"Death in the Land of Encantos" Poetic Post-mortem By Nil Baskar

in 18th Ljubljana International Film Festival (LIFFE)

by Nil Baskar

In the global film festival circuit, the screenings of the works of the Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz have become somewhat of a cinematic festivity in themselves, a festivity of endurance, which brings into being a certain sense of solidarity between the viewers participating in such a banquet of cinema.

Demanding as they are, the works of Lav Diaz usually present a challenge to the logic of film festivals — for the most part a logic of consumption, where one often feels that the new cinema is being hastily processed and packed for further use. On such terms it becomes excessively difficult to see films such as Death in the Land of Encantos (Kagadanan sa banwaan ning mga Engkanto, 2007) for what they really are — a solitary beacon for an ethical cinema — and increasingly easy to dismiss them with all kinds of pretexts. The Ljubljana Film Festival thus certainly deserves a cinephile salute for not shying away from showing a nine-hour long film. However, the Slovenian Cinematheque, where the screening took place, deserves extreme admonishment: not only was the quality of the screening substandard (one would think that a state-subsidized pillar of film culture could afford to maintain a decent digital projection system), but the heating in the hall was turned off too, surely to save at least some of the taxpayers’ money.

Despite that, Death in the Land of Encantos proved to be a wholly enchanting experience, both a lesson in cinema’s capacity to profoundly shape time and space, as well as a rediscovery of its fundamental gestures, of conceiving and associating images with true artistic and political necessities. It confirmed that the work of Lav Diaz is not unique because of its epic length, but because of its original ideas and its confidence in telling a story with purely cinematic means — something that is becoming quite rare and even strange to observe in these times, when it seems that so much of contemporary cinema has elected a noncommittal and ironic detachment from everything and anything. Diaz’s cinema, in contrast, is radically non-ironic (at least in the post-modern sense of irony, that is), committed and attached — perhaps even too attached: all of its many people, things, moments, ideas are equally important, all of them constitute an image of a world. This attachment is not driven by any kind of grandeur, but is merely an attempt to narrate in a dialectical way.

Diaz conceived the film as a document in the aftermath of the apocalyptic disaster that hit the Bicol region in 2006, where he had previously shot most parts of Evolution of a Filipino Family (Ebolusyon ng isang pamilyang pilipino, 2004) and Heremias (2006). After typhoon Reming devastated the area — including the town of Padang, where the film takes place — a mudslide from the volcano Mayon followed, burying whole parts of the town together with its inhabitants. However, little of the documentary footage — mostly interviews with some of the survivors — remains in the final film. In the face of destruction and atop of the ruins, a distinctly poetic voice is introduced to reflect on the disappearance and the pain. This is the fictitious character of the “great Filipino poet Benjamin Agusan”, who returns after years of artistic exile to find his home gone, together with his family and his lover. What remains is a desolate, featureless ground-zero landscape, infused by the ghosts of the dead and dominated by the perfectly shaped volcano — a sublime appearance, both inspiring and menacing.

When Benjamin meets his old friends — poet Teodoro and sculptor/painter Catalina — this new landscape is slowly becoming repopulated. Memories, some comforting, others traumatic, are excavated, often without a clear demarcation between the past and the present. Take, for instance, the agonizing final shot of Benjamin being tortured by a secret police agent: is this a recollection of a past event, already alluded to, or is this the actual present of the film, the final scene of Benjamin’s life, perhaps his execution? What seems clear is Diaz telling us that the executions of the Filipino political activists cannot be relegated to any kind of history, least of all because they are (still) happening right now (to a shocking extent, as we learn). While Nature’s wrath is something we can ultimately deal with, the suppression of freedom, thought and art cannot but remain unresolved. This is the essence of Diaz’s “non-reconciled cinema”; a refusal to surrender memories to a history, to detach any moment or body from its place in time or space.

Benjamin’s wandering, rootless protagonist, haunted by memories and traumas, is, of course, a familiar figure in Diaz’s oeuvre: in Batang West Side (2001) it is shared by both the detective and the murdered youth; it is the moving part of Evolution and a subject of intense examination in Heremias. Lost in their quixotic search for truth and redemption, these figures also belong to a distinct tradition of the silent and often mad philosopher, a kind of a premodern somnambulist, which goes about the land forgetting and remembering. The poet-philosopher of Death, however, breaks this silent spell, speaking and thinking aloud, to whomever wants to listen. There is a sort of an ongoing conversation — a discurso, as we learn it is called, quite appropriately — between Benjamin and his two friends, an often impassioned exchange on art, politics, culture, modern life and the world at large. Immediate and imperfect — as any conversation between good friends usually is (awkward, even naïve, rarely teleological in a narrative sense) — it also suggests something about Diaz’s cinema itself, about the way it seems to come together as an inspired and generous reflection on art and life. Such sincerity of film-making and film-thinking is what makes Death — despite its existential gravity — the most outwardly dialogical of all the films Diaz has made.

Clearly, Diaz has allowed much of himself to enter the film (in some of the interviews he can be heard off-screen, explaining the film he is shooting), but this intrusion of the camera and the director isn’t simply about detaching cinema from spectacle. In truth, there is no fiction and reality here, but more of a weaving of determined and potential realities, of vérité and fausseté, always with a natural, sometimes even prodigious ease. In one of the interviews, for instance, we encounter an actor from the second part of Heremias, whose character in the film — a prophet — warns against a disaster. His prediction, coming from a film which paradoxically isn’t finished yet, is uncanny to say the least, more so since in reality he has lost everything except his life. Is this intrusion — from a film that is both past and future — a proof that cinema is somehow prophetic, or is it merely capable of detecting the future, already contained in the present? This ambiguity, a question whether detecting doesn’t also mean rendering a certain (catastrophic) reality visible and thus possible, haunts the film; and while it cannot be answered, it can be at least re-imagined as a symbolic gesture. As examples, one can think of two of the most moving shots in the film — Catalina reading Benjamin’s poem-testament for the camera, and her once more, painting and burning a portrait (presumably his). Both of these are rituals of remembrance and redemption, but also a spectacle, a staging of creation and destruction (much like Nature itself stages it, of course). A way of saying that there is no art without the spectacle of art.

Ultimately, one could hardly exhaust Death by only revisiting its symbolic concerns and suggestions. Much should be said about Diaz’s mastery in visual composition and his use of black and white images, about the shades of grey which preserve the encountered world in a distinctly physical, voluminous way; also about his use of natural low-key light, which, ordered into digital textures, produces distinctly material aesthetics. One that bears traces of both the scarcity of its means as well as the urgency of its ideas — a digital liberation theology, as Diaz calls it himself. More could also be said how a work like this renders so much of contemporary cinema obsolete, immature or hardly substantial. The hours of pure cinema it has to offer are hours that matter most: they are the time of cinema in becoming, being thought, reclaiming its space, time and subjects.