Willy Filipino

“Hindi tayo pamilya nang mga baliw (We are not a family of lunatics),” characters keep repeating in Lav Diaz’s raw, transcendent, monumental, extraordinary masterpiece, Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family), but if they aren’t, it’s only because the world around them has already gone mad. It’s a genuine epic, not in the grand Hollywood sense, but in terms of sheer scale; efforts to compare it with other media — an Andreas Gursky photograph, a Morton Feldman composition — don’t quite work. It isn’t sweeping in the sense of a John Sayles film either, where every sector of society (or, in his last few films, every stereotype) is represented; Diaz’s film is a closeup shot (though there are no closeups) of a small handful of Filipinos buffeted both directly and indirectly by fifteen years of political turmoil.

The fact that the film is 630 minutes long — no, that isn’t a typo, it really is ten and a half hours long — may explain why my attempts to see it with friends failed, as they started dropping like flies (or indeed, may have had better fish to fry). But everyone I talked to would joke about bringing baon, and, a little more nervously, about cups to pee in. In short, it was cinema not just as event, but as experience, and, bladder jokes aside, it was more fulfilling and profoundly moving than any cinematic experience I’ve had in a long time.

The movie takes place in unspecified locations mostly in the rural Philippines — though the end credits later reveal the locales to be Benguet, Tarlac and Marikina — and it is filmed in a way that it could be most anywhere on Luzon. The film follows the lives of two families (though there’s a reason for having only one family in the title), none of whom are “nuclear” in the traditional kinship sense: nephews, grandchildren, and orphans assembled or thrown together either by violence, necessity or love. The political events in Manila — signaled primarily by incorporated footage of the EDSA Uprising, or Aquino’s assassination, or Marcos’ declaration of Martial Law — while seemingly remote, affect the families in quite direct ways, even if they are not fully aware of it.

It is a quite still movie — which makes the moments of violence all the more shocking (some real, in the case of footage from the massacre of farmers at Mendiola) — with long takes shot with fairly rigorous formality: the natural landscape as proscenium, with the actors entering from stage right or left (or the background), then the cut, a beat after the last character exits. (The fact that it’s filmed in black and white serves to blunt the abundance of foliage in the film, at least in the Benguet scenes; people are almost literally swallowed up by the landscape.) The camera very rarely takes any of the characters’ points of view — and when it does it’s jarring — and usually sits a respectful distance from the actors.

People walk a lot in this film, and my initial attempt to interpret this as symbolizing a kind of weary futility was deflated by Diaz in the Q&A session as his way of portraying the literal: that the rural poor do indeed walk for great distances. (They also wait, seemingly endlessly, for the sun to come down lower on the horizon, so they can keep working or walking.) Diaz takes an almost ethnographic interest in everyday life: we see characters make coffee, pack food, plant rice seedlings, eat dinner, and so on, almost in real time.

Such naturalism is somewhat offset by his use of digital video. The flashbacks to the ’70s are filmed, it seems, on (deliberately?) degraded video, as if it were a fourth-generation bootleg, rendering daytime a somewhat nauseous blur and nighttime a pixelled abstraction. Many of the scenes set in Quezon City are shot in blinding white light; in a later scene when a character collapses to the ground, he is seen to seemingly disappear in the overexposed, white void. (Imagine my chagrin when Diaz later explained the overexposure as the fault of the projector. “We haven’t graded the film,” he said. “It was fine in Rotterdam when we showed it there, but obviously, not here.”)

The night scenes in particular have a Dogme ’95 feel to them, with hardly any sources of ambient light except a guttering torch or a miner’s headlamp. Practically half the movie is set in close to total darkness, so much so that it becomes effectively and palpably oppressive to the viewer; Diaz later explained that this was literal, as many of the poor, in the absence of electrification, lived their lives in such a manner. But the effect of this is, like the film’s duration, a new viewing experience at least for me: in some scenes we are left watching bobbing flashlights or a single candle flame, and it has the effect of reducing cinema to its purest essentials: light and sound.

This may make the movie sound forbidding, but really, it’s not; the narrative is riveting at many parts, and there are some scenes of such quiet poignance (a prisoner singing Rey Valera’s “Kung Kailangan Mo Ako (If You Need Me)” off-key to a roomful of sleeping, half-naked men in jail, the grandmother kissing old photographs, or her telling her eldest granddaughter about her plans to send her to college — the acting, by the way, is consistently superb) that it offsets the seemingly audience-unfriendly sections.

We are, after all, invited to compare it to a soap opera, and there’s a certain familiar melodramatic shape to the tragedies that occur to the family. Some of the most brilliant sequences in the film are these running scenes between families huddled around a radio, a constant motif, intercut with voice actors performing a radio drama in a sound booth, as if to underscore perhaps, the artifice of both radio and cinema, or the materiality of labor that the film depicts in such obsessive detail. The movie places itself (perhaps boldly) squarely in a literary and filmic (okay: by now, Filipino-mythic) canon: there’s the Sisa character, from Noli Me Tangere, clearly embodied in the insane Tita Hilda, and Kadyo’s search in Quezon City for his nephew deliberately echoes Maynila Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag. (A later seemingly bizarre subplot involving the director Lino Brocka is a slight misstep, if only because it’s such a politically self-aware blip in the narrative, but it also self-consciously sets up the film in its entirety as a bid for a different Filipino cinema.)

If there are any shortcomings, it’s the overall humorlessness, except for a few instances (like when a man on a train plays “Bikining Itim” on a harmonica). Indeed, the funniest scene in the movie quickly sours: the radio performers are rehearsing an attempted rape and the subsequent beating of the victim, but it is literally an auditory distancing from a rape that occurred offscreen a couple of hours earlier; the effect is amplified by having the grandmother relate the story to her daughter later.

But perhaps the largest question would still revolve around duration; the day before, I was talking to someone who talked about Diaz’s “refusal to edit” (though admittedly he hadn’t seen the film). Was it really necessary to take ten and a half hours to tell what Diaz wanted to tell? And indeed, there were times when my attention span was almost stretched to the breaking point. Still, many of the establishing scenes, for instance, contained bits of essential information: the tire tracks in the foreground as the farmers and their carabaos wended their way across a field, the faint sound of a chainsaw in an otherwise idyllic landscape — indeed, this latter scene prefigured a long slow-motion sequence of logs falling into a river about ten hours later.

And sometimes the sequences aren’t long enough. There is, for instance, a devastating scene in the seventh hour that consisted of (it seemed) a twelve-minute (could it have been fifteen?) uninterrupted tracking shot of one of the characters walking. (I was reminded, later on, of the famous scene in Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, when the Andrei character walks with a lighted candle across the drained pool.) Even after the audience had cumulatively seen perhaps an hour’s worth of walking, the effect was, at least for me, the exact opposite; I was willing the character (indeed, maybe even saying a silent prayer) to keep going.

In Lav Diaz’s film, time and duration, for the character and for the audience, ceases to matter after a while. Towards the end, one sister asks the other about what would happen if their grandmother died, and if their missing relatives never returned. The other answers simply, “Tayo, mabubuhay pa rin (We’ll continue living).” So will the Filipinos, Diaz seems to be telling us, and, in a life-affirming, cinematic gesture to the audience who has just vicariously lived these characters’ lives, so will you. So will his characters, for those lucky enough to have seen the film. Some people may call the film to be a product of self-indulgence; I can only call it an act of pure, brilliant generosity.