Diaz's never-ending story of amnesia, apathy, sex, lies and Marcos

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 March, 2005, 12:00am

Filipino director Lav Diaz's last release was only five hours long, so he thought he'd go further next time.

Diaz's Evolution of a Filipino Family, which is screening at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, runs for more than 10 hours, and took him 11 years to make. In the course of filming, three of the cast died and the central character grew from child to young man. Diaz wasn't being self-indulgent - the vast length was necessary to show all the social, personal, and political changes that occurred in a rural family during the turbulent years from 1971 to 1987.

Diaz's approach to Evolution - a drama, not a documentary - was twofold. He wanted to document the bad times of the former president Ferdinand Marcos and to encourage Filipinos to remember those times. Filipinos are too quick to forgive and forget those who exploited and abused them, he says.

'It's the story of a family, but it's also a political and social history of my country,' says Diaz. 'The Marcos era was a terrible time for us, and I wanted to document it in-depth.

'In Filipino culture, we forget things too easily,' he says. 'We've forgotten about the horrors of the Marcos years. Imelda's [former First Lady] dancing in the streets of Manila again, wearing her jewellery and flaunting her wealth. Her family have become elected officials. The idea behind my film is simple - it just asks people to remember all the bad things that happened. We must remember them, and then they will find their proper resting place in our memories. Only when this happens can we move forward as a people.'

Filipinos' political and social amnesia is the result of decades of suffering, says Diaz. Chinese suffer and remember, but Filipinos suffer and forget, it seems. 'Bad things have been happening in the Philippines for centuries,' says Diaz. 'We were occupied by the Spanish, and raped by the Japanese. We had the horror of the Marcos years. We have suffered so much as a culture we have become apathetic. We have become a 'numb' culture. We just say, let it be, and move on.

'For us to move forward as a nation, we must take stock of our history. We mustn't forget, and we have to be slower to forgive. What's more, forgiving must be accompanied by justice - we must have justice. It's terrible that people have forgotten about the Marcos years so quickly. Some of those Marcos people are back in government again. How could that happen? The joke is on us, the people, again.'

Diaz freely admits that a 10-hour movie isn't going to be seen by many ordinary Filipino viewers. But he thinks Evolution will spark debate on university campuses and in educational establishments.

'My film is a kind of political event in itself,' he says. 'It will make viewers remember those times. I realise most people aren't going to watch a 10-hour, 40-minute work, so I plan to persuade audiences to see it myself. I'm going to visit college campuses and persuade people to take the time to watch at least a couple of hours of it.'

The very nature of the film meant that it had to be long. 'I wanted to include everything that happened,' he says. 'I didn't want to edit out any events. I had to show what happened in the cities and the poor rural areas. There's a big contrast between the two. Nothing seems to be happening in the rural areas. The people are just bored. They harvest, they plant, and once in a while there's some military intervention. But Marcos always made sure the rural poor were under his control, and he used Imelda's charisma to help him. I wanted to get all these dimensions into the film.'

Diaz spends most of his time in New York City. His father was a film buff, and that's how he became interested in making films. He's well regarded on the film festival circuit, although populist Filipino film critics call him elitist and pretentious. Diaz says he doesn't care. He's committed to the notion that film can change things, rather than simply entertain the masses.

As he points out, the media under Marcos was used to change things - for the worse. Evolution shows how a diet of trashy radio dramas, comic books and sex films was encouraged in the rural areas. Trash culture filled the minds of the villagers and stopped them thinking about the things that mattered.

'Those radio dramas were very important to Marcos,' Diaz says. 'He used them to keep people ignorant. People spent so much time listening to radio dramas, watching sex films and reading comics that they didn't think about the real world. All that rubbish helped to obscure what Marcos was doing.'

This is a first-hand observation, he says, not something he read in a Marxist textbook. 'I grew up in a rural area where you'd wake-up at 5am to start work. By 9am, everyone was listening to the radio dramas. They were playing all the time. Looking back, it was obviously part of Marcos' strategy to stop people thinking. He used the sex films and the sex magazines to fill up people's minds. There was no space left for them to think. He realised that the rural poor would lap this trivia up to escape from the boredom of their lives. It was a form of political manipulation.'

Shooting a film for 11 years is probably some kind of a record. Evolution has been part of Diaz's life for so long, he says he's having difficulty letting it go. He was even fiddling with a new edit on the plane over to the Rotterdam International Film Festival, where this interview took place.

'It was a struggle to keep going for so long,' he says. 'The pre-production started in December 1993 and the cameras started rolling in March 1994. Whenever I raised some money, I'd shoot until I ran out. Three actors died during the shoot, so we had to change the story a bit. It was always a challenge. My marriage fell apart, I made enemies, I lost friends, and I forged strong new friendships.

'I learnt a lot about loyalty and betrayal from the experience,' Diaz says.

But it was all worth it. 'This film is a political tool. I hope to create some discourse about our history and our social and political problems with Evolution. I want to disturb the status quo, and this is a good start.'

The evolution starts here.

Evolution of a Filipino Family screens tomorrow as part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival. For details, go to www.hkiff.org.hk for details.