“A WINDOW to the world.”
This is how documentary filmmaker Baby Ruth Villarama describes the television features that took up her Saturday afternoons as a child; she was always anticipating the day’s National Geographic Society special.
She never truly understood why she was drawn to those 30-minute features. Maybe it was the storytelling, or maybe it was something bigger. But to the young Villarama, they were a “childhood window to the world—parang all of a sudden, you’re part of it na.”
In an unexpected turn of events, Villarama eventually became one of the members of the first all-Filipino documentary production team for “Asia’s Titanic,” a National Geographic feature.
Years later, the director secured herself a seat at the helm of documentary filmmaking, creating a number of films such as the 2011 short A Letter to Ifugao and the 2013 romance Jazz in Love, and now the internationally acclaimed and 2016 Metro Manila Film Festival Best Picture, Sunday Beauty Queen.
Of crowns and gowns
One Sunday, four years ago, Villarama and her husband, producer Chuck Gutierrez, chanced upon a Filipino beauty pageant taking place in one of Hong Kong’s busiest streets. During their courtesy call, the Philippine Consulate suggested that they create a film about the event.
“[They told us] to do a film, parang investigation, as to why Filipinos are spending so much for their gowns when in fact, they could just send the money back home or rest. Sabi ko, ‘Oo nga ‘no. Bakit kaya?’” she says.
This tickled Villarama’s imagination, and soon enough, she had a short synopsis and a shot list prepared. However, due to financial issues, her ideas had to be put on hold until an opportunity came in the form of Tokyo Docs, the largest documentary pitching conference in Asia.
After years of overcoming seemingly endless struggles, the one-page synopsis that nearly collected dust in her safekeeping finally came to life. “[It was] surreal!,” she exclaims, adding that her humble documentary was met with more accolades than she had ever expected to receive.
Before being a successful director, Villarama took on every vital role in making a film—a photographer, a production assistant, a researcher, and even a transcriber.
The Journalism alumna graduated in 2000 with a fascination for photojournalism. She initially worked as a nightlife photographer, until she grew tired of the party scene and decided to pursue a different path.
She eventually became a researcher, and her interest about ship life was piqued by “Asia’s Titanic.” This led to her stint as a photographer in a cruise ship, whose crew was dominantly Filipino.
“That was the beginning of my awakening about Overseas Filipino Workers,” she says, and this jumpstarted her career in crafting socially-relevant documentary films.
“I just hope that for every documentary I make, the audience will appreciate their fellow Filipinos, and also [learn] to empathize with each other more.”
While Villarama knows that films are not enough to change the world, she still believes in their power to open minds, and—as Sunday Beauty Queen has recently proven—change behaviors.
She received numerous pledges from those who had watched her film: a group of law students had decided to center their careers on improving the country’s labor law; support has flooded Bethune House, the halfway shelter featured in the film; and even high-end fashion icon Michael Kors has pledged to sponsor this year’s pageant in Hong Kong.
This was exactly the kind of fire Villarama hoped to set ablaze. “We’re Filipinizing the world,” she says proudly.
“We have to put our Filipino stories as a global content for people to appreciate us. Enough of the poverty porn […] If we want the world to respect us, we have to create content that will make people fall in love with us.”
Working in humility
Despite her numerous achievements, Villarama’s nonchalance and humility when recounting her journey, as well as her quirky storytelling make it all too easy to forget that she is a critically acclaimed director, and her own cast members can attest to it too.
“Siya ‘yung pinaka-humble na na-meet ko,” shares Mylyn Jacobo, one of the Sunday Beauty Queens. “Ang galing niyang basahin ‘yung feelings ng ibang tao; may connection kayo agad.”
Her husband echoes these same sentiments. He believes Villarama’s sensitivity to her characters—her treatment of them as family, and not as subordinates—is what sets her apart as a director. “I feel like she is the very heart of the films,” he says.
While she has never sought any personal recognition, she hopes to go down in the film industry’s history as a woman who changed the game.
“With documentaries, the challenge is more meaningful because you’re dealing with real people: non-actors, walang arte sa life. Everything is real. You’re finding the truth about their stories, and in this country, we need more storytellers like that,” she says. F JULIA MARI T. ORNEDO and CHELSEA JEUSE R. SALGADO