“Sine ni Lav Diaz”, roughly translated as “The cinema of Lav Diaz”, appears at the end of every Diaz film, signalling the auteur’s presence, as it were. Auteur signatures are hardly new in cinema. From Jean-Luc Godard to Abbas Kiarostami, famous film directors mark their cinematic presence not only by a repertoire of stylistic traits or a set of oft-repeated actors, but also by the signature itself. The auteur’s signature carries discursive weight. It classifies, assigns meaning and moors a body of work to a name. It writes, and presents, the author-figure into the film. Such has been the lesson of auteur scholarship of the 1960s on the role of the signature in cinema.1 In Diaz’s case, too, this is the very purpose of the signature. 

As the editors of this volume point out, “Sine ni Lav Diaz” can be translated both as “A film by Lav Diaz” or “The cinema of Lav Diaz” – the singularity of the viewing object – “a film” – slipping into the larger oeuvre of the filmmaker – “The cinema of” – both phrases attributing the work to the filmmaker (pp. 2-3). However, the editors also point out that the phrase goes beyond a mere ascriptive function; they argue that as a phrase written in Filipino, it tethers the filmmaker to his Pinoy or Indio identity. It marks Diaz as an author grappling with the (after)lives of Philippines’ multiple overlapping violent regimes: the archipelagos’ Spanish colonial era, the American and Japanese rules, and later (Ferdinand E.) Marcos and (Rodrigo) Duterte regimes. Diaz’s films are presentations of histories that are often forgotten in the nation’s popular psyche. “Sine ni Lav Diaz”, thus, is a signature that marks the author as belonging to an identity or a community rather than simply alluding to his formal practice. Such is the postcolonial auteur, one may argue, scaffolding a situated identity in the Global South, in this case from the Philippines, while also writing the same within the European, and now global, auteurial practice of signing off on one’s films. 

Nevertheless, as Micheal Lim writes in his own essay, “Sine ni Lav Diaz” is hardly a stable identifier. Lim notes that when Diaz’s 2016 8-hour historical epic, Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery), was being promoted for its theatrical run (a rarity in Diaz’s case), the film’s trailers often replaced “Sine ni Lav Diaz” with either “A film by Lav Diaz” or “From master-director Lav Diaz” (p. 157). Although Lim goes on to explain other changes in the trailer – such as the shift from slow Diaz scenes to noir-esque thrillers with faster cuts, and the omission of the film’s 8-hour duration – what interests me is how Diaz’s Filipino signature had mutated into English even for the film’s local theatrical release. A Lullaby… had just won the Silver Bear in the Berlin International Film Festival for 2016 and the local news media was abuzz with excitement over Diaz’s acceptance in Europe, corroborated by that year’s jury president Meryl Streep’s exalted admiration for the film.

A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery film poster

By this very mutation of signs, Diaz’s films had come to feature “Sine ni Lav Diaz” in his films when they travelled outside Philippines, but for local theatrical release, he was fashioned as a “master-director”, now stamped in English. His local fame and theatrical purchase – and the event of signing off in English – depended first and foremost on him being an auteur from the Philippines. Diaz had been signing off as “Sine ni Lav Diaz” long before his films were being released theatrically or traveling to global film festivals, and yet, as his stature and popularity grew – transforming him into a national cultural figure – his relationship with his signature(s) appears to have changed too. 

Far from merely adverting his Pinoy identity and his slow, unfurling postcolonial epics, “Sine ni Lav Diaz” now cast him as what Thomas Elsaesser calls a “Global Auteur”.2 That is, the contradictory, double-edged making of an auteur, simultaneously local and cosmopolitan, at once rooted in their culture while also navigating European art house cinema circuits. Elsaesser notes that auteurs now perform a “double occupancy” – representing, or rallying against, film and political cultures at the local level, while also representing said local cultures in European film festivals, often in a realist vein. It is this straddling that Diaz accomplishes – best characterised by the investments in, and transformations of, his Filipino signature – that underwrites the book as a whole. 

The volume, thus, poses a methodological quandary about how to study Diaz as a global auteur. Diaz is an auteur who not only navigates European distribution circuits with his Filipino films, he is also an auteur whose genealogies and cultural references oscillate between European artists such as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Robert Bresson on the one hand, and Filipino icons like José Rizal and Lino Brocka on the other. The book further raises questions on whether to place Diaz within the slow cinema aesthetic which he shares with Béla Tarr and Carlos Reygadas or within the realist geography paradigm with Glauber Rocha. The task this volume undertakes is neither one of specificity (what specifically marks Diaz as distinctly Filipino), nor assimilative (that he enfolds the multiple genealogies mentioned above). What the contributors appear to present are a set of frictions and fissures that surface when theorizing about Diaz as a global auteur, and sometimes, the impossibility thereof. 

The volume is divided into four sections. The first looks at genealogical traditions discernible in Diaz (his proximity to Filipino independent filmmaking cultures, with their preoccupation with national or Third World concerns), the second focuses on Diaz’s relation to national cinemas (Diaz’s relation and representation of national trauma under colonial and dictatorial regimes), the third centres around Diaz’s aesthetics and the aesthetic criticism of his work, especially the charge of “artlessness”, and the fourth, an interview with Diaz and reprints of Alexis Tioseco’s early Diaz writings. Despite its attempt to move away from the slow cinema discourse and ensuing temporal concerns, or to engage with Diaz through conversations on industry, technology or production contexts, environmental or Anthropocenic discourses, or to steer Diaz away from blinkered national historical concerns, the thrust of the book lies in framing Diaz as the global auteur of the Philippines and the many contradictory and overlapping genealogies he inhabits. 

In this tradition of positing Lav Diaz as a global auteur, he has long been compared with the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Diaz adapted variations of Crime and Punishment in his first feature-length independent film, Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 1996), and later in Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Norte: The End of History, 2016). In the present volume, comparisons between Dostoevsky and Diaz abound, with essays written by Tom Paulus, Marco Grosoli and Parichay Patra.

Drawing an extensive comparison between Dostoevsky and Diaz in his essay “Homeward Hill”, Tom Paulus argues that Diaz’s proximity to Dostoevsky lies in both their disavowal of communism (both choosing the lesser radical path of socialism), and in the Christian values of divine salvation or redemption offered to their weaker characters. In this moral ecology, argues Paulus, both the setting and characterization are as much theatrical as they are “the stage for metaphysical and religious drama” beyond the human, social sphere (p. 32). This association with Dostoevsky, he asserts, not only puts Diaz closer to French naturalism and the works of Émil Zola (and, one could argue, even André Bazin), it decidedly distances him from Lino Brocka’s socialist realism and his proclivity for real, poverty-stricken locations and political struggles. 

Marco Grosoli, in his analysis of Norte, arrives at a different conclusion to the question of moral economy. If Paulus sees in Diaz’s films the absence of political reality, for Grosoli, the presence of messianic time and redemption renders a postcolonial reality of waiting and seeking redemption against injustice that Diaz offers. Again, if for Paulus, Diaz is sufficiently Dostoesvkian (to the point of not being enough of a social realist), for Grosoli, Diaz is hardly Dostoesvkian to begin with, as Diaz’s slowly insolvent protagonists are caught up in a Kafkaesque nightmare where everyday banality and the drudgery of life entraps them in damnation forever (p. 84).

Norte: The End of History

For Parichay Patra, Doestovsky’s moral universe is not of immediate concern; rather, the author is more interested in what such a polyphonic moral order offers Diaz in a formal, cinematographic sense. Patra opines that while the filmmaker tends to Dostoevskian concerns, of a turbulent world slowly condemned to eruptions and madness, Diaz captures these qualities with his static, unperturbed camera that patiently waits for its subjects to move, confess or be haunted by their traumatic memories (p. 140). It is this contradiction between a world unravelling and the steadfast patience of the camera which lends a polyphonic cinematic quality to Diaz’s films, even overcoming, as Patra avers, some of the textural lacunae of the “original” novels. 

I draw up these comparisons between Paulus, Grosoli and Patra to highlight the volume’s attempts to rescue Diaz from a formalist charge (the slow cinema label), and offer a deep dive into the novel-esque quality of films, and the moral, political and social diegesis they offer. But strewn across sections and clusters of the volume, this recurrence of the Dostoevsky motif offers a key insight into the book’s attempts to frame Diaz as a global auteur – reconciling the modern European novel form, with a textured detailing of the Filipino postcolonial condition. This eternal return of Dostoevsky in Diaz scholarship in this volume opens up inconsistencies and fissures while comparing the two, but more importantly, this comparison serves as a metonymy for the book as a whole, imagining Diaz as a global auteur with shifting goalposts and allies. Here, allusions to global and local, moral and psychological are held together by a bare thread. 

Nevertheless, situating Diaz as a global filmmaker, one who is slippery to categorise and beyond the strictly national, raises an important question: at what scalar or spatial axis do we read Diaz? If Diaz is both a national and a global figure, but one whose narratives are local and situated, where does it leave the regional? Regional in the sense of geopolitics, in this case that of Southeast Asia, as well as regional within the nation – of the Philippines’ archipelagic status and the many linguistic, ethnic and filmmaking traditions that make up the nation. 

Patrick Campos has placed Diaz within the early 2000s history of CineMalaya and the emergence of a Southeast Asian cinema network, which offered Diaz early international forays and exhibition opportunities.3 Others like Katerina Tan have sought to create regional cinema in the Philippines as a framework to decentre the spatiality (not just of filming, but also circulation and viewing) of Filipino cinema away from Manila and into its distributed islandic hinterlands.4 Borrowing from these emergent strands of scholarship on Filipino cinema, perhaps it might be fruitful to imagine who Diaz might be as a regional filmmaker in this double sense, and what concerns such a regional auteur might have? Moreover, if auteur scholarship indeed pronounces place-making as central to the auteur figure, i.e., how auteurs create and depend on specific geographies and routes of circulation, then what might the region open up, or add, to the field? This especially since the region is embedded within but eternally fractures the two dominant sites of the global and the national, as it were. 

Parichay Patra, in his essay, uses Dostoevsky to set up Diaz’s polyphonic cinematic and formal endeavours, and to challenge the branding of Diaz’s languid slow cinema aesthetic as an artless craft. In a whole section on ‘artlessness’, under which Patra’s essay falls, scholars and critics react to film critic Adrian Martin’s charge that Diaz’s Norte: The End of History was an artless film.5 For Martin, Norte is not artless because of the director’s investment in Barthes’ “degree zero artlessness”, a deep obsession with a self-effacing realistic form (p. 6). It is artless in a truly literal sense, i.e., without much craft, taste or even a crystallization of the director’s stylistic merits. 

Structured like an extended conversation, the essays in this third section of the volume respond to Martin’s originary critique even as an updated version of Martin’s essay appears alongside. Patra avers that here, artlessness is an analytical misstep because Diaz’s films appear simultaneously epic and folkloric, encompassing a textural, detailed view of Filipino life that surpasses usual definitions, and lengths, of art cinema. Meanwhile, Micheal Lim’s essay tends to pair artlessness with “undistributabality” – the Filipino distributor’s quandary over the inability to screen Diaz’s films theatrically because of their length and the endurance they demand of their viewers. William Brown, however, responds to Martin’s charge of artlessness by proposing “non-cinema” as a category in which to position Diaz. Brown argues that if we regard cinema as a by-product of modernity, offering linear time in its storytelling, and one which by virtue of its material limitations has shorter running time, then non-cinema is precisely what Diaz presents, his slow unfurling digital takes with greater shot lengths offering a postcolonial tropical time of waiting and waywardness. 

But beyond merely offering a response to Martin’s artlessness critique – one that is steeped in aesthetic judgement – and in canonizing what is good or bad cinema after all, what struck me most about the extended conversation is how Diaz has been theorized with the language of negativity, a lack, contradiction or omission, so to speak. There is Martin’s “artlessness”, Lim’s “undistributability”, Brown’s “non-cinema” and Patra’s refusal of artlessness as a category altogether.  There is always a lack or a negativity characterizing our relationship with Diaz – a structuring absence that marks his cinema. Negativity, following Jacques Lacan and Alain Miller, always refers to a subject and “to its beyond”, i.e. beyond which everything is given. This negativity creates the subject or the concept, the grounds from which newer subjects or concepts were to emerge.6 Meanwhile, Gaston Bachelard, in his work on the Philosophy of No, writes how the negative, considered the absolute other, “speak to us of a plenitude of reality situated beyond all negations.”7 However, far from hovering at a distance, the negative always remains in touch with the previous definitions, what Bachelard, delving into scientific enquiry, deems as “previous training.” Theses or generalizations, he argues, can happen only if they include what they deny, to embrace or bring forth what has previously been negated. It is this promise of thinking of or defining Diaz’s cinema from the space of the negative that this section truly offers, not merely of ambulating what might or might not be artless in Diaz’s cinema. 

Since the 1980s and thereafter, auteurist criticism has become infused with different areas of scholarship that have come in its wake – industry studies that situate auteurs in production contexts, cultural/postcolonial/decolonial studies that examine auteurs from the Global South and marginalized identitarian positions, and even poststructuralist scholarship that situates the author as an unstable, polyphonic sign. And while the book takes all these turns into account, what this thinking-from-the-negative truly offers is a rejection of the very premise of auteurial scholarship – the refusal to add or assign a coherent set of traits that identifies the author as such. 

The auteur has always been a figure who signs off on a set of repetitive thematic or formal concerns, identities or political positions, a name with cinematic and discursive weight. If such has been the definition of the auteur, assigned to a repertoire, a collection of patterns and traits, then with Diaz and this book, we find a disassembling of the auteur, a thinking of the auteurial figure from its limit – Diaz fundamentally, not as a slow cinema, Filipino auteur, but as non-cinematic, undistributable, or even artless. One could even playfully extend the argument to ask: what would “Sine ni Lav Diaz” mean with the negative ontology at hand? Perhaps simply acquiescing or acknowledging the limits at which Diaz operates; and perhaps our own inability to fully grasp or cohere his work, as it were. 

Or perhaps, even beyond Diaz himself, the book asks us not what the author can positively ascertain or provide, but offer a litany of the numerous limits, negative definitions, a panoply of what the auteur moves against, falls through or fails to articulate. A negative ontology of an auteur, then, accounts for the auteur beyond the master-figure, not someone in complete command and control of the cinematic aesthetics, or even someone who presents a degree of unreadability or incomprehensibility to their discerning audiences and critics. It is, paradoxically, to create an archive of the lacunae and failings of the auteur. 

Martin’s theory of artlessness stemmed from his profession as a film critic. As the writer himself admits, the job of the critic is to provide aesthetic judgment for the film at hand, describe its merits and failings, and offer aesthetic judgement on the craft (p. 117). Martin’s provocations as a film critic differ from that of the academic; the academia has long replaced the task of judgement, the art of film appreciation, with a social or theoretical study of cinema, i.e., film studies.8 Artlessness, and the responses it demands from scholars who challenge its theoretical pitfalls, seem to be caught in an endless loop of critique. The scholarly responses are unable to parse out film criticism (and hence evaluating its finesse and form) against the philosophical, political and social bearings of film studies. And while such charges between film criticism and film studies may be too tenuous to hold, the volume nevertheless makes a distinctive effort to bridge dialogues and conversations between film screenwriters, critics, and scholars who write on the genealogies and aesthetic tendencies in Diaz’s work. 

Auteurist criticism had begun with the work of French critics and directors, fusing an interest in film criticism and an enchantment with masterly filmmaking with extant debates in the field of semiotics and linguistic on genres, patterns and signs.9   Patra and Lim’s volume harks back to these auteurist roots by inviting critics, theorists and practitioners to the table; however, being able to view that moment from the distance of half a century, they caution against enchantment with such auteurs and auteur scholarship. 

The editors painstakingly highlight how an obsessive fan-boyism around Diaz has effectively foreclosed the possibility of any real criticism and engagement with his work (pp. 1 & 116). Second, Patra and Lim scope out a global auteur in Diaz – a director who expresses hyper-local concerns of the Philippine islands, a national cultural icon who also traverses Europe’s aesthetic genealogies (from realism to Dostoevsky) and its networks of film distribution. Lastly, and most significantly, the book encourages us to rethink the auteur beyond a positive, additive or comparative vein, and offers in its stead, negativity, lacunae and failing as a space from which to begin auteurial enquiry. The volume begins where a film ends. “Sine ni Lav Diaz” offers us the signature as ever-expanding, challenges a notional site to imagine who, what and where Diaz might be, and even expounds what the aporias and limits of theorizing Diaz are. For us, Diaz exists, only to be slowly chiselled away.

Sine ni Lav Diaz: A Long Take on the Filipino Auteur, edited by Parichay Patra and Micheal Kho Lim (Bristol & Chicago: Intellect Books, 2021).


  1. For more on the theory of signature, read Jacques Derrida, “Signature, Event Context,” in Margins of Philosophy, translated by Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), pp. 307-330. Also, Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?” in Michel Foucault: Aesthetics, Method, Epistemology (New York: The New Press, 1998), pp. 205-220. For an overview of film authorship debates within film auteur criticism, and the role and recurrence of signatures, read David A. Gerstner, “The Practices of Authorship”, and Janet Staiger, “Authorship Approaches” in Authorship and Film, edited by Gerstner and Staiger, (New York & London: Routledge Taylor and Francis, 2003), pp. 3-25 and pp. 27-59 respectively.
  2. Thomas Elsaesser, “The Global Author: Control, Creative Constraints, and Performative Self-Contradiction” in The Global Auteur: The Politics of Authorship in 21st Century Cinema”, edited by Seung-Hoon Jeong and Jeremi Szaniawski (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), pp. 21-41.
  3. Patrick F. Campos, “CineMalaya and the Politics of Naming a Movement,” in The End of National Cinema: Filipino Film at the Turn of the Century (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Diliman Press, 2016), pp. 233-235.
  4. Katrina Ross Andal Tan, Towards an Archipelagic Imagination of the Nation: A Study of Philippine Regional Cinema, Monash University Theses, November 15, 2021.
  5. The third section of the volume titled “No Cinema, No Art Either” scholars and critics respond to the Adrian Martin’s 2016 early review of Norte: The End of History that appeared in Sight and Sound. Known as trenchant critic of Diaz’s films, and the fanboyism that surrounds him, Martin deemed the film as artless, without much aesthetic craft and technique. The essay ensued a proliferation of responses and discourse online, and became a cultural standpoint in Diaz scholarship. In this section in the edited volume, Martin revisits his 2016 review with revisions, as others like Parichay Patra, William Brown and Micheal Lim respond to the charges of artlessness in Diaz’s films.
  6. Gloria Perelló and Paula Biglieri, “On the Debate Around Immanence and Transcendence,” Cultural Studies, Vol. 26, Issue 2-3 (2012): p. 325.
  7. Gaston Bachelard, “The Synthetic Value of the ‘Philosophy of No’”, in The Philosophy of No: A Philosophy of the New Scientific Mind, translated by G. C. Waterston (New York: Orion Press, 1968), pp. 115-123.
  8. For an overview of film criticism in the anglophone, western context and its relation to film studies, see Alex Clayton and Andrew Klevan, “Introduction: The Language and Style of Film Criticism”, in The Language and Style of Film Criticism (London & New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis, 2011), pp. 1-25. Also see, Thomas Elsaesser, “The Social Function of Criticism: Or, Why Does the Cinema Have (to Have) a Soul?”, in Film Criticism in the Digital Age, edited by Mattias Frey and Cecilia Sayad (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2015), pp. 195-209.
  9. Janet Staiger, “Authorship Approaches,” pp. 43-45.

About The Author

Pujita Guha is a curator, artist and a PhD Candidate at the Film and Media Studies Department, University of California, Santa Barbara. She also runs the artistic, and indisciplinary research platform, Forest Curriculum along with Abhijan Toto. Her curatorial, artistic, and academic interests include thinking about forests & frontiers, cinema and media, infrastructures, popular cultures of South & Southeast Asia.

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