There are possibly two immediate statements that can be made about Filipino director Lav Diaz’ film Batang West Side, which recently screened in competition at the 15th Singapore International Film Festival, and went on to win Best Film at the festival’s Silver Screen Awards. Firstly, its five-hour duration demonstrates an intriguing exercise in a new aesthetics for cinema in our region, and not merely in the Philippines. Secondly, the film is a subtle intersection of personal memory and history. The narrative seems to suggest that for a nation to confront how it has been complicit in creating its history, its people need to confront their collective past. If this is in many ways at the core of Diaz’ film, then it presents urgent questions to both Filipinos and those of us who live elsewhere in Southeast Asia. It certainly begins to ask us how we perceive our collective identity and what we know of our history.
The director’s previous films, Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion (1998) and Hubad sa Ilalim ng Buwan (1999) demonstrated a proclivity for just this type of confrontation. In Diaz’ films, people under duress reap extraordinary realizations precisely by facing the predicament at hand, be it the farmer in Kriminal or the Catholic priest played by Joel Torre in Hubad. In a similar sense, Batang West Side does not presume to address all the ailments ailing the Filipino community, nor does it does prescribe an easy redemption. It only indicates that difficult situations force us to ask difficult questions of ourselves. The strength of the film lies in its capacity to avoid didacticism, even as it compels its audience to be self-reflexive.
The film’s aesthetic scope also furthers the idea that Batang West Side is not merely an exercise in elaborate narrative. It is primarily shot in the winter streets of Jersey City, revealing a stark and clinical desolation, contrasted by warm but imposing interiors which do not feel like home, merely like houses. Jersey City images are contrasted with black and white shots of dream sequences in the Philippines. They hint at the past and bear a cryptic symbolism that lends greater tension to the film. Diaz stated that he used methods to ‘dirty’ the footage and give the film’s texture a roughened appearance, all of which make the film both visually and intellectually compelling.
Its premise is the death of Hanzel Harana, played by Yul Servo, a young Filipino immigrant freshly arrived in America. Jersey City police detective Juan Mijarez, played with masterful subtlety by Joel Torre, is handed the case under investigation. On one level his encounter with the situation unravels a troubling personal history and the history of the Philippines itself. On another level, the case reveals stories about the various people who were either distantly or closely involved with him.
The film has been noted as a triumph in ensemble acting and this is evidenced by how each individual’s story becomes a piece in the collage that typifies the problems of the Filipino immigrant community. One of the characters Bartolo, played by Arturo Acuna, questions the idea of integrity posited by Hanzel’s mother by asking her if it is driven by good conscience or guilt. This question resonates throughout the film so that every character is in one way or another forced to ask it.
The characters are beset with interesting and painful contradictions. Foremost of these is Hanzel’s mother (Gloria Diaz) who marries an American in the hope of providing opportunities for her children in a seemingly better place. Her husband Gordon’s physical disability and the difficult dynamics between herself and her boarder Bartolo place her in a subservient situation, despite her apparent wealth and comfort. The other is of course, Juan Mijarez himself. If Lav Diaz has a penchant for investigating the soul under duress, he also shows a capacity to humanize the bleakest of souls in those situations. Mijarez’ past reveals his role in the Marcos regime and it is no small irony that he now finds himself trying to right a wrong by investigating the death of a Filipino youth. Diaz opts to avoid identifying Mijarez as a perpetrator, instead giving his character greater depth and emotional complexity.
The process peels back layer after layer in demonstrating how everyone is complicit in Hanzel’s death. From the myth of the American dream, to the trade in shabu, the drug of the Filipinos which is exported out of the Philippines, the film conveys a profound sense of irony through the situation its characters find themselves in. The specific identity of the murderer ceases to be the key question in the film and Hanzel’s death becomes a powerful metaphor for the attack on the Filipino soul.
There is an even more personal statement in this film found in the shape of a documentary filmmaker. He befriends Mijarez in the process of doing a film on West Side Avenue and Hanzel’s death. A discerning connection is drawn between the investigation process, which requires testimonies from witnesses, and a documentary filmmaker who uses the medium as a way of playing witness to narratives. Diaz does not avoid suggesting explicitly that filmmaking – rather than existing for profit or entertainment alone – may bear a political responsibility in seeing and transmitting the stories found in its cultural landscape.
This does not mean filmmaking has to be subordinated to emotional outpouring or telling the truth. The film’s structure discloses that this truth does not exist and in its place are the subjective stories of a people. Batang West Side has an emotional resonance outside of the cultural context it addresses because ultimately, Diaz’ preoccupation with the human soul reveals itself as central to the film. For that reason alone, it deserves to be seen by a wider audience, both inside and outside the Philippines.