"If I think about the future of cinema as art, I shiver" (Y. Ozu, 1959)

FUTURE OF CINEMA IF YOU WANT TO KNOW - Interview with Lav Diaz

Thursday, 17 November 2016 15:50

Lorenzo Esposito and Naked

Ang Babaeng Humayo (The Woman Who Left): The Art of the Invisible

 

Last winter, on an island, you shot The Woman Who Left in a continuation of a sort of mapping of the Philippines that you had previously started...

 

I like this word: mapping. That’s exactly what I do. Many Philippino filmmakers just shoot their works in the surroundings of Manila, the capital; others, like myself, like to wander around and find new places...

 

Do you choose places that you already know well?

 

Not really. Either I look for places that suit the story, or I find the story in the places I visit. Sometimes I've got a script or, simply, an idea, so I go for location hunting and, if I find a place that suits my story, I stay there for a while.

 

Sometimes it is the location that gives you an idea....

 

Yes, sometimes I don’t have a story, I just go to an island and I stay there until I find a story.

 

For The Woman Who Left you have chosen a specific year and historical setting: 1997, when Hong Kong was returned to China…

 

It was a complicated year for the Philippines, very violent, a lot of kidnappings happened. Many rich Chinese-Philipino coming back home and many tourists were kidnapped.

 

All because of Hong Kong returning to China?

 

Lav Diaz

Yes, because there was a huge Chinese-Philipino exodus. That year was also full of violent events: a Philipino murdered Versace, Princess Diana died, Madre Teresa died, too, and she is a huge personality in our country. Philipinos love Madre Teresa! So many things happened that year… One of the most sensational story that year was about two young Philipino-Chinese girls who were attacked and raped in the middle of the day by two rich Philipinos… This is why I decided to condense the film during that year.

 

Is Horacia's story in the film inspired by a real event?

 

No, it is inspired by Lev Tolstoj’s short story God Sees the Truth, But Waits.

Why did you choose Tolstoj?

 

Well, it’s a story about murder and forgiveness. It’s a very spiritual story. It doesn’t concern God, but a person who suffers a lot yet still wants to do something good for humanity. Horacia’s character is like that, it gives a buddhist kind of perspective.

 

That’s typical of Tolstoj’s last period.

 

Indeed, he became very religious; but I like this story because it dialectically questions existence in a different way: we need to suffer in order to see the light. It’s very human: forgiveness comes with suffering. We still have to forgive people in spite of everything, and we need to do that now.

 

Do you mean more humanity?

 

Yes, you know, lots of things are happening… The Middle East, bombings… The day before I left the Philippines to come here at Venice Film Festival there was a blast in a market in Davao City and several people died.

 

Really?

 

Yes, Isis claimed responsibility for it... they are everywhere now…

 

Do you think that your dramatization of history makes the Philippines a sort of symbol of the philosophical fragility of the world?

 

Yes, I do. Look at humanity: in spite of the achievements in technology, knowledge, sports, cinema, and the arts, we still act barbarically. We don’t actually grow. We have created this vicious cycle for which everything that happens is a step backwards to the original condition of being primates. We don’t really more forward, we never learn. Do you feel safe?

 

No, never!

 

See? That’s very XXI century! We’re now in Lido, it seems safe, but actually it is not, even Venice Film Festival can be a target.

 

Ok, let’s say that there is no hope, and the real problem is that the only hope left seems to be a radical religious rebellion or terror. Is there still a place for cinema?

 

Of course! I call it a responsible kind of cinema, that’s my own small contribution to humanity, as you have to be aware that you can only affect a few people. But we need that kind of cinema, something which tries to understand the human being and our nature: something able to question our existence. Cinema is right there, and it is still relevant.

 

When you make a movie do you see yourself as a filmmaker who has an idea about cinema, or rather as a filmmaker who has an idea about reality?

 

To be very honest, I don’t really understand cinema: I’m just using it as a tool to question and understand life. I know how to use a camera, I know how to put some lights there, I can deal with actors, I can deal with storytelling, and I try hard to do so... but I can’t really understand cinema.

 

You are also a writer, and a musician. Do you understand writing better than cinema?

 

Yes, definitely. Cinema is still for me a big universe to explore, and any advancement in cinema is a step to better understand its nature. It is a very complex matter, a kind of reverse cycle… but it’s important. I have this general feeling that you still need to do it, you need to push it: it’s very abstract, but meanwhile it’s real, and you - as a writer, a musician, a filmmaker - are in the middle of this process.

 

That’s why you still make two films per year, you can’t stay without filming.

 

It comes naturally, I don’t wait. When an idea comes, I just get my camera, I invite people, I go to an island, I tell them I have this idea, let’s just work on it... I don’t wait for a big budget, I go for it. It’s very organic for me, I go for it.

 

That’s interesting. Cinema is young, but everyone seems to know what it is. Everybody wants to make films and most of those who make films just employs one or two ways over thousands that exist… Your approach is completely different…

 

This is the major problem within the process of filmmaking... we get stuck with conventions and impositions while there are a lot ways waiting to be found. We should reject conventions and push more, why not..

 

Going back to Tolstoj, we are very curious about the relation you have with him; because he was a writer, but also an anarchist. At the end of his life he had found this kind of materialist spirituality… he would give up everything, including money… We were thinking about this yesterday as we watched L’Argent by Robert Bresson which is also based on a Tolstoj’s novel.

 

Yes, they are very similar! They seem to leave everything, but they don’t give up. To me, their attitude is very close to the buddhist idea of leaving everything but still questioning life: they know that, in order to do that, you have to sacrifice something. Cinema needs sacrifices, and if we push cinema more and we make more sacrifices, then we will be able to push life further. This is the only way: if not, then I would stop making films and would become a farmer. It’s the same situation with festivals, beyond their decadence they still show films because cinema is still relevant.

 

Speaking about festivals, don’t you think that their attitude to make compromises is the opposite of humanity?

 

It is. Compromises are very dangerous. You know, I don’t like any kind of balance, and I think that compromises poison life. At the same time, the paradox is that you have to coexist with that thing, because we have a cause, an idea, a narrative that needs to be seen, to be heard…

 

Since we are talking about freedom, we know that you have your own camera, which definitely means more freedom. We wonder if sometimes you feel the need to own something more in terms of technical equipment. For example, during the shooting of your previous film A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mistery you had a very expensive camera…

 

Yes, I had the Red Dragon camera, which is very expensive, because there was the budget. Actually it’s not that the camera is much better, but rather that it was more appropriate to what we needed to do at the time. For me that’s key: to be appropriate, whatever budget I have. At the same time I’m not the one to be put on stand by if there is no money. I can’t wait, I have my own camera, I have my tool, my arm, and I go.

 

Actually, in A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mistery the only thing you really improved with that camera is the light.

 

Indeed, but – again - just because it was appropriate to my idea of giving an expressionist tone to the film. Generally speaking I’m not against experimenting more, if I had money I would like to shoot in 35mm, but only if I really need it. The most important thing for me is not to compromise the aesthetics, the perspective, the vision.

 

What about the actors? How do you choose them? Why have you made the legendary Charo Santos-Concio come back to acting?

 

She has stopped acting for twenty-seven years, as she started working as chairperson for a big corporate company. She retired, and I once met her by chance, we were seated next to each other and I asked her: “do you still want to act?”. She said “yes if there’s a chance”, so we started to discuss this project. It happened so naturally, I simply thought that the Tolstoj novel was perfect for her. Two months later we started shooting, and after one month more we were done, because I had my camera and my small crew. It’s just five, seven of us, we trust each other, we understand each other, we have the same vision. Charo Santos is a very humble human being: even if she lives in a very bourgeois way, when she acts she’s able to live in the streets, in the mountains, in the hills, in the rain, in the sun, she becomes an actress!

 

Did you rehearse with her?

 

Yes, but only in the case of sequences where she needed to understand the location… You know, for each scene I need to look at the frame, I need to see time and space, to feel the vision without impositions, in order to be totally free inside the frame. I can’t say “act like this or like that”: no, actors with me are very free. I’m just very strict with the dialogues and the narrative, but about the characters they are very free.

 

So you’d rather rehearse inside the filming location.

 

Yes, I always look for the filming location, I work hard for that, that is the most important thing for me. I need real locations, real houses, I need time to stay in a place to understand what’s happening there.

 

When you see a place that you like, or a place which looks like the right one, do you immediately ‘see’ the frame in your mind?

 

Yes, you can be very organic. There’s a thing which I call “enter the zone”, it simply comes... there’s a moment when you feel the place, you see the scene, you hear a sound and you decide to use it, it’s a “Zone”, sometimes it’s just to open up, it’s like LSD…

 

That’s very much the point of your cinema! There’s a frame and the time that is passing is not the length, but it’s thousands of years, you can see and feel it on the faces, on the ground, on the grass, on the dresses, because the spiritual idea of time comes from the material…

 

It’s an accumulation of wisdom, years, thousands of years, maybe even a minute is an accumulation of wisdom, that’s time.

 

The idea of time in your films is strongly related with the idea of realism. Even when some digital things come (for example in Butterflies Have No Memories), or when something primordial comes from the past like the clowns in Century of Birthing, or the demon in A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mistery, that blows up all the spirals you accumulate in the narrative, but still we have a strong sense of reality. We see people of Philippines and we think about our parents or our grandparents in Italy…

 

This is the power of cinema, you’re talking about the power of cinema now… The very reality of the art of seeing lies in cinema, you can see everything from history and humanity, you can see everything. This is the beauty of cinema, it’s just about you and what you’re seeing, it’s the so called “alternative universe”, but it’s is still your own universe.

 

Don’t you think this is not only a matter of time but also a matter of space?

 

It is! Do we really understand space? Do we really exist now? Everything changes… The very question of reality is space.

 

There are many times in one single space.

 

Yes, and for me as a filmmaker my goal is to find the truth though this tool, cinema.. Maybe my cinema can find some philosophical truths, not only rational ones. I think it has to question other people’s existences, other experiences and testify the differences.

 

Idea is action: can we say that this is your philosophical approach? To find money is not important, it’s the idea that matters; technology is not important, but rather how to film reality.

 

Ethical issues. You have to be very responsible with your cinema, and then you have to be logic, you have to question everything, even your use of the camera, your use of light, your use of movement. Of course, at the end of the day, you cannot really find a logic, because of time and space! Because everything keeps movin’ and changes… But, at the end of the day, the truth of being, the truth of life, that’s what you have to search for.

 

It seems that you use the same approach to the narrative. Especially in your last two films we need time (and space) to enter your universe, and when we eventually are inside that’s the moment in which we are totally disoriented! It’s like a journey to the end of the world.

 

Yes, we’re talking about life! At the end you have more questions, but at the same time there’s this kind of transcendence, and you go beyond what you see.

 

Do we need to sacrifice something to reach this state? your characters always do that.

 

Yes, always. Even having this conversation is a sacrifice! If you discuss life you make a sacrifice, because you try to understand something which is complex, life and cinema. It’s a kind of suffering, but we must do that.

 

Interesting: in our catholic culture sacrifice means a refusal to live, while for you it means the fight to live... this is very important today, since governments and politics seem to give us only one way to live. What is the position of images in this process?

 

Images should be able to disappear. On the contrary, everybody in our world wants an image: we live in a very narcissistic world, all is about to get some power... I think that the most important thing is to find the right distance, because when you are too much committed with your own aesthetic you die… but, if you find the right distance your soul will survive. Art is very generous if you do things well. As with images, the real good people, those we need the most, are invisible.

 

Can we define your cinema as art of the invisible?

 

 

Hopefully! I try hard to give my small contribution.

 

 

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