(Evolution of a Filipino Family)
An intimate epic made with uncompromising and austere seriousness that patiently and methodically observes the collapse and hopeful revival of a poor farming clan, meant to symbolize a nation’s history spanning 1971 to 1987. Ten-hour running time, radically slow pace and hyperminimalist mise en scene will excite international cinephiles at the most daring fests and showcases. —Variety
Director’s statement/Production Notes
(As told to Brandon Wee, in an interview for Senses of Cinema)
In 1993, I was working in Jersey City in this small community Filipino newspaper, trying to make a living so that I could send money back to my family. I wanted to do a film but I was ambivalent on the story I was developing. I was looking for better material. My novelist friend, Eric Gamalinda, a co-editor at the paper, said he had this story about a Filipino guy who jumps ship in Newark and who works in this Filipino restaurant where the owner exploits him. The guy lives in this old Manhattan building and in it there is a ghost of a Filipino war veteran who feeds on red roses. It is a very romantic and absurd story. And I liked the idea of a ghost of a Filipino veteran eating red roses. I asked Eric if he could develop that into a script, which he then went on to write.
We started pre-production in January 1994. In March we started shooting in Lexington, New Jersey. We were a motley crew from the East Village and Jersey City. The seed money for the rolls and rentals was from my savings moonlighting as a waiter, gasoline attendant and proofreader. A Filipino family provided assistance, food and locations. I revised 80% of the material, although I was still loyal to the story of the ghost eating the red roses. I shot those scenes and they are beautiful. After three weeks of shooting, I quarreled with the cinematographer on petty things like camera angles and the pace of the shoot. He had also voiced what seemed to me like an insult to Filipino filmmaking. We had a fight and almost killed each other on the set. So it ended that way, in a very negative manner.
When we eventually resumed shooting, the Filipino family quit. The assistant cameraman took over the DP job. I did not have money. Demoralization pervaded everybody and we stopped. Because the prints were in the house of the Filipino family, it took me a while to get them and I had to beg them to have these processed in a laboratory. I then had to write to and beg the vice president of DuArt, a film laboratory in New York City, to have the rolls processed. He was so kind to have the rolls “labbed” even as I was broke. I also asked him to give me video transfers so I could cut something out of it to pitch to people. He gave these to me despite the warnings of his billing department, who by then were issuing threats of suing me or burning the rolls if I did not pay. With the videos I was able to cut a demo. I started knocking on doors and gate crashing parties and meetings, including the endless beauty pageants of rich Filipinos in the area.
I had gone as far as Pennsylvania and Virginia to pitch my crazy dream. Yes, some people actually looked at me like that – a crazed artist with a lofty dream. A number of times, people would be whispering in giggles as I did video presentations in their homes or offices. Some even treated me like a beggar, giving me pocket money so that I would not bother them again. That was when I met Paul Tañedo, a Filipino photography artist in Alexandria, Virginia. He liked what he saw in the 16mm black and white footage and committed to support it. It was a simple talk over coffee very early in the morning. What hooked him were the black and white shots. Beautiful. Nothing beats 16mm black and white stock 7222. The grains and depths are fiercely powerful.
“Paul and I shared the same vision: to create and contribute to cinema in the Philippines on an aesthetic level and not to the rotting commercialism and inanities of the majority of works in the so-called Philippine cinema industry”
Paul and I shared the same vision: to create and contribute to cinema in the Philippines on an aesthetic level and not to the rotting commercialism and inanities of the majority of works in the so-called Philippine cinema industry. We had long discourses on issues concerning our homeland – the arts, political and economic conditions, and our struggle. How could we help in our own small way? What are our responsibilities as Filipinos? Why are we in America? Why are millions of Filipinos struggling to get out of the Philippines? Why are 80% of Filipinos still reeling in dire poverty? What is so wrong with our culture?
“There was the money issue, but more importantly, there was the issue of maintaining an aesthetic stand.”
Paul retrieved the rolls from DuArt and we started shooting again during late summer of 1995. In late 1996 when I went back to the Philippines, we decided to shoot flashbacks scenes in Manila. Pre-production began and in February 1997 we resumed shooting. It was a protracted struggle. We only worked when we had money. We shot some scenes again in 1998 and 1999 and then I had to stop. I could not solve the puzzle of the story. I was looking for a thread to finish it. The treatment of the film had become so organic that it could go on and on and I would not know where and when to stop. Actors were growing old and dying. I could not maintain personnel. There was the money issue, but more importantly, there was the issue of maintaining an aesthetic stand. In such a process where the gaps are so long, one might lose it on the level of the story and characterisation, or even on simple continuity. I was facing a vast and elusive canvas. I was struggling with a cul-de-sac. In my dreams, I was drowning in a sea of unfathomable black and white.
And then, sick and cruel jokes started to circulate: Ebolusyon is the Lav Diaz film that can only be shown in unfinished footage; the film that he is going to bring with him to his grave. They said I called the unfinished work Ebolusyon because it was just like that – an evolution that would keep on evolving like a myth; that Ebolusyon was a myth. Some people were hardcore enough to say that in my face. There were times when I saw myself shooting Ebolusyon in my dreams. The myth had become such a big cross on my shoulders.
By the time I was doing post-production on Batang West Side in mid-2001, finishing Ebolusyon had become an obsession. I started organizing a support group for young filmmakers and artists just so I could start filming again in order to finally finish it. I treated this like a workshop. It was very informal. I would gather young filmmakers for coffee and start a discourse on art and filmmaking, and then on the idea of finishing Ebolusyon. This was a sort of release, like meditation to ward off the frustrations. Ultimately, these were the people who helped me. A lot of them volunteered during the production.
Then, when Batang West Side was shown at the Asian–American International Film Festival in New York in 2002, I told Paul it was time to finish the film. I had found the thread. It was the idea of gold. Gold as a metaphor for so many things in the Filipino socio-cultural milieu: gold for greed, gold for “blindness”, gold for redemption, gold for the soul. So I created a character obsessed with finding gold. The effect was so epiphanic. We shot for more than a year. On the last day of the shoot in April 2003, in the majestic mountains of the village of Itogon, Benguet province in northern Luzon, it rained beautifully. This final leg of the shoot proved very uplifting and inspiring in terms of the collective effort and volunteerism, for I had a community of young artists pushing me to finish the work.
Post-production proper began in January 2004. But then I added more scenes a week before the Toronto festival. We could have shot for two more days but the deadline was nearing and we had to stop. We will shoot more when we return to Manila and that will complete everything.