Filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz has focused on the Philippines in her previous acclaimed work: Imelda portrayed deposed Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos, a woman as famous for her humongous shoes collection as for her abuses of power; and powerful early film Spirits Rising, about women’s role in the 1986 People Power revolution.
But for her latest film Diaz returned to the Philippines for an entirely different type of character story: That of singer Arnel Pineda, whose extraordinary real life fairy tale started with a series of passionate YouTube videos covering classic American rock songs, including that of the band Journey. When their lead guitarist Neal Schon spotted Pineda’s work online… well, we’ll let you watch Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey to learn the rest. The film premieres tonight on PBS at 10 PM ET/PT (check local listings for the times and stations in your area).
“Pineda’s ebullience is infectious, and Don’t Stop Believin': Everyman’s Journey is a pleasant story of dreams coming true,” wrote Mark Olsen in the LA Times. We spoke with Diaz about her own journey in making this musically-inclined documentary.
What led you to make this film?
I’m always interested in compelling characters and this film was no exception. What could easily have been a five-minute film — rock band finds lead singer through YouTube — is a much bigger story because of the camera’s unfettered love for Arnel Pineda. Arnel returns the affection by being the most candid and open person I’ve ever had the privilege to film. And he was extremely articulate about his inner life. Documentary gold. Coupled with some of pop music’s most enduring songs, how can one resist making this film?
Were you a fan of Journey’s music before you thought about doing the film? (i.e., when did you start believin’?)
I was very familiar with Journey’s music ‘cause who isn’t? I have many fond memories that are attached to their songs. Like I always say, you may think you don’t know Journey but if you’ve been to a prom or a wedding in this country or elsewhere, you know Journey. I also hear that hipsters now love Journey (and they’re too cool to be ironic). And that “Don’t Stop Believin’” is the “last call” song in bars across this nation. But I digress… No, I wasn’t what you would call a fan and I say this because I’ve seen and met the fans and I would be a total poser if I called myself a fan. To say they are loyal would be an understatement; they’re like Dead Heads. But after having made the film, I now understand the impulse.
In the summer of ’08 when we filmed Arnel’s first tour with Journey, I sat through very many shows. When the first notes of “Separate Ways” wafted through the summer air, it was new again, every night. It worked and worked, and worked again. Every. Single. Night. I truly understood then what “evergreen” meant in music terms. It’s like you’re hearing it for the first time every time. And the Journey catalog is full of evergreens, a baker’s dozen really. I am in total awe of this. How has one band managed to pull this off? I have such profound respect for what they have done and what their music represents to very many people.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey?
Funding. Funding. Funding. Um…did I mention funding? My producer, Capella Fahoome, and I went out on a limb on this one. It’s not how I usually work and it was very frightening. Not to mention the fact that the film was extremely dependent on using a lot of music from one of the most difficult and expensive catalogs in modern pop music to clear. Following a major music act on tour with limited resources proved even more of a challenge. Imagine being crammed in a minivan with the crew (me, my producer, camera, and sound — and sometimes an assistant!), our luggage and equipment trying to keep up with big touring buses in the middle of the night, in the middle of the country, singing Journey at the top of our lungs just to keep awake? We laugh now but it wasn’t too much fun then.
So on that topic, presumably it was tricky to deal with the legal aspects of a film like this, including wrangling with music rights?
No, I wouldn’t say tricky. Treacherous would be a more accurate term. All I can say is “don’t attempt this at home…or at least not without a battery of lawyers.” We were lucky enough to have a wonderful team of people who knew what they were doing because it’s truly a labyrinth, and one can easily get lost in it without ever finding a way out.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in the film, Journey and Arnel Pineda?
Persistence and time. The guys were used to the big networks and cable outlets sending a crew for a day or two and then leaving, never to be heard from again. Although they agreed that we were going to be around all summer long and understood it cerebrally, viscerally I don’t think they really got it until we were mid-way through the tour. We were filming lead guitarist Neal Schon, in the dressing room and, as per his usual, he was playing his guitar. He was very into it and didn’t notice us until about 20 minutes later at which point he looked up and he said “you guys still here?”
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
There’s a whole other film that was left on the cutting room floor. We shot hours and hours of Arnel just hanging out in his dressing room. Sometimes he’d just sit there and do his thing, complete silence. Sometimes he’d even take a nap. Sometimes he would just start speaking to me, or to the camera, about anything and everything. The footage is fascinating and one day I hope to fashion it into a short film.
I am particularly fond of the scene when Arnel describes what it was like for him the first time he performed with Journey live in front of thousands in Chile. He related the story in both Tagalog and English. It’s funny, moving, and great storytelling on Arnel’s part. I also love the part when Arnel walks around backstage at The Greek in Los Angeles trying to get a phone signal. He steps outside to get a stronger signal and is accosted by the fans. He ends up signing autographs for a good 30 minutes. His reaction in the dressing room after Chuck, the security guy, pulls him out is precious. He was genuinely surprised that people recognized him. It was a moment when he realized his growing power and he was overwhelmed by it.
What has the audience response been so far? Has the band seen it?
We showed it to the entire band, their management, their lawyers, their roadies, assistants, spouses, ex-spouses, and friends in one big screening right before we premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2012. They loved it. As for the audiences — the response has been truly overwhelming sometimes. It is obvious that Arnel steals their heart. And for some Filipinos, it’s been an emotional experience watching one of their own succeed on the world stage. It’s also heartening to show it to an international audience who know nothing about Journey. It’s evident in their reaction that Arnel’s story transcends the cultural specificity of Journey’s music.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
The truth of the matter is I’m not really qualified to do anything else. And — for anything worth doing — what isn’t difficult, anyway?
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
I think this is particularly suited for Public Television and Independent Lens because, to borrow from the film scholar Celine Parreñas Shimizu, this film puts the subaltern voice right smack in the middle of the narrative. It is Arnel Pineda telling his own story, in his own words. And how often does that happen?
What are your three favorite films?
This is always a difficult question and my answers always vary depending on what I’m obsessed with any given month, or what project I’m in the immersed din. So today I love F is For Fake, Cleo From 5 to 7, and The Queen.
What about favorite documentaries specifically — which ones are favorites and/or influenced you the most?
Sans Soleil, Sherman’s March, Burden of Dreams, Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter, Salesman, Soy Cuba (not necessarily its politics), Beaches of Agnes.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
This is what I tell film students when I conduct master classes. They are so lucky to be living in this day and age when technology — the tools to tell our stories — is so accessible. And the internet has given them a direct conduit to the audience. However, content still reigns supreme and form should always serve the content — unless of course it is purely an exercise in form, but that’s not the kind of film I’m talking about. So find your unique voice, it’s there inside of you. What is it you want to say? Once you’ve defined and honed it for yourself, form will reveal itself. Everything else is just technology.
What subjects are you thinking about doing a documentary next — or at least, what is one of your dream projects?
I’m superstitious when it comes to talking about dream projects. I like to play it close to the vest until…well, until it’s airing on Independent Lens!
Name a food that inspired you and kept you going while shooting the film.
Kale chips. And they’re good for you — but hell on the editing equipment.