‘Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis’ stars: Why you should watch ‘mesmerizing’ Lav Diaz film

Paolo Abad
‘Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis’ stars: Why you should watch ‘mesmerizing’ Lav Diaz film
The stars of the Berlinale-winning Lav Diaz film, 'Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis,' share how rewarding the experience of watching the film in the cinema is

MANILA, Philippines – Eight hours seems to be quite a stretch for Lav Diaz’s Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis, which nabbed the Silver Bear: Alfred Bauer Prize at the 2016 Berlinale. It’s not even the longest, as Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family) has that distinction at around 10 hours.

However, it’s not the running times that define the films of Lav Diaz, because as the stars of Hele put it: it’s ultimately a “mesmerizing” experience where time recedes.

Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky famously referred to filmmaking as “sculpting in time,” and to say that Lav is pushing the boundaries of the cinematic medium is an understatement. “His use of space is just as remarkable, particularly given the dramatic beaches and jungles of the Philippines,” notes Harvard Film Archive programmer David Pendleton. (READ: Filipino maestro of slow burn films, Lav Diaz, heads to Berlin)

Hele, the prolific filmmaker’s latest epic, is a canvas where Philippine history, mythology, and literature meld together. It revisits how historical icon Andres Bonifacio was slain, as his widow, Gregoria de Jesus (Hazel Orencio), searches for the corpse over the course of a month.

An eclectic crew of characters is featured as well: Simoun/Crisostomo Ibarra (Piolo Pascual) and Isagani (John Lloyd Cruz) from eminent figure José Rizal’s novels, and a tikbalang, a half-horse, half-human mythical creature (one entity whose different aspects are played by Cherie Gil, Bernardo Bernardo, and Angel Aquino).


At a press conference held last March 18, the cast and crew shared some reasons why watching a Lav Diaz film in the cinemas is a rewarding experience:

Piolo Pascual (Simoun)

Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

“To experience a Lav Diaz film, you really have to condition yourself,” said Piolo Pascual, who played Simoun – Crisostomo Ibarra, the protagonist of José Rizal’s novels, in disguise. (READ: Piolo Pascual talks about making 8-hour film with Lav Diaz, John Lloyd Cruz)

He recounted how the audience was like at the Berlinale. “As much as I conditioned myself, na-susurprise ako doon sa mga tao sa harap ko (I was surprised by the people in front of me). Nobody stood up,” he said.

Parang kasalanan sa mga tao doon kapag tumayo sila sa experience (It’s as if you’d be scorned if you had stood up), because as much as it’s moving art, ang sarap lang nung flow ng pelikula (it has its own flow). It’s real time […] ma-huhook ka talaga (you’ll be hooked).”

Photo from Facebook/Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis

Piolo continued, “And then, more than getting mesmerized, you wouldn’t want to miss a scene because it’s important, because as much as it’s very poetic, ang sarap lang nung mga underlying tones na ginagawa ni Direk Lav (The underlying tones of Lav’s filmmaking are wonderful).”

He also said that in spite of its peculiarities, he was still engrossed: “It’s black and white, it’s in real time, but there was never a moment that I got bored when I would watch a Lav Diaz film.”


John Lloyd Cruz (Isagani)

Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

In Hele, John Lloyd Cruz is Isagani, the reluctant youth who plays confidant to Piolo Pascual’s Simoun and foils his violent plans in José Rizal’s El Filibusterismo

Among Lav’s other works, John Lloyd said that he had only seen Melancholia (2008) and Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (2013) prior to Hele. However, he had plenty to say about how Lav Diaz’s films “spoke” to him as an audience member and as an artist/actor.

He said, “When you watch a Lav Diaz film, dalawa yung paraan kung paano ka niya kinakausap. Yung isa, kapag bilang audience niya, parang yung challenge niya is not to expect. Kasi after watching Norte, parang nabitin ako, kasi galing ako sa Melancholia eh. So parang, bakit ganoon? Yun yung ituturo niya sa’yo.

(When you watch a Lav Diaz film, he speaks to you in two ways. One, as an audience member, you’ll be challenged not to expect anything. I had been left wanting after watching Norte, especially after something like Melancholia. I was bewildered, asking why? That’s the lesson.)

Melancholia is a 7 ½-hour opus that won the Orizzonti prize at the 2008 Venice International Film Festival. Meanwhile, 2013 Cannes Prix Un Certain Regard contender, Norte, was considerably short, clocking in at approximately 4 hours.

Photo by Bradley Liew/Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis from

John Lloyd added, “Pero kapag kinakausap niya ako bilang artista rin (The film speaks to me as an artist as well), it talks to me about freedom. With freedom, parang lagyan niyo ng responsibility (realize the responsibility that comes with it). You have to take it seriously. You have to commit. If it requires you to sit down and watch it for 8 hours, you have to commit.”


Cherie Gil (Tikbalang/Babae)

Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

Cherie Gil narrated an old encounter with Lav, when he was filming Batang West Side (2001), which she said she had to refuse a role in – a decision that haunted her. “I was just saying, ‘Oh my God! I have to do a movie with Lav one day,'” she said. (READ: ‘Hele’ from the other side: Cherie Gil’s Berlin film fest chronicles)

“So, I regret that moment that I didn’t, but this was timely. It was meant to be that I played a half-horse and a half-woman… and do an orgasm,” Cherie quipped.

Screengrab from Vimeo/Ten17P

Having seen Norte and Hele, she also commented about what made such a Lav Diaz film exceptional: “It gets you on the real time… of the moment. That’s why we wonder, ‘Why do you do it slow? Why do you do it long?’ It’s really because you immerse yourself. You’re in that moment. That, to me, was so magical.”

“I’m so proud to be part of this. Perhaps, I can now say I’m part of a legacy that will last for a long time,” she said. “I think what tests a great film is not an award in the box office, but how long it will stay in our history. And this is one that will definitely and must remain.”


Bernardo Bernardo (Tikbalang/Lalaki)

Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

Ang unang-unang masasabi ko (the first and foremost thing that I have to say), you learn that you don’t watch a Lav Diaz film. You experience a Lav Diaz film,” said thespian Bernardo Bernardo, who played the male aspect of the tikbalang in the film.

He said that his experience of watching Hele was akin to how Meryl Streep described it when he met the Oscar-winning actress at the Berlinale.

“‘The guy’s a genius,’ sabi niya (she said). ‘He rearranged the molecules of my brain.’ So, I’m involved in the film, I became part of the action, the action became a part of me.”

Photo courtesy of Star Cinema

“Once you start watching it, hindi ka na-mamanipulate ng istorya the way Western movies do it – na may montage at saka may close-up, at music na ine-exploit yung emotion mo.”

(Once you start watching it, you’re not manipulated by the narrative the way Western movies do it – which commonly have montages, close-ups, and music that exploits your emotions.)

Bernardo also likened the experience to a novel: “Ito, para kang nagbabasa ng isang nobela dahil umaandar ang imagination mo, tapos sinusundan mo yung takbo ng istorya. So parang painting na nabuhay.”

(Here, it’s as if you were reading a novel because your imagination is set in motion, and you also follow the story’s progress. It’s like a painting that has come to life.)


Angel Aquino (Tikbalang/Androgynous)

Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

Nakasama kasi ako sa (I was part of) [Serafin Geronimo: Ang Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion],” recounted Angel Aquino, who played the androgynous aspect of the tikbalang. “Nung napanood ko ‘yon, ‘yon ang pinakakaibang pelikula na napanood ko. Ni ‘di ko alam kung anong mararamdaman ko.

(When I watched it, it might’ve been the most extraordinary film that I’ve ever seen. I can’t even describe what I felt.)

Photo courtesy of Star Cinema

She added, “Tama nga yung sinabi ni Bernardo, it’s an experience. Kapag nanonood ka ng Lav Diaz, feeling mo kasama ka nila doon. Nararamdaman mo ‘yung pain ni [Serafin Geronimo star] Raymond Bagatsing sa sakit ng ngipin niya.

(Bernardo is right. It’s an experience. When you watch a Lav Diaz film, it’s as if you were part of the action. You can feel the pain of Raymond Bagatsing, with his aching teeth [in Serafin Geronimo.])

Angel also expressed her belief that Hele could create an impact: “It strengthened my belief in the Filipinos and my belief in us finding ourselves eventually. Lalo na, darating na ang elections (Especially that the elections are up ahead), we’re really hoping that [our film] will make a difference and change some minds.”

She made her own compelling case to watch the film: “You have to experience a Lav Diaz movie, because if you haven’t, you haven’t experienced a real film.”


Alessandra de Rossi (Cesaria Belarmino)

Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

Alessandra de Rossi played Cesaria Belarmino, whom she branded as a so-called “taksil ng Katipunan (the traitor of Katipunan).”

She said that she had also seen Norte among Lav’s other films, and agreed with her co-stars: “Tama nga yung term. Ma-memesmerize ka talaga (The description is apt. You will be mesmerized),” she added. “Tapos maiisip mo na, ‘Bakit ‘di binigay sa akin yung ano… Bakit ‘di ako kasali diyan [sa Norte]? At kaya ko kayang panoorin sarili ko nang anim na oras?’

(You’ll think to yourself, ‘Why was this role not given to me? Why am I not even a part of this [Norte]? Can I even handle watching myself for 6 hours straight?)

Photo by Bradley Liew/Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis from

Alessandra illustrated what she felt when she watched Hele, based on her experience at the Berlinale.

“‘Di ako maka-upo ng 30 minutes na walang ginagawa. ‘Di ko kaya yun. (I can’t even sit still for 30 minutes without doing anything. I can’t do that),” she admitted, before recounting how her co-star Joel Saracho had pointed out to her during the screening that 3 hours had already passed. She let out a gasp and joked, “Nasa demonyo si Lav Diaz. (This demon, Lav Diaz, cast an enchantment).”

“I took the Hele challenge! Ako ang nauna! (I was first!)” she exclaimed in jest, referring to the TV commercials.


Susan Africa (Aling Hule)

Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

Susan Africa plays Aling Hule, a mother who has lost her children in an uprising and accompanies Gregoria de Jesus in her search for her husband’s body.

Apart from Hele, she said that she also saw Norte at Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon (2014), describing the experience of watching his films as riveting. “Ang feeling mo habang nanonood ka ng Lav Diaz movie para kang hinihigop – parang, mamayang konti, nandoon ka na,” she said.

(When you watch a Lav Diaz film, it’s as if it sucks you in, and then later, you’re engrossed and part of it.)

Screengrab from Vimeo/Ten17P

Meron po akong trivia sa inyo: ‘pag nanood po kayo ng Hele, makikita niyo po, at the exact timing, biglang hahangin. At the exact timing, biglang uulan (I have something to share: if you watch Hele, you’ll see that at the exact timing, a gust of wind passes through. At the exact timing, it rains,” shared Susan. “Magical po itong si Lav Diaz (Lav Diaz is magical.)”


Hazel Orencio (Gregoria de Jesus)

 Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

Hazel Orencio is one of Lav’s frequent collaborators, not only as part of his cast, but even behind the scenes. In Hele, she plays the widow of Andres Bonifacio, Gregoria de Jesus.

She recounted her first Lav Diaz experience with Heremias: Unang aklat – Ang Alamat ng Prinsesang Bayawak (2006), and admitted that she also had apprehensions about its running time. “It’s 9 hours, but noong una, ano pa ako, ‘Ang haba,’ ganoon din (at first, I was also saying, ‘This is so long,'” she said.

Screengrab from YouTube/ABS-CBN Star Cinema

Hazel was able to watch Heremias on DVD, having worked as assistant director in Norte and Mula sa Kung ano ang Noon – among other roles she took. “I realized [that] you don’t have to skip scenes para makuha mo ‘yong buong [to understand the whole] struggle nung (of the) film, and that’s where I got moved,” she said about how rewarding the watching experience could be.

She also watched Hele several times, and said that each time was different: “Each and every time lagi akong may nakikita (I see something different), and it’s still heartbreaking. If it changed me, it made me more historically involved. May alam ako sa (I know something about) history, pero feeling ko may dapat pa akong alamin (but I feel that I need to dig deeper for more) after this.”


Bart Guingona (Kapitan Heneral)

Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

Bart Guingona’s “first exposure” to Lav was sa Batang West Side, and confessed,”I thought I wouldn’t last because [it’s] 5 hours, [but] I was mesmerized from beginning to end.”

He worked with him as well in Hesus, Rebolusyonaryo (2002) and Heremias, describing them as “all wonderful experiences,” adding that these turned him into a “fan.”

Photo by Bradley Liew/Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis from

Bart said that many elements of the film were familiar, general knowledge. “Many of the situations that are portrayed in the film are actually well-known: Noli, El Fili… If you know basic Philippine history […] you know these things,” he said.

The clincher, for him, was its unique perspective. “What makes it interesting is the lens of Lav Diaz. He gives it a perspective that makes you think of our history in different ways,” he said.


Joel Saracho (Mang Karyo/Sicario)

Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

Joel Saracho plays a would-be Katipunero who is shunned by Mariano Trias, a prominent figure of the Katipunan (and later, the vice president of the revolutionary government.)

He said that as a student of history, Hele allowed an understanding of the facts. He also thought that there was a certain function to it: “magdala ng komplikadong idea at ilagay ito sa isang simpleng narrative at maipadala ito sa manonood (to convey a complex idea through a simple narrative, and bring it to viewers).”

Photo by Bradley Liew/Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis from


Paul Soriano (Executive producer)

Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

Filmmaker Paul Soriano, Hele‘s executive producer, said, “Watching Lav Diaz film is an experience, but also making a film with Lav Diaz is an even greater experience.”

“A young filmmaker to be able to pick the brain of this master storyteller – I thought this is better than film school. Masterclass talaga (truly a masterclass) from a master.”

Paul also put the spotlight on the cinematography of Larry Manda and described it as “very mesmerizing.” He said, “I’ve never seen a cinematographer so engaged and so in love with the story to the point where he would be crying during the scenes.”

“He deserves a lot of credit. [He] and Lav have this unspoken rapport, and you’ll see this in cinemas on the 26th.”

Photo by Bradley Liew/Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis from


Hele‘s ‘magic’

Lav Diaz gave his reassurance that the narrative had been accessible and “very simple” as it could get: “It’s about the search for the Filipino soul.”

Hindi naman experimental, napaka-klaro ng narrative ng pelikula (It’s not experimental at all, the narrative is very clear),” he said, enumerating 3 acts in the film: “Yung paghahanap ni Gregoria sa bangkay [ni Bonifacio], yung journey nina Isagani at Simoun patungo sa bahay ni Padre Florentino, at saka yung pagpasok ng mitolohiya natin sa kapre at tikbalang.”

(The search of Gregoria for Bonifacio’s corpse, Isagani and Simoun’s journey to Padre Florentino’s house, and then, the mythological part with the kapre [tree giant] and the tikbalang.)

Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

Yung 8 hours – wala iyon. ‘Pag pumasok kayo sa cinemas, o pag pinasok niyo na sarili niyo sa pelikula – sandali lang iyon. ‘Di niyo mararamdaman,” he said.

(Don’t mind the 8 hours. When you enter the cinemas, or when you immerse yourself in the film – it’s only going to take a moment.)

He was confident, expecting audiences to troop to the cinemas and watch their film. In a separate blog conference, he said, “We shouldn’t underestimate the masses. Matalino ang masa. (The masses are smart) They will embrace this thing, especially [because] it’s about us.”

Screengrab from Vimeo/Ten17P

‘Pag na-immerse ka naman sa cinema, parang wala na yung time. Pagpasok mo sa unibersong iyon it’s about that yung pinapanood mo (If you immerse yourself in the cinema, time doesn’t matter. You enter a universe where it’s all about what you’re watching).”

“The past becomes the present with cinema. The future becomes present, iyon ang magic ng (that is the magic of) cinema,” he said.

“We have the biggest distribution company, Star Cinema, taking on a Lav Diaz film. When did we ever expect that?” Paul Soriano said at the press conference. “He’s breaking down the walls, and that’s what we need in cinema. It gives me hope as a young filmmaker, because I wanna do this for the rest of my life.”

Screenings of the film will be divided into parts:

Lav Diaz's 8-hour epic HELE SA HIWAGANG HAPIS will have two versions of breakpoints (break durations will depend on the…

Posted by on Tuesday, 22 March 2016


You can watch it in these cinemas:

Lav Diaz's 8-hour epic HELE SA HIWAGANG HAPIS is divided into three parts (the duration of breaks will depend on the…

Posted by on Monday, 21 March 2016


Before he left for Berlinale, Lav once told Agence France-Presse in Manila, “My principle is, the filmmaker shouldn’t struggle by himself… The viewer must struggle with me. Let’s experience this thing together and be immersed in this universe.”

In the same spirit, the cast members closed the Hele press conference with puns galore.

Alessandra admitted she had used hers several times, but said it anyway: “Lav takes time.”

“Lav for President,” Piolo followed.

“Give Lav a chance!” said Joel.

John Lloyd paused before exclaiming, “Lav is the answer!!!” – with a report from AFP/

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Paolo Abad

Paolo Abad writes, edits, and shoots for a living. He is one of the founding partners of the online radio platform Manila Community Radio.