Starweek Magazine

A RAMONA DIAZ & IMELDA MOVIE larger than life

- Dina Sta. Maria -
It’s a happy ending after all. Sort of. The public will finally get to see the much talked about Imelda, the documentary that is making news the world over, that has aroused curious interest among a public currently caught in the web of Spiderman and a hostage crisis in Iraq. Like it or not, Imelda Romual-dez Marcos is the best thing to happen to Filipino-American filmmaker Ramona Diaz, her film and its distributor Unitel Productions. For not only is Imelda a tantalizing subject, by filing a much-publicized case to stop the local showing of the film she has given it publicity beyond what it would have generated on its own. With her suit–and her characteristic tearful and dramatic court appearances–hitting the headlines not just locally but over international media, the interest over the film has reached fever pitch. With the dismissal of the petition for injunction, Unitel now intends to release the film in theaters this week.

There’s nothing like controversy to get the interest going, but exactly how controversial is the film? Those who have seen it say there is nothing really new or explosive: "As a documentary that digs for new political dirt, however, ‘Imelda’ offers no new revelations," assesses The New York Times review by Stephen Holden.

The film clips of Mrs. Marcos with world leaders from Richard Nixon to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, of her partying with the rich, famous and infamous of the world–George Hamilton serenading her with "We can’t give you anything but love" for example–have all been seen before, shown and reshown on television in the months and years following their fall in 1986, when the revelation of the extent of her extravaganzes really shocked.

What is new is an in-depth and extended interview that Diaz did with Imelda, going around with her and filming over three weeks in May 1998, to her hometown in Leyte, to Ilocos province where she poses before husband Ferdinand’s embalmed corpse, to her high rise digs in Makati, to her "motorized powder puff" van "careening through the streets of downtown Manila" (according to The Village Voice). Diaz admits that she came out of that experience realizing that Imelda totally lives in "a bubble", in a world that is all her own, impervious to the reality outside that sanitized environment. By all accounts, the docu-film is seen as fair and balanced, even bordering on being soft on the subject. "At first," writes Peter Vonder Haar in Film Threat, "one almost suspects Diaz wanted to portray Imelda as a sympathetic figure..."

But the final product, eight years in the making, mainly allows Imelda to tell her story, to say it the way she sees it. Says Diaz, "I wanted to give her her say in a film that is balanced, that would be fair to her and fair to the situation. "

Diaz insists that she did not set out to "make a tabloid film... I did not set out to malign her (but) to get behind the caricature...and give her a humanity that’s never been seen before." She also wanted to "take a look at the milieu that enabled a person like Imelda Marcos to thrive." She clarifies, however, that her interest was in "Imelda the character, her complexities and contradictions and ultimately, her universality" and not in producing "a historical film of the Philippines under the Marcos regime".

The filmmaker first met her subject when she was doing a graduate thesis for Stanford University on the women of the 1986 People Power Revolution. That project, Spirits Rising, went on to win a Golden Gate Award from the San Francisco International Film Festival, a Gold Apple from the National Education Media Network, the Ida Lupino Directors’ Guild of America Award, among others. It was aired on public television in the U.S. and Australia.

Explains Diaz: "Growing up in the Philipines, Imelda Marcos loomed larger than life. Her every move was chronicled in the government-controlled newspapers. Not a day went by in the ’70s and early ’80s when one didn’t hear what the peripatetic Philippine First Lady was up to... When I left the Philippines to study in the United States in 1981, I hadn’t known any other president aside from Ferdinand Marcos."

She recalls of her first meeting with Imelda: "When I met Mrs. Marcos in 1993, it was surreal. I can almost compare it to meeting a figment of my childhood imagination. Before the interview, I was told that it was to last no more than 15 minutes and I was not to ask her about the events of 1986. Five hours later, we were still at her apartment suite high above Manila and she had told me about ‘that fateful night in 1986’. I did not ask her about it; she had volunteered the story. She was charming and humorous on the one hand, self-absorbed and crafty on the other. I was surprised and, in a sense, ashamed at how much I enjoyed her company. It was uncomfortable given all the stories I heard growing up–the corruption, the human rights abuses, the legacy of poverty spawned by the Marcos regime. I wanted to examine this duality of attraction and repulsion further. Thus the idea for the film Imelda was born."

Getting funding for the film was more difficult than one would think, given the subject. But Diaz explains that while fascinating, Imelda is seen as "a woman whose time has come and gone". Funding finally came from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Soros Documentary Fund.

There is a real if grudging admiration for the legendary figure when Diaz says that "people may not know where the Philippines is, but they known Imelda Marcos and her 3,000 pairs of shoes". She replies to a question after a thoughtful pause, "Imelda would have been somebody on her own, even without Ferdinand Marcos. It’s an easy explanation to say that she is a ‘creature’, but she’s not–she’s smart, very savvy... No one misleads Mrs. Marcos; she knows exactly what she’s doing."

Diaz wrote Imelda in December 2003 to tell her that the film was finished and that it had been accepted at the Sundance Film Festival, one of the most important festivals in the world founded by Robert Redford. She also invited Imelda, who was reportedly "delighted" at the news of its winning the Best Cinematography Award, to the festival.

Diaz was thus "caught by surprise" to learn that Imelda was seeking to stop the public showing of the film. When asked if she had sent a copy of the finished film to Imelda, Diaz answered, "She was handed a bootleg copy."

While boosting interest in both the film and the filmmaker, Ramona Diaz may rue the fact that she might henceforth be associated with Imelda and the controversy the film engendered. That would be a pity really, because Diaz is, by critical acclaim, a fine filmmaker, with a sensitivity and skill to make insightful and probing films. She is currently negotiating to option a book, a Filipino story, for her next project, which will be a feature film. "But that’s not to say I won’t be doing documentaries on Filipinos anymore," she is quick to add, admitting with a mischievous smile that there is a particular persona that would make an interesting film, but she’s not mentioning names. "There are many great Filipino stories to be told," she insists.

An admirer of Indian filmmaker Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding), Diaz worked on the television series Remington Steele (starring Pierce Brosnan) and for Mary Tyler Moore Productions and Lorimar Productions. She also line produced and edited the award-winning television documentary series about Filipino immigrants in America and Europe entitled Apple Pie, Patis, Paté, atbp.

She lives in Baltimore with her husband, a college professor ("the one with the adult job," she jokes), and family.

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