TIFF 2014: From What is Before
Every time something gets written about Lav Diaz, an explanation of the director’s unusual, tough filmography feels necessary. When it comes to length, Diaz is one of the most maximal directors around. It says something when Diaz’s last film, the 4 hour Norte, the End of History, is one of his shortest works. From What is Before runs 338 minutes long, another short film for the director (some of his other films run between 8 and 11 hours), but still packing plenty of power.
Taking place over several years in the 70s, From What is Before follows the lives of several people in a remote village in the Philippines. Itang (Hazel Orencio) takes care of her disabled sister Joselina (Karenina Haniel), who the town believes has healing abilities; Sito (Perry Dizon) and his nephew Hakob (Reynan Abcede) look after a herd of cows in the village; the barrio’s priest (Joel Saracho) doesn’t care for Itang and Joselina’s role as healers, but feels compelled to look after them; saleswoman Beding (Mailes Kanapi) goes around sticking her nose into other people’s business, spreading rumours. These are some of the characters we come to know over the epic length, all of them fully embodied and fleshed out through Diaz’s patient approach.
The first three and a half hours focus on the villagers’ and their way of life, their rituals and quotidian tasks. Diaz is only a difficult filmmaker when it comes to his length and pacing. His narratives tend to be easy to understand, same with his films’ themes. In From What is Before, Diaz looks at the time when a “cataclysm,” specifically the rise of Ferdinand Marcos to power, along with his declaration of martial law in 1972, laid waste to everything in its path. The emphasis on the villagers’ lifestyles makes the last two hours, when Marcos’ soldiers come in and take over, all the more tragic as the barrio’s residents flee or suffer a terrible fate.
The tragic ending looms over the first half. Cows are found hacked up in the forest, a man is found dead with a bite mark on his neck, and several huts mysteriously burn down, just to name a few of the odd occurrences plaguing the village. Diaz’s style acts as a sort of teleportation device, slowly immersing viewers into his film’s world to the point where it’s easy to imagine living right alongside the villagers. It’s the biggest benefit of the slow-paced approach, of letting scenes play out longer than usual. It creates a unique rhythm viewers need to adjust to. But once they do, it’s quite easy to get lost within what’s shown on screen.