Stories That Remain: An interview with Lav Diaz

by Paul Douglas Grant Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 45 minutes (11248 words)

This interview was originally published in a French translation on Hors Champ (May-June, 2019) 1 . The interview was recorded by Samy Benammar. It was retranscribed into French by André Habib and edited with the help of Paul Douglas Grant. The retrospective of Lav Diaz’s films was a collaboration between Cinéma Moderne, Cinémathèque québécoise, 24 images and was made possible with the support of the Montreal Arts Council, The Canada Arts Council, The Conseil des arts et lettres du Québec, as well as the Development Council of the Philippines who is celebrating the 100th year of Cinema of the Philippines. 

To accompany the Lav Diaz retrospective that played at the Cinémathèque québécoise and at Cinéma moderne, the Hors Champ team asked Paul Douglas Grant to conduct an in-depth interview with the filmmaker. At the time of this interview Paul Douglas Grant was a visiting researcher at Concordia University. He is the author of Cinéma Militant: Political Filmmaking and May 1968 (Wallflower/CUP 2016), the forthcoming Screening the Vernacular: The Emergence of Regional Philippine Cinemas (Wallflower/CUP) and co-author of Lilas: An Illustrated History of the Golden Ages of Cebuano Cinema (USC Press, 2016). Paul lived, taught and made films in the Philippines and his knowledge of Diaz's cinema, as well as the historical and cultural context of his work, are simply exceptional. The interview was conducting on May 31st 2019 at Cinéma moderne.  (Hors Champ)

Paul Grant [PG]: In 1985, there was an article in the Mowelfund film Journal Movement, called “Short film lives on”…  2

Lav Diaz [LD]: Yes, I know, I wrote that…

PG: This is a text that champions short films. It laments the impending disappearance of super-8 film, and even though it acknowledges the utility of video as a kind of alternative medium, the author draws attention to the impoverished image quality that video suffers from. You did indeed write this. So the question is, how do we get from this championing of the short film, shot on film, to a work like Heremias, a mammoth work, shot on digital format? What are the steps that move from that initial point to where we are today?

LD: It’s more about embracing what is happening today. With the case of cinema, it’s changing fast, since the advent of digital. I was part of that purist thing and I thought I would never use digital, since it will never approximate celluloid: Super8, 16mm, 35mm. But then, I’m a poor filmmaker. Very poor. And so I had to embrace it, ever since Evolution of a Filipino Family. I started shooting that film on 16mm and I was still living in New York, in Jersey City, working for a Filipino newspaper there and on weekends and after work, I would do odd jobs: waiter, gasoline attendant, proof-reading other people’s work, making money to buy the rolls of film. A 16mm roll was 80$. It is that. The economic side of it: if I wanted to survive as a filmmaker and outside the studio system, then I had to embrace the digital. So that’s what happened. But I would like to go back to super8. I was in Cuba this whole month of May and one of my students was using super8. It inspired me again to go back to that format. That’s how I started cinema. In Super8.

PG: Evolution of Filipino Family is both video format and 16mm?

LD: It’s 16mm and digital, but mostly 16mm, it’s a combination. But only the digital copy survived. We lost the 16mm. We only have the digital transfers of the 16mm.

PG: It was reversal or negative?

LD: All negative. There were positive prints as well but we lost it at the PIA (Philipinne Information Agency). During the years of Ramos, and then Arroyo, they kept rearranging that building there and then we lost the films. They just said: “Oh, the films got flooded and they’re gone.” At least I still have the digital transfers so I can cut them. But they still look so good.

PG:  I want to go back to this idea of the championing of the short film. I know that that was something Nick Deocampo was very militant about…

LD: It was a mindset, it was part of that movement…

PG: So there was a movement, a mindset, around the Mowelfund film institute at that time that was concentrating on the short film.

LD: It is this also in part because the foundation of studying cinema starts with making short films. You go to school and the first exercise you do is a 10-minute short film on super8. And the next step would be, 16mm, 11 minutes, and so on. But we love super8. Kodak is still printing in super8, and you still have the super8 cameras. I think it will survive. I don’t look at super8 now just for short films. I can actually make a long film now out of super8. I want to make a 40 hour film with super8!

PG: Prior to you, we don’t have that many examples of long format films. Maybe Shoah, the films of Jacques Rivette, Bela Tarr’s Satantango. These were always exceptional films, in the sense that people had to go and endure these things, almost on a muscular level.

LD: Cinema is quite dogmatic. There is always this idea of not going beyond two hours. When I started doing my cinema, I asked myself why did I have to follow that kind of imposition. You have to subvert it, to be able to push cinema and those conventions. We need to subvert it. Especially the question of duration. That was the first step. When I started doing Batang West Side, I decided to liberate my cinema. This is the first film where this happened. Actually, it was Evolution of a Filipino Family, but it took me ten years to finish it. when somebody gave me money for Batang West Side, I said: this is it. I’m going to liberate my cinema. The duration of things has to be subverted. I will push it beyond the 2-hour thing.

PG: On the one hand, Batang West Side is a long film, but the narrative is very strong. It’s not a tiring film. I don’t want to jump ahead too much, but one of my favourite films is Heremias and the opening shot of that film lasts…

LD: Fifteen minutes!

PG: Just those carabao pulling four carts… That’s something different than just duration right? When we talk about slow cinema, this is different than Batang West Side. In a way, long formats, ultimately, are not a problem for contemporary viewers, because they are watching Netflix series that are basically 10 hour long or more films.

LD: Batang West Side was done like a novel. It’s why it doesn’t feel like it’s long. You’re following characters, you’re following a narrative, or some ark. It has characters. It was written that way and was made that way. I’m always confidant people will watch this just like reading a novel.

PG: How did you get involved with Mowelfund?

LD: It’s only by accident that I came to Mowelfund. I was attending Ricky Lee’s  3 screenwriting workshop. At the time I just wanted to be a writer for cinema, to make money, selling scripts for TV. My feeling was that cinema was hard to penetrate as a filmmaker, because of the studio system. During the course of the workshop with Ricky Lee, there was an announcement concerning a Mowelfund workshop called “the Total Filmmaking Workshop.” He chose three of his students. I was one of them.

PG: Who were the other two?

LD: Bong Ramos, who is doing soft porn now.

PG: Does that still exist?

LD: And the other guy is now Business Editor of Philipine Star. A brilliant guy from Ateneo. 4

PG: You and Nick Deocampo, and Teddy Co, you are pretty much peers at that point. Is Nick already exerting a kind of influence?

LD: He was the head of the institute at that time. He was the King… Or the Queen!

PG: Does he have an impact on you at that time?

LD: Nick is a very good teacher. Very eloquent. He talks well. He’s a film historian. He studied at NYU. And Teddy became a very good friend. We are still good friends.

PG: And are they supportive?

LD: Yes, particularly Teddy.

PG: What about someone like Kidlat Tahamik?

LD: He’s like our father. I’m very close to him.

PG: But during that period, in 1985, and around that time, are these influences? Are you watching Kidlat’s films and saying:  this is where we want to be, we want to be out of the studio system, we want to be making independent films?

LD: If we talk about influences, it’s more Lino Brocka for me, especially, Maynila, sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the claws of light) (1975). When I was in first year, attending Ateneo de Manila, my teacher assigned me to watch that film: “You guys watch this film and do a review, or an essay about that film.” So we went to the theater, in Cubao, with my classmates, and I was overwhelmed by the film. This was 1975 at the Coronet Cinema. That film opened up the idea that cinema was not only about entertainment. You can use this for anything that we want to do. I saw that cinema could be used as a tool for change, for education, for engagement. I started changing my views of cinema after seeing that film. I searched to find other Brocka films. And of course, there was also Ishmael Bernal…

PG: Were Bernal of Brocka involved with Mowelfund?

LD: No. I saw Brocka when I was a reporter at the journal, when he was arrested for the [jeepney] public transportation strike in 1985. We were covering him, along with Behn Cervantes and some other guys. It was a fiesta at the prison house. All the activists in the world were bringing food. It was crazy. And I covered one or two of his rallies. One was at Liwasang Bonifacio where he was speaking. And I covered one at Morato where Brocka was shouting in front of the house of Umbrato. He was shouting and you know how dirty Brocka's toungue was, he was yelling "Puta ka" (You son of a bitch!). You cannot print what he was saying. He would go berserk with his mouth.

PG: In your career, you went from championing the short film within Mowelfund, in an independent mindset to, all of a sudden, working for the very commercial studio Regal Films, working for Mother Lily. 5 That’s a huge jump! You move from this very independent filmmaking community, to Mother Lily! And then there’s a break. You make three films for Regal?

LD: Four actually, Criminal of Barrio Concepcion (1998), Burger Boys (1999), Naked under the moon (1999) and Hesus, Rebolusyunaryo (2002). I left Manila in 1992. When I came back in 1997, I was still shooting the flashbacks of Evolution of a Filipino Family. Larry Manda, Robert Quebral, Louie Quirino were telling me: “Lav, do you have some reels, do you have some scripts? Go to Regal. All the Mowelfund guys are already there, making pito-pito films 6 ." So I submitted some scripts and some reels: Criminal, Batang West Side and Burger Boys. And I saw Luis Quirino doing pre-production, as well as Robert Quebral. These were all people who came out of Mowelfund. It was like an invasion of young people. They liked my script and I shot Burger Boys first, but I was unable to finish it. It’s the first film I shot for Regal, but I couldn’t finish it, because they abandoned the shoot. We were shooting in Baguio. The people of Regal are crazy. They were shooting simultaneously 4 or 5 films in Baguio. And I was one of them. I was the new one. And all of a sudden our budget was stolen to make the other films. We had nothing to eat. It was just me with an Arri shooting. We had the camera and the rolls, but I wasn’t able to finish it. Out of frustration, after 9 days of shoot I went back to New York. I just wanted to finish Evolution of a Filipino Family. Then I got a call from the supervising producer of Mother Lily, who asks me if I wanted to shoot the next script, Criminal of Barrio Concepcion. So I went back and I shot it in 18 days. It’s not pito-pito at all. Most of the works were done in 7 days. But I made a deal with them. Don’t pay me, but give me more rolls of films and give me more days to shoot. They only gave you 17,000 feet of rolls. That means you can’t shoot more than one take. If you do second takes, your film will be short. So you had to be super careful, just like super8. So I said: “Mother, don’t pay me, but give me more rolls. Like 25,000 feet of rolls.” She said: “You’re crazy!” I said: “I need 25,000 feet. And give me 15 or 18 days to shoot.” It was a secret between us. She allowed me to do it.

PG: That’s the same thing you were able to obtain for Hesus?

LD: Yes. They thought it was pito-pito, but it wasn’t. 

PG: This seems like a dream come true for a young filmmaker who’s just been in workshops, coming out of an independent community who is now working with Mother Lily, working with a big studio, a big distributor. You make four films with them, and then you’re done?

LD: I couldn’t do it anymore. It was so confining. My first cut of Criminal was three hours and they forced me to cut it. Mother Lily told me: “We’re showing the film in three days so you have to cut it.” I said: “I can only do 2h and 20 minutes.” But when I went back, I asked them if I could do the three-hour thing again. They told me they threw everything. Gone, gone. Bye. Fuck. They didn’t keep the reels. The three-hour cut is gone.

PG: But that’s interesting. That means that there’s already a tendency towards longer formats…

LD: I had already emancipated the film by then. But the studio imposed that duration. The cinema would not show that. And so I was forced to cut it to two hours.

PG: Indian films usually last three or four hours. That’s the norm, with the intermission and so on. In those countries that are influenced by India, like Nigeria, Nollywood films made on video, all of these have 180 minute norm. So there is a kind of precedent for industry standard that would be a longer format. It’s just that US and Europe imposed a format…

LD: It’s really Hollywood that imposed that 90 minutes format.

PG: When you look back at those Regal films you made, what are they for you?

LD: I love those films.

PG: Do they get shown when there’s a retrospective?

LD: Rarely. There’s still shown on Cinema 1, on TV in the Philippines. But they also used to show these films in the Eastern block, like in Bosnia, Croatia.

PG: I still have a copy on VHS that I got in Queens, of Hesus, Revolutionary, in 2003.

LD: They love that film in Eastern Europe. There’s a cult following of that film.

PG: There was an old video store in Jackson Heights that was transitioning from VHS to DVD. It was after that Écran issue came out. And sure enough there was this Lav Diaz VHS!

LD: I love the VHS. It’s a beautiful format, no? It’s beautiful to shoot on it. Especially S-VHS. We thought it was so good then.

PG: You mentioned being in Manila, being in Davao, but where are you from?

LD: Maguindanao. Datu Paglas, Maguindanao. It’s between Buluan and Tulunan.

PG: It’s Cotabato?

LD: Cotabato was divided into five provinces: South Cotabato, North Cotabato, Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat and Sarangani. It’s a political thing.

PG: There was a screening of Sherad Sanchez’s 2012 Jungle Love and I asked a question. He and Teng Mangansakan were taking Q&A…. I asked: “why make this slow cinema?” And they called on you, and said: As Lav Diaz says, we’re trying to film Mindanao time…

LD: Yes. Malay time.

PG: Mindanao time or Malay time?

LD: It’s the same…

PG: That’s the question really, even if we talk about Mindanao films. Maybe Teng is going to say you are not talking about Gen San films [General Santos City] and Arnel Mardoquio is going to react because you are not talking about another region. Can you talk about Mindanao as a homogenous whole? Mindanao is huge. It includes Muslim culture, Catholic culture…

LD: There are 99 indigenous tribes.

PG: Surigao is part of Mindanao. It has a completely different culture from Marawi… So when we talk about Mindanao time, what is it?

LD: If you talk about Malay time, you are talking about the pre-hispanic, pre-islamic Filipino. If you read the chronicles of Antonio Pigafetta  7 , it is there. He wrote daily in Cebu, when they were in Butuan, how people live, how they move. They are just hanging out, and hanging out. This is a big line from Pigafetta which says: “if this Malay people wouldn’t work for a 1,000 years, they will still find to eat because of the nature.” He sees the Malay people hanging out on the beaches, drinking, getting fruit. If they’re hungry for meat, they just go to the forest, there are boars, deer, birds. So I took it from there. If you want to check up on our real culture before the Hispanic, and Islam, it’s in Pigafetta. It’s the only material dealing with the pre-Hispanic Filipino. It’s the only written thing. Of course there were things written by missionaries, through the years. But the very first view of the Malay was Pigafetta. For me, that’s Malay time: the bastardized Filipino perspective on time and space. For us, it is that.

PG: At the same time, what does it mean? The Philippines is something that is constructed. These tribes and these people are so much different than the people in the South. In some cases, the cultures merge with Indonesia, etc. If you gather that and homogenize it into a single way of approaching time, it seems like it’s already encapsulated in what we call the Philippines today.

LD: You can still see these attributes. We always perceive it as indolence, or laziness, when the Filipinos hang out. Or when you go to Maguindanao, in the province, the Blaan, the Manobos, the Tedurays the Maguindanoans, they will be sitting under the trees forever. All day. And you ask, why? They don’t care. That is Malay time. They just sit under the trees. When I was a kid, we went to the forest, to find some birds, fruits, you pass by a group of Blaan, sitting under a tree. You pass by them in the morning and in the afternoon they’re still there. All day. Part of my cinema is to reclaim this kind of perspective. It’s a mix of writing a novel, and reclaiming what we’ve lost. It is that kind of perspective for me. It’s a responsibility to understand that we have this, before Islam and Christians came to our shores and converted us and changed our mindset.

PG: You grew up in a Muslim area, but you’re family isn’t Muslim, right?

LD: My father is Ilokano, my mother is Illongga.

PG: And what do you speak at home?

LD: In our house we speak Ilokano and Illonggo, because of the family.

PG: Not Tagalog?

LD: Tagalog was the lingua franca. If you talk with a Maguindanaon, it’s broken Tagalog. When you talk with a Blaan, it’s broken Tagalog. Because of the radio and cinema. But amongst us in our barrio, is Illongo. Or Maguindanao. Surrounding our place is Maguindoanos. And behind those are the Manobos and the Blaans. I like that mix. I used to resent it when I was a kid, because we didn’t have electricity. And when I would visit Manila, and other places, to see relatives, I would realize they have electricity they have ice. And we would go back to the forest, and I would ask myself what kind of decision my father was making to move there…

PG: What do you mean decision?

LD: My father was a socialist and a public school teacher. For him, educating the tribe was a commitment, a responsibility. He had this big heart and ambition to educate the people. He’s that kind of person. Very saintly. He’s a good human being.

PG: He’s from Ilocos?

LD: From Nueva Ecija. They are really from Paoay, Ilocos Norte.

PG: That’s why Norte for you had a particular resonance?

LD: Yes, that’s the origin of my father. Marilou Diaz-Abaya  8 is a distant relative. We’re from the same family. The Diaz family are from Paoay and Ilocos. My family is the poor Diaz’s. They went to farm. They left Paoay to go to Nueva Ecija.

PG: Did she know you as a filmmaker?

LD: Of course. She invited me to Ateneo, and we went together in New York to the Asia Society with Batang West Side.

PG: Do you have any thoughts about regional cinemas. Apart from Cebu, and some early film production in the 50’s and 60’s, there weren’t that many. And then, with Kidlat in Baguio, and especially now, with video and digital production, everyone is making cinema in their own vernacular and their own mother tongue.

LD: It’s very good. It should be that way. If you’re Ilokano, you should do it in Ilokano. If you’re Ilonggo, you do Ilonggo films. You can do it in Tagalog, but it’s always good to do your mother tongue. There’s a cultural difference that your are aware of. It’s more honest. It’s more truthful.

PG: Some people can suggest that to do regional cinema is a way of attacking Filipino cinema. That it’s divisive.

LD: I don’t know why they see it that way. It is a very progressive perspective for me to have all the towns, all the dialects being represented. It’s very progressive. This is a way of reclaiming our culture, our past, and what we have, and what we had then. Cinema has that kind of quality, to immortalize this language, these dialects. It’s important that we do that. If you’re a Illakano filmmaker, do Illokano cinema, and it will immortalize the whole thing: the language, the culture, the perspective of the Illokanos. It’s very progressive to me. Some people see it as divisive. I don’t know why.

PG: For me, it’s always people from Manila that say this.

LD: That’s the center, dominant, high perspective. I don’t buy that.

PG: There was one other more specific question, relating to Mindanao in a way. With the Ampatuan massacre of 2009, did you ever feel compelled to address that in a way? It is from your region.

LD: From What is Before is very much Maguindanao.

PG: But it deals with the coming of the martial law. Which is maybe a way of allegorizing the horrors of the present!

LD: I was a witness of what has been happening in Maguindanao from the very beginning. I was born there, I grew up there, with the coming of the Muslim secessionist movement, I was there, when they burned our barrio, and they held us hostage. It happened. But we do understand. Both my parents were public school teachers. From early on, they saw it. My father saw that Maguindanao was a social volcano. It will happen. He was very pressured about it. We saw a lot of social inaction and neglect. We were witnesses to that. My father was very keen on that, because of his Marxist perspective.

PG: When you say Marxist perspective…

LD: He was a young member of the Huk movement (Hukbalahap/Hukbong Laban sa Hapon was communist group during WW2 that was initially fighting the Japanese and even made common cause with the Philippine govt, but after the war they continued their rebellion and were demonized and eventually forcibly disbanded). Not the NPA (new peoples army, maoist party formed by Joma Sison, still exists today and is demonized by Duterte and is on the US's terrorist watch list) 9 . He was a pacifist. He opted for education. Educating the masses, especially indigenous tribes in the area. He was very saintly in a way.

PG: But you yourself were never tempted to join the underground?

LD: I almost did, in College. But music took over. We started creating bands and I left activism because of the punk revolution.

PG: In Manila?

LD: In Davao and Cotobato. But we were bad copies. We couldn’t embrace the punk ideology in the Filipines. It’s a very different culture. We just did the music. We did the Clash, Sex Pistols. We were bad copies.

PG: You were doing this in Mindanao?

LD: I wanted to join the communist party, and then music took over. I wanted to do more art, and eventually cinema.

PG: Were you friends with Raymond Red  10 back in the early days?

LD: Yes, he helped me a lot. For my first films he gave me super8 rolls. I couldn’t buy them. So he gave me three rolls, and then two rolls, etc.

PG: You don’t have any of those films anymore?

LD: I lost it in New York. My three-minute film. My student film. It was my ID in New York for underground film festivals. I had this short film that I kept transferring and somehow it got lost. I had stolen it from Mowelfund. When I got this invitation to tour with my photography and short films, and started working for the Filipino newspaper in New York, I visited Mowelfund and they just put all the super8 films on a table. And I saw my film there and I just took it. And I regret it now, cause I lost it.

PG: They didn’t have beta copies?

LD: No, back then it was just the thing. It was going to rot. But now they are able to digitize things. But the other one they kept. My other short film, Step no Step, is still there. I shot it on the first video camera that came to Mowelfund. It was Hi-8. We were shooting at night. Because Larry Manda [who shot Norte] worked with Mowelfund. He was stealing the camera at night to be able to shoot, and by dawn, they would bring back the camera.

PG: Is Mowelfund in the same building it is now where there’s the Filipino film museum?

LD: No, now it’s in Cubao now. But it’s changed. They sold half of the land. Mowelfund is going to disappear. The tribe is going to disappear. We don’t have a church now. We’ll have no place to go.

PG: Ricky Orellans’s still there?

LD: Yes, the last of the mohicans. He will be there forever, after Mowelfund will be buried six feet under the soil. He’s persevered and endured.

PG: You mentioned your appreciation of Lino Brocka. I was thinking about allegory in relationship to your films, and also maybe just cinema in the Philippines in general. So much of the work of that second golden age of Filipino cinema, in the 70’s, was about trying to allegorize the situation of martial law and the Marcos years, through melodrama 11 . And then when Behn Cervantes did Sakada (1976), which was the most thinly veiled attempt to address the situation directly, the film didn’t really work that well, it wasn’t really accepted and was pulled from the theaters. It seemed it was representing too much. When you come along with other filmmakers, it still feels that the ground zero for contemporary Filipino cultural life in some sense is still martial law. This is the sore at the heart of it. You address it in Evolution of a Filipino Family and other films.

LD: I cannot escape it. In the same way we cannot escape the effect of martial law.

PG: But now we have Ang Panahon ng Halimaw (Season of the devil) (2018). When I saw, Ang Panahon, for me, this is a film that is not about martial law anymore. It is a film about the contemporary situation in the Philippines, although the film is set during the martial law period. It’s as if we have to reverse the perspective. Rather than looking at an era we used to allegorize, we are now using the martial law period as a way to allegorize contemporary life in the Philippines. Is there something to that? A filmmaker told me that you shot that film in Malaysia, because you couldn’t shoot it in the Philippines.

LD: It was a very dangerous period. I was shooting The Woman who Left when Duterte won, and right after that, I went to Harvard for my fellowship. And I started writing songs, not really for Halimaw (Season of the Devil). But yes. Halimaw was just lamentations, to address the sorrow of the struggles, the torment that is coming back, fast, because of Duterte. Every day you open the news and there are killings, new killings. Just being very arrogant and imposing. There’s a need to address that. So Halimaw was born out of that. And quickly we realized it would be hard to shoot it in the Philippines. It’s quite overt, even if it is an allegorical thing. People can see through it if you shoot it in Manila or some other parts of the country. And you don’t know what can happen. They can just hit you. The mass hysteria is very fanatical, the way they embrace the perspective of Duterte. So for me to be very safe, especially the people with whom I work, we had to go to Malaysia.

PG: Did you bring a Filipino crew?

LD: Yes. We rented a camera there and hired some people from Malaysia as well. We really checked everybody, from the crew to the actors, to ask them if they were supporters. It had to be that way. We had to be very careful. If they supported Duterte, then they were out. This was done during the casting.

PG: In a way it means that there’s a new violent center. There is martial law again, in Mindanao… 

LD: The way he treats Manila, the whole country, it's like it's under martial law, it’s the same.

PG: But also, leading up to Duterte, there was also another tragedy. There was the typhoon Yolanda. Which is this other big disaster. It’s as if there’s this history of tragedies that keeps marking the Philippines, and that cinema has to keep dealing with. When you dealt with Yolanda, in Storm Children, was it the first time you worked in a documentary format?

LD: Death in the land of Encantos started as a documentary. But then, after shooting and shooting footage of the devastated area in [the] Bicol [Region] —I shot Evolution, Heremias, and other films in that region and I knew people  who died there—so when I saw the footage, I started working on a story. I went back with three actors and we started working on three characters. It became a hybrid, docu-drama and fiction. And then there is Storm Children, on Yolanda.

PG: It is direct documentary?

LD: Yes, documentary. I shot a lot. But I still have to work on three volumes. The film is called Storm Children, Book 1. I still have three books to do. I followed the lives of twelve children, and I only featured three children in book one.

PG: There was a sense that no one had done the quintessential Yolanda film. But by the time the film came out, we were moving towards the election of Duterte and Oplan tokhan  12 , and suddenly we have a whole new set of coordinates of violence with which cinema will have to deal with now.

LD: Yes. Terrible. But Brillante Mendoza made a film about Yolanda. I can’t remember the title  13 .  

PG: I didn’t see it. Do you want to take a break?

LD: No, it’s fine.

PG: Ok. I wanted to talk about Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (A Lullaby the the Sorrowful Misery, 2016). I think it’s my favorite. When that film ended I thought: I want to be Filipino. It’s partly because of this mix. You have this foregrounding of actors like Piolo Pascual and John Lloyd Cruz who are known more for their work in television and mass entertainment commercial works. And they’re playing some of the most iconic Filipino characters: Isagani, Simoun, Ibarra. That’s one aspect. There’s the history of the wife searching for Andres Bonifacio’s body. And there is a kind of reflexivity, with your producers, Mello and Moira Lang and I think even Bianca Balbuena who appear in the film, speaking Mandarin. And then the film is distributed by Star Cinema!

LD: It’s a strange mix.

PG: I think that this is Bianca Balbuena’s [co-producer of the film] doing, but in Cebu, it showed for two weeks at SM City, the big shopping mall, one of the major cinema chains. And the first night was full. The second screening was less full. I was at a screening with at least five other people. And it kept running for two weeks, so longer than most runs. What’s interesting is that the only other local film that had such a long run was Victor Villanueva’s Patay na si Hesus (2016), which was a Cebuano film.

LD: I love that film.

PG: Are you conscious of all those elements, the idea of putting John Lloyd Cruz and Piolo Pascual in such a thing?

LD: It came during casting. I was thinking already of the notion of a cultural pivotal thing the notion that, from now on, I will not exclude anyone. If you’re popular, I want you to be part of this thing, this cultural movement. So I talked to John and Piolo and I told them: “You guys are not just entertainers” You are also cultural workers because you are doing cinema. And you have a great role for the people. So if you join me, you can help.” And they understood. You can be very useful for educating our people and instead of just having ten people maybe a hundred people would come. Which is good enough. And they came and joined.

Lav Diaz is probably talking about Taklub (Brillante Mendoza, 2015). It was presented at the Cannes Film Festival in the section Un Certain Regard in 2015. (HC)

LD: Yes, they’re so good!

PG: And in fact you went on to cast John Lloyd Cruz again in The Woman who Left. He plays Holanda, the drag. 

LD: He did method there. A month before shooting he went to the gay bars of Manila and started embracing the gay culture. He got into it. Doing make-ups and so on.

PG: He went to the bars in drag?

LD: Yes. And at first he did experiments and the gays would say: “You’re John Lloyd, don’t fool us.” He was so frustrated. He wanted to reach a point where they would not recognize him. So we made some dentures for him, we helped him.

PG: You were working with him on this project of putting him in the gay bars?

LD: It was his decision. I just suggested that he do some research. But I didn’t know he would jump on it. Really method acting! One day he called me up: “Lav. It worked. They didn’t recognize me. It’s cool. It’s done. Let’s shoot.” When we went to Mindoro, people didn’t recognize him in drag.

PG: The film was shot in Mindoro?

LD: Yes, in Calapan, Mindoro. Every time he was walking in drag, in the streets, kids would throw stones at him. They didn’t realize it was John Lloyd. He was so good. The tricycle drivers would flirt with him.

PG: You also worked on Century of Birthing with Joel Torre. So you’ve consistently worked with mainstream actors. And many others.

LD: Many of them are old friends.

PG: There’s a specific scene in Hele that I’ve been wanting to ask you about. I believe it refers to the Chapter of Deception in El Filibusterismo  14 , where they go into the fair and there’s Mr. Leeds talking-head. In your film, it’s as if it is restaged as a Lumière film screening. Is it a reference to that?

LD: No, it’s not intentional. But it’s part of the time. When I was doing research I realized that some French businessmen came to Manila and other cities to show the Lumière Brothers films to make money. It was the new thing, right, cinema. And it’s strange because it happened during the Filipino revolution. It was this thing for the bourgeoisie in Manila. Oh! There’s this new medium, cinema. Forget the revolution. Fuck them. That part with John Lloyd and Piolo Pascual is the missing part of El Fili. You cannot find it in El Fili. If you read the book, there’s a missing chapter. Suddenly the story jumps. Simoun is already dying. He purposely did that. Like a jump cut in the story. So I filled that missing part. I wrote the part. They went to the forest. The forest is like the big actor of everything that is happening. Simoun and Isagani and the wife of Bonifacio and the Tikbala… 

PG: Another thing about that film is its’ theatricality, its’ tie to theatre and theatre actors.

LD: Bernardo Bernardo, the great Filipino actor, plays in the film. He died recently. Sadly, he was a fanatic Duterte supporter.

PG: Hele was shot in 2015 and 2016? Because I’ve heard references to people saying that Rizal in some sense has been coopted by Duterte.

LD: Actually, we began shooting Hele on June 19th  2015, the birthday of [José] Rizal [aka Pepe]. We didn’t know it. When we were in the forest to do the first scene, we realized it was Rizal’s birthday, Pepe! So we celebrated his birthday! A great Filipino.

PG: That idea that Duterte was coopting Rizal had nothing to do with that film?

LD: No way.

PG: There’s a mixture in the film. There are elements of Noli, elements of Fili.

LD: I did research during 17 years for that film. I had a script in 1999! The title was different. It was The Great Disappearance. It was on the disappearance of the body of Bonifacio and his wife, (Oriang) Gregoria, who was looking for his body. I came upon this note, as I was doing research in the National Library. It was an obscure note from Gregoria. She described the 30 day search. I saw that in 1999. It was written obscurely. It said: “I went to Maragondon mountain to look for the body of my husband. I was wandering in the forest for 30 days, being followed by Aguinaldo's men, eating only kamote [sweet potato] and bananas, and the leeches and mosquitoes and snakes are trying to kill me.” And she gave up after 30 days. It was an amazing struggle. And I realized nobody noticed this thing. And it became the premise of the film. The search fro the body. He was the first desaparecido in a way. Actually, the first one was José Rizal. When he was killed, they hid his body and it took his family 3 to 4 months to find it. One of Rizal’s sisters was going to every cemetery in Manila at night looking for it. And one night—I will make a film about this—she saw two guards standing on a fresh mount. When the guards left, she saw it was written R.J. (reversed for José Rizal).

PG: You will do a film about that story?

LD: Yes, the agony of the family of Rizal searching for his body for many months. It’s crazy what they did to his family. We should also make a film about these things…

PG: There’s an issue about what people sometimes call poverty porn. You sell some films, whether it’s from Latin America, the Favelas, the Philippines in Tondo, and we exoticize the misery of these countries.  But it’s hard not to see these consistent blows against the Filipino people. Whether it’s the Spanish occupation, Spanish colonialism, the Americans come, the Japanese… And I was wondering: have you every worked on a film about the Japanese occupation?

LD: I wrote a script but I haven’t used it.

PG: Has it been the subject of many films?

LD: During the heyday of the cowboy movies, they made a lot of Japanese films, with Fernando Po Jr., Efren Reyes and Zaldy Zshornack. There was one film, Matimbang ang dugo sa tubig (Blood is thicker than water, 1967) by Fernando Po Jr., that was a great influence on me. That first scene was very harrowing, people are cramming into a truck and everybody’s shouting: “The Japanese are coming”. I love that scene. That very first scene. It’s a big part of Filipino movie history. There’s been a lot on the Japanese period.

PG: There’s also Peque Gallaga's film, Oro plata mata (1982). I worked with students in the Philippines for 6 years, and not one has resentment against the Japanese. There’s resentment against the Chinese, the Americans, many other cultures, but there’s nothing left.

LD: Part of it is forgetting in a way. It’s like with the martial law. The next generation will forget about it. So it’s the same with the Japanese period. The next generation just started forgetting about it. If you meet my lolas and lolos [grandmas and grandpas] in my family, they’re still angry with the Japanese. They massacred one whole village in Iloilo. All my relatives. Only one survived. My mother’s aunt. She still has a scar. They beheaded the whole village. If you go to that village they still talk about the atrocities there. They hate the Japanese. In some areas, they don’t forget.

PG: Do you think that the martial law is really just about forgetting?

LD: That’s the paradox of the Filipino. It’s not just forgetting. We’re not confrontational. We don’t know how to engage really. Only a few people will engage with this thing. It’s a kind of malady. A kind of madness, of malaise. We don’t confront things. Like we say “Bahala na, ok na na bai” [“Let it go/whatever will be, its ok no man”].

PG: Yes, but at the same time, that can only be one portion of the population. There’s another portion of the population that is responsible for becoming para-military.

LD: It’s because of ignorance. The effect of it. Forgetting and being passive and pathetic, the result will be ignorance. It will lead to that. And populists will work on these guys and you’re done. And you have Duterte. It’s an easy road to that kind of situation. The issue of ignorance is so huge in our culture, because of that passiveness, that laziness in terms of confronting issues. We’re not critical about things. Only the people in the academia, the intellectuals, the artists are some times critical, although a lot of artists are not critical at all. They can’t articulate their work with social issues. We’re not investigative enough. We need to train our people to be that. To be critical. From early on. We should teach philosophy in elementary school. Ethics, all these things should be taught early on.

PG: This gives me goose bumps, when I know that it is mandated that all students must pass through Rizal. Because it’s already there: there’s ethics, there’s everything. But the problem is that there is resentment. And the students don’t want to have anything to do with Rizal. But it’s the way it’s taught. Because from an outsider’s perspective, what an incredible thing to have at the core of your narrative, at the core of your historical national narrative, two great novels. It’s incredible. The potential is there. Because people say it’s not a readerly culture, but at the same time, the culture is premised on these two works, Noli and Fili [Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo].

LD: We always talk about how we can escape this malaise of forgetting and intolerance and everything. It’s going to be always a very vicious cycle for the Filipino. And it’s like this in other parts of the world. I was in Cuba for a month. And I saw that. People are literally floating like zombies.

PG: In what sense?

LD: The weight of history is on them, but they don’t care about history. A lot of the young people that I met only care about going to the United States. It’s shocking. They don’t care what happened. They just want to get out. Escape. They know there’s something wrong with the system, but they can’t talk.

PG: But the students in Cuba, you find them to be in a similar situation than in the Philipines?

LD: It’s a generational thing. In the school it’s a great mix. You find great discourses and it’s cool. But if you go outside in the villages, which is something I always do, you talk to the people, stay with them, it’s actually worse than the Filipino. The psyche. Their condition is better than in the Philippines. There’s health care, there’s free education. But perspective wise, there’s a great problem in Cuba.

PG: Did you ever try taking your film to the barrio [the provinces or countryside] and show them?

LD: We tried doing the mobile thing. But it’s also dangerous, because of the militia. We couldn’t do it in Maguindanao, because a lot of my relatives were part of the militia before, you know the ones who killed father Tulio Favali [in 1985]. He was killed during the Marcos years. The seven or eight guys who killed him are my uncles.

PG: Pro-Marcos?

LD: Yes. They killed the priest. They ate his brains. They were part of Tadad  15 .

PG: What? Your uncles were part of Tadad?

LD: They’re all my uncles actually. They are all my uncles from the Indico [middle name] side. I only realized it when I grew up. Oh. Those are my uncles. The militians.

PG: What I was thinking was… Listening to you speak, one senses a lot of love for the Filipino people, the struggle that the Filipino people face. And then you have the films you make. The immediate thought would be no one but the intellectuals are going to be able to sit through these films. It’s not necessarily what I think, but it’s the first assumption. Why make a film like that, when you know that the every day film goer wants, if there is still a big film going population, is either fast-paced American films or mainstream Tagalog, romance, comedy, horror, genre films? And yet you make these monolithic, slow films. My question is, since we’ve been talking about Malay time, or Filipino time, what is the response of those people who experience the Filipino time more than the city dwellers, more than the people working in the call centers and who are trying to have fun on the weekends and are not going to have time to si throught your films. They’re living a 24/7 lifestyle. But if you show it to people in the provinces outside, in the barrio, what is the response?

LD: When we did the mobile thing, in same parts of Nueva Ecija, where we were shooting Century of Birthing, there was the realization that you need to talk after showing a film. Their question is “where is the action, where’s the sex?” They’re looking for the Hollywood thing. They’re so used to action and sex.

PG: I was in Myanmar, during a screening of Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs. At the end of that film, there were no Westerners left. It was at a film festival. And the locals, Myanmar people, stayed and stood up and applauded like crazy. I mean like old guys who were trying to smoke in the theatre, who were just there to hang out with the film. It wasn’t really that they were following the story of the homeless family in Stray Dogs. They were just hanging out with the film. And I was wondering if that was something that you could find, if you were to show some of your films…

LD: When we showed Evolucion in Nueva Ecija—because of course we shot a great part of the film there—they came to realize that there is this other cinema, beyond Hollywood, that the horizon of cinema is so vast… They can actually endure and understand. And they will say: “Parang kami”, “Just like us”. They have that kind of embracement. “Now we see a film that moves like us”. There’s a realization that this is valid cinema as well. They are happy to see that. It’s important that you communicate with them. We should do that, that kind of engagement with the people. We should bring cinema to our people. Otherwise you can never educate them.

PG: Also there’s not the same expectation. Someone who goes into a movie theatre now, in a mall, has anticipations. So what they get is a confrontation. I’ve used for my editing classes the opening sequence of Heremias. Because it’s like montage. There’s different durations. Some things are moving slow, the weeds are moving fast. You can show a different kind of editing that takes place, even if there’s no cutting. By the first three minutes, some kids are beginning to stretch, but some are locked. And so there’s a challenge, when you challenge that expectation with an 8-hour black & white film. Not full of action…

LD: Just farmers moving around.

PG: Whatever it is, right. That doesn’t correspond to what they’re expecting. But if you’re somewhere in the province, where it’s not the same anticipation, and you have an outdoor screening, and you show a film like this, it becomes an event that is taking place on a screen that you can be with, and watch, and you can come in and out.

LD: During the breaks of Century of Birthing, in Nueva Ecija, we would do these screening. We would knock on doors and invite people…We’d talk to them and explain to them: it’s an 8 hour film, but you can leave if you want. If you want to go eat, have sex with your husband, go home and come back, the cinema is still there. You want to feed your children, and then come back, there’s no expectation, no imposition. And if you don’t come back, it’s okay with us. And some stayed. And then we had a discussion. Maybe ten people stayed. But they were happy to be able to talk. To understand that cinema is part of them. There is this other cinema. They saw it.

PG: Do they have preconceptions, from TV for instance?

LD: Yes, but there’s a need to tell them in Bisaya “Manang, lahing cinema kani, way naglihok” [“Maam, this is a different kind of cinema, there's no one moving”]). “Talaga?” [“Really?”] They would be laughing hard. “Nobody’s moving, what kind of cinema is that?” They would comment during the film. We just laugh with them and give them lugaw (rice porridge). I think it’s a way to do it. We should do it more often.

PG: There is some attempt to do that, when they work with the regional film festivals. I know that with the Binisaya film festival they would do that. There’s a truck in Negros, a movie truck. It’s a screen in a van. It’s like the cinema of Medvedkin in the Caucasus or in Ukraine. But the other thing concerns vernacular cinema, the idea that it also speaks the language that they speak. I have a copy of Badlis Sa Kinabuhui (The Line of Life, 1969), with Gloria Sevilla and Mat Ranillo. A Cebuano movie. It’s in bad shape. They’re missing audio. You have one reel with the image without the music. In any case, when I first got that, I was teaching at USC in Cebu. I got the DVD from Ricky Orellana who sent me the DVD and we put it on a computer at school. And all the Cebuanos gathered around me and as soon as they started speaking, you could just see this incredible engagement. My suspicion is that they were feeling represented.

LD: There’s pride…

PG: To see something being made in their own mother tongue.

LD: It’s the kind of pride they get from being represented. We should always push that. It’s priceless. I see that with the mobile thing in Nueve Ecija They can relate to the scenes. You got them. That’s us. That’s how we plant the rice. That’s how we live. They feel that they’re part of it. You will create some kind of enlightened discourse. There’s another thing beyond the industry.

PG: There’s another question I want to ask. I suppose you make your films for the large screen.

LD: Of course, that’s the main purpose.

PG: And I assume a majority of us end up seeing them on the small screen. These massive films on a telephone screen! And I’m wondering now if film students aren’t making films with that frame in mind.

LD: Yes. Cinema has become that. It’s part of our lives now.

PG: But do you have an ideal audience?

LD: The ideal still is to reach the masses. Grass roots. I still want to do that but after Duterte... It’s very dangerous now. I will pursue the mobile thing. Maybe a tour. A very obscure tour. Unannounced. We just go the barrios and set up and say there will be a screening. Show the films and talk. I think we should that. Otherwise the issue of using the medium on a greater level is kaput. It’s just going to stay a cinema for festivals.

PG: Ang Babaeng humao (The Woman who Left, 2016) was shown in the cinemas, as well as Ang Panahon Ng Halimaw (Season of the Devil, 2018)?

LD: Yes, in Manila. Five cinemas. One maybe in Cebu, one in Davao.

PG: When you make a film now, the likelihood is that it will get a week run or something?

LD: But that’s because of Piolo Pascual and Shaina Magdayao [two very popular actors]. So we really need to use them. And I don’t mean use in a negative sense. Because they understand now that they are part of the struggle. I made them understand: “You are cultural workers, you are not just fuckin’ entertainers. You have to be part of the commitment to educate our people. You must be part of that responsibility.” That’s why they come, for very little money. You give them 100,000, maybe 200,000 when in fact you should be giving 2 Million. And they even returned the money. Piolo returned the money. John Lloyd returned the money. Give it to the other guys. They embrace the issue and they have that kind of pride. They say: “I have a greater part. I’m not just a fuckin’ commodity.”  Hele (Lullaby for the Sorrowful Misery) and The Woman who left completely changed John Lloyd.

PG: It changed my sense of John Lloyd…

LD: And Piolo, and Shaina too. Now they know.

PG: I was thinking of Alexis Tioseco’s “Wishful thinking for the Filipino Cinema” 16 , in which at some point he writes: “I wish Lav Diaz would have larger budgets to maneuver and shoot with. And would work with the ace production designer Cesar Hernando once again [who died two weeks ago]. I wish more people saw Lav Diaz’s films rather than just respecting his stance, and using him as a symbol.” My feeling is that this has changed now.

LD: Yes, it has.

PG: Did you work with Cesar Hernando again?

LD: He asked for a script for his first film, and then he made another film. And he was trying to raise money, and he died. So, I’m shooting that film in July. I’m shooting it for him.

PG: In general, it seems to me these things have come true. Alexis wrote the first version of “Wishful thinking” in 2008.  

LD: Yes, Alexis was very prescient.

PG: But do you think this was the case. That these things have changed…

LD: Budgetary wise, it’s still little, but I can work with it. Because people know, like Spring Films, that they will not give you much, because it will not make money. It’s only for culture. It’s enough for people to be paid. And the fact that people like Piolo and Shaina and John Lloyd want to work with us, that’s enough success in terms of culture. For me, the most progressive part of it, is involving everybody. I want to do that for Filipino cinema. Come and join us and let’s reach our people more. And change their mindset.

PG: I still think of you, Khavn, John Torres, as the new generation of Filipino filmmakers. But obviously it’s not. There’s a new group, and a new new group. There was a new group, which was Rempton and these guys. And now there are even younger filmmakers. Are there any out there now that you see hope in?

LD: I can’t really say because I haven’t seen much of the works. I’m always busy shooting. But I like the works of this Bisaya filmmakers. The group, Rempton Zuasola, Keith Deligero. I love that group. If they ask me to do something, like music, or something. I say: “just use me.”

PG: Is there a project that you haven’t made and that you feel is the one eating at you, that you need to make?

LD: There’s a lot in my head. I’m just a simple storyteller. There are so many stories. I want to do stories about Maguindanao, about Illocos, stories of my father. If you read Filipino literature, there are so many great stories. I don’t know why people don’t use those stories more.

PG: It’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you for a long time which is: there’s still a big connection to literature in your work.

LD: There’s a big connection. I’m more literary…

PG: Than cinematic?

LD: It’s cinema. Literature is part of cinema. But novels, poetry, but also music, were a big influence.

PG: I feel there’s been a detachment from film being in conversation with literature the way it was for a number of decades, in the 60 and 70’s. Now it feels like it’s more and more cinema talking to cinema, images talking back and forth with other images. And I feel that same thing. From my experience, in the University in San Carlos, we have something called the Cebuano studies center. And there you have Bag-ong kusog (New Force) The first newspaper in Bisaya.  First it was Nueva fuerza [Spanish language version of the paper before becoming entirely Cebuano or Bisaya].

LD: You still have copies?

PG: Yes. And there’s story after story after story… And then, Bisaya Magazine, from 1940 till whatever. There are thousand of stories in those…

LD: Yes, the young people must have access to that. With Internet, it’s become so fast, there are only bits and pieces of information. They don’t do research. They don’t look deeply into works of the past.

PG: Because of the formalization of Tagalog as the national language, there’s a longer history of Tagalog literature. If you go to Cebu, or Leyte, there’s a constant insistence that there is no literary tradition, but actually there is. It’s serialized, it’s different.

LD: Illokano tradition is also very strong. They need to be checked by young people. Great stories are waiting to be found.

For more on Lav Diaz, please visit our sister magazine Zoom Out for both video and audio only recordings of a Lav Diaz Master Class (with Mathieu Li-Goyette).


  2. Mowelfund was the Movie Workers Welfare Foundation established in 1974. It was responsible for conducting film workshops in the 1980s that formed many of the filmmakers still working in the Philippines today. (PG)
  3. Ricardo Lee was born in 1948. He’s a renowned screenwriter, journalist, playwright and novelist. He has written screenplays for pioneer filipino filmmakers like Ishmael Bernal and Lino Brocka.
  4. Ateneo de Manila is a private University in the Philippines.
  5. Lily Monteverde is a producer for Regal Entertainment.
  6. Pito-pito comes from the Tagalog word for the number seven, and implies that the films are shot in seven days. (PG)
  7. Antonio Pigafetta chronicled Magellan's circumnavigation of the world.
  8. Marilou Díaz-Abaya (1955-2012) was a very important film director from the Philippines, part of the second Golden age of Filipino filmmakers. She founded the Marilou Díaz-Abaya Film Institute and Arts Center, a film school based in Antipolo City. She directed in 1998 the film José Rizal, a biography of the national hero of the Philippines. (Wikipedia)
  9. Huk: Hukbalahap/Hukbong Laban sa Hapon was a communist group during WW2 that was initially fighting the Japanese and even made common cause with the Philippine government, but after the war they continued their rebellion and were demonized and eventually forcibly disbanded. The NPA (New Peoples Army) is a Maoist party formed by Joma Sison. It still exists today and is demonized by Duterte and is on the US’s terrorist watch list. (PG)
  10. Raymond Rd is an important independent filmmaker who emerged in the same period as Lav Diaz (PG).
  11. The genre of melodrama was one of the most prevalent forms for Filipino filmmakers to use as the time to describe the situation of martial law, a great example being Mike Deleon's Kisapmata, though based on a true story, the narrative of an abusive patriarch and complicit matriarch did not fall on deaf ears
  12. Oplan Tokhang is the violent and controversial anti-drug campaign set up by Duterte. (HC
  13. Lav Diaz is probably talking about Taklub (Brillante Mendoza, 2015). It was presented at the Cannes Film Festival in the section Un Certain Regard in 2015. (HC)
  14. Published in 1891, El Filibusterismo, is José Rizal’s second novel, after Noli me Tangere. The two books are often abbreviated as Noli et Fili.
  15. An expression that means “to cut up into pieces”. They were/are a Filipino paramilitary-like cult who Marcos engaged to carry out violence against muslims and others opposing Martial Law in the south (PG).

Paul Douglas Grant is the author of Cinéma Militant: Political Filmmaking and May 1968 (Wallflower/CUP 2016) and co-author of Lilas: An Illustrated History of the Golden Ages of Cebuano Cinema (USC Press, 2016). He has translated the work of Serge Daney and Jean-Louis Schefer and his work has appeared in, among others, La Furia Umana, Situations: Project of the Radical Imagination, Film International, TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, The Brooklyn Rail, Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society and Senses of Cinema.

Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 Interviews   filipino cinema   lav diaz   political cinema   the long take