Locarno, Venice Winner Lav Diaz’s ‘When the Waves Are Gone’ Raises Bar for Filipino Auteur

Halted by COVID-19, and now part of Locarno’s The Films After Tomorrow competition, Lav Diaz’s “When the Waves Are Gone” looks set to mark the first time the Filipino auteur will enjoy the upsides of full-force international co-production.

That co-production involve, moreover, some of highest-profile art film producers currently working in Europe.

Winner of Locarno Golden Leopard (2014’s “From What Is Before”) and a Venice Golden Lion (2016’s “The Woman Who Left”), Díaz movies have been set apart not only by their extraordinary lengths –  2016’s “A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery” clocked in at just over six hours – but also their lack of resources.

“It’s understood that Diaz’s low-budget techniques involve a certain suspension of belief: thus, we accept that a powerful dictator only seems to have a staff of two,” critic Jonathan Romney wrote of last year’s “The Halt,” a low-fi sci-fi drama set in a 2034 dystopia.

That now has the chance to change. Instead of domestic Filipino co-production, Diaz’s recent regular financing set-up, his newest film is structured as a classic four-way international co-production.

Epicmedia Production, a Manila-based studio, produces out of the Philippines. Best known as a Berlin-based sales company Films Boutique will co-produce out of its Lyon production operation in France. European co-producers also take in Denmark’s Snowglobe and Portugal’s Rosa Filmes.

Boutique Filmes and Snowglobe were two of the four co-producers on Ciro Guerra’s Directors’ Fortnight hit “Birds of a Passage,” a movie that saw the Colombian director step up in scale from the more intimate “Embrace of the Serpent” to a full-blown drug war epic, replete with immersive sound design.

Arte Cinema, the production arm of upscale broadcast network Arte France, boarded “When the Waves Are Gone” last year as a co-producer.

Thanks to the participation of Films Boutique as a French producer, the movie has also has snagged an incentive from France’s Aide aux Cinémas du Monde fund, a first for Diaz.

In all, the budget of “When the Waves Are Gone” could be “near six or seven times Lav’s usual level,” says Films Boutique’s Jean-Christophe Simon, one of the film’s producers.

“The idea is to try to give Lav the possibility to continue exploring his cinema but to do so at a different scale, trying to give him a bit more freedom in terms of budget so he can challenge his own cinema in an international coproduction set up,” he adds.

What Diaz will do with such relative riches is another matter.

Like many of his movies, “When the Waves Are Gone” departs from a literary classic, Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo,” But it departs quite fast. Two friends pull a bank heist. Herminigildo is imprisoned, Brigido returns to their home island with the loot and becomes its tyrant ruler. Herminigildo emerges 30 years later. But while Dumas’ count seeks to expose those who betrayed him, Diaz’s hero seek bloodier vengeance on Brigido and his whole family.

Brigido’s conversion into a corrupt tyrant looks set to allow Diaz to draw once more a withering portrait, by implication at least, of contemporary Philippine politics.

Díaz had gone into production in the Philippines before COVID-19 struck. Renowned for his visuals – chiaroscuro lighting, off-kilter framing – Diaz is shooting in Super 16 on Kodak black-and-white stock.

Once the Philippine shoot is over, Diaz was scheduled to relocate to Portugal, attracted by its architecture, to shoot the movie’s climax, Simon says.

The budget will allow Diaz more extras and sets when required. Diaz is shooting the film on film stock for the first time in 20 years. The film stock lab will be located in Japan as labs in the Philippines no longer work with film stock.

Post-production will be split between France and Portugal.

“A bigger budget could of course help to secure theatrical plays in countries where the work of Lav Diaz is maybe not known as well as it deserves to be,” said Simon.

He adds: “However, the key point from our perspective is to allow a filmmaker to follow his artistic vision if possible with a budget corresponding to the ambition of the film, especially here with a film partly inspired by ‘The Count of Monte Cristo.’”

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When the Waves Are Gone Credit: Locarno Festival