Lav Diaz is a filmmaker who takes his time. Storm Children, Book One is among his shortest features, clocking in at a mere 143 minutes. Yet this newest project is not nearly as briskly paced as last year’s Norte, the End of History despite being almost two full hours shorter. In this case the Filipino auteur has chosen to be remarkably careful, slowing down the way disaster is perceived. His subject is the community in and around Tacloban, a region of the Philippines that was hit particularly hard by 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan, the deadliest such event in the nation’s history. There are scenes in Storm Children, particularly in the film’s last act, that cannot be comprehended with speed or ease. In this, the most substantial documentary of his career, Diaz’s restrained and slow style is not for the sake of narrative, but rather to lay the groundwork for its troubling and complex images.
Storm Children’s first sequence is constructed from wide, breathtaking shots of water rushing into the streets of a Filipino city. Entire avenues have flooded, completely suspending all normal transportation. Each shot is given plenty of time to breathe, allowing the audience to slowly take in the magnitude of the weather. For a good 10 minutes, it feels as if Diaz has actually just produced a two-hour remake of Joris Ivens’s Rain. One gets the sense that exact chronology has been elided in favor of beautiful, intuitive editing. Every last frame is of stunningly composed black and white, all of them brimming over with the constant motion of water droplets.
Yet the tumult of the natural world is soon interrupted by children. Diaz captures kids playing in the water, wandering about the flooded urban landscape with intent to splash. It seems that this catastrophe has opened up a world of gleeful liberation for those too young for worry. Diaz presents the impact of Typhoon Haiyan almost entirely through the eyes of children, many of them orphaned by the storm. He watches them dig through the rubble on the beach, frolic among their ramshackle temporary homes, and transform now-useless ships into makeshift diving boards. In one memorable moment, a group of girls is heard belting out “Let It Go,” a song that has now even penetrated towns that were flattened by waves the same week that Frozen had its premiere. If there is levity in tragedy, it can be found amongst its youth.
Stylistically, however, Storm Children is more a work of austerity than joy. Diaz’s deliberate use of wide angles and quiet long takes elongates its emotional impact. In a stark reversal of the dominant documentary mode of representing disaster and tragedy, Diaz introduces his most substantial symbols for the catastrophe well before imparting their meaning. The landscapes are separated from the destruction that made them bare, blocking the immediate recognition of tragedy and therefore postponing the audience’s tears. This is no cleanly articulated emotional appeal.
In one lengthy sequence, he shows two young boys digging through debris on a beach without supplying any information about how it got there or how many lives were lost in its wake. Most significant are the enormous, looming ships that ran aground in the storm. Presented without comment, they seem more like eternal steel monuments than misplaced monsters from the sea. Diaz frames them majestically in shots that seem to last for days, allowing the audience to slowly arrive at the realization that these vessels are not where they belong. All the while the sounds of rain and wind ebb and flow like an aural tide, another subtle reminder of the destruction of November 2013.
The cumulative effect of this gradual portraiture is the creation of wonderment in place of shock and horror. By the time anyone actually tells the story of the ships and their role in the typhoon, almost two hours have elapsed. When it is finally explained that these maritime behemoths destroyed houses, lives and families when they crashed into the seaside towns of The Philippines, it is a dumbfounding revelation rather than a harsh one.
Diaz is interested in destruction but not exploitation, the prosaic lives of his subjects rather than the harsh poetry of their misfortune. He rejects what has been called the “CNN effect,” the use of emotionally resonant pictures from far away to activate the emotional excitement of the larger world. The film’s final images are resoundingly complex, beautiful and confusing at once, as children use the ship that destroyed their homes and killed their parents as an enormous aquatic playground. It takes two full hours of slow, wordless introductions for the audience to truly comprehend this image in a nuanced, honest way.
Storm Children, Book One played as part of Documentary Fortnight at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City on February 14th and 16th.