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12 March 2014

Lav Diaz’s “Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan” (Review): “Critiquing the Audience”

Special Screenings: Mar. 11, Trinoma Quezon City / Mar. 18 Ayala Center Cebu /  Mar. 25 Greenbelt, Makati / Mar. 31 Glorietta, Makati (all screenings start at 6:30 P.M.)

Lav Diaz’s “Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan” is a remarkable film, a different breed even by independent film standards. Running four hours long (250 minutes), the film is intimidating to watch, particularly if you do not have the luxury of time, and the propensity for lofty art. Certainly, many respected international and local critics have applauded the grand scale of Diaz’s latest opus, and I agree in some level.  “Norte” is a must-see with an "if" attached to it.

However, outstanding the film may be, it is still a film for a selected group of individuals, the guilty self-absorbed intellectuals who are already philosophically, ideologically and emotionally convinced about the sad state of our country. Still, there is a world of difference between being intellectually convinced and being actively involved in changing society.

Like some Filipino independent films, foreigners appreciated the brilliance of “Norte,” but oddly, only a handful of Filipino viewers will see this film. The format of the film does not shout “para sa masang Pilipino ito!” The film is pure elitist art, the best of 2013 in fact.

Much of “Norte” is defensible or unwarrantable. The length of the film can be argued as a mean to show the complexities and ambiguity of history, morality and life in the Philippines.  On the other hand, detractors of Diaz will claim that he does not know the logic of precise editing. An adept director/editor can simulate the long passage of time through brilliant editing. As one editor told me, film editing is the second screenplay. 

Diaz’s various wide shots may also be just demonstrations of how powerless the poor Filipino is; his physical landscape consumes and dwarfs him.  Diaz also shot many scenes from the back, concealing the emotions of his characters. All this can be argued as the faceless-ness of people living in poverty, as exemplified by Joaquin (Archie Alemania) and his family. 

When Eliza (Angeli Bayani) contemplates suicide with her children, and when she discusses her life with her sister, Diaz chose wide-angle shots instead of close-ups, which would have highlighted Bayani’s acting to further give weight on her character’s internal turmoil and helplessness. Still, Diaz is also generous enough to linger on his characters face in other scenes. Other critics may argue that Diaz just wasted crucial powerful scenes that could further propel his narrative, and he used close-up shots when wide-shots are needed, and vice versa.

Then again, criticizing "Norte" for being overtly slow and long means one does not understand what slow cinema is all about. You cannot measure slow cinema using the yardstick or classic narrative. 

“Norte,” along with a good number of other socially conscious independent films, are made for people like me: the intellectual hypocritical cowardly mis-educated elite who can engage in philosophical jousting at any given coffee shop or university classroom in a patch of a city that resembles the First World. Nevertheless, beyond the security of our academic habitat, we are disconnected from real people. If the discussion stays within the abstract, we are lions. However, on a day-to-day basis, we are mice.  After the movie, some of us get in our cars, and retreat to our nice houses.  We feel delighted, even if we do not admit it, that we are mentally equipped to take in all the profundity of “Norte.” As one friend commented, “you have to be psychologically and physically ready to watch a Lav Diaz film.”


The film centers on Fabian (Sid Lucero), a law student who has become disillusioned, angry and pessimistic. Fabian shares the traits of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov. Their character includes the contradiction “between instinctive kindness, sympathy, and pity on the one hand and, on the other, a proud and idealistic egoism that has become perverted into a contemptuous disdain for the submissive herd.” (1)

Fabian is a false hero.  He is aware of his ideological entrapment but he is unwilling to liberate himself. Instead, he constantly banters about history, politics and social injustice. Unlike the characters of Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and the unnamed narrator in David Fincher’s “Fight Club,” Fabian solely inflicts his violence on other people in an attempt to free himself. He betrays his best friend by sleeping with his girlfriend but Fabian quickly confesses his sin and then carelessly abandons the girl. Eventually, he is forgiven and rejoins the male circle. The girlfriend is simply dismissed as unworthy. Fabian hypocritically enjoys the trappings of patriarchal ideology even if he complains about it. 

The first scene of “Norte” where Fabian and his professors discuss postmodernism to anarchy is very familiar. I know that scene. I live that scene with my friends every weekend. Despite the big names and big words that we hurl at each other, our contribution to change is minimal, vain, elitist or worst, illusory.  Our eyes are open but we are more defeatist than real revolutionaries.  Judging from the people with whom I sat in that dark theater, as I heard intelligent laughter, sounds signaling awe and an uproarious applause at the end of the film, Lav Diaz reached his intended audience as usual.

Indeed, we are all Fabian. We understand his frustration. We feel his guilt and like Fabian, our concept of our downtrodden “poor” fellow Filipinos is askew, and our philanthropic work, whether manifested in art or in other fields, is more self-serving than genuine.  If we were truly authentic, we would not gush over a four-hour long epic about the dire state of our nation.  Who constitutes the nation anyway? In the Philippines, the concept of nation is fake. The nation is the educated and well-fed. The rest are in the margins. They are collectively used as a subject matter in television documentaries and artsy films to gain international accolades and respectability. During election, people in the margins become useful numbers for a day.

There it is, Fabian oozing from this page.

If we were truly concerned, as we watch “Norte,” we should be asking, “Why are we the only people who can see this film?” “Can the ordinary Filipinos like Joaquin, Eliza and her children spare four hours watching a film like ‘Norte?’  “Why aren’t films like ‘Norte’ distributed for free in slum areas, or public universities?” “Does this film really deserve all the attention it gets abroad, when the subject matter of the film are alive here in our Third World country?” “Can a filmmaker create an enlightening film that is more accessible to more Filipinos?” “Is there a filmmaker who can incite rightful anger followed by concrete actions from his audience?”

If all this brilliance is just for art’s sake, let us call it what it is. It is ego-tripping, something I know so well because this article is my ego trip.

I guess my friend who struggles to get by with his meager salary did the best move that night. He walked out in the middle of the film because he still had to prepare for work the next day. He could not afford to lose his job.

Bottom line, if you can spare four to six hours watching a film about poverty, (and is shocked by it), you are not poor; or worst, you are Fabian. I know I am, and I do not have the illusion that I can help solve the problems of my county. The brutal fact is, people like me, and lofty artists are the problem. Perhaps, that is the message of Diaz. Fabian is not the hero of history.

Deconstructing the audience of “Norte” is my act of killing; what is your act of murder? Beer with our guilt, anyone?

(1) Frank, Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865–1871 (Princeton University Press, 1995), 101.



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