Lav Diaz: A Portrait of the Artist as a Filmmaker

Dino Manrique's picture
Feb. 21, 2004
8 p.m.

We're in a dim corner of Starbucks on the ground floor of the Araneta Coliseum, and Lav Diaz has just lifted his black shirt. Unmindful of the loud whir of coffee grinders that intermittently break into the consistent chatter of customers, the 45-year-old filmmaker is showing me the scar in the middle of his chest. "Nine wires and three holes. There are now nine permanent wires holding my ribs together. The holes were for the tubes," says the long-haired Diaz who now runs his forefinger along the vertical part of the thin scar shaped like a half-T, tracing it -- but without touching it -- from end to end, and then smoothes out imaginary tubes with his forefinger and thumb.

Diaz had an operation last December 1 to remove a tumor discovered sidling up to his lungs in late October. Bothered by coughing fits that wouldn't go away, and urged by friends who had noticed how thin he had become, he finally went to the Lung Center of the Philippines. "I just walked in," says Diaz, who, in his long tresses, mustache and goatee, seems out of place in this chic hangout of yuppiedom. After x-rays and tests, the doctors recommended immediate surgery to remove the growth. He then had to wait for a couple of days to find out if it was malignant. It was. But luckily for Diaz, the cancer didn't invade his bloodstream, although he now has to have his blood checked every three months just to be sure. "Thymoma B2, Stage 1," recites Diaz. When asked what the medical term exactly stands for, Diaz says he doesn't know. He also doesn't know what the tumor looks like. All he knows is that it was the size of his fist pressing down on his lungs, taking the air out of him. One of Diaz's filmmaker-friends captured the tumor on video but until now Diaz says he hasn't seen it. "Perhaps, never," laughs Diaz, who looks none the worse for wear. A little more than two months after his surgery, I was expecting him to be thinner and a little frayed. But it seems that he has kept his spirits up. A while ago he volunteered that, in his spare time, he had been composing songs and writing haikus.

Lav Diaz at Cafe Bola, Araneta Center, Cubao

This is my third time to interview Diaz in two years. (I was planning an informal interview during my birthday party a couple of days before, but he had begged off when he felt pains in his chest. When I sent him a text message two days later asking if I could talk to him, he replied at once that we could meet later that night.) I have yet to finish the article I started to write when I first met and interviewed him, and this third time is to update the article with this latest event in his life.

The article is on his breakout film Batang West Side (BWS) (West Side Kid) which has won acclaim here and abroad. The five-hour film, about the investigation into the murder of Hanzel Harana, a young Filipino expatriate in Jersey City, started its cinematic odyssey with a bang when it premiered at the 2001 Cinemanila International Film Festival, and won the Netpac Jury Award. Since then, it toured the festival circuit and picked up prizes like it was on a mission. It won Best Film in the 15th Singapore International Film Festival in April of 2002. By the time the local Urian Awards came around the following month, there was no way the nation's top critics could ignore it, and they promptly handed it thirteen awards, which was so unusual for a Filipino independent film. BWS's breakthrough year was then capped off with Best Actor (Yul Servo and Joel Torre) and Best Picture wins at the Brussels Film Festival in November.

Film reviewers meanwhile were as profuse with their praises. Philippine Daily Inquirer's Conrado de Quiros called it "dazzling" while Variety Magazine, the trade bible of the U.S. film industry, hailed it as "a masterpiece" after it was screened in the 25th Asian American International Film Festival in New York in July of 2002. Recently, another U.S. sacred text, Film Comment, included it in its list of "Unknown Pleasures" which is the publication's category for little seen cinematic gems.

Indeed, one of the film's challenges was to find venues where it could be shown. Local theater owners didn't see any pecuniary point in gambling on a five-hour long film which didn't feature skin and gratuitous gore. So Diaz relied on the festivals, which strategy worked well. Until now. For reasons Diaz wants off the record, producer Tony Veloria has put the film, after its screening in Moscow, in the freezer, so to speak. Diaz, for example, needed a copy to apply for film grants, but couldn't get one. And when a film festival in Latin America invited Diaz to show the film, he had to decline for the same reason. Text messages to Veloria have been unreturned. As a last resort, Diaz is trying to scrounge for a pirated copy of the film.

Such humps and bumps are not new to Diaz and BWS. Way back when BWS was still being shot in New York, setback was the name of the game. Shooting had to be delayed for a year because of production and casting problems. Actors and mutinous crew members had to be replaced. And near the end of production, when actor Joel Torre and Diaz were the only ones left standing after funds had run low, Diaz, himself, picked up a digital camera and shot the last scenes of BWS in wintry New York. It was hardly smooth sailing after that. At the Cinemanila premiere, they still didn't have a print five days prior to the event. The coffers had run dry. But thankfully, there were generous souls: FedEx owner Bert Lina, a family friend, gave Diaz the two million pesos needed to make the print. Diaz then had to rush to Singapore for the print processing the day before BWS was to be shown. At seven in the evening of the following day, the screening time of BWS, he was still at the airport and haggling with the NAIA authorities because he didn't have an "import-export permit" for the film. Fortunately, a reporter recognized him and told the airport personnel who he was. They let him go with his film, and the rest was history.

Diaz reveals that his 74-year old mother still doesn't know about his illness and the subsequent operation. "My father also died of cancer last August, a mere two months before I discovered mine. It would be too much for my mother," says Diaz, folding his arms and leaning back against his chair. If Diaz is still hurting from the death of his father, he doesn't show it. His father has particularly been a strong influence in his career. Diaz traces his love for the movies back to his childhood when his father, a public school supervisor in the town of Datu Paglas, Maguindanao -- both Diaz's parents were pioneer teachers of the then idyllic place, which would soon be troubled by ethnic wars -- would drag him and his siblings to the urban center of their province on weekends and there would watch up to eight movies in movie houses that had double features. "My father was really a 'film maniac'," says Diaz. "We would watch all the movies on Saturday and Sunday, and then we would sleep in the bus station. My mother would be mad at my father because we had mosquito bites all over. That was really my early education on cinema."

The cinematic education is not the only legacy of Diaz's father, who was also a lover of Russian literature and all things Russian. Lav Diaz's full name is actually Lavrente Diaz, after the KGB director, Lavrentiya Beriya. Born in 1958 on Rizal Day, December 30, the day the country's national hero Dr. Jose Rizal was executed, Diaz was supposed to be named Jose. However, the Russian connection prevailed. Diaz is not surprised when as an adult, some of his artistic heroes are Russians, like the filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky and the writer Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Diaz is the third child in a brood of four sons and one daughter. Only three are alive -- the second son died while still a baby after it got sick and was injected the wrong medicine in the hospital. The only daughter, Olivia, meanwhile died in a car crash in 1992. She was only 31. Diaz says that the latter event was one of the reasons that made him see the light and totally devote himself to his art. "I was sitting on a bench in New York, one snowy day, and had lived, until then, the bohemian life. I had just gotten the news that my sister died. They had buried her without telling me. There and then, I realized that life is short. Just do what you have to do. Just put everything into praxis." Not only did Diaz immerse himself in his art, he also abandoned all vices. He stopped smoking and drinking and became a vegetarian, living a more Zen-like existence, as he is wont to put it.

The death of Diaz's sister is only one in a number of sad and life-changing events in his life. While still in high school in 1971, a war broke out between the Christians and the Muslims in their area. He saw friends from both faiths killing each other. They had to move around until they settled in the town of Tacurong in the province of Cotabato.

The war was also one of the reasons why he left his college education at one of the country's best schools, the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University. "I was also considering going to U.P. [University of the Philippines, Diliman], but I really had to go home. It was difficult knowing that your friends and family were dying. I wanted to be near the scene of the tragedy." He transferred to Ateneo de Manila's sister school, Ateneo de Davao, but got kicked out because of fraternity troubles. Eventually, he finished Economics at the Notre Dame University in Cotabato.

Diaz then wanted to pursue a second degree in music at U.P., but had to forego his plans when he got married. "I finished Economics for my parents. Music was what I really wanted," says Diaz, who was a band member and played the guitar in college. (Indeed, Diaz looks more like a metal head in his consistent black shirt and ripped jeans get-up. The comical implications of which aren't lost on him. I remember after our first interview when four of us -- three of us had long hair -- were on a cab on the way to the birthday bash of another independent filmmaker. Diaz was merrily telling us that after we had gotten off the MRT train, he overheard a woman asking her husband, "I can't remember which band they belong to.") Diaz also took one year of Law at the University of the East, but had to abandon that path too when drinking took the place of studying.

Now raising a family, he worked as a journalist at People's Journal and Taliba, both tabloids, and became a TV scriptwriter, working for Balintataw, a drama program, and Batibot, a children's show. He honed his craft by attending workshops such as the one held by scriptwriting icon Ricky Lee, who recommended him and two other deserving fellows to the Mowelfund Filmmaking Workshop. Soon, he was making film documentaries. One such documentary about the plight of street children got invited to New York. Once in the Big Apple, he was asked by a Philippine newspaper to work with them, and he decided to stay for good. This was in 1992. His wife and kids -- two daughters and one son -- only got to join him there in 1997.

The interim five years in New York, before he was joined by his family, Diaz considers as "defining years." "[Being in New York] was an accident, but it was also fortunate because, there, my perspective on cinema was solidified: that one should never compromise," says Diaz. He stayed in East Village, a virtual commune of "struggling artists," hobnobbing with such people as Jonathan Larson, the creator of the musical Rent. To complete his apprenticeship, he buried himself in film books and attended film retrospectives whenever he could, learning from such masters as Welles, Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Bresson.

His break in the local movie industry also came around in 1997, when friend Larry Manda, the cinematographer, informed him that Mother Lily of Regal Films was looking for directors; she had to create 150 films or so for television network ABS-CBN. Diaz submitted samples of his works and got accepted. Admits Diaz, "We weren't really chosen because of our talents. It was more of an accident. To meet the demand." Whatever the circumstances of his employment, Diaz got to make films almost according to his vision in the pitu-pito (literally, seven-seven, after a local herbal concoction) system of Regal, a fast food model of film production. He made four films in all for Mother Lily's outfit: Burger Boys, Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion (Criminal of Barrio Concepcion), Hubad sa Ilalim ng Buwan (Naked Under the Moon) and Hesus Rebolusyonaryo (Revolutionary Jesus). Although Burger Boys was shot first, Kriminal was the first one to come out and was critically well-received. Based on Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Kriminal is a character-driven story of a kidnapping gone awry. This film presaged BWS in its controlled approach to storytelling and its Citizen Kane-like structure of flashbacks.

But while Diaz was still finger-practicing at the keys in Kriminal, in BWS he lets it all hang out. In BWS, Diaz says he threw theory out of the window, and let the film grow on its own. That's why, for example, the scene of a character singing is not abbreviated -- we witness the rendition from beginning to finish. There are no more snappy and MTV-like cuts "which a younger filmmaker might indulge in," as Diaz puts it. What we have are long takes, cinema verité and realism taken to the extreme.

Diaz's political outlook is also now more apparent in BWS. The characters become collective metaphors for all Filipinos, how we have all allowed the country to degenerate into its present miserable state. "We are all murderers. We killed the kid, Hanzel Harana. We're all guilty," says Diaz.

Just when we think that Diaz has stretched the boundaries of his art to their limit, there are hints that he has taken his style further in his next film. He reveals that when he finishes the 10-years-in-the-making Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family), or simply Ebolusyon, he will have an eight-hour film in his hand. We can take the length as a superficial indication of the artistic freedom that Diaz is wielding in this film. For the first time, he is the producer (together with a very close friend) of a film he has written and directed. This means that when the film is done, he can do whatever he wants to do with it. He plans to tour it around the country in school campuses and even to give away "pirated" copies to everyone so that it can be seen by the most number of people. "I was hoping that BWS would be the new model I envisioned for the propagation of my art, or film art, in general. But it was not meant to be," says Diaz, alluding to the Veloria impasse.

Be that as it may, Ebolusyon assuming the role of the prototype of the new kind of filmmaking Diaz is advocating may turn out to be a positive thing, for it employs guerilla filmmaking methods that even financially-handicapped but well-intentioned artists can adopt. For example, in terms of medium, it is more eclectic than BWS, using film and both analog and digital video, including footages from film and TV documentaries. Diaz used whatever means was at his disposal, borrowing cameras from friends, and in terms of manpower, relying on a network of students and admirers from the independent filmmaking and theater community who were willing to lend their time for free or for a pittance. "Organic," a word Diaz often uses to refer to his films, best describes his kind of moviemaking.

Diaz indeed has done, and more, what he set out to do in the Damascus-like scene in New York. And he is not about to take a respite soon. After Ebolusyon, he is planning to start his next film called Heremias (Jeremiah), inspired by the gypsy-like people of native furniture caravans. Well-known actor Ronnie Lazaro, a close friend of Diaz, will play the title role, and like the character, he is to fast for 40 days. "Definitely, there will be an ambulance on standby," Diaz says with a chuckle.

This devotion to his art, however, is not without its price. He is now divorced from his wife. And just two weeks ago, she brought their 16-year-old son to her sister's house in Baguio and left him there. "She called me from New York and told me that my son was in Baguio and that I should take care of him. Just like that," says Diaz, who also has two daughters in the U.S. He says that his son is having problems in school, easily losing interest in school work. "I explained when I went to court for him in the U.S. that he is like that because he is my son," he adds. Diaz theorizes that all of us have different levels of "autism," and his son has a world of his own, his own peculiar brand of "autism," albeit "artistic." Just recently, his son was asking for a still camera. So he bought him a Nikon. He was supposed to bring it to him to Baguio, but he didn't have cash for the fare; money is only expected next week. He says that unexpected monetary awards from festivals sustain him at the moment. "My father's cancer and mine have really drained my resources." (Diaz would have been in worse financial condition had it not been for his friends who, led by BWS actor Joel Torre, raised funds for him in a gathering in the latter's restaurant, despite Diaz's expressed desire of not making too much fuss or publicity over his ailment.)

When asked what is his most recent dream (by my girlfriend Marie who has just joined us), Diaz replies that it is an interesting question. He again leans back on his chair and folds his arms to mull over the question. After a second or two, he straightens up and starts to talk again. He says that in a dream from three weeks ago, he is walking along rice fields when he drops a fish in the water. A woman calls his attention. "Why did you drop that?" says the woman. He then feels a snake drop on his back and coil around his neck. At this point, the dream has become so real that he sits up straight in bed, his newly operated chest aching and his body trembling. Asked what he was thinking while he was dreaming the dream, he keeps silent for a moment. "I think it's betrayal," he says finally. "During my recuperation, I had time to think over all that had happened, especially the Ebolusyon shoot. The last eight months of that shoot were very chaotic. Fights and delays caused by actors. Many levels of betrayal. Friends who left you because you were now doing something different, that your standard is no longer on the level of earning money. You think of these things and you equate them to your mortality." Diaz pauses for a split second, and adds, "On another level, perhaps it's just depression."

a good article. its too bad

a good article. its too bad his films aren't readily avaiable for viewing.

Dino Manrique's picture

Another kind of film distributors/marketers

Thanks, anon. We really need (more?) distributors and/or marketing companies who focus on these kinds of Filipino films -- and more importantly have the artists' welfare in mind always -- so that the artists only have to concentrate on producing more creative works without the distraction of figuring out how their works can be seen by the greatest number of people.

well writ, testes

Speaking of course from a biased opinion as your friend, but I have read most, if not all of the articles written about Lav, this is the most comprehensive one I've come across so far. And also one of the most personal.

Well written Dins.

And it's still in progress.

To quote someone commenting about Lav's work, and from me who's seen all of his feature length work: whether you see the merit of his work or call him horrible names, you have to admit, no doubt, the man has balls of steel.

But that of course is my juvenile two centavos.

The length of the films are the novelty like us coming out of the screenings with t-shirts that proclaim "I just survived 10 hours of Lav Diaz's Ebolusyon."

The length of his works is the most obvious and most misunderstood part of his work and paradoxically also their strongest "selling" point.

The burden does not fall on him to prove that the length of his films are worth their running time. The burden falls on us the viewers who have become so used to limits set by commercial cinema.

Beyond the length, his films frame life in a very unique way that is so influenced by other film artists like Tarkovsky or Bresson, but is very much Lav's own personal style.

He is without a doubt one of the very true and important film artists working in the world today.

Dino Manrique's picture

Lav's stand

yayphi wrote:

The burden does not fall on him to prove that the length of his films are worth their running time. The burden falls on us the viewers who have become so used to limits set by commercial cinema.

Thanks, JP...and well said. :)

I'm always surprised by the positive reaction of readers to this piece. Wrote this with a class deadline hanging over me, and couldn't find my bearings initially. But when I started to write it at my own pace, the article seemed to start "writing itself," as the cliche goes. I guess one cannot deny that Lav's life story is as fascinating as his movies, as I, myself, found it to be. Moreover, the man has already made a stand with respect to his art, and one cannot help but be infected by his passion.

Re the length of the films, I wonder when Lav and company will release the recent films (at least Ebolusyon and Heremias, which Lav owns/co-owns) on DVD's since the length of these films lend themselves well to this distribution medium. Can you or someone remind me of Lav's position on this? Or does he prefer to show his films in theaters?

Dino Manrique's picture

To answer my question, JP --

To answer my question, JP -- Linao Films -- recently partnered with Lav Diaz to release some of Lav's long works on DVD. :P