Lav Diaz (2017)

No Forgiveness Without Justice

par ,
le 23 juillet 2017

Lav Diaz is standing outside a famous Italian cathedral, contemplating marble statues of Catholic saints. His mind, however, is elsewhere: “Imagine a poor woodcarver…”, Diaz says, “A poor Filipino woodcarver named Joseph. He has worked hard all his life, earning a few pesos per week, breaking his back to support his family. One day he dies, so poor that his wife can’t even afford a coffin to give him a proper burial. Now Joseph’s soul is at the Gates of Heaven, in front of Saint Peter, who holds the big golden keys to eternal bliss. ‘Saint Peter, please, open up, let me in!’, the soul pleads, ‘Don’t you recognize me? I am Joseph, the woodcarver. I have worked hard all my life, I said my prayers every morning and every night. Don’t you remember me? I spent months carving your left foot, for the Saint Peter statue in the church of our barrio back in the Philippines…’. Saint Peter replies with a smile: ‘I remember you quite well, Joseph, and I am afraid I can’t let you in. Have you forgotten that day? You were so poor, you were so hungry and you stole a bunch of bananas from the landowner’s trees…’”.

Diaz is like this – constantly conjuring up stories to chronicle the everyday struggles of his fellow-countrymen. These days he is finalizing the editing of an “anti-feudal musical” set in the rural Philippines during the Martial Law years (1972-1981), “the darkest period in our very dark history”, while making preparations for the shooting of a new movie, about the struggle for survival of an aging Filipino domestic helper between her native village and Frankfurt, Germany.

Between September 2016 and July 2017 I had a few occasions to discuss life, cinema and politics with Diaz and actress / assistant director / subtitle-maker Hazel Orencio. The interview that follows focuses on Golden-Lion-winner The Woman Who Left (2016), a bleak tale of rape and revenge that turns Leo Tolstoy’s Christian ode to forgiveness God Sees the Truth, but Waits (1872) into a political manifesto about refusing to turn the other cheek and actively fighting against injustice[11] [11] See also “Philippines Year Zero“, an interview with Lav Diaz we made in 2016. .


Lav Diaz : A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016) has been a 17-year-in-the-making project. I wrote the first draft of the screenplay in the late 1990s and the search for funding dragged on and on, until in 2015 we found Paul Soriano, a Filipino producer who truly believes in cinema. My producer Bianca Balbuena got 8 million pesos from Paul, plus a post-production grant from Singapore, for a total of about 10 million pesos [200.000 USD], which is huge for my standards. You know, Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) was made with no money at all – we just received a 8000-euro post-production grant from the Hubert Bals Fund after the shoot was completed… and Melancholia (2008) was made with 160.000 pesos that I borrowed from my friend Alexis [Tioseco].

Débordements : Usually the more critically successful a director in the festival circuit, the higher the budget at his / her disposal for the next film. Was it the same for you, after Lullaby was awarded the Alfred Bauer Prize at Berlinale 2016?

L.D. : Not really, not really: The Woman Who Left cost around 4 million pesos, less than half of Lullaby. But you know the way I work, I am not obsessed with the size of the budget. What matters to me is the film. I adjust to the demands of the work: if it’s doable, it’s doable, and I will do it no matter what. The demands of Lullaby were far greater than those of The Woman Who Left, because Lullaby is a period film with a lot of characters and therefore needed a so-called ‘better’ budget and a bigger crew. For Lullaby, the camera department alone was 30 people: cinematographer Larry Manda, his assistant and a lot of workers carrying lights and rigs. The Woman Who Left is more streamlined, it’s a simple story set in the contemporary Philippines, so I only needed a few people: besides myself acting as writer / director / cinematographer / editor, we had one camera assistant, the soundman and his assistant, a few actors. Plus, of course, the usual, very small, very tight group of friends to organize and manage the production, and to remove all the obstacles that could hamper the flow of the shoot: Hazel [Orencio], the supervisor and assistant director; Kints [Kristine Kintana], the production manager dealing with procurements and permits; two production assistants… In the end, 4 million pesos were enough for the project.

You see, I don’t want to create any plateau. I am not one of those filmmakers who say: “I cannot shoot a movie for less than this or that amount of money”. I am open to all possibilities and I adjust. If, in order to make the film I want to make, I have to shoot alone with no money, I’ll do it. For the documentary Storm Children – Book One (2014), I simply went to Tacloban with my camera and shot footage of the devastation caused by typhoon Yolanda. The first time I went there alone, the second time I brought my son to assist me and then other people joined us to help out. I don’t really have that attitude of not doing things because I am limited by the so-called ‘money’… No, no, no, it’s not me.

D. : What camera did you use for The Woman Who Left ?

L.D. : Sony Alpha7s.

D. : It’s the same camera that Wang Bing has been using for his latest documentaries…

L.D. : Yeah, because with the Alpha7s we can shoot even if we have very little light. This is really helpful for us filmmakers with no money because we don’t have to rent a lot of lights. In some scenes of The Woman Who Left I was just using a flashlight and a white board. I told my assistant to put a flashlight on a white board and that’s it: the set is lit, we can shoot. This camera allows us to save a lot of money. It makes the shooting more compact – less equipment, less people… By getting rid of everything that is not necessary, we can really focus on what’s important, on the matter of making cinema.

D. : It’s been more than ten years now that you launched the idea that, in South-East Asia and all over the world, “digital is liberation theology” for filmmakers with no money…

L.D. : It’s been more than ten years now and I still find it essential to study all these new digital gears, these new offerings… You know, I embrace technology, to me that’s the first step in the cinematic struggle: the means of production. I buy cheap but good cameras, lenses and microphones, so I have the tools myself and I don’t have to rent them from this or that company. This way one big entry in the budget – the rental of the equipment – is struck out. A lot of filmmakers rent their tools, so half of their budget basically goes to the camera and sound package… Typically, in the Philippines as everywhere else, film productions spend a lot of money on the rental of the equipment to the detriment of the people who are actually working hard to make the movie. I cannot take this kind of injustice, when the workers are turned into automata whose wages are constantly cut. It is so unfair: the film workers are starving while millions go to rental companies. So, in my productions, I own the tools and I can use the budget to actually pay the workers. You can ask my crew: they are paid well, I provide for them. I’d rather pay big money to workers than to some rental company!

D. : The struggle to create a different, more just mode of production always starts from the ownership of the means of production…

L.D. : Over the years, I met many colleagues from all over the world and I spent hours discussing cinema with them, from issues of storytelling to the very nitty-gritty stuff like how much do you guys pay for this, how do you guys put the money together, and so on… While exchanging opinions and experiences with my colleagues, I soon realized that I could never follow the praxis that seems to be dominant in Europe and the US. You know, European and American filmmakers tend to wait for years. Every time they have an idea for a film, they apply for script development funds all over the place. They write a treatment, they pitch ideas around, they take photos, maybe they make a trailer… They create a lot of promotional materials, they package them all together in a nice box and send it to funding bodies, institutions, government agencies, city councils… This promotional work alone takes up to two years and it costs a lot of money already. And when the script development grant finally comes, it’s time for the filmmakers to start asking for production money, and the cycle starts all over again: another year, another two years pass. So for many directors the focus is on seeking funds and patiently wait for the money to appear. But in a setup like the Philippines you cannot wait. I cannot wait. If I am very passionate about an idea, a story, a project, I will do it. I will not wait. If I can do it with a few people or just me alone, then I will do it, you know: I don’t want to wait. European institutions like the Hubert Bals Fund easily give little money to filmmakers and that little money is huge in the Philippines… In our country 8.000 euros is good for production already! But for some of my European and American colleagues this is insane: “What? You accepted a grant of 10.000 USD and you are shooting? For us 10.000 USD is only for camera rentals, or production design, or the salary of the cinematographer!”.

I remember that when we were in Locarno for From What Is Before (2014) a lot of people asked us: “The cinematography is so beautiful, what camera did you use?”. We said that we used a Panasonic GH3 and people were incredulous: “What? You shot a film with a GH3?”. Yeah, why not? It’s just a few of us, a tight group of friends. The Film Development Council of the Philippines gave us this small amount of money, 2 million pesos, and we went to this remote province with the GH3 camera that I own: we started shooting because we had this idea, this story that we really wanted to tell. Why wait? “So you were able to make From What Is Before for less than 50.000 dollars?”. Sure, I am the cameraman, I have this small, very close-knit, very professional crew, I have these great actors, we went to this faraway town in Northern Luzon and the good thing is that I was able to pay everybody well for their 6 weeks of work there. “Right, OK, Lav…”. They couldn’t quite believe it, they thought I was lying about my budget. For some of my colleagues, the setup for a film entails millions and millions…

But it’s not just me: a lot of filmmakers in the Philippines do things their own way without waiting. We have this culture of doing things without much. It’s very Malay, it’s very Filipino, you know. We are like farmers: we just go to the fields and toil and open the soil to make things grow. We don’t wait for some big tractor from the US or Europe to open the soil for us. We can do it ourselves, we can dig with our own bare hands. This is the paradigm, the model that we follow. We are used to do things ourselves because we don’t really have funding bodies in the Philippines.

D. : If I remember correctly, Charo Santos – the leading actress of The Woman Who Left – was also mentioned as a producer in the credits of Lullaby

Hazel Orencio : Casting John Lloyd Cruz as Isagani and Piolo Pascual as Simoun for Lullaby was a big deal for us because these two actors are major stars in the Philippines. They are the main heartthrobs in the entertainment industry, and they had never worked together before, not even for their mother network ABS-CBN. But they really wanted to work with Lav, so what they did was begging and begging and begging their mother network. Charo was a top executive of ABS-CBN at that time and she helped arranging things. The network allowed John Lloyd first. As for Piolo, we had to wait until the very last minute. Since I was casting associate for Lullaby, I was really panicking and I tried to convince Lav to replace Piolo. But Lav had faith in him and kept repeating: “No, I believe in Piolo, I am sure he will come up with something and he will join us!”.

L.D. : I was sure that we could break through the feudal setup of the industry somehow…

H.O. : And finally we did ! The catch, though, was that ABS-CBN would agree to let us ‘use’ their stars John Lloyd and Piolo only in exchange for a ‘producer’ credit. ABS-CBN never gave us money for Lullaby, they just allowed John Lloyd and Piolo to work with us.

D. : Charo Santos helped you arrange things and get the actors you wanted for Lullaby. Do you think that Lullaby convinced a film-and-TV-star-cum-corporate-executive like Charo Santos to accept the leading role of Horacia for The Woman Who Left ?

H.O. : I don’t think it was the film as an artistic work that convinced her. Lullaby helped in a different way. My guess is that she was curious about us because John Lloyd and Piolo fought so hard to be in Lullaby : they talked with a lot of executives and risked losing their big contracts just to be given the permission to act for us. I think that Charo was just curious: why do these huge stars want to work with Lav Diaz? It all happened during the party celebrating the success of Lullaby at Berlinale, right Lav?

L.D. : Yeah, we were at this party at ABS-CBN’s headquarters, celebrating the Alfred Bauer Prize that we got in Berlin. I was sitting beside Charo and we had a very casual talk… I asked her: “Charo, you have just retired from your top executive position in this corporation. Do you still want to act ?”. She replied: “Sure, Lav, if there’s good material…”. She gave me a book about the great Filipino painter Juan Luna and we had a long discussion about film production and other things. That night, while I was going back home, I suddenly remembered the tale God Sees the Truth, but Waits. I have no idea why. It is an obscure short story by Leo Tolstoy that I first read when I was in college, I think. I found a copy of the story online and I e-mailed it to Charo saying: “Kindly read it, because I am thinking of creating a movie around the premise”. After a couple of days, I was able to create a plot outline inspired by Tolstoy’s short story, and I sent it to her. I also sent a copy of my plot outline to Ronald Arguelles, the head of ABS-CBN’s subsidiary Cinema One, because at the party he offered to give me a little money if I had a new project in mind. Both Charo and Ronald liked my idea, and pre-production began immediately…

D. : How come that, for The Woman Who Left, you cast John Lloyd Cruz as suicidal, epileptic transsexual Hollanda ?

L.D. : John Lloyd and I wanted to continue our collaboration after Lullaby. While writing the storyline for The Woman Who Left, I created the transgender character Hollanda by reworking the character of a female epileptic from an unproduced screenplay of mine titled Reclusión perpetua… From the very beginning I told Hazel and Kints that the trans would be John Lloyd. Hazel and Kints were skeptical because John Lloyd is such a macho guy, but they sent him the plot outline and asked if he wanted the role… The day after he texted them back: “Yes”.

It’s really crazy and admirable the extent to which John Lloyd embraced the character, researched and prepared for the role of Hollanda. Weeks before the shoot, he started learning how to walk with high-heels. Then, when he was able to do it, he started going to the gay bars in Manila, pretending to be a trans, trying to create his character. It was so frustrating for him at the beginning because gay people immediately recognized him as John Lloyd in disguise. So he had to work hard, practicing the voice, the movements, the dancing… When the gay people in the clubs didn’t recognize him anymore, he told us that he was ready to shoot. He had become Hollanda and kids were laughing at him in the streets: “Bakla! Bakla!”… They didn’t realize that this guy they were mocking was John Lloyd – the superstar, the macho who has girlfriends left and right, the matinee idol… In a matter of weeks a very handsome boy became Hollanda – a desecrated, lost human being that Horacia meets during her journey… He is such a great actor.

D. : It seems to me that, unlike Lullaby, The Woman Who Left was a project that developed at great speed…

H.O. : The party for Lullaby was March 1st 2016. The first meeting with producer Ronald Arguelles to prepare the shooting of The Woman Who Left was March 7th. Soon after, John Lloyd accepted the role of Hollanda. Lav and Ronald first met Charo on March 12th. The first pre-production meeting among us – the Lav Diaz team – was March 30th. On that occasion, we started the paperwork and struggled with Charo’s and John Lloyd’s schedules to find some time to shoot. The organization work lasted until the end of April. By that time Charo’s assistants were already panicking: “Is the shooting pushing through ? We haven’t received the screenplay, we haven’t received the working plan, the call sheets, the sequence guide…”. You know, they are not used to making films the Lav Diaz way. We don’t plan so much, it’s not very us. So Charo’s assistants were panicking and I wrote them: “Don’t worry! Just be cool about it, everything will be OK!”. Meanwhile, Mindoro island was chosen for the shoot and we went location hunting from May 3rd until May 5th. The actors joined us on May 8th and the shooting started on May 11th. Everything went fast and swift: believe it or not, it only took us two weeks to shoot The Woman Who Left – 11 days in Mindoro and an additional two or three days in Manila. Naturally our schedule was so tight because Charo is a very busy person, and John Lloyd is busy as well. But everything worked out fine in the end, and I think that’s precisely because Lav’s style is all about just being relaxed. At the beginning, Charo didn’t believe us when we were telling her: “Ma’am, you can have siesta [rest]”. She was like: “How can I have siesta ? There’s a movie to shoot !”. She is a pro, a top executive in the industry, so she is always into the details, the plans, the schedules, and she is used to shoot from early morning to late night, while Lav is not at all like that, he’s just cool about it. Finally, when Charo started to experience that, in this very relaxed atmosphere created by Lav, filmmaking doesn’t feel like work at all, she started to like the group and to like Lav’s shooting process.

L.D. : It took her some time, but then she was fully on board with us. It was the same for John Lloyd and Piolo when we were working on Lullaby. Big actors like Charo, John Lloyd and Piolo are used to the ‘full coverage’ kind of shooting, which is the praxis in the film industry: you know, shooting every scene from 15 different angles – the long shot, the medium shot, the tracking shot, a hundred close-ups, the shot of the eyes, the movement of the feet, the cutaways… Ultimately, the task of a director working for the industry is to cover a scene from all possible points of view. The editor will take care of turning that into a narrative, eventually. So, when John Lloyd started to work with us for Lullaby, he said that he felt like a fool. He really said that: “What ? You don’t want the close-up of me crying ? You don’t want the close-up of my lips quivering while I get angry ?”. No, man, for me it’s only one angle, one frame, one take and then we move to the next scene. At the beginning they were all shocked – John Lloyd, Piolo and Charo. They were wondering: “What will happen to the look of the film? The audience won’t be able to see my emotions!”. But they understood my process very quickly and they are used to it now, they are cool with it. We will work together again in the future, you’ll see.

H.O. : If it’s a Lav film, there is almost no rehearsing and, generally, the first take is going to be it. After he says cut, we move to the next scene… so you’d better do it the best way you can ! [Laughs] At the beginning, actors who are new to Lav’s praxis tend to feel a bit disoriented and insecure about their performance because Lav never says things like: “You were great, you did very good!”. During the shoot, most of the times, he is not saying anything actually !

L.D. : Yeah, I don’t talk much to actors during the shoot. I am a bit cruel, I refuse to coach them. [Laughs] This unsettled Charo, Piolo and John Lloyd at first. If they have questions I will answer, of course. But, for me, less talk is better. I prepared and they prepared, we do it together during the take and that’s it. And it’s working well, you know: less talk, less discourse, less bullshit, just cinema. I believe that this method can create a better atmosphere on set, an atmosphere of mutual trust. For me, it’s important to build this bond, this feeling of trust. In order to do so, you must not talk too much, you must not overdo it with the coaching. A lot of directors would even act out the scene in front of the actors: “Do it this way, look at me and repeat exactly what I do !”. I am strongly against this kind of impositions. Why do you hire actors if in the end you don’t want to entrust your story to them? I just show my actors the frame, the canvas, and say: “This is your universe, you have to inhabit it”. I do say things like: “Maybe you can move here, maybe you can look there, maybe you can stand here and say your lines”. I always say “maybe”, though, because in the end it’s up to the actor. The actor has studied the character I created, the actor has prepared. It’s a collaboration. They don’t have to execute my orders to the letter, they have to act out the character the way they feel it. “Don’t stop until you hear the word ‘cut’!”: that’s the only rule, I am very strict about it. For the rest, I refuse to treat actors like dumb beings who cannot understand and embrace their characters.

D. : Ever since Evolution of a Filipino Family (2005) another way you disorient your actors is by constantly revising the script, writing key scenes only one day or even a few hours prior to the shooting…

L.D. : Yes, this is my praxis. For me a film always starts from a very rough plot outline, or storyline, then I write a more detailed script. But I always tell my actors that this initial screenplay will be constantly revised. So they must always be ready for changes. And, after a while, they are ready… more or less… [Laughs] The veteran actors like Hazel, Perry Dizon, Roeder Camañag, Angeli Bayani and Angel Aquino already know the way I work: we have made so many films together… They know that the initial script will be changed over and over again, until the very last minute. They know that the storyline I send them at the pre-production stage will become something very different during the shoot. They know that they cannot be uptight with what I give them. They always have to be open because things will change…

D. : While making The Woman Who Left, how did you reconcile this ‘openness’ that you are constantly seeking with the very short shooting schedule due to the employment of busy stars like Charo and John Lloyd ? Did you ever have the feeling that you were rushing things ?

L.D. : No, I never rush things. We shot The Woman Who Left in two weeks, but it was not made in a rush. Not at all. I would say that this project was very… fluid. It’s one of those works that came naturally and very organically. It was like writing a song that was given to you. I had that good feeling about The Woman Who Left because of the serendipitous encounter with Charo during the party at ABS-CBN’s headquarters, because of my sudden remembering of the short story by Tolstoy, and because Charo, Ronald and John Lloyd immediately liked the plot outline… And then there’s another thing. After I sent the storyline to Charo, we had a meeting and she asked: “Where do you want to shoot?”. I replied: “Well, I am thinking of Masbate island, or Mindoro island perhaps…”. She said: “You know, I grew up in Calapan, Mindoro…”. Upon hearing this, I took a decision: “Very good, we will shoot in Calapan !”. I thought : she knows the city, the people, the culture of the place, so she can easily inhabit this universe. This will help her create the character. Everything seemed to be so easy: a couple of months after our first meeting, we were ready to shoot. Charo came, John Lloyd came, we found good locations, I had my camera and we started shooting. The process became very fluid and in two weeks we were done.

Well, on a second thought, it was not that easy. The weather was very humid, many of us were collapsing because of the heat. Calapan is a very hot area and there are a lot of mosquitoes. And there were dangers in the place, too… We had some problems with local people. Even with the police, sometimes. With permits and stuff. Nothing dramatic, just the usual problems of film productions: people don’t want you to shoot in some places, they threaten you, they want money. These are the usual problems in film productions. We also had to make some adjustments in the schedules of the actors, because some of them were going back and forth to Manila to do other things. So, yeah, it was not that easy but, in general, it was a very very smooth and fluid shoot, and we were able to finish it in just one blow. Then I edited the film and I realized that some things were missing here and there, so I added two or three more days of shooting in Manila. Finally, during the post-production phase, when we had financial and technical problems, Carlo Manatad and other young filmmakers volunteered their help and we were able to create a good post-production setup. Thanks to these young people who kindly helped us, we did the 4K copy and the DCP copy of the film. It was really amazing how in this film every piece fell into its right place from the very beginning.

But after the premiere, the problems came. You know the three songs that are sung in the film ? Somewhere, Sunrise, Sunset and Kapag Tumibok Ang Puso… The right-owners were suddenly asking for a lot of money. Up to now, we have paid more than one million pesos for the rights: for Sunrise, Sunset they charged 750.000 pesos. For Somewhere they charged 500.000 pesos. We paid 200.000 pesos for the Filipino song. Usually in the Philippines you pay a composer 25.000 pesos, but this guy asked for 200.000 pesos for like… 20 seconds of Kapag Tumibok Ang Puso ! This was really too high for us. It’s a hard blow. It’s painful for me when these things happen, because the average production fee for Hazel, for Kints and for all my friends was far lower than that. The post-production team basically helped us out of friendship! Now this composer guy is getting 200.000 pesos… It’s too much, if you think about the salary of the film workers.


D. : You chose to set The Woman Who Left in the year 1997. Why?

L.D. : There are two main reasons. The first reason is very personal: 1997 was a special year in my life. Firstly, it was the year in which I came back to the Philippines after spending more than four years working in New York as a journalist for a Filipino newspaper. I came back home after such a long time to take my wife and kids with me to the US. We had to leave the Philippines because we were so poor… You know, back then my wife and I were working three jobs, and we couldn’t even afford to send our children to school: I couldn’t accept that. At the same time, I came back to the Philippines to finish Evolution of a Filipino Family, which I had been shooting on 16 mm with my friend Paul Tañedo for the past three years, in New York, Jersey City, Maryland and Virginia. This 16-mm shooting had been protracting since 1993 and in late 1996 we finally decided to wrap up the production with some flashbacks set in the Philippines. So in 1997 I flew back to Manila to prepare my family to be uprooted, and I also had to complete my first, independently-produced feature film. Secondly, in 1997 I had my official debut as a director within the film industry. While shooting the flashbacks of Evolution of a Filipino Family in Luzon, my friend Larry Manda told me: “Oh, Lav, Regal Films has opened its doors for us! Many of our friends are already shooting their debut film at Regal studios. There is this pito-pito [seven-seven] scheme and the company is hiring young people. Maybe we can submit some of your scripts: you’ll be the director, I’ll be the cinematographer…”. So during a break in the shoot of Evolution of a Filipino Family we went to Regal studios and I submitted three scripts: Batang West Side, Ang kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion and Larong Crimen. The studio executives liked the scripts and in a few weeks’ time I was preparing the shoot of Larong Crimen (which was later re-titled Burger Boys) with line producer Joey Gosiengfiao and with Mother Lily, the owner of the company. It was during my first studio shoot with Regal that I started experiencing the feudalism of the industry and the brutally exploitative scheme known as pito-pito, where, for very very small salaries, workers kill themselves to exhaustion during a 7-day pre-production, 7-day ‘full coverage’ shoot, 7-day post-production setup.

The second reason for my choosing to set The Woman Who Left in that period is that back in 1997 – this crucial, very emotional year in my life – all I was reading and writing in the newspapers was related to the horrible crimes happening in our country. In particular, there was this sensational case of abduction, rape and murder of two Chinese-Filipino girls, two little sisters. It was extremely brutal. Until now, one of the girls is still missing. The other was found dead – her body raped, mangled, thrown into some wasteland or sewage. You know, in 1996-1997 the Philippines became the ‘kidnap capital’ of Asia: a lot of rich people were being kidnapped, especially if they belonged to Chinese or Chinese-Filipino families. More than 300 million pesos were given to kidnappers in 1996 alone. So in 1997 I came back to my home country and I could feel that people were really really scared. And in addition to fear, there was this strong anti-Chinese sentiment among Filipinos: we were rationalizing the criminal acts of kidnappers as some sort of Filipino vengeance against the Chinese tai-pans [businessmen] supposedly trying to control our economy. This was the 1997 zeitgeist in the Philippines, dominated by a twisted perspective that led us to rationalize and even approve of these horrible crimes. Plus, that year Mother Teresa died, Princess Diana died, Gianni Versace was killed by a Filipino. So many things happened in 1997: the UK gave back Hong Kong to China and there was this gloom hovering over the so-called ‘progressive British capital of Asia’. Also, Steve Jobs went back to Apple. [Laughs] Apple was crumbling and Bill Gates offered him millions to put the company in business again. So many things happening, man – 1997 was a very complex, twisted and dark year. There was this sense of foreboding: things will go bad, the apocalypse is coming. When I started writing the script of The Woman Who Left I decided to set my Tolstoy-inspired story in an epoch of impending doom, in which everything is upside down, and 1997 fit that role perfectly.

D. : The plot, very vaguely inspired by Tolstoy’s God Sees the Truth, but Waits, is quite simple. It’s essentially ‘punishment without crime’ meets ‘crime and punishment’…

L.D. : Yes, after spending 30 years in jail for a crime she didn’t commit, Horacia is pardoned: one of the actual culprits finally confessed to the authorities, revealing that Horacia was framed by her former boyfriend Rodrigo. Now Horacia has freedom, but what kind of world is waiting for her outside the prison walls ? She has lost her family – the husband is dead, the son has gone missing, the daughter has her own life to think about… So Horacia wanders around the 1997 Philippines, in this dark, violent world: how will she fit in? How will she reconcile with the fact that she has lost everything? Will she take revenge on this Rodrigo guy who framed her ? Easily, the year 1997 created the aesthetic template for the film. The Woman Who Left is like a film noir: Horacia is yet another loose cannon, she is new to this world and she will either put order into chaos, or go along with the prevailing madness and create even more troubles. It’s the noir archetype, really.

D. : Maybe Horacia was safer behind bars…

L.D. : Horacia managed to maintain her dignity and integrity during her unjust 30-year confinement. She struggled against the anger, the depression, the evil forces inside her, and she maintained her humanity, acting as a teacher to her fellow-inmates and to their children, teaching them to read, write and count. Within the walls of the prison, Horacia is a saintly being. She is formidable, indestructible. But when she is released from prison, that’s the turning point. Now she is free and she thirsts for revenge. She knows who is the mastermind behind her imprisonment and all those years of suffering, and she is going to get back at him. Suddenly, the evil forces inside her come out again, so I wanted to create the fear that Horacia could lose her humanity because of this very human temptation – the desire for vengeance. You can feel that the dignity and integrity that she has maintained during her imprisonment might survive in the outside world, because of the way she treats the pariahs in the streets of Calapan. During the day Horacia is the kind, suffering woman taking care of the outcasts of our society because, ultimately, she is an outcast just like them. She really is a saintly being, she wants to help all the poor, all the needy, even if it’s impossible. But at night she turns into an evil thing – the avenging angel, a criminal-waiting-to-happen. She really wants to kill Rodrigo. So as the writer and director of the film I am focusing on this duality and presenting you, the spectator, with Horacia’s struggle to avoid slipping into the abyss of evil. All the time I was having this feeling: “Please, Horacia, don’t lose your humanity, don’t surrender to the zeitgeist!”.

D. : The theme of kidnapping features prominently in two other films of yours from previous decades : Serafin Geronimo : The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion (1998) and Butterflies Have No Memories (2009)…

L.D. : It’s still happening in our country: lots of kidnappings nowadays, especially in the South.

D. : Against the Chinese community?

L.D. : Not really. Now it’s for everybody, it’s more… democratic. [Laughs] If they can get money from you, they will hit you, regardless of your ethnicity. It has really become a business. In the past, they would only do kidnappings to obtain millions. Now, even for a small amount, they will kidnap your child and call you up: “Give us 5.000 pesos, or else…”. They will check your status and charge you accordingly. They will not ask you an exorbitant ransom, they will ask a sum that you can afford. The kidnappers have become fair nowadays. [Laughs] They try to be fair to the victims’ fundings, which is crazy…

I have more and more the feeling that the so-called ‘hell’, the so-called ‘apocalypse’ that we are waiting for has been here with us all along. It happened, it’s happening, it will happen. Anytime, anywhere. Besides the so-called ‘drug war’ initiated by the new President of the Philippines [Rodrigo Duterte] in summer 2016, claiming so far thousands of innocent victims all over the country, there’s war now in the Southern part of the Philippines, in Mindanao, the island where I was born. The city of Marawi – this beautiful small city – is under siege because the Philippine army and some islamic groups are fighting. Actually, Duterte has proclaimed Martial Law all over Mindanao and is probably going to bomb Marawi to the ground. He has just given a public speech and said to soldiers that during Martial Law they can rape three women each, they won’t be punished. Can you believe it ? How can you trust humanity these days ? People don’t trust humanity anymore and they worry, they have this fear, this feeling of foreboding, they don’t know what’s going to happen. The Woman Who Left is about this. You don’t want Horacia to slip into the abyss, you are like : “Please survive, please survive !”. And in the end you see her walking in circles over the images of her missing son, repeating the vicious circle of life over and over again… The film finishes and you don’t know what’s going to happen…

D. : Your previous film Lullaby is set around 1897, during the Philippine Revolution against the Spanish colonizers, and puts forward the idea that in the Philippines there are only two social classes: the oppressed and the exploiters. In The Woman Who Left, set in 1997, one hundred years have passed and…

L.D. : And the gap is still there, wider than ever. The disparity between the oppressed and the exploiters is still very strong in the Philippines, so there are a lot of struggles to do. For me, nothing has really changed, it is just this endlessly-repeating cycle that we seem unable to break: the Spaniards came, the Americans came, the Japanese came… and, tragically, after centuries of being exploited, tortured, imposed upon, some evil power within us has become the oppressor. It is the typical post-colonial scenario: after the colonizers left the Philippines, the colonized grappled with their own identity and ended up copying what the colonizers had done. So people who have the power now in the Philippines are mostly Filipinos exploiting their own people. There still are plenty of multinational corporations of course, exploiting our environment, our labor, our weaknesses. But I think that it’s not a matter of the outside world invading us anymore, it’s a threat from within. It’s the colonizer within us, the imperialist within us.

It’s something that affects both the micro and the macro level. As for the micro level, you just have to look at commercial cinema or TV in the Philippines. It is very apparent, if you watch the products of our entertainment industry, that we are a very vain society obsessed by the lightness of the skin tone. In any commercial ‘full coverage’ shoot, big Filipino stars would be covered in make-up to look more white, more ‘clean’, more ‘beautiful’. That’s part of the bargain when you make commercial cinema. The Filipino stars must look white, or creole, or mestizo. If an actor’s skin is darker, he or she can aspire to play… the role of the domestic helper.

D. : But you shoot in black and white, so…

L.D. : So the differences in the skin tones show much less ! That’s why: “Sorry, I shoot in black and white, you will not be ‘beautiful’. You will look the same as the other actors!”. [Laughs] But this is just a small example at the micro level. As for the macro level, you simply have to visit the Philippine countryside to realize that it’s still the feudal era. It never changed: you see these big Filipino politicians, their families controlling whole villages and towns as if they were Spanish feudal lords. The current President of the Philippines has been controlling Davao City for more than twenty years, and now he managed to get his hands on the whole country… They are just copying the Spanish setup of the colonial era.

D. : Indeed, the evil guy in The Woman Who Left – this very powerful, ruthless, immensely rich Filipino politician and businessman – is called Rodrigo Trinidad…

L.D. : Trinidad, ‘the Holy Trinity’: it’s a very Spanish-sounding name. Maybe it came unconsciously, I don’t know. You can see Rodrigo as a representation of the legacy of the whole colonial, imperialistic setup that we are enduring. He is the colonizer within. He is a Filipino, but has this very feudal mindset from the colonial era: he owns the land, he owns the business activities, he has a private army. He has the power of life and death over his fellow Filipinos. He has a reserved place in the very first row of the church, next to the altar, because when you are rich you think that you are the very first one in front of God… Rodrigo says it all when he mocks the priest: “I don’t know if your God is real, Father, I don’t see Him. But I am real. You are dependent on me. I constructed this church, I give you donations every week, so in a way I am your God!”.

My point is this: if we don’t destroy Rodrigo, he will go on ruling forever and ever. If nobody is going to act, he will continue to reign like an absolute monarch. He will die someday, of course, but after him his wife, his brother, his son, his daughter, his nephews, his grandchildren will come to fill the role, and it will start all over again. So destroying Rodrigo alone won’t end our problems. It’s the cultural legacy of colonialism and imperialism that creates this oppressive system we live in. When Hollanda kills Rodrigo at the end of The Woman Who Left, the bad guy is dead and you are happy that Horacia didn’t do it herself but, at the same time, will the system change after Rodrigo’s death? If you are critical about the film, this is the crucial question: what will happen next ? It’s only one particular exploiter that has been wiped out: the whole culture of the Philippines is still feudal, it’s still the same as the Spanish, the American, the Japanese domination. That’s why the film ends with Horacia walking in circles, looking for her missing son, just like Gregoria de Jesús had been walking in circles in the forest of Lullaby, searching for the corpse of her desaparecido husband Andrés Bonifacio… It’s the vicious circle, this circular, cyclic perspective suggesting that it will happen again and again. If we really want the happy ending, we need to destroy the system – this system based on corruption and oppression.

D. : How do we do it?

L.D. : It’s an open question, in The Woman Who Left as in the other films of mine. I honestly don’t know the answer. I believe that you have to throw this kind of questions at the audience and hopefully people will start discussing about bigger issues and not just have this emotional attachment to the journey and the struggles of the characters within the story. It’s important to enlarge the discourse, to connect the story to the real world. Take Horacia, for instance… She is a consistently powerless character, she has no control over her life. You know, she was ruined because somebody else framed her and had her locked up for life. Then she is suddenly released because somebody else confesses and saves her. Finally, when the time for revenge comes, somebody else unexpectedly kills Rodrigo for her. That’s the trajectory of the Horacia character in the narrative: she has no control whatsoever. And if you look beyond the film, you realize that this feeling of powerlessness matches the psyche of the Filipinos, of the Malays: some forces are always coming to torment us, to devastate us, to destroy us, to add more to the suffering. All our life we have been imposed upon – people have always been invading our lives, exacting disarray, taking what they wanted and then leaving…

D. : Hence the image of rape, which is omnipresent in your filmography…

L.D. : The idea of rape is always there. We have that constant fear lurking in our psyche as rape is an inherent reality in our life: the rape of our bodies, the rape of our land, the rape of our culture, the desecration of our perspective as a people. In my previous films there usually is a raped woman – the raped motherland – but in The Woman Who Left we have two raped men: Hollanda, gang-raped in the streets by some thugs, and the balot seller, raped in prison by more powerful inmates. Everybody is in danger, nobody is safe in our society. In the Malay milieu, it seems that there’s no protection at all, there’s no safe area, no comfort zone. We are still seeking our Shangri-La, a place where Malays can be safe and nobody will invade us, nobody will come to sow terror and trauma again.

D. : From Tolstoy’s God Sees the Truth but Waits you borrow the initial premise of an innocent suffering in prison for decades and then facing the dilemma between forgiving or taking revenge on the actual culprit. However, while Tolstoy is all about forgiveness, you have a very different perspective in The Woman Who Left

L.D. : Tolstoy is very Christian and in the end his protagonist forgives the culprit. I just took inspiration from God Sees the Truth but Waits and then developed my own plot, my own idea. In my film there’s no forgiveness because I am trying to change the way we are, I am trying to change our culture. Filipinos are very forgiving actually, but with The Woman Who Left I want to make them realize that justice must come with forgiveness. We forgave [Ferdinand] Marcos and the Marcoses for the atrocities they committed in our country [during their dictatorship], but there still is no justice. They are still out of jail. There is no accountability for all the Filipinos they imprisoned, tortured and killed. The money they stole from our country – the loot – is still stashed in some banks overseas. How can there be forgiveness without justice ? For me it’s unacceptable to forgive Marcos and the Marcoses just like that, without them facing their crimes, without them facing justice: how about the gold that they took away from us? It should be given back to the country. That’s justice, you know. How about Imelda Marcos ? She should be in prison. How about the military people who made so many Filipino activists disappear ? They should be in prison, that’s justice. We can forgive them, but there must be justice. So the perspective of The Woman Who Left is this: you cannot just forgive people, there is such a thing called justice also. The Christian way of doing it is that, you know: just forgive everybody… But, well, what about the crime?

D. : And the punishment!

L.D. : Yeah, the punishment : what are we going to do about it? We forgive the perpetrators and they will just be dancing in the streets? “We forgive you, thank you !”. Look at them: the Marcoses still control huge parts of the country, they still have their hands into politics, they are rich, they have big mansions, big cars, they ride on jet planes… It’s as if nothing happened. And now this new President [Duterte] even had [Ferdinand] Marcos’s body buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, the Cemetery for Filipino National Heroes… Which is a slap on our faces, an insult to our nature as a country and as a proud people. We have to change it, we have to change it. Because if we stay this way we’re such a fucked-up people, we’re such a fucked-up society that doesn’t even have a proper understanding of justice.

D. : For me the ending of The Woman Who Left, with Hollanda killing Rodrigo, is quite surprising because in all your previous films your protagonists are eternal wanderers disappearing into the landscape, men and women that are too alone, too small, too powerless to react against injustice: as victims, the only thing they can do is to bear witness to the oppressors’ atrocities. With The Woman Who Left I really have the impression that a new path has opened…

L.D. : Really ? [Laughs] I don’t know… I actually wrote this ending on the very last days of the shoot. The whole cast and crew was very surprised too, almost shocked, when I presented them with the material. They were reading it and there was a big silence… Then John Lloyd, who played Hollanda, said something like: “Oh shit, it’s me !”. You know, in the original plot outline, Hollanda was just a lost soul whom Horacia meets by chance in the streets of Calapan…

I guess the point of the ending is that we can fight back, we can do something to change the status quo. Hollanda is a paradigm for that. It’s not just about the gratitude that Hollanda feels towards Horacia within the story: “It’s OK, ma’am, I am taking care of your burden! You were so kind to me, you don’t have to lose your humanity! I’ll kill the bad guy and you can go free!”. It’s also about our need to exact justice. It’s about our need to build a culture of accountability, so that the perpetrators can face their crimes. The Woman Who Left presents you with an extreme case: it’s a film noir, it’s a melodrama. At the end of the day, we are still a civilized society, we need to follow the rules, we need to follow the law. There must be order. Otherwise, if we all take justice in our own hands, we start believing that we are God and we all become like Rodrigo. The danger is always there. No civilized society can be built on vigilantism. But the case of Horacia is very extreme. The proper way for Horacia to proceed would be to find a lawyer, accuse Rodrigo of framing her up, re-open the case. That’s the praxis in a so called ‘sane’ or ‘orderly’ society, so to speak. But, you know, in a society like the one portrayed in the film, Rodrigo will win again because he has plenty of money and power, he can hire the best lawyers, he can buy all the judges. Hollanda knows this and says: “No, no, no, I have to exact my own justice!”.

D. : Only violence helps where violence rules…

L.D. : That’s very Marxist. You have to destroy the system, if it’s not working anymore for the majority. If it’s only working for the feudal people, for the elite, for the status quo, then what’s the point ? Destroy the system. Or the agony will never end. The season of the devil will never end.


This interview was made in Venice, London and Milan between September 2016 and July 2017.

All stills are coming from Lav Diaz’s The Woman Who Left.

Salamat ni Hazel, John Lloyd, Kints, Bianca, May and Alonso for support, insights and suggestions.