Hope Springs Eternal

Aaron Cutler on Lav Diaz at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

Lav Diaz, Century of Birthing, 2011, HD video, black-and-white, sound, 360 minutes.

NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY (2013) tells a Filipino tale. The film begins on the northern Philippine island of Luzon with a disillusioned former law student, Fabian Viduya (Sid Lucero), espousing to friends his “new morality,” according to which a society rebuilds itself by extinguishing its undesirables. For Fabian, these dregs include a local usurer and her daughter, both of whom he soon stabs to death. Joaquin (Archie Alemania), an impoverished DVD salesman, is framed and imprisoned for the crime, leaving his wife Eliza (Angeli Bayani) and sister-in-law Ading (Hazel Orencio) behind to raise their children without him. In time, Fabian comes to watch this broken family from a distance and consider whether and how he can—or should—help them.

The moral conflict propelling the remainder of Norte (reviewed by James Quandt for Artforum’s April 2014 issue) keeps with the career-long approach of its maker, Lav Diaz, whose films flow from life experience. His own parents were rural people not unlike Joaquin and Eliza. Fabian’s character loosely overlaps with that of the real-life dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who terrorized the Philippines during a sixteen-year period of martial law (1971–1987), through which the fifty-five-year-old Diaz and his family lived.

Norte, which was shot in the area where Marcos grew up, will be opening for a weeklong run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on June 20. Diaz’s official twelfth feature is his first to receive US commercial distribution, thanks to the Cinema Guild. Fewer than half his works have screened publicly in New York, a delinquency that Lincoln Center will address with Norte’s accompanying retrospective, “Time Regained: The Films of Lav Diaz.” The seven-film series has been scheduled with large gaps between screenings, highlighting the importance that Diaz’s films place on the interplay between immersion and breathing space: Following the June 22 showing of his mysterious, delicate epic Melancholia (2008), the films will appear through February 2015 at a rate of no more than one per month.

Lav Diaz, Death in the Land of Encantos, 2007, HD video, black-and-white, sound, 540 minutes.

Norte is Diaz’s most popular film to date, an honor assured since its world premiere in Cannes last year. More so than any of his prior great works, it embraces a vocabulary of conventional narrative filmmaking, with Diaz and mainstream cinematographer Larry Manda creating rich CinemaScope frames full of tracking shots across colorful, glistening sunlit fields. However, as Diaz has said, “Color is deceptive.” The gorgeous land his film depicts produced his nation’s greatest monster.

Diaz has produced his films independently since frustrations with his country’s studio system helped him to go his own way in the early 2000s. He invariably begins shaping them around their chief locations, all Philippine save for the Jersey City nest of Filipino immigrants in 2001’s Batang West Side (screening October 19). Norte’s sleek look differs from his typical approach, in which he photographs the sites himself at a distance in black-and-white with a small, handheld digital camera. His strong and often beautiful aesthetic choices help to mark the action as allegorical, with the landscapes reflecting human psychology.

A frequent Diaz shot consists of a person or small group crossing a stretch of road in its entirety, emphasizing the labor involved in the characters’ journey. For instance, Melancholia’s three leads wander disguised through the barren streets of the small Philippine town of Sagada, motivated by the hope that the area’s endless rain will wash away their memories of dead loved ones. Their journey evokes another taken by a trio of childhood friends through their typhoon-ruined hometown in 2007’s Death in the Land of Encantos (screening August 24). In both films, the characters roam in search of ways to find peace with themselves.

Diaz is less interested in misery than in survival, a theme that his work best registers over time. Many of his films are long by traditional standards—Norte runs just over four hours, and each film in the retrospective comes in between five and eleven. He has also made stunning works ranging from eight minutes in length to eighty, and stages similarly universal stories across the films regardless of their scale. Diaz places his central figures in difficult circumstances to reveal their creativity and strength, while mobilizing haunted witnesses around them who serve both as foils to the action and as his own, self-critical mouthpieces. Perhaps none is more overt than the filmmaker Homer (Perry Dizon) in 2011’s Century of Birthing (screening September 21), who yearns to make art that can speak for his people.

Yet, as with Dostoyevsky—a writer whose work has been formative for Diaz—all the films’ characters give voice to their maker’s concerns. The weary police detective longing for the Philippines during his American self-exile in Batang West Side; the scarred young woman committed to preserving her life story for her daughter’s sake in 2012’s Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (screening November 30); and the nomad seeking a purpose in 2006’s Heremias (Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess) (screening December 21) are just three examples of figures embodying struggles that Diaz has felt, believes that others feel, and hopes to share. They are—as Gilles Deleuze once described Dostoyevsky’s people—“engaged in impossible situations” that form the facts of life.

And regarding the series’ closing film, 2005’s Evolution of a Filipino Family (screening January 24 and 25, 2015), I will say only this: It’s worth the wait.

“Time Regained: The Films of Lav Diaz” runs June 22, 2014—February 2015 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.

Lav Diaz has recently completed a new feature film, From What Is Before, that will screen at this year’s World Premieres Film Festival (June 29–July 8, 2014) in the Philippines.