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How Ramona Diaz’s Sundance docu on Robredo campaign transformed defeat into a new beginning

Ryan Oquiza

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How Ramona Diaz’s Sundance docu on Robredo campaign transformed defeat into a new beginning
'And So It Begins' offers a perceptive film that balances the high stakes of an election with the passionate change and radical love inspired by Leni's campaign

WASHINGTON, DC, USA — And So It Begins wasn’t supposed to be titled “And So It Begins. 

“It ends in a loss, right? We can’t change that,” director Ramona Diaz shared in a virtual interview with me from San Francisco. The defeat Diaz mentions, the topic of her new documentary, is undoubtedly familiar to many Filipinos — the loss of Leni Robredo in the 2022 presidential elections, a night that marked the return of a Marcos to Malacañang.

The working title was “This is How it Ends,” referencing the mix of hopelessness, despair, and profound sense of failure experienced by generations of freedom fighters witnessing the legacy of the People Power Revolution unravel. “During the edit, I was starting to feel like it can’t end on such a sour note because what’s the point, right? Can we end on something hopeful, like [what] Leni says?”

This recurring push-and-pull question about whether hope still exists becomes a central theme in Diaz’s latest documentary, which is featured in the Premieres section of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival — the same category that showcased films like Past Lives and Rye Lane last year. 

Diaz, no stranger to Sundance, had her documentary Imelda screened at the 2004 edition. That one focused on Imelda Marcos’s life after the ouster of her late husband and eerily foreshadowed a potential resurgence of power, concluding with scenes of Bongbong and Imee Marcos celebrating local election victories. 20 years later, scenes from that documentary would be repurposed and recontextualized in And So It Begins to scary and chillingly prescient effect. 

This time around, Diaz shifts her focus away from Imelda and the Marcoses, pointing the camera at LGBTQ+ performers, bike riders, journalists, and the thousands of ordinary citizens filling the streets for Leni.

“It’s such a spectacle [the elections in the Philippines], there’s so much singing and dancing, and I’ve always wanted to capture that.” Diaz said. “Nowhere else does that happen.”

Using never-before-seen footage of the Leni campaign, as well as insights from Rappler’s very own CEO, Maria Ressa, during the foreboding last years of the Duterte administration (which Diaz also covered in her previous documentary, A Thousand Cuts), And So It Begins offers a perceptive film that balances the high stakes of an election with the passionate change and radical love inspired by Leni’s campaign.

In this interview, I discuss with director Diaz her approach to uncovering the humanity of the 2022 elections, the pronounced divide between Marcos and Leni supporters, and the potential implications that the events of her film might have for democracies worldwide.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Do you see Imelda, A Thousand Cuts, and And So It Begins as sort of this spiritual trilogy that tells the story of the Marcoses coming back to power over the span of 20 years?

I definitely do. And So It Begins began in late 2020 to 2021 as a companion film to A Thousand Cuts. And really, it was because everyone was asking me, “So what’s happening to Maria Ressa? What’s next?” Always people say, “So how does it really end?” I said, we don’t know because these things take a long time, especially legal cases.

Since everyone kept asking me, “How does it end?” The working title of the film was “This Is How It Ends.” When I started doing the film, I thought of continuing Maria Ressa’s story, but sort of dovetailing it to whatever happens to the elections. So it was Maria’s story, the end of the Duterte regime, however that turned out, and that start of something, whatever that was.

And I thought it was going to be Leni [who would win]. And I didn’t know that Marcos was going to run then, you know? I thought it was going to be Leni, maybe Leni [and] Sara [Duterte]. Who knew, right? There was so much speculation. So as it turned out, the story unfolds and [Bongbong] Marcos becomes more prominent. Then it was evident to me. I’m like, my God, this is the last [film] of the trilogy.

20 years later, this is it. Although it’s not over yet, because now, in a way, Marcos is back in power, but it wasn’t thought of that way in the beginning. And that’s what’s so interesting about documentaries because you never know where it’s going to go. And I love just following the story wherever it takes me. It can take me to so many different places, then you hit upon forks in the road, and you choose where to go. 

It didn’t occur to me really until we were editing because I was having to go back to my film [Imelda] to cull some footage from it. So, I was referencing myself, my own work, and I’m like, my God, I’ve been doing this too long. 

How was it like as a documentary filmmaker catching these moments knowing that it’s definitely history in the making whether it be Leni winning or Marcos winning?

Yeah, it’s a front-row seat to history, right? I know I always feel it’s a privilege and I never take it for granted. Access is never assured, especially during an election campaign. Because, although they want to give it to you, so many things are at stake. So many things are coming at them. So now I always feel like, wow, this is a privilege to witness this.

But in the heat of production, you just go, whatever it is. Especially since we’re sticking close to Leni, we’re sticking close to Maria and then Maria is suddenly winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Who knew, right? So when these things happen, you’re like, let’s just keep the cameras rolling. 

My goal is always not to get stuck in the moment. It’s always about, okay, what does this moment mean in the bigger scheme of things? Where does it stand in the context of not only my work but the story I’ve been telling for the past 10 years? It’s always, to me, contextual.

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You have been one of the premier filmmakers documenting the country’s history post-People Power Revolution, as early as your 1996 film Spirits Rising. Now, in a time rife with misinformation and revisionism, the Rappler journalists shown in your film mentioned how they felt powerless and even questioned the point of journalism if they can’t stop a BBM presidency. So I want to throw the question back to you, did you also feel that sense of powerlessness as a documentarian upon seeing BBM’s rise?

I felt sad as a citizen of the Philippines, as someone who still calls the Philippines home. I felt sad in that way. But as a documentary filmmaker, I had to step back and say, what does this mean? What does this mean in the bigger scheme of things? Did I feel helpless? Not really, because I think the films I do operate differently in the world. They go above the moment and hopefully they stand the test of time.

And it’s not just about Leni losing and BBM winning, what is it really about? Yes, disinformation, but what else? Forgetting, revisionism. With that kind of win, like Lian [Buan] says, it can’t be business as usual. With that kind of win, the country’s telling you something, right? You have to move on from that and reckon with why so many people are for the Marcoses. Also, my films take a long time to put together, so I get to think about it. I get to really immerse myself in what happened. I get to relive it for a year and think about how to make it more about, not really history, but about the country as a whole.

I don’t know if, in this film, I leaned into culture more than I leaned into the nitty gritty of campaigning because I think those films have been done. And I wanted to lean into how, in the midst of such despair, sometimes there’s still joy in the Philippines. You know, joy is a form of resistance, I always say. And that’s what I leaned into. I think when you lean into culture, when you lean into those things, they become evergreen because they’re always gonna be true. 

What I found so heartwarming about your film was your decision to point the camera at LGBTQ+ performers and bikers just expressing their outward support through dancing and singing. Talk to me about the decision to highlight these personalities.

I was just so drawn to them during the campaign, they really warmed my heart. Like Sophia, she really does volunteer in Naga and she puts her heart and soul into it and her gown. Everything was about Leni winning, and this was how she could help. And as a biker, this is how they can help. And all the singing and dancing and theater on the streets, that’s what they felt like [doing], that was their contribution to the cause. 

I’ve filmed so many elections already in the Philippines since Imelda Marcos and Bongbong’s run for governor, and I know that it’s such a spectacle. There’s so much singing and dancing, and I’ve always wanted to capture that. I know I’ve captured it somewhat in some of my films, even A Thousand Cuts with Bato singing, but I’ve always wanted to lean into it because I think it’s such a different way to hold elections. 

It was a people’s movement, like Leni said. I wanted to gaze at the people, the individual people who made it the people’s movement and not necessarily, the campaign manager or anyone close within their circle. I wanted to really zoom out and pick. 

There are so many people that we filmed, like Anton Carranza, he heads Digital Warriors for Leni. I think he speaks for me in the film. He was so devastated when Leni lost, and I love how he changes. His emotions are like, “Bahala na kayo sa buhay niyo. I’m trying to help you. It’s so hard to love this country.” And then he comes back and says, “Well, but I have to keep on fighting because it’s for the children.” And he really means it. 

And to capture that at the moment they’re feeling it, and not six months later, is the magic of documentaries. You go back, right? You’re capturing those emotions; you’re capturing the grief. You’re capturing the joy of being able to come together for a cause, and then the intense grief later. 

That scene at Rappler [after the election results], to me, wasn’t a scene of trying to solve journalism. It was a scene of mourning. It’s grief. What are you going to do now? Something died, but something has to be reborn. 

How is it like piecing together the various perspectives in the film? 

It’s in the edit. It’s really spending time with their footage and listening. What is it telling you? Where does it want to go? And this film, I wanted it to be a shapeshifter. When you think you know what you’re going to get, I put in something else. I put Leah Navarro and Manolo Quezon talking over many dinners over the span of five to six months. 

I also wanted to comment about lent because lent happens in the middle of elections — and that’s a weird thing. In the middle of elections, people go home, think about their vote, and then they come back. It’s like a pause, which to me, is so intense. And then people come back to the elections. It’s like the elections continue as intense as before. 

And also, the idea of dropping in on people and maybe never seeing them again. We see them once, then we move on. I like that idea of feeling like there are individual people, but it’s a collective and you keep on moving and that comes in the edit.

Since Sundance is an American festival, naturally audiences will look into the connections of our elections with their upcoming elections. And an interesting nugget they’ll find with your film is the many similarities of BBM’s campaign strategy to the campaign strategies authoritarian leaders are utilizing right now. Do you feel like your film also acts as a cautionary tale for other democratic countries around the world?

Definitely. Definitely. I know I make films about the Philippines, but I always know there’s something in it that resonates globally because the gateway drug is the story. The gateway is making these films about the Philippines, but because it’s deeply human, it’s universal. Especially at this time when a lot of a lot of countries are having elections in 2024. 

As Maria [Ressa] pointed out, 2024 is the year that we find out if democracy lives or dies. 

Am I aware of it while I’m making it? It does occur to me. But I also wanted it to mean something as a Filipino story, like I don’t want to keep explaining it outright. I want it to mean something because it’s a powerful story, not just because it will resonate worldwide, but because I wanted it to mean something as a Filipino story.

In one of your past statements talking about your film Imelda, you said: “I have found that Imelda seems to be a kind of litmus test for how we Filipinos think of ourselves and our relationship to the ‘masses’ – how can we love the people if they love her?” Do you think the distance between Marcos and Leni supporters can ever be bridged?

I think so because it’s not really a monolith on either side — Leni supporters or BBM supporters. I think conversations will do that. Communities can do that, one on one. That’s why I thought the house to house was very important. You know Pinoys, when you talk to them, and you start having a conversation. Things can go any which way. If you take them one by one and start talking to them, then so many beautiful things can happen. 

That’s why I feel like I wanted to end on a hopeful note, because I still think it can be bridged. Because if it can’t be, then we’re totally hosed. That’s also why it’s important for Leni to say, “Is this the end or is it just the beginning?” You can think of this as the end, or we can keep on going and try to change things. –

‘And So it Begins’ premieres at Sundance on January 22, with additional showings on January 23, 25, 27, and 28, and online for US audiences from January 25-29. Details on the Sundance website.

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Ryan Oquiza

Ryan Oquiza is a film critic for Rappler and has contributed articles to CNN Philippines Life, Washington City Paper, and PhilSTAR Life.