A Cinematic Exorcism: An Interview with Lav Diaz

The Filipino director discusses his prize-winning film which debuted in competition at the Berlinale.
Daniel Kasman

Lav Diaz. Photo © Bradley Liew.

"Cinema shows another world, a different world," says the man who, in 1896, first showed the Lumières' cinematograph in the Philippines. These lines are spoken 120 years later in Lav Diaz's majestic A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, all eight hours of which premiered in competition at the Berlinale in an audaciously prominent gesture of support from the festival for this Filipino director's sprawling, deeply political epic of storytelling. That different world of the Lumières, that which the cinema can show, is precisely what A Lullaby envisions: the previously untold, unseen history of the outskirts of the 1896 Philippine Revolution. In other words, this movie's other world is the world, but one without such images, sounds and movement—until now.

This saga shot in somber, high contrast black and white of fierce crispness and tremendous stature alternates between two groups, one all men and the other mostly women, who leave their society behind to plunge into a jungle haunted by the turmoil between the Spanish colonizers and local "pocket revolutions." The men's group is a story loosely adapted from Philippine national hero José Rizal's 1891 novel El filibusterismo, following the path of an injured man with a dark and conflicted influence on the revolution, who travels along with a wayward, uncommitted Filipino student. They journey from the city—where Rizal's execution at the hands of the Spanish colonialists opens the film—into the violent wilderness to search for recovery, ideological focus, and perhaps salvation. In the film's other strand, adapted from real historical figures, three women look for Andrés Bonifacio, one of the principle founders of the revolution against Spain: his wife, who was raped at the hands of a rival group of the insurgency, a traitor whose actions causes the slaughter of many Filipinos, and a mother whose children were killed by the Spanish. They wander the hills and valleys of the jungle, searching for Bonifacio's body, and along the way encounter taunting and misleading mythological creatures—a wonderfully disturbing trio who prance and make horse noises—as well as a crypto-Christian cult which worships a kidnapped virgin and searches for another Filipino legend who may save the people, that of the god-like Bernardo Carpio.

A Lullaby charts these two journeys away from today's enshrined history of the era and into a psycho-landscape of anguish, distress, doubt, and desperate solidarity. Its method is to alternate between histrionic performances—dialogs which introduce the audience to the characters and their import in the related history, and several incredibly moving songs sung and poems recited—and pure physical ordeal, crouching, crawling, climbing, dragging and carrying oneself and each other through the terrain, a realm bridging nature and the fantastic, electrically alive with whipping gales and spilling fog. Thus we experience, often in real time, the errant questing, the lost hope, the savage physical yearning of these nascent mothers and fathers of revolution. And we likewise hear, in archly styled recitation, some of what's at stake for these people, stakes as grandiose as independence and nationhood but also as intimate and scarred as children wrested from a woman's arms, a rape's trauma, a gut-wrenching, soul-searching injury, and that nobly pathetic but common of afflictions, the hesitating cowardice of the overly intelligent and sensitive. Memories of the colonized city fades as we are stranded in the wilderness, watching a search for atonement and a reason to keep going into a better tomorrow.

"Silence is denying the truth," someone says in the film long after the introduction of the cinema to the islands. Lav Diaz's film is the precise opposite of such "silence": it is speaking, in cinema, hard truth in fact and psyche. His long takes each create a world, one full of space and equally so of time; his characters, invented and real, placed mid-ground to inhabit this continuum in body and spirit. "Nothing can match the depths of doubt," intones a final voice over. "Nothing can match the depths of horror. Nothing match the depths of sorrow." With long takes strung one after the other, these heroes and villains, strong and weak alike, traverse these worlds and unite them, building something bigger, grander, and filling the silence with their souls. 


I sat down to chat with the director, who was surrounded by his busy and joyful cast, the day after A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery premiered at the Berlinale, where it took home the Alfred Bauer prize.

NOTEBOOK: There's a sequence in the film where you show the introduction of cinema to the Philippines—and the moving images frighten the audience, who flee the screening. Is A Lullaby also, in way, supposed to scare us?

LAV DIAZ: Yeah, it's some sort of...the word is 'exorcise.' I want Filipinos to watch the film to exorcise themselves of all these maladies. First, a lot of people don't know this part of our history any more. They know the heroes but they don't contextualize their knowledge—it's just that. On that level. They don't know that this thing happened in our history, they don't even want to read it. I think cinema is the best form for that, now. To work on it, contemplate it and exorcise the demons of all these post-colonial issues that affect our country now.

NOTEBOOK: I liked this synchronization of the revolution with the birth of cinema, but not just cinema but also a kind of national Filipino art, including novels, poetry and music. All of a sudden, in the first 30 minutes of the movie, it feels like there's a climax of a newly national self-expression.

DIAZ: The greatest Filipino poem was written the night before the poet was killed: Dr. José Rizal wrote Mi último adiós, he hid it in a lamp, and before he died he told his sister—in English so that the Spanish couldn't understand it—"there's something in the lamp, and there's also something in the shoes." The sister and the mother got the lamp and there was this really good poem he wrote that very night. We don't know what happened to the shoes, because they took all his belongings, his naked body was hidden in a cemetery, they'd been looking for it for two months, and when they found the shoes the paper had already disintegrated. What could have been written? But Mi último adiós was in the lamp, so we saved that beautiful poem. It's very historic, also, that we're showing the film here, in Berlin. The greatest Filipino novel, Noli Me Tángere, written by Dr. José Rizal, that ignited the revolution, was written in Berlin. He finished the book in February 27, 1887, here! He was starving, he was dying of hunger, he was sick during the winter, and he was writing the book in some cellar. A good Filipino friend found him and lent him the 300 pesos and he found a cheap printing house and printed the 2000 copies that became the Philippine Revolution.

NOTEBOOK: It's really amazing that a book can start something like that.

DIAZ: Yeah! That's what really ignited the whole nationhood thing in our country. Up until now, it's still the book, the bible of our race, Noli Me Tángere.

NOTEBOOK: Dr. Rizal's second book, El Filibusterismo, forms the basis of much of A Lullaby.

DIAZ: The El Fili, I just borrowed three characters.

NOTEBOOK: The male characters.

DIAZ: Yeah: Simoun, Basilio, and Isagani. But Simoun is also the Juan Crisóstomo Ibarra character from Noli Me Tángere—he became Simoun in El Fili. It's just like The Count of Monte Cristo: he went to Europe for years and came back as this vengeful man, trying to conflagrate the country so the masses will arise. But my treatment for the film is not really part of El Fili, I just put in the missing parts. El Fili is not as great as Noli Me Tángere, but El Fili is one of the greatest political novels I’ve ever read. It’s where Dr. José Rizal put everything about how we can create a Filipino nation, that a revolution is needed, that we need to purge ourselves from everything Spanish so we can move on. Because if you read El Fili, there's something that's missing: why Simoun was injured. I filled in that part.

NOTEBOOK: It's interesting you say that you wanted to fill in what was missing, because the film struck me, as someone obviously very ignorant of Filipino history, as a story that was indeed filling a gap, whether that means filming a conspiratorial discussion between two important figures never recorded by history, or filming what a physical experience was like during the revolution. I wanted to ask about this time period, the milieu of these characters: are these stories that have ever been told in cinema in the Phillippines?

DIAZ: No, no. They've been told, but it's very Hollywood-ish. Heroic people, not human beings. That's not true!

NOTEBOOK: I don't know if anyone is heroic in this film.

DIAZ: In the Philippines, they're seen as warriors and everything is a spectacle. You don't actually see them as human beings, that they have these contradictions and dualities in life. Including the dark side, the bad side. You know, it's one of the darkest periods of our history. A lot of cinemas are done that way: heroic.

NOTEBOOK: In the film, it seems like all the heroes are off screen, probably dead. Everyone is searching for heroes.

DIAZ: You don't see them! They are hovering there. They are in the psyche of these characters. You don't even see spectacle, the battles, you only feel it. You only feel it.

NOTEBOOK: There's this section of the film with the men, which is based a bit on this book by Dr. Rizal. And then there's this other half of the film, with the three women. I was very struck by these figures: the wife and the mother, someone who's been raped, someone who's been a traitor, a spectrum of experience in the world and how women where both active in and abused by the revolution. Unlike the men, they are real historic figures, but did you also base their stories on a literary source?

DIAZ. No, these are real characters. Gregoria de Jesús, the wife, that thing actually happened.

NOTEBOOK: But them coming together in this way?

DIAZ: I invented that. Caesaria Belarmino is actually a real character, the one who betrayed the great battle. I tried to converge these people in some way. The forest is a great forum for that. One universe where you can put them together. And then Isagani and Simoun are traversing the same forest, and also the mythological figures trying to work on them—it's a great, great milieu for that. Mixing them up there and having this great discourse on our history.

NOTEBOOK: A forum or a stage seems a good analogy for your forest.

DIAZ: It's like Socrates [laughs], you converge there and discourse on it. So this is the Socrates Forest!

NOTEBOOK: The images of the forest were incredibly beautiful and I wanted to ask you a very basic question which about the difficulty of shooting in nature. When you're photographing a space, a room, there are certain restrictions which limit one's choices of where to put the camera and what images to shoot. But in such a forest the options seem limitless. For a film where so much of it takes place in the wilderness, how do you choose how to stage a scene?

DIAZ: Most of the time it's common sense and instinct. Like you said, you can point the camera anywhere and it's good. I combine that, I plot the movements, I see the spaces, maybe they'll have better movement here, also I consider the placement of the camera—because I do that. It's geometry and physics most of the time [laughs]. When you start a canvas it's blank, but then the figures start coming out and then they configure themselves into a whole. So it's still very scientific at some point. You start in a very abstract way: the emotion and the feel. But at some point it becomes physics and geometry, because you see the movement: "Ah! The camera better move here, you can put the strongest light from there from behind the tree..."—and in this way it comes out. It's a bit of a puzzle, but once you block it, it's easy.

NOTEBOOK: I can imagine the puzzle considering just how much of A Lullaby takes place in the forest. If you had ten shots there, okay, no problem, but...

DIAZ: That's the thing: we shot a lot in the forest. I couldn't put them all in. I become the editor at the end of the film, so I'm not the director any more. It's a very different function and discipline. Even if this scene or this shot is more beautiful than that one, but that will create a better rhythm, then I'll choose that one. It's the editor in me now, rather than the director. I have this duality during the filming. I have to be ruthless. It's a nice dynamic, like Jekyll and Hyde [laughs], or some monsters, a multiple personality thing.

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of monsters, the demons are such a tremendous highlight in the film. Early on, the Spanish Captain General is instructing these mythological creatures to encourage superstition in the people, to encourage the propagation of myths and legends.

DIAZ: It's a true legend of our country. This is the story of Bernardo Carpio, the knight in shining armor that the people are waiting to be emancipated by. They really believe in Bernardo Carpio, that he was imprisoned in a cave between two mountains and every time there's an earthquake in this area they believe Bernardo is trying to free himself. But the legend says that the Spaniards, to contain this hero, they invited the Tikbalang, the enchanters, to capture him. People believe that, especially the Tagalogs. They believe it really happened. Until the Americans came, they believed that Bernardo Caprio would really come and save them. Even the religious believe, it's the kind of myth-making in our country that still exists now.

NOTEBOOK: Do you think it's a dangerous thing, that the practical facts of the revolution are in a way obscured by this mixing of it with mythology?

DIAZ: Yes, definitely, definitely. You remember the scene when the priest, the cult leader—he's a real character—was promising his people that they will cut their enemies with magical ropes? 700 Katipuneros died that day. The Spaniard shot them like chickens. It was a massacre, because we believed in it. So these things happen, the issue of these beliefs in these very abstract part of our lives: myth-making, myths, it's very, very imposing in the Philippine society. It imposes on us. And [Ferdinand] Marcos, then, was very good at that. He created this myth that he had nine lives, you know? He even produced a film, when he was a senator, it's called Written by Fate [Maharlika, 1970], and you see in a lot of parts of the film he was fighting the Japanese alone, a whole battalion alone! After the showing of that film he won by a landslide. It's cinema! He used cinema, it's myth-making. That he was a superhero, he even invented that he was given 29 awards during the war by the Americans—he created all these myths, and the won. Myth-making is very huge in our society.

NOTEBOOK: I must ask something, then. I see why you've included these mythological forces, but in a way doesn't this just reinforce the mystery?

DIAZ: Yes, I wanted that. Part of it is to reinforce the mystery. At the same time, it's giving them this awareness that myth-making will really effect the way we work on our lives in the country. Especially now, it's happening. It's the campaign period now for the presidential election, it's coming in 80 days and we have five candidates who are creating all these myths again about themselves. The apocryphal will become the truth. Even [Emilio] Aguinaldo is a big hero because of that. Aguinaldo is a big hero around the country. He killed [Andrés] Bonifacio, his men raped Gregoria de Jesús, he killed another hero, and because the family is very powerful they were able to revise history, they were able to rehabilitate him, and he's now a national hero. Marcos is going that way, they are rehabilitating them. There's a revisionist movement in the country, they are revising and revising history and it becomes...the truth. It's very dangerous. It comes from that, the myth-making side of our culture.

NOTEBOOK: How do you work with your actors? Especially in the two different, let's says, kinds of scenes in this film: long stretches of dialog and strong, wordless physical performances.

DIAZ: We rehearse well, but at the same time I give them lots of freedom. I'm really strict with the dialog. If you miss one line it contextualizes the whole thing in a different way. But on the other hand, once the rehearsal is good, I tell them to be free. I tell them they can move anywhere but to just be very careful with the lines.

NOTEBOOK: In scenes of silence, where someone is arduously walking across the landscape or merely collapsed on the ground, wrought with anguish, are simply telling them what to do or are you helping them get into those places?

DIAZ: It's different, it's both. Most of the time, I show them the frame, so they know where they can go. To show them the canvas now, I ask them to look at the frame: you are free to move around here, or not, this is the frame. It's good for them to look at it and reflect on the frame. And I give them time. I say, "now that you've seen the frame, tell me when you're ready." It's very instructional, actually, at some point. Especially for actors who know my process, know my method, it's easier for them. They know it's going to be long and they won't be impatient. A lot of new actors in my cinema are impatient, "why are the takes so long? Why not move the camera close to shoot just my face or show just my hand?" But when they realize it's just one take they say, "I will give my best take on my first take."

NOTEBOOK: What was it like to put these actors as a reincarnation of these revolutionary figures? I can imagine it almost as a kind of possession.

DIAZ: Yes, yes! The women, some of them actually experienced that. They become the character. They are loosening up and breaking down what's in them. It's very emotional for them. During the process there's that kind of...the real character reincarnating in them at a certain point. You could see it. If the character is from a real character, in the case of Hazel [Orencio], she actually visited the house of Gregoria. I don't know, but she said she felt Gregoria hugging her. Gregoria was in her dreams, always. It's creepy! [Laughs] You can see it, once you say "action," that they actually become the characters. I can see it and I can feel it. Especially once the film is done and it becomes this whole universe.

NOTEBOOK: One of the most important aspects of A Lullaby is forgiveness, of past crimes, betrayals, indecision and mistakes—and admitting these to other people and trying to find salvation for oneself. Salvation not necessarily from God but from the people around you, who are judging what you do in this world. Because, in this film, what you do can impact the entire nation.

DIAZ: Yes. In the case of Gregoria de Jesús—because she was actually raped—after the revolution some historians interviewed her and when they asked her did it happen her answer was really disappointing. She said, "let's forget the past." This heroine who experienced the revolution, was part of it, she struggled very hard, was a great activist before the revolution, but during the American period when the historians asked her if it really happened, she would just say, "let's forget the past." The issue of forgiveness is just hanging there. General Aguinaldo lived long, he died in the 1970s. He kept revising history. The present time, the son of Marcos is running for president, and a lot of people are asking him, "will you ask forgiveness for the sins of your parents?" And he says, "no." When asked if he would apologize for the sins of his father, "what will I apologize for? They didn't do anything. They did good for our country." We still have that denial. The issue of forgiveness, even if it's a hardcore Catholic country, sadly the issue of forgiveness... I liked one of your words, "salvation." The issue of salvation through forgiveness, which is very Catholic, very Christian, is actually far from what's happening. So, it's an ironic thing, this kind of duality and contradiction in our culture where it's hard for people to ask forgiveness or even confront the past. And work on it so we can have some so-called...salvation or emancipation.

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