Lav Diaz’s From What Is Before
During the recent American release of Lav Diaz’s The Woman Who Left, most critics focused on the obvious aspect of the Philippine master’s work – the runtime and duration of his takes. With films generally over four hours, this stylistic mark has helped frame Diaz as a representative of “slow cinema.” Yet, as demonstrated by the recent retrospectives – on MUBI and at the Museum of Modern Art – the most interesting aspect of Diaz’s oeuvre is by far how he tackles his country’s history.
The continuous invasions, from the Spanish and Japanese to the American, and the subsequent dictatorships, have left an imprint of violence on the Philippines. In Diaz’s From What is Before, Ferdinand Marcos’s government constantly strikes a small village. The members of the community are not only affected by the martial law jeopardizing their civil liberties, but also suffer the psychological consequences of being under constant military vigilance. The dictatorship looms in the background, yet brings disaster to the village: houses are burned down, a man appears beaten up and bleeding to death in the middle of the road, and cows are slaughtered, their carcasses mangled. The film mostly focuses on two sisters with supposed healing powers who witness the atrocities and try to be a force for the good. Yet as one of the sisters suffers seizures and strokes, and with the predominance of Christianity that shuns the women as pagan healers, their efforts are thwarted. Diaz enforces the idea that the political events happening “outside” (most of the film is filmed in beautiful outdoors, with landscapes in carefully considered, static shots), and heard over the radio, nevertheless impact everyone’s life directly.
Diaz’s recent interest in being more direct has somewhat dulled his political edge. Yet, in a way, he has always tried to provoke the Philippine audience, so that those who watch his films may come to terms with the country’s past. His documentary, An Investigation on the Night that Won’t Forget (2012), focuses on the unsolved murder of two of his film-critic friends, Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc, who were murdered one night after coming home, supposedly by thieves – the perpetrators were never found. Thus, in the absence of justice, both the documentary and From What Is Before make an accusation against the invisible yet painfully felt violence.
Even though the documentary is 70 minutes long and From What Is Before runs at 338 minutes, Diaz’s style is similar in both: the documentary starts with a long take of 55 minutes, during which a friend of the two critics speaks directly to the camera about what happened and how the investigation ended without any culprit or even suspects; From What is Before’s climax shows a woman with a baby in her arms walking on a rocky beach and then entering a stormy sea to commit suicide and kill her baby – all of this in a slow dreadful take of three minutes with three shots showing the woman walking towards the sea, a man running trying to get to her, and then the same beach setting, in which the woman is nowhere to be seen, only the man yells and then falls to his knees. Both communicate intense sorrow and a profound feeling of things slipping away. The audience also looks on, without being able to help. In this way, Diaz functions as a powerful witness to the persistent suffering in his country.