MANILA, Philippines - When jazz genius Miles Davis asked his saxophone player John Coltrane why his solos were so long, Coltrane is said to have replied:
?Because it took that long to get it all in.?
Lav Diaz might say the same about his films, although in truth the multi-awarded filmmaker is sick and tired of being asked the same question.
Although his films have reaped prestigious international prizes and sent cinephile critics swooning with their uncompromising vision, back home, where Lav Diaz screenings are few and far between, they are better known for their running times than for their subject matter.
His breakthrough film ?Batang West Side? (2002) ran a then-unprecedented five hours. Diaz topped this with the epic ?Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino? (2004) which ran over 10 hours. His next films ?Heremias? (2006) and ?Death in the Land of Encantos? (2007) clocked in at over nine and ten hours respectively. His latest film, ?Melancholia,? which recently won the grand prize in the Orizzonte section of this year?s Venice Film Festival, runs a relatively brisk eight hours, although it might seem a lot longer because of its downbeat subject matter. According to the director, the film is about the deep sadness at the core of the Filipino experience.
These works are not exactly aimed at the YouTube and MTV generation, whose attention span is measured by the length of the average buzz clip. It?s as if Diaz is telling his audience: I?ve suffered for my art?now it?s your turn.
?When people ask me why my films are so long, when I?m in a bad mood I usually just say ?next question please,?? he says. ?When I want to be courteous, I say ?If you don?t have time, this is not the film for you. But if you value life, if you want to see other perspectives, then immerse yourself in these films.? You need time to experience cinema and to see life. You have to elevate cinema to the level of poetry and philosophy to realize that it should have no limits.?
In other words, it took that long to get it all in.
Indeed, if there?s any envelope-pushing to be done, then Lav?s your man. A post-modern renaissance man, not even a ten-hour film can contain his creative juices, which spill over into poems and short stories and even songs.
In fact Diaz has just released his first solo album, ?Impiyerno: Songs From and Inspired By The Films of Lav Diaz? at the recent .MOV Third International Digital Film Festival.
?It should come with an advisory,? he jokes about the album, which was produced by fellow digital film provocateur Khavn de la Cruz. ?If you want to kill your neighbor, play this Lav Diaz album. If you want to catch janitor fish in the Marikina river?Lav Diaz album.?
Actually, he?s only half-joking.
?Impiyerno? is a companion piece to ?Melancholia.? Recorded in one four-hour session, mostly in single takes with Diaz accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, the ten death dirges on ?Impiyerno? make your average Goth band sound like the Monkees. Played often enough at sufficient volume, it could conceivably drive your next-door neighbor to suicide.
??Impiyerno? is about sadness. It is about the sadness of man?s existence. Quoting one of the characters in my film ?Melancholia?: ?Why is there so much sadness and so much madness in this world? Is happiness just a concept? Is living just a process to measure man?s pain? There is no cure to sadness.? That?s the truth.?
Its lo-fi aesthetic aside, ?Impiyerno? is of a piece with Nick Drake?s ?Pink Moon,? Neil Young?s ?Tonight?s The Night,? anything by the Red House Painters and similar testaments to doom and gloom?music to slash your wrists by.
?Khavn was after me for a long time to record my songs,? says Diaz. ?He just sat me in front of a microphone and it was done. It was a moment. Okay lang, ibang angulo naman.?
Most of the songs in ?Impiyerno? were written in the last three years, save for ?Ina ng Nawawala,? which he wrote on the day Lean Alejandro was killed in 1987.
?Lean became a friend briefly,? he recalls. ?I wanted to do a documentary on him.?
Instead, his testament to Alejandro is this song, which foreshadows his preoccupation with the desaparecidos, a recurring theme in his works.
Actually, recording an album isn?t much of a stretch for Diaz. Before he became a filmmaker, his dream was to become a musician.
?I had a band in college in Cotabato,? says Diaz, who was born in 1958 in Datu Paglas, Maguindanao. ?There were many bands in Cotabato then (during the late 1970s) because Asin was based there. Saro (Bañares of Asin) was a friend: he lived in Marbel, we lived in Tacurong.?
The nascent Cotabato music scene embraced folk, rock, and eventually punk and Diaz, who was already composing songs by then?in English, Pilipino, Ilonggo and Maguindanao?formed a group called Cotabato. The band played local gigs, for which each member was paid P25 a night, along with a free burger and beer. Their goal was to make it to the rough and tumble Mecca of Pinoy rock, Olongapo City. The game plan was to immerse themselves in the ?Gapo club scene, get good and become the next Juan de la Cruz Band.
?I was going to finish Economics to please my parents, and then go to the UP College of Music,? he recalls. ?But in third year college, I got married and my bandmates became preoccupied with girls.?
One night after a gig, Diaz came home with his usual P25 and got into a fight with his wife. It ended with him smashing his fake Gibson guitar to pieces, and that was the end of his musical dreams?for the time being anyway.
?Of course I regretted it the next morning, but it was too late,? he recalls. ?I lost interest in the band. I had a child, got a job. I got interested in literature, and then cinema. But I never stopped writing songs and poems. I can?t stop writing songs and poems?they?re the easiest for me to write.?
Diaz counts among his influences the classic triumvirate of the Beatles, the Stones and Bob Dylan, but adds that he also listens to Yoyoy Villame and anything Filipino.
?The creative process is the same in music and in cinema,? he says. ?You have a muse, you seek inspiration? My songs and films are the same?very personal. I consider all my works as one work. If you piece them together, it?s one work composed of different stories. It?s the same with my music?they?re moments, the expression of one man.?
For a while Diaz found an outlet in literature. He wrote poems and short stories, eventually winning the Palanca Award. But in the early 1980s, he caught the cinema bug. When he decided that he was going to be a filmmaker, he moved his family from Cotabato to Manila?enrolling in first year Law at the University of the East as a sop to his parents. He began attending film workshops at Mowelfund?then the only avenue for aspiring filmmakers. It was 1983, the year of the Aquino assassination.
?Those were different times,? he recalls. ?We were living on Basilio St. in España. There was no digital video then. There were 40 of us in Mowelfund fighting over the one 16mm camera. There were seven 8mm cameras but no film. If you were rich you could buy film but a roll of 16mm film was 80 dollars. It was a dead end.?
To make ends meet, Diaz became a journalist for a time, writing features for Joe Burgos? Masa and working at the desk of Taliba.
When an opportunity to go to New York came, Diaz grabbed it. He lived the life of a struggling filmmaker while holding down a day job as a journalist for a community newspaper. It was a fertile period that resulted in several films, including what many consider to be his artistic breakthrough, ?Batang West Side?.
The critical success of ?Batang West Side.? allowed Diaz to return to the Philippines to make films here, but despite the lavish praise heaped upon him by (mostly foreign) critics who consider him the rightful heir to Brocka and Bernal (mainly because of the social and political themes in his films), filmmaking continues to be a struggle?eased somewhat by the advent of digital video.
?Digital is so liberating,? Diaz says. ?You can work with this process without fear or limitations, the same with a pen or a brush. You?re free?no producer or studio to tell you ?hey, you can only shoot five rolls today? or ?our film should only be two hours long.? Those are gone. The process is the same as painting or writing a song. Cinema is liberated with digital, you don?t have to deal with middlemen and businessmen talking about marketing and obscuring the vision of art. Cinema used to be so feudal with all these executives trying to put their hands on your work and at the end of the process you?ve sold your soul to Mother Lily and Vic del Rosario.?
Shooting and editing with digital video has also allowed Diaz to evolve an organic way of filmmaking in which the film evolves and grows from day to day. His Venice Film Festival winner ?Melancholia,? for instance, had its beginnings as an entirely different movie about a xenophobic cult.
?The night before we were to leave for Sagada for the shoot, I lost interest in that film,? he recalls. ?So when we got there, I started with a blank page.?
Slowly ?Melancholia? took shape.
?My experience whenever I go to Sagada is melancholia, deep sadness,? he says. ?At the same time, the place calms you and invites contemplation. Happiness is just a concept. The truth is, life is sad, and our everyday struggle is how to get out of this thing, this sadness, this melancholia.?
Diaz would write the script for the next day?s shoot every night. He would discuss the scenes with his actors the next morning over breakfast; they would rehearse and shoot. The film evolved this way over the next two months, taking the crew from Sagada to Laguna and finally Manila.
?They told me I had a slot in the main competition in Venice if I could keep it under four hours. During the shoot, I e-mailed them and told them it was going to run longer than four hours?I couldn?t compromise my aesthetic vision just to be able to join the main competition.?
The resulting film, ?Melancholia,? ended up in the Orizzonti section of the festival devoted to art films with no time limit, winning the grand prize. It is scheduled to have its Philippine premiere at the coming Cinemanila Film Festival.
But who?s going to watch it? Won?t the average Filipino audience?weaned on Hollywood special effects and local fluff?stay away in droves?
?To destroy that wall created by the system, you have to alienate them at first, then they will return,? says Diaz. ?It?s a long slow struggle. Reeducation isn?t an easy process. You have to recondition their minds that cinema is broader than just fast cuts and color and a lot of adornment.?
?For me, the issue is: if you?re an artist, with the state the country is in you only have one choice?to help culture grow in this country,? he continues. ?There?s no time for ego, you have to struggle to help this country. Make serious films that even if only five people watch it, it will change their perspective. You may make big box office but what do the people get out of it? Kinikilig lang sila kay KC Concepcion at Richard Gutierrez. Escapist films only breed ignorance. And we need to destroy that culture of ignorance.?