Lav Diaz, considered by many as the figurehead of what Philippine independent cinema should be, started his career as filmmaker under the auspices of Regal, one of the biggest and most prolific film studios in the country. The films he made for Regal and its subsidiaries, from Serafin Geronimo, Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion (Serafin Geronimo, Criminal of Barrio Concepcion, 1998) to Hesus Rebolusyonaro (Hesus the Revolutionary, 2002), bear a voice that can’t simply be relegated in a passé concept of cinema as entertainment and commodity. As expected, none of the films he made for the commercial film studio made money, but it earned for the country a true artist, uncompromising even in the face of capitalist demands.
Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001), about a Filipino-American investigator who wrestles with personal demons while examining the murder of another Filipino-American in New Jersey, unshackled Diaz from the restraints of commercial filmmaking. Clocking at five hours, the film pursued an aesthetic that is like no other in Philippine cinema, where the camera, mostly unmoving, demands patience and contemplation, because the film itself requires it. Diaz’s next films, Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004), Heremias (2006), Kagadanan sa banwaan ning mga Engkanto (Death in the Land of Encantos, 2007), and Melancholia (2008), whose running times ranges from nine to twelve hours and themes explore a spectrum that begins with the very personal and ends with the political or the philosophical, reinforces Diaz’s role in cinema. He is indeed one of the most essential filmmakers to have ever come out of the Philippines.
It is indisputable that Diaz is talented. He has an innate ability of sustaining even the most stubborn of interests with just one unmoving and monochromatic image. Take any of the staggered shots in any of his post-Batang West Side films, where depth, detail, and drama are encompassed with economy of aesthetics, and one would immediately notice that Diaz’s reflexes as a filmmaker is not bound by the limitations of what can be capture onscreen. Perhaps what drives Diaz’s cinema to go beyond the cursory demands of why cinema was invented in the first place, is his faith in it, that cinema is not twenty four lies per second, as Jean-Luc Godard would put it, but is actually twenty four or more not-so-convenient truths per second. If Diaz’s faith in cinema is unburdened by cynicism, why then can’t he demand the same faith from his audience? Truth be told, Diaz’s film may be bleak and therefore taxing to Hollywood-fed sensibilities, but the reward of not just sitting through his cinema, but taking part in his cinema, is priceless.
(Written for Lav Diaz's profile as fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.)