In Lav Diaz’s two-and-a-half-hour documentary “Storm Children, Book One” — as in his nine-hour 2008 narrative, “Death in the Land of Encantos” — the Filipino helmer’s signature arresting, black-and-white compositions focus on the utter devastation left in the wake of a catastrophic typhoon. But if “Encantos” featured grownups mourning a buried past, the pint-size subjects of “Storm Children” exist entirely in the present, scavenging the past for survival. Resilient and completely absorbed in work and play (the distinction often difficult to discern), the kids belie the surrounding desolation with their ceaseless activity, while resisting any facile inspirational uplift. This slow but striking documentary reps prime museum and fest fare.
Shot many months after the destruction wrought by cataclysmic Typhoon Haiyan (aka Yolanda), the deadliest in the Philippines’ typhoon-swept history, the film is structured as a series of tableaux; Diaz’s generally fixed camera sometimes subtly shifts to catch the minimal action from slightly different angles.
As cars, buses and motorcycles move through the flooded streets of Tacloban like some surreal aquacade, two boys with long branches fish from a swollen stream, but they only catch a ball, assorted flotsam and some stray scraps of clothing. Two youngsters industriously dig beneath the corrugated roofs of completely buried houses, most of their finds corroded or decomposed beyond any conceivable utility.
A huge ship, blown ashore like a beached whale, lies amid the wreckage of the homes and businesses crushed by its passage, like some bizarre Leviathan looming over the flattened land. Kids, on improvised ferries, pole their way out to stranded ships to dive from various decks, jumping off for fun — or, as one child explains in a rare stretch of dialogue, to search for metal to sell as scrap, a major source of income.
A succession of small fry struggle manfully to fill and carry containers of water almost as big as and doubtless heavier than they are. They stop occasionally to rest as if propelled downward by the sheer weight, or otherwise to castigate their elders for lazing around instead of helping.
The abstract minimalism and ponderous stasis of Diaz’s camerawork, coupled with the desolate absence of anything remotely resembling the everyday goings-on of a good-size city, gives “Storm Children, Book One” a strangely timeless feel that complements its stark beauty. If the film were focused on the grownups — who, to judge from their stagnation or lack of presence in the frame, have given up completely — the debris-strewn landscape of a once-thriving city would spell hopelessness, with children wandering the wreckage of a lost civilization. But their energy, camaraderie and flashes of joy hint at a dogged survivalism and purposefulness that mirrors Diaz’s own passionate commitment to his benighted county.