters to you. If you’re a dancer, your physicality. This is the way.

THC: I have some questions that are more specific. I’m not going to bring up duration, because…

LD: It’s been done!

THC: …it’s been done…

LD: Ad infinitum.

THC: One of the reasons I asked about audience is because I find there’s something in your films that’s retaliating against the current trend in attention span. The other day I was on the bus, and there was a girl in front of me on her phone. She would refresh the screen, see all of her Snapchats, and just thumb quickly through them. I couldn’t process it because the images were moving so quickly. And then the weirdest part was that later she was watching a YouTube video, GoPro footage of people on vacation. I could see the rhythm of the cutting. And it was the same rhythm that she had been flipping through the images on Snapchat! So as I’m trying to think about your films, I think that although you say you want this engagement from your audience, your films seem like a retaliation, a reaction against that frenzied relationship with time. Do you imagine people watching your movies on a phone, or on a laptop? Is that something that you do, or do you only watch films in the theatre?

LD: I also watch DVDs, because I attend a lot of festivals where I’m part of the jury, and I want to be fair with the filmmaker, so I watch the films twice, in full, sometimes three times. You have to see it in full, to experience it. But what you described is part of the new culture. Everything is on fast-forward. Everybody is being selective now. And it reflects on life. They’re selective with truth, selective with facts, selective with events, so everything is just compartmentalized. That’s life now. Everything is breaking down because of that. You cannot unify time and space.

THC: But that’s exactly what the long takes in your films are doing. It feels like resistance.

LD: My kind of cinema is about “being there.” It’s very different from being subordinated to the action of Tom Cruise in a film. You’re not being there. You’re just following the movement of this actor. With my cinema, you’re being there. You’re part of it. You’re sucked into this universe, so you engage with the whole thing. You can see even the movement of the leaves, the movement of the ants, and it’s so different from being subordinated to the action of the main character. That’s what the girl was doing: trying to find the action.

THC: You have to give up control in order to engage.

LD: That’s true.

THC: In terms of the long take, it’s not always clear for the audience what to think about. In a more mainstream film, you can see what you’re being told to think. But with the long take there’s so much screen time in which there’s no obvious directive.

LD: You don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s like life.

THC: Sometimes there’s an initial reaction of “nothing is happening,” and then 30 seconds later you have to think about something else. Because you can’t only think “nothing is happening.” It’s almost like a meditation, a meditative space where the audience is projecting something onto the screen, their action, their story.

LD: It’s giving you that space also.

THC: Do you meditate?

LD: For me, doing cinema is a form of meditation. Doing art is a very spiritual thing. That’s what I want to give to my audience, to actually see. That’s cinema: your own life. It’s like you said. You wonder during this very long scene. After a while, you’re thinking of something else before you go back to the film. So you’re being there, in life. ... If you’re thinking differently than just following the movement because of these fast cuts, if you negate that, then you’ll think more, you’ll be reflective, so it’s really very meditative, actually. All of this is very physical. ... I’m trying to tell you, “Hey, hey, reflect on life. You’re not just in the movies. You’re in this very real place.”

THC: It sounds so obvious when you say it, but I feel like it’s really easy to miss the point.

LD: Of course! The very first thing that you do [when watching my movies] is that you’ll be very resentful of the form. “Come on, man, it’s so boring! Nine hours of cinema? Eight hours? Four hours? Why not cut it into an hour and a half?” It happened with the new film, when they showed it at the film archive here. One of the fellows really liked the film, but at the same time he told me he could cut the film into two hours. I said, “Really? I can give you the footage. We’ll see.” I actually told him that. He’s a really intelligent guy. I like him a lot. But when he told me that, I was shocked. … I’m waiting for him to send me his cut. It’s really another thing when someone says, “I like your film, but I want to cut it to a more manageable length.” What is a manageable length? It’s another form of questioning existence. Are you really sure with your life? No! There’s no certainty. You have to open it. Certainty is death. It’s f**king death. Certainty is fascism. It’s fundamentalism, extremism. You’re very certain with the length? It’s very feudal. It’s Hollywood. They imposed that, you know.

THC: Yeah, sorry, I said I wasn’t going to bring up duration. Do you think you’ll ever return to shooting on film? Do you think it’s historical now? Do you think it’s a luxury?

LD: I love celluloid, but I’ve come to terms with it now. I’ve grappled already with the issue of being pure with cinema, of “Oh, I don’t want to do digital.” Again, I have to embrace life. The medium is evolving so fast. There’s a new thing every three months. Technology gives you that, and you have to embrace it. Otherwise you’re not part of the evolution of the medium. But it’s also economics. If I have money, I want to make cinema with 16mm film again, or even with super 8. I want to see those images again. I want to see the real grain, the jerks, all these things, even the noise of the camera. It gives me the feeling of being reborn. I want to go back to that, being tactile with this iron, this very heavy thing, because those are the first things that I used. The Arri 2c, I want to go back to those guys. So it’s basic economics. Celluloid is beautiful for me, but you also need money and time.

THC: For me it has something to do with the experience of time. There’s something about the photograph that expresses the past in a way, but the digital image is more about the present, more of a currency. You can manipulate it, you can dispose of it, you can revive it. It’s an image created more for sharing than for recording.

LD: It all depends on the individual perspective now. How do you deal with it? is this thing going to last? For me, I want to leave something that’s … I don’t want to use the word “timeless,” but I want people to be able to go back to it. I still want to read the poems of Rilke, Whitman. I want to go back to those things. If you look at the technology now, there’s the danger [of losing old works]. It’s changing every three months, so how do you keep it? So you see the importance of archiving, of the museums. I went to London just a few weeks ago, where they showed the print of my old film “Batang West Side on 35mm, and then they showed the new one, “The Woman Who Left,” and there’s a huge difference.

THC: Then again, while digital is not as good for archiving, it allows the agility to be able to just go out and shoot, and that’s political.

LD: It is happening now. A lot of young filmmakers here are doing it. They buy a camera and they shoot, and you can see it on YouTube. They’re so engaged with the new technology. It’s a new culture of doing things that’s destroying all these bad habits of the institution, the super-institution, of cinema.

THC: Can we talk about new cinema? Who’s exciting to you in cinema right now?

LD: I haven’t seen a lot because I stopped going to festivals now, and I’m just reading things.

THC: What are you reading?

LD: I’m more into reading novels now. Virginia Woolf, Nabokov, Platonov, George Saunders, going back to the late Benedict Anderson which is history. I’m writing a lot also. But it’s all helping me with my cinema. It gives me that impetus, that energy, when I read all these works. I was reading “The Waves” by Virginia Woolf last night. It’s beautiful the way she works with discourse and words. Platonov, in “The Foundation Pit,” has a way of saying things that’s different from all the other works in Russia. It gives you that … I don’t want to use the word, but we have to use it, hope. Just like with your question a while ago, can we survive all this madness? I think we just keep moving, pushing things. The real problem is ignorance. So it’s all about re-educating people. We have to go back to the truth, to really understanding the facts. That’s why we’re losing. It’s happening because we don’t want to see the truth. That’s a big problem. A very, very intelligent person can slide back because of that.

It’s very energizing to read novels now, because you lay low, you have to rest, and then you start thinking, and you can see the spaces. There are still spaces in life. It’s not just ISIS, not just the Middle East. There’s still the sea, there’s still the mountains. You can still see the trees. I was walking in Queens yesterday, just walking and walking, and I passed a Best Buy. I went in, and there’s a new camera, there’s a new tripod, and it just engaged me again. You discover the little things and it gives you hope. And then you hold the work of this writer, and you read him, you read her, and they give you something. It’s like being transported to other times when you discover the spaces in Tolstoy, in Dostoevsky, or in Hemingway. You think of Paris now, which is very dark. Everything is uncertain and any time it could just explode. But when you read “A Moveable Feast,” when Hemingway was struggling in Paris, it was beautiful. There’s hope.

THC: Can you talk about the film you’re making now?

LD: It’s called “When the Wives Are Gone.” It’s a film noir. So it’s a gangster movie set on this island, but it will reflect the whole power thing in the country. When I came here in September, I was reading all these news in the Philippines and here, and I was so isolated in my room and I had a guitar there, so I started writing a lot of songs. I was able to write 20 to 25 songs from September to December. So I said to my funder that I was not going to do the noir, that let’s shoot a musical. The film is about what’s happening in the Philippines, the political condition, so we cannot get the permit to shoot in the Philippines. We go to Malaysia, because Malaysia is very similar to the Philippines. We Filipinos are still racially Malay. So it’s a musical, set in the late ’70s. It’s a love story set in the very darkest moments of martial law. That’s the film.

—Staff writer Tianxing V. Lan can be reached at

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