By Paddy Mulholland
The slow death, the anguished stagger of a wounded labourer in Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004), the gradual, forced mental disintegration of a sex slave in Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012), is not in Lav Diaz’s latest, Genus, Pan. (2020). Noted as one of the Filipino filmmaker’s shortest features to date, it’s also one of his most direct, most confrontational, least overtly compassionate. It is as though, in spite of the vast swathes of spare time afforded to so many artists during the COVID pandemic, Diaz has lost his patience, his inclination toward contemplation worn down under years of Duterte and months of lockdown. He’s got something to say, and he’s simply going to say it. Genus, Artist.
The abrupt announcement that Diaz was returning to La Biennale, where he won the Golden Lion with The Woman Who Left (2016), to premiere his latest feature wasn’t unusual – his productions are usually conducted with little publicity, quickly and quietly edited, then revealed among festival lineups to minimal fanfare. But in this highly unusual year, it certainly seemed unusual. Even for this most prolific filmmaker, who has at least two other projects already underway if the sporadic online discourse is to be trusted, Genus, Pan seemed to emerge out of nowhere.
Alas, there are few live action filmmakers for whom current working restrictions could be so auspicious. Known for working as and when the opportunity arises – Evolution of a Filipino Family was shot over a decade, using whatever filming materials were available – Diaz shoots on hand-held digital with extremely minimal crew, a neat coterie of the Philippines’ finest actors, often without completed scripts. Editing is done by Diaz himself; for someone whose features rarely run under four hours, this is a remarkably simple process, since scenes are generally shot with a single camera capturing a single take.
Diaz’s methods are a shining, nay glittering example to aspiring filmmakers in any time, but particularly to disadvantaged filmmakers in these troubled times. He once claimed that digital technology “liberated [his] cinema”, but this is a reciprocal liberation, a sweetly perfect case of cinematic praxis. For Diaz’s films are both about capturing the realities of life and the product of embracing reality. Sans scripts, incorporating environmental circumstances among other accidents and events into his long takes, literally making the quotidian canon in his otherwise fictional works, Diaz not only makes a compelling argument for his guerrilla-style cinema, he thus dismantles the arguments for the institution of cinema as industry. For if the business of film, combined with the economics of shooting on studio-owned film stock, imposes a vertical, hierarchical control over the artistic creation it purportedly enables, such dramaturgical constriction becomes actively anti-artistic, unreal and artificial.
The artifice evident in Diaz’s cinema is, paradoxically, entirely non-artificial. It’s merely the exposing of the reality of the circumstances by which this cinema was begotten. In Genus, Pan, Diaz does not capture three beleaguered colleagues’ fateful trek through the wilderness to their home town – he captures three actors’ choreographed performance of the above narrative brief, and his typically beautifully-composed tableaux and richly philosophical dialogue never belies the true nature of this fact. Genus, Pan’s brevity relative to his other narrative works pushes this quality to the fore, dispensing with some of the stillness, the diegetic silence that has dominated other Diaz titles (most notably From What Is Before (2014), where it is central). If its plot could have been covered in half the time it actually takes Genus, Pan, it’s thereby apparent that Diaz hasn’t dispensed with that stillness entirely – he remains committed to training the viewer’s attentions to the whole scene, the whole space, rather than merely following his characters’ movements, but as much as ever before, if not even more so, he’s training us on their nature as humans and the actions that both define that nature and are defined by it.
And yet we continue to share his characters’ physical spaces alongside their emotional spaces, a quality that is consistent across all of Diaz’s works, including his short films and documentaries. 2020 has been a year of spatial rediscovery and redefinition for so many – whether quarantined in clinical, unfamiliar places or sequestered in our homes and communities, COVID has encouraged in our global community a renewed perception of our surroundings and relationship to them. Across Diaz’s filmography, space has been a principal concern, indeed an elemental means of definition and interpretation. Drawing upon ancient notions of Malay time, stimulated in Diaz by his experience in the forcible “hamletting” of his youth in isolated communities, notions predating the various occupations of the Philippines and the first Spanish colonizers’ Western temporal ideas, Diaz has imbued each of his works with a spatial significance that both supplants temporal concerns and inevitably informs them. Individual scenes do not last for a duration of time, they last for the duration of an action. Era is not measured in minutes, days or years but in space and place. In single takes, events unfold organically. Non-linear editing refracts temporal linearity through constructs that prioritize spatial continuity. On our own COVID-necessitated islands of space, the world has come to understand its recent existence through its surroundings, rather than our arbitrarily delineated measurements of time. A March that seemed to last forever, an April and May that barely even registered, a Summer that didn’t really exist, a vast expanse of time endured in perpetual suspense, yet somehow over in the blink of an eye. Only through Diaz’s radical yet historically validated reconfiguration of how we interpret our lives can our multitudinous experiences of a pandemic present be understood.
If Diaz’s cinema can help us to understand our present and our past, it also proposes provocative solutions for the question of how to reconcile with the atrocities of these temporal factions. Like so many great artists, he’s uncannily prophetic – The Halt (2019) previewed (predicted?) a catastrophic outbreak. In Evolution of a Filipino Family, his breakthrough work and arguably his most important, Diaz depicts a casually crucial development not as part of the diegesis as we have come to expect it, but as an element within a diegetic construct; he shows what we would assume to be a factual occurrence in the film as a fictional occurrence in the film-within-the-film (he would further explore this blurring of boundaries in Century of Birthing (2011), and it filters throughout his work in other guises in the aforementioned interweaving of hyperreality and artifice). As Marco Grosoli explicates in his fabulous essay ‘Space and time in the land of the end of history’, Diaz exhibits the potential of cinema to retroactively posit the truth by responding to its consequential needs with revision. Never before has this been more relevant than now, in our “post-truth” society; its political implications may be troubling, but its artistic implications may be intoxicating, for it is largely through artistic depictions that we each come to learn about and understand our endlessly varying personal, national, cultural and global histories.
The filmmaker, alone in his modest home, solitarily editing his latest production in Century of Birthing; the guitarist played by the director himself, improvising for whomever may hear, if anyone at all, in Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution (2011). In the films of Lav Diaz, past is present, fiction is fact, space is time, the slowest death is that of the nation, the virus spreading from island to island. It is a collective trauma, one that is not felt in seconds and minutes but in physical places on our physical bodies. If he’s got something to say, it’s that we could all benefit from embracing reality, rejecting the grand capitalist experiment, the machine that has defined how art should be produced and why it should be commodified, the same machine that has brought colonizer after colonizer to the shores of the Philippines and to so many other shores, the same machine that has installed one tyrant after another while proclaiming to support democracy, the same machine that has engendered such drastic wealth inequality that people will eat diseased bat meat from street markets mere feet away from virus laboratories, the same machine that has compelled the poor and impoverished to work through a pandemic. The reality that Diaz embraces is a natural world, which religious, political, corporate and even philosophical hierarchies can never enhance but can only corrupt. We are products of nature, not masters of it. The slowest death of all in Genus, Pan, one of his fastest features, is the unseen death, the death that occurs long after the credits have rolled, after a lifetime of corruption and moral degradation.