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When Ramona Met Imelda


At 3 a.m. last Monday, filmmaker Ramona Diaz, asleep in her Baltimore home, received what she terms "a friendly call from 'a friend'" of Imelda Marcos. The former first lady of the Philippines was willing to make a deal, the caller said: If Diaz agreed not to call her documentary about the widow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos a "documentary," she would drop her effort to block its release in the Philippines.

Almost simultaneously, though, a Philippine court threw out the request for the ban because Marcos had given permission in 1996 for the film's release. In court, she had argued that Diaz led her to believe that the film was a student project not intended for release.

"It was a very odd request," says Diaz, particularly because Marcos' suit was filed against the film's distributor, not against her personally. "I don't see the endgame here."

Whether or not her sally made sense, it was just like the ever-crafty Imelda to try to beat the judge to the punch, Diaz realizes. She knows the woman too well by now to be shocked by her audacity.

Over a salad at Starbucks in Mount Washington last week, Diaz, 41, marveled at the circuitous path that led her into the life of the notorious Marcos, who was little more than a glamorous abstraction during the filmmaker's Manila childhood. Only after she left the Philippines and peered at her native country through a camera lens, did Diaz realize the enigmatic Imelda's potential as a documentary subject.

Now, with the film's success as well as its aura of controversy, Diaz finds herself in constant conversation about the 75-year-old legend, her grandiose delusions and shrewd intelligence. At screenings from Washington, D.C., to New Zealand to Greece, Diaz has become the go-to authority on the former "muse of Manila," who still sees herself as her nation's matriarch of beauty, salvation and philosophy, in spite of the billions of dollars she and her husband are thought to have taken from Philippine coffers.

Imelda Marcos, whom Diaz calls "bigger than life" remains a compelling figure. A sold-out audience applauded and cheered after a Friday night screening of Diaz' documentary in Washington and stayed for a Q&A; session with the filmmaker.

"For better or for worse, she is the best known Filipino in the world," Diaz told viewers.

"She's very smart. She's very aware of her image and she plays that naive woman role to her advantage. She's a very complex character," she said. "I'm not an investigative journalist. I am not an historian. I am a filmmaker. She is narrating her own personal history. Whether you choose to believe her is up to you."

Diaz said she did anticipate trouble during the filmmaking. Knowing that Marcos, would likely have reservations about the final version of the documentary, Diaz said she remembered telling her subject, "'This is not a valentine, but this is not going to be a hit piece either.' It wouldn't be soundbites, but that she would have her say. I told her it can't be a propaganda film."

In the end, Marcos protested the "invasion of her privacy," Diaz said. "But she really didn't mind the film, she said ... except for all the other voices in there."

Marcos' legal action came as the movie was already receiving good reviews at film festivals around the world and in theaters across the United States. It earned a cinematography award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Marcos managed to receive a temporary restraining order that canceled the film's July 7 opening in Manila.

A big buzz

As posters promoting the event were torn down throughout the sprawling city, Diaz appeared on endless television talk shows, conferred with her lawyer, testified as a witness in court and watched as her side of the story crept from entertainment news to Page 1A in the Philippines' boisterous press. The film is now scheduled to debut in Manila today and nationwide three days from now.

Diaz had just returned to Baltimore from Manila, where she had planned to attend the film's opening, when Marcos' "friend" called with the settlement offer.

Marcos' effort to quash the film "was very unpopular," Diaz said. "People were supporting us. [Their thought was,] 'We won this battle 18 years ago,'" when the Marcoses were forced from power. 'We can't have this discussion again.'"

Diaz left the Philippines at age 17 to study film at college in the United States; it was the early 1980s, during Ferdinand Marcos' authoritarian regime. But Diaz was more or less oblivious to how Marcos' martial law had ravaged freedom of speech in her country. Nor did Diaz, who calls herself a "Marcos baby," fully comprehend the deprivation and neglect suffered by so many Filipinos.

Diaz, her parents and five siblings lived in Makati, an affluent Manila neighborhood, where, "I grew up in a bubble," she says. Aside from visiting an orphanage once a week with her convent-school classmates, Diaz had little exposure to the deep poverty that pervades the Philippines. "I suppose I knew what was happening in a very cerebral manner," she says.

Today, as she looks repeatedly to her native country for inspiration, Diaz has a much more visceral understanding of the lives of ordinary Filipinos. On her recent visit, she met with aspiring filmmakers at the University of the Philippines, working-class or poor students whose fathers drive passengers in Jeepneys and tricycles, or perhaps haul cargo in Iraq, to make a living. Diaz urged them to tell their stories. "You have something to say, but you have to say it well," she told them.

Now that she is finished with Imelda, she hopes to tell some of those stories as well - with what she calls a "Western sensibility."

Living in the United States affords Diaz a unique perspective, says Toni Tabora, media-fund director for the National Asian American Telecommunications Association, which has supported Diaz's work on Imelda with grants funded by the Corp. for Public Broadcasting.

"I think Ramona's very interesting," says Tabora, who is also Filipino. "She is very drawn to doing work about women in the Philippines," and yet, doesn't choose to be there, "even though there's a very deep connection."

Diaz's work is respected in the Philippines, where there is a "growing body of documentary work," Sheila S. Coronel, executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, says by e-mail. The filmmaker is "seen as someone who has done well outside the country and as someone Filipinos should be proud of," she says.

It took time and distance for Diaz to recognize that her own country was such fertile ground for an artist.

When she graduated from Emerson College in Boston, Diaz headed for Los Angeles. There, she found a job as a writer for the television detective drama Remington Steele. "That was the greatest gig after college," she says.

' 'Overwhelming'

After five years, though, Diaz was overwhelmed by a case of "existential angst." She remembers asking herself, "'Why am I on this show? What does it have to do with life?'"

It was then that she realized, "You can't just live your life in a bubble." At first, Diaz was daunted by her newly awakened social conscience about the Philippines. "When you start, it's very overwhelming," she says. "You're feeling like you'll never make a difference. There's so much poverty, and corruption is endemic."

When Diaz returned to Manila in 1986, the People Power uprising had driven the Marcoses into exile. The country brimmed with an exhilarating sense of possibility that erased Diaz's self-doubts. She took a job as a producer of a TV program that followed the lives of some of the millions of Filipino immigrants, "from professionals to domestics," who must leave their country to find work.

Then, again, she too left the Philippines, to attend graduate school at Stanford University's school of communications. Spirits Rising, her thesis film, was a portrait of the middle-class Filipino women who risked their lives and families to help topple Marcos.

Diaz first encountered Imelda Marcos while working on Spirits Rising. The documentary came together as funding allowed, while Diaz was living in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Rajiv Rimal, a public-health communications specialist.

Her first encounter with Imelda Marcos, a four-hour interview for Spirits Rising, persuaded Diaz to attempt a documentary about the dictator's widow, whom she found to be charming, unapologetic and dumb like a fox. Diaz's pregnancy coincided with her work on the Imelda project, and continued as her baby, Sabina, grew into a toddler and little girlhood.

For Sabina, now 7 1/2 , Imelda is a household name. During the documentary's final stretch, Sabina was "very exposed to the editing process" and even made a few suggestions, her mother says.

Time traveling

By the end of the month, Diaz will have crossed the international dateline four times to promote Imelda. It's worth the jet lag to spend time with Sabina, she says. And often, when she jets to the Netherlands or another distant place, she's met by one or more of her four sisters. At Sundance, Diaz was joined by 30 members of her extended family, in typical Filippino fashion. She dedicated Imelda to her late brother, J. Renato Diaz, who may have been the one person to question her unflinching look at such a powerful figure and worry about possible repercussions, she says.

Diaz and her immediate family have been in Baltimore, where Rimal is on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, barely a year. They are still in the "unpacked boxes and bare walls phase" of their move. "Am I ever going to see my toys again?" Sabina asked her mom not too long ago.

Diaz hopes to take a break next month, when the festivals and theatrical openings will taper off. She can unpack, and spend more time with Sabina, who attends Park School.

The filmmaker is also eager to get started on her new project in her basement office. It will be a film based on a work of fiction that Diaz cannot yet name, because details haven't been finalized. Naturally, though, it is a "Philippine story."

Staff writer Dan Thanh Dang contributed to this article.


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