Concentrated Nonsense (cinema edition)

Cannes 1982, Room 666, Mike De Leon
April 6, 2009, 3:29 am
Filed under: interviews, Philippine Chronicle, philippine cinema

During the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, [Wim] Wenders asks a number of film directors from around the world to get, each one at a time, into a hotel room, turn on the camera and sound recorder, and, in solitude, answer a simple question: “What is the future of cinema?” (from imdb)

Among Wenders’ esteemed respondents: Jean-Luc Godard, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Michelangelo Antonioni, Werner Herzog, Chantal Akerman, Steven Spielberg, Robert Kramer, and, one of the finest filmmakers (italics intentional) ever to come from the Philippines, Mike De Leon, who had not one but two films (Kisapmata and Batch ’81) in the Director’s Fortnight section that year.

De Leon sits — one leg resting on the other, cigarette dangling from a relaxed hand, television running to his side running — unphased by the reputations of his co-respondents and without impulse to impress, gives his answer; brief, to the point, and sans any BS:

You gotta leave the nonchalance.

More De Leon, this time on the reception of the two films in Cannes:

The French preferred Kisapmata to Batch ’81. According to some of them it was not just because fraternities of that sort were alien to them (the French are basically individualists). Pierre-Henri Deleau had predicted, after seeing the rushes here, that the French would be outraged by Batch. The English and the Americans gave it a better reception in Cannes. But it wasn’t just a matter of theme but of story-telling method. While Kisapmata‘s method was closer to the French, Batch was more in the American manner.

After the first screening, animated discussion went on and there were two sides debating whether the film was fascist or anti-fascist. Apparently the ending was ambiguos. I said that there are graduation rites, in fact. I felt that I had made it clear that Mark Gil’s character at the end was . . . hindi na tao. That is why that martial law line was important because it situates the film. It was supposed to be clear that the film was making a comment on organizations of a fascist nature, that this is what can happen to individuals who join such an organization. But it appears that although I felt it was the same thing with Kisapmata, Kisapmata was clearer if one removes the ethnic-ness of the characters, it would happen anywhere, in the suburbs of Paris or what.

After the fourth screening, there was a demand to give another screening, but it was too expensive. There was this vague feeling about Batch; at the end of the film, there was first a momentary silence, and only afterwards, some applause. I suppose it’s the construction and the editing, which is more American. I call it “neurotic editing” — I felt like I couldn’t wait to cut it to get to the next part. My idea for Batch, let’s say, was more of accumulation, dagdag nang dagdag, instead of a gradual progression, and that doesn’t go well with the French.

(Well, I just heard from Tony Rayns that it had a much better reception recently in London. I suppose, as indicated by the English film If, this strict, authoritarian, discipline-oriented organization is closer to the English system than to the French).

[From: “The A.K.O. Story” by Petronilo G. Cleto, published in WHO magazine, Dec.15, 1982.

Reprinted in the magazine of the (then) Film Ratings Board, Filipino Film Review, January 1983]

* With thanks to Teddy Co.

Cinema du Reel 3: Interview with Lav Diaz
March 10, 2008, 6:06 pm
Filed under: Articles, festivals, interviews, philippine cinema | Tags: ,

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.

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Q&A with Chris Fujiwara on Little Black Book (Movies)
December 13, 2007, 4:37 pm
Filed under: books, interviews | Tags: , , , ,


A remarkable little (but heavy) release, The Little Black Book (Movies), has been getting some nice buzz on the internet lately (see Girish and one of the contributors, Noel Vera, gushing), and rightly so: it is truly a fine collection of short pieces on key scenes, films, people, speeches, and events in the history of cinema. Written by a roster that includes some of the most interesting writers on cinema today, the book balances well entries on popular cinema with ones on more neglected work, and features a healthy amount of pieces on countries with a smaller presence on the current cinematic map. Whether a casual lover of cinema or a hardcore cinephile, there is much to discover, to be intrigued by, within the books pages.

It is really impressive to see a book of such great, quality content, printed so nicely, and so readily available in popular bookstores– from Ljubljana to Manila! (in Manila it is available in both Fully Booked and National Bookstore– Oggs Cruz has noted its cheaper in NB: P1350 to FB’s, P1519).

I was curious about how the book was put together and decided to e-mail the general editor, Chris Fujiwara, a few questions. Our exchanged appears as follows:

(1) The general editor
How did you come to be involved in the project?
The publisher, Cassell Illustrated, contacted me and asked me if I would be interested in editing a book on 1,000 key moments in the history of cinema. The basic concept of the book was theirs, including the way moments are categorized as “events,” “scenes,” “speeches,” “people,” or “films.” Actually they wanted more categories, including “special effects,” but I persuaded them to keep things relatively simple.

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James Benning’s 13 Lakes, Landscapes, and a brief note on Mt.Mayon
December 6, 2007, 7:23 am
Filed under: festivals, interviews, notes, quotes | Tags: , , , , ,


Slovenian critic Nil Baskar begins his introductory essay on the films of James Benning for the catalog of the Ljubljana International Film Festival:

Fernand Léger, a versatile avant-gardist, once said that the essence of cinematographic revolution lies in “making visible, what used to be merely noticed”. At the same time, he forgot to ask what would happen when the “revolution of the visible” was completed – when the film had shown almost everything? When all the time everything can be seen, and nothing merely noticed? This is the question posed by the films by James Benning, another versatile avant-gardist.

The films also offer the possibility of an answer: they allow us to notice the most obvious again.

There is a beautiful level of contemplation achieved by landscape films when they are done right (that contemplation need not only be of serenity, but even violence, and naturally all that lies between). Benning’s magisterial 13 Lakes screened last month at the Ljubljana International Film Festival (aka LIFFe) as part of a small focus on his recent work. Benning was in attendance and I jotted down these notes during the Q&A that followed the screening.

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