With Ramona Diaz‘s latest documentary, Don’t Stop Believin': Everyman’s Journey, the Philippines-born filmmaker returns to her Pinoy roots for the fourth time. She began with the 1996 documentary Spirit’s Rising, about women’s role in the 1986 People Power Revolution. In 2003’s Imelda, Diaz gained unprecedented access to the infamous former First Lady. The film went on to win the Excellence in Cinematography Award for Documentary at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. Diaz followed up Imelda with The Learning (POV 2011), about a group of Filipino immigrant women and their first year teaching in the Baltimore school system.
Diaz once told Filmmaker Magazine, “While I was born and raised in the Philippines, I’ve lived my entire adult life in the United States. I’m both an insider and an outsider, which allows me to have a distinct point of view.” I wanted to explore this idea with her a little more and how it influenced the telling of Arnel Pineda’s story. The singer was discovered by Journey guitarist Neal Schon, who was scouring YouTube looking for a new lead singer for the band. Diaz’s film follows the band on their subsequent world tour which climaxes with a huge concert in Arnel’s hometown, the same one he shares with Ms. Diaz.
Adam Schartoff: When did you come to the United States?
Ramona Diaz, director of Don’t Stop Believin': Everyman’s Journey: I was 16 when I came here for university.
You went to Emerson College in Boston, correct?
It’s primarily an arts school, is that right?
Yes, Emerson is a communications college. They offer programs in film, television, communications theory, etc. Everything to do with communication.
Did you go there with the intention of becoming a filmmaker or was that something you became interested in through your studies?
I always thought I was going to pursue photography. I was also very interested in film theory and writing. But after I got there I started to love film. And back then we were really shooting film, working with 16mm. It was fantastic and so that started it.
With your new film, Don’t Stop Believin': Everyman’s Journey you’ve created a fourth film where you’ve incorporated a Pinoy subject, so you obviously feel compelled to keep returning to your roots. How much of this is chance and how much a choice?
Well, it does seem to end up that way, doesn’t it? I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do the film about Imelda. But with the teachers in The Learning, it was a conscious choice. After Imelda, I really wanted to give a voice to “the voiceless.” It was a conscious choice to go to the opposite end of the spectrum. And then when Arnel’s story came up, I just couldn’t pass it up.
Not only does Neal Schon (Journey’s guitarist) whisk Arnel off the streets of Manila and right into mega-stardom, but the band picks up this whole new fan base in the process. What was that like?
That’s the beauty of making a documentary. You never know what’s going to happen. When we went on the road with them, I think they were just as surprised as everyone else. At every stop, all these new Filipino fans just kept showing up. There were flags, banners and gifts for Arnel. Who knew? You can’t predict this kind of thing. As the summer tour wore on, it just became bigger and bigger. I think Neal said that ticket sales grew like 20 percent. You expect many fans in hubs like New York and L.A. but we’d be in the middle of the country and they would come out of the woodwork, and Arnel is greeting them in Pinoy. It was really incredible.
And the members of Journey seemed so excited and appreciative about all this new attention.
I think it breathed new life into the band.
It did. For Arnel to go from an unknown cover band singer discovered on YouTube to a superstar is obviously the main thrust of the story. For me, another powerful thread in the film is watching this band which has been on autopilot for decades, get a new lease on their band’s life. They were very inspired by Arnel’s spirit.
Yes, Arnel infused the band with literal energy. Jumping and dancing around the stage. I think he helped “up” their performance.
Yes, his spirit was contagious. On another subject: there seems to be an increasing number of films, both documentaries and features, coming out of the Philippines lately which portray the country in a troubled way, showing the struggle of poverty, violence and corruption. Your film, on the other hand, shows the country and its people in a much more positive light. Did you feel a loyalty or an obligation to show the Philippines in that way?
Well, I think the film is only about the country in a peripheral way. It’s so much more about Arnel’s rise. Where you see the people is mostly in their reaction to Arnel. And of course they are going to be so happy and proud to see a fellow Filipino succeed. If you are Filipino, we claim you. I mean, we claim Bruno Mars (the singer whose mother is Filipino and father is Puerto Rican but grew up in Hawaii).
Have you shown the film to Arnel’s family?
The hardest thing is always showing the film to your subject. We showed the band the final cut of the film a few weeks ago in Nashville a few weeks before the festival. We wanted them to see it before we showed it to a live audience. That was nervewracking but it turned out great. They reacted very positively to it. His wife Cherry has not seen it. I want her to see it with an audience and not send her a DVD.
I thought perhaps she might have come to New York with Arnel and seen it.
Cherry’s pregnant and unable to travel. I’m sure there’ll be a theatrical release in Manila eventually.
Don’t Stop Believin': Everyman’s Journey opens the Silverdocs Documentary Festival on Monday, June 18, 2012, and continues a festival tour. Find out about future screenings on the film’s Facebook page or follow the film on Twitter @JourneyMOVIE.