Another epic from the legendary Filipino filmmaker… For those of you new to Lav Diaz, his films don’t deal in the standard movie running lengths and they don’t deal with your standard commercial film storylines. You may think, “I can sit through 120 minutes of film! I’ve done it before – I saw Cloud Atlas and enjoyed Apocalypse Now!”. Well good for you! But this filmmaker is the stuff of myths.
Disregarding his documentaries and shorts, the shortest running time for his last four feature films was 250 minutes long (yes, more than four hours!) and the longest of these was 450 minutes; that’s just shy of eight hours. So when we talk Lav Diaz, we are not talking your normal movie. We are talking ‘Epic Cinema’ with a capital E and C.
From What is Before is no different to those others. It comes in at a modest 338 minutes, just over five and a half hours. It’s shot in black and white and is set in a mountain village during the early ’70s, just pre-Marcos martial law. I don’t know about a lot of history in the Philippines but you get the sense that you are indeed getting a history lesson on life under the dictator Marcos through the extraordinary long static shots of the life and happenings of this village. Life is changing for the villagers. There is turmoil, death, funerals and mourning. The black and white aesthetic leans to the genuine, the long uncut shots harken to the truth and the unaffected performances and rituals that appear on screen talk integrity.
At the very beginning of the film we are told, that the story “came from a memory” and is “based from real life events” with characters “based on real life people”. In watching these people and the events that build to make this story, you get the feeling you’re witnessing more than just something that illustrates a point; you are living these events, you are with these people and this is a deep experience whether you want it or not.
This is a ‘great’ film and that is more than just in temporal scale; it is great in ambition, it is great in history and it is great as an experience. Like any film that goes beyond the pop culture running length of 90 to 120 minutes, you must watch this in the cinema. With a big screen you will get the full impact of the shots and the minutiae within. The immersion into the story will only benefit from the scale and sound. But I think the most important reason is that you are in a purpose built room to view a purpose built film. There are no distractions, you can’t just get up and walk away to make a coffee or have a snack. You are there for the film.
If you do manage to somehow see this film on your own screen at home, I guarantee that you will not sit through the film in one sitting like it has been designed to be seen. Seek out the cinema where it is being shown, most probably a festival like Sydney’s own, and give yourself a treat to experience what cinema can deliver and what Lav Diaz is so good at – offering up a pretty comprehensive insight into a slice of Filipino history.