Interview with Lav Diaz (2010-2011)

This interview is part of the book Conversations with Lav Diaz, published by Piretti Editore (Bologna) and distributed internationally by Idea Books (Amsterdam). The English-language book gathers seven interviews with Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz conducted by Michael Guarneri between 2010 and 2020.

Lav Diaz and Michael Guarneri in Paris, September 2021

Michael Guarneri: I noticed a similarity between the premise of your fiction film Walang alaala ang mga paru-paro / Butterflies Have No Memories (2009) and the actual hijack of a bus in Manila on 23 August 2010. In both cases, a policeman who lost his job (i.e., money, respect and authority) becomes a criminal and endangers the lives of innocent tourists. Do you think that what happened in Manila on 23 August 2010 is a sad coincidence, just an isolated case, or can it be considered the result of precise political, socio-economic and psychological causes?

Lav Diaz: Man’s primal nature is fundamentally feudal on issues of power. Money, respect and authority are representations of man’s feudal culture. Take Vladimir Putin, Muammar Gaddafi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ferdinand Marcos or the former Chief of Security (Dante Perez) in Butterflies Have No Memories: it can happen anywhere! The specific case of the tragic Manila hijacking is a clear representation of a culture – the Filipino culture – that remains tragically feudal in nature. The main character here is Rolando Mendoza, a military officer who was about to retire but was discharged without benefits because of his alleged involvement in criminal activities, which he denied. Mendoza could not accept losing his social status, so he hijacked a bus full of Chinese tourists and demanded reinstatement, i.e. to have everything back. According to a survey that came out on 28 March 2011 in the newspaper Philippine Daily Inquirer, the military establishment is the most corrupt of all the institutions in the country. For instance, on 8 February 2011, the former head of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, General Angelo Reyes, committed suicide (an unprecedented event in the country) after he was charged with pocketing hundreds of millions. So, yes, the Manila hijacking can be broadly linked to the political and socio-economic conditions of the country. And, psychologically, Mendoza’s desperate act is not so unlike the murderous rampage of Gaddafi and the horrifying scheme of the former Chief of Security in Butterflies Have No Memories. Mendoza, Gaddafi and the former Chief of Security are three primal beings who can’t accept losing their feudal privileges. The tourist bus in Manila, Libya and the island of Butterflies Have No Memories are the same, bloody and unfortunate stage for human beings who have retrogressed to their barbaric animal origins.

MG: Your films can’t be described as tales of hope, at least not in a classic happy-ending fashion. How do you reconcile the humanist aim of your cinema with its merciless depiction of endless suffering? I mean, your films could be – and actually are – accused of enjoying the gloomy, decadent mood, like some sort of poverty porn.

LD: Tragedy and suffering are an inherent part of man’s existence and death is inescapable. Only truth is regenerating and liberating, if you can find it and accept it. That’s why a culturally committed artist can’t escape the issues of his own culture, and poverty and misery definitely are fundamental issues in my struggle against the escapist lies that the Filipino people are being fed. Through my movies I seek the truth (which of course can be very broad, relative and subjective), and I hope to push the viewer to do the same and co-operate in the struggle. I am trying to be responsible: my cinema is conscious of our culture’s struggle. All my films investigate, examine, confront and challenge the Filipino psyche.

MG: Who owns your movies? I saw that most of them can be downloaded more or less illegally from the Internet. Is the existence of these pirated copies OK for you? Can it be considered part of your “digital is liberation theology” theory?

LD: I own Heremias: Unang aklat – Ang alamat ng prinsesang bayawak / Heremias: Book One – The Legend of the Lizard Princess (2006), Kagadanan sa banwaan ning mga engkanto / Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) and Melancholia (2008), and I am a co-owner of Ebolusyon ng isang pamilyang Pilipino / Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004). Yes, the coming of digital liberated everything that is cinema. Uploading, downloading, copying, sharing and reproducing have become basic parts of the circulation dynamics. Cinema doesn’t just proceed from film studios to theaters, malls, TV, DVDs, museums and festivals now. The zeitgeist presents us with a whole new cinema universe. And contrary to what big business people keep saying ad infinitum – that downloading movies is killing cinema – piracy actually pushes cinema to greater heights just by the fact that one can watch everything now, which can lead to a greater understanding of the medium and of reality itself. On the one hand, we have the discontent of the movie businessmen (and a lot of so-called “independent filmmakers” are actually businessmen), who complain about losing profit while continuing to make millions; on the other hand, we have the viewing masses’ demand to have cinema on their own terms and, indeed, the masses can actually own cinema now. This is because the filmmaker – now I mean the true filmmaker, the committed one – is liberated from the feudal set-up of the old system. Digital made this possible, from the acquisition of filmmaking tools to addressing the demands of the audience, primarily on the issue of access. Accessibility is still a huge problem since in the Philippines, like anywhere else in the world, 98% of the movie theaters are commercial ones, but digital is creating a cultural revolution in cinema. As reflected by the Digital Age, in this twenty-first century the struggle for liberation remains the most important vision and praxis. With the help of committed cinema, by the end of the century man must have eradicated all feudal set-ups: no more kings and queens, no more dictators, no more authoritarian regimes, no more monopolies, no more borders, no more landlords, no more gods.

MG: What did you learn during your pito-pito apprentice period at Good Harvest [a branch of film studio Regal Films] in the late 1990s?

LD: The pito-pito (“seven-seven”) was one of the most exploitative and brutal schemes ever done in film production. Regal Films – one of the biggest studios in the Philippines – imposed seven days of pre-production, seven days of shooting and seven days of post-production on us filmmakers. I saw production people collapsing from fatigue. During the shooting of Serafin Geronimo: Ang kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion / The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion (1998), I was having a severe flu. I was drinking loads of antibiotics, plus endless strong black coffee to stay awake and be able to finish the movie. I passed out on the last day of the shooting. Honestly, I thought I was dead. And everybody was working for very, very low salaries. It was hell. The process woke me up and I left the movie industry, the so-called “system”.

MG: Given your experience in both mainstream/industrial/commercial cinema and independent/arthouse cinema, do you think that it is possible for a movie to be both a cool, ninety-minute exploitation flick and a humanist reflection on contemporary hot topics?

LD: People compromise for a reason: at the beginning I was part of the system too. Things can co-exist and some people can live with contradictions. However, while working for Regal Films, I understood that it is easy to do exploitation stuff and then inject things there, make a lot of money and say: “Hey, I am just having fun and it is only a movie!”. Yes, that’s possible and there has been a deluge of that since the birth of cinema, but I can’t do it: exploitation is never cool to me, both as a movie genre and as a production method.

MG: I read that your next film project will be titled Agonistes (“agonists, competitors”). Can you tell me something about it?

LD: The working title is Agonistes. I already shot some scenes in 2009. I may be able to finish it this year. Agonistes is about three poor men who go digging for a treasure.

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