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Berlinale 2016 – Hele sa hiwagang hapis (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery)

Hele sa hiwagang hapis (Lav Diaz, 2016)

Composed of approximately 253 shots spread across 482 minutes, Lav Diaz’s massive film A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery sweeps over you and returns in waves, lapping at the shores of memory. It is a re-enactment of history that seeks the end of history. It ruminates upon revolution and religion, and the similarities between mindsets. We undergo a pattern of repetitions. We go from group to group, following them on their journeys in continuous and often similar shots: simply walking. Characters frequently eat together, walk, rest, talk and tell stories together. Their company as travelers extends to being comfortable with sitting together in silence. “History repeats itself.”

In one sense, the film may be viewed as an exercise in ‘letting go’ of a traditional concept of time. Injustice and cruelty are as old as time itself. In order to overcome them, we have to be willing to both accept the past has happened and recognize its continuing influence on the present. We must let go of our preoccupations with systematically organizing time, so that we might experience it. Superficially, by setting the film in 1896-1897 during the Filipino revolution against the Spaniards (as an opening title card informs us), one might assume it to be a film obsessed with the past – uninterested or unwilling to let go of imperial atrocities. Yet the 8-hour runtime really drives the point home: the past is not something to latch onto or forget. The past is something to be embraced and understood alongside the present to the benefit of true progress. If you want to reach the end of the history and transcend time (as some of our revolutionary protagonists do), one must let go of time and live in the moment – at which point A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Memory transcends its runtime-harnessed label to become an ephemeral entity which only exists one long take at a time. “It’s best to say what we need to say, quickly,” says the Spanish General Commander. They are words from the ultimate antagonist; words not worth heeding.

Lullaby pits farce against force, art against war, and brings together love for individuals and their country. How can art still exist under such conditions? Lav Diaz’s answer seems to be: it must exist. Not only as a means of maintaining mental stability through turbulent times but as a means of documenting such episodes.

Moments of traditional action with a capital ‘A’ tend to come and go in bursts as rapid as the bullets fired. There are absolutely moments of adrenaline, but they are minuscule in the context of such a gargantuan film, just as actual battles are so brief in the grander contexts of war.

There is a strange disconnect between the intensely framed and often startlingly beautiful compositions (and sometimes their choreographed movement) and Diaz’s use of live camera sound – something he’s made known is just a part of his modus operandi: “It’s part of the aesthetic.”  While there are numerous examples throughout of noticeably looped ambient sound, (it really sticks out on a soundtrack consisting primarily of silence) the very fact of looping such a short stretch of ambience could be pointed to as yet another example of history repeating itself. One would be remiss not to mention the numerous handsome single-shots-as-entire-scenes featuring ‘live editing’ via camera movement and blocking. Characters graze their immediate surroundings as the camera observes with undulating patience.

Fire is everywhere, or more importantly, smoke – that sign of fire’s imminence or recent departure. Time and time again, smoke creeps into the background; a constant reminder that the country is burning. It is the destructive power of Spain, but it is also the spark of the Filipino revolution. People are constantly surrounded and occasionally trapped by the dense foliage of the forest. “The forest is thick,” notes one character, “The forest of life is hard to imagine.” That doesn’t stop Diaz from trying.

There is a playful engagement with cinema history as one (high-class) character talks about his experience witnessing the birth of cinema at the Lumière Brothers’ premiere. The man tells of how a person looking directly into the camera and jumping at the audience caused everyone at the premiere to jump. The scene engages the idea of the spectacle of cinema as a privileged event accessible by the elite for bragging rights, contrasted with Lullaby itself as living proof of a form able to tell the stories of the struggles of the common folk as anything but spectacle. (Although this hardly dissuaded the film from garnering a decent amount of attention for on its runtime alone.) Four hours into the film, a man looks directly into the camera and leers at us. Perhaps we are more elite than we think merely by having the opportunity to view films at all. “History repeats itself.”