View From The Wings
LAV DIAZ’S LATEST CINEMA CONQUEST AND THE FILIPINO ARTIST
By Pablo A. Tariman
Photos by Baby K. Jimenez
Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz gave Philippine cinema another shining moment when his “The Woman Who Left” (Ang Babaeng Humayo) emerged the recipient of the 73rd Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion best picture award.
For the record, it is the first South East Asian film to win the Best Picture trophy in the oldest film festival in the world.
Earlier, Diaz won the 2008 Orrizonti grand prize in the same festival for his 8-hour film “Melancholia,” which deals with activists who disappeared for activities critical of the government.
The festival’s artistic director Alberto Barbera said that this year’s films spoke about universal themes but took a more subtle and less graphic approach to depict day-to-day life, violence and poverty than in previous editions. “The great themes, philosophical and existential questions…this time are approached with filmmakers taking a distance from the brutality of reality. So there are no more scenes of everyday life or footage of today’s wars, but the great themes are still there. It is not an escape from the contemporary world, it is used as a way to reflect on today’s world in a different way.”
For the 57-year old filmmaker, it is another triumph in another setting for the Filipino cinema as he earlier received the Golden Leopard at the 2014 Locarno International Film Festival for his film Mula sa Kung Ano Ang Noon which was about the childhood his memories two years prior to the declaration of Martial Law in the Philippines in 1972.
At the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival with a distinguished jury headed by no less than Meryl Streep, his film “Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis” (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery) was awarded the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Award.
Also shot in black and white and lasting nearly four hours “Woman Who Left” was praised by Variety critic Guy Lodge as a “powerful and, by his [Diaz’s] standards, refreshingly contained moral study.”
The film is a revenge drama about the struggle of a wrongly convicted schoolteacher (played by Charo Santos) in the outside world after 30 years behind bars.
The award-winning film is in black and white and runs for close to four hours and it might as well be Diaz’s statement on the horrible state of Philippine penitentiary and the country’s justice system. To prepare for her come back role, lead star Charo Santos said she visited women incarcerated in Philippine prisons. The film is about a woman (Charo Santos) who spent 30 years in prison for a crime she did not commit. It is inspired by a Tolstoy short story, God Sees The Truth But Waits.
(As we write this, the social media is awash with tweets of London critic Guy Lodge who declared that Emma Stone’s win (as best actress) was a mirage; ‘Woman Who Left’ star Charo Santos is the real Oscar frontrunner.)
Moreover, Diaz’s triumph was reminiscent of the reception given to Brilliante Mendoza’s Nora Aunor starrer, “Thy Womb” in the 69th Venice Film Festival.
Unknown to many, a Filipino film entitled “Genghis Khan” directed by Manuel Conde made it to the 1952 Venice Film Festival and was cited for outstanding technical achievement. It starred Manuel Conde as Genghis Khan, Elvira Reyes as Princess Lei Hai, Lou Salvador, Jr. as Burchou along with Andres Centenera, Darmo Von Fraser Acosta, Tony S. Cruz, Don Dano, Africa dela Rosa, Jose Villafranca, Inday Jalandoni, J. Monteiro and Ric Bustamante, among others.
In the US version of “Genghis Khan” distributed by United Artists, film critic and screen writer James Agee was the narrator. The landmark Filipino film was also screened at the 1952 Edinburgh Film Festival where it received good reviews.
Genghis Khan was restored and was also screened along with Ishmael Bernal’s “Himala” in the 69th Venice film festival.
To be sure, other Filipino filmmakers earlier made a mark in the same film fest.
In 2009, Filipino filmmaker Jose “Pepe” Diokno won the Orizzonti Prize for his 61-minute opus entitled, “Engkwentro” which only merited a special mention in the Manila-based Cinemalaya film fest. In the same film fest edition, Diokno also ran away with the Luigi de Laurentiis Lion of the Future award which had a $100,000 cash prize.
Before the 1952 Venice film fest, a Filipino bass baritone by the name of Jose Mossesgeld Santiago was making waves at the famous Venice landmark — the Teatro La Fenice where he sang major roles in such operas as Norma and La Gioconda, among others.
Noted Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi has a long association with Teatro La Fenice starting with a performance of Ernani in 1844. The next thirteen years thereafter saw the world premiere at La Fenice of such operas as Attila, Rigoletto, La Traviata and Simon Boccanegra.
Born in San Miguel de Mayumo in Bulacan, Jose Mossesgeld Santiago also became the first Filipino to sing at La Scala di Milan in the role of Sparafucile in the opera Rigoletto in the 1931-32 season.
By and large, Diaz’s latest artistic triumph in cinema is a testimony to the depth and peerless quality of the Filipino talent.
Like it or not, it is an award of a lifetime reminiscent of pianist Cecile Licad’s Leventritt Gold Medal and Lea Salonga’s Tony and Sir Lawrence Olivier awards.
Here’s hoping the government will turn to the Filipino artists for inspiration even as its hands are full in the relentless anti-drug operations.
The only words the director Lav Diaz could say to the Venice film fest jury headed by Sam Mendes was: “This is for my country, for the Filipino people, for our struggle and the struggle of humanity.”
At the moment, the lonely voice of the Filipino artists is perhaps represented by violinist Chino Gutierrez who – in an interview with this writer — relayed his message to the country’s new leader thus: ““Mr. President, classical music may seem galaxies away from drugs and crime. But I assure you – it is just as relevant. As Pablo Picasso once said: ‘Art washes away the dust of everyday life.’ Please, give our classical musicians a chance to flourish and be competitive in the international scene. Simply put: make funds more readily available for studies both locally and abroad, and help them secure better instruments. Give them the wings to fly, and they will bring our country places.”