Cannes 2013. Crime & Existence: Lav Diaz’s “North, the End of History” & A Conversation with Lav Diaz
With the 66th Festival de Cannes mostly risk free—no Boonmee or Tree of Life to flummox the Competition, Godard’s stunning foray into 3D buried in a mediocre omnibus closing Critics’ Week—one of the rare instances to throw the festival for a loop this year was Un Certain Regard’s gall to finally program Filipino master Lav Diaz. He premiered his beautiful four-hour epic drama North, the End of History (Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan) at the end of the festival, daring a dedication and commitment to patience and time amidst an atmosphere of relentlessly tight scheduling and update-every-minute opinionating coverage. Those who entered Diaz’s world swam somewhere else than the Riviera for those brief hours, and were rewarded with quite possibly the best film there.
It begins as Crime & Punishment, with a pawnbroker (and her daughter) killed by a young student who believes he is a philosophical rebel, a unique individual contre dominant society. But the narrative’s triad structure which follows doesn’t pair the criminal against the investigator, but rather the criminal against two other victims. The three stories of cause-and-effect—a spiritual, interior kind of cause-and-effect, actions influencing self-consideration and different engagements with daily existence—alternate back and forth as time passes. Its one movement is that of the dissatisfied, destabilized youth, who the film introduces in its opening, a long, single-take discussion among prospective law students who range from fully committed to their careers of entering society and enforcing its status quo, to Fabian, the radical young man whose nihilism, his desire to do away with all relationships, all “history,” will lead him to kill. The other movements are that of Joaquin, an innocent man wrongly convicted of the murders, and Eliza, the wife he leaves behind. The impoverished housewife, in debt to the pawnbroker because a broken leg prevented her husband and her from starting a business—the coincidence that gets him accused of the crime—is stuck taking care of their kids and her sister, and they slump down further into poverty, stalwartly eking out an existence while her husband serves a life sentence in prison.
The patience of the separated couple is the sublime patience of the film itself; patience is above all the greatest virtue in the film, patience to let scenes unfold at their own time, conversations to start and stop at their own pace, for people to move and feel in real time. Long takes and subtle, slow camera movements (inching dollies in, lateral tracks) give the film the guise of a glacial art-house style, yet the contents of each frame (and the sequence each contains) in terms of drama, the revelation of everyday details, and the unfolding of incident occurs naturally, leisurely, organically. It is, above all, an “everyday” story of observation and adherence, in that the filmmaker has a compassionate sensitivity towards his characters (even the amoral student) and what they do in the world. It is an approach profoundly complicated as North, the End of History turns down a path towards violence, and, later, gestures towards absorbing something mythical into the simple story.
Fabian’s brutal actions also unfold in Diaz’s patient sequence shots, letting thought, action and reaction and even the time and space before, after and between these moments come alive and reveal themselves naturally. The style is anti-bravura, and it gives us breathing room, room to fill with organic behavior and our observations—Bazinian virtues of the deep space, long-take aesthetic, but here without the pretense, the forwardness, the presumption that the aesthetic often exhibits in contemporary cinema. As the student moves through the world, angst filled, regretful but unsatisfied with his bloody act, the married couple separated by geography and unjust law go through a small pilgrim’s process of patience and abstinence, with the mother and wife’s sorrowful, mostly silent perseverance working and caring for her family, and the husband of such thoughtful kindness as to impact the prisoners around him.
In the film’s most shining gesture, some spirit—perhaps that of the husband, Joaquin, perhaps just his dream, perhaps a watchful eye a step above the drama—takes flight repeatedly in the movie, breaking with North‘s beautifully colored, ground-level images in favor of a Leviathan-like impossible vision: a lower-res, swarthily toned floating/flying eye able to move anywhere and see all from above. These magical, unexpected views exemplify Diaz’s scope of a sprawling compassion, a long, close look at a view but within a much larger contemporary context. An unsparing portrait of youthful reactions to economic and ideological distress in the Philippines, this three-person tapestry told across expanses of years and geography remains intimate in its deference to its individual characters, their faces and body movements, the tone of their conversation, within and across these large spaces, unfurling in incident and observation through the unfurling time. A work of tremendous largess, its despairing finale joins that of Claire Denis’ merciless Bastards, and its lumpen suffering thug and patient, moon-faced suffering woman rhymes with James Gray’s The Immigrant. The vividly human scale of Diaz’s film, its telling of a classic story specifically within a topical context, its remarkably simultaneous magnitude and minuteness: it is a work so powerful that its tendrils of suggestion seem capable to connect all of the films of Cannes together.
After the world premiere of North, the End of History, I sat down with director Lav Diaz at a café across from the cinema to talk about the film.
NOTEBOOK: I was thinking while watching the film that in a way this is a very old story. It’s a story you see in Dostoyevsky and across many cultures. What made you want to tell this story now, set today?
LAV DIAZ: Yeah. In thinking about, of course, what’s happening in the territory, you see a lot of…there’s a lot of, I would call it, obsession about born again Christian things, fundamentalist things. It’s very dangerous. It is very extreme. People are using them to answer all the threats they don’t know. And then, of course, the North, the North. It’s the place where fascism started in the country. It’s the place of Ferdinand Marcos. That’s why I called it North…. It’s where historically fascism started. You go to the North in the country now and you see this very superficial kind of development; a lot of people work outside of the country, they send money. And the Marcos are still in power. The daughter is the governor. The mother is a congresswoman and the brother is a senator up there in the North. It’s their kingdom. There’s a kind of foreboding when you go there. You know that we suffered because of this place.
NOTEBOOK: A suffering which is still very much alive?
DIAZ: Still alive, yeah, and a lot of people still believe in the people who cause it. We just held the latest elections a few weeks ago and they won again, the Macros, they are still there.
NOTEBOOK: Is this limited to the population of the north, or are there sympathetic elements throughout the Philippines?
DIAZ: Sympathetic, they still believe in Marcos, the Marcos ideology of a dictator who is coming again. “We want the son or the daughter to come back.” So yeah, the film is just a discourse on that, the dangers of the powers being perpetrated by this dynastic family. It’s dangerous.
NOTEBOOK: The path of Fabian, his character arc is the arc of an intellectual, not an average citizen.
NOTEBOOK: Is this something you are seeing in Filipino youth, that they are getting desperate and these thoughts, this ideology is appealing to them in some way?
DIAZ: Yeah. You can definitely see that kind of discourse in the country. In the South it’s happening; the Islamic rebellion there, it’s dangerous. But that’s a different thing, a fundamentalist thing, it’s Islamic. Whereas the North is more dynastic, age-old, but at the same time it’s very contemporary. And it’s going to happen again. We better watch out.
NOTEBOOK: Would you then associate that Northern ideology with Catholicism? The religion seems to be the answer to some of the secondary and tertiary characters in the film.
DIAZ: Definitely: conservative perspective. The use of God, imposing morality…
NOTEBOOK: Still, there doesn’t seem to be much of a critique of the Catholics in the film. The Christian group Fabian tries for a while after the murder, and later Fabian’s Catholic sister seem to use it mostly for moral support, even if the sister does show signs of using it to cover trauma or psychological distress.
DIAZ: Her versions is a a kind of twisted thing, yeah. They’re doing it that way. It’s a very manipulated thing, they pretend to be very good, but once you are in it’s hard to get out. A kind of possession. That kind of situation. A lot of people change because of this process, fundamentalist and born-again Christians. I see friends being disillusioned and just going this course. Very, very intelligent people. And I’m very amazed. How can they believe? You can’t even see this God. It’s just that they are disillusioned.
NOTEBOOK: It could also be an existentialist thing: if you don’t have structure and you are unhappy, and you see a structure that seems to produce happiness…
NOTEBOOK: But that’s what I like about the Fabian character. At first he tries the structure of the church but realizes it’s not working for him.
DIAZ: He knows what’s happening, he’s intelligent, but at the same time he has a very twisted vision. Just eradicate these things. Even family is a system and it’s efficient. If it’s not functioning, destroy it. Even the dog. He loves the dog, but he has to detach himself form emotional things. Because of this fascist ideology.
NOTEBOOK: Is it specifically fascist? It struck me as nihilist: get rid of everything.
DIAZ: Yeah, he wants to destroy any attachment, any old institution. He wants something new: a zero society, to start anew.
NOTEBOOK: Where then do you see the strength come from of his mirror character, the working wife of the Joaquin, the man jailed for Fabian’s crime?
DIAZ: Well, I also wanted to look at normal people being victimized by ideologies, twisted ideologies. The so-called disillusionment of society, where real good people are the ones being victimized. They cannot escape it because they are the ones moving in it.
NOTEBOOK: She doesn’t really subscribe to an ideology. She just has her family, she maintains her morality and her dignity not by joining a group or acting out, but by simply taking care of the people around her.
DIAZ: A kind of empowerment, you know. Just keep working, keep moving, within the habit that you’re moving. Right from the very beginning, the husband and wife are borrowing money from the pawnbroker. Maybe it’s a mistake that he didn’t propose to work abroad. But at the same time working at home is a position in life, and it makes her stronger. He gets so weak at some points, the husband, when he’s taken to the national detention center, it almost kills the family, right? Yeah. I think it’s human in a way.
NOTEBOOK: Why doesn’t she visit her husband in prison through the four years the film covers? That seems a tremendous decision.
DIAZ: Well, the North is very far away.
NOTEBOOK: Ah right. Can you tell me more about the geography of the film? Where their home is, where the prison is, Manila…
DIAZ: It’s on the Northern island. We have three main islands: Visayas, Mindanao, and Luzon. Luzon is the biggest. The story happens in Luzon, way in the North, and Manila is far to the south. So far.
NOTEBOOK: So it’s a matter of economics: she is too poor to make the trip, has to take care of the children…
DIAZ: Yeah. But at the same time, I didn’t articulate it, but Eliza didn’t want to see him. Makes him stronger. Because Joaquin knew, it would just depress her. It would weaken her, to see him. So she got the strength of both, and of course her children. It’s a very human thing, to detach yourself.
NOTEBOOK: That’s funny because in a way this philosophy seems connected to Fabian: the couple, separated by jail, become stronger by being separate. But Fabian, who is connected to so many people, wants to get rid of them, to separate from them, to become stronger. But it’s a different kind of separation, a destructive rather than constructive one.
DIAZ: They are all displaced. It’s this discourse on displacement. Fabian, Joaquin, the wife. You are talking about a very displaced society, the Philippines. The fascism of this area, the systems that couldn’t do things for the masses.
NOTEBOOK: Is the level of violence we see in the film something you see in contemporary society itself, or is it an exaggerated expression of that?
DIAZ: It’s happening, every day. Rapes, kidnappings, a lot killings. Criminality is pretty much a part of our lives.
NOTEBOOK: I have to admit, prison life as you portray it doesn’t seem so bad. I mean, aside from a couple of beatings it appears rather tranquil. Though, this may of course be the influence of Joaquin’s goodness and generosity on the place and the people.
DIAZ: That’s the irony of it. I researched even in Luzon, researched prisons, I talked to prisoners. They are some of the most balanced people, after a while. They know they can only move in this space, can only eat these things. They carry some violence but with a kind of zen. “This is our space, this is our time, so we have to do it.”
NOTEBOOK: That totally comes through in the first prisoner you show speak with Joaquin. In his last scene he nonchalantly says goodbye, that he’s being released so that he can go kill a politician, and he seems so at ease with the world. I didn’t even see him as a prisoner, he was so at peace.
DIAZ: That’s also true of the North. When I researched prisoners in the North, the governor, who is the daughter of Marcos, said that most of the prisoners there are hitmen. Hired men. Mayors and governors pay these people to get them released from prison so that they can go out and kill.
NOTEBOOK: Ah! I was wondering how he could be so brazenly talking about being released only to kill…
DIAZ: You pay them. Even when we finished shooting. A lot of the extras are real prisoners—even the monkey, he lives there!—one of the prisoners, on the last day of shooting he had become so close to us that when we were about to leave he gave me a whole sack of mangoes. And then he told me “Mr. Diaz, if you have to kill somebody just tell me and I’ll do it for free.” I said “Really?” And he said “Yeah, I already killed two mayors.” “Really?” “Yeah, I will not get out of this prison again, but if you want to pay me you can just talk to the warden and I can go out and kill.”
NOTEBOOK: Tell me about this flying machine…was it a drone you used for the dreams, the angel’s vision? It has the most amazing feeling, as if…you know if you pull a tablecloth up from the table by pinching it in the center? That’s the feeling, of being drawn upward…
DIAZ: It’s called a heli-cam. It’s a little device. You buy little propellers and put a camera in the middle. It’s beautiful, man. People use it in sports, we saw it and said “ah yeah!” So we hired one.
NOTEBOOK: The image texture too is so different from the rest of the film.
DIAZ: It’s very expensive, he asked for like something like $4000 a day, which is very expensive for this size movie. So we got it for only three days, so that was a lot, but I thought we needed it.
NOTEBOOK: The effect seems impossible, it seems magic, not a human way of seeing things. It was beautiful. But it wasn’t the only startling vision in the film. I want to talk about the very ending of the film. The bus crash. One doesn’t really feel the hand of the filmmaker throughout the movie, everything’s so casual, there’s so much air and time, everything seems to proceed naturally. There appears to be no fate or inclusion of random occurrence. And then suddenly this. It almost for me felt akin to the mythological. It wasn’t an organic human event, it was something guided or caused from elsewhere; we get this almost too lovely moment between husband and wife, and it ends in fire. How did that come to you?
DIAZ: The death of the wife is my articulation of the desert of hell. Even a good person cannot escape the absurdities of life. I also wanted the husband to die, so I said “let’s make it dreamy,” so you will have two interpretations of the death of the husband. Maybe he didn’t die, maybe it’s just a dream. But for the wife, that’s the thing that I manipulate, I said “I want to see hell.” You do see that a baby survived the accident. That’s actually a true story, one baby surviving a horrible crash.
NOTEBOOK: For me, the most moving moment, and my favorite shot of the film, come right after this. It’s the second-to-last shot, Fabian’s final moment, of the student, head hung low, in a fishing boat on the river in front of the mountains. It gets at what can be so beautiful about digital cinema. This incredible depth yet incredible flatness, everything is flat but so many layers, band after band of spatial planes, the ground, water, mountains, clouds, sky. It almost feels 3D, yet compressed.
DIAZ: Thank you, you saw it!
NOTEBOOK: But it was so still, I didn’t expect the ending of Fabian’s story to be one of stillness, of melancholy, no action.
DIAZ: He’s a sad man. I think all fascists are really sad people. They want to inflict pain on people in their own way, a very abusive way. But they’re a sad people.