‘I’ve Learned to Rock the Boat’: Ramona Diaz on Bold Storytelling

A Filipina American film director wearing a pink scarf and black blazer
Ramona Diaz is unapologetic. While filming her latest documentary in the Philippines, she boldly wears pink, the color of progressive candidate Leni Robredo's presidential campaign, amidst the Marcos dynasty's resurgence. This defiance, born from a childhood under martial law, fuels her documentary films that uncovers truths that linger in the shadows.

Ramona Diaz is unapologetic.

While filming her latest documentary, And So It Begins, in the remote northern province of Abra, Philippines, the multi-award winning filmmaker wore pink, the campaign color of progressive presidential candidate Leni Robredo.

Robredo’s rival, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, is the son of the former dictator, whose bid for president was the resurrection of a political dynasty many in this region waited three decades years for.

And So It Begins is CAAMFest’s Closing Night film on May 18, a fitting closing to a festival whose curator describes as, “Lifting Truths in Our Stories.” 

And that’s what Diaz does. Diaz was respectful to the local community, whom she called “wonderful, hospitable people” who fed her and her film crew, but also wanted to be transparent about which way her political leanings swayed while embedded in Robredo’s campaign for the film.

A Filipina woman in a pink shirt reaches out to a full crowd of supports who have their arms reaching up towards her
Leni Robredo in the new documentary by Ramona Diaz, “And So It Begins.”

The residents of Abra fondly remember martial law in the 1970s and 80s as a golden era, a time when roads were paved and jobs were plentiful. 

Diaz admitted it took a lot not to argue with them.

“Because accepting my premise of hidden wealth and corruption [of Marcos’ martial law] would rock their world. Then they’ll have to reckon with it. And they haven’t for 30 years. They’re not about to now,” Diaz said in an interview. 

Defiance in the face of adversity is something the Guggenheim fellow only found later in life, as she and her six siblings also grew up during martial law themselves in a “bubble.” There was no freedom of the press and if you wanted the truth about what was happening politically, you had to go “underground.”

Diaz’ mother was a homemaker and father was a numismatist (coin collector), who supported his daughter’s love of the visual medium by buying her a camera and taking her to see foreign films at the Alliance Française, where at aged 12 or 13, she wanted to become a director, thanks to Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night – a film about filmmaking.

I thought, ‘wow,’ it seems so…romantic, like it was camp for adults,” she said.

It was only when she left the Philippines to attend college in the U.S. that she saw, for the first time, the truth about martial law. She read about the political suppression, human rights abuses, and hidden wealth of president Ferdinand Marcos Sr., First Lady Imelda Marcos, and their allies who plundered an estimated $10 billion in public funds while much of the country lived in abject poverty. An estimated $4 billion was only ever recovered.

As a newcomer to the U.S., Diaz was amazed at the absolute freedom of speech people had in America versus in the Philippines, where people self-censor their truths in order to keep the peace amongst the community.

When I came here, people would just speak their mind. I’m like, ‘What?!’” she exclaimed.“But I’ve learned to rock the boat. So sometimes I just say whatever and take the consequences.”

After graduating from Emerson College, Diaz had a stint working as an assistant in the writers room of Remington Steele, a sleek TV spy thriller from the 80s starring Pierce Brosnan. 

Diaz returned to the Philippines around 1987, when Marcos was overthrown by the People’s Power Revolution and the excitement of a new world was palpable on the streets of Manila. 

She noticed a change in the way people were more open about politics. “People wanted to talk about their experiences,” Diaz said, and it was at that moment she decided to pursue documentary filmmaking. While studying for her Masters at Stanford, Diaz began working on her student film, Spirits Rising. It didn’t take long for the industry to start to take notice of the Filipina with the singular vision, including CAAM’s Don Young, Director of Programs, then a budding film programmer.

“I vividly remember people are like, ‘Let’s give her the support because we really think that she just has a voice,’” Young said. “People could get a sense that she was a filmmaker to be reckoned with.”

Diaz has the capability to captivate an audience in a high-stakes conversation between the Philippines and the United States, Young added, with the ability to bring viewers into the Philippines’ point of view, but always with a global audience in mind. 

Amongst Diaz’s many skills as a documentarian is her access. She does this by building in time to develop relationships and trust with her participants, or main characters, in her films. To be a fly on the wall as a filmmaker takes time. “You have to budget time,” Diaz said.-

Diaz talked extensively about developing Motherland, which she says is her favorite film of hers because it was “pure vérité,” a film about an overpopulated and underfunded maternity ward in Manila, where up to four pregnant mothers share one bed as they’re about to give birth, or in recovery from delivery. The film received a special jury award at Sundance.

“I’m really drawn to characters because I’m drawn to behavior,” Diaz said. “I love observing behavior through the lens of the camera.”

She comes into the lives of her characters at watershed moments: when Arnel Pineda is about to become lead singer of Journey (Don’t Stop Believin’), when Nobel prize-winning journalist Maria Ressa is about to be arrested (A Thousand Cuts), and when Filipino immigrants leave their families behind to start their first year of teaching (The Learning).

“I love entering their lives at those really important moments because story will happen,” Diaz said.

After nearly three decades as a professional filmmaker, Diaz says that working with and meeting emerging filmmakers keeps her inspired. Diaz has given back to the filmmaking community, including mentoring younger Asian American filmmakers through CAAM’s Fellowship program.

Amongst her future projects, she plans to make a foray into fiction and is in the early stages of a film, but couldn’t disclose more information about it. What we do know is that Ramona Diaz has been driven by telling stories about society and culture through examining her homeland, the Philippines.  “I haven’t been able to let go, nor has it let go of me either,” Diaz said.

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And So It Begins is CAAMFest’s Closing Night film on Saturday, May 18 at 6:30pm at SF MOMA’s Phyllis Wattis Theatre. To buy tickets, visit CAAMFest.com