Lav Diaz is one of the most renowned directors from the Philippines. Born in 1958 as a son of two teachers, he started being interested in music and film early on. At the Mowelfund Film Institut he studied directing as well as film production, experimenting with various other media and disciplines such as photography and writing.
Most of the films Diaz directs are very long features, sometimes with a duration of several hours, focusing on the significance of the history of his country, its past, present and possible future. Features like “Lullaby to a Sorrowful Mystery”, “Norte, the End of History” and “The Woman Who Left” have brought Diaz to the attention of critics and audiences worldwide. For his work he has received numerous prizes, for example, the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival or the Golden Leopard at Locarno Film Festival.
At this year’s Filmfest Hamburg, three of Diaz’s features were screened, “Death in the Land of Encantos” and his latest films “Season of the Devil” and “The Halt“. We sat down with the director to discuss his work, his approach to a story and his work with the cast of his movies.
When “The Halt” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this year, one of your actresses read a statement written by you since you could not be there personally. In the statement you advised the audience to get a hold of some good acid before watching the film. Why would you need acid for “The Halt”?
(laughs) Oh, that was just a joke. There was a lot of tension going on before the screening because the people of the festival really wanted me to be there. But I couldn’t leave my students in Cuba [at the time Lav Diaz was conducting a seminar at the film school San Antonio de los Baños in Cuba]. I just wanted to lighten things up a bit, so when they asked me to write this introduction I included this joke.
Be that as it may, “The Halt” is quite a dark and bleak feature showing a dystopian future. Do you have any hope for the future? What do we need to do in order to prevent a future like the one in your film from happening?
It’s true that the film is quite desperate in tone, but there is a lot of hope there as well, especially in the last part. We have to return to the foundations of our lives on this planet, the small things, which also includes taking care of our environment. There is a lot of that in “The Halt” as well as it presents how the whole of South-East Asia has turned black because of volcanic eruptions. So there is this bleak picture of the world, but there is hope, since it asks us to examine the world at large, the world in front of us.
Since both describe a society in a state of apathy, “The Halt” might also be regarded as a companion piece to “Season of the Devil”. Is this social condition a phenomenon exclusive to the Philippines or something you observe in the whole world?
It refers to any society in a way. The world is a continuum, we are all connected and so events happen in parallel. The Filipino struggle can be the Syrian struggle, the Russian struggle or the Catalonian struggle, because we are talking about the whole set-up.
To come back to the beginning of your question, I think of my films as a continuum, one long film as well. You can watch my films and observe a story of the struggle of humanity.
Many reviewers of the film concentrate on the character of President Navarra in “The Halt”, stating he is a reminder of figures such as Rodrigo Duterte or even Donald Trump. What do you think of these observations?
He is all of them. When I created this character, he became a composite of all despots, totalitarian leaders and megalomaniacs. He is Duterte, Marcos, Trump, Assad and even Charlie Chaplin’s Anton Hynkel from “The Great Dictator”.
If you psychoanalyze the whole set-up of leadership in the world, there is psychosis everywhere. We always elect and have leaders such as these that I mentioned: cruel and mad men, but at the same time somewhat funny because of their looks, their weight or other attributes. It is a crazy set-up if you look at political leaders from the past to the present.
Was the scene in which Navarra has this fit of paranoia inspired by “The Great Dictator” and the scene in which Hynkel famously plays with the globe in his office?
Yes, very much so. “The Great Dictator” is an important inspiration for the film.
Since “The Halt” is a dystopia, there is also this strong link between dystopias to the genre of science-fiction. Would you consider “The Halt” a science-fiction-film?
Yes and no. It can be part of the genre, but it is also very real, very much rooted in reality. In the film it is 2034, but the story of Navarra could also be set in the past or the present. We know that it shows a vicious cycle that could happen in the future and which has been going on for so long.
So, yes, the film can be a sci-fi movie, but it is also something like a social-realist drama.
As with your other films, you use a lot of static shots and long takes, making the whole film very long as a consequence. Is this approach a conscious decision based on the topics you discuss or does this relate to the structure you follow?
It is a method I use to make the audience ponder on the events and observe the world in the film. I do not want to manipulate the scene which is why you see a lot of static, long shots in my films. As the audience observes, I do not want them to be manipulated by aspects we know from mainstream movies nowadays. I want us, as the audience, to be observers of what is happening in the world.
Your work is often compared to the films by directors such as Andrei Tarkovsky and often given the label “slow cinema”. What do think about this label?
I love Tarkovsky’s films, but I am not sure about the label “slow” if it is just because our movies are different from other films. I do not know why my work, Béla Tarr’s or Fred Kelemen’s are labeled “slow cinema” just because we are different and are not subordinated to the methods of mainstream cinema. There is now “slow cinema”, there is just cinema for me.
When did you know that “Season of the Devil” would be a musical?
It happened by accident. I was a Radcliffe scholar at the time and living in Harvard, working on a book about Filipino cinema and preparing a film noir. One day, I was walking down a street and there is this cheap guitar being sold for around 50 dollars so I bought it. Back in my room in Harvard I started to play and songs kept on coming.
This also coincided with events happening in the Philippines. Duterte had just been elected as president and started his war on drugs. This was a bloody, a scary event which was quite new to many of us: this killing machine that was hovering over us.
As I started lamenting over what was happening in my home country, I started writing songs every day and after a while, I had so many of them I called up my friend, who was helping me finance the film noir. I told her I do not want to do the film noir anymore, but a musical, a rock opera. She was quite shocked, especially when I told her it would also be about what was happening in the Philippines.
Since shooting in the Philippines was obviously too dangerous at that time, by December we were in Malaysia searching for locations and actors. Of course, it is still a Filipino set-up with Filipino actors. By January, we were ready to start shooting.
We found so many villages which looked so much like Filipino ones. And of course, since Malaysians and Filipinos are both Malay people, we look very much alike.
That was the process for “Season of the Devil”. It came naturally, it came by accident.
Your films pose a lot of challenges for the actors, the long takes, for example, or the singing in “Season of the Devil”. How do your work with actors and prepare them for their roles?
I deal with actors individually, they have their own idiosyncrasies, their own methods. If you are a director, especially in films, you have to be able to psychoanalyze your actors. One actor might not be asking anything about his/her character while others ask so much.
I try to adjust to what my actors want and need. If an actor is very silent, I respect that and if an actor asks a lot of questions, I give the answers.
With “Season of the Devil” I gave my cast the songs ahead of the shooting and asked them to memorize them since we would be using them in the film. In Malaysia, we rehearsed them a little, made some adjustments to the lyrics, discussed how to go about the scenes and I told them it will not be like the musicals or operas you know. It will not include the same aesthetics or movements, it will be a-Capella, it will be raw with no instruments or a lot of rehearsals. I wanted them to sing not as professional singers, but more the way a “normal” human being would sing these songs. There should be no acting, but a very naturalistic way of singing, while, of course, we paid attention to aspects like rhythm and melody within each individual song.
This was quite tough for the cast since they have been so used to the grand gestures of musical and opera.
When it comes to audience reactions to films, did you ever come across a reaction like a person saying he/she respects what you are trying to do here, but this is too brutal, too unbearable to watch because of the themes? How would you react to something like this?
Well, I always respect the audience and the artists who work in film and consider their viewers. When I make a film, I do not think about the audience, but rather about how to make it true, better and pure, in order to nourish the souls of the eventual viewers of my work. This is how I work.
I am always trying to work well with the material so I can bring it to you, the audience. I do not want to build my work around the notion a viewer can only “endure” two hours or lighter materials. In the end, I want to nourish your soul and complete your perspective on the world, which is eventually more important than the duration of a film or anything else.
Thank you for the interview, Mr. Diaz.