SINGAPORE: In 2004, acclaimed Filipino director Lav Diaz was holed up at Frankfurt Airport because of a blizzard.
And for two whole days, he found himself in the company of a fellow stranded passenger — a Filipina domestic worker with a heartbreaking story to tell.
“I met this Filipina who was in her mid-60s and she gave me drinks and food. We had fun for those two days and she took care of me like a grandmother. And then she told me her story,” he recalled.
“She had worked for a German family for 35 years — and didn’t go home for 35 years. The magnitude of that decision was mind-blowing. For me, it was unfathomable how she dealt with that.”
That serendipitous encounter became the inspiration for the 58-year-old’s latest film project titled Henrico’s Farm.
It tells the story of a migrant Filipina domestic worker flying home for the first time in three decades to confront a tragedy, but makes a stopover in Singapore first.
The title refers to the farm her son, now grown up, had bought using the money she had been sending home.
BEHIND THE SCENES
The film is done in collaboration with the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), and as part of the festival, audiences will get the chance to see Diaz and his cast and crew in action when they begin filming in Singapore in August.
The film is tentatively scheduled to be released next year.
The behind-the-scenes experience is part of the festival’s retrospective on one of Southeast Asia’s most respected auteurs. Diaz’s sweeping, epic art house dramas have earned him critical acclaim. His two latest films bagged awards at last year’s Venice and Berlin International Film Festivals.
With majority of the film set in Singapore, Diaz will be filming here for three weeks, during which eight sessions will be open to the public.
He will also be giving a separate series of talks about his creative process, which will include presentations of scenes from some of his past films.
“It’s an unusual situation for a filmmaker to agree to something like this,” said SIFA artistic director Ong Keng Sen.
“I consider this a Singaporean film because it’s very much about the other people who live here and call Singapore home. It turns the spotlight on individuals who share Singapore with us but whose stories we don’t normally hear.”
In the movie, the protagonist encounters other Filipino domestic workers, including a character played by Angeli Bayani, who played a domestic worker in Anthony Chen’s award-winning movie Ilo Ilo.
With 70 per cent of the movie set to be filmed in Singapore, Diaz and his crew flew in last week to do some research and hunt for locations.
Over five days, they met up with Filipino residents, and went around HDB neighbourhoods. He also visited popular Filipino haunt Lucky Plaza, where he met up with volunteers at migrant workers rights group Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME).
“When I talked to them, there was a general feeling that they didn’t want to go back to the Philippines and just wanted to send money home,” he recalled.
“One woman told us that she went for a vacation but immediately came back after a week — she couldn’t stand the poverty, the macho culture, and everything. We were shocked.”
For Diaz, whose films explore the stark socio-economic realities of his countrymen, exploring the lives of migrant domestic workers was pertinent.
“They’ve been the lifeblood of the country for the last 15 years — and last year alone, the remittance was US$79 billion. That’s huge! And 70 per cent are from the women. All these years, it’s the women who are giving life to the country,” said Diaz.
He added: “We know poverty is still the biggest issue now. But with nine million workers outside of the country, the dysfunction that creates among Filipino families is a bigger issue than economics, I think. We have a lot of money coming in, but at the same time, we have generations growing up without their mothers and fathers. You see this very ironic condition where they’re taking care of other people’s kids and don’t see their own growing up.”
Diaz described the phenomenon of the Filipino diaspora as “good and painful at the same time”.
“These are mirrors of the struggles of the country and I see them everywhere and across the spectrum, from doctors and domestic help to seamen and workers. It mirrors what’s happening in the country.”
WHAT’S SLOW CINEMA?
Diaz’s films have garnered acclaim not just for their content but for their form as well. For those attending his film shoots or talks, it would be a chance to understand a director known for long takes and movies that can run for up to 10 hours, with audiences even taking coffee breaks in-between.
When asked how long Henrico’s Farm would be, Diaz simply laughed. “I don’t know. I decide on that during the editing, which is the most difficult part — you grapple with rhythm and length.”
He also shrugged when asked if he minded being categorised as a member of the “slow cinema” or “contemplative cinema” movement, a supposed genre of movie-making, which in recent years have included the works of directors such as Thailand’s own art house hero Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang.
Commenting on how his films ignore the typical running time conventions of commercial films, he said: ““It’s just labelling. I don’t know why it’s called slow cinema (in the first place). It’s not slow, it’s free. I’ve emancipated my cinema from conventions.”
Letting his scenes “breathe” means allowing audiences to be more aware of other things they’re watching on the big screen.
“Most of what you see in commercial cinema are subordinated to the movement of the actors – you’re just following what they’re doing. You don’t see the other things in the frame, but (in my films), you can wander.”
But it also seems as if Diaz is expanding his filmmaking horizons too. He revealed that one recent film that he did was a Filipino “rock opera”, which is slated for release later this year.
Shot in Malaysia, it’s set during the late 1970s, the height of the Martial Law years in the Philippines, but he also hinted it has allusions to current Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte.
“It happens in one small community where these guys — militias and military — control a whole area. But you can also see in the whole film that it’s about him,” he said.