When Ramona Met Imelda

A Baltimore filmmaker's award-winning documentary about the former first lady of the Philippines is both personal and political.

July 19, 2004|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

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.

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