Filmmaker mines PH history, but a ‘shocking’ scene unfolds off-cam | Inquirer Entertainment

Filmmaker mines PH history, but a ‘shocking’ scene unfolds off-cam

/ 05:50 AM June 12, 2023
Lav Diaz STORY: Filmmaker mines PH history, but a ‘shocking’ scene unfolds off-cam

Lav Diaz (From the Facebook page of the Bogaziçi Film Festivali)

He is best known as a proponent of slow cinema, but perhaps no other local filmmaker today has been as prolific and devoted as Lav Diaz in examining the Filipino condition.

“For the Filipino people, it’s for them, for their struggle,” he once enthused in a speech accepting an international award in 2014 for the film “Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon” (From What is Before), which, for five hours and 38 minutes, told of the mysterious happenings in a barrio in 1972, the year martial law was declared in the country.


Also among his award-winning works is the eight-hour 2016 historical fantasy “Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis” (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery), which focuses on the Philippine Revolution against Spain and the influences of Katipunan Supremo Andres Bonifacio.

His longest work yet is the 2004 production “Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino” (Evolution of a Filipino Family), which runs for 10 hours and 43 minutes, followed by the nine-hour “Death in the Land of Encantos,” which came out in 2007, and the 2006 project “Heremias,” an 8-hour, 39-minute watch.


Diaz was shooting his latest film in Quezon province — and again mining Philippine history for material and “metaphor” — when Inquirer Entertainment caught up with him last week.

“This co-production with Tanghalang Pilipino is set in World War II and is about tuberculosis (TB),” the indie director explained. “From the late 19th century up to the early 20th century, TB killed hundreds of thousands in the Philippines. Even President Manuel Quezon succumbed to this illness during the war.”

“I’m using the illness as a metaphor, of course, on the suffering of the Filipino soul.”

‘Shocked’ on location

But it seemed that he need not go far back in history for fresh insights and interpretations on the subject of Philippine nationhood. For such epiphanies can happen off-camera — and still come as a “shock” to the 64-year-old auteur.

“Only recently, my team and I shot a film (“Bihinang”) and included a community of Aetas in the production. They all played important roles in the film; some of them as actors while others, as crew members and workers,” he recalled.

“During the more than two months we were with them, we got exposed to the reality that the Aetas are hardly considered part of this place we call ‘our country.’ We were shocked to discover that they neither have no right to own nor live on their land, the one we now call ‘ancestral domain.’ They are being driven away from the places they were born and grew up in by powerful people, and they are incapable of fighting back.”

When it was time to hand them their salaries for the work they did on the film, Diaz said, he and his staff were surprised to discover that the Aetas — in this day and age — still could not present or have not been issued any official ID. The ethnic villagers have remained practically undocumented in their own “country.”


“To think that they live in an area that is close to a community with barangay and municipal halls that are technologically advanced. They can’t even get themselves listed in that location,” he said.

Social work, education

“Sadly, the Aetas live like ghosts—Filipino ghosts. With this discovery, two questions are now slowly creeping into my mind: Where can we find freedom for Filipinos? What exactly is freedom for Filipinos?”

Big questions have indeed permeated Diaz’s body of work, but his declared goals as an artist remain uncompromisingly simple. “My films are never for profit motive and the ego; they’re for education, for culture, for humanity,” he said in an Inquirer interview online.

Such motivations were molded largely by his upbringing in his native province in Mindanao: “I grew up in a setup and milieu where everything was for social work and education. [My parents] were public school teachers and social workers. We lived with the indigenous peoples of Cotabato. I’d seen their commitment and sacrifice; and I’d seen the suffering of our people.”

“Knowing your country’s history, the world’s history, your past, is essential to have a fulfilled and respectable perspective,” said Diaz, who has an economics degree from Notre Dame University in Cotabato City.

“Just look at it this way, this is just a simple example: try talking to a person who doesn’t want to struggle to learn and examine history, and easily you can see that he’d be the one who’s so prone to gossips, fake news, conspiracy theories; and he’d be the one supporting demagogues, megalomaniacs, egomaniacs, despots and false prophets.”

‘Back to prison’

Many of his full-length and short films — now totaling 22, including early commercial flicks — have offered long, meditative narratives on oppression, injustice, and tyranny, particularly during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos Sr.

But like in his recent interviews with foreign media, Diaz can be curt and blunt about the country having another Marcos in Malacañang:

“It’s like going back to prison,” he said in an interview last January for the arthouse film streaming app Mubi. “We thought we made some changes, but in fact, it’s more that we realize we failed completely. That’s the feeling we have now. We’re back to zero,” he told the writer Lucas Mankowski.

“Are we going back to the streets again? I’m so tired. There’s the feeling of failure on our part. As cultural workers, we didn’t do our part right. We asked the questions; we set things in motion — but how come there’s still this big wall of ignorance? … The cycle goes on.”

‘Our own little way’

He may admit being tired, yet in the next breath, he said: “It’s important that we keep working tirelessly. If we get discouraged, what will happen to our country, to the world? In our own little way, we have to help. I often feel that the work I do is small and insignificant, but I just keep doing it.”

Now one of the most internationally acclaimed Filipino filmmakers, Diaz has reaped awards and nominations in festivals in Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Singapore, to cite a few.

In the Inquirer interview, he spoke of upcoming engagements in the Czech Republic and Armenia “where retrospectives of my work are featured” and for which he would be given a “lifetime achievement award.” He will also “be teaching for a few days in an obscure island in Italy.”

Two “really respectable” festivals in Russia have also offered him “the same things … but I just can’t take the madness of the ruthless mass murderer Vladimir Putin, so I said ‘no,’” Diaz said.


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