Lav Diaz is considered one of the leading filmmakers in cinema, yet Norte, the End of History marks the Cannes debut for this fifty four-year old artist. His films are audience-testing not only because of their meditative character and Diaz’s unusual work methods, but also because of their length (at 250 minutes, Norte is not even his longest!). Why does patience matter? What’s the relationship between time and space? Should the viewer be free? Lav Diaz tell us all, and more.
Keyframe: You are not only a filmmaker: you also write poetry, compose music… does this interest in various fields of art reflect your concept of what cinema should be?
Lav Diaz: Yes, definitely. It enriches the work. All these media harmonize.
Keyframe: Are you a team player or a lone wolf?
Diaz: I work with people before the shoot, but once I am filming I prefer to do everything myself. On the set there are just two people with me. We often think that cinema is a very collective thing; maybe in the studios, but for the so-called alternative or arthouse scene it’s more solitary. We need people like actors, maybe some other help sometimes. But I write my own films, do my own camera, sound, editing, and I’m way happier with that kind of praxis. It gives me a sense of control and independence. It’s more liberating. Solitude can be very formidable, but it is very important.
Keyframe: It’s sounds like being metaphorically pregnant every time when shooting.
Lav Diaz: It’s a good analogy. Another one is that whenever you film, it’s like experiencing birth and death at the same time. Filmmaking somehow resembles motherhood: you struggle to find the meaning, truth in your work and you still doubt it at the same time. But you have to finish it.
Keyframe: The word ‘finish’ is not the first that comes to mind when thinking about your films. Your art redefines the perception of time.
Diaz: One of the greatest struggles in a human life is against time. We confine ourselves to some routines, we think it’s time—and it’s not, it’s just action. But if you think of time, it’s just about death and mortality and so are my films. I struggle with time but also respect space; they go together. For them to harmonize in my praxis I need to do long takes or one take. I’m trying to be truthful. I don’t want to manipulate time or space. I’m trying to subordinate the idea that [in cinema] we’re just following the characters. Look at the world, take your time! It’s all about seeing. Many young people don’t necessarily respond to that. ‘It doesn’t fit into my schedule.’ That’s a very important line nowadays. They think I don’t know how to edit, I’m ‘sloppy’ to them. I understand their ignorance. They’re too young to know how to create meaning, wherever you are.
Keyframe: Are you trying to challenge the viewer with your films? Teach them how to be patient?
Diaz: Patience. That’s the word.
Keyframe: How does the political and cultural heritage of the Philippines influence your work?
Diaz: We have a very rich history of being colonized for more than 300 years. Then more than a hundred years of Spanish and American intervention, four years of Japanese and then twenty one years of a very brutal dictatorship under Marcos. This is the present history of my country. If you have to contextualize this thing called ‘Filipino,’ even here you will notice that the very word is Hispanic: we were named after the king Philip of Spain. But we had our civilization before. The first missionaries that came to our lands to change our culture were Muslim, so they were able to impose some Islamic thought in some of the islands. Then in 1525 the Spanish came and started baptizing us, converting to Catholicism. They even changed our names, also in the Islamic areas. But we had this very rich Malay culture before that, where everything was governed by space, admiring the natural abundance. Have you ever had a chance to read a journal of Pigafetta, the guy who wrote a daily journal during Magellan’s journey? One line reads: ‘These islands can survive more than a thousand years, because they have a lot.’ It’s about the Philippines. And despite the years of colonization you can still feel how we live and view life. Space is still the dominant philosophy, not time. The concept of time was imposed by the West, the Spanish. Go to work at nine, go home at five… Filipinos don’t actually follow that. People think it’s indolent, or lazy. It’s not. This is our culture.
Keyframe: It’s similar to Middle Eastern perception of time: it exists only when something is happening…
Diaz: Waiting, waiting, waiting… You don’t rush things. We are forced to be a part of this consumerist culture now. We have to negate that at some point, because we are destroying the world. We should destroy the capitalistic notion of moving forward, because in fact we are not doing that. It’s culture that moves thing forward.
Keyframe: You often mention the influence your parents had on your perception on life. Did they teach you that as well?
Diaz: My parent are very idealistic people. They’re Christian. An island they live on is still pristine and untouched. When they graduated the government asked people to volunteer, and they went to this island where many pagans lived to teach and work. I grew up in this kind of environment, with total respect for education, total sacrifice of not having all the goods there were in Manila. I lived in the woods with all the deadly mosquitoes, snakes, crocodiles… When you’re young you resent that. I wondered: ‘What am I doing in this forest?.’ It’s painful for a young person when people in the cities are having television and all. But we had our books. My parents were fanatic readers who especially loved Russian literature, so we’d read a lot of Dostoyevsky. My father is a cine-addict, so he was kind enough (or cruel enough) to bring us to the city every weekend to watch movies. We watched eight a week. This was my film education. That kind of milieu created my perspective in life. Even in the seventies, when the tension between Muslims and Christians turned bloody, my parents stayed there, because they wanted to continue teaching. They are so focused and sacrificing. Commitment is important in their life.
Keyframe: We rebel against our parents when we’re young. Only later we learn to respect them as human beings.
Lav Diaz: We become our mother, our father at some point. I still look up to my parents and think I’m weak. I can’t commit the way they do. They know life means living only if you push culture forward. It’s the only thing that matters for them. My father, if he wanted to, could’ve been a good political leader or some government official with good salary. But they sacrificed everything, because they wanted to be with the tribes. It’s all about being selfless.
Keyframe: How much do you think your work technique reflects the philosophy you were raised in?
Diaz: I don’t have to answer, you said it already. I’m just translating the wisdom they gave me, the respect for life they taught me. The long takes… we stay in some islands for six months when shooting. The sacrifice… the waiting… Millions in a bank somewhere: it’s not what it is about for me.
Keyframe: Is this also why you don’t use close-ups so often?
Diaz: I can do close-ups. But this is a kind of manipulation. In the movies they tend to give you everything, spoon-feed the masses. Everything is manipulated, even the emotions, with a disrupting soundtrack, etc. You struggle to understand life, but also try to maintain its mysteries. The audience should be given freedom to try and embrace the canvas and have their own meanings and interpretations. Don’t underestimate them, respect them! This is what great art does.
Keyframe: Your films could then be treated as truly independent—not only made independently but also giving the viewer their independence of choice.
Diaz: An interaction between the audience and the film is the greatest. To let them understand and embrace it. Let go of the film and give it to them.
Keyframe: Some critic called your work ‘an endless search for redemption.’ Would you agree?
Diaz: Yes. There’s always this feeling of emptiness, it reappears every day. Every time you wake up there’s something missing in your life. You feel sad and melancholic, you don’t want to get out of bed. What finally forces you to do that is some king of routine or responsibility. But in the end of the day you’re just looking for answers, the meaning. Looking for redemption. Maybe life will fail us and we’ll never find it?
Keyframe: Do we need answers?
Diaz: I experienced near-death yesterday dawn, 3 a.m. I got cramps all over, everything started twirling, I stood up and immediately fell. How fragile can life be? You can be gone in a moment. Therefore we question the nature and direction of life; life: the most astounding paradox. And so we do with cinema. I start with that though every time I make a movie. But truth of the matter is we’re just little dots. In the end of the day my films won’t matter anymore.