Interview – A Tale of Filipino Violence

Interview with Lav Diaz

Your cinema is known for its epic dimension, dealing with the contested past of the Philippines as well as its contemporary issues. For A Tale of Filipino Violence, you adapt Ricardo Lee’s short story and screenplay Servando Magdamag, situated in the dark pages of the Marcos dictatorship in 1973-1974. Why this text now? How did you conceive the adaptation?

There’s a lot to be said about the timing of this work. I don’t even know where to start but the feeling is just dire and eerie indeed. Right now, here in the Philippines, while I’m answering your questions, the inauguration of the new president of our sad republic just took place, and his name is Ferdinand Marcos Jr.; and he is of course the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whose oppressive regime is the very subject of A Tale of Filipino Violence. The specter of Marcos has become more pronounced. His son actually won the elections by a staggering majority vote. Marcos’ chokehold of the Philippines was fortified during the years 1973 and 1974. He was in total control of the country.
Ricardo Lee’s short story, Servando Magdamag, written in Tagalog, is a classic of Philippine literature and I love the work. I’ve been dreaming, even struggling, to adapt it for years. A real great chance came in 2019 when I was offered to do a television work. I suggested an adaptation of the piece, and when everything came into place, Mr. Lee generously wrote a screenplay, and then told me to adapt it freely (“Own it, Lav.”) which became the inspiration when I finally made the work.

And you show that the violence is rooted in different ways.

I insisted on Hector, the brother of Servando who was given away when they were born, whose nature is literally dark. I added more scenes with him. I felt that if I were to create a bit of a juxtaposition of Hector and Servando, the discourse on violence would be more effective, specifically on having parallel but different narratives, and at the same time they are entirely connected—here in the film, the violence of an imposed belief, i.e., religion on Hector, and an imposing system/ideology, Marcos, on Servando.

Between the Spanish of Servando Monzon III’s journal and the languages heard in the different dialogues and situations, the language diversity seems to play a great role in the film. Can you explain this choice?

The Philippines was a colony of Spain and then later, the United States of America, the very reasons why Spanish and English languages are very much a part of our culture. The present Philippines still has many languages and regional dialects, but the two major lingua francas are Tagalog ang English; and if you listen carefully, you can actually hear vestiges of Spanish.

Some characters come up throughout the film, like the philosopher or the three blind people or Kristo. Is this a way of calling up the dimension of the fable?

They happen like dreams, different realms and spheres in the narrative, particularly on the development of the main character, Servando Monzon VI. They can just be parts of his subconscious and at the same time, they can be real characters as well. They represent and contextualize the complexity of his being, and that his existence is not confined to a specific sentiency, i.e., in his overt setup, the feudal milieu.

Director, screenwriter, editor, production designer, you are also cinematographer. The black and white images and the lights evoke classical cinema, far from tv. How did you conceive it?

I was writing during the shoot, and I was conscious that I was making cinema and at the same time I knew at the back of my head that I shall also be cutting the work in a picaresque or episodic manner for the television version. We did production in a very protracted way and during precarious conditions (we started shooting before the pandemic struck, and then, we did two more periods of shooting during the height of the pandemic); these things really helped on how I worked on the film and on how I looked at the film. It will be an experiment in forms; the cinema versions shall be in black and white, and the television episodes shall be in color and with soundtrack. I am also thinking of creating a three-part film version.

We see some familiar actors and actresses in your cinema, such as Hazel Orencio or Bart Guingona. And there is also John Lloyd Cruz, a very famous actor both on tv and in cinema, who plays the main character, as well as Agot Isidro, actress and singer known for her career in tv series. How did you come up with this casting?

I chose them based on their integrity and political stands. They have great awareness of what’s happening in our country. They are very involved in greater cultural endeavors and discourses.

You are also a poet, writer and composer, and music is often very present in your films. How did you conceive the songs and their place in the narrative ?

I wrote and composed the song Malamig ang Hangin (The Wind is Cold) which is sung repeatedly by Tiya Dencia, the crazed woman. It became an emotional and psychological anchor for her character. It is a melodic and melancholic song of yearning, longing and loss, and it has become her raison d’être so to speak. The act of repetition is akin also to an abyss or a vicious cycle. The song Minsan pa sa Gunita (Once More in My Memory), heard when we have a glimpse again of Belinda, who is now a communist cadre, was written and composed by the poet/musician Chickoy Pura two days before he joined the shoot; he acted as one of the revolutionaries and sang the song himself. It is a love song in a very violent setup. The greatest love songs are the ones written or sung by revolutionaries, or love songs that thrive during revolutions.

You call this film a “sine-nobela” (cine-novela). Could you elaborate on that?

I am putting into context the very nature of my works or my process. As we all know now, they always label my works as long film, slow cinema or, even, comatose cinema, then, why not a sine-nobela (film-novel). My works were and are, actually, written freely like novels or long poems. There is always the unusual and unconventional structuring, framing and storytelling.

Interview by Nicolas Feodoroff