For most directors, time is both a currency and a boundary that forces them to adapt their storytelling ambitions to the canvas at hand.

With its goal of maximum profitability, the business of moviemaking has trained audiences to understand the medium as a finite narrative somewhere between 90 and 120 minutes. Anything more or less has been deemed unacceptable. Clearly, moviemakers perceive this constraint as limiting, as the existence of “director’s cut” versions of films and the advent of television can attest. Unperturbed by these conventional notions of attention spans, Filipino master Lav Diaz continues to create works that are not bound by their running times or promises of mass appeal. He has, unquestionably, liberated his artistic expression.

The Woman Who Left, which earned Diaz the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, is, at nearly four hours long, one of his shortest projects. It is a haunting social drama with undertones of a revenge thriller that is absolutely rewarding and compulsively watchable. Like all of Diaz’s films, including the 11-hour epic Evolution of a Filipino Family, his latest also thrives on black-and-white cinematography and observes the his homeland’s decaying social strata, channeling Tolstoy’s God Sees the Truth.

Portrayed by veteran Filipino TV and movie star Charo Santos in her first role in several decades, Horacia is a former teacher who finds herself in the convoluted world of 1997, 30 years after being imprisoned for a crime she didn’t commit. Along her path toward retribution, the woman who—involuntarily—left befriends pariahs, embodies multiple identities, and assembles her devastated existence one good deed at a time. Three decades of sorrow laced with distant hope are hard to contain in a concise, traditional time frame, but make no mistake, The Woman Who Left is never merely contemplative—it boasts a profoundly engaging plot.

Visiting New York City for the film’s U.S. theatrical run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Diaz shared his thoughts on his unique cinematic approach.

Charo Santos (R) in The Woman Who Left

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What’s your writing process like? Is the screenplay of The Woman Who Left as extensive as its running time, and what are the challenges of writing it?

Lav Diaz (LD): There is always a lot of writing during the shoot. That’s my usual process. I may have a script during pre-production but when shooting time comes, things usually change drastically. The process is very open, as I don’t really follow a very rigid framework—e.g. a storyboard or a strictly imposed screenplay. I wake up every morning, usually around two or three in the morning, and write or revise the scheduled scripts for the day. I’d have to say that The Woman Who Left was a very tranquil exercise, because it was one of those works where the writing just flowed naturally from its inception to the shoot. I had an outline and a script draft during pre-production for casting, budgeting and location purposes but I wrote the actual screenplay during the shoot. By then, I had a very clear idea of the perspective or the so-called vision of the film. There was a lot of writing, but the challenge was more about the choices of which threads to follow in the narrative, where it will go, what’s going to happen to the characters, their dialogue, their looks, their habitat, and the gamut of contextualizing and appropriations. Building the characters and building up the story were day-to-day processes. I had to situate myself in a zone where I could really discipline myself in order to fully focus on the characters and the story.

MM: Is improvisation part of your work with actors? If so, what do you think that brings to the film?

LD: I am very open to improvisation, but the parameters must be very clear, otherwise things will spill out. Such an exercise is helpful only if the filmmaker and the actors know what they are doing. I give ample freedom to the actors to improvise, but delineation is key. Of importance is their understanding of the story, the scene at hand and, of course, their characters. I’m strict with their dialogue. I show them their space by actually letting them peek at the camera’s monitor. This allows them to have an understanding of time, or how long the scene would be, and they’re on their own.

MM: One of the most notable characteristics about your films is their length. Some critics refer to you as a maximalist in terms of time. After making numerous films with long running times, does it bother that people continue to focus on that when it comes to your films? Why do you think people are so fascinated with the fact that you make longer-than-average films?

LD:  I’m not bothered by it. What bothers me is the utter lack of openness or understanding that cinema is a great art and that they mustn’t confine or limit it to the imposed traditions. It bothers me more when some film scholars and critics offer limited understanding of the medium. My films are free. I’ve emancipated my cinema from the conventions. People must realize that the so-called average length that they’ve been accustomed to seeing is just market-imposed and that art is free. There is no cardinal rule.

MM: How long does it take to shoot a film like The Woman Who Left with such an extensive amount of scenes?

LD: We prepared for three months and we shot it for almost a month. The time to make a film or, in my case, the struggle to create cinema, depends on the conditions at hand. In the case of my 11-hour film, Evolution of a Filipino Family, for instance, it took us more than 10 years to finish it because we were so poor and we were always looking for money then. The struggle was very protracted but, ultimately, the harsh conditions served the aesthetic demeanor of the film very well.

MM: Aesthetically, two qualities that stand out about your films are your use of black-and-white cinematography, and that you let each scene play out in wide shots without intercutting close-ups and other shots. Can you tell me about the reasoning behind these choices? Would you ever attempt to make a film differently?

LD: I see cinema as black and white. I grew up watching a lot of black-and-white movies. I think psychoanalysis will tell you that this can be a form of fixation, as the visual cortex of my brain has an overload of blacks and whites. Also, the absence of color amplifies my childhood belief that cinema is an alternative universe. I am still that child, in a way, except now I am creating alternative universes, not just dreaming of them. The wide and long-take shot is my way of simplifying my cinema, a more Zen way of looking at the medium—less manipulations and distortions. But I won’t stop exploring the medium. My praxis now is not some dogma. My next film is a musical, and after that, I’m shooting a gangster movie.

MM: Horacia, your protagonist, has different identities in the film depending on whom she is interacting with. Why is this constant transformation or hiding important to her character, besides not being found out?

LD: Surviving 30 years of incarceration for a crime she didn’t commit, while sternly maintaining her humanity, Horacia’s character goes beyond the terrestrial. Yes, she has suffered profoundly and the resulting sorrow was unspeakable, but it didn’t break her. In a way, she has a full understanding of life, and the way by which she enters different personas in order to deal with other beings is a type of transcendence. You can look at this film as some form of hagiography.

Diaz served as director, writer, editor and cinematographer on The Woman Who Left

MM: Can you tell me choosing and working with Charo Santos, whom I understand had not acted in a film in many years and whose primary work is as a TV personality? What was it about her that made her the perfect actress for such an emotionally complex role?

LD: I didn’t really know Charo Santos except for the films she’s made and her iconic presence in television in the Philippines—she hosts a popular weekly television drama, and she headed the biggest network before that. She’s had some really great performances but she hasn’t acted for almost three decades. The Woman Who Left happened in a very serendipitous manner and in a way, that’s how she was cast. I had a chance to talk to her and I asked her if she still had an interest in acting. She said yes but only if she likes the material. And so, I wrote the character of Horacia Somorostro based on her persona from day one.

MM: Horacia, an outcast herself, is surrounded by the outcasts of society: the hunchback, the transgender prostitute and the homeless woman. What’s the significance of each of these? Why does your character gravitate toward them?

LD: Part of the trajectory of the film when I was creating it was to embed it with pariahs, especially the easy targets of man’s prejudices. With this, you have the hunchback, the transgender prostitute and the homeless woman; their nature has that corporality that immediately imposes rejection by society. Horacia is on the surface a highly “accepted” being—beautiful, intelligent and educated—but a harsher rejection was imposed on her, which is evil. By her actions, her affinity with the characters of the underbelly, Horacia’s great humanity is innate; she knows that the root of prejudice is evil.

MM: Even though it’s not overtly shown, this is a period piece set in 1997. Why was it important for the film to be set in this specific year?

LD: Setting a story in a specific epoch creates a distinct aesthetic template for the narrative and the characters. 1997 was the year that I went back to the Philippines after working for five years in New York, so, personally, I have an emotional specificity to the period, so to speak. When you check the events that took place, 1997 was a complex, turbulent and an emotional year for the world.

MM: Revenge is Horacia’s driving force, what keeps pushing her forward, but when that is accomplished what’s left is the hope of finding her son. Would you say that this hope is both positive and negative? It’s what keeps her alive but it also prevents her from moving on.

LD: We don’t really know what’s going to happen to her. We only know that her goodness shall remain. The ending of the film is all about the truth of existence, which is uncertainty. MM

The Woman Who Left opened in New York theaters May 19, 2017, courtesy of Kino Lorber.