Documentarian Ramona Diaz on Her Films Past, Present, and Future

by Christopher Llewellyn Reed

Ramona Diaz is a world-renowned documentary filmmaker based in Baltimore, and the Spring 2016 Artist-in-Residence for my department – Film & Moving Image – at Stevenson University. The director of four feature-length movies so far, Ms. Diaz has just completed her fifth and is already at work on the next one.

I recently sat down with Ms. Diaz at her home (with her rescue dog, Darcy, watching over us) to discuss her life, career, and what brought her to Charm City. For more information on her work, visit her website, cinediaz.com. What follows is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

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Bmoreart: How did you begin your career as a filmmaker?

Ramona Diaz: I went to school for filmmaking – I majored in film and photography at Emerson College in Boston – and then I got an internship at the end of my junior year, which turned into a job, out in Los Angeles, at the end of my senior year. So I moved to L.A. for the job, which was in television.

Doing what?

I was like a writer’s assistant on Remington Steele. So that was my first job, out of college, which I thought was cool. I thought all jobs were like that. It was very much a studio television job, where they feed you constantly. Lunches were brought in; if you wanted to have breakfast you just arrived early enough; and if you stayed beyond 6 o’clock, they’d give you dinner, so all of the assistants would stay until 6:01, and then bring the dinner home. I never had anything in my refrigerator in my early 20s. I swear! It was just water, I think.

And then that ended and I went back to the Philippines, and that’s when I got interested in documentaries, because it was a transitional government and so many things were happening on the streets. I got involved in a series about Filipino expatriates living all over the world, Apple Pie, Patis, Atbp. (“Atbp.” means “etc.” in Tagalog), and we traveled the world interviewing these expatriates about identity, and what it felt like to be Filipino out in the world. It was a very expensive show. It lasted two seasons. It was hard to maintain. And then I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere, and I was really interested in the documentary form, so I came back to the States to go to grad school. I went to Stanford for documentary, and that was that.

So, just to be clear, you said that you went “back to the Philippines” … So before you went to Emerson, you were living in the Philippines?

I was born and raised in the Philippines, and I came to the States for undergrad.

Got it. So you completed the program at Stanford. How do you then make the transition to being a director?

I came out of Stanford with a very solid thesis film. It was a longer piece; it was 60 minutes. I remember fighting the administration, because they wanted us to make shorter films. It’s easier and you get out sooner, but I felt like I needed … you know, you feel like, in grad school, you’re making a thesis film and it feels like it’s your last film ever. (laughs) It’s not really …

I know the feeling …

Right?

What was that film?

It was Spirits Rising (1996). And that got a bit of traction. It won the Student Academy Award and because of that, I was able to raise money for my next film, which was my first professional film, which was Imelda (2003), from the screening of Spirits Rising and people asking me what I was doing next. Money was easier to raise then.

Before we talk about Imelda, how many feature-length films in total have you made as a director?

Imelda, The Learning, Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey and now Motherland. And I count Spirits Rising.

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Sure. It’s 60 minutes, which is the cutoff length for feature-length documentaries.

And it was picked up by PBS, it traveled on the film festival circuit …

So, Imelda is such an amazing film, in many ways, and especially in terms of access to Imelda Marcos, herself. How did you get that access?

I think I asked at the right time. She was no longer in power, so all the networks had gone home. No one was really paying attention to her any longer. She had been in exile in Hawaii, gone back to the Philippines, and she was just living her life. And then suddenly I’m interested in making a film about her, through her eyes … I think it was just the right moment. And she said yes. Amazing! Now, of course, fighting for more and more access is always a negotiation, which happens over time, and just being persistent. But I think it was just the right time.

And how did you get to her to ask for access? Did you have connections?

Yes, I did. She was actually one of the women I interviewed in Spirits Rising. That’s how I met her. And after that interview … well, it was very difficult to get that interview, actually. Basically, I cornered her son at a cocktail party, and said, you have to give this letter to your mother because I want to interview her for my thesis film. And I had a student crew in town, and I think we were waiting for months, sort of trying to negotiate that interview and filming the documentary.

On the very last day – you know, one of those “last day moments” – she came through: I got a call, they said, you know, she’s just been in the hospital, but you can come, for only five minutes, and do not ask her about the revolution. But my film was about the revolution! But why not, right? It’s Mrs. Marcos, so you go. Surely something’s going to happen. So we went, and … nine hours later, we were still there, and by then she had brought up the revolution. Once she brought it up, then I felt like I was free and good to go. I could ask her.

Sure. It’s an excellent strategy. You talk long enough …

… and she talks! She likes to talk. And that’s when I knew that she’d be open to a film about her. I mean, we were only supposed to be there for five minutes! Nine hours later, we’re still there talking, and we’re the ones thinking that it’s time to go …

Well, one thing that’s clear from your movie about her is that she very much likes being the center of attention.

Very much so.

So what, then, brought you to Baltimore?

My ex-husband got a job at Johns Hopkins. We were living in Austin, because he was teaching at U.T. Austin. We met in grad school, lived in Northern California, moved to Austin, then he got the job at U.T. Austin, and then we moved to Baltimore when he got the job at Hopkins.

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And then you just stayed.

I just stayed! Yeah, my daughter just graduated [from high school] last year, so I’ve been thinking that maybe I might move, but I’m still here. And it’s comfortable! Right? It’s nice and comfortable …

And you’re established here now …

And it’s close enough to New York that it feels central without being in the craziness of New York. I can work more here than I will ever be able to work in New York. Just because I am an independent filmmaker, I have to have this kind of discipline. There are so many distractions In New York …

You also couldn’t live in such a nice home …

Please! I don’t want to live in a closet!

 And you’ve got a dog, too! So, can you now talk about some of the challenges, including financial ones, that you have faced as an independent documentary filmmaker?

You know, when I started, with Imelda, it seemed easier to raise money, because there were fewer people making documentaries. I felt like I could raise R&D [research and development] money, which I did for Imelda, without a single frame shot. They gave me, I think … the first money I raised was about $50,000, just to go see …

Based on a treatment? You must have had something …

You know, I was asked – because she is in the film – I was asked during a Q&A [for Sprits Rising], what’s your next film? And I then knew that Imelda was really the one that was resonating with the audience, so I said, Imelda Marcos is my next film! And someone in the audience was from the Center for Asian-American Media – which is part of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting – came up to me and asked, are you really making a film about her? And I said, uh-huh! He asked, do you have access? Sure! So they said, write up a treatment, so I wrote a treatment. I submitted a proposal, and I got money … to go see if I had a film. It was just easier then. Now? You have to have a sample; you have to have shot something. With documentaries, it’s like this Catch-22: you have to have money to shoot, etc.

Is it that way for you? Because by this point, you are established, with a track record of making films, so yes, for someone without your proven success, they have to have a sample, but would you say that even now, you need to show a sample?

 Yeah. Because I’m feeling as if I have to write more proposals to get little pots of money for the budget. Before I had to write maybe three proposals. Now I’m writing ten proposals …

Wow!

 Right? I do get them, and I’m not complaining, but there’s more work, because I have to write more and more proposals.

Got it. Now, besides the money, have there been any interesting production challenges on any of your films, beyond just the big one of getting access?

Well, access is key. And not just to people, but to institutions. In The Learning, I had to get access to an entire institution: the Baltimore City Public School System.

Was that difficult?

They were on board! They gave me access. They even invited me on their recruiting trips. Why they did that, I don’t know. People always ask me, how did you get access? You ask. You just ask. And they may say yes, they may say no. No one’s ever turned me down. Which is great. [knocks on table] Knock on wood, right? But that was the most difficult just because there were so many moving parts, and so many different schools, and so many ages, because it’s more difficult with younger kids, obviously, to get permission. So that was like a logistical nightmare.

But in terms of dealing with people, the difficulties vary. Dealing with rock stars is different than dealing with teachers, like immigrant teachers, right?

There’s an ego factor.

There is an ego factor. But on the other end of the spectrum, there’s also this naïveté, with the teachers, that you always have to be mindful of. You always have to subtly remind them that there is a camera. I don’t want to hang them out to dry, either. Not that I protect them; I mean, the camera was shooting gavel to gavel. But I still wanted them to know that this is going to be a film, it’s going to be large.

Whereas with [the rock band] Journey, these guys were savvy, except for Arnel [the new singer].

Arnel was not savvy, which is why he made such a great character. The rest were savvy to a point, because I thought they’d be so used to cameras around, but they were not. It was explained to me this way, which never occurred to me, that they came of age – or they reached the height of their popularity – pre-MTV. And MTV was the one that sort of demystified backstage life and being on the bus. For Journey, that was after their time so, to them, the tour bus, the backstage and the dressing rooms were still sacrosanct. It was still just their inner circle that could go in and, you know …

So you brought the modern era to them, Ramona …

 Well … it was very difficult, and I would try to explain to them that this is a camera, and aren’t you guys used to this? And they were like, fly on the wall, why do we still see you? Well, that’s a metaphor, we are not really flies on the wall, so it was a constant negotiation.

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Well, speaking of access, and speaking of fly on the wall, I want to talk about your latest film, Motherland. What is it about, and how did the idea come to you?

Motherland is a film about the Fabella Memorial Hospital, in the Philippines, which is one of the busiest maternity hospitals in the world. At its peak, every 24 hours, they deliver 100 babies. And it’s a purely immersive film: it just drops you in the middle of the hospital and you sort of have to sink or swim and figure out where things are, who the characters are, and … they emerge. But it takes a little bit of time and work. So I always refer to it as “relief sculpture.” You know, not freestanding. Don’t Stop was freestanding, right? Obviously, it was about Arnel. In this film, the story comes into relief very slowly. Not until about 15 minutes into the film do I really introduce characters, and you realize, oh, OK, they’ll come back, they’re recurring. We’re following them. So it’s very experiential, truly vérité, truly observational. There are no voiceovers …

There are no interviews …

 There are no interviews!

It’s very different from your other films.

 Very. But I always wanted to make this kind of film. The Learning started out like this, but then we ended up interviewing the four characters.

So … the film is completed?

The film is completed.

And when will the general audience be able to see it?

Next year, on Public Television.

So now that that film is done, I know you are working on another one. Could you describe that one?

This one I haven’t yet fully fleshed out, but it turns out that now I’m doing a trilogy. So Motherland was the first of a trilogy about Catholicism in the Philippines. The second film is about exorcism within the Catholic Church. There is a Department of Exorcism in the Archdiocese of Manila, and they are expanding, because they need more exorcists, because there are a lot of cases. My plan is to follow three cases …

A triptych for your trilogy …

There you go. Three cases that go through the whole process. Because there are lawyers, there are psychiatrists. I think it is a concession to the modern age that they have lawyers and psychiatrists, to determine whether it is really the devil or are they mentally ill. So they go through this whole process, and I want to follow that process. But I don’t know what form it’s taking yet. Because I’m pushing, in terms of form. Motherland was completely observational, and this … I love [French experimental filmmaker] Chris Marker and his Sans Soleil, so I think there might be parts of essay doc in it, and observational … So I haven’t quite fully figured it out in my head yet. But it is about exorcism.

And do you know what the third leg of the trilogy will be?

No. It’ll come to me.

But it will also be set in the Philippines and have something to do with the Catholic Church.

Yes.

So is the hospital in Motherland a Catholic hospital?

No, it is not. It’s the biggest public maternity hospital. But the film has to do with the influence of the Catholic Church on the women. 85% of Filipinos are Catholic. So you see much imagery, even if it’s a public hospital. There’s so much Christian iconography in the hospital. We have a lot of shots of that.

Plus, that has a direct bearing on whether or not the women use birth control.

Exactly.

One of the nurses in the film is, in fact, berating one of the women for not using birth control.

Right.

Well, I’ve seen a rough cut of Motherland, and I thought it was brilliant. Thank you very much for your time, Ramona. I look forward to seeing your future films!

Thank you! This was great!

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Author Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a filmmaker, film critic and Chair of the Department of Film & Moving Image at Stevenson University.

Stay tuned, then for Ramona Diaz’s upcoming Motherland in the next year. In the meantime, you can watch Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey on Netflix and iTunes, and find information on her other films at her website and in the hyperlinked movie titles within this interview.

Photo Credits: CineDiaz and Leon Alesi