SINGAPORE — The Filipino director Lav Diaz’s dark 11-hour marathon of a film, “Evolution of a Filipino Family,” is demanding to watch. But it has one pivotal message: Political corruption and public apathy combine to wreak havoc on a country’s economy and individuals for generations. In the film, the Gallardos family becomes the vehicle Diaz uses to show how the corruption of the Marcos government affected individual lives.
Painting on an enormous canvas, “Evolution” is a mordant critique of the latter years of former President Ferdinand Marcos’s rule. It revolves around the tribulations of a peasant farming family from 1971 to 1987, during which Marcos imposed martial law. But the film also implies that the Filipinos were at least partly complicit in destroying their country.
Yet, said Diaz, 46 – in a black T-shirt and jeans, long graying hair pulled back in a ponytail – nothing much has changed since then. The former president’s flamboyant wife, Imelda, was embraced upon her return to the republic in 1992, after living in exile in Hawaii.
“We are a somnambulistic society,” he said at the Singapore Film Festival last month. “We sleepwalk and are lost. This is killing our country, and yet we are so apathetic.”
The audience is privy to the minutiae of the protagonists’ hardscrabble lives, watching the Gallardos clan age gradually over the film’s 16-year period. Reminiscent of “Santantango,” by the Hungarian director Bella Tarr, the film features minutes-long black-and-white takes, all without a soundtrack. “My film’s aesthetics represent a search for the truth,” Diaz said. But this film, his sixth, has caused a stir in art film circles, not just for its duration and style; critics have hailed it as an important milestone in Filipino cinema. The film, which has been shown at the Toronto, Rotterdam, San Francisco, Hong Kong and Singapore film festivals, will be touring other international festivals this year.
The soft-spoken director is unapologetic for the film’s length, saying that he had not intended to make as long a film, but “it just happened organically. Whenever we had the money, we’d call the actors ’round, have a coffee and shoot.”
Three members of the cast died during its 11-year production, and the script had to be doctored. As a result of the film’s many stops and starts, some of its earlier scenes were shot in 16 millimeter, its latter years in digital video.
Diaz expects the audience to take it as seriously as he does. “I can’t compromise the quality of the work. To exploit the ignorance of the people is a mortal sin; I’d rather produce pure and serious cinema.”
The film’s emotional axis is the no-nonsense figure of Grandma Puring. Toiling endlessly in the paddy fields with her granddaughters, she dispenses comfort and cheer. The men are less grounded. There is Fernando, who drives his sons in a fruitless search for gold; the orphan Raynaldo, who kills his mentally-ill mother’s rapists; and Kadyo, who drifts out of prison onto the city’s mean streets. As their fortunes plunge, the family gradually disintegrates.
The Gallardos family’s story is interspersed with actual footage of the anti-Marcos rallies, the People’s Power Revolution and the massacre of the Mendiola farmers under Cory Aquino’s rule. An interview with the Filipino director Lino Brocka, who fought for the poor, somehow becomes a part of the plot. Nevertheless, all this is juxtaposed with the Gallardoses listening to racy radio dramas, which Diaz likens to an opiate. “Marcos was a master politician,” he said. During his time, “sex comics, tabloids, escapist films proliferated.”
In the film, the dysfunctional Gallardos kin, dubbed “a family of lunatics” by the villagers, become a reflection of everything that’s wrong with the Philippines.
Diaz said that work, or at least his dedication to his projects, killed his marriage. As a result, he spends a part of his time with his children in New York and the rest in Manila. “My kids are displaced, robbed of their own motherland,” he said. To fund “Evolution,” he has worked as a proofreader, gas attendant and waiter.
Conditions during shooting were tough. “Evolution” was made on a budget of $60,000, which Diaz borrowed from friends and relatives over the years. Some night scenes are shot in near darkness because of a lack of proper equipment. Scenes of Kaydo’s prison spell were shot in an actual jail, using real inmates.Diaz found Elryan De Vera, who plays the part of Raynaldo, in Smokey Mountain, a notorious slum where families live beside garbage.
Filipino families, he said, are forced to go abroad because of poverty. “We live in a dysfunctional society, where several generations are growing up without their mums or dads. People come back in coffins. This dysfunction is created because families are rent apart.”
Diaz’s own childhood provided much of the material for the film. Both of his parents’ families were from the farming community, and he was born in rural Mindanao. His parents, both teachers, were socialists and intellectuals, reading everything from Dostoevsky to José Rizal. His father, in particular, was a film buff and would often drag his son to the cinema for entire weekends, sleeping at bus stations between movies.
Some might say that Diaz’s five earlier films have been a dress rehearsal for “Evolution.” His previous film, “Batang West Side,” about the problems of the Filipino diaspora in the United States, was five hours long. It won best picture awards at the Singapore and Brussels film festivals in 2002. He joked that his next film, about a farmer who seeks justice when his cart is burned, would be 40 hours long.
When “Evolution” was screened at the Singapore festival last month, about 50 people attended, with about 30 remaining to the end. Yet Diaz was happy with the film’s reception at Singapore, citing smaller audience numbers at other international film festivals. “I just need five people who understand my film; that’s quality,” he said. “That’s better than one million people watching a commercial film. And I’m optimistic that it’s going to grow.”