From What Is Before

Viewed as part of the QAGOMA retrospective of Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz under the banner of the Asia Pacific Triennial 8 (APT8 Cinema). This retrospective is the first of its kind in size and scope in Australia, featuring upwards of 70 hours of screen time from November through to the beginning of February. Also part of the GOMA Cinematheque’s APT8 programs are Filipino Indie and Pop Islam. The former extends to explore “the representation of Islam in contemporary film, documentary and video art and the way these works reveal the complexities of faith in both orthodox and secular states,” and the latter – “a survey of independent and experimental digital filmmaking from the Philippines.”

“I would go to any extent in my art to fathom the mystery of humankind’s existence… I want to understand the philosophy of a growing flower in the middle of a swamp.” - Lav Diaz

“I used to travel many places to become a master of words, but now I realize my words come from here.” - From What is Before

The oft-proffered maxim among cinephile circles that a movie “has to be seen in the cinema” is nowhere so complicated as with Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz. His films extend well past the duration of his slow cinema colleagues, certainly I don’t know of any other artist of his durational kind enjoying such international festival success, and a mainstream retrospective of their work. And I have never seen a longer film than the five and a half hour plane ride that is From What is Before (Mula sa kung ano ang noon). A movie covering fertile ground, namely, the ground beneath an impoverished neighbourhood and its residents in the early 70s. Taking off on digital filmmaking’s allowance for excess, turning it over and shaking its deep pockets, the film requires the wells of concentration gathered from a dark room, a giant glowing screen and other patrons sitting alongside. While undeniably the cinema viewer is sure to miss something the home viewer (curator of time) won’t – I think that nothing has stilted my exploration of cinema more than a pause/stop button. Diaz has also noted his want to capture the Filipino experience as one that exists outside of time. Cinema watching, at its best, can live in such a space as well.

We are brought into the film from the perspective of a woman roaming about, her roots hard to pin down until she comes across a procession of people, carrying disabled and wounded villagers to a place to be healed. They soon find a travelling mystic, who provides a dance, and the woman and a farmer move with her in ritual abandon. The roaming woman is footnoted for the rest of the film, in fact we focus more on the lives and social circles of whom she finds: a farmer who takes care of his grandson and, in particular, a woman in charge of her retarded sister Joselina. They are residents of an isolated ghetto beginning to experience inexplicable things: screams from the forest, a man found dead by the railway and cows hacked to death (for which the farmer is blamed and fired from his job of so many years).

From What is Before “is a story of a cataclysm”, says Diaz himself late in the movie in what is one of his small inserts of voice over narration. Yet it is one that attempts to weave itself into everyday life. From these inciting incidents, we meet a maker of pots, Tony, a haggler selling household items, a writer and a touring parishioner. Diaz frames them in tableaus of rural-domestic duty, his live compositions focusing more on character and movement within the frame than actual camera movement. This makes for some gorgeous moments, such as when a woman takes a canoe ride downriver; we float with her towards her destination. This style of long take, while revealing artistry over time, degrades the sound, infiltrated by the noise of nature (mics thrashed by waves and wind), characters harder to hear the further away from the camera they are.

Perhaps this is fitting for a film whose characters live painfully with us, an audience knowing more yet understanding less as the film continues. The military intervene in the residents’ brutal struggle for life, highlighted by Itang’s sister Joselina. Whether it is ethically OK to feature a seemingly real-life woman with developmental deficiencies in what are distressing situations is a question I am still pondering (it is an incredible performance). And it is here perhaps where Diaz’s need to sum up the point of it all reveals weakness, the last hours of the film finding a rather convoluted plot revelling in a heavy-handed dialectic between Darwinism and Christianity – a man living in sin is killed by another with a rock atop a mountain. What is more interesting is the film’s view of mortality and memory, how our environment shapes us. Timeless themes that, like a novel yet utilising properties unique to the cinema, sink in almost imperceptibly over time.

The films of Lav Diaz are screening at QAGOMA from the 21st of November to the 9th of April.

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