This director found a way to shoot her documentary where every day was a "revelation."
Ramona Diaz’s latest documentary does not hold your hand. In fact, it throws you right into the heart of chaos: the busiest maternity ward in the world, Fabella Hospital in Manila, Phillipines. Like many of the patients and staff in a place that averages 60 births a day, you are a little bit overwhelmed upon entrance.
It’s not the easiest viewing experience, but it is effective. So effective, in fact, that Diaz walked away from the film’s Sundance 2017 premiere with a jury award for “Commanding Vision." And the director exhibited a commanding vision indeed, insisting from day one that the film be shot fully fly-on-the-wall without a single interview. The resulting work should be given to every film student as a modern example of vérité mastery.
The film does have a carefully constructed structure so, even without narration, we come to know three patients: Lea, Aira and Lerma. They are among the many economically deprived women in the hospital, where single beds are occupied by two, or even three women at a time due to lack of resources. Their experiences are at times funny and at times painful, but they are always touching and always real.
As the film now begins its theatrical release, here’s my enlightening conversation with Diaz from Sundance about her staunch commitment to shooting vérité, filming people in some of their most intimate moments, directing a DP who doesn’t speak the language of the protagonists, and more.
No Film School: So many docs over-explain or over-narrate, but you went in the opposite direction, not giving the audience much guidance. How was that decision made?
Ramona Diaz: Very early as we were filming actually, I knew I just wanted to drop the audience in the midst of everything, try to figure out what was happening, and get their sea legs. I wanted them to have the experience that I had going to the hospital, really being overwhelmed and overloaded of all the senses—smell, sight, sound—and just try to figure it out.
I remember with my DP, Nadia [Hallgren], every time we'd film a woman in a situation, she'll say, "Okay, do you want to interview her?" I say, "No, no let's not." She goes, "Are you sure?" I say, "Yeah, let's not. We're not doing that. Let's not give my editor, Leah [Marino], a chance to use it."
I think she asked me a couple times the first day and then she got it. She goes, "Oh, this is cool." I said, "Yeah, we're doing it completely vérité. I don't want any interviews and stuff.”
NFS: Why did that strike you so strongly?
Diaz: Because I felt like the story was strong enough to emerge organically from the scenes. I trusted that because of what I was hearing from the women, and I wanted [to give audiences] that same experience.
NFS: Did you spend a lot of time at the hospital before you started shooting, or you walked in with a camera from the start?
Diaz: Oh, no, no, no. I was there for about a month before we started shooting, because I needed to know how the hospital worked.
“Only two of us were really allowed in the ward, so I'm like, ‘Oh, my God. How am I going to do that?’”
NFS: I imagine that helped with your faith that there would be a story.
Diaz: Absolutely. I also decided to concentrate on the patients, the women giving birth, as opposed to the staff. I mean staff were there, but really we're following the women. That was a hard thing to prep for, because actually, I was choosing characters as we were starting to shoot. Because they're only there for a finite amount of time, in and out in like three weeks, four weeks.
I couldn't really pre-choose them with casting. In order for it to work, I needed to know the inner workings, and I needed to know what I call the “tribal elders” of the hospital, who the nurses were, the labor nurse, and all that. Once I knew what the workings were, then I felt like, "Okay, I'm on solid ground. I'm going to find something here."
NFS: Technically speaking, how did you shoot? What gear did you use?
Diaz: A Canon C300. We shot on that because Nadia, the DP, was very comfortable using that. It was her camera, and I had to do sound. In order to get access, only two of us were really allowed in the ward, so I'm like, "Oh, my God. How am I going to do that?"
I jumped in and did sound. It was also my way of directing Nadia, because she didn't speak the language. I told her, "Watch my boom." Whenever I moved on, "Come, move with me."
There were times, of course, that it's in the midst of things happening, I would have to whisper to her, "Okay, this woman just lost her baby. This is the story we'll follow."
“Somehow, they were just so open to it in every way, even with their bodies, they were really open.”
NFS: That now makes a lot of sense, because I was wondering how you captured people at some of their most intimate moments. How did you describe what you were doing to the women at the hospital?
Diaz: Fabella has been covered by the press before, but it's always been in and out, networks or photographers, and they're in their for two, three hours.
I just feel like, because we were there constantly, for a month of like 15-hour days, they got used to us and understood what we were trying to go for.
Sometimes they would try to talk to the camera. I'm like, "No, no, no. Just do what you want. Pretend we're not here. I know it's very difficult to pretend we're not here and probably you'll never be able to pretend we're not here, but try." Somehow, they were just so open to it in every way, even with their bodies, they were really open. They would breastfeed whenever.
NFS: Given that there were no interviews and no narration to pin your story structure to, how did you work with your editor to come up with the story structure?
Diaz: The editor, Leah, we've cut four films now, so we have a shorthand.
I knew there were characters, but I also explained to her, "Just watch it." I want the experience of discovering the hospital before we introduce characters, but once we introduced characters, then we're on this arc. We followed around six women, so double that. Once I chose the three that I really wanted to concentrate and follow within the cut, then it was clearer where we were going.
We chose three that were really complete and compelling. I wanted a young woman, so we have a 17-year old. Then the older woman, Lerma, who's out there and has seven kids, she's the one that she almost chose me. There always are characters who I call my peacocks, because they show themselves to you. It's like, "Choose me." Usually you follow them because they are interesting and they have a story to tell.
NFS: I would think the instinct would be to shy away from the person who's jumping in front of the camera.
Diaz: Oh, yeah. I knew she would give me something, but once we trained the lens on her, then she became very performative, so we had to pull back. Then she got used to, "Just calm down. We're here. You don't have to perform." Eventually, she stopped performing.
Yes, you're right, there is a danger that she will perform for the camera, because that's her nature. Then the other woman, Leah, who had twins, there was just something about her that was so sweet and she didn't know she was having twins. Her husband couldn't come visit her because of no money. She just touched my heart, so she was a leap of faith and I think she paid off.
“It’s a great way to work because your every day is really like a revelation.”
NFS: It seems like you really were taking lots of leaps of faith with the film. That really impresses me.
Diaz: It was the most exciting way to work. It was a more involved way of shooting that never got boring. It was damn tiring at the end of the month, and Nadia and I got sick in the process. We were tired, but we forged on.
Of course, in the story, in the middle of it, you're like, "Oh, what am I doing this for?" Now, I see it as a great way to work, because your every day is really like a revelation. What's going to happen today? Who are we going to follow? I love that. It surprises me. If what I'm shooting doesn't surprise me, I get bored. I like being surprised, because I feel if I'm surprised, then the audience will be surprised.
“I feel like I need to claim that narrative, that I have to be the one to tell the stories.”
NFS: Going into your broader career, you have made several films in the Philippines, so what is it about that place that keeps bringing you back with your storytelling?
Diaz: I was born and raised there, so I hope the themes are universal. I think it's something that resonates with me in a very intimate and personal level, and I know the place. I know the stories. I may not know the particulars of the story, but I know the themes, and I feel like no one else is telling them. I feel like I need to claim that narrative, that I have to be the one to tell the stories.
NFS: You have successfully completed five feature length docs, and gotten them out there. Do you have some advice on building a career and getting to that next film?
Diaz: A lot of film students ask me. I think that, for me, this is the best time to be a documentary filmmaker. The genre is growing, and there's more awareness, but also because of the equipment. It's more democratic. You can just pick up a camera and go and make a film.
That's good and bad, because the other side of that is that you really have to figure out your story. You really have to constantly every day ask yourself, "Okay, what am I trying to say?" and "Why am I the one saying that?" You really have to discover your voice, what you really want to say. Is it that important that you take four or five years out of your life to make? It's a constant question that I think you should ask yourself every day. If you get a really solid answer and you're still gung-ho, then make the film.
Also, I feel like female filmmakers always feel like they have to know everything technically, but they don't actually have to do that. I don't think male filmmakers do. I think that's why you hire good DPs, that's why you hire good sound. You have to know the look and why you're doing it, the intention of the scene, and what you're trying to get out of the interview, but everything else is on the DP, the great DP you hired and the great sound person. They should know it. As a director, of course there's a conversation, but don't let the technical scare you. You learn it, and then after a while, you know how to discuss it with your DP.
NFS: And your DP and editor were both women.
Diaz: Yeah. I think for this film, in particular, it needed to be a woman DP because there were exposed bodies. Boobs and things. Everywhere. Although my line producer was male. He'd wait outside the ward, but after a while, he would just walk into the ward, because people then became familiar with him: “Oh, it's Chris, yeah. You have to sign the release for him, yeah.” That came after a couple weeks.