Photo: Manila Bulletin Entertainment

By Monica Delgado

Lav Diaz’s The halt (Ang Hupa) was presented in the latest edition of the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes. Because of a previous commitment with Film School San Antonio de los Baños, in Cuba, Lav couldn’t assist to the usual Q&A after the screenings, and we were disappointed not to have, first hand, his impressions about this new almost five-hour film, where he explores yet another dimension of a frequent topic in his cinema: power and domination of dictatorships in the Philippines, in the last thirty years. In this brief interview, Lav tells us a little more about The Halt, one of the best films of this Cannes 2019.

Desistfilm: Would you mention any type of relation between the figure of the dictator you propose in Season of the Devil and in The Halt? Your dichotomy of good and evil, of authoritarianism and freedom in The Halt is more grotesque, from this caricature of the character of Nirvano Navarra. That it to say, all your films have the ghost of Ferdinand Marcos, it’s impossible to run away from it, but in these two films this comes as more explicit, since we’re talking about these circles of power.

Lav Diaz; It’s not really that grotesque if you’d take a greater look and vet the secret lives of megalomaniacs and dictators of humanity’s history; how they conduct themselves, how they design their looks—Hitler, Gadaffi, Trump; there’s a long list. These are loons and monsters. In reality, with these psychotics’ demeanor and countenance, President Navarra, Chairman Narciso (Season of the Devil) and Chaplin’s Hynkel in The Dictator would really look lame and utterly tame in comparison. Marcos, the evil genius, belabored to present an opposite demeanor; he really tried hard to do some class act—he has finesse in manner and language. But then, the behind-the-scenes were wild and atrocious. And so he remained common and coarse because of his very, very dark side.

Desistfilm:  In The Halt, as it happens in your other films, the protagonists are characters searching for something after cruel losses, from Melancholia, or Woman Who Left. It’s like the only possibility of recomposition would come only from living an extreme pain, a social pain, related to the community and the others. How did you relate the “memory” with the feminine character of Haminilda Rios? I’m very interested in this vision of memory from a woman’s point of view.

Lav Diaz: Haminilda Rios is in a deep state of denial and people who reaches that point, would often search for extreme ways to numb their senses from the lingering pain of loss and mourning. Sadistic and self-destructive acts like, in her case, joining a prostitution agency would seem like a natural path, the corporeality of it an easy thread to escape to. Everything becomes intensely tactile, not just the longing to be touched or even obliterated but painful memories would manifest on a visceral level, they’ll confront you in your sleep, dreams and waking hours. And so, the self-inflicted mutilation creates the twisted rationalization that others are the ones harming her anyway. And then her sudden yearning for fresh blood is another sign of grave mental fracturing. This ritual of drinking fresh blood would be an extension of all the torments wrought by the loss of her loved ones, by the political and spiritual cataclysms, and environmental vicissitude. But the good thing about her is that she’s keenly aware of her struggles (her being a professor of history helps on this) that’s why she’s also active in trying to find a way out at the same time. In Haminilda Rios, the suffering woman becomes the metaphor for a nation’s struggle to remember. In Dr. Jean Hadoro, the historian and psychiatrist, a woman’s doggedness becomes the medium for not forgetting.

Desistfilm: In The Halt, there’s a catastrophe which makes everything happen because of the lack of sun. It reminds me of the environments of From what is before, with its dead cows and ruined crops. And this black and white is perfect for the setting of an eternal night. Being this a story which can be read as science fiction or a fantasy, how did you work with these atmospheres without deviating from the social drama or political film?

Lav Diaz: The genres are perennially there for the taking, so to speak. They are already part of cinema’s nature and being. My principle is—use them, embrace them, peruse them, even abuse them, but be responsible, and they will serve you well. And sci-fi can be the freest of the freest of forms in cinema, because it offers no limits at all, akin to the praxis of making fairy tales, fantasies and fake news. I was tempted to really make President Navarra fly everywhere like the concept of a hovering God, in his birthday suit, or may be a mix of Batman, Wonder Woman, the Hulk and Bart Simpson, bouquet in his hand, some dark angels following him with their discordant and confused hymns, but in the end, I had to contain myself from overdoing it. Cinema is zen.

Desistfilm: Through your body of work you have established a unique style, but you have also captured the history of the Philippines. How do you see this great cosmos about the post-Marcos era and about how its atrocious legacy still hitting your country?

Lav Diaz: Marcos is the Malay Filipino ghost that will never go away. At this point, any form of exorcism to shoo him away seems futile. He is the curse of the Filipino culture. He institutionalized everything that’s wrong with us now—corruption and the idea of the strongman leader as the nation’s savior.

Desistfilm: You competed in Un Certain Regard in 2013 with Norte, the end of history. How does this return with The Halt feels? What does it mean for you that a film which lasts almost five hours has had a participation in a space of this kind, where there’s the possibility that certain people will discover your work today?

Lav Diaz: Well, it’s Cannes, let’s not be hypocritical about it. I wasn’t able to attend because of my teaching commitment at the Cuban film school but I feel good about The Halt being given that space at the Directors’ Fortnight. Any filmmaker in his right mind will have to accept it—that Cannes remains the biggest cinema forum out there, despite its celebrity skin, despite the circus, despite the love and hate.