LIVING TIME, SURVIVING TIME
An Overview of the Life and Films of Lav Diaz
By Jan Philippe V. Carpio
“I could never really believe that any artist could work only for himself, if he knew what he was doing would never be needed by anybody.”
–- Andrei Tarkovsky
Unang Bahagi: Ang Alamat ni Taga Timog (Part One: The Legend of From the South)
Like any young person not wishing to displease someone he admires and looks up to, I nodded my head in agreement. Like any young person wishing to appear older and wiser beyond my years, I nodded my head as if I understood.
“Maguindanao… ang hirap, ang sakit. I’m numbed. Puro iyak at galit na lang ang nagagawa natin.” (Maguindanao… it’s so difficult, it’s so painful. I’m numbed. All we can do is grieve and be angry) (Zafra, 2009).
“I grew up during the Martial Law years. And my experience of Martial Law was very brutal. I was in second year high school when Marcos declared [Republic Act] 1081 upon the land. In Cotabato, the year before the imposition, the pent-up tensions between the Muslims and Christians had exploded into a full-scale war. It was bloody, very bloody, terrifying, horrifying. And it became bloodier during Marcos’ reign of terror. While Christians and Muslims were on a rampage butchering one another left and right, the military entered the scene with an even unheard of fascistic fierceness and cruelty. They’d set up checkpoints in all directions; they’d hamlet communities; they’d be declaring so many areas as no-man’s lands and shooting any person seen at will, no questions asked.”
“My father was really a ‘film maniac’," says Diaz. "We would watch all the movies on Saturday and Sunday, and then we would sleep in the bus station. My mother would be mad at my father because we had mosquito bites all over. That was really my early education on cinema.” (Manrique, 2006).
“Subliminally, my father was my film mentor. He is the quintessential cinephiliac. We were living in the middle of a forest in a far-flung village in Cotabato, Mindanao, but every weekend or [on] holidays we’d never miss [going to] the cinemas. There were four cinemas then in a nearby town, about two hours’ drive from the village, and they’d always show double bills and we’d watch them all and we’d talk about them after watching. And my parents are bookworms and storytellers and teachers. They read and read and read. My father was very much into Russian literature. They are very industrious and giving. So, yes, the dialectics and dynamics of that milieu have had lasting impact on my cinema and my view of this world” (Tioseco, 2006).
“I was stricken with paralysis when I was about eight years old and I couldn’t walk for more than a year. I struggled to relearn how to walk and when I was finally able to walk, I had to deal with a very dysfunctional body motor system—the pain in the bones of the left side of my body, particularly the left foot, remains a recurring problem until today, especially in severe cold and humid conditions. The trauma and shock and stigma stayed with me for so long. It was hell, I tell you” (Tioseco, 2006).
“The nascent Cotabato music scene embraced folk, rock, and eventually punk and Diaz, who was already composing songs by then—in English, Pilipino, Ilonggo and Maguindanao—formed a group called Cotabato. The band played local gigs, for which each member was paid P25 a night, along with a free burger and beer. Their goal was to make it to the rough and tumble Mecca of Pinoy rock, Olongapo City. The game plan was to immerse themselves in the ’Gapo club scene, get good and become the next Juan de la Cruz Band” (Caruncho, 2008).
“Of course I regretted it the next morning, but it was too late. I lost interest in the band. I had a child, got a job. I got interested in literature, and then cinema. But I never stopped writing songs and poems. I can’t stop writing songs and poems—they’re the easiest for me to write” (Caruncho, 2008).
“Manila, Manila, I keep coming back to Manila …”
“We shot three weekends in the squatters’ area in Pasay City called Leveriza, a very dangerous place then. On the last day of our shoot, a man was killed over an argument of his supposed nonpayment of a two-peso turon 5 he ate. Bloody and scary, but we finished the shoot” (Tioseco, 2006).
“Those were different times,” he recalls. “We were living on Basilio St. in España. There was no digital video then. There were 40 of us in Mowelfund fighting over the one 16mm camera. There were seven 8mm cameras but no film. If you were rich you could buy film but a roll of 16mm film was 80 dollars. It was a dead end” (Caruncho, 2008).
“… and even super 8 rolls were kind of expensive, to thrive as a filmmaker meant to go mainstream, the so-called ‘industry.’ And you know, the industry is the status quo and the culture there is very feudal. They protect their turf, they are wary of newcomers especially if you’re ‘schooled’. To break in was hardcore. That’s an understatement; I mean, it is really, really hard. More often, it’s more of swallowing your pride and accepting compromise as a norm. And if you didn’t know anybody, the only route was to write scripts and show them to people or enter them in competitions” (Tioseco, 2006).
“… for six months there was this very strict daily injection and popping of so many pills and tablets and liquids. The doctor warned me that if my lungs weren’t ‘cleared’ after the sixth month, there was a possibility that it would slide into lung cancer. I was high everyday, seeming to float when walking; my skin felt thick, numbed and itchy; sounds in my ears were muffled and magnified; my thoughts would go high speed and slow motion and backward and forward and up and down and east-to-west-to-north-to-south. I could walk for hours, I could go motionless for hours, I could be staring at a cockroach for half a day, people would look weird, my writing bordered on dementia, it was a crazy period. And Mowelfund was located then at the basement of the creepy Manila Bay Film Center of Imelda Marcos. Heard of the stories of the hundreds of workers buried alive there so that the ‘Madame’ could dance with George Hamilton on time, listen to the Russian piano prodigy and sing “Dahil sa ‘Yo” on a yacht going to Corregidor? Imelda is the supreme magic realist being” (Tioseco, 2006).
“In Manila, I had reached a dead-end. I was practically killing myself working in newspapers, my last [job] being a deskman in a Tagalog tabloid, and [I was also] submitting scripts in television serials, writing unproduced screenplays, writing scripts for komiks6. I was a book salesman while studying law; I wrote serious stuff that won Palancas; I won screenwriting and essay writing contests. But for what, my family was starving. We lived in Krus na Ligas, a squatters’ area inside UP Diliman, cramped in a tiny, rented room; we had to sleep in one small bed, the five of us—my wife and my three kids—we had to put chairs on the edges to keep our feet from dangling and be bitten to smithereens by ghetto mosquitoes and rats. All I could do was curse in silence while looking at my friends from film school shooting while I was working as a full-time family man. I didn’t regret being a family man because I love my children very much but like I said, we were at a dead-end; there was no relief in sight. And there was no digital then. At some point, I thought I could never do my films. Abandoning music was already a very painful experience (I destroyed my guitar and burned all my songs) and if I were to abandon cinema, I didn’t know what I would do. I couldn’t afford to kill my soul twice” (Tioseco, 2006).
“… If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere …”
“I arrived in New York on the 21st of July 1992. Fate brought me there. It wasn’t planned at all. A commissioned video documentary I did on the street kids of Manila was invited to participate in a multimedia exhibit-tour of key areas of the US. When I got to New York, a Filipino newspaper invited me to be part of their staff. I stayed and worked as one of their editors. New York provided me some freedom, aesthetically and economically. My decision to live in New York has been all about pursuing greater heights for my art while liberating my family from the clutches of poverty” (Tioseco, 2006).
“Time to ask forgiveness from Mowelfund: I stole the only copy [of Banlaw] before I left for the US in 1992. My act wasn’t deliberate though. I visited Mowelfund and I saw our works scattered on this long table. I mean, the films were scattered there—16s, super 8s, video tapes—and you know Mowelfund then, the doors were open twenty-four hours, and people were coming in and out, stoned, drunk, gaudy, haughty, hungry, horny and totally fucked up, or fucking each other, and spaced out. I saw Banlaw lying on the edge. It was actually on the edge of the table in its utter blackness and smallness, and a slight push would push it to oblivion. I was scared; I might as well get hold of it; I reckoned I would return it in better times. I grabbed it and slipped it in my bag. When I got to New York, it helped me connect with the struggling independents in the East Village; I have this badge, [this] little crude film to show them. It even saved me from going hungry; we’d do underground showings of shorts, in basements literally, and ask for donations. I kept transferring. I lost it in the process, in one of the basements in Jersey City, I believe” (Tioseco, 2006).
“The interim five years in New York, before he was joined by his family, Diaz considers as “defining years.” “[Being in New York] was an accident, but it was also fortunate because, there, my perspective on cinema was solidified: that one should never compromise,” says Diaz. He stayed in East Village, a virtual commune of “struggling artists,” hobnobbing with such people as Jonathan Larson, the creator of the musical Rent. To complete his apprenticeship, he buried himself in film books and attended film retrospectives whenever he could, learning from such masters as Welles, Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Bresson” (Manrique, 2006).
“I was sitting on a bench in New York, one snowy day, and had lived, until then, the bohemian life. I had just gotten the news that my sister died. They had buried her without telling me. There and then, I realized that life is short. Just do what you have to do. Just put everything into praxis” (Manrique, 2006).
Jan Philippe “JP” V. Carpio is a writer, filmmaker, performer and teacher living and creating in Metro Manila,
• (“Kagadanan sa banwaan ning mga engkanto”) – Death in the Land of Encantos, 2007
• Melancholia, 2008
• Agonistes, work-in-progress
Caruncho, E. S. (2008, October 12). To Hell and Back with Lav Diaz. Sunday Inquirer Magazine. Retrieved February 18, 2010 from http://showbizandstyle.inquirer.net/sim/sim/view/20081012-165978/To-Hell-and-Back-with-Lav-Diaz
Manrique, D. (2006, September 17). Lav Diaz: A Portrait of the Artist as a Filmmaker. from http://www.pinoyfilm.com/lav-diaz-a-portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-filmmaker
Tioseco, A. (2006, January 30). A Conversation with Lav Diaz: Indictment and Empowerment of the Individual: The Modern Cinema of Lav Diaz. Retrieved February 19, 2010 from http://criticine.co /interview_article.php?id=21
Zafra, J. (2009, December 22). Lav Diaz, filmmaker from Maguindanao, on Maguindanao. from http://www.jessicarulestheuniverse.com/2009/12/22/lav-diaz-filmmaker-from-maguindanao-on-maguindanao/
Wikipedia. (2009, December 2). from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lav_Diaz
Wikipedia. (2010, February 12). from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lavrentiy_Beria
Sorry having trouble formatting the spaces.
It was supposed to be a “short” introduction, but fittingly, like Lav’s work, it seems to have ended up into a long overview of his life and work compiled from online sources as well as my own personal encounters with Lav.
It’s a monster as his work is, but I hope it’s acceptable.
I’ll reformat it. My apologies.
Looking forward to reading this, even if Diaz’s films never make it to the US!
Thank you. I’m creating a better formatted version of the piece at my multiply site. I’ll post the link here.
LIVING TIME, SURVIVING TIME: An Overview of the Life and Films of Lav Diaz (Part 1 of 3)
Thank you for this. I don’t hold my breath waiting for his work to make it to these shores, but Diaz is a massive blip on my radar nonetheless.
And thank you so much for supporting Lav’s work.
His works have been screened in some US cities like San Francisco and New York before.
Parts 2 and 3 to follow here and at my multiply site.
Lav is busy struggling to finish his latest work AGONISTES.
I told him I could schedule the 21 questions interview with him when he’s done.
Incredible. Do you want to handle the interview yourself? Or would it be easier to use the interview application (i.e. do it by remote, so he can do it on his own time)?
Any possible suggestions for questions you folks might want to ask him are greatly welcome.
Good day Tobias.
Where can I or Lav find the interview application?
(I’m not sure I’ll have the time later on to handle the interview, so at least there should be an option. He does have internet access.)
I have to create a password for him, set up some space on the server to record: and then we mail a locked url and password to him. At his end it opens in a web browser and he reads each question one by one and answers them to camera. He can do as many takes as he likes until he is satisifed with the answer he has given. Then each video answer is saved and stored separately. When it’s done, Garage editors step in, connect all the pieces, and it gets embedded into the Garage films list, from where it can be moved about the web.
So I need final, definitive questions. Email me: then we can make this official, and we all (Laz, you, me) do the introductions, put wider context to the Cinema 21/TEN festival project and all the fine details.
Okay Tobias. I’ll work on the questions ASAP.
A very infomative article about a filmmaker I was not aware of. Thanks.
I’ve seen one of his films, “Heremias” which is an extraordinary piece of work (9 hours of it!). I’ve been dying to see “Batang West Side”.
Bookmark for reading later, thx for bringing our attention to Diaz.
> You’re welcome Francisco.
> Hi Yuki, Thanks.
> Hello Irvin. Heremias is Lav’s best work I feel and my favorite.
Batang Westside is unfortunately harder to come by since Lav doesn’t own the work and there are undisclosed issues with the producer which makes a print for a screening difficult to come by.
I just read this fascinating and insightful text a second time, and want to thank you for bringing us closer to Lav Diaz. I wasn’t aware of the hardships he had to face before his breakthrough as a filmmaker, and think that his sensibility for human suffering and valuation of life might be directly related to his personal experiences. He is without a doubt one of the most striking contemporary directors who developed a unique artistic approach, and your writing also makes one comprehend that it was a true fortune that he didn’t decide to give up making films. His Death in the Land of Encantos actually reminded me of Tarkovsky and Mizoguchi which you cite among his main influences, but it also heavily differs, the documentary approach brought to that film as well as compelling moments of contemplation and repetition make it unlike any film I have seen before. I found a great interview with Lav Diaz in which he explains how it came to the shooting of Death in the Land of Encantos which can be found here. He is one of the directors whose work I intend to study thoroughly, and hope that distribution issues for some of his mayor works will soon be resolved, ince it is still virtually impossible to get to see some of these. Lav Diaz’s films deserve much more attention than they are currently getting, and I’m sure that for many people who regard art “as a progressive venue to seek the truth, to seek justice, to search for greater beauty” as Diaz puts it in the interview I mentioned, checking out his filmmography would be a wonderful discovery. In that sense, I’m glad that you helped to shine a light on his life and work, and hope that his films will soon be more discussed on this site.
Thank you so much for your heartfelt and detailed comments on the text about Lav.
Parts 2 and 3 to follow
And what you wrote here:
> I wasn’t aware of the hardships he had to face before his breakthrough as a filmmaker, and think that his sensibility for human suffering and valuation of life might be directly related to his personal experiences.
coincides with a lot of what I am going to discuss in the continuing parts and when we get to the individual films. I heartily agree with you about how directly related his work is to his personal experience. Much of what is written about the works – that even though they do touch on “grand subjects” like nationhood, politics, justice and the like – they do not factor in how deeply personal it is for Lav.
I personally feel Heremias is the closest portrait of that side of him which holds all his doubts, weakness, insecurities, and loneliness.
I will most certainly forward your comment to Lav and I do hope we can get that interaction with him going on this site.
(As a side note your comment is greatly appreciated because he told me once that most of the hate mail he gets is from Filipinos, our own countrymen. I sarcastically wonder what’s so threatening and disgusting about a man who makes 9 hour films that you can complain about without even bothering to see and experience.)
Thank you so much for caring.
trying to stay true
P.S. Yes, that’s one of the better interviews on Lav with the late critic Alexis Tioseco who Lav was very close to personally.
FYI, but I suppose most of you might have already seen them, snippets of Lav’s work are on youtube.
- 3 scenes from Heremias (spoiler alert! but they are amazing especially number 2)
- Encantos “trailer”
- 1 sequence from Melancholia
I really hope to discover some of his work in the future, sounds very promising.
Now that some of Costa’s major work is coming out here, and thanks to this introduction, Diaz is my number one must see modern filmmaker. Thank you.
Criterion needs to work their asses off to put Diaz’s works into their collection!
@JP CarpioBatang Westside is unfortunately harder to come by since Lav doesn’t own the work and there are undisclosed issues with the producer which makes a print for a screening difficult to come by.
Oh, yes! I was gonna check out the screening of the film at the CineManila Film Festival but the print never arrived and they had to cancel it. I saw “Milk of Sorrow” instead.
To Mike Spence: Thank you as well Mike. Hope more and more people get to experience his work as he is sorely underappreciated or ridiculed (as most true artists are) in our own country.
To Beneezy: Haha.“working their asses off” is very true for criterion. I’m not well versed in DVD or Blu Ray professional compression technology, but I wonder how many Criterion DVDs it would take to fit let’s say Death in the Land of the Encantos in.
To Irvin Contreras: Oh, you’re from Manila? Where are you based? I’m in Makati.
@Irvin Oh, yes! I was gonna check out the screening of the film at the CineManila Film Festival but the print never arrived and they had to cancel it. I saw “Milk of Sorrow” instead.
I was there too Irvin! I remember when the organizers (I alsomost of the people who bought tickets were in the room where the organizers were stationed, beside the cineplex) finally announced that they weren’t going to show Batang West Side I was walking in Bonifacio High Street and I could see Lav Diaz across Fully Booked getting ready for the screening of his Agonistes; and it was really apparent that he had heard the news of what happened to the Batang West Side screening due to the look on his face. I’ve seen Batang West Side before and it is one of the greatest films I have ever seen, and it’s an outrage that a scheduled screening of this masterpiece had to be dropped so suddenly.