Documentary filmmaker Ramona Diaz has always loved looking through a lens. "In high school, I had a camera at all times and was the photo editor of my yearbook," she says. "Even then, I loved the documentary sensibility. Friends would say, 'Can you just take a nice posed picture of us smiling?' I'd say, 'I don't want that picture.' I love vérité. I have always been after those moments that tell the truth."
A native of the Philippines, Diaz spent most of her formative years under the martial law regime of former Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos. "I didn't completely understand what it meant," recalls Diaz, "but my father said, 'You will see military on the streets, and there will be curfews and travel bans.' I realized there were limits to our freedom, but I didn't really understand I had a right to that freedom," says Diaz, who now lives in Mt. Washington with her husband Rajiv Rimal, an associate professor at Hopkins's Bloomberg School of Public Health, and their 14-year-old daughter, Sabina. "That was just our reality."
These days, Diaz makes a living out of bringing reality to light. Ironically, the diminutive Diaz formed her own independent production company (CineDiaz) in 2000 when Marcos's wife, Imelda, became the subject of one of her documentaries. "Mrs. Marcos liked it at first," recalls Diaz, who won an award for best cinematography at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival for Imelda. "Then The New York Times called her a 'pariah' when the film was reviewed. Once she saw how other people viewed her, she put out a temporary restraining order in the Philippines. The claim was that I was sullying her good name, and there was an invasion of privacy. Then, in court, they pointed out that she had signed a release, and she gave us access to her bedroom with a camera."
After traveling extensively for Imelda, (as well as Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey, which follows Filipino singer Arnel Pineda, who was plucked from YouTube to become the lead singer for the band Journey), Diaz's latest piece, The Learning, hits closer to home. A four-year labor of love, The Learning focuses on a group of women who leave the Philippines (where English is widely spoken) to teach in the Baltimore City Public School System. The 98-minute documentary will screen at the Maryland Film Festival (May 5-8) before being broadcast on PBS's POV series on September 20.
"Ramona is a great storyteller," says Jed Dietz, director of the Maryland Film Festival. "The Learning is a delicate film. It deals with multiculturalism and public schools in America—two subjects often done in a sensational or polemical way. Ramona is more interested in finding hidden truths. That's a very rare quality right now."
To tell her story, Diaz traveled to the Philippines with Baltimore City school officials as they recruited teachers. "If they allowed a camera in the room with them during the most important interview of their lives," says Diaz, "I knew they would make a good 'character' for the film." Back in Baltimore, Diaz shot in several city schools, including Renaissance Academy and Harlem Park Middle School. "I wanted to show the experience of these women leaving their lives behind to come to a totally foreign place," says Diaz. "These teachers love teaching, but the craft of teaching is so different here, and they have to make it work. The teachers are shell-shocked, but by the end of the year, the kids know more about the Philippines than they know about Baltimore County."
No one understands the immigrant experience better than Diaz, who came to America in 1980 as a freshman at Boston's Emerson College. While at Emerson, Diaz landed an internship in Los Angeles with MTM Enterprises, which produced Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. "You ran around for the shows, and you got to hang out on the sets," Diaz recalls of the job. "One of the scariest things I've ever had to do was take an executive producer's Rolls-Royce Corniche to the car wash!'"
Once she graduated from Emerson in 1984, Diaz continued to learn the tricks of the TV trade as an associate writer for the detective drama Remington Steele. Despite her success in the U.S., by 1986, when Marcos resigned from his presidency, Diaz felt the tug to go home. "I went back thinking, 'It's a new regime—I can do whatever I want in television there.'" But after several years, once again, she set out for the States—this time to earn a master's degree in communication at Stanford University in 1995.
Diaz still gets a thrill from her work. "Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the term the 'decisive moment,'" says Diaz. "The decisive moment takes you out of what is happening and moves you one step forward, and I love that feeling. It has always been a way to make me the observer and use the camera as a shield. I love being there, capturing the moment."