“Essential Truths of the Lake is more of a poetic and lyrical reflection on a country and how it derails from human rights, justice, and law and order; and what the echoes are of that derailment, how it reflects on people, and changes a society from within.”
“A fish rots from the head down”
Apparently, Lav Diaz has found a vessel through which to tell stories of his country’s recent past. That’s Lieutenant Hermes Papauran, the main character of Diaz’s previous film from last year, When the Waves Are Gone. This time we have a prequel to Papauran’s story, on his struggle against the justice system he’s a part of during the Rodrigo Duterte regime in the Philippines. Duterte is known for his support for the extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances of drug users and other criminals in his country. It’s actually quite familiar and relatable for anyone living under authoritarian regimes that a fish rots from the head down. When the leaders are in favour of inhumane policies, each and every rotten institution follows the same path of corruption. And fast. Like in a race.
Papauran is in conflict with his co-workers, classmates, and friends about the corruption within the police. The film’s first act mainly sees him talking about it with various people, while these scenes are intercut with the results of the policies he fights against. It’s a very direct approach. But as the lieutenant’s obsession with a specific cold case starts to take over his life, the film’s tone also shifts. But obviously, this is a procedural by way of Lav Diaz.
A model and performer named Esmeralda has been missing since 2005, around a volcanic area. People’s general perception of her was that she slept around with many famous and powerful men, and that she used her sexuality to get famous. But she was part of an environmentalist documentary before her death, and within that material she complains about this perception, that she was undervalued and labelled just as a pretty face. The director calls this a “Marilyn Monroe Syndrome”.
Now, when I say “director” here, I’m talking about the documentary director. During Papauran’s investigation, he starts watching the material shot in 2005, and we’re introduced to a film within a film, with its title cards and all. A director written by our director Diaz becomes a character in this story. All this opens up a whole new playground for Diaz. Toying with the possibilities of documentary and fiction, dream and fantasy, reality and performance. The Lieutenant himself becomes a performer, working like a method actor in his inquiry in some weird and some fascinating ways. The beautiful 16mm images only help.
As the story opens up, you’d expect more complex political connections and a web of dirty secrets about a community to be disclosed. It would be a hard sell to say the film goes that way. Mostly because the cold case of Esmeralda doesn’t connect directly or strongly to the portrait of a country in distress. The thematic relationship is thin, to be honest. But Diaz makes it clear that he’s not interested in your typical crime procedural or obsessive cop story. This is not Zodiac or Chinatown or Memories of Murder. Essential Truths of the Lake is more of a poetic and lyrical reflection on a country and how it derails from human rights, justice, and law and order; and what the echoes are of that derailment, how it reflects on people, and changes a society from within.