'Storm Children, Book One' ('Mga Anak ng Unos, Unang Aklat'): Rotterdam Review

Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam
A poetic piece positing present predicaments as origins of an uncertain future.

Lav Diaz's black-and-white documentary looks at slum-dwellers making sense of life in the debris-stricken landscape shaped by the deadly 2013 Typhoon Haiyan.

Given his penchant for fictional features of epic onscreen time spans and runtimes, Lav Diaz's latest film — a 2½-hour documentary about the aftermath of the deadly Typhoon Haiyan which swept across the Philippines in November 2013 — seems like a departure of sorts. But Storm Children, Book One shares more than a few similarities in aesthetics and underlying theme with the Philippine auteur's previous film, the Locarno winner From What Is Before. A visually riveting, heart-rending account of young boys and girls struggling to survive in calamitous landscapes, Diaz's film is offering yet another story of beginnings — in this case, a generation forcibly stripped of their innocence, fast-tracked into adulthood and ingrained with an ennui which could easily morph into cynicism later on in life.

Diaz's achingly beautiful camera work never obscures the anguish at hand, instead only heightening the desolation of the (literally) windswept terrain; his trademark slow-burning, long takes are effective in conveying the victims' endurance in the dedication to Sisyphean tasks necessary for bare survival — fishing flotsam in overflowing streams, digging for reusable things on debris-laden beaches, making yet another trip down the village well to get water. While all this could certainly be seen as a celebration of children already showing a steeled human will, Diaz could just as well be posing the question of why the young are made to carry this burden (it's perhaps not coincidental that none of the grown-up men are shown doing anything of use throughout).

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Having made its bow back in September at DMZ Docs — the South Korean showcase is a co-financier of the film — before subsequent stops in Torino and then CPH:DOX, Storm Children, Book One's appearance at Rotterdam marks the first time the documentary and From Where Is Before are to be shown at the same festival (though in different time slots rather than as parts of a marathon double bill). It's an arrangement that certainly could — and should — be repeated at other festivals down the line, as the two works convey different aspects of Diaz's artistic vision and social consciousness.

Storm Children, Book One begins with a long, static shot of a river overflowing in a torrential downpour. This depiction of near-biblical catastrophe is the only time the skies are seen to open in the film, a reminder of the havoc wrought by Typhoon Haiyan, which flattened and flooded the Visayas region of the Philippines in early November 2013. It sets the scene for subsequent depictions of children making sense of the aftermath.

Where childhood flights of fancy once thrived, toil and weariness now take center stage. The film's first audible (and subtitled) conversation involves a boy swearing at an offscreen man for not helping him to carry water home; it's more than a hour and half into the film that children are finally seen doing what they should be doing at their age, as pupils clamber onto a motorcycle for school, two boys shoot hoops and another pair of idle teens steal glances at a young woman taking a fully clothed bath somewhere down the seaside dirt track.

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Diaz's patient unraveling of the quotidian in this tormented land reveals an absence of adult authority and assistance in a realm of jaded children. The youngsters show no melodramatic welling of loss and grief: All suppressed inside, they speak (to Diaz, offscreen) of how "half the population" of their home village is gone, and "it was sad living here." What will these children be like once they take over the rusty, stranded husks of Philippine society when they eventually grow up? The slow-motion images betray a sense of Diaz's anxiety about this future — boyhoods (and girlhoods) gone awry, bled of color and unfolding in monochrome, a prologue to tragic stories possibly foretold.

Production companies: Sine Olivia Pilipinas, DMZ Docs

Director-producer: Lav Diaz
Cinematographer: Lav Diaz, with additional photography by Sultan Diaz
Editor: Haring Timog
Sound designer: Hazel Orencio
International Sales: Sine Olivia Pilipinas

In Tagalog

No rating, 143 minutes

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