Last spring, as it so often happens when I visit the Harvard Film Archive, I stumbled upon an obscure cinematic masterpiece: Norte, the End of History. Norte is an ambitious, odyssean vision, a modern take on Fydor Dotstoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a novel which intimately probes the conscience of a law student, who, despite his basically decent nature, rationalizes himself into the throes of moral depravity. Perhaps it wouldn’t be fair to even call Norte a re-interpretation; it’s more like a springboard off of the elements in Crime, which Diaz has brilliantly re-applied in a wholly unique way.
Luckily enough, Diaz made his way to Harvard to curate his film retrospective. I immediately pounced on the opportunity to interview him, and after deftly maneuvering a few bureaucratic barriers, I managed to secure a coffee with the man himself. The following is a transcription of the conversation that followed. I recorded it on my iPhone, which I tragically lost, so the last thirty minutes are missing. The bulk of the interview is transcribed more-or-less verbatim, faux pax intact to preserve authenticity.
Before we begin, a few words on the context. The interview took place in the lobby of a cushy hotel in Harvard square which looked more like a refurbished mansion than a commercial residence. I arrived at the location a bit early and I started anxiously pacing around the premises, determined to arrive at the designed location at the exact time. Diaz detected my neurotic movements in the corner of his eye and escorted me into the lobby, where coffee and brittle, sand-dry Mexican treats were waiting for us (the most unusual waiting-room food I’ve ever encountered). He was wearing a beanie concealing his lusciously wispy, owl-gray hair. He gave off the impression of being a veteran of cinema, his demeanor stoically composed and almost sage-like. I, donning a snug leather jacket and boyishly tousled hair, must have exuded the aura of a young disaffected cinema enthusiast. The entire interview was set to the tone of shrill corporate muzak, the sort of tunes which you can find endlessly playing in shopping malls. I’ve always been a fan of eerie juxtapositions such as these, and the music was an inappropriately appropriate tone to the semi-serious conversation that ensued.
DV: So I understand that you were initially a musician–
LD: Yeah when I was young I used to be in a band–
DV: …and then when you were already well into your adult years it dawned on you that you could make a movie?
LD: No no no we weren’t successful at all as musicians
DV: But it was your vocation?
LD: Yeah but you know so many things happened…I got married very early so I had to find jobs to take care of my kids so that’s why I stopped doing music. And later cinema came–it was very natural.
DV: So how old were you when you started out?
LD: I started writing screenplays and teleplays (scripts for TV) in my early twenties but I was only able to make my first film at the age of 45
DV: At the age of 45..?
LD: Yeah, I started late but there was no money. You didn’t have any money and you weren’t a part of the studio system.
DV: So what did you do career-wise in that interim?
LD: After trying music, I became a newspaper man. I was a reporter, I worked with some of the newspapers in the country until cinema came. And also I submitted some of my plays to television and they were made into TV dramas. Those were the early days: I worked in publishing houses, I was a music critic and a film critic and I did some news writing as well; news editing, some sports writing here and there..so you do those things to keep the family alive, so that your kids won’t go hungry and the wife won’t go mad–
DV: –Yeah haha (as though I understand what it’s like to provide for a fully-fledged family)
LD:.–so you do those things
DV: Ok but do you remember the first time you had an image in your mind of a movie you wanted to make?
LD: I wrote poems and short stories and songs. When you write poetry or music or short stories, they come with a lot of those images…and also I wrote some stories for comics, which is very visual. We have a big culture of comic-writing, it’s a very unique Filipino tradition…you do it so that you can get money to survive and I knew that I could write and that I could create stories…it’s very visual–when you’re an artist you don’t just think in terms of prose writing you also think in terms of images–in a way it’s already a part of it–the epiphany, so to speak, came one day, I just found this screen-writing book and I realized that: “Oh I can make cinema.” I just started reading it and it was a very instructional book and it was explaining how to create a character, how to write a narrative, how to do a treatment, how to do a storyline, all those things, the elements of screen-writing and I realized that “oh I think I can be a filmmaker”…it came that way…what really inspired me to make cinema was when I was in the first year of college and I saw this film–it was assigned by our literature teacher–it’s a film by Lino Brocka, one of our greatest filmmakers. The title is “Manilla in the Claws of Light” and it was the first time I saw a Filipino movie that was that commercial and at the same time showed the social realities of the time. Its critique of what was happening in the country really affected me when I saw it. So I said: “oh beyond entertainment cinema is a good cultural tool.” These made me postulate about the medium–that film and the instructional book
DV: Were there any other filmmakers or movies which you think had a pivotal influence on your filmmaking?
LD: Well I grew up watching a lot of films.
DV: …but in particular?
LD: That film particularly inspired me and also the Russian books, the novels are very cinematic to me as well–the works of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, those were very influential to me and the poetry of Pushkin; these are Russian writers which influenced me–it was a landmark for me when I saw that film by Lino Brocka.
DV: So you saw that cinema had the potential to be a cultural tool?
LD: Yes of course it can affect change, it can be used as a tool. I saw that in 1975 and it was a period when in the Philippines we were two years under Martial Law. It was very brutal and this film, you know, it critiqued what was happening…try to find that film–it’s very good–Manilla in the Clothes of Neon–it’s a very powerful film
DV: Lino Brocka also made a lot of commercial works…he made 69 movies but out of those 69 there were like 5 to 7 masterpieces so he was such a great voice during the Martial Law period. In all the works that he did he was openly criticizing the regime of Martial Law then. We were under the Martial Law military regime and it was very oppressive–it was a witch hunt and I was a young man and witnessing those kinds of conditions in our country
DV: Would you say you make your movies to try to instigate cultural change on some level?
LD: Well part of it–it doesn’t have to be very deliberate; the fact that you’re critiquing social realities or representing, trying to mirror what’s happening in your film in real life then yeah it can affect change; art can do that, art has that power, music literature, cinema, yeah I believe in that
DV: How did you approach to filmmaking change from when you were just starting out to now? Did it change in any significant way?
LD: Well my first film was 11 hours but in between that I made 4 films within the studio system in my country, which means there’s the producer and you’re limited to two hours–although I love Hollywood or the Filipino cinema industry–right from the very beginning I didn’t want to be part of the convention, the usual way of filmmaking, you know, they do a lot of cut to cuts, they spend a lot of money on so many unnecessary things so when I started doing cinema, I deviated from that–I wanted to do it in my own way; I want to do it on my terms so yeah.
DV: I think the movies a director makes probably grow with the director as the director develops and changes over the years. So were there any spiritual changes you underwent from when you just started to now that is reflected in your movies
LD: Well it depends on how you see spirituality. For me spirituality is faith in what you do–but I have faith in cinema so it’s very spiritual to me; that aesthetic pursuit of cinema is a very spiritual one so its a journey towards that-to your soul/self (muffled sound)..I guess any aesthetic pursuit, whether it’s deliberate or not, subliminally it’s a journey towards that–because aesthetic is the food of the soul. Doing art or just cleaning a toilet, if you do it thoroughly, it’s very spiritual. Cooking food for your family is very spiritual–it doesn’t have to be religious…even with us talking alone this is spiritual because we’re talking about aesthetics–and the medium, the goodness of the medium, you know
DV: Yeah I understand but what I mean is, I guess, were there any beliefs that were core to you, that were really essential to you, that changed, and was that reflected in the films you made?
LD: Faith in humanity.
DV: Faith in humanity [awkward brief pause where we’re both intently staring each other in the eyes]…did you…did lose faith in humanity?
LD: I have faith in humanity…yeah I have faith in humanity. I question a lot of things–why is there fascism, why is there repression, why is there evil in man but at the same time you see the goodness, you see that there’s hope but it’s true–you can fight evil
DV: So you think you were more cynical when you started out?
LD: No, never cynical. I’m a very hopeful person. I’m just critiquing reality–you see my films, they are very dark. I don’t want to play around, I don’t want to do entertainment, I don’t want to do happy endings the way you see in the movies–those are lies; I don’t want to do that. As much as I can, I want to work on the truth of human existence in film. I don’t want to create lies like happy endings or climactic endings…that’s not cinema. For me, as much as I love watching all those films, that’s not cinema for me
DV: What do you think watching moves like these–movies that I don’t want to call “art” but movies that are nourishing for the soul–what do you think is the value of watching these sorts of movies?
LD: Well yeah that’s what we’re saying…It nourishes the soul, it helps us in our struggle to become good human beings. That’s always the struggle of aesthetics, art, it’s to help perfect humanity even though we cannot perfect humanity–is the role of culture to try to posit a way for it to be better–that’s the role of the arts
DV: How do you think films do that though?
LD: The films that you saw…my films did they affect you?
DV: They did.
LD: Ok then that’s change..they make you think about life and humanity’s role–if that affects you, then it creates some discourse, some engagement that alone is great and by that effect alone a filmmaker is thankful that its affected somebody. For me that’s enough–if my film creates engagement and discourse then it’s ok, as a filmmaker, I don’t have to go to the streets and tell people–when I make films its subliminal, engagement has to be the way, it doesn’t have to be imposing.
DV: What do you think of the films of Andrei Tarkovsky?
LD: I like the films of Andrei Tarkovsky…it is a big influence of my art because he’s very committed to the medium, he doesn’t play around, he doesn’t do bullshit…how many films did he make–7-8–and they are all masterpieces. You cannot deny the fact that he made great works. So there’s commitment, which is very important when you do art.
DV: So would you say your life is devoted to cinema…?
DV: [racking brains for a follow-up question to a statement I intended to springboard a discussion in and of itself with] When did it become a commitment for you?
LD: Well it’s the fact that I wanted..it’s simple..in my own small way I wanted to be part of the struggle to better humanity…that’s my commitment to cinema–I will use this medium to be of help. I want to be very responsible with my art, I don’t want to play around–so that’s my commitment, that’s my faith in cinema because I think it can contribute a little
DV: Do you think the sorts of films you’re drawn to have changed since you’ve become a filmmaker?
LD: I still watch everything…I’m a cinephile so I watch everything but now I know what I want to do–like I know what cinema I want to make; what kind of cinema is better than that kind of cinema in my own terms. But you know I’m a cinema addict so I watch everything but I know want I want and what I like…I just watch them now
DV: But when you watch movies–since you actually make movies–do you keep an eye on certain things?
LD: Every time I watch a movie I want to experience it first…and then afterwards you think about it even if it’s the worst movie of all time you also critique it and you have to think about it. I do that–I watch a film, I experience it, I enjoy it, and then afterwards I drink a cup of coffee and I come up with a little insight that improves my perception and I re-evaluate my perception of life–reading a bad book or good book is the same thing–at least critique it, analyze it, be dialectical about it, so to speak, investigate that work, the best thing you can do is check the maker–who is this filmmaker what is his background–is important to check them as well to check what they’re doing. Sometimes critics don’t do that. To be a good critic is to understand the filmmaker as well–the background he is coming from, the culture he is coming from, the cultural he is speaking of. Don’t just look at what he did because you’ll miss a lot of things. We are victims of that…southeast asian filmmakers they don’t–a lot of critics in the west–because they don’t study much they don’t research us–they critique the work in a very different way
DV: They de-contextualize it…?
LD: Yeah because they don’t understand our culture and there’s a lot of incomprehension in terms of facts–there’s no fact checking and very little research on the culture–they make tongue-in-cheek statements that hurt people sometimes which are out of context. But it’s ok, it’s part of the discourse anyway
LD: Its good that you’re starting early…the discourse on cinema. Are you planning to be a critic or a filmmaker? Do it! (laughs)
DV: I mean it’d be interesting..I think it would have to be a hobby…or not a hobby but just like a pursuit that isn’t my main mode of making money
LD: You can’t do it that way
DV:You can’t make money being a critic?
DV: In criticism?
LD: You can be a programmer, you can be a curator of cinema. Being a critic is so great. I started as a film critic and I have friends who have now become head of Berlin film festival…he’s a good friend he’s become a film critic…with the case of Hayden there are film programmers like you who started that way–interviewing filmmakers interviewing actors, interviewing critics, or just writing essays about what you saw. Yeah don’t worry if you do it good, money is consequential; it will come. Just don’t think about it. Just work on it.
DV: Yeah that’s what I’m trying to do now…
LD: Yeah good. Just keep writing and writing. Interviewing people. Watching a lot of cinema. Check out the programming–how do they curate these things, how do they choose they films the films that they show. Its good to start early.
DV: I think you have to build connections to work your way up.
LD: Your work will do it…connections will start from there. They will see your work anyway…they can read it. So that will work will do it for you. You don’t even have to leave your house..just keep writing. Once they read it they will write to you: Oh can you join us? Can you program this? I had other friends that started that way. They started in the universities writing and writing and then suddenly some people connected with them: Hey can you join us and be part of the jury of this festival?
DV: Are there any times when you finish a movie but then you watch it some years later and you wish you could go back and change the movie?
LD: Of course. It happens all the time, it happens all the time. Watching some parts of the films it’s like [grunts] MM…but you can’t go back so the film has its own life now so let it be…you did a film in a very very different period, different condition, different frame of mind so it has its own life, you have to respect that..even the actors who acted in the films at that point–they are in different universes–taking place during different times you have to respect that
DV: So would you describe yourself as a perfectionist…like when do you know when to stop refining a movie?
LD: I don’t believe in perfectionism…I believe more in engagement with things and open discourse is better for me than being so prude and imposing…because I know a lot of directors who during their shoots, during the production they are really being fascistic and imposing during their shoots and it stiffs everything, it’s not open. Perfectionism sometimes has a very very narrow or limited perspective, in a way, because it’s so imposing. For me, the Socratic way is better–in that engagement there’s openness. Even with actors, I talk to them although I’m very imposing it’s just a dialogue, a script, I tell them to be free. That’s why I do the cuts to cuts; I don’t want to manipulate them–they’re free. I just tell them what to do in the frame but I ask them to memorize the lines–its important and I ask them to really immerse themselves in the character because it will show, it will magnify, the screen is so big if you fake what you’re doing….
DV:…everyone will see
LD: People will see it. Just be honest, I tell them. Just be truthful. Do not act, be the character. When you’re dealing with characters they call it being, when you’re inhabiting the character without judgement…if you’re a criminal then you’re a criminal…be the criminal. Sometimes it’s dangerous for actors but that’s the way it is…they are inhabiting the universe or the mind of this being…be that being don’t judge
DV: I know Stanley Kubrick was very imperious when he made his movies, he was very domineering.
LD: Yeah but sometimes it works…people like to be dominated…some people do that, they want to be the slave of the process. We have different processes…you know I used to work in so many different productions: as an assistant director, as a production assistant, as a sound-man. I did all those and I saw different processes so you know I’ve seen that. They are valid, every praxis is valid, every process is okay as long as you get what you want to do…but you know, yeah, Kubrick
DV: What do you think of him?
LD: I like him. I like his works. Barry Lyndon–I like how he did it–it wasn’t well received when it was young but you watch it now and I would say it may be his best work.
DV: Yeah I’ve seen it
LD: The nuance makes things come alive…the worst part of Kubrick is that he’s so imposing, he forgets the little things–everything is big, you know…but in Barry Lyndon you see the little things, you see the nuances and this is important in aesthetics…it makes the work alive because of this…the details are important..what’s his last film?
DV: Eyes Wide Shut…I liked it a lot
LD: Yeah…very mysterious–it’s good and yeah you can see he’s passionate about his work. He’s very committed to the cinema…he started as a photographer…you have a kind of passion to make these films–one step to madness, one step to derangement. Making cinema is very dangerous sometimes because you go to a zone–if you don’t discipline yourself sometimes you hurt people in the process. Sometimes I forget myself and then I hurt people with words but now I’m very disciplined about it. You go to a zone where your emotions and perceptions are so strong and sometimes you embrace things and your senses create sensations that aren’t appropriate…you begin to mistrust people, you become jealous, you begin to think that people are betraying you–even the little things–when food is not delivered at the right time directors explode just because of that.
DV: I would imagine they’re not good filmmakers if their egos aren’t tamed though. If their egos are so inflated then it probably seeps through in their work.
LD: I’ve worked with some old, great filmmakers and they have these nasty habits during the shoot but the films come out good and you know you wonder if only people knew how bad this guy is. People think oh what a great film but he hurt 90 people during the shoot like sometimes you know these things happen, I’ve been part of these as a sound designer, as a PA, etc–I’ve experienced these kinds of emotions and this kind of nastiness and sometimes you just forgive the guy because the movie came out good. Of course I don’t want to work with you again though…