A Dialogue in Progress – Social/Personal Memory Before Heremias

Vinita Ramani

Vinita Ramani: Heremias made me think of and track down details about Jeremias - a 6th century B.C. prophet, who was called to the "office" at a young age; who bore that burden for 50 years (this is from Catholic sources I looked up). Something more below, a summation if you like, of his legacy and his life:

Lav Diaz: He appeared before the people with chains about his neck (cf. xxvii, xxviii) in order to give a drastic illustration of the captivity and chains which he foretold. The false prophets preached only of freedom and victory, but the Lord said: “A liberty for you to the sword, to the pestilence, and to the famine” (xxxiv, 17). It was so clear to him that the next generation would be involved in the overthrow of the kingdom that he renounced marriage and the founding of a family for himself (xvi, 104), because he did not wish to have children who would surely be the victims of the sword or become the slaves of the Babylonians. His celibacy was consequently a declaration of his faith in the revelation granted him of the destruction of the city. Jeremias is thus the Biblical and historical counterpart of Cassandra in the Homeric poems, who foresaw the fall of Troy, but found no credence in her own house, yet was so strong in her conviction that she renounced marriage and all the joys of life. 1

Without assuming there's any sort of a direct correlation between the Jeremias of history and Heremias in your film, why the name? Why the nuance of sacrifice, faith and a soul's journey?

Wow. Some research you did here. I didn't know this. There's no correlation between the historical Jeremias, or even the biblical Jeremia (Jeremiah). I am a hardcore student of history; history is one of my passions in life especially the history of my country, the Filipino struggle but with Heremias, I don't know, I was just lazy about it. My premise is very simple from the very beginning as in other characters I've created: I like the name; that organic feel and process again - you look and search for a name that would appropriate a character you are creating, a character that's growing; you envision an image and you'll struggle to identify him or give him an identity. Back in 1988, I was writing and working in a television program called Balintataw and I wrote a teleplay about a young disabled man, a polio victim and I chose the name Heremias. That initial incarnation of Heremias was autobiographical; I was a polio victim. When I was around eight years old, paralysis struck me, the early stage of one strain of polio. Initial findings were depressing, the first doctor who checked me said I may not be able to walk again. But my parents, especially my mother didn't just give up, she looked for alternatives, other doctors, even quack doctors, ispiritistas, novenas, God, anybody or anything that can offer hope, and one day miraculously, she heard of a young doctor who just came back from his medical studies in America. She sought the doctor and he told my parents that he will do some experimentation on me and they must be ready for it and be prepared for the consequences. I was bed-ridden and paralyzed for more than a year. The doctor relentlessly battled the polio like a young warrior. I remember the regular big needles and endless massages; he would dip me in a very hot water with `oil' for hours, and I would be screaming and wailing all the time, in pain and in fear, really harrowing, my parents and relatives would be holding me like a caged animal. Somehow, my system started to fight back; I've resolved to fight back anyway. I couldn't take the pain that my parents and siblings were going through. I would always overhear the question, “What if he can't walk again?” People and friends would come and they uttered the same pitiful line and I couldn't take it. I would also often hear the lines “Kawawa naman” (What a pity) and “Sayang” (What a waste). And then, the high fever just started, slowly, to go down, and one day it was gone, the inflated left foot had gone back to its normal size, and like a newborn baby, I started to relearn how to walk. One step, two steps, three steps, then I would fall down but my parents and siblings would be clapping and crying in triumph. The steps became longer and my body started to really fight back. One day, without anybody's help, I was able to crawl out of the house, held on to a fence and bravely took a lot of steps, albeit still in pain; I was able to walk again. But my motor system is never the same again, there a lot of dysfunctions, with the way I walk, with my speech, I couldn't maintain the right beat and rhythm, for years I would bang into people, doors and tables and walls without control. It made me painfully shy and reclusive; I would hide in the forest for hours. I couldn't drive; I learned to drive a motorcycle but I crashed twice and almost got killed. The pain is still within me, physically, especially when it's too cold or too hot, my left bones would be very painful and numbed; and I would say, psychologically, because I still fear that it will come back and paralyze me again. Polio battered me even in my dreams. The character I created in that first incarnation had an overt physical problem as an effect of polio; his left leg was short.

This incarnation, the film, the character... a lot of people would easily correlate it with a character from the Bible especially in a very Catholic Philippines. But honestly, I never read the Bible. My mother is very religious. I learned some stories by attending mass or reading Christian journals or reading comic-book adaptations of some stories while growing up - the most familiar ones, Jesus, St. John, St. Paul, Mary and Joseph, Job, the Exodus, Genesis. But Heremias, no. I know there was a prophet named Jeremiah. So, when I wrote the piece about the disabled young man, the name Heremias was the one I chose and the teleplay was called Heremias. And now, of course, the film; the name stuck.

By the early-nineties while in New York, and while shooting Ebolusyon and Sarungbanggi ni Alice, protractedly, I was already thinking of doing a feature-length version of the teleplay but as my aesthetic perspective was also growing, along with the growing concern over my people's struggle, the story slowly evolved into the Socratic character that it is now. I wanted a sacrificing character, an ideal being, truly altruistic, maybe visionary, someone who will sacrifice his life for the good of humanity or simply to save somebody or to pursue some ideals. But I don't want to create a perfect being cause there's no such thing. He will be flawed like anyone of us; there's a dark side in all of us. At first, I meant to pursue the polio image as I had experienced in my youth but slowly also, I got away from it.

Another shocker, or should I say, quite a surprise was when people started to compare my aesthetic with artists who embraced stasis, long takes and no-nonsense stance. The young critic Alexis Tioseco brought to my attention a character in Bela Tarr's Satantango named Irimias. What? Before Batang West Side, I'd already heard about Bela Tarr's works. And when I was doing preproduction for Batang West Side in New York in 2000, a friend brought me to this gathering, a rather noisy gathering, and a guy, obviously a cinephile, started talking about Bela Tarr and Satantango and he in fact has a VHS copy of the film (I guess some parts). In one room, we played a tape but the copy was dirty and the noise was getting into my nerves and I was very tired, I left. And then, in November of 2004 while doing post production for Ebolusyon, Alexis lent me a VHS copy (clean this time) of Satantango he copied from a friend in Vancouver. But because I was dead tired most of the time doing the post production, I was able to peep just in some parts. That's when Alexis told me about the Irimias character. So, I watched the film and finished it. Great work, indeed, no question. A masterpiece. And yes, there's Irimias, a very charismatic character but a false prophet, he blinded people and led them to hell; quite the opposite of my Heremias.

And you ask why the nuance of sacrifice, faith and a soul's journey? Well, it's my work. It's me. The element of sacrifice, of faith and a soul's journey has been an inherent part of my works—my short stories, poems, songs, essays, and eventually films. Add to that solitude and melancholy. I wouldn't be embarrassed to say that my works truly represent me. My parents are my paradigms. My parents are idealists, very giving and very sacrificing. They were young teachers who volunteered and pioneered education in Mindanao. There were no roads then. You travel by foot or follow the rivers and lakes. They lived with the tribes, Muslims and pagans, and Christian settlers. They built schools and sent people to school. They taught them hygiene, how to clean themselves, how to use soap, how to use a toilet, how to take a bath, have a haircut, cut nails, brush teeth; why education is important, why there's a nation called The Philippines and they are part of it. They raised us in the middle of the forest, near a pristine river, at the foot a mountain where there was no electricity and material things. But we have books and magazines and cinema and lots of storytelling; we have the radio and the people. Nature will provide everything. We raised cows, poultry; we planted rice, coconuts and fruit trees. I'm not going to romanticize those times but looking back, yes, it was paradise. But then, it became hell eventually. The “social volcano” that my father once told me about and feared finally exploded - the war between the Muslims and Christians broke out. It was bloody, very violent; it was also the advent of Marcos' brutal Martial Law, which made the situation really chaotic and destructive. But my parents were not cowed, they continued teaching, especially my father. There were killings everywhere but he would still walk along battle zones and so-called no-man's-lands with fellow fearless teachers and community leaders and go to the barrios and teach. They had so much faith. They were very sacrificing. They put their lives on the line. A lot of them died. It was unbelievable. I witnessed and experienced that. My father had so much faith not just in Filipinos but in humanity. He is a silent intellectual who silently worked and suffered for humanity. He grew up in a poverty stricken family just like my mother but he struggled to overcome such condition. He supported himself and educated himself. With his intellect and industry, he could have easily provided us a convenient and prosperous life but he brought us up in Mindanao, in the middle of a forest, in the middle of poverty and misery because he understood responsibility, he knew he was a brilliant teacher and he could be of help, and wholeheartedly, he offered himself. I saw people die of hunger, I saw people walk endlessly barefooted, I saw Marcos' military machine destroy our lives, displace people. Yes, my father was a pillar of how a human being should live, a great altruist, but he was very much a flawed character. He ached silently, very quietly. I saw it.

We lost our house, we lost our barrio, friends, relatives, everything. He never recovered losing those great white, Brahman cows he painstakingly raised and loved so much. I knew that he never recovered from the eventual polarization among Christians and Muslims. He believed in a vision of harmony among these people but reality showed otherwise and it despaired him so. He lived that dream in a fanatical and ideological manner. That was his cross. And he died with the death of the dream and promise of Mindanao.

Another shocker to me: the white Brahman cows made their way into my film. It was magical and epiphanic. It's like this - Heremias is about a man who sells handicrafts; he is part of this handicraft caravan with carts and cows, our very own version of gypsies, another very invisible community in my country. It's only during this shoot (I've shot about 28 hours of footage right now; the first phase of shooting; the next would be before the years ends) that I've learned that the five carts that we hired are to be the last of their kind, they're going extinct. The five carts and cows roaming the plains and mountains from far Pangasinan province down to Manila and back are the only ones left. They are quitting, or should I say vanishing. The shock came when I saw their cows— all white and Brahman. I choked and I cried at the very first sight of them. There's my father--his beloved cows acting (or living) in my film.

Yes, the nuance of sacrifice, faith and a soul's journey, they inhabit my works. The people of Ebolusyon, the people of Batang West Side, the “criminal” of Kriminal, the priest of Hubad, the revolutionaries of Hesus, the kids of Burger Boys, and Heremias. Unobtrusively, I create characters and tell stories that are very much a part of me. Somehow, they just come out. The greatest factor I believe is struggle - my struggle to understand struggle; my struggle, my people's struggle and humanity's struggle. You always go back to the fundamentals of existence - why am I in this condition? why are we in this condition? what am I doing here? what are we doing here? why all the suffering? why all the violence? what is life? what is death? what is solitude? The questions could go on and on. Albeit, my works are very particular about the Filipino struggle, they very much embrace all of humanity's conditions. It's just that I can only work in all honesty to respond to my culture. I represent my culture, and my culture is part of the world's culture (But, of course, there are the so-called dominant cultures and almost invisible cultures, which would lead us to a greater socio-political discourse why this is so; but later on this). And in the history of human struggle, there's always sacrifice, faith and a soul's journey. You can either take a very dialectical course or philosophical approach or be just plain practical about life, but you cannot escape essential truths like sacrifice, faith and, yes, a soul's journey. These are very much a part of our existence. And as an artist, I willingly and shamelessly embrace that in my works. You know, it's really very easy to look cool, be very postmodern and far out, take the avant garde route, be flashy and truly conceptual, and hip about everything (and I am not undermining this course), given the freedom that technology offers now, but no, I understand my own path enough and I will pursue it to the extreme. I have my questions, and I will have my answers. My journey, I seek; my truth, I will seek.

You've already mentioned several times in other conversations/dialogues, that wanderers and lost souls such as Hanzel in Batang West Side and Raynaldo in Ebolusyon, are symbolic of the Filipino soul. Was it the search for (and perhaps redemption of) that soul which prompted you to start expressing your feelings into the visual medium? Or was it an organic process of shooting, creating, that made you realise, here is this theme that keeps coming back to you, of the wanderer, the lost soul? Is Heremias that same figure, returning in a different incarnation?

Yes, cinema has provided me that venue of trying to realize that struggle, the vision - to search for the Filipino soul and hopefully help in redeeming it. Heremias, Mijares, Hanzel, Kadyo, Hesus are the same, all lost souls and wanderers; the Filipino soul must be redeemed. And yes, the process of filmmaking, of art if you may, will truly help build that vision - it's not just having a story and characters, a premise and an idea, the very generics of preproduction, that will realize the vision but the entire process of creation (preproduction, shooting and postproduction) will, the film. The process alone can be quite exacting, confounding, and complicated. The thought of logistics sometimes would be the greatest obstacle; money, equipments, people, locations, design, the system, ego (these can be the evils of unfulfilled works; but of course, the greatest evil is playing the field, the yearning to be in the status quo, the commerce syndrome, I mean). If you are not careful, the vision can be lost in a quagmire of non-imperatives. But then, trying to conquer the non-imperatives of vision to be able to accomplish a vision is a very spiritual journey. The non-imperatives would become part of the imperative. Very epiphanic, in a sense; you get a sense of accomplishment on a higher level, very uplifting.

Another line from the material on Jeremias of Catholic history: "he was doomed to learn by corporal suffering that veritas parit odium (truth draws hatred upon itself)." Does it? In the context of the Philippines and your narratives, what do you think?

This is true in the context of the Philippines. Truth draws hatred upon itself; truth draws so much hatred upon our land. Indeed, so much hatred, man. Truth draws mountains of lies, too, in a very ironic way; insurmountable mountains of lies. And it has caused so much apathy and fear and denial. We deny the truth, we deny the past. Corporal suffering means a very physical suffering, very violent—beating, whipping, caning. Colonialism, feudalism, tyranny and torture have always been part of our struggle. Our suffering was and is very corporal, and it will still be corporal for years to come if we cannot move towards a process of healing, a progressive path. The Filipino story in my stories are all about that.

When you speak of your films, the trials of making them, you also speak about “my people”: a friend once said to me, “I believe in people, but I don't believe in society”. By extension, I would say, “I believe in communities, but not in nations”. Your thoughts? Is it about the ”Philippines” or more so, about the “Filipino peoples”?

Okay. People and society; communities and nations; the Philippines and Filipino peoples. How do we dissect that, the differences? Clustering them would be in this manner, and you will agree, of course: in one grouping would be people, the Filipino peoples and communities; the other group would be society, nations and the Philippines. We're talking of the micro and macro here if you go by economics; the small and the big by geography maybe; the individual and the group in terms of unit, or to qualify it better, an individual culture and a group culture; and in terms of concept, naming a group and naming a country. Dissecting it further would be in terms of dynamic - an individual, his habitat, other individuals, his existence; a people, their habitat, other peoples, their existence; a community, their habitat, other communities, their existence; the Filipino peoples, the American peoples, the Chinese peoples, etc. My characters are very individual characters, and they are particularly Filipinos; but they are linked to their society's histories, even if it's just subliminal; they are very much a part of their country's collective struggle; and then going further, the Filipino struggle is very much a part of humanity's struggle. In trying to understand the struggles of Hanzel, or Mijares, or Kadyo, or Heremias, or Puring, or Hilda, or Hesus, one cannot help but embrace the Filipino struggle, too, or the Philippine struggle, or, ultimately, humanity's struggle. Like I said, my works are very particular about the Filipino because that's my culture. But I don't make films for Filipinos. I make films for cinema, as art is all encompassing. There are no borders. I don't believe in borders anymore. It's the same as your belief that there are no nations. I can live anywhere in this planet and I can truly assimilate in time in other cultures as well. And I can embrace these cultures all the same. But in my work, I believe that I must represent the culture that molded my being and my responsibility is to help it grow and be part of a bigger growing culture. Cinema is my medium.

Onto Heremias itself: Where did the roots of the idea begin for this film?

Polio. The premise of paralysis; the metaphor of being numbed.

As it stands now, what is its narrative thread?

Sacrifice as represented by Heremias, the Socratic being. Seeking justice at the cost of ones life. Seeking answers at the cost of ones life.

Where is it being shot and why?

The first of production are the towns of Tanay and Pililia, Rizal province; about three hours drive from Manila. I did a lot of location hunting through the years while the story was gestating in my head (I was able to finish the script April of this year); taking note of the possibilities of locales that I like in relation to my process of creating which is, of course, very organic. Money constraints also were strong factors in my decision to finally start the shoot in these towns; it's near Manila. I am lucky enough to get help from the Hubert Bals Fund of the Rotterdam Film Festival and Goteborg Film Fund from Sweden. The total fund that I got is about twenty thousand dollars or a million pesos. After twenty-eight hours of shoot, the money is gone. I'm halfway through. I'm again raising money for, hopefully, the second phase and last leg of the shoot. I'm targeting November; and then, there's the postproduction problem after the shoot.

Tanay and Pililia towns are very typical Filipino towns: on the surface are the usual adornments of a generic superficial modernization as shown by mushrooming structures and daily activities especially in the centers; the marketplace, the noise of public transport, chaotic traffic, young people going to school, English-language signs and music; the heat, the rain, the smog; but there's the inherent look of poverty and helplessness amongst the greater part of the population; the decline in faith in governance pervades the air; but move outside of the centers, go to the fields, the farms, the barrios, the mountains, the deserts, and you'll witness different cultures; you'll feel and experience their miseries. It's hard to look at them straight in the eyes at times, but they are still full of hope and honesty; they are very giving; they helped during the shoot; they watched and observed us intruders in fascination and trust. They are gentle people. It's unbelievable. They don't complain even if you tell them about the apparent neglect by the system. Some are not even aware of their marginalized conditions; that they have inherent rights in this vast wasteland. There's a place there where there's this great new concrete beautiful highway that cuts straight through the cold and foggy mountains; through the vast lands owned or fenced by generals and millionaires (these are public lands and you just wonder how these greedy people took hold of them). And you see mansions and resorts and little shacks; typical Philippines milieu. The mansions and resorts are over lighted and the shacks have no electricity. And you'll be shocked to know that these poor people have been living there since the fifties and very basic electricity has not yet been provided for them by a system that spends millions on 'pork barrel' (the so-called development fund) 2 for fat and lazy senators and congressmen. It's sickening. Realizing these conditions gave more meaning to our struggle to finish Heremias.

Who is playing Heremias (Ronnie Lazaro?) and why that actor?

I studied or observed a lot of actors. And I chose Ronnie Lazaro because I believe he can give more justice to the vision of the character. I've worked with him in Hubad , Hesus and in Ebolusyon and in the process we've become friends. He is a very committed actor and a good human being. The age and look also fit him well.

Your films seem to contain journeys as metaphors for life - literally, walking, travelling, wandering. Does this recur here and if yes, why?

Again, a lot of walking, traveling, wandering, searching. Getting into the life and truths of my characters, that's how they are. You see the women of Ebolusyon perennially walking the fields because that's what they do, that's how they will survive, that's how they will find meaning in their miserable existence, to harvest, to embrace the soil. Their time is measured by day and night, by sunrise and sunset, morning and noontime, by life and death; their existence is measured by the frequency of food intake and dreams. You see Raynaldo being an eternal transient in search of a true home. You see Kadyo desperately looking for Raynaldo not just to save the boy but to save his own soul. You see Hanzel going to America to search for a mother who left to work and sell her soul there so the family in the Philippines can eat. You find Mijares hiding in America, hiding his identity in his struggle to escape a very dark and evil past. You see the caravan in Heremias journey to the quintessential mecca called Manila living in unfathomable hardships just to be able to eat three times a day; the cows walking day and night, even through dangerous typhoons, their feet perennially sore because of unbearable heat and concrete; Heremias seeking justice and, ultimately challenging God, walking and fasting for forty days. Metaphorically and realistically, I see life that way because I've seen life that way; and I want to show life that way. That may explain why my films are long. I will have to be truthful and honest about my characters. Am I defying so-called `cinematic' laws with this kind of aestheticism? Like, I've heard this thrown to me a million times already, “hey man, you can tell your story in two hours”; or “the long walk can be `cinematically' shown in a few minutes through cutting, etc. and the impact will still be the same.” Really? There are no cardinal rules. Art is free. So I make my art in my own terms only. There's no such thing as the audience in my work. There's only the dynamic of interaction. And in time, that dynamic will grow. The greatest dynamic is when people want to see a work because of awareness and they want to experience it; and in so doing, they may be able to discover new perspectives or just put these perspectives into a greater discourse.

1.
www.newadvent.org/cathen/08334a.htm
2.
pork barrel is the colloquial term used by Filipinos on the so-called Development Fund being given annually to senators and congressmen. A senator receives approximately 200 million a year, while a congressman receives almost a hundred million a year. Practically, there's no accounting on this fund. Since the advent of the Philippine Republic, pork barrel has become the capital D (devil) for corruption. Simple mathematics would show why.