Mt. Washington documentary filmmaker awarded a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship

Baltimore Messenger
Mt. Washington documentary filmmaker awarded a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship

Ramona Diaz remembers the moment during her college years that she realized she was destined to make movies.

"I was influenced by seeing Francois Truffaut's "Day for Night", a movie about a film director trying to get his movie made," said Diaz. "I was so enamored with it. It was such a romantic notion."

Diaz quickly switched her focus from photography to filmmaking and earned a master's degree in communication and documentary filmmaking from Stanford University.

Today Diaz, who was born in the Philippines and lives in Mt. Washington, is an award-winning documentary filmmaker known for her character-driven subjects that range from rock stars to dissidents.

Diaz is perhaps best known for her acclaimed documentary "Don't Stop Believin': Every Man's Journey" about the iconic 1980s rock band Journey and its new Filipino lead singer Arnel Pineda, whom the band discovered through YouTube.

Although Diaz had heard of the band Journey, she wasn't a diehard rock 'n' roll fan. Still, she was intrigued by Pineda's rags-to-riches story. After receiving an unsolicited email with a link to Pineda singing, Diaz was hooked.

"I met Arnel," said Diaz, whose films often spotlight Filipinos. "I knew he was a good person to have in a film. I really believed in him. He was what we call in the documentary world 'golden.'"

Diaz approached Journey's management about making a documentary. After submitting a a 10-minute test film, Diaz was given the green light by the band to make the movie.

"Don't Stop" opened in 2012 at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival and had its international premiere at the Dubai Film Festival. The film was also screened at the Charles Theatre in Baltimore in 2013.

"She [Diaz] is an amazing asset for filmmaking," said Baltimore producer Capella Fahoome, who worked with Diaz on "Don't Stop." "As a producer I get to work with a lot of directors. Ramona is a visionary; she immerses herself in her projects. She's very willing to share knowledge and resources."

"Anytime I see a filmmaker, especially a woman, it's inspiring," said Amy Kozak, a Baltimore filmmaker and head of the Baltimore Documentary Group.

Diaz has been a juror at major film festivals around the world, including South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, the San Francisco International Film Festival and the Silverdocs Film Festival in Silver Spring.

In 2011, public television aired Diaz's film "The Learning," a documentary inspired by a series of Baltimore Sun articles by former reporter Sara Neufeld. The film followed the lives of four Filipino women who reluctantly leave their home to teach in Baltimore City schools.

Earlier this year, Diaz was one of three Baltimoreans to receive a prestigious 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship, along with musician Neil Feather and Johns Hopkins University professor Mitchell B. Merback. The fellowships are awarded annually to writers, performers and artists with proven track records and "exceptional promise."

"I'm certainly honored," said Diaz, about receiving the award which comes with an undisclosed monetary award. "It helps me start my next film." Still, the award brings pressure. "I always feel like if someone's going to give you money you have to deliver," she said.

Manila dreams

Diaz credits her father with beginning her on the road to documentary filmmaking. "My first love was photography," said Diaz, who grew up during the reign of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. "My dad gave me my first camera. I got it in high school. It was such a big thing. I just loved the idea of capturing life on the streets in the Philippines. It was difficult because we were under martial law."

After coming to the United States for college, Diaz got an internship in Los Angeles with MTM, the company that produced "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and other television hits. "It was the golden age," recalled Diaz. "They were doing 'Hill Street Blues.'"

After graduation, she was offered a full-time job as a writer's assistant for the TV show "Remington Steele."

Diaz returned to the Philippines in 1986 after the revolution that deposed Marcos. "I wanted to go back. It was a formative time," she said. "After all those years of dictatorship it was a transcendent time in the Philippines. I was a martial law baby."

After working on a Philippine TV show producing segments about Filipinos living abroad, in 2003, Diaz produced the documentary "Imelda" about the former first lady of the Philippines. "Imelda" premiered at the vaunted Sundance Film Festival.

"I grew up with her [Imelda] as an image of a powerful woman," said Diaz. "But she was part of a regime that was much maligned."

How did she gain access to Imelda Marcos? "I asked her if I could make a film about her," said Diaz. "I had a feeling she was going to say 'yes.' In a way I think she missed the limelight. The idea for the film was letting Imelda speak her own words. I wasn't interested in doing a '60 Minutes' piece."

Diaz admitted that she asked Marcos about her noted collection of shoes. "You can't not," she said. "By then, there was already a museum of her shoes in the Philippines."

When Diaz's mother saw Marcos at the vaunted Sundance Film Festival, she told her daughter, "I understand what you do," the filmmaker recalled.

For the past three years, Diaz has served as a film envoy for the American Film Showcase, a joint program of the U.S. State Department and the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts that brings American films to audiences worldwide. Diaz has conducted master classes and production and post-production workshops all over the world, including in pre-Isis Iraq, Laos, Morocco and Northwestern University in Doha, Qatar.

Earlier this year, Diaz traveled to Brazil and Zimbabwe, where she met with filmmakers and film industry professionals. "We show them films they would otherwise not see," she said. "It's people-to-people diplomacy. We get together and talk about films. It's an exchange of ideas."

For her next project, Diaz will again return to her native Philippines to work "Motherland," a documentary about Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital in Manila, the busiest maternity hospital in the world.

"I wanted to make a film about the legislative process of a bill about reproductive health in the Philippines," said Diaz. "It's an immersive experience of the hospital. It's completely cinema verité. It's very different from everything I've done in the past. I aways wanted to make a film like that."

Working in the rarified film world, Diaz admits she is occasionally awed. "I worked with Robert Redford," said Diaz. "I was starstruck when I first met him — but not with the people I film."

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