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This interview appears in French in the Cinema du Reel catalogue
The Agony and the Ecstasy:
Fragments of discussions with Lav Diaz on Death in the Land of Encantos
Part One: July 2007
Alexis Tioseco: One of the first films that you made was a documentary on street children. Though I haven’t seen the film, I remember well when you spoke to me about it in a conversation a few years ago. Recalling the work you told me, in a very emotional tone, that should you have the chance you would want to destroy it. You said that it was that film that first brought you to the United States, and that it was difficult to reconcile how you had benefited from the work with the fact that the lives of the subjects hadn’t improved. Now, with Death in the Land of Encantos, you are straddling the lines between documentary and fiction. You started out shooting documentary footage of the people of Bicol and their stories after the typhoon but decided to write a story around it. At what point did you decide to use fiction, and what made you decide to do this?
Are you weary of the ethical dimensions of making a documentary on such a tragedy, and feel it is only fiction that you can tell their stories? Do you still wish to destroy the early documentary on street children?
Lav Diaz: After reading a Philippine Daily Inquirer story about the aftermath of Reming (Durian is the international name), the strongest typhoon that ever hit the country in living memory, I decided to shoot some footage, not intently a full blown documentary; just record images of the tragedy, interview people, survivors, and give it to an NGO, the UN mission here, or any agency, foundation or institution that needed some footage. Maybe they can use it. I wanted to do something. I thought I could contribute with my camera. I was disturbed by the apathy of people outside Bicol. It was no big news to them even though they learned from the news about the tragedy. Ah, talaga, maraming patay. Maraming nalibing ng buhay. Grabe pala, ano (Oh, really, many people died. Many were buried alive. It’s terrible, no). Period. And they’d go back to the contemporary Pinoy inanities like what was happening with the national pastime Kris Aquino, [daughter of former president Cory Aquino and TV host of game shows] and her new husband and her pregnancy. I myself didn’t realize the magnitude of the calamity until I read some accounts.
And I am really attached to Bicol. The last shoot of Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino was shot in Ligao and Guinobatan, Albay, and Rawis in Legazpi City in November of 2004. And a big part of Heremias, Book Two, about seventy five percent was shot there August to October in 2006. Some of the shooting sites and places where we stayed during the production were really ground zero during the typhoon; villages like Guinobatan, Daraga, Arimbay, Sto. Domingo, Padang, Pawa, Rawis, Cagsawa.
When I got there, it was hell. The smell of death was everywhere. All you could see was utter disarray, devastation, destruction, insanity, pain, sadness, unbearable suffering. Villages were gone, hundreds of people were buried alive, hundreds were missing. Pompeidom, worse than Mayon’s 1814 onslaught. It became a point and shoot exercise because everything was a part of the tragedy; it was just everywhere. You shoot in silence, trying to make sense out of the devastation. By then, a documentary was taking shape and initially, there was a subconscious thread that I was following, visiting the places where I shot the two films, and visiting friends. I was like… this was where we shot this scene, and we put the camera here. Now, the trees are gone, the road is now a river. The lead actor walked here, we followed him. The road is gone, it is now covered with sand and huge rocks, unbelievably huge rocks, some are bigger than nipa-huts [small homes constructed out of bamboo], and you wonder how the typhoon was able to carry them down. Many dramatic scenes happened in this house, now half of the house is gone; the owner says they almost drowned. I am reenacting the camera movement, imagining the characters are still there, and I am doing a take two or three of a certain scene. It was a very depressing exercise. I was thinking of doing juxtapositions—scenes from the two films and the remnant of the calamity in the locations where we shot them and of course, the whole tragedy as expressed by people we interviewed and those who got involved in the two productions. This became the initial mise en scene of the work, a shoot-edit exercise that’s taking place in my head.
Back to Manila after a week of shoot, I watched the footage. It was harrowing. I couldn’t sleep. I decided to take a different approach, a mixture of documentary and fiction. I already had a story in my head and wrote an outline. We contacted three theater actors, Roeder, Perry Dizon and Angeli Bayani; two local non-actors, the painter Dante Perez and Sophia Aves, played major roles. I just told them we’d do improvisation. I selected four people to work with me for the sound, design and stills. I was the cameraman. It was just a small unit. The first weeks, we used a tricycle [to get around] but eventually [we] got a cheap van. I was writing the script while we were shooting. I wrote the script at night, usually at dawn, and before breakfast, they were reading the scenes for the day. I chose the buried village of Padang as the central location of the story. We shot the film in six weeks within the months of December and January. I added more scenes this May, June and July in Pila, Laguna and Makati. I’ve been in the cutting room the last three months. The film could run seven to eight hours to nine hours. Initial reactions to the work? The Hubert Bals Fund of the Rotterdam International Film Festival gave post production support. Toronto invited it with two scheduled showings; one will be an installation in an art gallery. Venice might get it, too. But I am not sure if I can do a final cut by August. Again, I am struggling and battling with its structure and content. It is becoming a fierce aesthetic battle because the story keeps evolving and, again, I am a slave to the discourse: theory versus common sense, intellectualizing versus being simply tactile, romanticizing versus just being honest about it The form is constantly changing that is why I couldn’t stop shooting, I couldn’t stop viewing and viewing and re-cutting the initial cut and I am dead tired, numbed and bored. I actually erased the whole first cut, a seven-hour version, in utter exasperation and anger and started from scratch again. But I am not complaining. The deed did me good. I was able to exorcise myself from being trapped in a post-pit of robotic editing.
Adding fiction became an imperative as I wanted greater discourse; the enigma of the majestic and imposing Mayon volcano, which was one of the major actors in Encantos by the way, offers a great metaphor for beauty, nostalgia, love of country, corruption, power, humility, death, destruction, redemption, truth, the thesis of suffering and pain as the greater truths of existence. The decision to include fiction is an aesthetic decision. And [it is] very personal, too. Even though I believe that a straight documentary would be very, very strong, my dread of doing it goes back to the documentary on street children and the still unfinished Sarungbanggi ni Alice (Night of Alice). Again, I felt like I was an intruder, a trespasser— an opportunist capitalizing on other peoples’ miseries. I didn’t want to go through that guilt trip again. Also, I wanted to experiment on form and have better control in the direction of its content. I wanted to balance it. Doing fiction puts you on so many levels—an observer, a critic, a philosopher, an empathic creator, a participant, the suffering poet, the man who loses everything. You are creating characters and their stories. Adding fiction somehow pushed my camera’s perspective in a different position. Shooting the documentary parts was like going to the battle zone. This was reality. No ifs and buts. You could be selective with your shots, with people whom you will speak with, but this was reality. You see things but then you wouldn’t know what’s going to hit you. The experience of immersion, or the pain of immersion, has the characteristic of the unknown. You have no control over it. At times it was so immediate and we could not control it. We’d be weeping in an instant. With fiction, there was some control. You write the treatment, the dialogue, have discourse with the actors, do rehearsals, chose the angles. You prepare. But during dramatizations, especially when the actors are truly immersed, then it would be a totally different dynamic. Just the same, you’d be weeping in an instant if a scene hits you.
Also, with fiction you destroy all the cushions of the man with an irresponsible camera that records, turns his back, goes home, edits the scoop and waits for the next calamity, for the next scoop, who treats recording miseries as just a job, because you are actively engaging with it.
The documentary on street children? Do I still wish to destroy it? No. I’ve come to terms with it albeit I’m still haunted by the memory of the street children that I interviewed. The year was 1992. Where are they now? It is now 2007. Did they survive at all? I cringe at the thought. You think of reality and it’s horrors. Hunger. If they are still alive. You think of questions: have they become criminals? The system is still so corrupt and feudal. You can still see hundreds of street children. Poverty is still the biggest issue in our country. Neglect is still a big issue. Irresponsibility remains a big issue. Apathy has gone to cancerous proportion. The sons of the motherland are still killing the sons of the motherland. The motherland is becoming a vast wasteland. The cross remains. The pinoy pathos is getting darker.
And I don’t know if that documentary is still extant. I haven’t heard or I haven’t seen the people who commissioned it.
Part Two: January 2008
AT: Your recent films have often ended with moments of catharsis, or hope. Do you think that it’s fair to say, especially given the nature of its ending, that Encantos is one of your most cynical films?
LD: You can read it like that, and at the same time you could say [instead that] the ending is quite confrontational. I’m confronting the issue of the artist redefining his role, the Filipino redefining his position given the conditions in our country right now. The scene in the end is very specific about the extra-judicial killings, but it encompasses everything about the problems of our culture, of our country. We cannot wait; we have to confront everything now; that’s the issue of that ending. It’s a very deliberate thing for me to do it; I even used our National Anthem for that, which the torturer sings while torturing the victim—the activist, the poet. But that’s the creators view, my view. Of course it’s experiential, with the people who watch it, they may have a different meaning for that scene, and I’m also open to that. It’s cinema.
The ending is very cynical, yes, but its also hopeful because of the issues the confrontation wants to raise. It’s digging for answers from our people, from the so-called audience, from the viewer, [wants is challenging them] to act now. You see this guy being tortured and nothing’s happening [about it]. It’s still happening today in our country, a lot of people are getting abducted; especially the activists, and there’s no answers. We get no answers. We need to look for answers now; we need to confront these issues.
AT: This film seems extremely personal. Whereas in previous films you’ve had a layer between the you and the audience, there have been artists (Lino Brocka interviews re-enacted in Ebolusyon, the documentary filmmaker who is in the background in Batang West Side), but in this one, much of what is said in the film among the three characters, even though it’s a diverse discourse, feels as if its coming from you.
LD: It’s all my views, yes.
AT: How personal is this film for you, and is it more personal for you than the other films you’ve made?
LD: All my films are really personal, because these are my works, but with Encantos all the characters that are speaking, all of their thoughts are emanating from my thoughts.
AT: The fictional characters.
LD: Yes. These are all very intentional things now, I’m creating this discourse about my thoughts, about our society, about our culture, what’s happening in our milieu today. I think it’s the most personal in that you see all the characters talking, and these are my thoughts about what’s happening now.
AT: Why did you feel the need to be more didactic with this film than your others, and is this a road that you see yourself continuing in your cinema?
LD: For the first question, yeah, this is the most didactic work, but at the same time, the didacticism in the film is not imposing. It’s within the thoughts of the characters. So they’re talking, they’re acting, there’s dramas, there’s a story, characters, the plot, and of course the documentary side. Didacticism is important [long pause]…now. We have to get through to our people. We have to say something that is immediate. That’s why I critiqued the role of the artist being egotistical in this kind of milieu; I critiqued the negligence and corruption in our government – its really direct. I critiqued the role of the military in the extra-judicial killings – its very direct. I critiqued also the role of nature, the contradictions within nature, and its confrontation with the existence of our people – Mayon Volcano is a beautiful metaphor and at the same time its very destructive.
Didacticism is very important right now, and this film shows it. At the same time it is not propaganda. I avoid propaganda; I avoided propaganda. Propaganda has no place in art. If it gets propagandistic don’t do art.
AT: Is this a path that you think your cinema will continue on?
LD: I think it’s always been there, though Encantos is more direct in its confrontations. The other stories are more story-oriented…more plot-oriented. They tend to direct themselves toward a certain episode or chapter in our nation’s history. I think all my works are very didactic, except with Encantos its more direct in the dialogue, they talk about it, whereas in the other films you really get to experience the journey along with the characters. With this, the characters are talking about how they define themselves, like Catalina saying, “The artist is important? That’s bullshit!” So she’s telling people “don’t take us seriously now”, because we’re very egotistical about all these things.”
And also with the issue of military torturing, you can see it, actually, them doing it. And Hamin tells Teodoro hey hates the country because of the shackles its put on him. This is a very truthful account of an artist whose been suffering because of all the struggles in the country, his family’s struggle, the people’s struggle.
It will all depend on the story. My next project may be Oryang, its again tackling a very specific period in our country, the Philippine revolution against Spain and America. But then it can also confront the lies in our culture, how we deny the truth about what happened to [Andres] Bonifacio, about what happened to the revolution— how it failed because the father of the revolution was killed, was betrayed, by a pseudo-revolutionary [General Emilio Aguinaldo]. And we’re denying that fact. And it’s one of the biggest events in the history of our country and we still couldn’t afford to face the truth that yes, Aguinaldo killed, executed, the father of the revolution. That’s why it failed, and it failed miserably because of that, and we still deny that fact until now. And we even hail that traitor as a hero; it’s terrible.
The family of that traitor is very powerful, right now. That’s why they can check everything; they publish books; they revise history. It’s the same thing with the Marcoses; they’re publishing books now saying that Marcos is still a hero. All these revisionist things about our history, it’s happening and we can’t even confront it. Of course people are talking, columnists are writing about it, but what’s the effect on our people? It’s nothing. All these forces must move hand in hand—art, education, everything. We’re still using textbooks that have been telling lies about our history; American published books about our history, it’s still being used by elementary, high school and college schools and we couldn’t even correct that. The government couldn’t even correct that. So, I don’t know, didacticism, [I think] that’s a very important issue right now.
AT: How many hours of documentary footage did you shoot?
LD: There are 30 hours of it. 30 tapes. Because I shot non-stop, interviewing people, shooting everything; the devastation. Ultimately, I excluded all the documentary parts where you see real deaths, and dead people.
AT: There was a lot of footage that had actual dead people…?
LD: There was some. I actually borrowed some footage from people during the early days, because after a week everything was gone, they had already picked up [the bodies of those that died].
AT: Why did you remove it?
LD: The film is already about death. It’s an aesthetic decision. It’s already hovering all over. You can sense it, you can see it; I don’t need to show dead people. For me it’s a matter of discourse now, metaphorically or realistically, you combine those things and I think it’s a more powerful in a way. On the documentary side people are just talking, and you can see silence, you can see devastation. You can see a whole canvass about death, instead of showing death. It’s all about the complexity of showing it in a canvass.
AT: You’ve spoke of the line “Beauty is but the beginning of terror” inspiring the film, in a way. How do you think it relates to Mayon, but also to art, to cinema, or to this film and the struggle you had to make it.
LD: Aesthetic issues, man. Doing art is very dangerous.
AT: In what way?
LD: Because you seek for beauty—aesthetics is about seeking for beauty, right, art is about that. Seeking beauty, seeking the truth, representing, and seeking impressions. But it is also very dangerous, the search, if it doesn’t come out that way, if it doesn’t actually seek the truth, if it doesn’t actually search for beauty. Because a lot of works are not doing that. In cinema alone, you can see it. There’s a lot of bullshit going on. It’s all about vanity, there’s a lot of that. So I’m speaking in terms of the dangers of seeking beauty. You have to be very careful, it might not come out in the greater vision of art; it might come out the other way around, it might distort people. You look at the industry; they’re distorting everything, its very escapist. So it’s all about that—beauty, entertainment per se, because a lot of people see art as entertainment. By the very fact that you only see art as entertainment, that’s already very wrong. You don’t see art as a progressive venue to seek the truth, to seek justice, to search for greater beauty; it’s not about that. It’s all about vanity, about making money, about seeking fame and fortune. It’s also very dangerous. The metaphor of Mayon as beautiful and destructive can apply to everything about life, about the problems of our culture, the problems of art. It applies to everything. That line of Rainer Maria Rilke is very honest, is very powerful, it’s in his Duino Elegies.
In my first finished cut I put that in the first frame, but I deleted it.
LD: I don’t have to impose the thought of Rilke. You just experience his thoughts. I realized I didn’t have to put those lines; it’s already there.
(Lav Diaz outside the MK2 cinema before the Cinema du Reel screening of Death in the Land of Encantos on March 15. This was the first time his work screened in a Paris cinema.)
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