Notes from the LFF: Norte, hangganan ng kasaysayan/Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, Philippines, 2013)

Blogpost, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2013, Philippine cinema

At four and a quarter hours, Norte, the End of History is in fact a relatively short film for Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz. But its extreme length in comparison to other films showing at the festival (average running time probably somewhere near one hour and forty minutes) makes it no inferior piece of work. On the contrary, this is a film that may well involve much of what we might call ‘dead time’ – but surprisingly little in fact, and the film is visually and thematically rich from start to finish.

We open with a prolonged philosophical discussion between a former law student Fabian (Sid Lucero) and his tutors concerning history and justice; this is not a film to show smart people talk smart about ideas, a move that many might find surprising outside of films by people like Richard Linklater, and which in turn might be all the more surprising for a film from the Philippines, whence we might typically expect exposés of the harshness of street life, as per the London Film Festival’s revival of the magnificent Maynila: Sa mga kuko ng liwanag/Manila, In the Claws of Neon (Lino Brocka, Philippines, 1975) or the recent Metro Manila (Sean Ellis, UK/Philippines, 2013), the latest of many films seemingly made by filmmaker-conquistadors heading out from the West and into the so-called Third World to make films of various shapes and sizes in a somewhat problematic fashion – to my mind (even though Metro Manila is actually quite good).

Not that Norte is without what we might term ‘street life’. On the contrary, half of the film tells the story of Joaquin (Archie Alemania), a labourer and loving family man who is framed for the death of money-lender Magda (Mae Paner), who in fact dies at the hands of Fabian. Nonetheless, Joaquin serves time, and much of the film is about his incarceration and Filipino prison life.

Joaquin proves himself to be a caring and kind man, who earns the respect of his peers in prison. Meanwhile, Fabian descends from bright young thing into recluse after the murder of Magda, and then into insanity as he goes home to visit his sister.

Indeed, Norte suggests itself as a critique of thinking too much about economic injustice, while at the same time refusing to offer easy solutions regarding what one should actually do about it. For Fabian fares appallingly, and one wonders that his ultimate refusal of family as a bourgeois construct means that to live a life too much guided by ideas and not enough by emotions and one’s sense of being in the world and with the world and other people, is the path towards insanity.

What, then, is the ‘end of history’? For Francis Fukuyama it is, broadly speaking, the time when capitalist ideology holds sway over the entire planet, such that it cannot be replaced by any other ideology. It is not that events don’t take place – natural disasters in particular – but basically nothing can change since there is no alternative way of thinking.

Diaz’s film is not necessarily an account of precisely this mono-ideological state of affairs. On the contrary, the film’s very slowness suggests an alternative rhythm, an alternative tempo at which one can lead one’s life, one that is not that of capitalism – with time here, the rhythm or pace at which one leads one’s life – being the key ideological battleground in the twenty first century.

But this ‘slowness’ is not for everyone; Fabian comes undone potentially by dropping out of the ratrace, while in some senses the slow time of prison is Joaquin’s (unfortunate) making.

I wonder, then, that history may have ended for the north, but in the ‘global south’, there is still plenty to fight for, plenty of alternative ways of life that can be saved.

If Fabian presents a corrupt and corrupting way of life, committing murder in the name of economic justice (getting rid of the evil moneylender), then Joaquin represents honesty and dignity.

Many have compared Diaz’s film to Dostoyevsky and the comparison is apt. But more than any particular novel, what is beautiful about Diaz’s film is simply how novelistic it is. This is hard to describe, but its slow rhythm, the way in which it spends time with characters, before changing tack and becoming for a great length of time a film about someone else, while remaining a unified work, makes of it a remarkable film that is well worth the effort of four hours plus in a cinema (this is still much quicker than reading a novel of any quality).

Finally, the film did also make me think of this passage by the Invisible Committee, which I shall leave readers with as the final words of this blog post:

It’s useless to wait – for a breakthrough, for the revolution, the nuclear apocalypse or a social movement. To go on waiting is madness. The catastrophe is not coming, it is here. We are already situated within the collapse of civilisation. It is within this reality that we must choose sides.

To no longer wait is, in one way or another, to enter into the logic of insurrection. It is once again to hear the slight but always present trembling of terror in the voices of our leaders. Because governing has never been anything other than postponing by a thousand subterfuges the moment when the crowd will string you up, and every act of government is nothing but a way of not losing control of the population.

We’re setting out from a point of extreme isolation, of extreme weakness. An insurrectional process must be built from the ground up. Nothing appears less likely than an insurrection, but nothing is more necessary.

Perhaps this can serve as the starting point for a more prolonged discussion if Norte and Diaz’s work more generally.

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