Over the span of almost two decades, Lav Diaz has established himself not only as one of the most prolific filmmakers working in the realm of arthouse cinema—being perhaps the most acclaimed adherent of the slow expression (“It’s just fucking cinema, man”)—but also as a consistent observer of the political landscape of the Philippines. His method of work abounds in slowness, as well as the poetics of excess: long formats, politically-driven allegories, maximized genre capacity. The excessiveness appears in his preference for the independence of the film economy, too. Diaz not only directs and writes his films but oftentimes also designs, shoots and edits them, maintaining control over the final outcome—a whole universe of dark morality tales that encapsulate a gloomy here-and-now and down-to-earth scrutiny of the Philippine milieu.
This rigidity in approach to medium translates to the choice of aesthetics. Diaz has embraced his favorite canvas: a grainy, high-contrast black-and-white with a disturbingly lucent lighting that serves as a setting for a reciprocal embodiment of violence of many sorts. After all, his body of work has been dealing with the images of physical, psychological, and emotional assaults to a sense of freedom in the Philippines, which Diaz renders through the language of genres—neo-noirs, road-movies, horror films, and even musicals. He maintains his narratives by renegotiating genre conventions, as perhaps to talk about the boundless depiction of violence, one needs the safe soil of a genre. His is a body of work that is so enrooted in the earthy folklore, and yet so resonating with its universality, that it might as well be read as an attempt of a filmmaker striving to avenge those who passed away. The act of revenge, in Diaz’s hands, is done with corrosive poetry and bleak images.
Diaz’s latest film, When the Waves Are Gone, is one of those tales. It unfolds as an ambiguous retelling and loose adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, in which there is no good vs. evil, but only evil-good and good-evil. On one side, an acclaimed police officer, lieutenant Hermes Paparuan (John Lloyd Cruz), who has just accomplished a very violent anti-drug purge and fled to his hometown to find solace; on the other, former-sergeant Primo Macabantay (Ronnie Lazaro), is released from prison. Primo was once a mentor to Hermes, but now seeks revenge (echoing Dumas’s setting) for being exposed for the corruption by Hermes a decade earlier. It’s a story of gradual wallowing in despair: while Primo anticipates the act of vengeance, Hermes not only starts to suffer spiritually and psychologically, but also physically—the guilt of violence imposes on him a severe skin condition that mirrors his inner side, not to mention his sanity. Diaz observes his days with a patient gaze, accompanying Hermes in his slow moral decay far from the city he used to extensively (that is, violently) absolve from the impurity of crime. As the story unravels, we anticipate a final confrontation between both of the men, once friends, and now ultimate enemies. Diaz achieves the ignition of their morality in a climax that stands as very typical for his language—utterly physical danse macabre, this very Lav Diaz performance that should prevail in the memories of many for years.
This year again, like in many other of his films, Diaz directly faces the atrocities of a recently-renounced dictator of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte. In an allegorical story conveyed as a somber musical in which there is no music to dance to, and no lines to sing about, the Philippine landscape appears as a wasteland of political despair. On paper, it feels like a picture Diaz has made many times before, with one exception—the aftermath of dictatorship is not just present in the film’s landscape or its ambience, but in the lines, too, as the characters openly scrutinize Duterte’s politics of fear. The real tragedy of the film remains in the reality—after Duterte there’s another dictator starting one’s term, the son of infamous Ferdinand Marcos, Bongbong Marcos, and hope seems to be slowly fading away for many in the Philippines.
I met with Lav Diaz when his film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where he spoke about the aesthetic preferences, verbal and carnal expression, the significance of dance in regards to violence, and the political upheaval in the Philippines in the context of his new film.
NOTEBOOK: You might be in fact the only filmmaker whose work I almost never intend to rewatch. That’s because your films stay with me for a very extended time; or rather, that the violence you depict engrave itself in the memory. A few days ago, the singing from Season of the Devil came back to me in my head, even though I watched it when it premiered in 2018. Do you revisit your own work?
LAV DIAZ: The word revisit is a broad thing. You always revisit things. Especially if you’re aware of history. The same thing goes for my work. Even though I don’t watch my films anymore, they’re part of me. In some way, I revisit them all the time. They’re in my head, they speak up whenever I come across some discovery during my everyday routine. My films became a part of me, so there’s no way for me not to revisit them.
NOTEBOOK: Does your memory of your films change with time?
DIAZ: Yes, very much so. Especially in the context of my methodology of work. If I go back down memory lane and take a look at the work I did, I see the differences to the reality that is now, both in the context of filmmaking practice and the vision of the world I used to depict. Sometimes you might feel that some words are outdated, but I guess the general discourse stays the same, simply because the dysfunctions of the society stay the same. Then there’s this attitude that you kind of negotiate with your inner discourse. For example, if I look back at the evolution of the discourse on the Filipino family—a topic I depicted at the start of my career years back—I realize that there was so much I struggled with. The struggle to start with analog, a 16mm camera, to eventually being forced to embrace the digital format to be able to finish the films; or how to frame the discourse on martial law. Again, going back to your word—revisiting the work might be harsh, especially in the context of going back to the struggles, but it might as well be rewarding. Because in the end, I was able to do it.
NOTEBOOK: Is there anything in particular that you find revitalizing your perspective on films in that process?
DIAZ: Well, the discourse expands, contributes to others’ work, and helps them shape their voice—there are a lot of positive things in this continuum. So it’s a mixed notion. In a way, I might contribute to the education of other people through my workforce. I also see my work has started to live its own life, but with time, I realized that, in a way, everything stays the same. It’s like going back to your birthplace after many years, realizing that some people got older, some have died, but the hometown is still resentful. The feeling remains the same. The soul is still the same. Maybe some trees are gone, but the ghosts of everything remain where they are, surrounding you from everywhere. That’s the core of the process of revisiting.
NOTEBOOK: There is also a strong sense of a notion of a constant loop in your films. Characters often leave the imprisonment, but they don’t strive for redeeming themselves—or maybe they do it through the act of violence—and that seems to depict the reality of Filipinos here-and-now. The real loop tells an even more gloomy story. Do you ever think that the loop will come to an end at some point?
DIAZ: No, I don’t see it coming. The new loop that the Philippines go through now is like going back to imprisonment; I feel like in my youth days again, when there was the Marcos dictatorship. I witnessed the so-called liberation time during the Marcos era. Then, of course, hope was the only thing we had, but nothing changed. The only thing that became different was the names in the administration department. That’s it. Fast forward to now. The son of Marcos steps in. It’s like going back to prison again. We thought we made some changes, but in fact, it’s more that we realize we failed. Completely. That’s the feeling we have now. The feeling of a fiasco. Talking to my friends, I realize we’ve been all striving for the energy of youth, but now we’re back to zero. Are we going back to the streets again? I’m so tired. There’s the feeling of failure on our part. As cultural workers, we didn’t do our part right. We asked the questions; we set things in motion—but how come there’s still this big wall of ignorance? During the Marcos era, we had a massive rampage of killing innocent people. Now Marcos’s son is back; the specter of Duterte’s daughter is also there. The cycle goes on. You mention the notion of a loop—that’s precisely what happens. It’s a loop of violence, but also of an incredible feeling of failure on our part: both people and institutions that are supposed to change things. The organizational and systemic structure of the Philippines is simply dysfunctional. It’s a loop of darkness; from one prison to another and back to the prison again. It’s imprisonment in facades of the same incarnation of one evil force. It’s part of a bigger image that defined the Philippines over the years—a loop of constant colonization, from Americans, through Japanese, to martial law. All these loops—it’s a burden.
NOTEBOOK: At the beginning of When the Waves Are Gone there’s this strong sentence about the culture of fear.
DIAZ: It’s a huge part of the discourse, but it also anchors the whole discourse of the film. Especially because it comes from a talk between the representative of the state, a police officer, and a photojournalist. Even though everybody strives for survival, I’m afraid imminent death is right around the corner. And this is not to say, there’s no courage among our people. We struggle through that very culture of fear. With When the Waves are Gone I tried to show how the notions of fear are applicable to our reality. It starts with the intellectual—the discourse—and it further links with the flesh, the characters’ bodies.
NOTEBOOK: I’m always struck by this aspect of physicality, how much the violence goes into the body. You show it in all your films: through the language your characters speak, through carnal expression, and the way you portray fear. Here, you also implement dance and I have a feeling it’s also connected with the notions of violence. Where did it come from?
DIAZ: I definitely agree with the aspect of physicality. Regarding the dance—that’s just really a part of our reality. Filipino people used to be a tribal nation. If you go to pagan rituals from the past, you can see that there’s a lot of physicality and primal expression in the people’s movement. I myself grew up in a place where there’s a lot of dance. It’s used as an expression—to impress or pay honor to ancestors or the trees. Fast forward again. I spent over two months of location hunting for this film, from November 2020 to January 2021, down south at Luzon island, a place that is known for its strict culture of protocols. I was staying there at a small place near the sea. And what struck me every morning when I woke up for work, was the presence of this samba phenomenon. People were dancing in groups, some on their own, some as couples. I could clearly see it as a continuum of the past; that their dance had its roots way back in the old days but also some of the contemporary tissue. At first, I thought it was a bit funny, comedic, and even somewhat lame. But after a while, I started to look at it with a serious gaze. That’s because it contrasted with the politics of social distancing superimposed due to the lockdowns. I felt that there was certain defiance in that. By resorting to dance, in a way, they go back to the roots; they sweat it out with the dance and then put on the masks again. I found it fascinating. It stayed with me.
NOTEBOOK: My thought was that the dance somehow links the present with the past; that dancing is like a language the characters express themselves, but in a way, it’s like a way of provoking and fighting.
DIAZ: That form of dancing derives from the pagan rituals, but it also connects with what I’ve seen when I was young, seeing people fight with each other, like physically, and I also fought with other people—it became the corporeal component of the past and some sort of exorcism that would deal with the past as well. When I instructed my actors from When the Waves Are Gone, I had one thing to say: let’s go primal. Forget about the new beats, don’t think about the new dance. Think about what we had before. We’re still pagans because we’re constantly integrating the old things from the tribes into the new ones. That’s why I took something colonial—Spanish samba—and integrated it with the pagan practice. For the characters, too, it becomes about confrontation. They confront each other, or rather, they attract each other with dancing. It’s a warrior thing, but with dancing. Come, look at me, look at me dancing. But truth to be told, I didn’t know if it’s gonna work. I hope it will.
NOTEBOOK: It also reminded me of Season of the Devil, because of its structure. It’s almost a musical, but without music and singing, only raw dancing. But the violence stays the same.
DIAZ: I didn’t want to give any music to it. Instead, I wanted to dive into ancient times and connect with the way our ancestors moved. Eventually, this process became about integrating the old way of movement with what we have now.
NOTEBOOK: The dance is strengthened by the use of lighting—it emphasizes the darkness of the space. Not only in this film, but also in many others, the way you light the setting is that the light usually comes from the outside, giving this peculiar distancing effect.
DIAZ: Every time I stage those things, it’s inspired by two things in particular. On one side, it’s an obvious influence of German expressionism; but on the other, it all comes from the Philippine Chiaroscuro comic books where there is this notion of freely using all the light you can, from every possible source. I wished I could create the lighting from underneath, but that would be too difficult to prepare. In a way, the German expressionists freed us from the use of lighting. The same can be said about Philippine comics. But it’s also the way the light appears in a natural environment. When I talk to my cinematographer, I say, let’s be free with this, man. I opt for the light that is more imposing in how it focuses on the characters in motion.
NOTEBOOK: I think it somehow connects with the fact that you approach your films as a way of exorcizing the past and dealing with the ghosts or devils of the past. The way the lighting sneaks into the setting, it looks like a perfect ground for the exorcism to be performed.
DIAZ: That’s true. Films remain for me as a form of exorcism. You know, it’s about shedding all the demons outside. You want to extract these things, make them go away. One way is to do it through light but also dance. Take a look at Primo from When the Waves are Gone. You can read his dance as a form of performance against imprisonment. When he gets out of the prison, he finds himself, again, in the closed, sealed room. He’s free and liberated, but he’s still in the room. He becomes the embodiment of unhappiness and the performance he [Ronnie Lazzaro] was able to pull out, frankly scares me.
NOTEBOOK: Whenever I see your films, at some point, there’s a moment when I start to think whether at some point you’d be able to make films detached from the Philippine reality.
DIAZ: Given the chance, I can do that. That’s because the struggle I depict is a universal thing. I would probably do a film in Iran or Cuba. Of course, many countries have the same struggles. And I embrace that idea entirely. There are so many countries imprisoned in precarious conditions. Look at the world now. We’re going through a global crisis; refugees knocking on the doors of the boards. Poland-Ukraine. It’s overwhelming even though I see it from a distance. We could see it coming from there, but wow, when it eventually happened, it’s like you clearly see we’re dealing with a madman doing his madness. How can you stop him? So I guess the soil is just there. I would definitely be able to make a film in Poland. The perspective wouldn’t change. How do you stop evil? This madness?
NOTEBOOK: One of the most impactful scenes in When the Waves Are Gone is when there is a death that comes unnoticed. The characters lie down on the ground, dead, but no one really cares. Everybody’s just passing through. It’s such a powerful statement.
DIAZ: And it’s happening right there, in my country. After a while, people get desensitized. When somebody dies, it just happens. There’s so much death that at some point, nobody is surprised. That’s the scariest part—not minding violence at all, being indifferent to all the dysfunctions. It’s simply evil in the most real sense. And the scariest as well. We can sense that. I have a feeling that even now, we’re slowly accepting Putin. Look at how corrosive Trump was in America. How can we accept these things? We didn’t pay attention to the cycle of history. At all.
NOTEBOOK: But the frightening thing about the Philippines is that more than 50% of people voted for Marcos.
DIAZ: We know that we were cheated in terms of the results, of course, but at the same time, it’s the very reason that many voted for him. Because others were fooled by his supposed aims. And that’s just scary. Because it seems that people forgot about history. There’s no more burden. Will there be an escape? It’s very sad for us. We were humiliated on so many possible grounds, it feels like we were defeated so many times. At the same time, there’s no other way but to fight. We have to. Many of my friends have left the country already because it’s nearly impossible to live independently, not to mention creating anything. It’s hard to deal with this defeat. We’ve been fighting all our lives. Then—to go back to the word you used—the loop is back. There’s still something called moral victory when you keep fighting for the truth. If you keep on doing that, there’s always this little sense of winning. And I guess it has to be enough for now. It has to be enough to still put cinema, its music, and dancing in the loop. There’s still a tiny bit of reason to fight.