These directors are spotlighting women’s stories.
Filipina Filmmakers have been making waves in local cinema, not just to elevate our industry to new heights, but also to shine a spotlight on the stories of Filipino women. In an era where Hollywood is just starting to find its footing in terms of diversity and inclusivity, Filipina-made feature films have been carrying the country’s name to the big stages. Martika Escobar became the first ever Filipino feature film director to win an award at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, while Ramona S. Diaz’s hard-hitting documentary A Thousand Cuts received high praise after its own Sundance premier, with The Hollywood Reporter calling it “immersive” and “essential.”
While both global and local industries still have a long way to go in addressing discrimination and representation and recognition, several women filmmakers in the local industry have been driving Filipino cinema and the Filipina identity forward with their innovative work. Here are five Filipina filmmakers making waves, as well as their most iconic works, that you should know:
Years before Escobar’s Sundance win, the University of The Philippines’ film degree graduate started out as a cinematographer while still in school. It was actually her thesis, the short film Pusong Bato, which garnered recognition when it won Best Short Film at the 11th Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival and was even entered into the 19th Busan Film Festival.
But it wasn’t until Escobar’s debut film, Leonor Will Never Die, fresh from its 2022 Sundance Film Festival debut, that the director would be commended globally for a feature work. The film follows the titular retired screenplay writer, played by Sheila Francisco, who struggles to finish a long-forgotten project until she ends up in a coma and plays out the screenplay’s ending while unconscious. It also won a World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Innovative Spirit, marking a grand directorial debut for the 29-year-old writer-director.
Writer, director, editor, producer, and actor—there’s little that Isabel Sandoval hasn’t done in the film industry. To add to her already noteworthy repertoire, the New York-based filmmaker became the first ever trans woman of color to compete in the Venice Film Festival with her 2019 film Lingua Franca, which she also starred in. The plot follows an undocumented trans woman named Olivia (played by Sandoval) in the United States working as a caregiver and her struggle to obtain legal status.
Born in Cebu City, Sandoval has gone on to work with big names and brands in the local and international scene, including Andrew Garfield for an episode of FX’s Under The Banner of Heaven and Miu Miu’s Women’s Tales. She’s never shied away from bold topics, often featuring trans characters and tackling topics such as religion, power, undocumented immigrants, and Martial Law in the Philippines.
The name behind some of the best pieces of Philippine cinema, Moira Lang has been in the business since the 1990s. Fresh out of a Business Administration degree, Lang started out in marketing and advertising—while writing movie reviews on the side for the newspaper Today. Eventually, she quit her marketing career and decided to pursue a career in film with Star Cinema.
Throughout her illustrious career, Lang would find herself as a screenwriter, producer, and actor for some of the most highly-acclaimed films in local cinema. Her impressive oeuvre includes award-winning titles such as Smaller and Smaller Circles, Jesus is Dead, Anak, Ordinary People, and Norte: The End of History.
Baby Ruth Villarama
Baby Ruth Villarama started out her career as a researcher and co-producer for the likes of National Geographic, Bloomberg TV, and CNN. So it’s no surprise that her trajectory led to her current work of creating documentary films that spark relevant discussions on social issues. Best known for her documentary Sunday Beauty Queen, which follows the lives and struggles of Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong and their passion for joining beauty pageants, Villarama also founded Voyage Studios, a film company that advocates for local filmmakers and social issues.
Ramona S. Diaz
The documentary filmmaker’s work shines best tackling difficult topics head-on. Diaz creates exploratory films that dive headfirst into their topics. The Filipino-American has had three of her documentaries screened at Sundance.
These include titles she’s best known for, such as Imelda, a documentary about her life and eventual role in the Marcos-era dictatorship; A Thousand Cuts, which follows Rappler founder and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Maria Ressa and her fight for press freedom under the brutal administration of former president Rodrigo Duterte. It’s a title eagerly picked up for distribution by PBS and holds a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes; And lastly, Diaz’s film Motherland set in the “busiest maternity ward on earth.” The documentary won a Special Jury Award at Sundance while also premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival in the same year.