By Yun-hua Chen.

In Philippines, we still have very responsible cultural workers, social workers and foundations. We are still fighting. Even in other parts of the world, there are still responsible people. We need this kind of collective movements so that we can mitigate all these nuances of destruction.”

In the wake of When the Waves are Gone (2022), Lav Diaz’s Essential Truths of the Lake revisits the investigative journey of Lt. Hermes Papauran, a detective ensnared amidst Duterte’s overtly sanctioned killings. Set against the backdrop of a recently erupted volcano and its encompassing lake in the Philippines, Hermes grapples with a 15-year-old enigma: the vanishing of Esmeralda Stuart, an activist-performer who rallied against a government-endorsed ecological catastrophe threatening the Philippine eagles with extinction. In a nation overshadowed by a venal administration and police force, Hermes emerges as an isolated maverick, quite like Lav Diaz himself. He is mercilessly forsaken by the very system he serves, gradually descending into a mental realm shared by no one.

Essential Truths of the Lake is quintessentially a Diaz film. In line with his repertoire, its monochromatic visuals lend a poetic nuance, eschewing traditional genre staples like close-ups and shot-reverse shots. The camera adopts a detached, observational stance, capturing characters in predominantly medium shots, echoing a quasi-documentary style. Rather than amplifying the suspense inherent to political thrillers, the film’s mystery is transparent, with the investigation unfolding as a conduit for broader social commentary spanning ecological, sociopolitical, and gender issues. It’s no secret that Diaz prioritizes poetic lyricism over conventional narrative and entertainment, crafting cinema that challenges our waning attention spans while candidly spotlighting its own artifice.

As Hermes traverses the lake’s perimeter, engaging with those connected to Esmeralda—including a documentary filmmaker who unveils footage of her and touches upon discussion about domestic violence—the narrative unveils more layers. Yet, the pursuit of truth becomes secondary to the immersive allure of the stark cinematography. Characters, reminiscent of Robert Bresson’s “models,” construct a world in Diaz’s unique cinematic language. They epitomize the tapestry of their society, each afforded the space to share their tales.

Lav Diaz talks with Film International at the Locarno Film Festival about Essential Truths of the Lake in the program of International Competition, and much more.

How do you feel about the filmmaking situation in the Philippines?

The system doesn’t really care about art, and we still need to do our thing. You know that it is dangerous, but in the Philippines, you can still move around, and you can still do things.

I am still very optimistic in a way, but it’s more of an understanding and an awareness that we need to do more in terms of educating our people. We should start from there. We voted for the son of a dictator, and we also voted for Duterte before him because of ignorance. There is also an understanding that we need to do more to educate our people so that they will value the issue of choosing a leader. How do we do that? It takes a while. We cannot rush things. That’s the problem. I am optimistic, but at the same time we are desperate to change things.

It’s a big struggle. We don’t have that kind of proxies as before where you can really start a movement, a revolution. Now, because of the destruction, internet, everything is going fast, and that’s why we are losing track of our rationale. Young people take in information fast without discerning the right and wrong, truth or lie. It’s becoming blurry and murky in a way. The issue of changing is very hard. The more important thing is to be very responsible. In my case, I need to create responsible cinema to be part of the whole struggle and humanity. Otherwise, what are we here for? I don’t want to do cinema just for money. I don’t want money to buy a Mercedes Benz. I don’t want that. I want to be part of a greater struggle of humanity. I know the hardships of doing these things, but still, these things need to be done.

Do you think that a responsible cinema is about chronicling history?

It’s about chronicling humanity’s struggle, chronicling our history, so, you see in my films different parts of my country’s history, connecting to other people’s history, other country’s history. We discuss about ethics, feminism, the earth that we are destroying. There is a lot to be discussed. That’s the responsibility. You continue the debate, the discussion, the dialogue on these issues because that’s what is important.

In Essential Truths of the Lake there is also a lot of violence under different forms, and yet at the same time it is a very beautiful film. How do you view the coexistence of violence and beauty?

That’s part of it. You show different levels of violence, cruelty. That’s always the case for the images. There are different levels. Poverty alone is very violent. The issue of losing something is very violent. The issue of not having that tool is very violent. It is very dark. There is a lot of that in my cinema. It becomes very poetic at some point, and it becomes very romantic, but that’s the danger of romanticizing cruelty under a certain form. That’s why you have to be very careful about what you do. I always struggle to not to manipulate things. That’s why I do static shots, I don’t do close-ups, and I don’t do certain cuts because I want to be a bit detached from the discourse. At the same time, under the gaze of objectivity, the struggle to be close to facts is always there. It’s a great struggle. That alone is very violent because it is very hard to do it.

This seems to be tied with the theme of vengeance in your film…

It’s the duality of the being, always. We are animals, and at the same time we are also rational beings. This thing is always the reality of us. You wake up, you are sad; you wake up, you are jealous; you wake up, you are hungry; you wake up, you want to gossip; you wake up, you want to read character assassination things other than the truth. It’s easier to be swayed by Hollywoodian stories, all the vanity, all these vain things. It disrupts everything that we are supposed to do. It disrupts ethics. That’s another struggle. In my cinema, also, it has that. The idea of Esmeralda as an image of vanity. It is more brutal to see that: I am commodified, I am an object, I am not a woman anymore. And, there was an attempted rape. It is that kind of truth that we need to see in cinema.

You use a lot of genre elements and there is also a documentary inside the film.

It’s cinema, you know. They come naturally when you are doing cinema. In this new film there is the story of Hermes and also the story of the documentary filmmaker. When you talk about investigations, you can easily go to the detective genre, and you can go to film noir. Previously, When the Waves are Gone, it is also very western in a way, but we try to avoid the cliches of the genres.

You have a penchant for black and white images and chiaroscuro.

Black and white is my gaze. I have seen a lot of black and white. Black and white is memory. Black and white is a commitment to memory. Just like cinema. Cinema is a commitment, to chronicle things. Cinema is a commitment to life. Cinema is a commitment to memory. We shouldn’t lose our values. We shouldn’t lose ethics. There is an urgency to do this. Black and white is a commitment to life.

We couldn’t even address the issues of people entering the borders, and death is so palpable in their condition. Instead, we focus on Barbie. It’s so wrong.”

This film is as much as about the place as about the character. How did you choose the place?

It came naturally. When we were doing pre-production of the film, suddenly there was a volcano erupting. I have always been drawn to that. I have a connection to nature. If it gives me something, I will embrace it. A few days after the eruption of that volcano, I told them, let’s go shoot there. Around a week later, we entered the place by pretending to be journalists. We put some stickers of this big broadcast network of the country on the van. The military allowed us to enter. I started mapping out the area and chose the place. We got out and went back a week later to shoot the idea of an investigator digging in the mud and dust, trying to solve this cold case that has remained unsolved for 15 years. I embrace what is happening. I love it. It’s giving us something, a genesis for some discourse. It gave us so much about the idea of an investigator solving a case for so long.

It’s cyclical.

Yes, you are right. It keeps coming back. We regenerate from this destruction and disaster, and they come back again: the storms, typhoons, eruptions, floods. It’s always like that, the rebirth and destruction, birth and death. They come naturally, and we should embrace it.

The destruction you mentioned is a combination between natural disaster and humanmade disaster.

Yes, humanmade disaster is very much palpable. The Philippine eagle, we are losing it because we are destroying nature. There is a lot of irresponsibility. The government allows a lot of industries to mine all these mountains in the country, so we are losing the forest, the mountains because of quarrying. Naturally it is not just the habitat of the eagles, but of all the animals and even the trees there. We are losing them. It’s a crossover between natural disasters and humanmade disasters. They go together.

Your cyclical ideas are also related to the politics in Philippines, as you talked about colonization, the change of power.

Yes, we extend our discourse on that. We never learn. We always repeat things because of ignorance and other reasons. We never learn. We know that it is wrong to have all these populist leaders, but we let them do it anyway. We repeat this cycle of this violent system with populists, fascists. There is always the penchant to have them around. It is very futile; the way people address issues and their problems or create some kind of a system. I don’t know how people are so subservient to ignorance. We need to do more, but you cannot rush things. In order for things to work like a real cultural organism, it has to grow.

We are still optimistic. What we can do is to keep fighting. I still believe that things can change, and that humanity can change. We shouldn’t lose our faith. That’s important. I still have faith that cinema is the tool to help.

What kind of cinema can be the tool to help, in your opinion?

Just by being responsible. I don’t want to do cinema just for money or ego. I need to address some issues, some subjects that are important to us. It’s important to have that kind of gaze in cinema. Otherwise, there is already too much of popcorn and Coca-Cola in cinema already. They just announced that Barbie’s box office amounted to one billion dollars, and they are celebrating. Why? Why are you celebrating that Barbie grossed one billion dollars now? All this vain perspective in art. We celebrate it while people are drowning when trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. We couldn’t even address the issues of people entering the borders, and death is so palpable in their condition. Instead, we focus on Barbie. It’s so wrong, the way we direct our attention to that. It’s for ego, for vanity, and for losing our souls.

Do you feel that the issues of ego and vanity that you mentioned are also related to the medium surrounding us now?

Yes, the internet, Facebook, and all that. They destroyed the whole humanity. The focus on gossips, rumors and character assassination is so bad. It can really destroy things easily. It’s very destructive and dangerous.

This aspect doesn’t seem to be very present in your film though?

We will go there. We will go there at some point, of course. It’s everywhere. All this fakery and adornment is just too much. We are losing it. We just need to keep fighting.

There is really an issue to be addressed on refugees, migrants, borders, people caught in the war. It’s terrible. People cannot escape prevalent racism. The list will go on and on: the bombings in Myanmar, where people were bombed and their houses were burnt, the situation of refugees in Lebanon, the situation in Syria.

In Philippines, we still have very responsible cultural workers, social workers and foundations. We are still fighting. Even in other parts of the world, there are still responsible people. We need this kind of collective movements so that we can mitigate all these nuances of destruction. Maybe that’s the word; we just need to mitigate it because there is too much of it. You cannot rush changes to avoid crushing hard.

Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and she has contributed to the edited volume Greek Film Noir (Edinburgh University Press, 2022).

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