Lav Diaz: As Long As It Takes.
Guest blog by George Clark
"I believe that the greatest struggle in life is the struggle to become a good human being."
The work of Lav Diaz, more than other internationally celebrated filmmakers, is discussed more than seen. Already his filmography has a nearly legendary status due to its remarkable length. His last five films have a combined running time of over 40 hours and he shows no sign of slowing down. His breakout film Batang West Side (2002) signaled both Lav's first exploration of uncommon duration (its five hours long) as well as his break from the established film industry. Since then Lav has produced one of the most remarkable and distinct bodies of work in contemporary cinema and in turn helped to inspire and lead the way for a whole generation of filmmakers across South East Asia and particularly in his home country.
Despite popular conceptions, the duration of his work is by no means the only story; Lav is a deeply committed political and literary film maker. In responding to a question about the length of his work he recently commented that he understands that “convention tells you that a film has to be two hours, mainly for commercial purposes. But I don’t have anything to do with commerce or the marketplace, I just make my films.”[ii] The duration of his work can maybe best be understood in relation to literature, his work often employs novelistic structures, overlapping stories and complex story lines that weave together the lives and fates of many characters. Lav’s early film The Criminal of Barrio Concepcíon (1999) was inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and various critics have compared his recent epics to works of Russian Literature. Lav credits his parents for this influence “my parents are bookworms and storytellers and teachers. They read and read and read. My father was very much into Russian literature.”[iii]
His work is also framed by the traumatic plight of his country whose history has seen it pass from Spanish to American colonizers in the 20th Century before its tragic independence in 1946 which was dominated by military dictatorship of Marcos, who left a continuing legacy of corruption, military brutality and suppression of democratic and human rights up to the present. Lav's work is colored by a reflection and examination of this complex history, yet defiantly seeks to highlight the stories of those outside of the countries woes, to explore the abandoned and neglected, from the rural communities to artists and failed revolutionaries. As the Fillipino critic Alexis and early champion of Lav's work stated, "The shadow cast by Ferdinand Marcos’ imposition of Martial Law stills looms prominently over the country, nearly twenty years after the dictator’s reign has ended. Marcos created a legacy; not only of fame and wealth, but of stifled hands and silenced voices; a legacy of disempowerment."[iv]
It is within this context of the disempowered that Lav's work operates. His works encompass many suppressed stories and tales, outlawed revolutionary songs sung in the night as well as fantasies and nightmares that stem from the countries rich and diverse folk culture. His films are filled with richly drawn and complex characters, and the many stories they contain are expertly structured, often combining documentary and fictional material as well as a remarkable treatment of filmic time and causality. Lav's work is unlike anything else in cinema, its marries the aesthetic of Bela Tarr with the performance and conspiratorial narratives of Jacques Rivette, the existentialism of Dostoevsky with the levity and atmosphere of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. These unique films perhaps provide their own best companions; each work is distinct and equally innovative, displaying signs of a constantly exploring artist and a conception of cinema as a live and evolving entity still far from being defined and especially not restricted to the feature length norm.
His work is celebrated by festivals around the world (such as the Venice Film Festival that awarded Melencholoy with the prestigious Orizzonti Grand Prize in 2008) but so far has had little exposure in the UK. As such the upcoming screenings at the AV Festival represent the first real opportunity to experience his work in the UK and it’s hard to think of a better place to watch them. Within the lovingly built and run auditorium of the Star and Shadow cinema, a building that in itself stands for an understanding of cinema as a communal and non-commercial experience, Lav’s work will be free to run throughout the day and their generous duration will help turn the audience into a unique community. These films are made to be watched together, to be experienced, to be lived with. The community that coheres around any work helps to define and enrich it. To watch a film by Lav is to experience an essential and unique conception of time and space, a conception born of resistance and faith in cinema as a transformative art. They are as long as an honest day’s work and much shorter than a TV box set, once they begin and you allow yourself to be taken with their unique pacing and rhythms, they’ll reward your investment with something most cinema has forgotten is within its capacity to offer.
[i] A Conversation with Lav Diaz Interview by: Alexis A. Tioseco, Criti Cine, January 2006 http://www.criticine.com/interview_article.php?id=21
[ii] Lav Diaz in Conversation with ALEXIS TIOSECO, MAY ADADOL INGAWANIJ, WIWAT LERTWIWATWONGSA & GRAIWOOT CHULPHONGSATHORN, Lumen, September 2009 http://lumenjournal.org/i-forests/conversation-diaz/
[iii] A Conversation with Lav Diaz Interview by: Alexis A. Tioseco, Criti Cine, January 2006 http://www.criticine.com/interview_article.php?id=21
[iv] A Conversation with Lav Diaz Interview by: Alexis A. Tioseco, Criti Cine, January 2006 http://www.criticine.com/interview_article.php?id=21