Cover Martika Ramirez Escobar behind the scenes of "Leonor Will Never Die" / Globe Studios

Making history as the second Filipino-produced-and-directed film to enter the World Cinema Dramatic competition of the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, Martika Ramirez Escobar's Leonor Will Never Die is a love letter to the entire filmmaking industry, to life, and our pursuit for a satisfying ending.

Last January 29, the 2022 Sundance Film Festival's awards have been announced. The Special Jury Award: Innovative Spirit for the World Cinema Dramatic competition was presented for Leonor Will Never Die, written and directed by Martika Ramirez Escobar.

Martika Ramirez Escobar has nothing on her sleeve but a passion for cinema, faith in it, and the wonders it brings. As a kid, she grew up watching blockbuster films, box-office hits, and Hollywood's tired format which most major Filipino film studios have adapted. It was in high school when her desire to be a filmmaker one day grew in her after being enamoured by the music videos she digests on television.

Filmmakers Quark Henares and RA Rivera were just some of her heroes then. So after knowing that Rivera studied at the UP Film Institute, she followed in his footsteps. In college, her understanding of cinema has changed, or to be exact, widened. She witnessed how the local film industry radically changed in the late 2000s, with the independent cinema industry bringing home awards and recognitions from international award-giving bodies and film festivals. She realised how dynamic the film can be and how her own directorial decisions—though it might appeal to a small niche market—can be powerful enough to emotionally connect to the audience. All it takes is trust from her team, her producers, and herself to make it possible to put it on the screen.

In Case You Missed It: Quark Henares on 'On The Job' and Chatting With Bong Joon-ho at the Venice Film Fest

Working as a camera operator for Henares today at Globe Studios, Escobar entered the Cinemalaya Film Festival's Shorts program two times: in 2014 with Pusong Bato and again in 2020 with Living Things, from which she won Best Director. Submitting her eight-years-in-the-making film Leonor Will Never Die (LWND) to the Sundance was just a spur-of-the-moment thing she said as she just saw the notice of approaching deadlines on the FilmFreeway website.

As faith would have it, her film was selected and put against the equally wonderful works of Jim Archer (Young Director Awards winner in Cannes), László Csuja (jury prize winner at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival), and Maryna Er Gorbach (European Film Academy member), to name a few. For Escobar, making it to the Sundance is unbelievable enough and she wishes nothing but for her film to be accepted by critics and audiences for what it is, what it talks about, and what it asks from us.

In case you missed it: Producer Quark Henares on ‘On The Job’, Chatting with Bong Joon-ho, and the Venice Film Fest

How did the concept for Leonor Will Never Die begin?

Martika Ramirez Escobar (MRE): When I was [attending] classes at Mowelfund, we had teachers and lecturers who would come to class wearing outfits that looked like straight out of Filipino action films that were prevalent in the Seventies and Eighties. My friend and I thought what is it about that genre and period that made these filmmakers imbibe its 'spirit' in their daily lives. Also, it's not the only manifestation of a film affecting our waking lives—our spectrum of emotions expands as we watch more films throughout our lives.

LWND is about a retired filmmaker who got transported to the film she was writing. It was her last film and in the process, she was revising her life through the film. It lets us look at life as one big film, with beginning, middle, and end. We rewrite our lives daily through our decisions, our relationships with people, etc.

I also made it a strong aged female character because out of all the action films that we have in our local cinema, there is no such thing as an "action lola".

Why did it take eight years to finish?

MRE: It's basically due to my slow-paced writing process. I am really not a writer, so that's what happened. But I am happy with the journey it took. I knew many things along the way and the film grew along with me, my understanding of life and the world. We started filming in 2019 and during post-production, I suddenly realised that there is something wrong with the ending, that it lacked something.

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I believe that a work of art will find its place, its home, and its people, in its perfect time
Martika Ramirez Escobar

How did you find that ending?

MRE: I participated in the Full Circle Lab workshop of the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP). In the First Cut category, they screened the film and I got their feedback which helped me find what LWND needs. FDCP helped me finish the film by giving us two grants (post-production and distribution).

What is your creative process?

MRE: I think it varies depending on the film I am working on. Back when I was in college, I was very rigid in following storyboard, script, shot list, and whatnot. Eventually, I learnt to just come to the set with a clear vision in mind and let things unfold. As long as I have someone I can trust and trust me in the process, everything will turn out fine. Sometimes I am now surprised with how a beautiful thing can come out from something opposite I have in mind. When I was editing LWND, it came to me that it's important that we know why are we making a certain film, to whom we are doing it. I guess it's part of the process that we discover more about ourselves. That's why the film suddenly pivoted to documentary-style in some parts.

Read also: Lav Diaz Asks: Can Cinema Truly Portray The Filipino Narrative?

How would you describe your core philosophy as a filmmaker?

MRE: There are films that affect me as a person and as a filmmaker. When I create films, I want the audience to feel something. Films for me come in a form of a friend, teacher, and therapist. Films change how we see life and people. One solid evidence of how powerful a film can be is the fact that we elected an action star as a President.

Life for me is like a movie, we write it continually until its imminent ending. If it's [a] happy or sad ending, we do not know. It's uncertain, like an unfinished script. But we have this conscious effort to revise it, to do better each day, and find how it ties up with everything in the past. I hope audiences will ponder on life after watching this film.

What do you think inspires you and other filmmakers to showcase works in international film festivals and competitions?

MRE: I only wanted acceptance for the kind of films I make. It's hard because they're unconventional and not your Hollywood blockbuster type of films. Actually, I have submitted LWND many times to different festivals but it got rejected many times. I believe that a work of art will find its place, its home, and its people, in its perfect time.

With the pandemic hampering the operations of cinema theatres, streaming platforms are opening the gates for a different way of appreciating films. What's your personal take on this subject?

MRE: It changed but has made it more accessible, especially for the kind of films we make today. Hopefully, the people's understanding of what a film can be and look like also change in the process.

How would you define independent cinema nowadays?

MRE: As long as it's not produced by a major studio and not addressed to the commercial needs of the company like being targeted to earn high ticket sales. In this film, we have Globe Studios as one of the producers and it's sort of blurring the lines. My producers helped me understand why it is important for us to earn, which is for us to be more sustainable in creating quality films. However, that is not the priority for us indie filmmakers and our producers know that even from the start.

Why is trust important in the filmmaking industry?

MRE: It stems from that point of the production where the interest of everyone involved gets aligned. You have to trust that you get people on board with the project who fully support your vision and have good intentions for the film itself and the company. I am lucky that I have such a team and that my producers trust me wholeheartedly. Trust is really important for a harmonious relationship.

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How do you find the community in Sundance?

MRE: It's actually a very elusive festival that sometimes I come across films and realise they're from Sundance after watching. Sundance values diversity in its lineup. It's important for them to let the creativity of emerging artists across the globe shine through. I personally feel the sense of community albeit online and the face-to-face interaction has been cancelled. It feels like it's a family and it's a good thing that they managed to keep that festival spirit alive.

What do you think are topics that indie filmmakers should focus on more, or perhaps you want to delve on later?

MRE: There's a lot of content already and I feel that for every topic, many films have already been made. But it would be nice to hear more women's stories.

Read also: Sundance Film Festival's First Filipino Short Film Entry: Sonny Calvento's "Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss"

To whom do you dedicate this film?

MRE: Of course my team, I will forever be grateful to them. But this film is also my love letter to my teachers, professors, and everyone who taught me filmmaking, the people who have inspired me which is my family, and the legendary filmmakers who I look up to and have introduced to me the wonders of cinema. I am a filmmaker today who was inspired by others who came before me.

Leonor Will Never Die is part of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which runs from January 20 to 30.


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