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Xyza Cruz Bacani

The Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Ramona Diaz talks about getting to the ending and what her latest film could be.

Ramona Diaz has just started editing her latest documentary and admits she’s not sure yet what is going to emerge from the nearly 70 terabytes of footage she shot in the Philippines. “I know the beginning and the end, but the road to get there—I don’t know,” she tells Vogue Philippines on a Zoom call from her home in Baltimore, “but it’s pretty exciting.”

What she does know is that it’s not a campaign film, even though it would seem so as she followed the presidential candidate Leni Robredo around the country late last year and into the early months of 2022. The impetus for starting this project, which Diaz describes as “not necessarily a sequel, but connected theme-wise” was the startling impact of A Thousand Cuts, her 2020 documentary tracking Maria Ressa and Rappler’s troubles with the government, bringing global attention to the journalist’s crusade against disinformation. The film won a slew of awards including a Peabody and an Emmy for Outstanding Social Issue Documentary.

“People were asking, how does it end? What happens to Maria? I wanted to see how it ended,” says Diaz. In fact, the film’s working title is This is How it Ends. “So it’s not exactly about Leni’s campaign, but more of Duterte’s administration ending.”

Maria Ressa in A Thousand Cuts 2020. Courtesy of Ramona Diaz

It so happened that Robredo’s campaign started to snowball at the same time Ressa was named the first Filipino Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. Diaz found herself embedded in Robredo’s campaign, joining the many sorties to remote destinations. “I loved when Leni went to the little corners of the country, like the fishing villages of Albay. We’d travel three, four hours to meet with 10 people. And to her that was okay, that was her thing. No crowd was too small,” Diaz recalls. One incident that struck her was during a visit to a calamansi farm, when Robredo sat down with the farmers and tried to see how they could become more profitable. “She was working out the math with them, doing what she thought was necessary. I was fascinated.”

Diaz knew Robredo was facing an uphill battle, with her campaign not only under resourced, but the groundswell of support coming in a little too late. At some point, the director let herself believe that the Kakampinks stood a chance. “It was at the first big rally where she came in like a rock star. The tide had turned, then Pasig happened, all the rallies got bigger. I had to believe my eyes, right?”

Election night results came as a shock, as it did to most Robredo supporters. Diaz was in Naga during the count and remembers that a group of women started praying around the Peñafrancia, then took the statue and processed out onto the streets. “They started singing ‘Bayan Ko’ and all the Leni songs, people were crying, I was crying.” The only one not crying was Robredo, who remained “preternaturally calm,” holding it together for a stunned press.

Not surprisingly, the person who predicted this outcome was Maria Ressa, who kept telling the director that she was living in a bubble: “Maria crunches numbers, she sees the data. She believed the surveys!” Diaz says.

For both Ressa and Diaz, the Marcos victory signaled a full circle in their lives and careers in different ways. A Princeton graduate, Maria returned to the Philippines in 1986 on a Fulbright Scholarship to study political theater (as in stage production) and to rediscover her roots in the country she left when she was 10 years old. Before she even finished her program, Maria was recruited by ABS-CBN, at which point she decided to stay in the Philippines to help rebuild the institutions—like a free press—that were destroyed during the Martial Law years.

Diaz, on the other hand, has been working in Los Angeles as a TV writer on the detective romcom hit Remington Steele for five years when its male star, Pierce Brosnan, set his sights on being James Bond, thus ending the series. “This happened to be in 1987. I needed a break from Hollywood, so I decided to go back to the Philippines,” she says. In Manila, Diaz worked as a producer on Apple Pie, Patis, ATBP, a television series on Channel 9 about the Filipino immigrant experience. Host Joey De Leon would travel around the world to interview notable Filipinos in the diaspora. “It was hard, it was a very expensive show, and I think no one really watched it,” she says about the stint. “It was ahead of its time.”

Xyza Cruz Bacani

Working on that production, Diaz discovered her love of the documentary format and of letting people tell their stories. Years later she took up an MFA in documentary at Stanford, which led to the film Spirits Rising, her thesis project about the matriarchal society of the Philippines and the role women played during the 1986 EDSA Revolution. When she met Imelda Romualdez Marcos in the process, she immediately knew she wanted to make the former first lady the subject of her first full-length documentary. Mrs. Marcos didn’t say no.

It was surreal for Diaz to spend that much time with Imelda in the flesh. Diaz had grown up in the Philippines during Martial Law when “there wasn’t a day when you didn’t hear news about what the Marcoses were doing, or where they were going.” When Diaz was in Manila doing prep and research for the film, Mrs. Marcos invited her to stay over in Leyte. At the time, the filmmaker was pregnant and needed a lot of rest. But Imelda was very chatty and sociable, to say the least, and kept her up late many nights.

“One morning, she knocked on my door and she had breakfast on a tray. Of course the maid was carrying it, but she came in all dressed to the nines and sort of gave me breakfast in bed. And then she started talking, like she didn’t miss a beat from the night before,” Diaz recounts. “I thought, I will never forget this moment! It was that kind of energy that she had.”

Imelda Marcos in Imelda 2003. Courtesy of Ramona Diaz

The reception to Imelda’s premiere was largely positive, except for one high-profile lawsuit. I ask Diaz why being sued—on top of being heckled by Martial Law victims in Amsterdam after one of the first screenings—didn’t put her off filmmaking.

“Because I’m a crazy person,” she laughs. She continues telling me how she was on her way to a film festival in Sydney when—“Oh my god! It’s all coming together. It’s my origin story with Maria,” she exclaims. One of the journalists who requested an interview with her was Ressa. “I thought, oh wow, she wants to interview me? Then the publicist whispered in my ear, ‘she doesn’t like the film.’ I’m like, WHAT?”

Exhausted from touring the film festival circuit, Diaz had hope to talk about her legal challenges and not about the film, especially not with Maria Ressa. “I knew she was going to get into the politics, I knew what she was going to say. It’s not a 60 Minutes kind of film. I just didn’t want to go up against Maria Ressa.” Diaz declined to be interviewed.

Fourteen years later in 2018, Diaz was in the Rappler office, pitching what was to be A Thousand Cuts. She wondered, would Maria remember? “I doubt she’ll remember. She’s had many lives, I’ve had many lives. So I was pitching and pitching, and then Maria looked at me and said, “You know, I’ve always wondered why you turned me down.”

Diaz paused, then decided she would lean into it. “Maria, that was my first film! I was overwhelmed and I heard you didn’t like it. I just didn’t want to talk to you and go up against you!”

Ressa just smiled. “Well, we have all the time to talk about it now.”

Xyza Cruz Bacani

In the intervening years, Diaz would make several more documentaries, all connected to the Philippines, all of them a yearning: The Learning (2011), about four Filipina teachers who leave their home and their families to work in the Baltimore public school system; Don’t Stop Believing (2013), about the unlikely rise of Arnel Pineda as the new front man of legendary rock band Journey, and Motherland (2017), a wrenching look at the disadvantaged patients of the Fabella Memorial Hospital NICU maternity ward.

With the privilege of being a Filipino outsider looking in, Diaz has been established as the filmmaker who “decodes” the Philippines for the rest of the world. She has taken distinctly Filipino phenomena and immersed herself in the lives of its protagonists, creating deep character portraits that can elicit unexpected sympathy, as in the case with Imelda, where she lets Mrs. Marcos talk—and talk she did—without explicit judgment.

Post-election, however, Diaz says she found it very difficult to understand the country. She took a couple months off not thinking about the film, instead occupying herself in the work of others during a film mentorship program held in Kathmandu and Calcutta, followed by a strict vacation in Mexico where she didn’t tune in to the news.

Back home in Baltimore, she focuses again on finding the threads of her film and weaving them together. “This is now about memory, what we choose to remember or forget, or not forget. I think it will be more essayistic in form, more fragmented, like memory.”

Her long-time editor Leah Marino, whom Diaz calls her “film wife,” is responsible for a large chunk of the final product, often drawing out narratives that Diaz, being too close to the material, may be unable to see. She’s currently viewing the footage and “hearing the whispers” of what the film will be. “This is often the hardest part of the process—taking all of it in and starting to distill it,” Marino says.

The two have ridden the highs and lows of filmmaking together for over 20 years, first meeting when Ramona’s daughter Sabine was still a toddler. Now working on their sixth film together, Marino knows what makes a Ramona Diaz film. “She has a lot of respect for her subjects and I think feels very responsible to them. She’s interested in subtleties of power and that excites me as well,” she says. “Ramona does not see the world in black and white, and she never underestimates the audience.”

These qualities are felt strongly in Motherland, which unflinchingly brings viewers into the world’s busiest maternity ward with scenes of mothers and babies piled over one another. The film is a statement about the dire state of reproductive health in the Philippines, but it is also a very humane film that speaks from the womb, bringing to focus individual stories that show the strength, hope, humor, and love of these mothers. And to get them to share such intimate moments of their lives on camera must have taken a different kind of persuasion.

Myriam about to undergo an exam in Motherland 2017. Courtesy of Ramona Diaz

“The mothers were the hardest to make understand that their lives were important, that they had a story to tell. To them, it was just ordinary everyday struggle. It was incredible to be amongst those women because they were so generous. They were full of grace, even the fathers.”

In September, the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo celebrated the Freedom of Expression Festival, where Diaz and Ressa were reunited on stage after a screening of A Thousand Cuts—the first in-person Q&A session they took part in after joining at least 80 online panels together since the film first rolled out in 2020. Imelda was also screened on the same day, positing a connection between the two films and tracking a through line to the upcoming one. Weeks later in New York City, Diaz accepted her Emmy while Ressa was honored at the Albie Awards of the Clooney Foundation for Justice. It was a remarkable day celebrating Filipino storytellers, truthtellers, and their indomitable spirit.

“People ask me why I keep going back to the Philippines. I’m like, why not? Of course I’d go back,” Diaz says. “There’s something about the country that always, always draws me back.”

This story was originally published in Vogue Philippines’ December-January 2023 Issue, out now. Subscribe here.

Photographer: Xyza Cruz Bacani, Hair and Makeup: Chyla Guerrero

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