Film/Art | Beware of the Jollibee: A Correspondence with Lav Diaz

By Andréa Picard

Twenty years ago, when under the rule of a sole dictator, we knew well whose wrists deserved to feel the sharp ends of our knives. Today, in a society so quick to judge and pass blame, the only flesh that remains to be examined is our own. Diaz’s camera, steadfast, unwavering, reveals the truths only found beneath the surface, and points us on the path to deliverance.—Alexis Tioseco, 2006

In mid-April, Lav Diaz came to Toronto to attend the Images Festival with his most recent film, the six-hour Florentina Hubaldo, CTE. A work of profound emotional depth and stunning deep-focus chiaroscuro cinematography, it lingers in the imagination for an unusually long time; so complete and devastating is its wounded, weary, and wretched world. Its tale of a young, beautiful woman who lost her mother at an early age (“in unexplained circumstances”), is shackled to a rickety bed by her perpetually drunk, exploitative father, and is continuously raped by men as her battered grandfather is forced to witness her suffering, can hardly get more bleak. And yet, its sustained descent into a Tarr-like miserabilism is revealed as complex, multi-faceted, and paradoxical at every sodden turn, intersecting with a few other storylines and a tireless, unseen gecko providing some impressive diegetic sound from the natural world.

The film takes place in Bicol near the alluring but ominous volcano, which erupted as recently as 2008, decimating the region, its molten lava swallowing upwards of 3,000 lives. Still, people returned to live there, despite the fatal risk, as if a supernatural magnetism drew them back. But, as the film amply and relentlessly (at times, punishingly) demonstrates, home is not synonymous with safety and comfort; in Bicol, for Florentina Hubaldo, it’s a literal hell on earth.

She, of course, is the Philippines—a country that has endured war, colonial rule, civil strife, abject poverty, and merciless environmental disasters. (The independent filmmaking community in Manila has, significantly, also been tarred by tragedy. The violent loss in 2009 of film critic, educator, producer, and all-around mobilizer Alexis Tioseco—to whom Diaz’s A Century of Birthing [2011] is dedicated—is still being felt.) While devastating earthquakes and tsunamis in the Philippines have become all-too-common headlines, the punishing rainy season now extends from June to December, in great part due to global warming. With flooding rains and whipping winds, a plundering Mother Nature destroys homes, village infrastructures, and sweeps away lives and possessions in a perpetual cycle of destruction and obligatory renewal. These forceful downpours are recurring characters in recent Filipino cinema, from the dirty deluge in Brillante Mendoza’s Slingshot (2007), or the ominous omens in his controversial and unfairly maligned Kinatay (2009), to the dreamy rainfall in Raya Martin’s elegant and gorgeously stylized period piece, Independencia.

The rain, plaintive and plentiful, and Alexis’ generous spirit and truncated aspirations for a burgeoning Filipino cinema replete with a solid awareness of history and healthy discourse, were both wistfully discussed during a lazy, sunny day spent with Diaz, who is impassioned about culture and its global crisis. Like the CTE in the title (“Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy,” a progressive degenerative brain disease caused by repetitive blows to the head), Diaz frequently refers to the state of regression attending the majority of the cultural affairs in the Philippines. In no ways endemic to his own country, the crisis in culture (remarkably contradictory, from the rise of corporate marketing to the bulimia of curatorial studies departments and the logorrhea of their posturing, to the hegemony of jargon-laced criticism and its crutches, the shuttling to and from elitism to mass-media, the increasingly bloated museum admission fees, the prevalence of blockbuster shows, etc…) weighs heavily upon him as an uncompromising artist with fewer and fewer funding options, and an audience base that is loyal, but oh so small.

Invoking something (completely amorphous) along the lines of Glauber Rocha’s infamous “aesthetic of hunger,” Diaz returns to the notion of a petrified perception of art, both at home and abroad. That serious should be so readily mocked (Susan Sontag lamented this long ago and the disdain and intolerance have seemingly only grown) is no longer surprising or jarring given today’s cultural and economic climates, and yet, there is a sense of the irrevocable: what Diaz has dubbed “the Jollibee” phenomenon. Essentially the McDonald’s of the Philippines, Jollibee is a ubiquitous, enterprising chain of fast-food restaurants that has colonized youth culture and mass consumption. “A Triumph for and of the Filipino,” proudly declares its website, as the literally eye-popping mascot casts his spooky spell upon the nation. Today’s youth feed on “yumburgers” as they zealously pose for keepsake photographs with the frighteningly neon-coloured “Jollibee” and the gap continues to widen…

On the ubiquity of storms in recent Filipino cinema:

Lav Diaz: Resilience. We are the storm people. The storm could be the Filipino’s original Anito (God); we had so many gods before Christ and Allah came to our endless shores. On the average, the Philippines is battered by 28 storms every year, but that doesn’t make us a storm-battered race. In fact, we’ve become this storm-loving people. The storm is very much a part of our reality. Double that average, the Filipino can still take it. I wouldn’t call it a sado-masochistic psyche, but more of a resigned acceptance because you can’t do anything about it; it’s nature’s way. And you go back to the pre-Islamic and pre-Catholic Filipino Malay perspective—life is governed by nature. So, yes, the storm gives the Filipino a resiliency that’s uniquely Filipino because it’s become a metaphor for restarting, rebuilding, reconstruction, relocation, rebirth, recalling, renaming, resurfacing, reissuing, recurrence, reluctance, relapse, return, retain, remain, regain, resurrect, remiss, relief, rogue, rotten, rampant, relax, renegade, rob, run, rush, rip, ripe, rum, rug, rat, rut, retrogression, retro, rope, and rock ‘n’ roll. Amid a very corporeal history, there’s the storm, the Filipino’s god of all gods, which has somehow become the great paradoxical equalizer, giving the Filipino a complex logic/illogic cultural discourse, a philosophy founded on the patterns of nature; the meaning of existence is appropriated by nature’s ways. It’s so normal to drown in a flood, be buried by a landslide, to be sliced by debris from a billboard, and be twisted by 21 years of Marcos’ brutality. Hey, there’s a storm. I wrote this piece during the shoot of Death in the Land of Encantos (2007, part of the Benjamin Agusan poems, but I excluded the ones I wrote in English):

I shall sit on chairs clasped by dirty wind

I shall stare on empty skies and mud, and crushed houses

The smell of decay cripples all aromas of caffeine and grass

The trees are quiet now, devoured by the mightiest rains

The earth is sepia now, brown and black, even before dust

The street is still once more, blood had dried on concrete and waste

Worms roam the land, impregnable with their desires for rotten flesh

Worms are angels who eat the ones they could not save

What I have are pieces of sorrow, pieces of pain left by December,

And September.

What I have are days always undone

By absence—

Your perpetual absence.

On the impossibility of submitting a list of Top 10 films of all time to Sight and Sound

Diaz: This is the most abused exercise in cinema. Top 10 films, or, The Greatest 100 Films of All Time, or, 1000 Essential Films. And why do we do it still, ad infinitum, ad nauseum? Honestly, it just feeds the ego of the ones who do it, and, of course, of the ones mentioned. They will actually kill or die for it. It boggles the mind. But then it’s a valid exercise. And I respect people who do it, no matter how idiotic their choices/discourses sometimes are. I’ll even defend them. Yes, the canon, like it or not, is a necessary evil. Canon-making built so many sects and churches of cinema. Godard ran away from it, scared shitless upon realizing that Narcissus is staring at him in his favourite mirror, himself. But then he’s a god who created cinema, so he can’t destroy it, and we dread the day when he will finally leave cinema because he is infinitely a part of the Top 10 and The Greatest 100 Films of All Time and the 1000 Essential Films. In North Korea, the cinemaniac and late megalomaniac Kim Jong-il actually imposed a canon, all films starring himself, waving, smiling, visiting troops and factories, kissing babies, hugging the blind, praising uranium in thickly clogged shoes and propagating hairmania. And we know what happened and what is still happening in sad, sad North Korea. The wisdom and analogy is never, ever trust the canon. Keep an open mind but always keep Kim in mind. By keeping an open mind, we understand that the canon is part of the greater discourse of cinema; that’s short of saying that it’s still relevant. And I don’t think it’s elitist. Greater discourse always begs the proverbial question: “Do we really know the real Socrates?” or, putting it in a direct way: “Do we really know cinema?”

I’m throwing back these questions to you, Andréa: “Is the canon a necessary evil? No longer relevant? Elitist?” 

Andréa Picard: I’m guilty of indulging in this exercise and can certainly acknowledge that part of the impetus for this endless list-making inevitably comes from ego, but also, and most importantly, it derives from passion, desire, and a sense of responsibility. I agonized over my list, which was inevitably followed by a period of anxiety and regret. I still feel like I was unwise in my choices. But those sentiments have nothing to do with the fear of being judged or having anything at stake (subconsciously having little faith in the exercise, I guess) and stem instead from a relentless internal debate. The slippery adjective “best” does not help matters. Can personal epiphanies be measured against historical importance and great leaps in evolution? Don’t we all dodge the question of sensibility as it relates to our own discipline? Visconti’s Ludwig (1972) is an astonishing work of cinema. Could I honestly call it one of the Top 10 films of all times? I once did, but can no longer comfortably make this claim. One wants to upset the canon because it’s a barometer of normalcy, of quiet, comfortable “quality.”

And as you have rightly pointed out, there are countless films that will never be known to us, that have disappeared over time, during times of war, environmental catastrophe, or due to lack of preservation, or never emerged at all. The canon is inherently fallible, as we are. And should be ever-changing, as we change and the world changes. Re-evaluation can be an important exercise, but even more important is the need and curiosity to look beyond establishment, beyond what is accepted, praised, welcomed, studied, supported. Because of the nature of my work, I think a lot about what the term avant-garde means today. It’s not something that I can confidently or categorically answer.

Making a list is one thing, but taking risks in programming by promoting work that doesn’t appeal to the masses, that challenges our notions of art, that puts forth an unique vision, that questions film form, that takes a stance politically, that derails orthodoxy, is so much more critical today. Especially in light of how culture has become corporate commodity. Legacies are generated through lists and logs, but also through collective memory, and hopefully, enlightenment. Is that too naïve and old-fashioned? And let’s not forget that some of the films commonly referred to as canonic were derided and misunderstood in their time, too.

Why continuously mine the history of the Philippines in your filmmaking?

Diaz: I’m a part of this culture and every time I work on a concept, idea, or an inspiration, the struggle of my country, my people, somehow always comes out. Culture works that way. The subconscious has a way of dictating perspectives; once the creative process starts, the introspective being in you will mysteriously pull some reservoir of materials that’s been there, the one that you call history, or maybe suppressed stories and desires, not just personal but also collective; it encompasses the entire struggle of humanity. It’s not always a deliberate act. Man is a psychoanalytic being. The greatest artists on earth possess a repository of history and visions in their subconscious, sublime and transcendent, quite different from the very fragile and oftentimes biased and prejudicial oral and written histories. It’s just there. For lack of explanation, some call it madness or genius. Freud and Jung debated this, and realized that psychiatry has no concrete answer to humanity’s frailties. They ended up where they started: “Why?” And so, we continue to mine/examine/confront the histories of our cultures. Once, a friend made the mistake of giving the script of one of my still-unfinished works about a very important person during the Philippine Revolution against Spain and America to a history professor. He emailed me a lengthy attack telling me I got it all wrong. Who owns history?

Who are the filmmakers, artists, writers, or musicians who inspire you?

Diaz: Weeks ago, I went hiking with a friend in a mountainous town in the Philippines. We came upon a spider and his delicately made web house. We were stunned, speechless, in absolute awe. We sat there, almost in tears. What a great piece of work. The spider is even smaller than 1/8 of an inch, and beside a windswept highway, in the middle of two small trees, he built a formidable work. My friend and I made some geometrical analysis about it. We concluded, “Impossible, impossible!” Logic will tell you that, yes, a spider creates a web house. Simple. This spider created a masterpiece. Just embrace the mystery of aesthetics, beauty. And so we declared him the greatest artist of this century.

What place does art have in society today?

Diaz: Art remains marginalized in terms of accessibility; the so-called reach to a broader mass on issues of critical and practical applications, yet it remains the most relevant aspect of humanity’s cultural struggle. The only exception of course is rock music, whose reach is extremely phenomenal. Of course, commercial movies have the same reach. Rock music has achieved an utterly unique stature in that even the most aesthetically demanding works can easily captivate millions of people. That can’t be said with serious cinema. Art cannot escape the issue of gravitas, the issue of contradiction, and yes, elitism. A Cezanne that fetches millions can’t move a rice farmer in Thailand whose understanding of aesthetics is confined to a beautiful sunrise, the dinner prepared by his wife, the rain, the catfish, and a good harvest. The modern dancer in Berlin can always claim she is revolutionizing movement but the criminal Bashir al-Assad will continue to aim his guns and rockets at his own people. When the UN and the civilized world cannot liberate the Syrian people, what can art do? Art feeds and liberates the soul, yes, but the modern age has become the age of urgency. The zeitgeist tells us that we need to save the world now—from fundamentalism, from ignorance, from apathy.

In the face of the relentless barbarism in this supposedly very modern age, art becomes a stand, a political tool, an ideological line to maintain man’s sanity, or even to save humanity from an eventual retrogression and annihilation. Non-condescendingly speaking for myself, my faith in art remains the same. I am very stubborn with my aesthetic because I believe that the artist can still contribute to greater culture.

What role should film criticism play? 

Diaz: Film criticism, as a discipline, often times can be more important than a film or works being tackled. Discourse. Articulation. Explanation. Reading. Interpretation. Application. Scholarship. These things can only be done under the domain of the discipline. No matter how subjective it is, it broadens the limitations of art praxis, it fulfills the vision through discourse, articulation, explanation, reading, interpretation, application, and scholarship. The filmmaker and the film critic are comrades, even in the face of diversity and differences in opinions and positions. It is an inherent co-existence. Including the curators and programmers.