Cinema Is Memory: An Interview with Liryc Dela Cruz
Born in Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines, Liryc Dela Cruz is a young, intelligent, and thoughtful filmmaker, one of many making independent films in (and about) the country. Though still in the early stages of his career, he has directed a number of short films in the last few years, including: “Philippine Press” (2010), “Skype” (2012), “Remembrances of the New Year” (2015) and “Memories of the Waves” (2015). His short film “The Ebb of Forgetting” (2015) was selected for the Locarno Film Festival’s Leopards of Tomorrow section, gaining him favorable attention as well as comparisons to his compatriot and colleague, Lav Diaz, with whom he worked as second assistant director on Norte, the End of History (2013) and as production manager on From What Is Before (2014), amongst others.
His first feature is Notes from Unknown Maladies (2018), a quiet, attentive study of his grandmother, a soft and small woman, who — beleaguered with a heavy heart and a failing memory but spirited nonetheless — wanders her home and garden, tending to her tasks, watering her flowers, and talking to the ghosts of her past, who remain silent and unseen despite her constant calling upon them. Dela Cruz watches from a distance, sensitive to his subject but aware of his need to document her just as she is before it is too late. As he sets the scene, filming in a series of fixed tableaux, over time — in what proves to be a kind-eyed, if unflinching, film — a sense of her develops, and flickers of what she was once like shine through the mist of memories.
Kinoscope (which is currently streaming Notes from Unknown Maladies) spoke with Dela Cruz over email about his first feature film and the thoughts behind its making, as well as more widely on contemporary Filipino cinema and its developing position on the international scene.
In both of your films that I’ve seen (Notes from Unknown Maladies, Ebb of Forgetting), and in much contemporary non-fiction filmmaking, there is an obsession with memory. How do cinema and memory relate for you, and why do you think it is such an interest for yourself and for so many filmmakers?
I don’t see it as an obsession. For me, films are memories; cinema is memory. I think cinema is there to record our existence, the unknown, and the memory of the world.
The film is very minimalist, and in some ways quite simple. What idea or structure did you start with when deciding to make a film about your grandma?
Firstly, I am allergic to “structure.” I don’t really understand it. I don’t want to confine my films with structures. I think they are too manipulative and create a “cause and effect” format for a documentary, which from the start I didn’t want for Notes.
Also, I don’t like to label films; it’s art, and it’s cinema. I don’t understand when people start to define what a film should be. These labels and limits prevent us from fully understanding cinema.
You have a very strong compositional sense. In this film, the way you shoot seems to have two functions: first, to give your grandmother space and privacy, to not be invasive; and second, for the way that it looks and the effect that this consistency of aesthetic creates. Can you comment on both of these things, and more broadly, on what you wanted to achieve with the look of Notes?
From the start, I was very particular with distance and space while shooting Notes, since it’s very personal and I am observing the unknown that is the memories of my grandma. I had been filming her since 2015 without any goal to create something. I just followed fate. I used mirrors and blank spaces so as not to be invasive; it’s my primary concern not to exploit her. I had 20 versions of Notes, from 20 minutes in duration to two hours. Editing the film was a struggle since it’s very open as I said earlier. Even with this version that I am presenting to you, I think it is an unfinished film, because that’s the way it should be. Also, I think the audience should connect with the film without empathizing too much with the character. I don’t want to delve too much into sentimentality; rather, I want to humanize the experience.
Can you talk about what your grandma is experiencing in the film? Sometimes she is calm and collected, other times she’s very visibly distressed, angry, and confused. She seems to be living in the present, but her mind is in the past?
Her memory is a strange place, one where I found random histories of loss, rejection, suffering, and pain. The rarity of her condition and memory that I witnessed while growing up was the foundation of this film. But what is strange for me is her current state, especially now that she’s losing her memory because of ageing and because of a nervous breakdown. Some memories that were lost and rejected are appearing again. You will see in the film the mystical cycle of how memory transcends especially what is lost and what has been rejected. In a way, even though it is random or fragmented, it reveals to me what was there before.
The slowness of the film and the simplicity creates space, I think. Was this a deliberate way to focus both the viewer and your attention on the human element?
I think that is the effect of placing value on duration, and of making an observational piece rather than having direct interaction with your subject. Observation humanizes the subject, whilst duration captures the unexpected.
The feature takes place almost entirely inside the home and garden. It’s almost like a landscape film of the home, with the opening dedicated entirely to how light falls through the windows. We come to learn every corner of the house. Why did you decide to focus the film all in one place? What sense did you want to create by doing this? What does this place mean to you?
Her home is her universe, that’s where she exists. So, there was no other place for me to film her than her home. For more than 50 years she’s been living alone, so I thought that the house knows her more than any of us.
If you observe closely, the house is really a character, especially the mirrors. Also, I had the thought to capture her by using the place where I usually hide to check on her before whenever she has an attack.
What are your thoughts about the independent film industry in the Philippines? It seems like the profile is always rising internationally, with Locarno screening your work (and awarding the Golden Leopard to Lav Diaz recently) as well as other filmmakers like John Torres, Shireen Seno, and Raya Martin growing in reputation around the world. Who else should we look out for, other than yourself?
Philippine cinema is not dead. Producers here are taking risks and working with new, young filmmakers. Also, I want to acknowledge the rising film movements in the regional areas, especially Mindanao cinema. For me this is the new wave and international film festivals must discover it.
As for filmmakers, I am looking forward to seeing Carlo Manatad’s new work. He is a great colleague and a great filmmaker whose films are very consistent and sincere.
Sorry. I can’t help but ask leading on from this, how has working with Lav Diaz informed your own work? What did you learn from him?
In one of his messages, Lav Diaz told me to be brave, which is what I am trying to do right now.
Lav Diaz taught me not to be afraid to liberate my works from the so-called “praxis of the industry” in defining what a film should be, especially with duration. Also, I learned from him to see cinema as an ideology and understand my responsibilities as a filmmaker in our nation.
Lastly, why did you start to make films? What does the medium offer you and what do you hope to gain from using it, now and going forward? What are your next projects?
Before, I wanted to make films to preserve memories. As I said earlier, I believe cinema is memory and it is forever. But now, I also want to understand my nation, humanity, and our existence and suffering through cinema, hoping that one day I’ll find the answers. It’s not an easy path; along the way you need to fight internal and external demons in your working methods as you endlessly search for your identity. You need to be brave.
Right now, I am happy that my next film will be a French-Swiss co-production about the Tasaday — the sensational “stone-age tribe” that made headlines worldwide during its discovery in my province in southern Philippines in 1971, before the dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in the Philippines. It’s exciting, but we are taking it slow. Now, I am in conversation with Oswald Iten, one of the journalists who covered the Tasadays during the ‘70s. It’s important to tackle this story right now since we are experiencing another nightmare in our country currently, and because of revisionism, our country is slowly forgetting the Marcos dictatorship. The Tasadays were part of the ploy; they were exploited to cover up the violence.