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Singing Lamentation: Lav Diaz Discusses His Radical Musical “Season of the Devil”

The Filipino director discusses his bold, brazenly political historical musical critiquing the Marcos dictatorship.
Lav Diaz's Season of the Devil, which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from July 30 – August 28, 2019 in MUBI's Luminaries series.
Season of the Devil
A supremely powerful 4-hour lament for human suffering, Lav Diaz's Season of the Devil was clearly the token “hardcore” art-house movie in the competition section of the Berlin International Film Festival, where it premiered. But the Filipino director's reputation for difficulty—very long movies, long scenes done in long takes—is a misnomer: the challenge of Lav’s films aren’t their length, which can be relaxed into, or their languor, which allows for both inattention and contemplation. The challenge they raise are for a Philippine history unrecorded and perhaps even unwritten in the official records. It is a challenge to the once-seen but now-unsaid—and a challenge to those in power. Season of the Devil states: “This happened, look at it, experience it—this is what has been missing from our past!” And perhaps, too, like Christian Petzold’s film Transit that was also shown in the Berlinale competition, it asks: “Do you recognize the present in this past?”
The history of Season of the Devil, in fact the whole story, all 4-hours of it, is possibly the most simple and direct Diaz has ever been: The year is 1979, the dictator is Marcos, and a citizen militia, the Integrated Civilian Home Defense Forces, has been raised to watch and repress far-flung rural populations. They come up with an ingenious plan to justify both their killings and their protection through martial law by re-introducing folkloric horror into the countryside, killer phantasms and creatures which are the terrorizers of the population—not, of course, the armed, brutally entitled and retaliatory militia itself. (The local militia is run by Lav Diaz regular actor and producer Hazel Oracio in a sly and powerful performance of state-sponsored evil.) Several figures emerge on the side of the people: A female doctor (Shaina Magdayao) who leaves her poet husband (Piolo Pascual) in the city to help treat those suffering in the countryside; a widow (Pinky Amador) in the countryside gone mad from grief after her husband and boy are killed; a resistant local leader (Bart Guingona); and the poet himself, beset by alcoholic despair and inactivity after his wife leaves.
The style, if one is not familiar, is bracing: A fixed camera from which space seems to open up vast before it to reveal the world as a living stage of history and the present moment intersecting. The actors perform in a very precise mode of populist amateurism that revels in being in part artificial and in part overwhelmingly affective. This resourceful kind of storytelling lets the evil citizen army appear sloppy and absurd while, with the same casting and directing style, showcasing the regular people as committed and utterly sincere. Thus one’s “belief” in the drama before us—which is patently non-psychological and more in the realm of fable-telling, myth-making, or historical re-interpretation—ebbs and flows, allowing for space (and time, of course) for reflection as much as for emotional immersion. Such emotion can be piercing: the bottomless sense of desperation, helplessness under the thumb of such violent governance brings out an extreme psychic pain.
And the ultimate catch is this: The story is all told to us in song—yes! Lav Diaz has made a musical: Nearly every word of dialog is sung a capella by his cast, who create a repetitive, incantatory tone through the pleading of the overwhelmingly emphatic music. The songs bombard us: They are long, insistent, and frequently sorrowful. They are hypnotizing. Diaz gives them the time they need for the words and melodies to wrench the gut. Because this movie is indeed gut-wrenchingly sad. In the story, song—and the words within—seem the only power with which people can fight unjust power. Yet that power has the same tools at its disposal, so saying words—and, just as important for us in the audience, listening to words—becomes an act of, variously, oppression, mystification, anguish, a call to arms, and an expression of and communing with consciousness. The songs are overwhelming, enveloping the world, with its wet jungles and bare villages, in a sense of the ubiquitous power of some and the complete powerlessness of the rest. I wanted so badly for the poet to regain his inspiration and to kill his rulers with a poem. In a film like this, such an act might be possible. By the end, the poet has a gun but I’m not sure he knows how to use it—or if it's the best weapon with which to fight.
I spoke with Lav Diaz, in the company of his producer and lead actress Hazel Oracio, at the Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival, where the director was holding a masterclass, about the conception of his film, the challenges of making a musical, and the state of the world today.

NOTEBOOK: So, I know you’re a musician yourself.
LAV DIAZ: [laughs] Trying to be one.
NOTEBOOK: I didn’t say you were a star! I said you were a musician. Why has it taken you so long to make a musical? Or, I should say, to integrate so much music into a film?
DIAZ: It just came naturally for this film. The providence of this was, I was in Harvard writing… Part of my stay was to write a script, to apply it to a film noir. Some sort of a gangster film, despite the formalist thing. And while I was there, I always had my guitar, things are happening in the country, thinking of Putin and Trump and everything. Life is getting harder in the Philippines, so I started writing, lamenting, on what’s happening. And the sounds kept coming. So it came naturally. After a while I had 15-30 songs. I told the producer, "maybe we can do a rock opera of this thing" [laughs]. It was already a narrative. I was working on some characters, and following their trajectories in the songs, so I said, “Oh, it’s becoming a story.” Really pulling me into this thing, and I didn’t want to do it the conventional way, the way Tommy was done, or Jesus Christ Superstar, or Hair, or the Broadway plays that I’ve seen—I don’t want to do it that way. Or some Philippine operas. So I decided, okay, we’ll use the songs as dialogue, a cappella. We’ll see. I was actually scared, doing a musical, because, in spite of seeing a lot of the genre from theater to cinema, I don’t know how to do it. I mean, when we launched into it, I said, “Oh. Now I see the limitations, and I see the infiniteness of doing this thing,” because you really have to be afraid to do it.
NOTEBOOK: Did integrating song into film poses a different challenge in terms of staging and things like that?
DIAZ: Yeah, yeah! I’m always thinking of how did it work. All these calisthenics, movements, the rhythm… But I don’t want to do it that way. I want to make it more primal, to still have a realism in it. So that was the decision: I’ll use them as dialogue—real songs, you have the verses, the phrases, the codas, these are complete songs—but they’ll be used as dialogues. But I told the actors to try and be more realistic, don’t think about the musical. You’re not singing, but you’re singing. That kind of contrast, that kind of contradiction. You’re talking, but you’re still maintaining some sort of rhythm as well.
NOTEBOOK: You said a capella, and it is a capella, but it’s also almost like spoken word poetry.
DIAZ: Yeah. There are rhymes, there are syllabic measures there. Twelve, twenty-two or something, or fourteen—or even haikus there.
NOTEBOOK: As you were sketching these songs out, were the lyrics specific in this way? Were you already imagining this setting for the story?
DIAZ: No, I integrated some old songs as well. I took some of my old songs and changed the lyrics, so it’s a mix of songs that I’ve done, some I’ve written before and some new ones.
NOTEBOOK: And you were doing the melody on guitar, but you decided to strip out any accompaniment.
DIAZ: Yeah, the instrumentation, the accompaniment. It’s a hard decision, because I didn’t know if it was going to work. The first three days were very hard for all of us.
NOTEBOOK: On set?
DIAZ: Yeah, because the actors had this question as well: “Is this going to work?” Me too: “Is this going to work?” Even the cinematographer: “Is this really going to work?” But after a while, we loosened up… It was a risk, but we did it.
NOTEBOOK: I wonder if on set, it felt like it did for me in the audience, because for me, it’s the sound of the music but also the way that you’re directing the actors to sing it, or speak-sing it. Also, the repetition: this for me created an incantatory or almost hypnotic quality. Once you fall into the rhythm, you’re immersed in this world where you’re sort of kept going by the structure of the songs, they just hold you. Then it would come back again—I don’t remember if it was the same song again or a similar melody, but it would come back and you’d fall into this sensation. Did you feel like, on set, you needed to warm up to the rhythm, or this cadence of the singing?
DIAZ: Well, what you’ve said is true. There’s the goal, it will become that, like some hymns, some lamentations, torments, some ancient sound that will come out, but it’s gonna be primal at the same time, coming from within. The way music works, the way hymns work, the way songs work—it should be that way, that’s the goal. And I hope we achieved that.
NOTEBOOK: Do you feel like transforming dialogue into song was an easy process for you?
DIAZ: No, it’s very hard, because the issue of realism and discourse of trying to emphasize something—it’s easy to be drowned out by tunes, melodies and—you write songs, [and they end up] more poetic than realistic. So it’s hard. You cut between: Am I going to do poetic rhymes, or realistic lines? At the end of the day I decided I’m going to go for real poetry, writing and songs, but the essence of the way we converse is still there. There’s a struggle, that’s why for me it’s very hard.
NOTEBOOK: I also imagine it forces your hand to stage scenes differently. A scene that might be a dialogue between characters suddenly is Hazel singing for 10 minutes at one character—and that’s the whole scene! It’s not an argumentative duet, it becomes a monologue, in a way.
DIAZ: Yes. And at the same time, I realized that it’s very limiting sometimes, because I want to push the scenes more beyond the singing, or beyond the conversations, but I had to cut the thing. It should end where the song ends. I said, “this is limiting to me,” but it is dictating to do it, to cut it that way. It changed the whole process—I want to extend the scenes, but when the song ends, where am I going to go? It limited my cutting. I said, “I got to cut this thing up into five bits, unlike before.”
NOTEBOOK: But did you realize that in the end while cutting, or during the shoot?
DIAZ: Even during the shoot I could see that. I did some scenes where I extended the silences, but during the editing I said, “Oh, that’s right. It’s a musical after all” [laughs]. So there’s the dictation of the genre, the imposition of the genre. You will realize it during the editing process, the limitation of this genre.
NOTEBOOK: It sounds like a tremendously challenging film to make on almost every level.
DIAZ: That’s why I want to do two more!
NOTEBOOK: You’re going to do two more musicals?
DIAZ: Because I’m challenged. And there are a lot of songs coming. So I want to do two more musicals, just to make it the usual, you know, three things. But I am thinking of putting instrumentation on the second, and then the third musical is going to be full-blown, maybe some metal, rock n’ roll—I don’t know, maybe a mix of jazz or the mediums of music. We’ll see! Maybe a progression, maybe acoustical, tribal, Malay music—we’ll see.
NOTEBOOK: Compared to this, I feel like if you integrate any instrumentation going forward, in a way, it might just become more joyful, even if it’s a sad song.
DIAZ: That’s very true.
NOTEBOOK: There’s something about stripping out the music that makes the film becomes so... austere is not the right word because the film is not austere, but the force of the language becomes really austere. There’s no softening of the language with the music.
DIAZ: Words can be more powerful, really. No ornaments, no artifice, no instruments.
Season of the Devil
NOTEBOOK: One of the things I always admire so much about your cinema, but also am terrified by, are the scenes of extreme anguish, characters who are just so upset and whose grief or unhappiness, as you show it, extends beyond the bounds of what one sees in the cinema. You hold scenes of people being upset for very long and we’re really confronted by that. This film includes that as well, but also expresses this extreme despair or grief through song, which requires from the actors a different kind of performance of that grief. How did you work with the actors to express such extreme emotion in song and not exhaust themselves?
DIAZ: We did some discourse on what we were going to do, with this company. I sent them the demos two weeks, three weeks before we shot.
NOTEBOOK: Demos being you doing all the songs? So you sang and recorded all the songs...
DIAZ: Yeah, I recorded them all in front of the camera, and I sent them.
NOTEBOOK: Oh wow, all 40-some songs…
DIAZ: You remember her [gesturing towards Hazel], that she plays the lieutenant?
NOTEBOOK: Oh, I remember [laughs].
DIAZ: You can ask her about that.
NOTEBOOK: I want to ask her about that. One of the nicest people I know, playing the cruelest character I’ve ever seen! [Laughter]
DIAZ: We were all scared, but at the same time we were having fun. It’s a mix of that.
NOTEBOOK: [To Hazel] Is that true? [Laughter]
DIAZ: Because we were discovering things. The lady who played Pinky [Amador], the mother who played the owl, she was questioning the key, the level—everything, she was questioning everything. I said, “You can use your own key, it’s okay.” And she was like, “really, okay!” So it freed her. And the verses again, “I cannot pronounce it well because my accent is English,” because she speaks English more than Tagalog, so we have problems like those. Even with the Wise Man, more into English than Tagalog. But anyway, I told them that it’s just primal, express it the way you want to express it. I don’t care about the beats now, I really want it to be primal and soulful, it must come from within. It emancipated everybody. When I said you can use your own key, whether there’s two of you or four, you can rehearse on a key that’s all comfortable to everyone, and that emancipated everyone. And when they rehearse, and use their own levels, the keys, their phrasing, the measures of the film, that emancipated them. I didn’t impose like, “you have to follow this beat,” there’s no percussion or drum beat that they would follow. Or 3/4 or 4/4—no, you rehearse it on your own then we shoot it. Just don’t forget your lines, the tune, the melody, and we’re okay.
NOTEBOOK: Also, they’re not professional singers.
DIAZ: Well, Pinky is a singer. And the storyteller is a singer. The two of them.
NOTEBOOK: Hazel, how’s your singing?
HAZEL ORENCIO: [Laughs] I sing! I did take voice lessons before the shooting. We’re all set to do a film noir [as their next film], then suddenly Lav was sending us emails from Harvard, and he said, “You better take voice lessons.” Okay, like, now? [Laughs] We had only a month. So I got voice lessons.
DIAZ: Yeah, I asked some people to do voice lessons. Just to know how to vocalize, and use their vocal cords and phrase things. But I told them, sing it the way you want to sing it. The levels, the key levels.
ORENCIO: Nobody was being too technical. No one is too uptight, “you have to sing this,” no.
NOTEBOOK: You’re talking about the realism of the genre, where you draw the line of artifice and realism.
DIAZ: And people are complaining, “Ah, I’m a bit off key.” It’s okay, just go with the flow.
NOTEBOOK: It makes the force of it stronger, because if it’s real people lamenting, why would it be perfect? It doesn’t make sense.
ORENCIO: Yes.
DIAZ: I told them about how we are before, the Malay people, so we have limitations like that. You’ve seen From What Is Before, that’s how we do things: when somebody dies, we talk about his life, his past, and we sing it. The Malay people sing it. Twenty-four hours up to the funeral, the father will talk about his kid that died, then the mother would come, the uncle would come, the grandmother, the brother—it’s lamentation. I’m talking about old practices that are lost, and we can reclaim it here. We can do that now. Do some kind of lamentation.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of the songs as lamentation, when you lay the songs out in a narrative order, were you taking into consideration the melodic or tonal qualities of the songs so that you wouldn’t have four songs in a row that were all grief-stricken? In other words, were the tone of the songs determined by the story that needed to be told, or was there a sort of overarching movement through the songs?
DIAZ: It was both. There’s a narrative, so I am following that as well, the events and incidents of the film. Those events dictate the tone of the film, the singing and the songs. So yeah, it’s both. But also, as I’m as a musician myself, you’re torn between maintaining some bits and variations as well. There’s a long stretch of sad period or some angry period, maybe I can create some coda here. Just like a musician, you just break it and do something just to abstract the flow. I’m thinking of this as well. 
NOTEBOOK: Did you always imagine this lieutenant character to be a woman?
DIAZ: Yeah, when I started creating the film, the character has got to be conceptual in presentation, especially with the images. I said okay, we can obscure things, I can use folk tales, folk persona, the mythological figures of the Malay people, like the owl, the snake. And then with Duterte I used the Janus-faced guy [Noel Santo Domingo], and with the Lieutenant, I thought she must be a woman, to obscure things, to make it more conceptual. I hope it worked.
NOTEBOOK: Wait, what is it obscuring?
DIAZ: It didn’t obscure anything. When I detach myself and I watch it— 
NOTEBOOK: —yes, I’m not sure it’s obscure!
DIAZ: But that’s my intention, when I started doing it. I don’t want it to be straightforward propaganda. It’s almost propaganda, for me, and I’m hating myself for being so straightforward with this film. These things should obscure it by using mythological figures…
NOTEBOOK: Not just obscure it, but for me it deepens it to a complexity. Did you always wanted Hazel for the role? You saw a dark side in her?
DIAZ: Yeah [laughter]. She was shocked when I told her, “you’re playing a man! Crop your hair, act like a man, think like a man!” She said, “oh no.” She was actually crying during the first scenes. 
NOTEBOOK: I’m not surprised, because your character is horrible.
ORENCIO: Yeah, especially with the rape scene. I was crying. And he was reprimanding me, he was saying, “No, you have to think of the character. Don’t judge him.”
DIAZ: “Don’t judge him, be the character!”
ORENCIO: “But he’s so bad—” “But that’s your character!” “Okay, okay.” [laughter] It was hard.
NOTEBOOK: You said you have fun on set, which I believe because you’re always fun to be with, but I can’t imagine that being on set for such a sequence…
DIAZ: We had a very uptight and awkward time the first two days for this film. It’s so new to us, using songs for dialogue. One frame. For them and for me as well. We’re trying to find something. We’re trying to gain our composure and confidence with this new thing. I think we all loosened up on the fourth day. I was watching the footage and was like, “okay, we’re okay.” I was talking to Larry [Manda], the cinematographer, “Are you okay now?” “Yeah, I’m okay.” [laughter] The first two days, like, “Ah, man, are we doing the right thing?” 
NOTEBOOK: Then you find the harmony. 
DIAZ: Yeah, he was questioning it; I was questioning it as well. But after it was like, okay.
NOTEBOOK: Do you feel like spending more time in the United States, distanced from the Philippines, has influenced the way you’ve approached these recent films?
DIAZ: Oh yes, of course. Seeing other cultures, experiencing other cultures very much enriches you and at the same time it destroys some walls—how you see life, how do things as well. If you’re just living in the Philippines, or South East Asia, although we’ve experienced the Spanish, all these cultures, colonizing cultures, imposing cultures that came to colonize, we’re still very oriental in our ways. Like the Malay culture, the stereotypes of the Malay culture, the inferiority complex—things that we couldn’t break—but when you live in the West and you see other cultures, it somehow influences the way you think, the way you do things. It breaks borders. New York basically made me do things, take risks, to be brave. The New York scene is very strong to me. When I got there, I said, “Oh, I can do my cinema again.” Because I thought my cinema ended already, at a very young age, because of poverty, and I went to New York to work at a Filipino newspaper, and every time I walk in the streets people are just shooting and shooting and painting. Performance artists are performing, and I said, “Oh, I can do it.” It gives you the confidence and strength to do things. It pushes you. It’s so inspiring to live in New York, actually. It’s the saddest place, but it’s also very inspiring. I just went there for the last three weeks, I took care of my two grandsons. Keep reading and reading, and checking cinemas—it’s cool. You just have this energy, again, to do things. You just walk around, the Village, the subways… It has the New York spirit, it’s so different. So diverse, as well.
NOTEBOOK: To go back to the film, I was really struck by this concept—maybe it’s rooted in history, or maybe you’re just analogizing—but of the national defense force creating superstitious excuses so it can act upon things. This idea that those who are supposed to be defending create a justification for the defense and their own existence. Is that how you see this aspect of the film? That the security apparatus needs mythology?
DIAZ: Yeah, of course they’ve been doing that, if you go back through our history, the colonizers have done that. The Spanish have done that. They mix mythology with religion, Catholicism, and they were able to convert the masses, except for the Muslim tribes in the south, who were converted to Islam. If you study Philippine history, it’s full of that. After World War II, the socialist movement was very strong. We call it the Huk Movement. And the CIA came and they used mythology, Aswang mythology, all these scary mythologies to propagate fear among the masses—and they were so successful. They would kill somebody and put some scratches on the neck, or like bites from an Aswang. All of the sudden people are really scared. And then during the Marcos years, he used it again. So yeah, they use mythology, they use the folk tales  as part of the process of the systems to impose on people’s perspectives and psyches. They were so successful. Filipinos are so gullible with that, so vulnerable. The issue of ignorance is so huge in the masses, they are so easily taken by these kinds of things. How can you imagine this asshole becoming president during the 21st century? It’s all myth-making. It’s all myth-making. You connect the use of mythology, why people are easily taken by these stories, they’re all connected. It’s very cultural. I don’t know when this is going to end. Now we have, last week [in November], it’s the start of the campaigns again for the elections. It’s like, maybe 70% are actors. Actors and old politicians—they’re still in power. You know, the polls, the surveys, they never end. Really fucked up. It’s a cultural debacle. Yeah, it plays a big part, of this thing, this kind of myth-making. Even Trump, I think, is part of that. Putin: The strong man, the savior. Now we have this prince of Saudi Arabia. It’s horrible, no? How can we allow this thing? My God. It’s scary. If this guy Putin is to stay there for ten more years, it’s going to be scary for the world. This guy is going to destroy the Middle East. He’s the new monster. It’s coming, it’s coming. And he’s showing his teeth, really strong. If they don’t cut it now, I don’t know.
NOTEBOOK: What’s disturbing is how the issues related to this that you’re dealing with in the film are seemingly an older issue: they're related to just rumors and folk tales. There’s no mass media, there’s no internet, and one presumes those things would help rationalize and dispel myths, but instead they amplify them. To me, this film could be set now. 
DIAZ: Oh yeah, absolutely, the internet propagates the whole thing. Facebook, my God… All these things, they help propagate the lies. The death of truth is faster now. We’re sinking into an abyss, really fast. You cannot fight the lies now. All the good guys in the country are in prison now. They are all gone.
NOTEBOOK: And how can your cinema fight those lies, do you think?
DIAZ: I will try, we keep fighting, but I don’t know, it’s hard. Educational institutions all over the world have failed. We failed, no? 
NOTEBOOK: Teaching the wrong thing, maybe?
DIAZ: I think the process must be changed. Not confined to the classrooms, not confined to the institutions, not confined to the cinemas. It should move out, that should be the way now. The real engagement must be real. You go to the masses, you teach them. You want to show cinema, go to the masses and show them. Don’t teach in Harvard, go to the masses and teach. You can impact education that way now. We should go to the grassroots now, it should be the new engagement of things. We should go out now. We should get out of our comfort zones, everything, everybody. If we don’t do it, I don’t know. I don’t know what else you can do. If we cannot even fight a guy like Trump, I don’t know. If we cannot even fight Putin, I don’t know. We’re not being pessimistic, but it’s going to be a vicious cycle.

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