By Michael Guarneri
After From What is Before (2014), a personal recollection of «political cataclysm» Martial Law hitting the Philippines in the early Seventies, Lav Diaz’s new effort Storm Children – Book One tackles natural cataclysm «Yolanda», the tropical cyclone that struck the archipelago in November 2013, leaving thousands of victims and damage to the value of several billion pesos.
Storm Children – Book One is a two-hour-and-23-minute documentary following the everyday lives of some Visayan kids in the aftermath of one of the strongest typhoons ever recorded in the history of meteorology, and it is rumored to be part one in an ongoing series of fourteen films.
The movie premiered at the South Korean DMZ DOCS Festival (also a co-producer) and recently had its European premiere at the CPH:DOX Festival.
Documentary films certainly aren’t a major component in Diaz’s filmography, at least numerically: prior to 2014, only Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution (2011) and An Investigation on the Night That Won’t Forget (2012) can be defined «documentaries» in the most commonly-accepted sense of the word (movies featuring real people as themselves, with no scripted dialogue or made-up plot). And yet, Storm Children – Book One doesn’t appear out of the blue.
First of all, it must be kept in mind that Diaz’s first steps in cinema were experiments in the «observational documentary» mode. As the filmmaker recalls in an essential interview with fellow-artist Pepe Diokno, his cinematic debut was a documentary on street children, followed by a 16mm short documentary about a Filipino woman selling books in the streets of New York – «slices of life» that, together with the above-mentioned dyptich about the unsolved murder of Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc, give evidence on Diaz’s background and early career in journalism.
Moreover, Diaz visited various storm-battered Filipino villages already in 2007, in the aftermath of Typhoon Reming, shooting interviews with survivors and «actuality footage» that were later incorporated into the fiction film Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), about poet Benjamin Agusan’s return to his native village destroyed by a mudslide from the awe-inspiring «perfect cone» of Mayon Volcano. Not to mention the real-life assemblies of peasants featured in Century of Birthing (2011), or the real-life religious procession in Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012).
These are but a few examples of what Diaz calls his own «organic approach to filmmaking», a creative process that consists in moving into a location with only a general outline of the movie in mind, and then letting the environment (the landscape, local people, the actors, the crew, the weather…) inspire the mood and the content of the film-to-be, sometimes even writing at night the scenes to be shot on the morning of the following day. In other words, for the Filipino filmmaker a movie is an organism, a living being that develops in contact with and in reaction to the surrounding reality, and nothing – least of all «cages of words and numbers» such as screenplays, production plans, or theoretical distinctions between film genres – should interfere with the gradual process of its growth.
Thus, far from being just an occasional, festival-sponsored venture into documentary territory, Storm Children – Book One must be considered a manifesto for Diaz’s samizdat«free cinema».
Armed with his own digital camera and accompanied by a very small crew for sound (Hazel Orencio) and additional photography (Sultan Diaz), the filmmaker travelled to Tacloban, Eastern Visayas, and started accumulating hours of footage by simply filming the daily routine of children he met in the streets after the Yolanda apocalypse.
Most of Storm Children – Book One has no dialogue. For almost two hours, the black and white cinematography does all the speaking, with Diaz’s trademark lengthy immobile shots often interrupted by shaky handheld-camera shots following the kids around shanty towns along the devastated coastline, as if the desire to discover and record reality in its unfolding had absolute priority over formal issues of pictorial composition and framing.
However, the filmmaker is not just randomly pointing his camera around. The recurring image is a low-angle shot of wrecked cargo ships looming over the tents and wooden shacks the survivors built where their homes stood once: as explained by one of the children near the end of the documentary, what was not washed away by heavy rains and gigantic waves was razed to the ground by the mega-ships that the typhoon pushed ashore at incredible speed. One such shot depicting the cargo ship «Safety First» standing out against the sky over the debris of a village is particularly striking: besides providing a touch of black humor quite unusual in Diaz’s cinematic universe, it shows the Filipino filmmaker’s eye for detail and his ability to seize upon what reality has to offer to the man with a (digital) movie camera. As a matter of fact, it would be really interesting to know if, during his stay at Locarno 67 in August 2014, Diaz had the chance to watch Agnès Varda’sLes glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000), a digital video essay theorizing «free cinema» as the work of a wanderer «picking up and storing» the images that appear in his or her field of vision just like gleaners rummage around in harvested fields to collect leftover crops.
The comparison with Varda’s documentary is further strengthened by what seems to be the main activity of Diaz’s little protagonists – their scavenging for plastic and scrap metal to be sold to junk shops for a few pesos. At least one hundred minutes of Storm Children – Book One are consecrated to the close, silent observation of this sort of «urban gleaning» in the Tacloban wasteland, and even though Diaz never set out to provide a microeconomics study of a small Filipino community such as Kidlat Tahimik’s Turumba(1981), that’s exactly what his «organic process» of filmmaking led to.
The kids of Storm Children – Book One are in fact workers in a post-apocalyptic economy in which bare survival rather than profit-making is at stake. They might have fun diving and exploring the seabed, fishing stuff from canals or digging into piles of rubbish, but they are not just fooling around to kill time. As a boy confirms while talking with the film crew, for him and his friends this is actually rag-picking work. The «storm children» are not «good savages», always smiling and playing even in the face of disaster: they are survivors – most of them missing one or even both parents – and they have to be resilient in order not to break down and fall apart, fighting every waking minute to make a living.
As Diaz stated in many interviews over the past decade, it is precisely the «daily struggle» of his fellow-countrymen he strives to bring to the big screen for the world to see, and the kids of Storm Children – Book One are indeed a synecdoche for Filipino people as a whole:
We are the storm people. The storm could be the Filipino’s original Anito [God]; we had so many gods before Christ and Allah came to our endless shores. On the average, the Philippines is battered by 28 storms every year, but that doesn’t make us a storm-battered race. In fact, we’ve become this storm-loving people. The storm is very much a part of our reality. Double that average, the Filipino can still take it. I wouldn’t call it a sado-masochistic psyche, but more of a resigned acceptance because you can’t do anything about it; it’s nature’s way. And you go back to the pre-Islamic and pre-Catholic Filipino Malay perspective—life is governed by nature. So, yes, the storm gives the Filipino a resiliency that’s uniquely Filipino because it’s become a metaphor for restarting, rebuilding, reconstruction, relocation, rebirth, recalling, renaming, resurfacing, reissuing, recurrence, reluctance, relapse, return, retain, remain, regain, resurrect, remiss, relief, rogue, rotten, rampant, relax, renegade, rob, run, rush, rip, ripe, rum, rug, rat, rut, retrogression, retro, rope, and rock ‘n’ roll.
The above Diaz quote, sourced from a 2012 correspondence with Andréa Picard published in CinemaScope 51, allows us to gloss on the Rainer Maria Rilke line featured in the opening of the disaster movie Death in the Land of Encantos, and shine a little light in a seemingly funereal, desperate cinema: not only «Beauty is the beginning of Terror» (Duino Elegies, I), but also «Terror is the beginning of Beauty» – or, to put it in the words of the little protagonist of Turumba, «even if a typhoon is violent, it brings rain for the newly-planted rice»…
Director: Lav Diaz
Editor: Lav Diaz
Producer: Sine Olivia pilipinas/DMZ Docs
Filipinas, 2014, B&W, 143 minutes.