We walk a narrow dirt path lined randomly with fragmented rocks, working our way down to the point that runs parallel to a long river; a river that serves as a divide between the ground I walk on and the grassy terrain on side opposite. The landscape on this side rises up drastically: dirt, low-cost housing is being prepared on the main plain some twenty feet higher. Lav Diaz, sporting a worn back t-shirt, (which appears to have weathered many battles) and black jeans torn at the knees, his cinematographer (twenty-something Mara Benitez, daughter of a well-known underwater cinematographer) following suit, steps gingerly into the water. They cross to the midpoint in the narrow river, water reaching their ankles, their pants are rolled up just below the knees.
The soundman Bob Macabenta tests the levels of the DAT recording device (borrowed from cinematographer Neil Daza). There is loud noise coming from the construction going on in the main plain above us, and it dominates the audio. Rolly (the stout production manager), and Celso (the diligent AD and line producer), quiet the workers, asking that they halt their work briefly for the duration of the shot. They oblige, intrigued by what is going on, and watch intently the proceedings from their birds-eye position.
Bob sends Lav a thumb's up sign, signaling the sound is clear. Lav takes one more peek through the eyehole of the camera, a glance at the LCD display detailing the frame, then a final look at the river, whose water persists, tranquilly. He folds his arms in front of his chest, and in his typical crooked stance (he has muscle problems) yells out into the distance, “Action!”. The crew looks on, the construction workers are paused, watching, and I observe standing on the dirt road to the side of the river. We wait…
Since first watching the 5-hour “Batang West Side”, at its World Premiere during Cinemanila in 2001, I've been an ardent believer in the cinema of Lav Diaz. “Batang West Side” not only changed the way that I viewed cinema and the possibilities of Philippine cinema, but it was the film that made cinema matter to me, personally. It impact to me was like that of “Night and Fog” to Daney: a numbing revelation of the power this medium.
Diaz's long takes feel right. I've seen “Batang West Side” (edited by Ron Dale) three times now and the 11-hour “Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino” (edited by Diaz himself) four, and the rhythm of each shot seems timed to near-perfection. Diaz's shots linger long enough to let thoughts ferment and to let the eyes explore and wander; absorbing in equal measure the crevices of the frame, the ambient sounds of the world captured in it, and the audiences own personal reflections on the relation of what one is seeing now to what has been shown to him prior. They cut, in my viewing experience; at the moment when it feels ones attention may soon be diverted.
This, however, is the first time I am on the set of a Lav Diaz film…
As minutes pass, the frame remains stagnant, nothing changing, nothing moving, save for the natural ebb and flow of the river. Far in the distance on the dirt road in front of me there is movement. Heremias (played by Ronnie Lazaro) is walking forward towards me at a snails-pace, his cow trailing slightly to his side, guided by a rope he holds loosely. So beaten and worn is this character (by what we know not) that he has chosen to leave his band of traveling handicraft vendors and venture off on his own. His feet don't walk, they labor, and considering the incredible distances he must traverse (first with his cow, later alone), the toll it takes on the body and the mind must be incredible. This is solitude, this is loneliness, and it is the path he has chosen.
Heremias, feet dragging, head bowed humbly, has finally reached the point of entry into the river. He steps in first, legs weary, and dips his hand in the water as his cow trails him along the slippery path. He walks to the middle of the river, the center of Diaz's frame (which has remained stationary throughout), and places the shirt that has been resting on his shoulder on a rock, dipping his hands into the river to clean them. He turns again to his majestic cow, the soothing sounds of water flowing in the river in the background, and begins to wash him, gently dabbing water from the river on it's body, rubbing it over its torso and legs in an effort to cleanse it from the dirt it must have accumulated over the course of their journey.
Often when Diaz's characters enter a stagnant frame from a distance, the shot will be held until the character exits the frame; it is a pattern you become accustomed to and begin to expect when watching a Lav Diaz film. For the uninitiated it can be unbearable to endure, for those that have come to expect it, it is therapy.
Heremias pauses for a moment and looks out into the distance of the river…
Ronnie Lazaro has a magnificent body. It has nothing to do with muscle (which he has; his chest built like a gladiator) nor stature (he is not tall though neither is he short), but with the relation of his body, to the manner in which he carries it; the way he moves, sits, stands, pauses. Simple put— his way of being. He is representative of the every-Filipino: humble yet strong, quiet yet resilient. Sturdy, and able to endure.
Luc Dardenne, members of the Jury that awarded the short film he starred in, “Anino” (Shadows), the Palme D'or in Cannes in 2000, described Ronnie Lazaro as a beautiful, enigmatic image on the screen. I must agree with Dardenne, and I believe this enigma, this mystery, is borne out of the contradictions of Lazaro's body (imposing) and his nature (meek). But this meekness is not a manifestation of humility without conviction, but rather the opposite: it is the demeanor of one who has/is contemplating the world around him, and choosing if and when the proper time to act is. The body ensures survival while searching; the search leads to conviction in moments of action.
He turns back to his cow, placing hand on its shoulder, and looks diagonally to that which is beyond the scope of our frame (opposite from the side he entered). His head is barely taller than the back of the cow. The moment passes… and he returns to washing his companion, darting underneath him at one point to better wash his underside.
He then rests himself down on a rock near his cow. He seeks a moment to himself, once again, before his cow, equally noble in appearance and having hardly have moved at this point, nudges him slightly with his head, causing Heremias to turn and pat him lovingly on the nose. We are now 12 minutes into the shot at this point, and the crew all light up with smiles at this sight, as if the cow, reading their minds, was nudging Ronnie to say “get up, let's go!” knowing Diaz's modus operandi, that “cut” would only enter the vocabulary once they exited the frame.
Heremias sits undeterred by the prodding, and his cow then lowers his head resigned to wait and drinks from the river. After a beat Heremias walks to the rock where he placed his shirt, and puts it back on. Again, he takes a moment to sit, head-lowered, and let the water pass through legs…
Remember that the workers above have halted their grind and are watching, quizzically, as, in their eyes, nothing is happening.
I stand silent, alone in my thoughts, still in the same position I was in when the camera began its set-up. I am getting impatient at this spectacle, nervously glancing at the workers, bystanders, and various members of the crew. A devout cinephile and lover of long takes pregnant with meaning I am, not to mention a devout believer in the cinema of Diaz, but at this precise moment I am no better than any other person on the set. We all began the scene with intent concentration but at this point we've been broken. It is only Lav, Ronnie and the cow who remain in focus. Or maybe just Lav and Ronnnie…
Minutes pass and Heremias stands up, tugging the rope that is tied to his cow, leading him out of the river and back to the road in front of me; the road from which they came. They walk, slowly, continuing to preserve patient movement proper to the film. I didn't know this at the time, but the left side of the frame of the shot ends just before the dirt road begins; the view of the path that they walk is obstructed almost completely by shrubbery (as with many shots in his films, it is not a matter of seeing the characters that is important to Diaz, it is that we know they are there).
The crew waits with giddy anticipation, and as Heremias and cow wander far off into the distance, Diaz yells, “cut”. The crew applauds, the onlookers wonder why, and the construction workers resume their grind.
When I watch the finished film of Heremias for the first time I notice this shot. It was one of a small handful that I had the privilege to witness firsthand. In the film, the beginning and ending of the shot are abbreviated—we see Heremias and his cow, walking to us and away from us only briefly. I sink into the river while watching and listening to this scene, enraptured by the beauty of nature, entranced by the soothing sounds of the water flowing; feeling, understanding, what this moment means to Heremias. Diaz's air on set, his resiliency and belief in his art, in art period, represent the melding of what Ronnie Lazaro's body represents and his meekness seeks. There is humility in Diaz's patience, and a resiliency in his unwavering gaze, unwavering patience of his camera. It is a patience born from a conviction.
I did not concede to this on the set, but understood when watching the film. Standing on that dirt road, I was anxiously anticipating the word “cut”. Sitting in my cinema seat, I wish this shot could go on forever…