An intimate epic made with uncompromising and austere seriousness, Lav Diaz’s “Evolution of a Filipino Family” patiently and methodically observes the collapse and hopeful revival of a poor farming clan, meant to symbolize a nation’s history spanning 1971 to 1987. Ten-hour running time, radically slow pace and hyperminimalist mise en scene will excite international cinephiles at the most daring fests and showcases, which are the only conceivable venues outside of homevid.
According to Diaz, exhib plans do not include TV broadcast. Lensed over nine years in black-and-white video, pic is twice as long as Diaz’s acclaimed “Batang West Side” — and, at the Toronto fest, was unconscionably scheduled with just one 10-minute intermission. However, “Evolution” justifies its extraordinary length with an approach that will recall, for Western viewers at least, vestiges of Bela Tarr, Samuel Beckett, Frank Norris and William Faulkner.
The making of “Evolution” actually precedes Diaz’s debut 1999 pic, “The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion,” and yet there’s no visible sense of the cast aging incongruously before viewers’ eyes. Rather, the story’s 16-year passage is organically used so cast members playing Diaz’s family grow older ever so gradually; it’s like slowly turning the pages of a photo album. By the time central character Raynaldo (Elryan De Vera) has grown from child to near adult, the full power of Diaz’s unusual shooting method packs a surprising wallop.
Diaz counters the local popular taste for intense action, ultraviolence and melodrama with a tale containing major incidents separated by long stretches of everyday life captured in nearly real time, punctuated by musical interludes, ironically staged soap-opera radio broadcasts and docu footage of political events. It’s a mix that seems deliberately designed to go against every cliche of standard Filipino cinema.
Epic’s course takes a family headed by matriarch grandmother Puring (Angie Ferro) from the rice paddies in the early ’70s to the dog-eat-dog urban streets in the late ’80s, when Ferdinand Marcos’ brutal regime is finally deposed.
Early signs of familial disharmony involve Gilda, Raynaldo’s mentally ill mom (Marife Necisito), who’s increasingly incapable of raising the boy, whom she dubs “the king of ants.” Raynaldo’s uncle, Kadyo (Pen Medina), rescues Raynaldo at a cliff’s edge when Gilda wants them both to “fly” — but Kadyo is also a complex character prone to thievery and poor judgment.
Puring blames Gilda for the death of her husband, and for bringing the clan bad fortune. During the first two hours, outer and inner forces tear the family apart, including Kadyo’s prodding the group to work in nearby gold mines when the farming business collapses, and the rise of civil war in the local jungle. Kadyo spurns the rebels’ invitation to join them, and when Marcos’ troops press the family for information, Raynaldo ends up shooting some soldiers.
With Raynaldo now grown mute, Puring arranges for granddaughter Ana (Sigrid Bernardo) to work at a wealthy home. Like a character out of Norris’ “Greed,” Kadyo grows increasingly obsessed with risky efforts to dig for that elusive vein of gold. Gilda dies in the pic’s first half, and Raynaldo leaves home without the family knowing where he’s gone, and Kadyo ends up in prison for robbery.
Latter half of “Evolution” is mainly devoted to the family’s quest for Raynaldo, and Kadyo’s fate in the city. But any description of incidents neither conveys the experience of the pic’s elongated pace and hypnotic moods nor the surreal junctures of staged scenes blending into near-docu reality, as well as less-successful attempts to bring pop culture and political events into the mix.
Taking story description literally, “Evolution” sounds like a soap opera in the Irwin Shaw mold. But each significant story point is separated by as much as an hour’s worth of often wordless action, with characters at work, at play around a campfire, trudging up and down jungle paths or — in the later parts of the pic — stumbling through city streets and alleys. Diaz claims to have never seen Tarr’s “Satantango,” but there are plentiful echoes here of that masterpiece’s depictions of villagers in silent perambulations and suffering personal breakdowns.
Starkly modern devices marble the saga, as when Diaz cuts away from the family lazily listening to a radio soap to cutting to the actual studio where the show is being broadcast — a clear if uneven spoof of his countrymen’s taste for extreme drama; conversely, “Evolution” insists people face hardships in gradual, unexpected ways that no soap can capture.
Polemics abound, mainly through inserts of footage of crucial events during the Marcos era. Startling asides contain stunning images, but will mean far more to Filipino auds than foreigners. More generally effective is a sequence where Kadyo watches a TV interview with late Filipino director Lino Brocka (actually a vid interview by Diaz), whose call for an activist Filipino cinema attuned to the poor and marginalized is this film’s emphatic credo.
Since dramatics are drained away, the cast doesn’t so much act as assume a behavior in front of the lens. Because he goes through the most incidents and takes up the most screen time, Medina’s Kadyo leaves the strongest impression — especially his fateful scene in grungy city streets that takes more than 20 minutes to play out.
Viewers may reasonably ask why sequences and shots are held to such extraordinary length, but there’s plenty of precedent for Diaz’s method as editor and director, from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s famed extended scenes to Andy Warhol’s much longer Gotham underground epics.
Pic’s only chance to build international critical support, however, will be with a cleaner final print. Vid unspooled at Toronto lacked sound for minutes at a time, and mix itself was extremely rough.
Although lensing (credited jointly to Bahaghari, producer Paul Tanedo and Larry Manda) boasts an unusual texture for vid, many early scenes set at night and lit only by fire or torches are almost black. In a postscreening discussion, Diaz sounded like Wong Kar-wai after his Cannes preem of “2046,” hinting on one hand that he may shoot additional footage, while stating that this is “the final cut, for Toronto.”
Lav Diaz mentions an unsettling encounter he had had on his way to Canada. En route from Manila, his connecting flight departing Tokyo had lost power on one of its engines an hour into flight. The situation was announced, whereupon he was duly roused from sleep by screams and curses. It is good they were honest enough to say that, the Filipino filmmaker reminisces unflappably. While others were in frantic prayer, Diaz confesses he was merely “in a daze” on account of fatigue. The plane returned to Tokyo in one piece, but the truth is, even if all engines of an aircraft fail, physics determines that it is quite capable of gliding to safety. Diaz’s airborne distress might be viewed as trivial in this context, especially given the formidable experience that has underscored this particular journey.
Diaz was in Toronto in September 2004 to attend the world premiere of his sixth feature, Evolution of a Filipino Family (Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino) (2004) at the 29th Toronto International Film Festival. This is his second trip to the festival after presenting The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion (Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion) (1998) under the Festival’s Discovery program in 1999. During this visit, at least one industry journalist has likened him to Wong Kar-wai with good reasons. The most notable: at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall ten minutes before its first public screening at 2pm, Ebolusyon’s Virginia-based producer Paul TaZedo reveals that Diaz is still holed up in a lab fixing part of the film’s sound and is thus unable to formally introduce it. Instead, he will turn up at midnight for the post-screening discussion. However, the picture can and will indeed start on schedule – at least the first of its 12 portions. After all, the Toronto cut of Ebolusyon does run for ten hours – one hour longer than erstwhile published.
Nevertheless, Ebolusyon’s running time – its most quotable attribute – is only interesting insofar as one considers that with this latest work Diaz has surpassed his prior achievement of directing the longest Filipino film, a record held by his previous feature, the five-hour Batang West Side (2002). Besides, that he had protested his producer’s abridgement of Batang West Side to three hours for commercial considerations may demonstrate his commitment in demolishing the notion that a film should be benchmarked between 90 to 120 minutes. For that, Diaz is shaping up as one of a handful of interesting antipodes to someone as laconic as Robert Bresson, who on all but one occasion did not direct a feature exceeding 100 minutes.
Filmed between 1994 and 2004, Ebolusyon fictionally essays a period of 16 years from 1971 to 1987 in Philippine history. Specifically, it examines the effect that former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos’ controversial installation of martial law from 1972 to 1986 had on the country. At the film’s core are the Gallardos – the title’s heroes who represent the preponderant Filipino underclass in all their wretchedness. As farming folk living out their days in crumpled barrios, the Gallardos wrestle less than dignified lives from Marcos’ tyrannical regime of corruption and brutality. Already a precarious unit, the spread of civil unrest and guerilla terrorism effectuated by this additional oppression is readied to further devastate their lives. Headed by resolute matriarch Puring (Angie Ferro), the family’s women are accordingly stronger and more resourceful than the men, who are shown as broken and imperiled.
There is Kadyo (Pen Medina), who is introduced through an act of valor as he intervenes to prevent his mentally incapacitated sister Hilda (Marife Necisito) from hurling her son Raynaldo (Elryan De Vera) and herself off a cliff. Yet, Kadyo is also an impetuous man given to avarice and whose life is eventually consumed by crime. Likewise, young Raynaldo’s somber and introverted life is a path no less ruinous. Soon after witnessing the rape and murder of his ostracized mother, he leaves home without word. Raynaldo’s lingering absence, persisting during the remainder of the film’s epic arc, is thus centrifugally imprinted on his family’s conscience as they resolve to seek his whereabouts. In portraying the family’s protracted course of collapse and introspection, Diaz, who grew up during the Marcos era, does not want to objectify personal tragedy. Instead, he says he wants it to be known that Ebolusyon is a testament to the struggles and sorrows of generations of Filipinos during an era where poverty and dysfunction were omnipresent, and sadly, still are.
In fact, Batang West Side, which explores the crisis of the Filipino diaspora in North America, “prefigures” these concerns. In it, the magnification of the Filipino–American experience is subtended by the death of a young male Filipino immigrant (Yul Servo) whose corpse is discovered on a Jersey City sidewalk. The investigation, undertaken by a Filipino detective (Joel Torre, who appears in Ebolusyon) is then used as a bold metaphor to mount an admonishing attack on the collective Filipino anima when the dead man’s family is introduced and its unflattering history unveiled. In the process, the extent of troubles he unravels from this extended community of Filipino immigrants then transmutes into hard-hitting reflexivity when he is forced to turn the line of cross-examination on himself and face his past, which is no less flattering.
Although Diaz is in similar territory with Ebolusyon – the symbolic cogency the absence of a central character has on others coupled with an urgent inquest into the Filipino condition – the treatments are different. Viewers familiar with The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion’s overarching flashbacks and Batang West Side’s poignant grasp of a formal narrative must be prepared to forego all anticipation of similitude since Ebolusyon shifts and defies genre conventions blithely. Shot on 16mm and digital video in black and white, the picture excludes close-ups, quick-cuts and other reactionary editing strategies. Detachment is the order of the day, and a tall order it will be for those unaccustomed to a brand of cinema that observes minimalism as a central tenet. Instead, Diaz embosses the flow of time with archived footage of events he considers critical in shaping contemporary Philippines – images which represent some of the most violent records the country has witnessed. In another elliptical strategy, family members are shown listening to campy radio soap operas in the barrios before the action consciously cuts to the studios where we see the farcical antics involved in the performances. In caricaturising this popular pastime, perhaps Diaz’s observation alludes to how the family, fixated by the spectacle of melodrama, fails to realize that it is they who are in fact exigent subjects of empathy.
Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) programmer Steve Gravestock, who viewed one of the first cuts of Ebolusyon, says that Diaz’s work is distinct within contemporary Philippine filmmaking because it breaks away from melodrama, a “dominant code” of the industry. Tellingly then, Ebolusyon was programmed under the festival’s Visions category, socializing with works by Asia Argento, Catherine Breillat, David Gordon Green, Lukas Moodysson, Shinya Tsukamoto and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. He explains: “The film has a truly unique, epic approach to narrative, one that foregrounds the role nature plays in the lives of its primarily peasant characters. Moreover, its oblique approach to the politics of the period, and its mix of documentary and fiction footage, is also quite singular. Plus it’s ten hours long.” Adds Gravestock with this anecdote: “As a friend said after we saw the film for the first time, it’s quite critical not only of Marcos but of Filipino politics in general and says some very important and trenchant things about the isolation and futility that appears to be ingrained within the political system. This approach is definitely courageous since [Diaz] risks alienating certain quarters in the Filipino diaspora.”
In that sense, Ebolusyon is unlike Imelda (2004), in which Ramona S. Diaz (unrelated) resurrects the personage of Marcos’ widow, Imelda Romualdez. Known popularly by her first name, here was a woman who knew how the excesses of beauty and charisma could buy the trust of millions in order to validate the divide between the rich and poor. At 75 but looking like she could be 57, it appears she guards this knowledge well. Despite Diaz’s claim of impartiality in documenting Romualdez’s life as a public figure, I am hardly convinced such a strategy is a sound one when profiling someone so suspect. True enough, the most telling sign of colour may be inferred from its title, which not only portends romanticism, but also presupposes reputation.
I have also read a review quote on an Imelda poster that compares its daring to Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), its author clearly confusing rhapsody with polemic. Yet, as Michael Moore has learnt: bad publicity is, after all, still publicity. Romualdez’s denial of her family’s criminal activities in politics may be breathtaking to the point of asphyxiation, yet this documentary seems content to babysit her delusions more than it can bring itself to confront the malevolence the Marcos regime has wrought on the Philippines. Then, there is the sorer point of the largely forgiving tone that permeates the picture. A scene of Romualdez purring like a cat over her husband’s mummy in his mausoleum is rendered so ambiguously that for the sake of dignity, it would be better off excised. In another, the footage of Romualdez’s acquittal in an American court over charges of plunder is made extraneous without also highlighting how the four successive Philippine governments after Marcos have failed to convict any of the family for emptying the nation’s cookie jar, save the crumbs.
The offer to interview Lav Diaz came about because of the initial worry that Ebolusyon might not receive optimal publicity despite it being the festival’s sole ambassador from the Philippines, not to mention its longest entry. As I learned from the film’s publicist soon after, this concern was short-lived since interview spots were being filled as the days went by. On the day following Ebolusyon’s second public screening, Diaz and I meet. The transcript that follows is based on an extended conversation that discusses the making of the film, but also engages aspects of Filipino filmmaking, politics, art and life. Indeed, it can be read as one Filipino’s take on what it means to be Filipino. Also present at our meeting is the moustachioed and convivial TaZedo who stepped in late in the day as the film’s producer – a first for him – and who also shares cinematography credit with two other individuals. For the two filmmakers, this particular Sunday is a day of relief. TaZedo, a photojournalist, is visibly content at having put this world premiere past them. On the other hand, Diaz’s signature coolness is betrayed by what I can only suspect to be the upshot of anxiety and fatigue that has dominated the preceding 72 hours.
As Diaz ambles through our conversation in a calm and plaintive tone, it occurs to me that until now I have yet to meet anyone more conscious of their role as an artist, particularly one who is as sensitive – perhaps even supraliminal – to the socioeconomic reality of the Philippines as he is. At 46, his tenor may be seen as dignified by some, though certainly no less than self-flagellating by others. Occasionally, and in spite of his equanimity, his defensiveness is acute. At one point – as remarked similarly to an audience member at the first post-screening discussion – Diaz describes Ebolusyon as “a long poem” he does not have to justify. As I reflexively connect the dots in order to mentally interpret this figure, I wonder if Diaz might have once been an angry man of conscience and vigor whose fever has since mellowed with age. As a filmmaker, his work is often hailed as the revival of a socially conscious vision of cinema that the Philippines lost more than a decade ago, led by outspoken figures such as Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal whose untimely deaths had abbreviated their rhythmic discourse of remonstration on the state of the Philippines. If the buzz on this awakening is to be reckoned with, then what remains to be observed is how high Diaz’s succeeding wave will ride.
Moreover, it is in this context that the man might be viewed as a lucky devil. In mid-November last year, I corresponded with Diaz, requesting more information for this piece. He responded to my queries, then volunteered another unsettling encounter: “Just shot five additional days for Ebolusyon down south of Luzon,” he begins. He continues: “Quite a scary experience. We shot some scenes inside the train running from Manila to Bicol, 16 hours one-way. We arrived in Manila just last Monday morning. Today, just today, man. The scary and grim news – the very same train fell on a ravine, killing almost two-dozen people. It happened at 4 a.m. in one of the barrios of Quezon province. It was an old, old train, ’50s model. The trip alone is quite strenuous to the health; horribly bumpy (the springs are not working) and the odor is terrible.” (Brandon Wee)