Being Human: Lav Diaz on "Genus, Pan"

Interview

On Hugaw Island, haunted, and perhaps even cursed, by its colonial past, three miners try to journey home on foot after months of back-breaking, exploitative labour. The youngest, Andres, is worn-down from the work and how little money he has to show for it—especially considering he has an ill sister at home who needs support—after being shaken down by the cantankerous elder Baldo, who forces him to pay for having connected him with the job. In the middle of these two is the calm-headed Paolo, who tries to mediate between these men as their jungle trek grows more arduous and their states of mind begin to regress.

In what for filmmaker Lav Diaz is a fairly tight 150-minute running time, Genus, Pan (Lahi, Hayop) is a keenly focused study of the man as animal. With its heart-of-darkness narrative trajectory and and perpetually mounting tensions, Diaz creates a searing portrait of humanity in which true nature boils over. The result is a maddening and even carnivalesque (appropriate as its principal characters used to be in a travelling circus) allegory that exposes secret sins and internalized traumas and how they manifest in our own consciousness. While the political context still looms large here, Genus, Pan finds Diaz broadening his purview from targeting a particular figure, regime, or specific historical moment and looking instead at the fundamental aspects of the human being that make monstrous acts possible. As the film continues, the distinguishing features of the three men melt away. There is no protagonist or antagonist, except that of which exists inside of every character on screen.

Genus, Pan recently had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival where it won the Best Director prize in the Orizzonti competition. What follows is an interview that took place over email with director Lav Diaz.

Adam Cook: Can you talk about what inspired this story? What is unique to this film that you wanted to explore?

Lav Diaz: I personally know a guy, who, since he was a teenager, works as a prostitute, or popularly called a call boy hereabouts. A mestizo, tall, with a muscled physique, his face angelic and looks so full of innocence, a natural luminous skin, a good dresser, with a very charismatic mien. No woman, young or old, or gay person, young or old, has ever said no to him. They cave in, they give in, they lose their body, souls and everything, and they wholeheartedly provide for him, this despite of his near-moronic intellect, and conversations with him can only go as far as the latest gossips about local romcom celebrities and new shoes. I witnessed two very intelligent gay friends who got into an almost fatal bruising skirmish over him in front of so many other intelligent friends. He knows he has this extraordinary Eros rein and he is using it with primal, predatory and oppressive abandon. He is relentless, without mercy and remorseless. 

In all, he has already fathered nine children with different women and, as I am writing this, he just impregnated another young woman. He doesn’t even provide for them. The storyline of that animal was one of Genus, Pan’s inspirations. And then, I thought of the most barbaric deeds against humanity and a number of detestable beings—the Holocaust, the Great Leap Forward, the Soviet collectivization, the Darfur genocide, the Crusades, the Vietnam war, the Nanking massacre, the drug war of Duterte, the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the fat duo murderers Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-un, Assad of Syria, Putin of Russia, Marcos and his wife, Idi Amin, Donald Trump. And then, I thought of all the people who are struggling to better humanity, the ones that are truly sacrificing. In the street where I live, I hear the shouts of the balut (boiled egg) seller every night, his voice scared, hoarse, desperate, questioning, melancholic but fiercely defiant as he is putting everything in his body and his soul on the line for a family that needs to be nourished and sheltered. He is a real saint, my hero. So, there’s the truth—man shall live with a schizophrenic duality, an absolute good side and an utterly sickening barbaric side. Science explains that this duality inside human beings to a great extent involves the components and workings of the organ known as the “brain”. 

Cook: Genus, Pan is an extension of your mid-length film, Hugaw from Lakbayan. Can you talk about the decision to make it into a feature? Was this always the plan? Was it a challenge? Do you see it as a separate film?

Diaz: They’re two very different films. The 37-minute Hugaw, which is part of the commissioned omnibus work Lakbayan, is, admittedly, an almost incomprehensible tale about one of the most marginalized sectors of Filipino society, the dwellers of far-flung and forgotten islands. Deliberately mysterious, I worked more on the feel of the images, the one coherent trajectory is the sense of helplessness on existing in desolate realms. After finishing the short, we went back for further shoot, this time to work on a stronger narrative, a more fulfilled and fully developed characters, and a dialectical discourse on the nature of man under neglectful systems. The urge to expand it into a greater perspective came naturally during the process of shooting the short. Ideas, threads and images kept springing in my head during the process and I knew then and decided that I’ll rework it on a bigger scale, contextualize it more, so to speak. And so, after the initial shoot, we went back to the remote island where we were shooting and added more layers, to the characters, to the narrative. 

Cook: Can you tell me about the setting of Hugaw?

Diaz: It could be anywhere in the Philippines or even in the world for that matter. The Philippines comprises of 7,641 islands, an archipelago inhabited by people mostly of Malay origins, just like the people of Malaysia and Indonesia. From on high, on what they call bird’s eye view, or, the zeitgeist’s popular and sickeningly overused drone perspective, if you were to look at the map of Southeast Asia, the archipelagic set-up of what became known as the Philippines doesn’t really look like it’s a part of a bigger set-up. It looks really out of place, an outlier, more like a grouping of drifting and floating turtles, bubbles, whales, snakes, crocodiles, ducks, butterflies and debris. The word hugaw literally means dirt in Bisaya, the most spoken language (not Tagalog) in the Philippines. And so going back to your question on the origin of the film, a big part of it is working on that Malay word, hugaw. I worked on it using it not just the name of the island but a metaphor for dirt, as well, and I commenced with the simple query, What comprises a Filipino dirt? Or simply, What is Filipino dirt? And here, as it involves the narrative of a very unique culture, the role or the function of myth comes into the fore, i.e., myth as sociology and anthropology. Myth is the repository of types, archetypes and stereotypes, the gamut of culture. Thus,  a vision of discourse on dirt as a composite of cultural stains, stinks and majesties of the Filipino. The island of Hugaw is the Filipino. The characters, their conditions, their manners, their longings, their beliefs contextualize the whole setup. 

Cook: You focus on three characters who share the same experience of exploitation and oppression, and yet they tear each other apart when they should be in solidarity. Can you talk about the irony of how their shared circumstances drive them apart?

Diaz: They are not trained to think properly, to be critical, to be dialectical. These are the lumpen-proletarians whose simple perspectives are primal, atavistic and oftentimes, inordinately religion-based and myth-based. In the case of Andres, Paolo and Baldomero, or even Mariposa, Inggo, the village chief and the sergeant, there is no rational articulation (except for a few instances in the fledgling and confused discourse of Andres and some astonishing bits of scholarships on the narcissistic engagements of the vile Inggo) but the sense of neglect is palpable to all of them. The common denominator for their impoverished state is survival. Under such conditions, protecting their spaces and whatever they have is paramount, and even on that engagement, they are not even equipped to mount proper defenses, as most of their actions and engagements are more instinctive and visceral. And their defenses are affected or the effect of the immediate elements of their milieu. They long for certainties but again they are unable to articulate what kind of certainties are these. The clearest ones are the need for food and shelter because these are exigencies. 

Another clear understanding is that they are pariahs and outcasts from a larger setup, a setup that they might want to be part of but then they could not put their trust on. The larger setup, of course, is represented by a distant government, an exploitative status quo, and even the concept of a nation. In the Hugaw sphere, the feudal construct is well-entrenched and seemingly formidable and this compounds deeper mistrust. And so, for most of the oppressed inhabitants, religion offers the best option and this blurs more their ambiguous views on justice and emancipation. The idea of solidarity or having a common goal can only be limited to similarities in survival drives, urges,  petty longings and leanings. These incapacitates them for the need to create a structure, an organization, a working system as means in pursuing a common cause. Often, the most tangible manifestation of certainty to them is a belief in a god and other perceived powerful and benevolent supernatural beings. Ironically, it is in the unknown where they find threads to hold on to. In religion, they can perceive an organized system that can provide such threads. They find solace in the promise of salvation that will materialize after a life of suffering. The greatest irony is this kind of acceptance of fate, a subjective reality that is obstinately real to these unfortunate beings.

Cook: In the beginning, it seems safe to assume that Baldo is the bad guy, Andres the good guy, and Paulo the calm mediator between them. However, this is subverted as the story continues and this notion is eradicated. Each character is shown to have a sympathetic side and an animalistic one. Can you talk about this in terms of a dramatic approach, how you approached the arc of the characters and this growing tension, but also on working with the actors to create this complex ebb and flow that reveals itself?

Diaz: Just like in life, in my narratives, the elements fundamentally are built and grow by way of relationships. Relationships are created by simply following threads, of, and, for, connections and engagements to naturally flow. To contextualize, the characters’ relationships must not just be with the other characters, oftentimes identified only as the main protagonists but I work on providing proper attention as well to the other salient elements like the forces in the spaces and milieus, i.e., in this film, nature, and other subliminal structures, such as history, the past. A fulfilled dynamics of interactions and entanglements amongst all the elements will consolidate and create a more fulfilled story or dramaturgy. In Genus, Pan, remoteness, not just neglect, creates a hovering desolation, and this is in fact one of the most imposing characters. The unseen but it’s there. The coarseness of language, the loudness of their voices and the unrefined and awkward manners of Andres, Baldo and Paolo and of all the rest, are manifestations of earnest desolations as a result of neglect and ignorance, and these afflict their being and existence.

Just to digress, but this is still essentially a part of this discourse. This is funny cause I read a few journals written on the film and the writers are looking for really clean, ‘refined’ and their idea of ‘perfect acting.’ Where are these people coming from? They are capable of writing really dainty articles, and this makes them feel entitled and act like aesthetic authorities, but how come they are unable to understand culture, or life, at all? 

One example is the confrontation/revelation scene between Baldo and Paolo, which they say is quite theatrical in the way it was staged and performed. But, of course, as they grow up in that abysmally crude theater called the traveling circus. And you’re talking of almost a decade of living and working as actors/entertainers in their youth! The burden of that oppressive past they are perpetually carrying like a cross. And now, they are finally confronting it; it is now to be revealed, in the darkest confines of the night forest, the darkest part of their lives in that obscure theater. And you want them, the actors, to brood, to choose the best words, to tone down the emotions and their voices, have subtlety (the lumpen-proletarian!), find the right enunciations and cadences, and pay attention to syllabic measures, don’t buckle, and move more gracefully, please? Talk of dramatic approach. And add to that, the politics of the camera, where there’s only one single unmoving take most of the time; yes, it would have been easier and ‘cleaner’ if I employed the conventional film-school cut-to-cut. And we are not even talking of Brecht here. 

Cook: Are humans revealed to be animals only through circumstance? These three men are in an extreme situation that causes them to break down. Would it be different if they were wealthier, more comfortable? Or does this animalistic side manifest in different ways?

Diaz: Circumstances, conditions and situations can draw out our primeval attributes or the beast in us human beings. But status in life can never conceal and even eradicate and erase the animal in us, not even the best suits, nor the most expensive cars, the gaudiest mansions, the best educational degrees, being a member of a monarchial family and having a celebrity status. Whether one is obscenely wealthy or one is among the poorest of the poor, man’s animal attributes manifest every day, physiologically and psychologically. A richer being may carry and exude demeanour, manners and actuations in finer and cleaner ways, as a direct effect of comfort and bourgeois privilege, but characteristics like jealousy, envy, anger, greed, hunger, depression, megalomania, narcissism, competitiveness, the need for conquest, and barbarity shall be the same with that of the peasant, or even worse.   

Cook: These characters seem to internalize not just the oppression they experience daily, but also a colonial history. Can you talk about the context and theme of generational trauma in the story?

Diaz: Cultural fractures can be tracked and traced back as effects of the past, of history, of an experience, of a process. But a discourse of the past and history, corollary and psychological, must not only involve foreign incursions. There, too, are the indigenous narratives, pre-Islam and pre-Christian cultures, layers of which remain embedded in present Filipino societies through traditions and practices that survive. These deep structures are just as important to understand what has become of the Filipino consciousness and condition today. The inhabitants of the archipelago known as the Philippines have had traumatic colonial experiences, almost four hundred years under Spain and so many decades under the US, and there’s the brutal years under the Japanese and Marcos, and now, we have the equally dark and brutal Duterte reign. It’s a long shared history of abuse and the trauma, and the effects linger and are still propagated. Resignation is one chronic malaise that is a direct result of these torments. Acceptance of violence, human rights abuses, corruption and other oppressive impositions have deeper constructs and are very much apparent in the lives of the inhabitants of Hugaw Island. A key issue is that most inhabitants don’t have a proper understanding of the past and of their nature. Dissecting and examining all the threads that contributed to such cultural debacles and cataclysms, for these beings to have a clearer understanding of their nature, require a patient, yet utterly, monumental educational effort. 

Cook: Your films vary greatly in length. Do you find you take a different approach with certain stories? Is this just an organic process for you?

Diaz: Length is determined only in the cutting room, during post. And those lengths ultimately are hypothetical in nature because I always feel that my films have no real endings anyway. I have mixed feelings with doing endings for my cinema because most of the time, I don’t know how to do the ending or I don’t want them to end. The very idea that my work is organic means it will keep growing, it will keep on evolving. But, of course, a denouement is a necessity, a film has to stop somewhere. 

Let’s talk about endings. I find that working on an ending puts me on a really ‘forced’ conundrum, a compromised situation: Where to end? When to end? How to end? (While deep inside me, the actual answer is Why end?) It is a compromised situation because I’ll be forcing myself to think and create scenes or a scene that somehow would suggest a proper ending. You’d be forced to think of the conventions, of climaxes, impacts, statements, spectacles, or, worse, work on different versions and even going to the embarrassing task of asking people which version worked best for them. In Hollywood and in so many movie industries, they treat the act of creating an ending very much akin to a constitutional convention where it will conclude to an enactment of a law—the ending is the movie. So there, my principle is that a so-called ending, as applied to my work, simply means it is literally just a cut, a stopover, a break, not a conclusion. AndI will never do a deliberate act of doing a cut that would cater to an imposed length. There were exceptions, e.g., the commissioned works like the Hugaw short, where the deal was not to go beyond 40 minutes and Butterflies Have No Memories, which was just 59 minutes. Both are parts of omnibus works.

Cook: I don’t want to give away anything, but you make a very specific choice to use a sequence of short, handheld shots towards the end of the film after using static wide shots throughout the film. Can you talk about this choice? What attracts you to these different techniques?

Diaz: It was a change of perspective, the camera taking a subjective view, radically jarring a seemingly steady, detached or even an unsympathetic canvas. I could just have chosen to have Mariposa orally tell the Inggo-manipulated version of the incident in front of the village chief and the constabulary sergeant as she did when she was being rehearsed and coerced by Inggo but I want to suggest visually the fragility of truth vis-a-vis revisionist acts and forces; and that man, under duress, is always unable to defend the truth. The movement is the view of the inarticulate and the helpless Mariposa and, of course, the lie of Inggo. Or it could be that the camera is now articulating anybody’s wilted version of the narrative, like confused animals, lost, directionless, unable to see clearly, and that everything will turn to tragedy.