Love Letter to Lav Diaz

Donatello Fumarola

Dear Lav,


I'm here, at the opposite corner of the earth from where you live, writing to you in my uncertain English to tell you something about the intimate and deep feeling I had in discovering (which is something more than watching) your films, which revealed to me a choice and an experience of life that opened (to my eyes) a field of possibilities of what cinema could be, starting from its point blank (its dark side) and its paradox: showing (but we should find a new and better word) that which is at the same time hidden from the act of showing (or from what we call "reality"?) – which could also mean discovering things through the process of making (dark) films (which makes me think of the great works by Robert Bresson and Roberto Rossellini). I think that what you have discovered is a (good) way (to continue) to talk about what was usual for the ancient Greek philosophers (at least to our knowledge of them, that is, in view of what has remained of their concepts). I think you have discovered how individual speech could make sense remaining individual for all the others, for some of them (because we can’t form relationships with everybody, it's just impossible – and your films invite one to do something more than just watch: they make watching insufficient as an act of knowledge).

As for me, thanks to your work, I have discovered the Philippines through a critical, poetical and political point of view of that place, that culture, and – beyond this – the nature of space and time and the relationship that human beings form with them or suffer as well as that in this relationship which is alive and gives life to everything else (including our watching, our relationship with what we see). This is a starting point which can be very rarely found, especially in the cinema of the last decades, but is quite strong, present and concrete in your films.

So, thanks for all this, Lav. Because even though the world has softer borders, and there are more opportunities of getting to know different people and cultures than before, one can very rarely find the kind of Socratic feeling that you demonstrate with what you do – music, poems, films, etc. – and what you are. People like you make me think about what the International could be and should do today.

I remember our first meeting in Rotterdam, at the time of Evolution of a Filipino Family (Ebolusyon ng isang pamilyang Pilipino, 2004), thanks to the same friend that asked me to write about/for you heire. I remember that you asked me: "Are you going to see my film?" And I answered: "Yes." You added: "See the entire film, please!" The running time was (and still is) 10 hours. Almost a whole day, which at a film festival means something like five 'normal' films. Early in the morning of the next day, I came to the little cinema, the old Lantaren Venster, to watch it. Very few people were there. I sat, contrary to my usual habit, at the back of the cinema hall because I knew I wanted to go see two films that were screened for the last time on that same day, and then come back to yours, without bothering other people in the cinema hall. The two films were the restored and the longest version of Steel Helmet (1951) by Sam Fuller, and Yoshiwara: The Pleasure Quarter (Yoto monogatari: Hana no Yoshiwara hyaku-nin giri, 1960) by Tomu Uchida, the latter on the same subject – written by the same screenwriter, Yoda Yoshikata – as Mizoguchi's Women of the Night (Yoru no onnatachi, 1948) and Ophuls' Yoshiwara (1936), but with a stronger Marxist touch.

That day, I had one of the best experiences of cinema in my life, and also a great travel experience. In the same day, almost without eating and smoking anything, I wandered through Asia, from the Philippines to Korea, returning to the Philippines and then going on to Japan, only to come back to the Philippines, which had changed a lot during the day and the films (Marcos wasn't there any more, Raynaldo grew up...). From the early hours of Evolution (I think it was my first time watching the Philippines in a movie – I have never been there, so it was the first image of the Philippines I had ever seen), I jumped to the old street of Yoshiwara (in the cinema hall close to the one where your film was screened), finding the same struggle, the same losers and damned people (whom I can find also in the neighbourhood where I live in Rome) that were there, at the edge of the forest where the Gallardo family used to live. From there, from the dirty and constantly wet street of Yoshiwara, I came back to your Philippine family, finding them again, older than before and deeper in their hard living during the Marcos regime. And then, jumping again to the desolate land of Korea, where the Fuller masterpiece was set, I watched the same struggle for survival, the same feeling of life in the aftermath of a catastrophe. At the end of the day, all was superimposed, Raynaldo had disappeared, and near the end of Evolution it looked to me like all the geishas and the Koreans and the U.S. soldiers were there in your film, looking for Raynaldo, all of them participating in the incredible ending of the film. It was quite a long trip into the history (of a century) through very different formats and kinds of images, but all of them looking at the same thing, at the same struggle, every time. Your film determined how I saw the others, from which perspective, and it taught me that we can return just where we have never been (one of the best definitions of cinema, stolen from a friend who pretended that those were Heidegger's words).

Almost a year later, in Torino, I had the chance to see it in its entirety, without any interruption. Happy to be there just for it, free of my bulimia (moreover, held by the encounter with your other films – Batang West Side (2001) and Hesus rebolusyonaryo (2002) – together with the films by the great Lino Brocka, screened close to yours in a larger tribute to Philippine cinema by what was at that time the Torino Film Festival).

The second time we met was in Venice, some years later during the Mostra del Cinema. You were there with Melancholia (2003). At that time, I used to suffer from very strong headache attacks. I spent the entire festival in the tent with my girlfriend Claudia, trying to resist all the attacks, under a heavy tropical-like rain, which I remember from those days. On the afternoon of the screening of your film, I forced myself to be there regardless of my headache. I again sat at the back, this time because of my headache. I knew the name of each person that was there (I wonder if you personally know everyone that has ever watched your films). After the first two hours, my head was bursting. For some time (I can't remember how long), I just listened to the sounds of the film without watching it. The only images were some glimpses of darkness and light that were exploding slowly in my head (I remember The Brockas playing in a room on the screen). When the headache lessened, I felt totally worn-out. The film was still there, with its sound and its hard images of that melancholic land and people, it was as if the struggle had already happened, and what was there on the screen was what had remained: the ruins of life, the ruins of space, the ruins of time, the ruins of images (the film as a ruin in itself). The physical suffering forced me to perceive the film as something physical: watching it was a struggle (with or without the headache) against the normal timing of the spectacle, against the normal law of the spectacle, against the easiness of watching.

Again in Rotterdam, I crashed your heart of darkness, your Howling in Favour of Sade. At the Witte de With Museum of Photography you mounted a kind of an installation dedicated to the dead, the tortured or the people who disappeared during the Marcos regime. You stuck pictures of these people on the wall in front of the entrance into a dark room where you and Khavn played with (what you called) "the souls of the dead". The absence of images in that dark room was total. During the firsts moments, the images that were outside on the wall as glimpses of all those faces of people came to me as ghosts, and it was as if they whispered something (as it happens often in your recent films). I was scared by not knowing where to go. Pieces of something like a cobweb hung from the ceiling here and there. While I tried to walk around the room, a hand touched mine, and I almost jumped for fear. It was Claudia's hand, but I discovered this only after a few seconds, hearing her mumbling: "It's me... is this you?" Finally, I started to listen to the whisper of those voices, the music you played became the dark voice of those ghosts (as every image is a ghost from another place or another time). That was my ultimate falling in love with your work, with a cinema that can be done without images – as Debord and Gil Wolman did it 50 years earlier – with a cinema that maybe HAS to be made without images (which are becoming more and more a fetish in the alienated dimension of our spectacular society).

For your last two films, the magnificent Century of Birthing (Siglo ng pagluluwal, 2011) and Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012) – screened one after the other at the last IFFR – I reserved two days of the festival just for them (no Fuller or Uchida to get me out this time, no other borders or struggles but yours), to take in all the time and spaces that you create in this (parallel) world that we call "film". And, after all, I finally discovered an important meaning of your work (that was your gentle 'warning' when we met the first time – but I'm stubborn in my bulimic obsession): be there, observe, participate, not just by watching but also by feeling, becoming part of what happens there, on the screen, by living with those people, living those places and experiencing the feeling that they let you have in their strong and tragic presence. Experience made possible thanks to the long length that allows us to share in the reality of the film, which in some way is forced to become our own reality. That was so clear in Century of Birthing, which also has the merit of revealing cinema as a rehearsal and, at the same time, a rehash without pretending to be "original" (the origin is in the dark).


Continue the struggle!


An International friend,
Donatello Fumarola