Interview. “The imposition of Christianity and collective guilt has always been the means by which people are forbidden to think, to ask questions. Both are abstract concepts that, nonetheless, guarantee the role of the church and its control over society.”

Lav Diaz, Venice Film Festival winner, explains ‘the soul of my characters’

The appointment was set quite early in the morning on the last day of the Venice Film Festival. The winners of the Lions were not known yet, but his film The Woman Who Left, starring the magnificent actress Charo Santoso Conchos, immediately won the 73rd Golden Lion.

It is not the first time that Lav Diaz, a Philippine filmmaker and one of the most charismatic contemporary directors, presented his films at the Lido, but it is the first time he entered a film in the competition. Actually, we discovered here, and also at the Rotterdam Festival, his tragic and epic heroes inserted in the faceted story of a country, the Philippines, its history and its present, along the thread of colonialism, oppression of class, cultural bewilderment and the Catholic bedazzlement spanning the centuries. And at the same time, he invents a cinema that cuts across space, time, emotional and political chiaroscuro, the geometries of power and his addiction.

The Woman Who Left reminds us of Kerouac’s On the Road even if the story does not leave the island of Mindanao, where it is set, until the very end.

All the characters in my film are looking for something: Horacia goes after revenge, a desire that takes over her promise to find the son she lost while she was in prison. Hollanda, the transsexual, finds death as an extreme act against the society that has massacred her, and with it, she finds redemption. The young beggar is looking for salvation from the demons she sees in every person around her. Horacia’s path and the others she meets along the way becomes an emotional search, a kind of journey of the soul.

At one point I thought Hollanda could be Horacia’s lost son. No one had been able to trace him because he had a sex change.

Metaphorically it can be so. The relationship that develops between them also evolves into filiation. The character of Horacia cares for Hollanda. She helps her when she is attacked and almost killed. Hollanda was very selfish, focused on herself, but in the encounter with Horacia, who is so caring of others, she changes to the point of sacrificing her life to accomplish revenge on her behalf, against the man responsible for sending Horacia to prison even though she was innocent.

Furthermore, Horacia’s character is not linear. She expresses ambivalent tones. She can be a pious woman by day and at night, she turns into a tomboy capable of beating and assaulting. She buys a gun, and she is hiding out.

I wanted this character to go through several transformations. It is her way of creating order in the disorder as the stories she likes to tell. She was a teacher, she is a storyteller and making up other worlds helps her to survive. The narrative dimension allows us to clarify our thinking and provides the right distance to the personal experience that makes it shareable with others. The life of Horacia leads us into the reality that many people live in my country and, at the same time, tells us what happens when an individual tries to oppose his or her condition.

The church has a very strong presence in this and every one of your movies. More than faith, it seems a question of power: The church, the rich and the politicians are presented as allies in the oppression of the people.

But this is the story of the Philippines where the imposition of Christianity and collective guilt has always been the means by which people are forbidden to think, to ask questions. Both are abstract concepts that, nonetheless, guarantee the role of the church and its control over society. The biggest problem in my country is ignorance. It is a wall that is impossible to destroy. And that allows figures like Marcos to win. People allow themselves to be easily manipulated by the demagoguery of politicians, and the most painful thing is that they do not realize they are the real victims of all this. Unfortunately it does not happen only in the Philippines.

Did you have a Catholic education?

Yeah, sure, like everyone else. My grandmother was deeply Catholic, but my father was a socialist. In our country, there is still an active Marxist struggle although the overall outlook is Roman Catholic. The people are very devout, and they do not question anything — they believe.

Why did you choose to set the film in 1997? There is information coming from the radio programs. It is the year when Hong Kong returned to China and Princess Diana died.

And Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was sanctified in Rome a few days ago. In 1997, I went back to the Philippines from New York, where I was working for a newspaper. It is a very complex period that was characterized by strong violence throughout the country: It was rocked by kidnappings, especially of rich Chinese-Filipinos and tourists. Mostly, they were kidnapped for ransom, many of these took place in Mindanao but were not yet linked to the separatist claims of the Islamic groups. The reason was mainly poverty.

At the end, the film shifts to Manila, and the “theater” in which the story was told up to that time — the villa of the powerful villain, the church, the slum which will be demolished — moves into the anonymity of a reality that is equally crossed by misery and marginality.

The Manila darkness also tells many battles. I liked to get in there. But the journey of my character does not end there. The question that arises at the start is left unanswered — that is, how to cope in this world. It is a circular motion that excludes any possibility of help. It does not create an opening. At least not until one begins to react.

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