Lav Diaz, the Last Filipino


Season of the Devil (2018)

From the New Left Review:

Diaz was born in 1958, eight years after the official independence of the Philippines from the US was declared, and seven before Marcos ascended to the presidency. He grew up on the southern island of Mindanao, in the backwater of Cotabato, the son of a socialist father and Catholic mother who were committed schoolteachers, part of a movement of socially conscious graduates out into neglected parts of the country. Diaz recalls it as a ‘hard life’—they lived without electricity, in a barrio with unpaved roads—but was grateful to his parents for what these years imparted to him, the experience of ‘struggle, sacrifice, poverty’, and the immersion in a village world that would leave a deep imprint on his work.

Norte, the End of History (2013)

It was an upbringing of cultural contrasts. His parents were highly educated: Diaz traces his love of Russian literature, and its impress on his cinema, to their influence. At the same time, American and British popular hits played on the radio—the Beatles, the Stones, the Beach Boys—and his older brother returned from college with records by Creedence and Led Zeppelin. This was a period of pop-cultural invasion from the West, prompting an explosion of local bands inspired by the new foreign sounds known as ‘Pinoy Rock’. Diaz also recalls regular weekend cinema trips with his cinephile father to the nearest town, Tacurong, where they would hop from one movie theatre to the next, catching double features of ‘Kung fu, spaghetti westerns, Filipino melodrama, Japanese westerns, everything.’ He also remembers the impression made by the films of Kurosawa and Herzog: ‘It was my film school.’ This was a feast of genres, which again would leave a deep mark on the cinematographic approach that Diaz would adopt, which proceeds by plays on archetypes and re-configurations of generic forms.

The Woman Who Left (2016)

Diaz’s formative political experience was the military dictatorship. He was thirteen when martial law was declared in 1972—‘I was one of the martial-law babies; that’s what my generation is called’—inaugurating a period of ‘chaos and terror’. Marcos had risen to prominence in the 1960s, presenting himself as a war hero in the fight against the Japanese and a descendant of an anti-colonialist general. (When he first ran for president in 1964, Marcos produced a propagandist biographical film about his life, Iginuhit ng Tadhana [Drawn by Fate], which Diaz remembers watching with his parents, amid audience applause.) With his term limit in sight, Marcos declared a state of emergency, on the pretext of a threat from the armed wing of the Communist Party, the New People’s Army and the Muslim Mindanao Independence Movement, which sought secession for the southern part of the archipelago that had converted to Islam long before the Spanish arrived. With Washington’s blessing, he imposed military rule.

The Halt (2019)

In the run-up to the state of emergency, Marcos had covertly deployed the military to foster an atmosphere of fear and confusion. Diaz had personal experience of this, even in his small village. Some time after martial law was declared, the villagers discovered that a recently arrived carpenter and two peddlers were in fact military agents, and had been behind the mysterious happenings—‘hacking the cows and killing people, burning down houses, making noises in the forest at night’—thought by many in the village to be the work of evil spirits. So effective was this strategy that a majority in the country initially approved of military rule as a way to restore order. Security checkpoints were installed on the roads leading out of the village. Diaz remembers soldiers forcing those trying to pass to line up and sing pro-Marcos jingles, or the national anthem—‘if you made a mistake you got slapped, punched, kicked, or worse, until you got the song right’. Diaz’s barrio was caught in the crossfire of the warring factions—military agents, separatist guerrillas, communist cadres: ‘there was this very complicated role-play game going on: a political role-play game, with all these interplays of characters. It was almost like a movie.’ Diaz’s film From What Is Before (2014), which portrays the degeneration of a rural barrio in the build-up to the imposition of martial law, draws powerfully upon these childhood memories of uncanny happenings and random terror.

From What Is Before (2014)

Although their house was burned down, and the family briefly held hostage, while elsewhere relatives were killed or went missing, Diaz’s parents chose to remain in the area and continue with their work. Friends of Diaz left to join the communists in the mountains, never to return. But like his father, Diaz was not drawn to armed struggle. He has said that the guilt he felt at staying behind made him more committed to filmmaking. The dictatorship coincided with a burgeoning underground youth culture, and Diaz played in punk bands—as rhythm guitar and chief lyricist—on the experimental periphery of the country’s pop terrain, yet to be exploited by the entertainment business.

“Philippine Noir”, May Adadol Ingawanij, New Left Review

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