Ramona S. Diaz desperately wants to make a narrative feature film, one where she can structure events the way she wants and have people say what she wants them to say. But the award-winning documentaries she keeps putting out there are always getting in the way.
“I’m to the point where I’ve got to write my own screenplay,” the Baltimore-based filmmaker says in mock exasperation over the phone from Austin, Texas, where she and her crew are putting the finishing touches on her latest documentary, “A Thousand Cuts,” scheduled to have its premiere Jan. 25 at the Sundance Film Festival. “I need to put words in people’s mouths and film that way. It will be so satisfying.”
No doubt. But until that happens, audiences will keep having to endure such immersive, insightful documentaries as 2004′s “Imelda,” a revealing visit with former Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos; 2017′s “Motherland,” an astonishing and often heartbreaking exploration of a Manila maternity ward, the world’s busiest; and “A Thousand Cuts,” the dueling stories of Philippines strongman president, Rodrigo Duterte, and Maria Ressa, a journalist determined to hold his feet to the fire.
All six of the documentaries Diaz has directed (including 1996′s “Spirits Rising,” done while earning a master’s degree in communications from Stanford University) have dealt with her native Philippines. All have earned Diaz critical acclaim, including a 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship, an Independent Spirit Award nomination for “Motherland,” multiple showings at Sundance (and at the Maryland Film Festival, where she serves on the board) and an Audience Award from the 2013 Palm Springs International Film Festival, for her rock documentary, “Don’t Stop Believin': Everyman’s Journey.”
And in all her docs, Diaz has showcased a compassion for her subjects that’s unmistakable, but which resolutely refuses to overwhelm the story. Her films hold up a mirror on their subjects, letting them tell their stories without proselytizing. Audiences may end up moved by Diaz’s work, but that’s because of what they bring to the films. Diaz has enough confidence in her subjects to let their stories unfold without layering her own views on top of them; audiences’ sympathies, pro or con, are honestly earned.
“I love documentaries because I don’t know where the story’s going to take me, and that’s really exciting,” she says. “I get to immerse myself in people’s lives, that I otherwise would never either meet or know about.”
Diaz, who lives in Mount Washington and admits only to being in her mid-50s, has been in Baltimore since 2003, when her then-husband accepted a position at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health (they have since divorced). A graduate of Boston’s Emerson College, she started out as a photographer, happily capturing images of the world around her. Moving from that to making documentaries, she says, was a natural progression.
“I was never into portraiture," Diaz says. "I loved just roaming the streets and taking photographs.”
After graduating from Emerson, she headed for Los Angeles, getting a job as a writing assistant on the TV series “Remington Steele.” That was in the mid-1980s, a time of great tumult in the Philippines, when longtime dictator Ferdinand Marcos reluctantly ceded power to Corazon “Cory” Aquino following a disputed election. Anxious to see for herself what was going on in her homeland — “I mean, the Marcoses had left, what was that like?" — she flew back.
“That’s when I got interested in documentary filmmaking,” she says. “There was so much happening in the streets. Press freedom, there wasn’t that for many many years. And suddenly, everybody was free to talk. It was amazing.”
One result of her return to the Philippines was “Spirits Rising,” a look at women’s role in the 1986 People Power uprising that led to the Marcoses downfall. That film included a brief interview with Imelda Marcos, she says — an interview that seemed to be all audiences wanted to talk about. Diaz received permission to interview Marcos more extensively. The result was her first commercially released feature, “Imelda," where the star proved to be as much its subject’s legendary extravagances, most famously a massive wardrobe including thousands of pairs of shoes, as the former first lady herself.
“People are just interested in anti-heroes, people who behave badly,” Diaz says, looking to explain both the film’s popularity and the enduring fascination with Marcos. While Diaz says her subject was initially OK with the film (“She had a few things she didn’t like, but she was ready to let it go”), Marcos ended up suing and obtained a restraining order to prevent it from being shown in the Philippines. Marcos ultimately lost the case and the movie was shown in Manila.
Following “Imelda," Diaz directed 2011′s “The Learning,” about a group of Filipino women recruited to teach in Baltimore public schools; “Don’t Stop Believin',” chronicling Filipino singer Arnel Pineda’s selection as the new lead singer for the rock band Journey (“Now I know what it’s like to be a roadie,” she says with a laugh); and 2017′s “Motherland,” a fly-on-the-wall exploration of Manila’s Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital, featuring scores of women, most poor and many unprepared for what lies ahead, checking into a maternity ward where the level of activity never falls below hectic. With no narration, Diaz’s camera roams through the ward, capturing these women’s lives to an amazingly personal, and judgment-free, degree.
“I try not to think of my films in terms of ‘message,’” Diaz says. “To me, it’s always the process of thinking, of trying to figure it out in my film. I don’t necessarily want you to come away with my point of view...I want you to experience something.”
That holds true of her latest work. “A Thousand Cuts,” she says, arose in part from her puzzlement over current events in the Philippines, where President Duterte’s iron-fisted rule has reportedly left hundreds of suspected criminals, often suspected of petty crimes or illicit drug use, dead. She went into the project, Diaz says, disturbed and puzzled.
“Why does Duterte have, like, a 75 percent approval rating? Why do people still love him, when people are getting killed in the streets? What is that about? It’s something that’s incredibly difficult to understand. And yet, it’s also something that’s happening worldwide, right?"
Currently racing to put the final touches on “A Thousand Cuts" in time for its Sundance premiere — more than 700 hours of film had to be whittled down to about 110 minutes — Diaz insists she’s still nervous about every film she makes, still anticipates her audiences’ reaction with “some amount of dread, yes. You never know how a film is going to land.”
Still, she’s sure of one thing. Her next project is going to be that narrative film she’s wanted to make for so long. Unless something else comes up.
“Yeah, I’m still talking about that narrative,” Diaz says. “But then, there’s always something that catches my eye.”