The following are initial thoughts after having seen Diaz’s eleven hour epic Evolution of a Filipino Family. Similar to all of his other films, there is a lot to say and I will probably return to the film in future posts.
First of all, after the rather disappointing encounter with Norte The End of History (brief comments here and here), I was glad and happy to see a proper Lav Diaz film again. The first frame alone was enough to see that it was a Lav Diaz film. I could be wrong here, but I think it’s the first film that contains aesthetics we know from his more recent films – black-and-white, extensive long-takes, extreme long shots, little dialogue, lots of nature, etc Even though he did experiment with dissolves and slow-motion in the film, which he would rid himself off in his later films, Evolution carries his signature. I’m aware that he began to make independent films earlier than this, but I consider Evolution to be the beginning of Lav Diaz as the director he is today.
He shot the film over the course of ten years, with minimal resources. I knew Lav as an extraordinary director, who is, to me, an inspiration and someone I should, in fact, take my hat off if I had one. Evolution took this admiration to a new level. You simply have to be a real artist, a genius, a committed filmmaker if you keep going for ten years. Money was scarce, actors died, he went through a divorce and a separation from his family all because of this film. But remarkably, he has created a perfectly coherent film. It may sound stupid, but in fact it must be more than difficult to not lose your thread in those ten years. Besides, in an interview he said that he lost the first cut of the film. Think about it…eleven hours. Gone. Having Evolution stand at the end of a long period of struggle is a strike of genius in itself.
Eleven hours is a long time, and it would perhaps put a lot of people off. However, I didn’t come across a single sequence in the film at which it would have been good to take a break. This film is once more exemplary for Diaz’s plead to watch his films in one go, unless you have a film like his eight-hour Melancholia, which is divided into three neat parts. It is a strain for the viewer, but again, it is also a strain for the characters. The film would have a smaller effect if the viewer was comfortable while watching suffering characters. This is the big mistake in commercial film, where suffering turns into a kind of entertainment because you feel so comfortable in your seat that you cannot even grasp what’s going on. You just sit, watch and eat your popcorn.
Diaz covered the period of 1971 to 1987 in his film. It was a decisive period in the Philippines. It was the time of Marcos’ dictatorship, and the time of the People’s Revolution in 1986. Similar to Tarkovsky in his film Mirror, Diaz used archive footage to position us adequately in the history of his country. The film was not a story detached from the rest of society. The archive footage – I vividly remember that scenes of the revolution and the assassination of Aquino – positioned the family whose life we followed over the course of eleven hours into a larger picture. This is something Diaz has stopped doing. He mentions history and society in dialogues of his characters, but actual footage is absent. I quite like both versions. I found the archive footage harrowing in parts and gave a good idea of how the situation was at the time. But not seeing anything – only hearing about it – is just as creepy somehow. I’m thinking specifically about Death in the Land of Encantos and Melancholia here. He experimented with “absent images” in Evolution already, though. The scene in which the family listen to the revolution in the streets – the gun shots, the shouts of the people – is superb and extremely powerful. The images come through the radio. It’s a fascinating aesthetic he has perfected in later films.
As per Lav-Diaz-protocol, Evolution unravels in a non-linear form. At times I found it hard to keep up with the characters. Sometimes I even wondered whether he used a form similar to Béla Tarr in his Sátántángo – two steps forward, one backward. I wasn’t quite sure where exactly we were in time. I did realise, though, that Evolution looked a bit like a blue print for his next few films. There were elements you would find in other films, only in more detail. I not only think of the revolution and Marcos as such. I also think, for instance, of the theme of mining, which played a big role in Evolution. In Butterflies Have No Memories, Diaz explored this in more detail. If I remember correct, it is about a coal mine that shut and the consequences of it. It’s a film about the importance of mining. While Evolution establishes just how much hope people put on mines, Butterflies shows what has happened to that hope. It is also astonishing how often the theme of the “mad” woman appears in his films. The woman, who loses her mind, most often after rape – most perfected in Florentina, but equally visible in Century of Birthing. You also have the mother who wants to jump off a cliff with her son – a motif that would recur again in Norte.
Overall, there’s a lot in this film, and I do think it would benefit from a second viewing, as is the case with all of his films. They’re jam-packed with information, and at some point you just have to be honest with yourself and say that you cannot register all of it over the course of eleven hours. It was a good film, though. I enjoyed it, and I’m glad I could take the 16 year journey through Diaz’s country.