Credit: Locarno Film Festival
by Joshua Bogatin Feature Articles Featured Film Interviews

Am I Really Doing Cinema?: An Interview with Lav Diaz

April 5, 2024

As Lav Diaz’s films have shrunk in reception, they have only grown in eclecticism and importance. A decade on from Norte: The End of History (2013), which kicked off a string of high-profile festival wins for the director, it’s become nearly impossible to find the director’s work on cinema screens or even streaming in the U.S. This has unfortunately coincided with not only growing eclecticism and diversity amongst his work that’s recently begun exploring genres like science fiction, Westerns, and musicals, but also a growing sense of importance in his scathing screeds against authoritarianism, which have only become more viscous in the wake of the Rodrigo Duterte and BongBong Marcos regimes.

His latest two films, When the Waves are Gone and Essential Truths of the Lake, have kicked off an as yet unfinished trilogy that examines the cyclical trauma and endless violence of Filipino history.  A loose adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, Waves follows the mentally and physically deteriorating detective, Hermes (John Llyod Cruz), as he returns to his family home and, unbeknownst to him, is stalked by a mysterious and vengeful priest, Primo (Ronnie Lazaro). More contained than many of Diaz’s sprawling multi-protagonist epics and running short for him at only 3 hours, Waves focuses on the way violence and generational trauma operates on the personal level. One of his few films set in the present, it’s also one of his most searing political works in a filmography full of them.

Last summer I sat down with Diaz at the Golden Apricot Film Festival in Armenia to talk about the film.

Joshua Bogatin: When the Waves Are Gone is your first 16mm film since Evolution of a Filipino Family, how did it change the way you work? I imagine that with film you can’t just be a one-man band as you often are.

Lav Diaz: I was really happy doing 16mm again, but the process is very hard. There are no more laboratories in the Philippines, so If you want 16mm rolls, you have to buy them from Japan, Australia, or the U.S. Then looking for a cheap lab was another thing, and we also found there are almost no more film loaders. There was only one left in the Philippines, and when we found him he was so happy to go back to celluloid and load a camera again. On top of that we also didn’t have a monitor, so I was just depending on what’s being caught by this cranky camera. My own process was changing because sometimes you’re set up and you find there’s only two minutes left in a roll. I would have to tell the actors that we can’t do the usual thing where they can just go on and on. If it’s just two minutes, that means they have to deliver the whole thing before two minutes ends. It required discipline, and I loved that.

JB: There’s a very good story I read about how one day many years ago, you heard that there was a hurricane coming to a town a few hours away and you called up the actors and left immediately with them to film in the hurricane. It was the first scene you shot for Century of Birthing, and it ended up being the climax. I would think that you can’t necessarily do something so improvisatory as that with 16mm.

LD: You can do it, but you have to learn how to load it and set it up yourself. I used to know how to do it, but it has to be very precise. It’s like a guitar where you have to practice first for weeks and weeks. With digital you can express things fast. The SD cards are so flexible you can just shoot forever. With 16mm, what do you have? If you have 14 rolls, that’s it. So you choose your shot and you do a lot of rehearsals.

JB: You also can’t do a 20-minute take.

LD: The longest you can do is an 11-minute take, and you don’t even know if it’s real until they send it back to you. It was very hard, but it looks out of this world.

JB: Your films often do have a very specific commentary on Filipino history and culture. At the end of Waves, the characters say, “they’re all crooks like us.” When you’re making films is there some level at which you’re saying, “I want the audience to be responding to this” or “this is the conversation we’re going to be having”?

LD: Of course, I’m always thinking about that. I originally didn’t want to do that ending with that kind of moralizing speech, but I needed to do that because I wanted to say it to the audience. I felt an urgency to say it, that we are all complicit with these fucking murders because we’re hiding all the time. We don’t talk about it, we’re not confronting it. We’re just all so comfortable in our air-conditioned rooms. The real ending to me would have been him just killing the guy and killing himself and that’s it. It’s a good denouement for a cowboy film. The classic Old Western thing where they just kill each and go eat some cow shit.

JB: Do you think of your imagery metaphorically?

LD: Always. The waves, for example, have many different meanings. I made up the title, that phrase. In Malay it’s Kapag Wala Nang Mga Alon, which isn’t really “when the waves are gone,” but “when the waves stop.”(maybe?) You can expand it to when the waves are gone, when the waves stop, when the waves end. It can have so many meanings and definitions. If you embrace it as your own experience, it will be very different. You’re a New Yorker and you can only see waves at Coney Island, so you imagine waves as something different. It can be transcendent to people in so many ways. I’m making the title as if it were a line in a poem and you can imagine it on your own terms, in your own tone or rhythm.

JB: At what point in your process do these metaphors enter the film? I know that you start with an outline and then spend each morning writing the actual script. When do you find yourself coming up with these overarching ideas?

LD: The outline is just a skeleton of a frame. The essence of my process is the discovery of the thing each day. Everyday I don’t know what’s going to happen. For example, when Primo is dancing, I just had the thought that maybe he’s going to do this very ritualistic primal dance. I asked Ronnie: “Can we do this thing the first time you enter a room? Just think of any random thought that comes into your mind while doing it, but it’s got to be very primal and ancient. You’re doing it to cleanse something or to expose any anxiety inside you.”

When we create the mise-en-scène, we also apply this process of discovery. You can see it in the generosity of the actors, the generosity of the design, the locations. You can see it when it rains and suddenly there’s sunlight or the wind blows; the art comes from everywhere. The essence of the story is very important, but it’s not important to have a very specific setup where you go to set and everything is already ready. Lights are in place, the assistant director has prepared the actors, they have their lines ready, and you just sit there asking, “is everything okay, can we do the take now?” You talk to the camera guy, “how are you going to do this thing,” and they tell you how and then they just do it. I don’t know how you can discover things in that setup, but people work that way so you can respect it. Great films are made that way too.

When the Waves Are Gone, Lav Diaz

Credit: Venice Film Festival

JB: In the beginning, Hermes tells the story about the disappearance and asks the classroom, “how did I find them? Pure luck.” I think this anecdote also speaks to how we experience your films. Obviously, there’s something very clear which you’re thinking about and trying to discover as an author, but you arrive there through luck and chance. The films are very open, and they let us enter them with our own sense of curiosity. Part of the joy of watching them is in discovering things you can’t have intended.

LD: Some things happen that you can’t predict, and as a filmmaker you wait for those things. I love the ideas of uncertainty, ambiguity, and doubt. It’s the same in life: you walk around and you see some things and it changes your whole perspective. You become a witness to an accident or you discover a book in a book sale or by happenstance you see an old friend and he’s changed completely. These are great incidents that can alter discourse in a way, and I love those types of things, especially in my process. When we make a movie, we just go. The actors say, “what’s going to happen,” and I just tell them “I don’t know, man. I don’t know.” So they wait as well. Everybody on set is waiting; even the cook is waiting, not knowing what food will be right to prepare for tomorrow. It’s like free-verse poetry or jazz fusion where you just look at each other and if you miss that note, it’s okay. If you miss that beat, you just keep going. 

JB: I think you are also very generous to the audience in this way and with your skills as a filmmaker. Your shots are very beautiful, they’re very delicately arranged, but at the same time the long duration opens it up in a way. It’s delicate without being stifling. It just lives and breathes and is there. You see the beauty of the image and your intentions, but as an audience you also see past it.

LD: It’s very free-flowing. It’s like a river that runs through the land and finds its path in its own way. It can be distracted or it can be beautiful — that’s life. It is that reality, that truth. So you take your own part and be open to it. I love that in cinema.

JB: Can you talk about working with John Lloyd Cruz? He is one of the biggest commercial stars in the Philippine film industry. How did people respond to his casting?

LD: They were very curious. They look at me as this very underground filmmaker. They don’t know me, they just know my name from the papers. They’re shocked that Piolo Pascual, John Lloyd Cruz, and all these guys are working with me.

When I first talked with John Lloyd and Piolo, I told them, “you have to be aware that you are icons and your status can actually help educate our people.” They realized that if they wanted to help educate our people, they needed to help committed filmmakers. Not just me, but also other committed Filipino filmmakers who are not just into profit motives, but doing cultural work and activism. We’re educating our people and sharing our struggle with the world to help humanity in small ways. I told Piolo, if you can get 10,000 people to watch our film or even 500 or 200 or even five, that’s a big big help. 

In the last three films I did with John, he gave back the little money that we paid him and told us to divide this money to the people.  In one advertisement for Levi’s, they’re getting a million pesos, but with me there’s nothing so they’re giving back. He’s working with me for culture, and it’s very heartening.  It changes the whole setup to understand that you can have this respect for each other. It’s changed him too, and every time a film is finished, he says the experience is priceless because he’s learning a lot. We don’t shoot in studios; we go film in real places, and he’s realized that this is the real Philippines. We shoot in barrios with stark poverty and people can’t even send their kids to school. There’s a lot of money in the bureaucracy, but it just doesn’t extend to the needs of the masses. It’s just being held by this very feudalistic setup.

JB: Stars are also important because they can carry so much cultural meaning and influence. When you’re working with a star or star image, you’re also sculpting some intangible piece of culture.

LD: Yeah, and with that you’re changing people as well. It’s not fast, but I’ve realized that education is really a struggle. If you want to propagate something, you have to sustain it and work hard on it because you won’t see tangible results immediately. It starts with curiosity, with someone saying, “John Lloyd is in that film, I want to watch it. I hate that fucking guy Lav Diaz, but I want to see John.” Then when they watch the film, they discover something. It’s a small thing, but that’s already a good start.

When I was a kid my parents were social workers and public school teachers, and we grew up in the middle of the forest and the farms with indigenous people. I was complaining all the time, “Where are we living? My father kept telling me, “You will understand when you grow up why we are doing this.” He said it’s all about educating our people in a very Socratic way: talking to them everyday about how to use soap, how to clean their bodies, how to cut their hair, how to clean toilets — simple things that will help them change their ways and perspective. It’s the same with my cinema. I want to educate people, and I don’t want to rush things.

Credit: Venice Film Festival

JB: But it’s a much different education than the one you’re talking about with your dad. It’s an education of the soul.

LD: Yes, nurturing and really telling people that they can change things in their own specific geographical location and habitat. That they don’t have to go to the city. Their place in the mountains is great already — they have everything, but they need to have some discipline. 

JB: Do you feel that educational aspect with the way people in the Philippines approach your films?

LD: Yes, I see people who watch the films and it really changes them. In the end, that’s good enough for me. They approach me and they tell me that they never thought of so many things: of pursuing justice, of ways in which they’re guilty too. It changes their perspectives and the ways they perceive their habitats.

JB: Does it change you too?

LD: Yeah, I feel humbled that I’m contributing a little to change humanity. Up to now I’ve felt that I’m a pseudo-filmmaker, that I’m an impostor. I have doubts every day. I feel bad about myself, and I’m always embarrassed to be called a filmmaker. I’m embarrassed to be told, “Lav Diaz is a master.” Fuck that, oh my God. I hate feeling these things. I just want to contribute something, and when they tell me that, it’s really embarrassing.

The most important thing to me is when somebody tells me, “Lav, you changed my perspective. You changed the way I discourse on life and the way I see justice and truth.” That’s enough for me. Going to these film festivals is just a responsibility for cinema because it’s promoting a larger dialogue. Academia, film festivals, the intellectual discourse — they’re important, but the greatest part is educating the masses. Hopefully we won’t forget that. Sometimes at Venice or Cannes, it’s too much. The decadence, the focus on celebrity, the focus on profit motives — it’s just fucking insane. I hate cinema when I’m there; I doubt it the most. People are sitting there fighting over crazy things while people are drowning in the Mediterranean. It’s really embarrassing to be a human being if you look at things that way. It’s so inhuman.

JB: It just sucks you into this endless circus. Maybe that’s why you need to go to the jungle and just shut it out. 

LD: Just five days ago I was in the middle of the forest, shooting this film. We created a village in the middle of the forest in Quezon province. We were going crazy every day with the mud we had to go through just to get up there. Then suddenly there was this ticket to Yerevan, and I’m here in a big hotel, eating a good breakfast. It’s that kind of irony and contradiction that makes me question my hypocrisy around whatever I’m doing. Am I doing it right? Am I really doing cinema? Am I really a filmmaker?