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Everything is told, but nothing was ever written.
The decade closed like a baffling movie ending: film critics Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc were shot dead during a robbery in the former’s home in Manila. In addition to being one of the few defenders of true independent cinema in the region, Tioseco was also the greatest supporter of Lav Diaz, the Philippines’ standard-bearer of so-called contemplative cinema (or cinema of comatose, as Noel Vera puts it) and arguably the country’s most important working filmmaker. Yet his death also came at a time when the most recognized contemporary Filipino director, Brillante Mendoza, had just won the Best Director award at Cannes for Kinatay (2009), lamentably cementing the country’s identity as a purveyor of “poverty porn.”
Unlike Mendoza, who is a direct heir of Lino Brocka, Diaz’s references are more diverse. His films are founded in comic magazine literature (which Diaz wrote for in his early days), played in the style of traditional local melodrama, and strengthened by knowledge of foreign literature and film (Dostoevsky, Tarkovsky, Tarr). The result is like nothing else in Philippine cinema: part history class, part film history, and pure cinema. Batang West Side (2001), the first film outside his studio career and the first in what has now become his signature aesthetic, is a formidable example. The film is a crime story without any shoot-outs, a melodrama without the histrionics, yet everything is so very familiar, so Filipino that it would cover the gaps in our country’s best works: the thrillers of Mike De Leon, sophisticated ensembles by Ishmael Bernal, even Brocka’s social-realist tales.
Even after five epic works, varying in length from five to 12 hours, Evolution of a Filipino Family still stands as Diaz’s canonical achievement. Filmed from early 1994 to late 2004 and accompanied by a dynamic post-production, the film follows neither a traditional studio method nor the organic process of a Kidlat Tahimik, whose cinema is propelled by spontaneous ideas and intuitively constructed from hours of celluloid and video footage, whichever was available at the moment. By contrast, Diaz’s embrace of spontaneity and chance collaborates with the presence of a script, which he sometimes constructs a night before shooting depending on previously organized casting and locations.
Set during the martial rule of the Marcos regime, Evolution of a Filipino Family follows Raynaldo, an orphan rescued from a garbage dump by the mentally ill Gilda, who is soon after raped and murdered. Taken in by Gilda’s brother Kadyo, the boy is confronted by a grandmother who constantly blames everyone for their misfortunes, an uncle’s involvement with the rebels and the underworld, and granddaughters forced to work for their survival.
In a decade where veteran filmmakers were often more progressive than their younger counterparts, Lav Diaz preserved the spirit of local storytelling. Though reliant on a traditional narrative structure, Diaz’s cinema distends it drastically—not as aesthetic experiment, but in pursuit of a certain truth. Diaz claims that the sense of time in his films is based on that of rural people, and our repulsion (or admiration) lies in the fact that this truth is far distant from ours. Evolution then becomes a simple, honest reminder about cinema: whose story to tell, and how to tell it.
Diaz’s film is a selfless act of love, an achievement all the more exceptional in light of the fact that it was made on Third World soil, where cinema is condemned to the multiplexes and the hands of studio producers. It is an urgent film where an immediate audience does not matter; only when one comes to realize and accept the filmmaker’s generosity will he be able to fully appreciate the gift. Evolution’s grandeur is simple: it mirrors those complexities of our history that affect our people’s often misunderstood attitudes and ambitions. And much like the film, much like ourselves, the evolution remains unfinished.
Raya Martin lives in Manila. Everyday he decides to die.