The Memory of a Century: Lav Diaz’s “The Halt”
Lav Diaz preceded the premiere of his new film The Halt in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar of Cannes 2019 with a short note. In it, he lamented a tendency in contemporary art cinema to wallow in despair, rather than to look to the potential of a restorative future. This, he argued, is the social function that film should fulfill: “The populace does not trust the future. The cinema must play a great role in reclaiming that trust.” From the beginning of his career, Diaz has been driven by a substantial goal, producing an unflinching on-screen history of the socio-political conflicts that have shaped his nation. He is guided by the belief that Filipino society needs to confront the atrocities of the past as part of a rigorous cleansing process — the under-examined portions of the nation’s history must be excavated so they can be learned from and therefore overcome. Diaz’s entire filmography works towards this act of cathartic archaeological uncovering, laying bare the unbearable horrors that the mainstream Filipino film industry attempts to conceal, with a particular focus on two painful epochs: the nation’s suffering under Spanish colonial rule in the late 19th century and the brutal military dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos over the latter portion of the 20th.
Diaz’s new film is a slow-burn nightmare of simmering discontent that surges in its final act into a utopic vision for the future of the Philippines. Set in 2034, The Halt imagines a dystopia in which a great environmental disaster termed the “Dark Killer” has blocked sunlight from the region, a resulting flu outbreak has killed a large portion of the population, and the democratically elected leader President Navarro (Joel Lamangan) has imposed an authoritarian system of invasive surveillance on his citizens. Navarro dresses his atrocities in the rhetoric of populism, positioning himself as a leader intent on restoring economic stability and national security in a time when South-Eastern Asia has been largely neglected by the West. Those who oppose his reign are branded potentially destructive traitors who need to be forcefully disposed of to ensure the protection of the Philippines. This future landscape is painted in characteristically minimalistic fashion, essentially identical from contemporary Filipino society other than the lack of sunlight and a number of luminescent drones that eerily dot the skyline, zeroing in on citizens at random intervals to check the validity of their identification cards. Navarro shares clear parallels with the country’s current president, Rodrigo Duterte. Yet Diaz’s decision to never refer to Duterte by name and instead create a fictionalized, ahistorical plane reflects a greater desire to interrogate why the evils of Marcos have resurfaced in the 21st century and why Filipino society allows for the perpetuation of historical violence rather than moving towards progress.
For Diaz, the answer lies in the sense of cultural amnesia that tends to overwhelm a nation in the wake of widespread trauma. This amnesia is actively fostered by Navarro, who actively warps the media and educational systems to oppress subversive voices and narcotize the populace into a state of submission. Under his guiding hand, historical record is warped so that Marcos is reframed as a noble leader who brought a sense of security and identity to a country still struggling in the wake of colonial rule, rather than a dictator who implemented a bloody totalitarian police state to keep his people in a tight stranglehold. Navarro thus describes himself as a leader in this noble tradition, utilizing Marcos’ governmental strategies to ensure the continuation of his legacy.
The apocalyptic event that has resulted in the ruinous environment of The Halt has created a comparable landscape of poverty and paranoia; this is a climate that Navarro exploits to consolidate his power. If Navarro suspects that a potential recusant is hiding out in a certain area, he will cut governmental aid to the entire community, thus encouraging villagers to turn against one another and monitor their neighbors. Diaz paints this society as an expressionistic limbo in which the citizens are willfully entrapped in a state of comfortable somnambulism that prevents them from realizing the reality of their situation, and therefore embracing revolutionary change. This condition is expressed most clearly in the character of Haminilda Rios (Shaina Magdayao), a woman who has suffered severe memory loss after experiencing intense personal trauma. After witnessing a rebel being gunned down in the street and feeling nothing, Haminilda develops a mysterious craving to consume human blood. Blindness to historical injustice, in this case, leads to a mentality of apathy that essentially makes Haminilda complicit in the present-day injustices being replayed on a national level; the refusal to stand up to state-sanctioned atrocity (motivated here by a combination of self-preservation and cultural ignorance) is equated with parasitism. Despite the high-concept sci-fi premise, Diaz rejects conventional spectacle. Diaz composes the drama in lengthy, deep-focus static shots, framed in low-light monochrome, usually positioning the human subjects in the middle-ground or background while lavishing attention on their material surroundings. The volume of the vocal track is dialed down to place it on the same level as the sound of the elements. The overall effect of this is a hypnotic ambience of lethargic malaise, one that reflects the oppressive environment of fear that the citizens find themselves sleepwalking through like spectres; even the film’s more violent and absurdist elements are subsumed into this aesthetic design, which lacks the moments of shocking brutality that punctuate films like The Women Who Left (2016) and Season of the Devil (2018).
Within this bleak atmosphere, however, there remain signs of resistance. A heavy metal group spreads a message of liberation in underground clubs and bars, providing a deeply cathartic centerpiece that punctures through the surface desolation. A number of high-ranking individuals in Navarro’s employment express a desire to use their insider positions to stage a coup against their leader as he descends further and further into crazed megalomania. The academic Dr. Hadoro (Pinky Amador) is writing a book entitled “A Nation of Forgetting,” stressing the necessity of cultural memory to prevent the repetition of past wrongdoings. Her thesis aligns with Diaz’s: unless the populace maintains a substantial understanding of themselves as historical subjects within a grand national lineage, Filipino society will never truly evolve but remain in a continuum in which societal evils will be allowed to be perpetuated endlessly. The young loner Torollo (Piolo Pascual) (a former member of Navarro’s militia before becoming radicalized) used to be the frontman for this band, but he has lost faith in the power of protest art to spur social change, and spends the majority of the narrative struggling to find a movement to commit his life to that will have concrete, long-term effects. Torollo is the film’s most dynamic character, and his emotional journey is the most affecting strand of The Halt’s vast tapestry — there is a particularly heart-wrenching sequence that sees him aiding the country’s impoverished street children after a botched assassination attempt.
The dense narrative alternates between these revolutionaries, the daily struggle of those living in the marginalized slums, and the affairs of Navarro himself. In a bold tonal choice, the scenes of Navarro governing the country from the plush confines of his modernist mansion are pitched at the level of muted absurdist comedy, while the plight of those suffering under his regime are treated with the utmost gravity — in this sense, the structure resembles Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), another fierce act of political filmmaking that attacked the West’s reluctance to acknowledge the rise of fascism occurring within an economically damaged country (considering Diaz’s cinephilia and The Halt’s focus on highlighting continuities between different historical periods, it would not be a surprise if this similarity was a purposeful act of intertextuality). Navarro is a monstrous caricature, a raving ball of paranoia who rants about his desire to feed his enemies to his army of crocodiles, covers the streets with giant posters of himself poised heroically, and who spends his evenings sitting on his balcony absurdly filled with a vast array of cacti, watching his drones patrol the world outside. The man who corrupts power may be a parody, but the effects of his actions are portrayed with the appropriate level of severity.
Yet, Diaz makes good on the promise with which he opened The Halt, and the film’s final passage envisions a future for the Philippines in which society may be reshaped to allow for the establishment of a fairer, more harmonious system; the first step towards achieving this utopian vision, however, is to break out of socially conditioned complacency. By setting the feature in a temporally abstract plane constructed of elements from past, present, and future, Diaz envisions the upcoming years of the Philippines as a site of potentiality.
Lav Diaz’s The Halt had its world premiere at the 51st Directors’ Fortnight in May 2019.