Notebook: From What is Before
Lav Diaz's latest movie, From What is Before, premiered in August at the Locarno Film Festival. His 2001 film Batang West Side screens October 19 as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's series Time Regained: The Films of Lav Diaz.
From What is Before
For more than 10 years now, Lav Diaz has been using digital technology to emancipate his cinema from “the business and bullshit feudal mentality of the Philippine studio system.” It all started in spring 2003, when he and cinematographer Richard de Guzman decided to complete a several-years-in-the-making independent movie about the trials and tribulations of a Filipino family from 1971 to 1987 by shooting in digital instead of using more expensive 16mm film.
In Diaz's own words, consumer digital equipment changed everything:
You own the brush now, you own the gun, unlike before, where it was all owned by the studio. Now it is all yours. It is so free now. I can finish one whole film inside this room . . . We do not depend on film studios and capitalists anymore. This is liberation cinema now . . . Digital is liberation theology. Now we can have our own media. The Internet is so free, the camera is so free. The issue is not anymore that you cannot shoot. You have a South East independent cinema now. We have been deprived for a long time, we have been neglected, we have been dismissed by the Western media. That was because of production logistics. We did not have money, we did not have cameras, all those things. Now, these questions have been answered. We are on equal terms now.
Cheap digital technology has allowed filmmakers all over the world to appropriate the means of film production, postproduction, and distribution, and to pursue their vision and agenda without compromising with studio “gatekeepers” who only regard cinema as the business of selling escapist entertainment to a mass audience for profit.
Evolution of a Filipino Family
That said, what is Diaz’s vision and agenda exactly? In a nutshell, every film of his deals with two interconnected questions: “What is cinema?” and “What does it mean to be a Filipino?” If you ever have the chance to ask Diaz about these two issues, he would surely shy away from any definitive statement by saying that it is an ongoing investigation and that he doesn't really know the answers yet. However, his praxis—or “methodology,” as he likes to call it—is clear: from Evolution of a Filipino Family (04) on, he has been using a peculiar temporal strategy based on extremely long takes and radical running times in order to recover Filipino history from oblivion and reclaim his country's ancestral Malay identity.
A five-hour-and-38-minute “anatomy of a Filipino village in the early Seventies,” From What is Before—the Golden Leopard winner at Locarno—might just be the most blatant example of Diaz’s aesthetic and ethical concerns. As for the Bazinian question about the ontology of the medium, in presenting a dramatization of his childhood memories Diaz clearly understands cinema as a means to connect the Filipinos of today with their country’s history, through an incessant dialectical movement between present and past, the personal and the collective, the particular and the universal.
The aptly titled From What is Before reenacts the lives of humble men and women residing in a remote barrio in the Maguindanao province, a micro-cosmos that is meant to represent the whole Philippine archipelago: Itang (Hazel Orencio) takes care of her mentally disabled sister Joselina (Karenina Haniel), who is rumored to have healing powers; Tony (Roeder Camañag) distills alcohol all day in exchange for a few pesos and, unbeknownst to Itang, gives vent to his sexual impulses on defenseless Joselina; Sito (Perry Dizon) works as a cowherd for a rich landowner and does his best to protect little Hakob (Reynan Abcede) from a terrible secret about his origins; Heding (Mailes Kanapi) goes from village to village peddling mosquito nets, mattresses, blankets, and pots; Father Guido (Joel Saracho) tries to spread God’s word among the villagers, while Miss Acevedo (Evelyn Vargas) is committed to giving poor kids an education.
From What is Before
Although Diaz admits to having used “a certain degree of abstraction” in creating archetypal characters and plotlines from personal recollections and real-life encounters, From What is Before takes place in a very specific timespan: from 1970 to 1972, the year in which President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law and announced the coming of the New Society. According to Diaz, the period of martial law (1972-1981) is the fourth and most violent cataclysm in Filipino history, one that plunged the entire country into its darkest period. After hundreds of years of Spanish colonization (the very name “Philippines” comes from King Philip II of Spain), decades of American rule in the early 20th century, and a few years of Japanese occupation during World War II, an educated Filipino man came and used jurisprudence, Catholic religion, superstition, economic wealth, political influence, espionage, and brutal military and paramilitary force to seize absolute power. As we can see both watching Diaz's movie and reading the text of Proclamation 1081 declaring martial law, Marcos’s modus operandi was clinical. Elected president in 1965 and again in 1969, he spent his second four-year mandate executing his master plan for staying in power beyond the eight-year constitutional limit: taking advantage of the religious turmoil in Muslim Mindanao and the rise of the armed wing of the Filipino Communist Party across the country, he managed to instill his fellow countrymen with the fear that the Philippines might be on the verge of a civil war that could overthrow democratic institutions. Marcos further manipulated them into believing in the necessity of martial law by staging a series of terrorist attacks, the most (in)famous one being a fake ambush on his protégé, Minister of Defense Juan Ponce Enrile, right before martial law was proclaimed. As a final touch on his Machiavellian political masterpiece, he concluded Proclamation 1081 with the words “In the year of our Lord, nineteen hundred and seventy two,” thus presenting himself to the Christian majority in the country as the executor of God’s will—a justification by faith that probably constitutes the most common form of aprioristic validation of human actions throughout history.
In this atmosphere of paranoia and political and religious extremism, it was easy for the President to convince people that, for peace and order to be maintained, he “shall direct the entire government, including all its agencies and instrumentalities, and exercise all powers of his office including his role as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines” (General Order no. 1, September 22nd, 1972). However it was not “peace and order” Marcos was interested in, nor were peace and order actually a major problem for Filipino people. As Sito tells Lieutenant Perdido (Ian Lomongo) in a memorable scene in From What is Before, the problem for Maguindanao villagers is institutional neglect, not the activities of leftist parties and Muslim separatists. Over the centuries, under the rule of this or that political regime (Spanish monarchy, the short-lived First Philippine Republic, American Insular Government, Japanese-sponsored puppet republic, the “independent” Filipino government granted by the United States on July 4th 1946, Sharia law, Marcos’s dictatorship), nothing has really ever changed for them, and they have always been living abandoned in the middle of the forest, with no usable roads or bridges, no electricity, no health care assistance, very few education facilities for children, scraping out an existence by hunting, fishing, picking fruits, and farming the small common lands not yet bought by landowners. This is one of the main reasons behind Diaz’s carefully composed, almost immobile, extremely long takes adding up to enormous running times: first, duration is an affirmation of importance in cinema, so showing poor, neglected people on the big screen for several hours calls attention to their very existence and their desperate living conditions; second, the filmmaker's peculiar aesthetic is meant to make us experience the burden of centuries of suffering, i.e. what Diaz calls “the agony” of his people.
The praxes of colonialism, feudalism and fascism are all based on the assumption that he who controls time controls people’s lives. The examples are countless, in the Philippine archipelago as anywhere else. Roman Catholic missionaries, Spanish and American slavers divided indigenous peoples' days into time slots reserved for praying, working, and sleeping. Both Japanese invaders and dictator Marcos implemented curfews in order to imprison Filipinos in their own houses every day from midnight to dawn. And as the exclusive owners of capital, means of production, postproduction facilities, and screening venues, Filipino studio heads have been able to impose a two-hour maximum on escapist movies for both filmmakers and audiences for decades now.
From What is Before
Diaz's mise en scène and temporal strategies must be theorized as weapons in the struggle for the emancipation of his people. Utopian as it may sound, in From What Is Before as in all his other independently produced works, Diaz has been trying to destroy time as a commodity and as an instrument of control, thus reclaiming Filipino people's ancestral Malay identity:
[My films are so long because] my cinema is not part of the industry conventions anymore. It is free. So I am applying the theory that we Malays, we Filipinos, are not governed by the concept of time. We are governed by the concept of space. We don't believe in time. If you live in the country, you see Filipinos hang out. They are not very productive. That is very Malay. It is all about space and nature . . . In the Philippine archipelago, nature provided everything, until the concept of property came with the Spanish colonizers. Then the capitalist order took control. I have developed my aesthetic framework around the idea that we Filipinos are governed by nature. The concept of time was introduced to us when the Spaniards came. We had to do oracion [prayers] at six o'clock, start work at seven. Before, it was free, it was Malay.
No matter how interesting Diaz’s discourse on the tyranny of time is, his films are very hard to watch both because of their length and their total disregard for the conventions of mainstream filmmaking such as narrative economy and continuity editing. Consequently, detractors often dismiss them as a sort of festival porn for the titillation of highbrow aesthetes, nothing but an endurance test for wannabe cinephiles, whereas aficionados use them to praise Arte Povera radicalism and the revolutionary power of slowness. As Diaz has said over and over, though, putting a label on his work is inherently wrong: it really doesn't matter if the films are slow or fast, rich or poor, long or short, in black-and-white or in color. The only thing that matters is that they are “free cinema”—personal works free from the industry's dictations, movies that leave their spectators free to decide whether to embrace the whole experience or go away after a few minutes. After all, it certainly isn't mandatory to like Diaz's movies!
From What is Before
However, for those who feel like trying something different from the usual mainstream fare and diving into Diaz's first major film festival success, From What is Before might just be the perfect film to gain a familiarity with the Filipino filmmaker's credo: that it is only by investigating the past and learning from experience that we can actually understand what's going on in the present and work in order to change the future for the better.
That’s why, before being a good or a bad movie, From What is Before is first and foremost a film that had to be made. Because Ferdinand Marcos’s son Ferdinand Marcos Junior is running for 2016 presidential elections in the Philippines as a candidate for the Nationalist Party. Because most of the dictator’s relatives and close collaborators during martial law still occupy positions of power in the Republic of the Philippines. And last but not least, because the Abulug barrio in which From What is Before was shot one year ago still has no paved roads, no bridges, and no electricity.