Friday, February 13, 2015

DF ’15: Storm Children, Book One

You can tell Haiti has a better lobbying arm than the Philippines. Five years after the 2010 earthquake, international aid is still flowing into the island nation, while filmmaker and former Culture Minister Raoul Peck wonders where all that money is going. In contrast, Typhoon Yolanda barely cracked the news cycle in late 2013. As a result, there has been precious little rebuilding in coastal communities like Tacloban. Three children will guide auteur Lav Diaz through the watery streets and dilapidated slums of their post-typhoon world in Storm Children, Book One, which screens during MoMA’s 2015 Documentary Fortnight.

Perhaps only Diaz could make images of privation and hopelessness so arrestingly beautiful. Arguably, Storm Children might easily play in a loop as an installation or to accompany a fund-raising soiree for typhoon relief. His characteristic long takes are as long as ever. As a result, it takes a bit of time (perhaps an hour) before we start to recognizing the recurring focal figures Diaz ostensibly follows. However, the neighborhood’s three-legged stray dog will start to look familiar somewhat sooner.

Diaz could still get elected mayor of Slow Cinema City, but at just under two and a half hours, Storm Children is a veritable short subject by his standards. It is not until late in the film that Diaz starts to ask questions of the kids, in a traditional documentary kind of way. Sadly, they will confirm many of our worst suspicions, such as why there seem to be so little adult supervision in their world.

Without question, Diaz has an eye for visuals, but the spectacle of the huge rusted-out freighters beached throughout the Tacloban coastline and amid the ruined smithereens of their tightly packed houses is hard to miss. It looks like a post-apocalyptic Lord of the Flies, except the atmosphere is remarkably quiet and still.

At times, Diaz’s visuals are so striking, we can understand why he holds them so long. Serving as his own cinematographer, supplemented by his son Sultan, Diaz demonstrates how artful documentary filmmaking can be. Nevertheless, at some point quietly observing these children orphaned and essentially rendered destitute by Yolanda becomes increasingly problematic over time (and there is always a lot of time to think in a Lav Diaz movie). There can be a thin line between conscious-raising and exploitation—and it is not always clear which side the film is on. Powerful, demanding, yet sometimes discomfiting in the wrong way, Storm Children still must be considered a major work from a prestige filmmaker. Recommended for those who appreciate slow cinema flavored with a guilt trip, Storm Children, Book One screens tomorrow (2/14, perfect for Valentine’s Day) and Monday (2/16) at MoMA, as part of this year’s Documentary Fortnight.