Sinag Maynila opened last April 3 with their opening film ‘Lakbayan,’ an anthology of 3 short films by Lav Diaz, Brillante Mendoza, and National Artist Kidlat Tahimik. The three renowned directors crafted films about journeys but, like all movies about traveling, the destination is always two-fold: the first is the actual geographical movement through actual space while the other is internal, and in the case of ‘Lakbayan,’ it’s a journey into the heart of the country but with very different points-of-view.
The most striking thing about this collection of short films is the curation of these three cinematic legends because their film aesthetics couldn’t be further from each other. This can be a hit or miss situation as it offers the audience three completely different kinds of movies with a similar theme. There are audiences who would prefer this sort of storytelling, where the distance in style and delivery can be a shock to the system whereas for other audiences, like myself, who needs a sort of cohesion within the elements for it to be properly digested.
Lav Diaz’s ‘Hugaw’ is almost meditative in tone as the trademark Diaz-style of filmmaking -- a lush composition in a black and white screen with long takes and an almost unrehearsed feel to the performances -- where three individuals take a trek up into the mountains to a remote village. Aside from the actual trek (which includes several nights of camping out), there is very little happening in the scenes and everything is pretty much explored through dialogue.
I will be honest and say that I had a hard time following the narrative of ‘Hugaw.’ Unlike ‘Panahon ng Halimaw,’ which carries Diaz’ signature style but running for almost 4-hours, ‘Panahon ng Halimaw’ had so much happening in each scene. ‘Hugaw’ is really quiet and except for the dialogue of when the three individuals began to interact, there is very little that I actually remember. I do remember a lot of discussion about the horrible working conditions from one of the characters who was a miner and another discussion about how two characters were maltreated when they worked in a carnival.
Set against a gorgeous backdrop of the forest, I remember the contrast of these conversations that strongly resonated within the oppressive power structures of the city and I noticed how these words and stories mean so little in the uninhabited locale of these three people’s trek into civilization. I’d like to think that this is something that Diaz was moving towards as the film concludes with a retelling of how two of the three travelers had died and the effects of this to the women they left behind in the village.
Its starkness of action is substituted by Diaz’s sense of symbolism and metaphor but the stillness and absence of narrative energy can cause you to lose focus. I know I did and the whole story is lost within the lush imagery of ‘Hugaw.’
On the flipside, Mendoza’s ‘Desfocado’ is an exercise in social-realism, a film that is shot and presented more like a documentary, where the film’s message is emblazoned in every scene. It is the story of a freelance news videographer, who joins the protest march of farmers from Mindanao to Malacanang. Through rain and heat and injuries, the 144 protesting farmers made their way and headlines to appeal to the government to give them the land they were promised by an Agrarian Reform resolution that the Villalobos family had hindered through an appeal.
In the beginning, the videographer (played with an incredibly measured performance by Joem Bascon) is only after a story he can sell but as the march continues, it becomes a personal battle for him as well. ‘Desfocado’ is almost a reenactment but by taking the point-of-view of the videographer, veers very close to the documentary territory as Mendoza summarizes the story of the march with actual news reports or a paragraph of text detailing the injustice that has been happening in our country since 1997.
There is an inconsistency in the cinematography and in the sound, with one scene incomprehensible due to the ambient noise but we are able to follow because of the subtitles. These elements create a very documentary feel to it except there are instances of dramatic storytelling such as the lingering camera on Joem Bascon’s transformation from the observer into a participant.
Departing completely from the first two in style and content, Kidlat Tahimik’s ‘Lakaran ni Kabunyan’ is a documentary on the relocation of the National Artist’s son Kabunyan De Guia’s from Baguio to Davao in search for a community. In an old Volkswagen van, Kabunyan De Guia travels by land through Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao and on the way, stops through various locations to take a look at indigenous culture and art and takes the metaphorical journey into the Philippine soul.
The conceit of these three films, when put together, is realizing the magnitude of Filipino independent and alternative filmmaking. Putting all three together is an even riskier proposition because their styles are so different from each other that while the theme is driven hard into the audience, the experience of it can be jarring, especially for the people who want a more cohesive and organic experience in the cinema.
Regardless of the viewing experience, ‘Lakbayan’ is a deep look into our country -- it’s issues and its history -- through the eyes of master filmmakers, and puts on displays the cracks and the pieces of our country in three narratives about traversing the varied distances that one must cross to journey into the heart of our nation.