Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s limitless horizons

Pia Ranada

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She saw Philippine history as a rich mine for plots and stories and, with her brilliance, made them relevant to today

THE PHOTO OF DIAZ-Abaya beside her coffin. All photos by Pia Ranada.

MANILA, Philippines – Towering bouquets of white flowers line the first floor corridor of Gonzaga Hall leading to the Ateneo chapel where lie the remains of multi-awarded film and TV director Marilou Diaz-Abaya.

Just beside the glass doors to the chapel is a registry filled with big names from the film industry, media, music industry and the academe. But there were also names of students, fans of her work, people from all walks of life touched by the stories she told. 

It was just like any other hot, sunlight-stricken day inside the chapel. Diaz-Abaya’s coffin is not even apparent when one walks in because it is at the right side of the chapel, leaving the center for the altar and crucifix.

Even in death, the acclaimed director did not wish to hog the limelight, preferring to be behind the scenes. 

Filling the chapel like the cheerful chirping of birds enlivening a forest is the chatter of her friends, family and admirers, making one feel that the wake was more like a get-together of good friends.

In death, as in her immortal films, Diaz-Abaya made known to all the saving power of positivity and human intimacy in times of sadness and difficulty.

Beside her coffin, perhaps left over from the previous Mass, is a Bible verse scribbled on a standing board: “Go out to all the world and tell the Good News.”

It is a line that succinctly and powerfully encapsulates Diaz-Abaya’s impact on Filipinos. Through her brilliance in directing and telling stories, she spread the good news about the redeeming virtues of human kinship and the nobility of self-sacrifice made by people from all walks of life.

She was a shining beacon that shed light on previously-ignored social issues and created films that not only made an impact on ratings and box office profits but on the Filipino consciousness as well.

Her work

Diaz-Abaya is perhaps most remembered for her iconic film, Jose Rizal (1998), that stars Cesar Montano as the national hero.

The film was an elegant tribute not only to the hero but to the man, doctor, son, brother and husband that was Rizal. She would soon cast Cesar Montano in another highly-acclaimed masterpiece, Muro Ami (1999), a film that shed light on one of the worst forms of child labor and illegal fishing in the country. 

Bagong Buwan was yet another opus that melded cinematic artistic excellence and socio-political issues. The 2001 film depicted the suffering of Filipino Muslims in Mindanao caused by the war between the Philippine government under former President Joseph Estrada and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

In her early years as a director, she gave us 3 of the most powerful films to depict feminist issues against the backdrop of the Martial Law era: Moral (1982), Karnal (1983) and Alyas Baby Tsina (1984).

Her legacy

With a mind and vision like hers, there is no limit to the kinds of films she would have bestowed our country with if she had not fallen ill.

In an article by, Ricky Lee, an iconic screenplay writer himself and writer of many of Diaz-Abaya’s films, shares that the director had been brewing film ideas before she got sick and had to turn over the scripts to him.

One is a bio-pic about Juan Luna, the great Filipino painter and ilustrado, infamous for his literally murderous temper yet admired the world over for his artistic genius.

Another of Diaz-Abaya’s unrealized (at least for now) film scripts takes us to World War II seen through the eyes of Maria Rosa Henson, one of the first Filipinas to speak about the suffering she had to endure as a comfort woman.

These two unfinished scripts make it apparent Diaz-Abaya’s legacy to Philippine cinema. Her movies and the movies she would have created look to the past to enlighten the present and prepare for the future.

She saw Philippine history as a rich mine for plots and stories and, with her brilliance, made them relevant to today. Let’s hope that the film directors we have now will follow her shining example.

THE CORRIDOR LEADING TO the Ateneo chapel in Gonzaga Hall, venue of Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s wake

Looking to a horizon

The photo of Diaz-Abaya beside her coffin befits the visionary she was in life.

With her back against a glittering seascape, she faces us yet looks far away, as if towards a horizon more resplendent than what she has left behind. Half her face is in shadow, the other is bathed in a light of benediction. 

But one thing is for certain: In the arena of film and storytelling, she has made our horizons limitless. –

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at