I was in the privileged position to be able to watch Lav Diaz’s latest film Norte, which was nominated in the category Un Certain Regard at this year’s Cannes festival. The critics were amazed. Nick James and Kieron Corless celebrated Norte as the best film of the festival in the July issue of Sight&Sound. There were also rumours that distributors were keen on Diaz’s film. What a great success for him!
Now that I have seen the film, however, it puts the reviews and the hype around his nomination into perspective. This is not to say that Norte isn’t a good film. Not at all. It is a great modern exploration of Crime and Punishment, filled with Filipino struggles and philosophical discourses. The tension slowly creeps up on you, and when you least expect it, it hits you. I find it astonishing that Diaz manages to do this both within four and within nine hours. And after I have seen Butterflies Have No Memories, a short, it seems as if he manages this in any time length you provide him with.
I would like to point to a few other things that struck me while watching the film, keeping the reviews in mind. I don’t want to give all too much away of the film, because you should see it by yourself. So I will have to make it short here, so as to avoid too many spoilers.
As can be taken from the screenshots that were released prior to Cannes, we can see that the film was made in colour as opposed to his black-and-white filmmaking. With four hours, Norte is considerably shorter than Melancholia, Encantos, or even Florentina Hubaldo. We have less scenes that begin or end with temps mort. It contains more dialogue, which keeps you going throughout the four hours. Little is left unexplained. It is fairly easy to follow Norte. The film is less Filipino in that it uses an incident that can occur anytime anywhere. Yes, there are mentions of revolutionaries, and the struggle of normal Filipino people as opposed to the rich, but, generally, I find that Norte is a bit like Tarr’s The Man from London, which was based on a widely acclaimed French novel and therefore made it more accessible to the audience. There are a few cinematic techniques I don’t want to go into detail about because it would give away too much. But I can say that it’s not something we’re used to see in Diaz’s films.
Now, this is a perfectly objective take on his film, and I point out these facts not because I wished Diaz would not have done the film the way he had. He is obviously a free man, and as long as he, as the director, feels fine with his decisions, it is alright. However, I want you to go back to the paragraph above and then link it to the reviews. What is evident?
For the first time, Diaz’s film was hailed as a masterpiece. Plus, as already mentioned, distributors were suddenly interested in the film. Is this not a bit of a coincidence that his film is a “masterpiece” now that it is a bit more “Western”? Compared to the films he directed after Batang West Side, Norte contains everything a typical filmgoer is looking for in order not to get bored. It’s colourful, it has a lot of dialogue that explains it all, it’s got special effects, and it is based on an internationally acclaimed book. I felt as if there was little I had to do in the process of watching the film.
If you put this into the context of the sudden celebration of his work, the critics’ reviews after an Americanised festival become pathetic and very sad. Diaz’s work should have been celebrated beforehand, not now that Norte complies with a bit more of our expectations. His films should have been celebrated for their individuality, for their task of putting the Filipino history and the Filipino struggle on screen to an audience that possibly doesn’t even know the capital of the country. He should have been celebrated for making films for the pure reason of making films, and if this means that he cannot secure film distribution, then at least the films are his version of cinema.
It goes to show that we only like and celebrate something that fits into our framework. Something that is easy to grasp. Everything else is dismissed or neglected. It’s dualistic thinking, and I’ve never seen it so clearly as I do right now with the example of Norte.