Long Story Long: An Introduction to Lav Diaz's "Free Cinema"

An overview of the career of Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz, who desires to bring to the screen the struggles of his fellow countrymen.
Michael Guarneri

MUBI is proud to present the first-ever online retrospective of renowned Filipino auteur Lav Diaz. To give audiences the proper time to spend immersed in Diaz’s cinema, MUBI will debut one film each month during the retrospective.

Illustration by Leah Bravo

Filmmaker Lavrente Indico Diaz, named after Soviet statesman Lavrentiy Beria (1899-1953), was born on December 30th 1958 in the municipality of Datu Paglas, province of Maguindanao, Mindanao Island, Southern Philippines. The son of a fervently Catholic woman from the Visayas (Central Philippines) and a Socialist intellectual from Ilocos (Northern Philippines) who, firmly believing that education is the key to improve Man's condition, devoted their lives to schooling peasants in the poorest, remotest Maguindanao villages, Diaz has always had an utilitarian conception of culture and, by extension, of all forms of artistic expression. To Diaz, art should not be an end to itself, a purely formalist exercise, but—to paraphrase a Shakespearean play extensively quoted in his latest short The Day Before the End (2016)—it must hold the mirror up to society. Specifically, art must spur people to reflect on “the fundamentals of existence: why am I in this condition? Why are we in this condition? What am I doing here? What are we doing here? Why all the suffering? Why all the violence? ”[1] Diaz's films thus tackle the question of what does it mean to be a Filipino today by investigating the country's past as marked by “four major cataclysms”[2]—Spanish colonization (1521-1898), American rule (1898-1946), Japanese occupation (1942-1945) and Ferdinand Marcos's fascist dictatorship (1972-1986). In this way, the filmmaker seeks to achieve redemption, to trigger some kind of “cleansing process” both for himself and his fellow-countrymen: “We [Filipinos] need to confront all these things, all the traumas, all these unexamined parts of our history, of our struggle, so that [we] can move forward. It’s a kind of, you know, cure.”[3]

“Why is the movie so long?” is what Diaz has been asked for fifteen years now by his spectators, ever since he made five-hour Batang West Side (2001) on film and ten-hour-forty-three-minute Evolution of a Filipino Family (2005) with a MiniDV camera. Another frequently asked question concerns the most striking aesthetic feature of his cinema from Evolution of a Filipino Family onwards—the use of black-and-white, extremely lengthy shots, often with no camera movement whatsoever: “What is the rationale behind massively long, generally immobile takes?”

The answer to the above issues of length is threefold. Firstly, such a strategy is a declaration of artistic independence: requiring a great deal of patience and dedication from its spectator, Diaz's cinema has nothing to do with the dominant film industry conventions that impose the production of eighty-to-one-hundred-and-twenty-minute audiovisual entertainment to be purchased by the widest possible audience for mindless consumption in one's own spare time. Secondly, this reaction against the commodification of the seventh art goes hand in hand with the desire to reclaim Filipinos' ancestral Malay identity, whose disinterest in the monetary value of time has been almost completely forgotten these days after centuries of exploitation at the hand of Spanish colonialists and American capitalists. Thirdly, since duration is an affirmation of importance in cinema, Diaz's predominantly immobile, extremely lengthy takes adding up to enormous running times are meant to physically confront the audience with the burden of centuries of suffering endured by the Filipino people. As the filmmaker said about Evolution of a Filipino Family in general, and about the four-shot, twenty-one-minute sequence of poor man Kadyo's bleeding to death in a deserted Manila alley in particular:

I am capturing real time. I am trying to experience what these people are experiencing. They walk. I must experience their walk. I must experience their boredom and sorrows. [...] In the film’s central death scene, I want the audience to experience the afflictions of my people who have been agonising for so long – under the Spaniards for more than 300 years, under the Americans for almost 100 years till now, under the Japanese [during World War II], and then under Marcos['s 14-year fascist dictatorship]. I want people to experience our agony. [Kadyo's death] is the death scene of the Filipinos. I wanted it longer, believe me. It could have been longer if not for a kid with a bicycle who came in. I cut like seven minutes of it because the kid interrupted the shot.[4]

This is, in extreme synthesis, Diaz's artistic credo. However, the decade of digital filmmaking to be showcased during MUBI's eight-month online retrospective cannot possibly be dealt with in a couple of paragraphs. Diaz's digital chronicles of the primordial, ongoing, seemingly never-ending, often contradictory Filipino struggle for freedom and redemption require a five-hundred-year flashback in order to be put into context and properly understood.

As their name alluding to Felipe II of Spain (1527-1598) suggests, the Philippines as we know them today are the product of Western colonialism. If such a thing as original identity exists, Filipinos’ ancestral Malay identity, deriving from the Austronesian peoples of the Malay Peninsula, was curbed very early on. On March 16th 1521 Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan set foot on the archipelago and claimed it for Spain. The Spaniards brought to the islands not only Roman Catholicism and Spanish language, but also a new mentality. In Diaz's own words:

We Malays, we Filipinos, are not governed by the concept of time. We are governed by the concept of space. We don't believe in time. If you live in the country, you see Filipinos hang out. They are not very productive. That is very Malay. It is all about space and nature. [...] In the Philippine archipelago, nature provided everything, until the concept of property came with the Spanish colonizers. Then the capitalist order took control. [...] The concept of time was introduced to us when the Spaniards came. We had to do oracion [pray] at six o'clock, and start work at seven. Before it was free, it was Malay.[5]

The fiercest resistance to Hispanicization-Catholicization came from the areas of the archipelago that were Islamized from the 14th century onward, and especially from Diaz's native province Maguindanao. Indeed, Muslim identity and desire for self-government have been so strong in the Southern part of the archipelago throughout the centuries that an autonomous Muslim region was created in Mindanao in the late 1980s, in a failed attempt to put an end to political tensions between local Catholic and Muslim clans, and between Muslim secessionists and the Philippine central government.

Spain ruled over most of the Philippines by force of arms for almost four hundred years, crushing in blood all attempts at anti-colonialist rebellion until 1898, when the archipelago was sold to the United States of America for 20 million dollars of the time. The Philippines then became a colony of the United States, and foreign military occupation, the massacre of both Catholic and Muslim Filipino nationalists, and the exploitation of natural resources and native people went on as usual under the new masters. During World War II, the Japanese Empire invaded the archipelago and ruled it with an iron fist by establishing a puppet republic—a brutal period that a 1976 World War II melodrama by Filipino director Mario O'Hara famously dubbed “the three years without God.” Eventually, the Allies won the Pacific War, and the Philippines were returned to the loving embrace of the United States in the Summer of 1945. The Philippines were granted full independence by the United States the following year, but they remained an American colony and puppet state de facto, bound as they were to their former masters by economic and security “partnership treaties.”

In the post-1945 world divided into a “Western” and an “Eastern” bloc, the rise of fascism in the Philippines was just a matter of time. Exploiting his fellow-countrymen's national pride, lawyer Ferdinand Marcos quickly rose to political prominence in the 1950s by presenting himself as a descendant of an anti-colonialist general of the late 19th century and as a war hero who bravely fought Japanese invaders during World War II. A well-educated and exceptionally well-spoken politician, Marcos captured the sympathy of the Filipino man in the street with promises of hope and change, and was elected President of the Republic in 1965. Re-elected in 1969, he spent his second mandate executing his master plan for staying in power beyond the eight-year constitutional limit. Taking advantage of both the endemic Muslim secessionist guerrilla in Mindanao and the rise of the armed wing of the Filipino Communist Party across the country, he managed to convince Filipinos that both Muslim “lawless organizations such as the Mindanao Independence Movement” and “lawless elements of the communist” were about “to overthrow the Republic of the Philippines by armed violence and force.” Marcos further manipulated his fellow-countrymen into believing in the necessity of Martial Law (a temporary suspension of “the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus,” and of all constitutional, civil and political rights due to national security reasons) by staging a series of terrorist attacks against key-figures of his party. As a result, Martial Law was proclaimed on September 21st 1972 and Marcos became the absolute ruler of the Philippines, with the army enforcing his legislative, executive and judiciary powers.[6] Needless to say, the United States—at that time still involved in the Vietnam War as well as in countless other “proxy wars” against the Soviet Union all over the globe—were more than happy to have a right-wing dictatorship in Southeast Asia to counter the advance of leftwing ideologies in the continent, and they actively supported and lavishly financed the regime.

Martial Law was lifted in early 1981 (so much for the “temporary suspension”), but Marcos's dictatorship ended only in 1986 with the so-called People Power Revolution, a series of massive popular demonstrations that took place in the streets of Manila between 1983 and 1986 against electoral frauds, media censorship and extrajudicial killings. As shown in Nick Deocampo's documentary Revolutions Happen Like Refrains in a Song (1987), a popular anti-Marcos slogan from the People Power rallies was “If Reagan wants Marcos, he can have him,” and indeed, as the protesters set out to storm his palace in February 1986, Marcos was flown on a US army aircraft to Hawaii, where he enjoyed his last years undisturbed, surrounded by friends, family and the gold bars he stole from the Philippine National Treasury.

Lav Diaz (left) at a reception at the Goethe-Institut in the late 1980s. Photo from Kino-Sine. Philippine-German Cinema Relations (2007).

Moving from History with a capital H to personal biography, Diaz and his family lived in Maguindanao until the mid-1970s, when the blood feuds between Catholics and Muslims and the war between Communist guerrillas and Marcos's army deprived them of all means of subsistence. The Diaz family subsequently relocated to Manila, where young Lav divided himself between university textbooks, rock and roll jams and frat wars (Mike de Leon's 1982 film Batch '81 is reportedly based on the real-life “exploits” of Diaz and his fraternity brothers).

In the newly-democratic Philippines of the mid- and late 1980s, Diaz was a graduate in Economics dreaming of an artistic career while making a living by taking all sorts of odd jobs. After failing to become a rock star, he focused his energies on cinema, and attended several scriptwriting and practical filmmaking workshops at Manila Film Center. A film buff since childhood, when his father would take him to see all kinds of commercial movies from Hollywood, Hong Kong and the Philippines, Diaz had an epiphany while watching Lino Brocka's Manila: In the Claws of Light (1975) and Insiang (1976) as a college student, suddenly realizing how mass medium cinema can be used to bring to the fore the issues affecting a nation:

Manila: In the Claws of Light was such a huge influence on me. I saw that in 1975. Our Literature teacher [...] told us to watch the film and then make a paper. Cinema was just entertainment to me back then, no aesthetic issues yet. [...] I was in first year college. It was a shock, seeing the film. [...] I saw it and something woke up in me. It was the height of the Marcos regime then, he was controlling everything. And Manila: In the Claws of Light was liberating, in a sense that you can use this medium to fuck this regime. […] Insiang was also very influential. Freshman college, that was the first time I learned about it. Not just the film but the filmmaker, this Lino Brocka. Insiang was the bar for social realist cinema. […] Insiang was not just taking about the dynamics of a mother-daughter conflict over a man, it's about what poverty can do to you and your psyche. A poverty born of neglect. Of a system that doesn't work for the masses but maintains the status quo. Very feudal.[7] 

Famously outspoken Brocka also provided aspiring filmmaker Diaz with a cautionary advice about being a director in the Philippines: sometimes it is necessary to compromise, making some films for the producers in order to be able to finance one personal project.[8] This is exactly what young Diaz did in the 1990s, penning action and comedy scripts for Philippine entertainment colossus Regal Films, while working independently on his personal projects about the Filipino diaspora in the United States Ebolusyon ni Ray Gallardo [Evolution of Ray Gallardo] and Batang West Side (2001), to be shot between New Jersey and Luzon Island. Around 1997, the breakthrough: after winning a few prestigious literary prizes for short stories and screenplays, Diaz was offered to work as a film director at Regal Film's subsidiary Good Harvest. He accepted the proposal, it being almost impossible for him at that time to find funds and shoot his film-projects outside the studio system.

Good Harvest is known for starting the “pito-pito” [seven-seven] film production scheme, requiring the studio's creative personnel to make a movie on a 7-day shooting and 7-day post-production schedule, and on a budget of 2,5 million pesos (65,000 US dollars of the time), which is nothing compared to the average Filipino feature cost of 12 million pesos.[9] Within these constraints, Diaz wrote and directed Serafin Geronimo: The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion (1998), Burger Boys (1999), Naked under the Moon (1999) and Hesus the Revolutionary (2002), four features in which the desire to investigate the legacy of 14 years of fascist dictatorship in the Philippines clashed against the profit-bent agenda of studio executives more interested in selling crass, quickly- and cheaply-produced entertainment than in raising social and political awareness. Naked under the Moon is a case in point: notable for being Diaz's first employment of what would become the central metaphor in his cinema—i.e. a violated young woman wandering around aimlessly and mindlessly as the emblem of a “somnambulistic society”[10] that is lost, numb, unable to come to terms with the horrors of its past—the film “received favorable reviews, and screened in the Berlin International Film Festival, but was also re-cut with additional sex scenes (shot without Diaz) inserted at the producer’s behest.”[11] The episode opened Diaz's eyes about the “business and bullshit”[12] mentality of an industry that traps young Filipino filmmakers in “one of the most exploitative and brutal schemes ever done in film production,” making them compromise their vision for “very, very low salaries,”[13] while Filipino audiences “are always at a losing end, always underestimated and treated like morons who are undeserving of serious works.”[14]

Lav Diaz on the set of the 16 mm shoot of Evolution of a Filipino Family, sometime in the 1990s. (Via.)

If the experience at Good Harvest taught Diaz that a filmmaker cannot express himself freely in the Philippines without personally owning the means of film production, the decade-long struggle to make Ebolusyon ni Ray Gallardo and Batang West Side independently on film encouraged Diaz to experiment with digital video filmmaking equipment, which, in the early 2000s, was becoming increasingly available for Filipino consumers at a lower cost than 16 mm and Super 8 cameras and film stock. Satisfied by the first camera tests, Diaz and a small crew of close friends re-shot most of the “Philippine flashbacks” of Ebolusyon ni Ray Gallardo on digital, transforming the original film about the “American nightmare” of a Filipino sailor lost in Jersey City into what today is known as Evolution of a Filipino Family.[15] In a perfect synthesis of his mother's Catholicism and his father's Socialism, Diaz thus described his enthusiastic embracing of digital technology:

You own the brush now, you own the gun, unlike before, where it was all owned by the studio. Now it is all yours. It is so free now. I can finish one whole film inside this room. [...] We do not depend on film studios and capitalists anymore. This is liberation cinema now. […] Digital is liberation theology.[16]

Having severed all ties with the industry and become his own man, during the shooting of Evolution of a Filipino Family Diaz elaborated the personal, “liberated” working method he has been using up to this very day. Instead of the hyper-detailed screenplays, tight working schedules, one-week deadlines and rigorous daily plans of the “pito-pito” years, Diaz's “digital workflow” is based on taking the time, moving to and living in the shooting location area for a while, letting the weather, the landscape, local people and even chance influence the mood of the film and the direction taken by the fictional events portrayed:

My process [...] would be to write the daily struggles of my characters. I will just follow them, and oftentimes I would actually write the script, the dialogues a day before the shoot or during the shoot, oftentimes as instinct and common sense would suggest.[17]

This very open (some might say quite anarchic) creative process Diaz baptized “organic,” meaning that his digital films grow in symbiosis with what is happening in the environment where the shooting is taking place. While shooting Century of Birthing (2011), for instance, a randomly-encountered real-life assembly of farmers discussing real-life problems relating to a greedy, tyrannical landlord was incorporated into the film's fictional plot:

I told the actors “Just join the farmers and I will follow you”. [...] Thus, the assembly became part of the very structure of my work. This organic process allows you to see some lapses within the characters, within the story and within the other structures of the fiction film, and it works really, really well. That's the insanity of things like that, and it's pretty much obvious if you think about it: things are happening just… everywhere around you![18]

The film's finale is also the result of a serendipitous encounter with the unexpected:

I was in Marikina, the town where I live, near Manila. [...] I was having coffee, [when] I heard two guys saying: “Hey, there's a storm coming in Central Luzon.” Suddenly, I found myself thinking: “This could look great in the film.” I didn't really know yet, but my mind started working. I had this image in mind: the Mad Woman and the Artist meeting in the storm. I called the two main actors at once, “Please, come, let's shoot!” [...] So we [...] went to [...] the area where the storm was going to hit: there we stayed, waiting for the storm – I was ready to shoot, with my camera and an umbrella. And in the end, it was so good for the film. The collision between the two characters is really synchronized with the coming of the storm. I am very happy about it.[19]

Fiction film Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) and documentary Storm Children, Book One (2014) were conceived impromptu and shot by Diaz with a very small crew of friends and family members under similar circumstances, in the aftermath of two far more violent and deadly storms—Typhoon Reming (late November 2006) and Super Typhoon Yolanda (early November 2013).

Lav Diaz's Florentina Hubaldo, CTE

As for what is today known as Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012), the movie originally bore the title Agonistes – The Myth of Nation and was to be a story about three poor men who go digging for a possibly non-existent treasure. However, over the course of a two-year shooting, the initial idea was gradually reworked by Diaz until the treasure hunters lost their leading role in the narrative to Florentina, a young woman beaten into a life of prostitution who—like Lerma in Naked under the Moon, Hilda in Evolution of a Filipino Family and the “Mad Woman” in Century of Birthing—roams the Filipino countryside looking for help, trying to fight the numbness, lethargy and memory loss connected to her physical and psychological traumas. The same effort to make sense of, and to come to terms with, a past tragic event informs one of the lesser known works of the Filipino filmmaker, documentary An Investigation on the Night that Won’t Forget (2012). In it, Diaz simply records journalist Erwin Romulo talking about the 2009 murder of film critics Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc, about his grief for the loss of two talented colleagues and dear friends, and about his vain attempts to seek truth and justice through the official and “unofficial” channels of Quezon City Police Department.

As the above examples show, the crucial thing for Diaz as a storyteller is to bring to the screen the daily struggles of his fellow countrymen. With the main narrative thread in mind—often just a very thin plot synopsis, such as “scenes from the everyday life of farmers right before and after the proclamation of Martial Law” (Evolution of a Filipino Family and From What is Before, 2014), “a peddler gets robbed and confronts dysfunctional local police system” (Heremias – Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess, 2006), “a poet goes back to his native village after decades of exile” (Death in the Land of Encantos), “three intellectuals try to overcome the grief for the 'disappearance' of their loved ones, who belonged to a leftwing rebel group” (Melancholia, 2008), “an arthouse filmmaker and a member of a religious cult face a vocation crisis” (Century of Birthing), “a Filipino woman from the 1890s finds herself in 2010s Manila” (Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution, 2011), “Gregoria de Jesús looks for the missing body of her husband Andrés Bonifacio after he has been executed by fellow anti-Spain revolutionaries in May 1897” (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, 2016), “a woman seeks revenge after spending 30 years in prison for a crime she didn't commit” (The Woman Who Left, 2016) —Diaz begins pre-production by hunting for locations. When the ideal setting is found, shooting usually starts on a budget scraped together from the filmmaker's personal finances and from small grants from the Film Development Council of the Philippines and international film festivals or cultural associations. On set, the camera setup for each shot is chosen by Diaz trusting “common sense and instinct,” with a touch of “geometry and physics.”[20] The “canvas” (as Diaz likes to call the image in his camera's LCD display once the camera setup is defined) is then shown to the actors who, in the majority of cases, are simply told to “feel the character,” speak the lines Diaz wrote or improvise, “be primal” and “rock and roll.” The latter direction, referring to the universal symbol of rebellion against authority, sounds particularly apt in the context of Diaz's liberated filmmaking practice. In fact, from the early 2000s onwards, the Filipino filmmaker has been using his digital camera just like a rock-and-roller would use his guitar: when a musician feels like jamming, he/she takes out his/her instrument and plays; when Diaz is inspired to shoot, he takes out his camera and shoots, giving a metaphorical middle finger to the Filipino entertainment industry and the feudal schemes through which it tries to control and exploit filmmakers and audiences alike. As a matter of fact, the ideal affinity between playing music and independent digital filmmaking has been thematized by Diaz himself in Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution, in which he plays the role of a musician improvising some songs alone in his room, for himself and for all those who pass by and feel like listening.[21] This is the very same philosophy underlying Diaz's artistic struggle with the weapon of cinema: as the Filipino filmmaker likes to say, his cinema is there, in and on the air, and even if only one person decides to engage with it at some point, it wouldn't have been a waste of time.


1. Vinita Ramani, “A Dialogue in Progress – Social/Personal Memory Before Heremias”, 2007, http://www.e-kino.si/2007/no-1/preboji/dialogue-in-progress.

2. M. Guarneri, “The Burden of History. A Conversation with Lav Diaz”, 2014, http://www.lafuriaumana.it/?id=243.

3. Nadin Mai, “Interview with Lav Diaz (Extracts, Part I)”, 2014, https://theartsofslowcinema.com/2014/08/18/interview-with-lav-diaz-extracts-part-i/.

4. Brandon Wee, “The Decade of Living Dangerously: A Chronicle from Lav Diaz”, 2005, http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/filipino-cinema/lav_diaz/.

5. Tilman Baumgärtel, “Lav Diaz: Digital is Liberation Theology” (2007), in T. Baumgärtel (edited by), Southeast Asian Independent Cinema: Essays, Documents, Interviews, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012, pp. 174-175.

6. The full text of Marcos's Martial Law proclamation is available at http://www.gov.ph/1972/09/21/proclamation-no-1081/.

7. Dodo Dayao, Mabie Alagbate, “Beer and Brocka. Lav Diaz, Kidlat Tahimik, Khavn de la Cruz and Raya Martin in Conversation about Lino Brocka” (2009), in AAVV, Laying Down In A World Of Tempest – Lav Diaz, Brussels: Cinematek, 2015, pp. 65-66. The book can be donwloaded for free at https://issuu.com/courtisanefestival/docs/lav_diaz.

8. Cf. Alexis Tioseco, “A conversation with Lav Diaz”, 2006, http://criticine.com/interview_article.php?id=21: “I read and I heard that [Brocka] did say that to be able to survive in the Philippine movie industry, he would make five or ten movies for the producer to be able to make one good film for himself. I never knew him personally to really understand such a stance. But I am inspired by the persona. He was a fighter, a voice and a leader.”

9. Roger Garcia, “The Art of Pito-Pito”, in Film Comment, vol. 36, n. 4, July-August 2000, pp. 53-55.

10. Lim Li Min, “11 Hours in a Life's Cause”, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/26/arts/26iht-fam.html?_r=2.

11. A. Tioseco, op. cit.

12. B. Wee, op. cit.

13. M. Guarneri, “Exploitation Is Never Cool to Me. A Conversation with Lav Diaz”, in La Furia Umana, n. 9, Summer 2011.

14.B. Wee, op. cit.

15. For a detailed chronology of the ten-year making of Evolution of a Filipino Family, see the appendix "Brief notes on the long journey of Ebolusyon", in A. Tioseco, op. cit.

16. T. Baumgärtel, op. cit., pp. 176-178.

17. A. Tioseco, op. cit.

18. M. Guarneri, “Militant Elegy. A Conversation with Lav Diaz”, 2013, http://www.lafuriaumana.it/index.php/29-issues/numero-17/16-michael-guarneri-militant-elegy-a-conversation-with-lav-diaz.

19. Ibid.

20. Daniel Kasman, "A Cinematic Exorcism: An Interview with Lav Diaz", 2016, https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/a-cinematic-exorcism-an-interview-with-lav-diaz. Information on the actual shooting of some of Diaz's latest movies, including Diaz's choices of camera, can be found in Kristine Kintana, "Directed by Lav Diaz", 2015, http://lemagazine.jeudepaume.org/2015/11/kristine-kintana-directed-by-lav-diaz-en/.

21. For those interested in the musical side of Diaz's career, jam sessions of his "post-punk, post-rock, post-apocalyptic, post-it" band The Brockas are featured in the film Melancholia, and an album is downloadable for free at https://archive.org/details/krd-006TheBrockas-InActionAction.

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