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By Robert Koehler
Time, it’s on Lav Diaz’s side. “Malay time,” he said after the Toronto screening of his nine-hour-and-five-minute Death in the Land of Encantos. “I’m a Malay as much—maybe more—than I am a Filipino. We Malays are governed more by space and nature than conventional time.” What underlies the shattering and disturbing reality of Diaz’s new work is a stunning 2006 catastrophe: nature, in the form of the profoundly devastating Super Typhoon Durian, combined with the explosive power of the Mayon volcano, wiped out physical space—the Bicol region on the central island of Luzon—along with thousands of innocents. In the face of this, and in the experience of watching Death in the Land of Encantos from beginning to end, time itself dissolves. In fact, Diaz controls the sense of time to such a degree that it no longer matters. In his hands, we all become Malay.
This is just one of the paradoxes to ponder about Diaz’s cinema, which has helped frame—though not imperiously define—the new independent Filipino cinema over the past decade. In a group of relative youngsters, Diaz is the wise elder, and his work, starting with Batang West Side (2002), gave permission to a generation to radically question the precepts of an overwhelmingly crass and commercial film culture whose past rebels, like Lino Brocka, are so rare that they’re treated like mythical heroes.
Now that Raya Martin, John Torres, and the rest have come into their own—forming the most dynamic and daring national cinema anywhere—it’s thrilling to see Diaz graze deeper into his own Malay ecosystem, where viewer adaptation to local conditions is absolutely essential, where certain categories can be tossed out with the trash. This creates some vexing, even hilarious, situations as festivals don’t quite know how to classify and exhibit the wild and roaming Lav. In Venice, The Orrizonti jury gave Encantos a special prize, but Venice programmers had slotted it in Orrizonti’s documentary category, even though Encantos is emphatically not a documentary. Toronto programmed it in a comfy, small screening room where viewers could stretch out, have a small table for food, and co-exist with the movie for most of an entire day. But Toronto’s catalogue note tried to titillate with some bizarre nonsense about “a graphic, extended lovemaking session,” while the well-intended idea to include the film in the festival’s new “Future Projections” section was a mistake. Sure, one could wander into the Spin Gallery to catch some scenes (then wander back several minutes later and think you were watching the same scene, even though you actually weren’t), but the film was plainly not served well.
The only real way to be with Diaz’s cinema is to sit in a pitch-dark room, watch, and let the outside world peel and drop away. Besides, a genuine epic is being told. In Durian’s wake, a poet named Benjamin Agustan (Roeder Camanag) returns to his home village, Padang, to see if any family members survived and if there’s anything left to salvage. Significantly, Benjamin is a leftist poet, a victim of torture by ruthless state security police, an exile who has spent several years in Russia. He returns to a place of apocalypse and ghosts, where the landscape has become downright lunar and the few trees left are awkward sticks in the ground, but also where, amazingly enough, a pair of old artist friends—sculptor Catalina (Angeli Bayani) and fellow poet Teodoro (Perry Dizon)—are trying to continue to live and work.
Benjamin has to adjust and dial down from the metropolitan, civilized but also odd and dislocating life he’s led in Russia (“Russians,” he tells Teodoro, “are a strange race—they’re Europeans, and not Europeans”) to this utterly denuded and tragic world, in which one’s sense of home has been ripped out and tossed away. Benjamin’s poetic instincts are both fueled and burdened by the memories of past lovers; an ex-lover looks very real as she’s nude, lying on her bed, but recurring images also seem to make her into a spectre, while a strange nighttime Zagreb setting is the basis for thoughts of another lost love. (Here, Diaz does something that Torres specializes in, salvaging footage from another film—in this case, an unfinished short about Filipino ghouls adrift in Eastern Europe—using it for other purposes and altering its context.) Benjamin’s memories grow especially intense concerning his family, including a mother who had long ago gone insane.
As he had developed over the course of making Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004) and Heremias (2006), Diaz establishes concrete reality and facts alongside a nearly mystical state of mind that at first occupies and eventually permeates the work. This shift precisely tracks the filmmaking process. Encantos did indeed begin as non-fiction; the former reporter Diaz dashed to Bicol (where he made his previous two films) two weeks after Durian hit to record the environmental and human conditions. Clearly, although he hasn’t said such, he discovered an extraordinary stage expressing a cosmic tragedy that called for some kind of narrative. The typhoon’s actual victims speak to Diaz’s camera, but the fictitious characters inside Encantos speak and walk inside a patiently conceived deep focus mise en scène, like somnambulistic beings out of I Walked with a Zombie (1943). They have enough time and space to ponder many things: the existence of a deity, the state of their country, the alchemy between nature and art (Catalina explains that she makes her sculptures from Mayon’s lava, as a way of taming it), how mortal beings become ghosts (Catalina to Benjamin: “You’re like a ghost—you go away, and then you reappear”).
There are many examples of how Diaz manages this interpolation of the concrete and ineffable, but one in particular stands out so impressively that it becomes a signature effect. His fixed DV camera, shooting in wide angle to better encompass a massive landscape, runs for minutes, sometimes even over ten, until something happens: a figure in the far distance appears. When does it appear? I’ve watched this phenomenon since Evolution, and despite intense concentration, I can never spot the exact moment when the character materializes on screen. It’s a cinema viewing experience without parallel, exactly recreating what happens if one were to stand in a large landscape and wait for a person to arrive from the extreme distance.
Several scenes have Benjamin suddenly emerging within such a space, reinforcing Catalina’s remark. By the seventh and eighth hours of Encantos, Benjamin is trapped between this reality and Bicol’s shadow world. Camanag stumbles around in a near-dead stupour, buffeted by the loss of his family, his failed attempts to make sense of his mother’s madness, and his inability to stoke some sort of love with Catalina, collapses in a heap as if the air’s been sucked out of him. Art has the last word: Catalina recites a vivid, stark chunk of Benjamin’s verse (written by Diaz, proving that he’s a poet of the first degree) that brings him back to life. Even a closing flashback of Benjamin being tortured doesn’t detract from the poem’s efficacy.
With such declarative expressions of art, Diaz is encouraging the viewer to free-associate with a basket teeming with cultural—mostly Western—associations. It’s impossible to consider his awed shots of the perfectly conical and gorgeously intimidating Mayon, in combination with Benjamin’s gradual dissolution, and not think of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Just as it is to gaze upon the impossibly rocky landscapes over stretches of extended time and not recall L’avventura (1960). Then there’s Rilke, whose apt quote, “Beauty is the beginning of terror,” opens Encantos. Images of Pudovkin and Tarkovsky tumble into the mind when Benjamin and Teodoro discuss Russia. And then there are the two great poles of theatre history, that are here elegantly folded into each other: Aeschylus’ voice of personal and national tragedy in the form of lament and pure grief, and Beckett’s existential comedy, the endless wait for the thing that will never transpire. But the wait, the wait…the bliss in that wait, the physical stamp—exhaustion, giddiness, discomfort—felt by watching that wait is the special, new thing that Lav Diaz has brought.