| Front Page | In This Week's Issue | Subscribe | Special | Archive | About AsianWeek |
July 5-11, 1996
A new film documents the role of women in Philippine history
WOMEN'S HISTORY: In Spirit's Rising, filmmaker Ramona Diaz tells the story of the changing roles of women in Philippine history, including during the People's Power movement in 1986. photo by Henry Woon
by Bert Eljera
It was a scene flashed on television screens around the world that summer afternoon on Aug. 21, 1993. A grim-faced Ninoy Aquino, a former senator and staunch critic of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, was led down a side door of a China Airlines plane after it touched down at the Manila International Airport.
There was commotion in the plane. Press photographers and reporters scuffled with soldiers as they tried to follow the group. Off camera, a woman screamed, followed by several gunshots. "Heís dead," a woman said. A man swore. Then, Aquino was shown sprawled in a pool of his own blood on the airport tarmac. Two uniformed soldiers hauled the limp body into a van, and quickly sped away. The footage of Aquinoís assassination is one of the most dramatic scenes in Ramona Diazís Spirits Rising, an hour-long documentary that blends striking cinematography with archival footage to tell an epic tale: the role of women in Philippine history.
Although itís Diazís first full-length documentary-it was her masterís thesis at Stanford University-the film has extraordinary range and has won rave reviews from film critics as well as some prestigious awards. The documentary won the 1996 Student Academy Award-the student "Oscar"-from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the Golden Gate Award at this yearís San Francisco International Film Festival. It has been exhibited in several film festivals around the Bay Area and this month will be shown at the New York Asian American Film Festival.
"Itís a story never been told before," said Diaz, who is based in Los Angeles, but is now in San Francisco working on another film project. "I just wanted to tell this story."
The film chronicles the rise and fall of the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines and the emergence of Corazon Aquino, Ninoyís widow, as the first Filipina president-but with a twist.
Itís told in the historical context of Filipina women coming to the forefront in times of crisis, which explains why Corazon Aquino, a homemaker content with raising the Aquino children, became the political figure that toppled Marcos.
With captivating scenes of rural Philippines and centuries-old religious practices, the film tells the story of the babaylans, the women priestesses who held tremendous powers in Philippine villages before the coming of the Spaniards; of Maria Clara, the idealized Filipina image of the obedient daughter and dutiful wife; and of Gabriela Silang, a fiery revolutionary leader who was beheaded by the Spaniards.
But, clearly, the filmís highlights are the interviews with Corazon Aquino and Imelda Marcos, two feisty women who wielded real power, not simply because of their husbands.
Imelda Marcos, for instance, tells of the dramatic moments when her family left the Malacanang Palace for a life as exiles in Hawaii. She said leaving the Philippines was Marcosí best decision in nearly four decades as a politician.
Of her own life, Imelda, now a member of the Philippine Congress, said, "Itís full of the truly joyful and the truly painful. Itís really a life of agony and ecstasy." was not in the Philippines when the Marcoses fell from power. "Through my film I wanted to experience that moment vicariously," she said.
She said the film is generally intended for Western audiences. "I didnít want to preach to the converted-not that the film is preachy-but I want American audiences to see those events from a historical perspective."
That goal was accomplished "marvelously," according to Debbie Hoffmann, a San Francisco-based documentary director and producer, who won an Oscar in 1994 for her documentary, Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter.
"Itís a very strong piece and I absolutely loved it," said Hoffmann, reached by phone last week in Washington, D.C., where she was on a business trip. "She was very bold in choosing to focus on women and structure [the film] between time periods. It would have made me nervous. I donít know if it would succeed. But it did."
She said the story was told from a womanís point of view, which added a hard edge to the story line.
Diaz and an all-female crew shot the film in Manila in 1993, and survived the cityís notorious power failures, noise, and traffic congestion to finish the project in a month.
"It was very challenging," said Katie Cadigan, a classmate of Diaz at Stanford who worked on the film as a sound person. "We were on an incredibly short schedule."
But the fact that they were an all-female crew worked to their advantage, Cadigan said. Corazon Aquino, out of office at the time, was thrilled that women were doing the film, she said, and warmly consented to the interview.
"It was an extraordinary experience to learn about the women of the Philippines," said Cadigan, who was born in South Africa and grew up in France and the United States.
An independent filmmaker in Los Angeles, her documentary about her mentally ill brother, Out of My Mind, won the International Documentary Association Student Award last year.
A husband-and-wife team, Socorro de Castro and Norman Landsberg of San Francisco, provided the musical score, which incorporated Philippine indigenous musical instruments, such as the kulintang, metal gongs of various sizes struck with a mallet to produce a tune.
"Bayan Ko," a Filipino folk song that became the anthem during the anti-Marcos protest marches, is sung by Ceres Jacinto, who lives in the Bay Area.
The film, however, bears the political viewpoint of Diaz, who was born to a middle-class family in Manila. It portrays the matrons of Forbes Park, a wealthy enclave in Makati, a suburb of Manila, as the leading force against Marcos.
It does not mention workers, farmers, professionals, and student organizations, including womenís groups that fought against the Marcos dictatorship.
"It lacks working-class perspective," said Victoria Urbi, director of the Bay Area chapter of Filipino Civil Rights Advocates. "It seems like only a small group of people were involved, but a lot more people participated."
Urbi said it was wrong to focus only on the upper middle-class and gloss over the broad mass of people who fought against Marcos. "But it was refreshing that it was a woman who made the documentary," she said. "It provided a different perspective from the conventional male filmmakers."
Diaz, who is working on a PBS documentary, Cadillac Desert, about the quest for water in the American West, acknowledges the filmís limitations.
"I could have added more to the historical snippets," Diaz said. "I could have told the story in more detail. But this is not the last word on Filipino women. Many more films will be made. I just made one of them."
But because it was a student film, with limited resources, it was daunting, she said. Diaz declined to say how much the film cost, but indicated that she had to raise funds in the Philippines to finish the movie.
Someday, Diaz wants to produce and direct commercial films, in the mold of Martin Scorcese, whom she admires. But for now, sheís content with being able to hone her craft by directing documentaries and working with some of the best in the business.
"I had always loved films since I can remember," said Diaz. "I have my future ahead of me. Letís see what happens."
In the Bay Area, Spirits Rising will air July 9 at 8 p.m. and July 12 at 11 p.m. on KCSM-TV Public Television (Channel 60) as part of a series of Bay Area women directors. In other areas, check local public television listings.