The Aesthetic Challenge of Batang West Side

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The Aesthetic Challenge of Batang West Side

Lav Diaz
Batang West Side is five hours long.

For many this is an issue. A huge issue, and a headache for many here in the Philippines. But not an issue if we remember that there are small and large canvasses; brief ditties and lengthy arias; short stories and multi-volume novels; the haiku and The Iliad. This should be the end of the argument.
It's too long, people can't take it; it's too heavy, people can't handle it; distributors won't pick it up, theaters won't screen it. Wrong. There are theaters that will accept this film. People will watch long films. I believe the masses have the ability to transcend the standards they normally use in apprehending the arts. Allow works of proportion and beauty to exist, and we will develop an audience with philosophies lofty and profound enough to properly appreciate the art of cinema. People will watch and enjoy Batang West Side. Theaters will open with this film.
This I firmly believe.
I never intended to make Batang West Side five hours long. I simply followed the cutting and joining together of various scenes according to the script I shot. The original script entitled "West Side Avenue, JC" (Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature winner, 1997) was 135 pages long, with 126 scenes. A revised copy (year 2000) that I shot reached a hundred pages and 208 scenes.
I thought the film would run three hours, but during editing I saw that it would run longer and I didn't try to alter this condition; I allowed it to flow naturally. I allowed it to become organic, to acquire a life of its own; this is my philosophy when cutting, when finishing a film. I don't bend to the conventions of editing, or of length; I refused to follow the dictates of industry. There has been no manipulation to force me to conform to tradition, to what has been done before. I've studied the length many times in order to change it, but the five-hour version remains solid - according to the dictates of aesthetics, story flow, and wholeness of vision. I refuse to compromise the integrity of the work to please limiting, emasculating "tradition".
I explained my position to the producers. After many discussions, discourses, and debates that at times led to raised voices and heated arguments, they finally relented, finally believed. They understood that they must not give short shrift to our vision, to abandon our responsibility; that after everything we've gone through and struggled against to finish the film, it would be a great wrong to compromise now. It would be a betrayal of those who sacrificed so much, so long, to compromise - a betrayal of the film, which has acquired a life of its own.
Ever since the introduction of film as the newest, most popular medium of expression, Hollywood has been a tremendous influence on Philippine cinema. Cinema was one of the imperialist tools the Americans brought with them when they bought the Philippines from the Spaniards (or, conversely, when the Spaniards sold the Philippines to them) back in 1898; it quickly became an element of everyday Filipino life. Due to the length of their stay here (they finally left, along with their military bases in 1992), it may safely be assumed that the Filipino sensibility has been thoroughly colonized by America.

And because of this, Filipinos lost the chance to rise by their own bootstraps; colonization wrecked the Filipinos’ dream of establishing a nation molded according to the details in their own unique vision. From the perspectives of politics and history, the Filipinos lost the struggle for freedom - freedom of nationhood, freedom of livelihood and sensibility, freedom of the arts, psychological freedom and freedom of any and every kind - when they were colonized, bought and sold. Add to this the experience of hegemony and war (Japan), dictatorship and terrorism (Marcos) - after all has been said and done, the Filipinos have developed a "loser's culture," the end result of surviving their long and sadly complex history.

It's clear that what is needed is a profound cultural movement to restore this injury.

Cinema can do a great deal towards accomplishing this.

In Hollywood culture, entertainment and profit are the larger purpose of cinema.
Entertainment for the audience; profit for the many producers, directors, actors, film workers and movie theater owners. The same holds true in the Philippines. That is why the Filipino's appreciation of cinema is shallow and base. In their eyes, cinema is no different from a carnival. It will take a long and involved process to change this perception, especially with Hollywood films still dominating Filipino theaters.

(Once in a while in Hollywood though, there will emerge someone different, an Orson Welles or John Cassavetes that without fear or hesitation will move against the flow of things. If ever there was a vivid or incendiary flash of integrity in the art of filmmaking in Hollywood from then until now, it was Welles and Cassavetes.)

Most Hollywood films are ninety minutes or a hundred minutes long, rarely more than two hours. We have become used to this convention, this belief, that cinema should be so long, and no more. This has become the standard measurement of theater owners and producers, so that more people can come and watch per day, and the grosses can consequently be higher.

The Blockbuster Culture / The Garbage Culture

Hollywood developed the blockbuster culture, the profit culture.

It's only right to admire a profitable film because the cost of filmmaking is so high. It's only right that there are businessmen in film - they are an important part of the industry.

No illusions

The film has no illusions of heroism. We have no intention of bragging that we are special. We simply wish to contribute to the development and growth of the long awaited new direction of Philippine Cinema. We wish to help (even just a little) in its overthrow, and ultimate change.
At the same time, we are also unafraid to create a different impression among people; it's all part of the process. The Philippines has been left too far behind in world cinema (meaning not Hollywood but WORLD CINEMA, where there can be found the startling new works of Iranian and Taiwanese filmmakers). It is a new age, and we need courage to innovate and create. We need to begin developing a National Cinema, a cinema that will help create a responsible Filipino people.
That is the vision that inspired Batang West Side.
It's not just the length. Some will express surprise (or express more fitting if less printable sentiments) at various elements of this film, especially the use of digital video reshot on a TV monitor to 'dirty' the footage - to create lines, crudity, a roughened appearance. The damaged texture is a metaphor for damaged illusions, a rebuke of the long-held belief by the Philippine movie industry that a film has to be clean and polished to be fit for public screening. Not only is this movie not clean or polished, eighty percent of the film was shot with available light only.


A film this long is radical for Filipino sensibilities, even down to the "damaged" texture and story structure, "radical" because this is something totally new to them. Only a radical sensibility can provoke the longed-for change in Philippine Cinema. Only through such a sensibility can Philippine Cinema acquire the proper vision, be made whole. Only thus can Philippine Cinema, long-pronounced "dead," be resurrected once more.


Batang West Side is hard to take at first glance, if our basis for watching is the culture and rhetoric of Philippine Cinema.
The habit or convention of watching films constitutes a culture of its own, meaning there is an experience, a whole tradition, a perspective of an entire community or society, a sensibility created that has become characteristic of individuals in that society.
This is the objective of Batang West Side - the examination of the Filipino consciousness. Why are the Philippines the way they are now? The Filipino people? Philippine cinema? This aesthetic goal can be achieved through analysis of the comprehensive form (length/structure/appearance) and context (word/flesh/vision) of this film, and of other films to come. Let's not be contained and limited to convention and formula; we need to probe and probe, to explode the wall of corruption. The perspective is ever historical, and ever advancing.


Ultimately, the objective of Batang West Side is simple - change. Whoever wishes to hinder this film is an enemy of change. Whoever is an enemy of change is an enemy of Philippine Cinema.

Manila, December 2002

Translated from Tagalog to English by Noel Vera

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