Everybody starts somewhere. And this is where Lavrente Indico Diaz started, right here with his first feature film Batang West Side. That isn’t entirely correct. He did make three commercial flicks with Regal Entertainment before Batang (and one after), but one can be forgiven to not consider them a part of Diaz’s filmography because they were, in the words of Dr Marco Grosoli, “ultra-low-budget, fairly unremarkable (and heavily recut by the company) “pito-pito” films (“seven-seven”: seven days of shooting, seven of post-production).” In other words, these four films were essentially studio productions where Diaz was merely a tool to follow orders and didn’t have any kind of freedom to execute his personal vision. They may belong to Regal Entertainment but certainly not within the filmography of the Lav Diaz whom we have come to know through his long, uncompromising epics.
It is only with Batang West Side that Diaz got his first opportunity to create something wholly true to himself, and the first time that the world got a glimpse into the unbridled genius that would later blossom further into a career filled with masterpieces. But I digress. Batang West Side acts as a sort-of transitional phase between Diaz’s work with Regal Entertainment and his subsequent career. It shows very clear signs of the birth of the well-known “Diazian Style”, which he develops further and wholeheartedly adopts in Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004) and onwards, and yet it also adheres a lot to elements of classical film theory which Diaz would go on to later reject. For starters, it is shot in colour, a trait that doesn’t recur anymore with his future films (the sole exception being Norte). Only dreams and memories are presented in black and white, with some of those sequences imbibing an almost Tarkovskian quality due to the camerawork. The film utilises a whole lot of close-ups and the shallow focus to draw attention to emotions, instead of the extreme wide-shots with an environment-building deep focus that predominate his later work. There are brief moments where a background score is played, lending the drama a greater cinematic quality.
But most noticeably, Batang doesn’t contain the signature super long takes where he typically executes each scene within a single static frame (even though the shot lengths are, in general, longer than most conventional films). Here Diaz breaks down the majority of the scenes and conversations into more conventional shot-countershot sequences, sometimes cutting or moving the camera to reframe his subjects in a way that he hasn’t done since. In other words, his aesthetic here isn’t geared as much towards building an ambience and environment (which is pretty much the defining characteristic of his later works, as well as of the slow cinema philosophy in general) as much as it is towards observing faces, emotions and reactions of individuals. And yet, it is precisely by patiently following and living with these faces ― and painstakingly listening to the stories they conceal ― that Diaz portrays the afflicted psyche of a boy and a man, both tormented by their own inner demons, as well as that of an entire generation and a country.
A Filipino teenager is shot dead on West Side Avenue and detective Juan Mijares (Joel Torre) is assigned the task of finding out the killer. The boy, Hanzel Harana (Yul Servo), mostly hung out with his junkie friends, drinking and doing drugs even as his girlfriend tried her best to dissuade him from the same. He left his home in the Philippines and came to America so as to persuade his mom (who left his father to marry a wealthy but paraplegic American man) to return back home, so as to unite their broken family. Sometimes he’d visit and stay with his grandfather, who exerted a huge positive influence on Hanzel, but he never could escape the darkness for too long. Meanwhile, the cop investigating him seeks psychiatric help for his own depression, precipitated by a troubled past life that he had hoped to leave behind in the Philippines but utterly failed to. Mijares is regularly haunted by dreams and memories of his mother, and an unfortunate inhumane act of violence that he had once been a part of.
One of Lav Diaz’s central themes and concerns is introduced in Batang West Side, one that he has continued to explore further in almost all of his subsequent films, the perils of compartmentalizing and setting aside painful memories instead of dealing with them. As Juan’s therapist tells him ― while instructing him to keep a dream diary and analyse his nightmares ― it is only by acknowledging the existence of trauma that we can hope to treat the same. The more he proceeds with Hanzel’s case and the details about his life come to the surface, the more Juan starts vividly dreaming of his own past, as if the very act of recollection becomes a form of exorcism for the soul to be cleansed. Thus Juan’s apparently dead-end investigation not only exorcises Hanzel’s ghost, but also the ones he carried on his own back. As he discovers in the final act, sometimes simply sitting down in front of a camera (a classic Diaz gesture towards the close relation between cinema and truth) and remembering and confessing can prove to be a far more effective form of therapy than endless sessions with the shrink.
The maturity that Diaz displays, even at such an early stage in his career, is quite remarkable. A lesser filmmaker might have turned Hanzel and Juan into objects of pity, blameless victims whom we sympathize with. But Diaz has always embraced complexity in his characterizations and neither of them are given clean chits and, instead, we frequently see Hanzel acting like a terrible human being and squandering his opportunities, all of which only makes him that much more real. Yet despite that, we feel sorry for his plight, as we observe the vicious cycle of life he tries to navigate but fails. We feel sorry for him, his friends, his mother and thus, by extension, all the Filipinos who emigrated to America for a better life, only to be caught up amidst drug abuse and criminal violence. Perhaps their fate becomes an allegory for all the Filipinos deserting their native culture and embracing a more westernized mode of lifestyle, which only leads to their own downfall, while Hanzel’s desire to return home with his mother signifying a desire to get back to one’s roots.
Even apart from all its emotional, psychological and philosophical concerns, Batang West Side is also an excellent crime drama on the surface level. There’s an almost episodic feel to its plot progression, and as Juan keeps examining various suspects and their respective roles in Hanzel’s life, we are led to believe that we are getting closer to finding the killer as more motives resurface and fit within the puzzle. Thus when the final revelation arrives, a profoundly devastating realization of all the little incidents that are together killing these Filipino teens, it forces us to reconsider all that we’ve witnessed in a new light. Despite stretching over 5 hours, the film does a stellar job of sustaining the tension and mystery all throughout, while silently injecting pathos through its haunting humanistic elements.
Hanzel didn’t die the night he was shot. He has been dying all his life, ever since he came to America, drenched in crystal meth and the deep sorrow of a broken family which he tries to fix in vain. Only Lav Diaz can juxtapose contemporary individual concerns against a widespread malady afflicting an entire race, upholding a deeply-worrisome portrait of a society killing itself, with such an effortlessly hardcore realist style and genuinely-felt emotions.