“My Faith (and It’s Not Catholic) In My Cinema Remains Pure”: Lav Diaz on Genus Pan
It’s the end of the gold mining season and time for the workers to pack up and head home. Andres (Don Melvin Boongaling) and Paulo (Bart Guingona) wait in line to receive their payment while Baldomero (Nanding Josef) daynaps in his hammock. The lifelong friends cut a deal. Baldomero arranged their voyage to the jobsite for a portion of their pay. But come payday, Andres protests: His sister is sick and he needs to buy her medication. After their manager gets his cut and the Captain and Sergeant who overlook their bayan each extort theirs, he won’t have enough money left to pay for it. But Baldomero won’t hear it. A deal’s a deal, and so the three begin their long, humid, and uneasy trek through the forest back home with grudges in tow.
Filmmaker Lav Diaz’s Genus Pan (Lahi, Hayop), premiering in the Orrizonti Competition of the 77th Venice Film Festival, plays something like a paranoid road trip movie in its first half and suddenly broadens in scope by the second. At 150 minutes, it is Diaz’s shortest film since 2011’s Elegy To The Visitor From The Revolution (really just an odd omnibus exception), who is known for his eight- to eleven-hour films. His epic lengths convey the slow, sedentary ways of the pre-Islamic, pre-Catholic Filipino civilizations, which survive in various forms in the country’s interior. So Genus Pan’s significantly shorter length might feel like his dialectic with that culture is under attack. Diaz’s wize and lazy psychopath Inngo (Joel Saracho) certainly embodies a threat to the extant traditions of Hugaw (“Dirt”) Island, where the film is set, and where Andres, Paulo and Baldomero were born and never managed to leave.
Much is made of Spain and the United States’ colonization of the Philippine identity, but Genus Pan further complicates it with the Japanese occupation and Galleon trade. A haunted Japanese ancestry and a mythology fabricated by the Spanish, Chinese and rich Malays, prey on the island’s residents, who wield the religion supplanted by its past colonizers, Catholicism, to protect themselves. Genus Pan is another masterstroke from Diaz, the rare purveyor of Philippine history and slow, extended length cinema. One hopes Genus Pan’s shorter runtime attracts new admirers, though the duration of his next film proves he’ll remain true to his daunting lengths (it’s pushing 9 hours so far). Ahead of the film’s premiere, Diaz and I discussed the film’s historical references, the symbols he invented, how his long durations talk to those elements and the production process that makes those unique lengths possible.
Filmmaker: Andres, Paulo and Baldomero feel doomed from the beginning. They’re haunted by the myths of Hugaw Island that the Chinese, Spanish, and rich Malays fabricated to keep people away from the contraband of the Galleon trade, and only have Catholicism, a supplanted religion, to combat them. What do you make of Catholicism as an “answer,” being that it’s the religion imposed on the Philippines by Spain?
Lav Diaz: Of the three protagonists, Paulo is the only one showing real faith: being prayerful, espousing commitment to the teachings of the Bible through perusal and application. Andres, who is starting to question the status quo, rejects God’s justice and conducts an amateurish sleuthing on the death of his elder brother and other crimes in their island—albeit he direly lacks a dialectical approach to it, but understandably, growing up in a lumpen-proletariat setup. And Baldomero exudes a more composed personality, but he clearly is a solipsistic and imposing one. Paulo, being the true believer, is the only one who is still clearly hinged on the idea that religion or the Catholic perspective is the answer. Generally, by the way the characters conduct themselves, whether through their discourses and reactions, the nuances of an imposed understanding of morality are palpable—a mix of the Catholic and atavistic perspectives. The ghosts of the past, personal and their milieus, weighs heavily on their demeanor, and here they are all on the same plateau. It’s not really true anymore that Filipinos still really believe that religion is the answer. While Catholicism, Islam, the big and very organized Protestant and born-again groups and cults, remain strong in the country, there’s been a pronounced steady shift by the masses toward looking for certainties from a strong leader, as in the case of Duterte. In his first three years of governance, his vulgar and open attacks on Catholicism, on its hierarchy, on the Pope and even God were relentless, but the so-called Catholic strong didn’t even make a move. He became even more popular, even with his bloody “drug war” that has already claimed thousands of lives.
Filmmaker: What does it mean that Paulo and Baldomero, both biracial sons of Hugaw Island’s Japanese occupiers, indulge in the same sexual tryst with a sex worker on a “holy day” before their journey home that the Japanese did when they abducted women from the neighboring islands during their occupancy of the Philippines?
Diaz: I call it the garrison mentality, commonly practiced when a group or a great number of the male species are concentrated in an isolated area, and the natural craving to connect with the female species overwhelms them. This culture [resorted] to, [most gravely] during wartimes and occupations, crimes on women. Japan, for one, admitted to the comfort women atrocities, where in their occupied territories, women were abducted and were forced to be sex slaves of the Imperial soldiers.
Unfortunately, in the Philippines, as shown in the film, the garrison mentality is still being practiced. It has taken the form of a tradition, especially among workers in constructions, mining, shipping, even in plantations and soldiers in isolated outposts. On payday, usually the 15th and the 30th of the month, they would hire a prostitute, put her in a makeshift room or hut and they’d line up to quench their lust. They would contribute money potluck style, to save up, and the prostitute in return will receive bigger take-home pay for the service. They rationalize that it’s just a natural thing to do, a reward and furlough for their toil. President Duterte, in one of his infamous speeches—it’s still on YouTube—during his campaign for the presidency in 2016, talked of a gang-rape that happened in Davao Penal Colony when he was then mayor and “the regional chairman of the Peace and Order Council.” The victim was an Australian missionary. He said when he went to the crime scene, he checked the face of the dead missionary and realized that she looked like an American actress and “the mayor” [Duterte] should have been the first in line. His supporters had a ball out of it rationalizing that it was just one of his jokes, but it speaks so much of the shameful acceptance of that sexist and macho culture.
Filmmaker: Is Paulo trying to make up for it on the journey back home by being altruistic?
Diaz: Paulo’s kindness is real. He sure carries the burden of guilt, again a Catholic attribute, but his concern for the situation of Andres is true to his nature as well.
Filmmaker: Your longer run times, to me, have always been a way of preserving the slow lives of old Filipino culture, governed by nature, through form. Whenever the run times have been shortened, it feels like that preservation and culture are under attack, and the film literally ends with Inggo, a symbol of lazy opportunism, stalking the slow walking Mariposa, as if he encroaches on your own form. Does the shorter run time in Lahi, Hayop mean your form is under attack, perhaps by the oppressive conditions of the country today?
Diaz: It can be interpreted that way, especially by the zealous followers of my early long works, and I understand and respect them for that. I wish I could maintain it that way. Inasmuch as I write, shoot, design and edit my works, I am flexible with adhering to the demands of the task at hand. It’s a simple principle that respects a freer way of creating, of pursuing aesthetics unhindered by conventions, orthodoxies and impositions. And I am careful that my works won’t slide to dogma and propaganda, where a form or a certain style and an idealized perspective will control the process; oftentimes this kind of thinking hinders and invalidates any fluidity in creation and greater discourse. Ideologies and institutions fail because of petrified aversion to embrace change and rejection of even the simplest act of needed adjustments. My faith (and it’s not Catholic) in my cinema remains pure. In times of doubt, during the process, and it happens in every work that I do, the purest solution is to just be free. Lahi, Hayop is two hours and 37 minutes and that’s the length of that film. I just finished the rough cut of the next film and it’s more than eight hours already. I guess it may go nine hours, as I realized there’s a need to add more scenes to fulfill some characters and parts of the narrative.
Filmmaker: Who are the Christian men in garb who trek through the heat, and what does it mean that they are also a target of Inggo’s destruction?
Diaz: They are what we call mga nagpipinitensya, penitents, a fixture during the observance of Holy Week in the Philippines. In some parts of the country, specifically, in the Central Luzon area, penitents would fully emulate the suffering of Christ by having themselves crucified. In the film, the men in garb are doing the most common practice, self-flagellation, an act of continuous self-whipping until the skin bloodies. Inggo, apparently, is simply on a rampage, a streak common to criminals. He is enjoying it and, until he is confronted head-on, he won’t stop. Evil insidiously works that way.
Filmmaker: Is the snake Andres runs into meant to represent anything like the Bakunawa (a serpent in Philippine mythology that causes eclipses, earthquakes, rains and wind)? Or just a sense of nature pushing him back into the fold with Paulo and Baldomero?
Diaz: It’s nature’s stuff—the snake as an inherent fixture of forest settings—but for the development of the narrative and of the characters, it’s clearly an element of foreboding and portent. One can have a subjective or objective view of the image anyway.
Filmmaker: What does it mean that Inggo’s version of the story (his “fake news”), which he coerces Mariposa into confirming for the soldiers and captain, is portrayed handheld? Why is the handheld camera the lie?
Diaz: The sudden overt shift of movement, here using the physicality of the camera, as a language and methodology, is to reinforce character attributes—on the malleability and insufficiency of Mariposa, the manipulative and evil ways of Inggo—and, definitely, the shift in perspective, on the displacement of truth. And it presents a greater discourse because even as Mariposa’s version appears as an imposed one, the trajectory actually points to Andres: Is his version true? Or is he telling the truth?
Filmmaker: Though Inggo, the captain, and the soldiers’ laziness is evil, it’s always clear that they’re the result of the collateral damage of colonialism. With the ancient history of the Philippines nearly eradicated or manipulated, what else can be harnessed to prevail against it?
Diaz: There’s a study that says the trauma of colonization never leaves cultures who have gone through it. But I believe that with a deeper understanding and awareness of the past, and a dedicated dialectical engagement with history, some forms of emancipation can happen.
Filmmaker: Inggo’s character is swiftly and horrifically summed up when, just after murdering someone, he spits at his own reflection in the mirror.
Diaz: In fact, that was a self-congratulatory act by Inggo. And if you psychoanalyze it, it’s an overtly psychotic act. It’s his “Wow, I’m so cool” move.
Filmmaker: How do you approach the portrayal of violence in your films?
Diaz: Violence is in man’s nature—again, it’s the animal side of us. When confronted with having to execute a violent scene during production, there’s no rule for me, but I work on finding ways to make it not so overt and not so graphic and work on the feel of it.
Filmmaker: Andres is angry at the regime, but can’t seem to effectively channel himself against it. After camping outside of the Captain’s encampment, fantasizing an ambush, he waits till morning and lashes out on a bush with his machete instead.
Diaz: He still doesn’t possess the appropriate means and the ways. His naivete and crudeness are palpable when he starts questioning and investigating, but it’s a sign that it can grow progressively. Even the greatest revolutions started that way.
Filmmaker: Andres tells the story of how his father died on a fishing trip when a storm hit in a supposedly dangerous part of the sea. Does he mistakenly blame God? Does he confuse impersonal nature for God’s will against him?
Diaz: He didn’t blame God for the drowning of his father, but he questions God’s justice on the death of his brother Peping, the incarceration of Aling Imang, the rape of the Perez sisters and the displacement of Mamay’s tribe. He questions the exploitations and disappearances in the mining camp. His outburst, when he talked to Paulo, was pure anger, an outpouring. But it’s true that Filipinos generally and directly connect God to nature’s ways. That there’s always His “hand” in everything. When tragedy strikes, even the ones perpetrated by, say, big storms, there’s resignation and acceptance that it’s the will of God. The common line is: “Kalooban ng Diyos, kaya tanggapin natin.” (“It’s the will of God, so let’s accept it.”)
Filmmaker: An abrupt radio broadcast played early in the film proposes that the “developed mind” is the religious, altruistic mind and that the undeveloped, “chimp” brain is one that “still” has the capacity for anger, envy, and desire for power, to kill and to rob. This sounds like the classic, paradoxical, propaganda for pacifism that Colonists have historically peddled to the colonized. The joke might be that, in fact, that they’ve perfectly described their own culture as that of the undeveloped chimp brain?
Diaz: The mentioning of names in the radio discourse is more informed by culture; here, it’s Filipino Catholics (and it’s a radio program in a remote province). The radio guest randomly made examples out of some names of religious icons, but a deeper understanding of the discourse, of course, doesn’t point to religion as the basis for the study. It’s science. It’s never said that “the developed mind is the religious.” And it’s not about “the developed mind,” it’s more about the development of the brain, the evolution of the cell—that the truly “complete brain,” as suggested, is the basis for altruism. A developed mind can point to a person with a PhD, a writer of an amazing novel, a union organizer, but then they exhibit rude characteristics; then, there’s the indigenous person who still communes in the mountain, he isn’t able to go to school, but his brain has fully evolved already and he sees more tranquility in his milieu. His advocacy would just be confined to serving his people, and that’s enough fulfilment for him. So, in another setting, say a campus radio, the natural choices would be the likes of Socrates, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Beethoven, Marx, Einstein, or even the great Filipino revolutionary Andres Bonifacio and the fisherman who truly understands the currents of the sea, as having greater brain development. And you are very right—colonization is an animal act. So they did exhibit the chimp act when they rampaged on our cultures.
Filmmaker: Does Mariposa become susceptible to fake news after she shatters the Jar of Truth? Is the Jar of Truth a reinterpretation of something from actual Filipino history? And is it desirable because it is one of the last vestiges of a forgotten culture?
Diaz: She is infirm. The helpless being represented by her persona destroying the symbol of truth carries a darker signification to it. How can we protect the truth if it’s in the hands of the weak, i.e., the Filipino masses? Or are we still capable of reconfiguring the truth once it’s shattered? And it’s scarier to think that the criminal and purveyor of lies, Inggo, is actually dreaming of finding the Jar of Truth. The idea of the Jar of Truth can be exploited and it becomes a populist tool. I invented the Jar of Truth in the story, but it’s a composite of the general belief amongst the masses, especially in the remotest areas, that truth is just hidden somewhere, usually inside a mythical cave where a wise old man is taking care of it, and they’ll find it one day, or it will appear and materialize, or it shall be bequeathed to the best of their lot, and the inheritor will lead them to the promised land and emancipate them from their hardships. And so, the messianic Inggo, fantasizes that he is the one, the one true bearer of the jar. And the danger is real—that one day he’ll become the head of the island by espousing that he holds the truth. An underestimation of him would be a mistake, as seen by his lengthy articulate discourse on the Galleon Trade and the history of the island, where we first hear him talk about the Jar of Truth.
Filmmaker: Pedro Costa sometimes talks about how he has been forced into a smaller film economy that he’s learned to master. How have you honed the economy of your films, the budget, the crew size, the digital camera, all of these pragmatic things, which for better or worse affect the final creative outcome?
Diaz: In my case, it’s the reverse. I started making films practically alone, nothing in my pocket but an ambition to make cinema no matter what. I shot a super 8 short, then another short, and then I took the plunge. I worked and worked, practically killing myself of exhaustion, taking three jobs just to be able to buy 16mm rolls, and started shooting Evolution of a Filipino Family. I didn’t know how to move around then, and it’s really hard to move because I’m so poor, and I was raising a young family. Obsessively, though, I had to will things so that eventually I was able to integrate into some group with the purpose of learning how to do it in a collective manner. I did four really small productions in a studio system setup, realized it wasn’t for me and went back to doing it alone. These were the early long films. But, of course, completing them, I did seek help from a few individuals. I am maintaining five to eight people now to help me every time I shoot and that way, I still have a semblance of solitude in praxis. I work better alone.
Filmmaker: I love the way the fluctuation of the sun creates movement in the still frames here. What camera are you shooting on these days?
Diaz: The last shoot, I used the Panasonic Lumix S1H and Sony A7SII. For Lahi, Hayop, I used the Panasonic GH5. These are cheap, hybrid—it can be used for both video and still photography—and very small, but highly capable cameras.
Filmmaker: Broadly, can you talk about your approach to sound design?
Diaz: I just want natural sound. Using a soundtrack often comes off as a cheap trick because they are adornments. Yes, admittedly, I have favorite soundtracks but it’s not for me. I find them distracting and very manipulative.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about some of the unmotivated lights at night? Is this a pragmatic choice?
Diaz: My way of lighting is simply sourcing and the use of practicals—what’s there, in the locations that I use. Sometimes you’re forced to actually put lights because it’s really dark already and the camera and lens can’t compensate. So, I do bring two or three cheap and very light lights, just in case, and they come handy.
Filmmaker: What determines whether or not you DP your own film?
Diaz: When I feel that the load is just too much, I invite a friend to do the camera operations. I do the writing, directing, cinematography, production design and ultimately the editing. Making cinema, if you’re not careful, is a health hazard.
Filmmaker: Are your films their length and size from their original conception or do they grow through the production process? And can you give us an overview of what your typical shooting and editing schedule looks like, as I imagine it is much different than most?
Diaz: Real writing for the film happens during the days of production, the so-called shooting days, whether there’s a script written prior. I would usually wake up at two or three in the morning and then write the script, or do the rewrite, for the day. By breakfast, the script is already being distributed to all concerned and we’d prepare. There’s a lot of writing and rewriting during this period. A whole month is normally blocked as the first phase of production, a period where twenty-two shoot days is allotted. Then, we’d have a break and I would try to work on a rough edit. I’ll make different versions of the rough cut, maybe two, three or more. This is where I usually assess and see what I would add or what’s needed, to fulfill a thread, may it be on the narrative, the characters or just on the flow of the images. This also the phase where an estimate of the eventual length would materialize. If there’s a need to add more, I’d schedule the next phase of production. Oftentimes, we’d go back to the same location or find a place that would appropriate the needs and demands of the scenes to be added. I’ll go back to the editing afterwards, and if there’s a new idea or thread that would come up, then, I’d go back and shoot more.
Filmmaker: And you can only work this patiently within the intimate economy of film production that you’ve found?
Diaz: Whether you’re alone, or just with a small crew, or involved in a really big production, the process of making cinema can easily take the form of a psychiatric ward, a construction site, a basketball game, a news room or even a cockpit, and even worse, a funeral march. They all have the same attributes, often a mix of tranquility and catastrophe. What matters is having a semblance of organization or having, at least, a clear view of the variables. In my case, despite the very organic nature of my process, through years of doing it, for my sanity, I’ve already developed a method that’s truly my own, and working within that sphere provides that so-called stability, even freedom.