Lav Diaz is probably the Philippines’ most acclaimed filmmaker abroad whose works are rarely seen in his own country.
Among his notable triumphs were 2016’s Hele sa Hiwagang Hinagpis (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery) which won the Alfred Bauer Prize at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival and Ang Babaeng Humayo (The Woman Who Left), which won the Golden Lion at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival.
In 2020, Lahi, Hayop (Genus, Pan), won him Best Director in the Orrizonti (Horizons) section also in Venice.
Meryl Streep, who was jury chair in Berlin, said of Lav: “This film. This guy. He changed the molecule system in my body.”
In an email chat with Daily Tribune, Lav talks about his new film, Servando Magdamag, which is based on a short story by Ricky Lee, and its lead actor, John Lloyd Cruz.
Daily Tribune (DT): Tell us about ‘Servando Magdamag.’ Was it your idea to do the film?
Lav Diaz (LD): I’ve bugged Ricky Lee through the years. It’s become a fixation on my part and irritation on his part, hahaha. The very first time I met him, this was when I attended his screenwriting workshop, I told him about my deep admiration for his short story, Servando Magdamag, and my dream of making a film version of it, that is, if I’d get lucky and become a filmmaker. And since then, every time we meet, I’d keep reminding him, begging him to write a script version of it.
DT: How did you cast the film? Was John Lloyd Cruz your first choice to play the lead?
LD: During the early incarnations of the idea — to make a film version — I didn’t know John yet, so I considered other actors, of course. But, finally, when everything came into place, when we were ready to really work on it, John was the choice.
DT: What do you like about John as an actor?
LD: John is fearless, fierce and very humble. His method is simple, mysterious and poetic. There’s an overwhelming commitment in his struggle to understand a character, a story, or even an incident. He surrenders, he opens up, he doesn’t judge. Give him the script for the day; there’s that immediate enthusiasm akin to a kid receiving a gift, and he’ll hide in his corner and read it with urgency. Tatahimik na yan (He’ll be silent). He’ll throw a few questions, mostly on the little things, maybe just about an archaic Tagalog word that he doesn’t understand. The nuances and surprises that he gives will show his brilliance. At walang ego si John. Kaibigan siya ng lahat. Kasama siya kahit sa pagtulog sa lubak (John has no ego. He’s friends with everyone. He won’t mind sleeping anywhere). In this film, he plays three extremely disparate characters.
DT: Initial media reports say John’s character comes from a family of hacienderos and the story takes off after the death of their patriarch.
LD: The original character, Servando, from the short story, is an heir to a feudal family. His overbearing grandfather just died and now he will be responsible and is burdened by everything about his family, including its very dark history. Ricky wrote a script for the film, but he gave me freedom. His word was, “Own it, Lav.” And so I did. The material has mutated to so many directions and forms already. We’ve been shooting for more than a year now. But I remained true and loyal to the vision of the short story.
DT: The story is said to be a reflection of violence in the country’s history. How would you trace this violent history — are you referring to martial law, or further back to Spanish colonial times, or even as far back as the tribal period of the different regions?
LD: Ricky wrote the story in great prose, very modernist. It’s in elegant Tagalog, hard read, really complex in form, but then it’s beautiful and utterly horrifying once you get it. Kaya hindi ko siya mawagwag. Naistorbo ako nang husto (I found it disturbing).
Because, ultimately, it is really talking to me about the hard truths of our culture. That’s my interpretation of the short story. It’s about violence or man’s cruelty. It is specifically about the very violent history of the feudal Monzon family, but it mirrors and reflects the very violent history of this country as well. There is that parallelism. That’s why Servando Magdamag is great literature. Sa isang maikling tula ay sinalamin ni Ricky ang nawawalang kaluluwa ng Pilipino (In this short, poetic piece, Ricky was able to mirror the Filipino’s lost soul).
DT: Is it correct to say that most of your films deal with Philippine history, and the characters are either victims of circumstance or are struggling to come to terms with their situation? Are you saying that Filipinos need to go back and learn more about our history in order to move forward and achieve real progress?
LD: I would say my films are more anthropological. I’m simply trying to understand humankind. The algorithm is simple. If a culture or a society doesn’t examine and confront its past, with no understanding of its history, it can’t walk properly. Sure, it can move forward, but ignorance will just overwhelm everything, and the result would be devastating. Hitler. Marcos. Trump. T***-ina nila. Sino pa ba? Maglista tayo ng resulta ng kamangmangan at kagunggungan (F**k them. Who else? Let’s list down the outcome of ignorance and stupidity).
TD: What are your thoughts about the present time and what would it take for Filipinos to mature as citizens?
LD: Let’s teach our people to be dialectical and critical about everything. Let’s teach them to be responsible. Let’s teach them to be ethical. Let’s tell them every day that truth matters. Turuan natin sila na ang lumaban para sa tama ay tama, o ang tama ay tamang ipaglaban. Sabihin natin sa kanila na mahalaga pa rin ang tula. (Let’s teach them to learn to fight for what is right. Let’s tell them that it’s still important to listen to stories and poetry).