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Leonor Will Never Die: Director Martika Ramirez Escobar and Her Giant Film of Life

Sheila Francisco contemplates life and art in Leonor Will Never Die / Photo: Carlos Mauricio, courtesy of Music Box Films
Sheila Francisco contemplates life and art in Leonor Will Never Die / Photo: Carlos Mauricio, courtesy of Music Box Films

Director Martika Ramirez Escobar took Sundance by storm with Leonor Will Never Die. An irresistible meta-comedy about growing old and making movies in the Philippines. It won the innovative Spirit World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury award, and now it is nominated as Best International Film at the Independent Spirit awards. Leonor hits theatrical release in the US in a stuffed awards season. Make sure you catch it in theaters. It is one of the most original films of the year. 

Leonor (Sheila Francisco) is an elderly, retired screenwriter with money problems and a lifetime of regrets. She goes back to writing an action film to dig herself out of a hole. But her family history bleeds into the tropes of the genre. Her character is not far from the old pros that inspired Ramírez Escobar.

“I was at this workshop in the Philippines, and the people running it were filmmakers who used to work in the action film industry during the seventies and eighties. They would come to class dressed up as action stars. And it is just their normal style! So my friend and I wondered, 'what about the Filipino action film scene makes them still dress that way?'”

Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump crossed over from screens into the White House. The line separating politics from entertainment has always been blurry in the Philippines. “Growing up, our president, Joseph Estrada, was a former action star. I thought it was normal when I was a little girl. And then I started to realize, why am I so invested in how film affects us as people? And I think it is because I see life as one giant film that we continue to write and revise until we complete it someday. So I think it combines my curiosity and an existential crisis. The movie is also a love letter to cinema in a way that most of the things I know about life are things I learned from watching films.”

Leonor Will never Die, if Rawnaldo (Rocky Salumbides) has anything to say about it / Photo: Carlos Mauricio, courtesy of Music Box Films
Leonor Will never Die, if Rawnaldo (Rocky Salumbides) has anything to say about it / Photo: Carlos Mauricio, courtesy of Music Box Films

A big twist falls literally from the sky. Frustrated with his wife’s addiction to soaps, a neighbor throws the TV off a window. It hits Leonor in the head, leaving her in a coma. In her dreams, she invades her script, becoming an unlikely sidekick to a strapping hero - the appropriately named Rawnaldo (Rocky Salumbides). Leonor brings fascinating insight into Filipino film culture and its Hollywood influences. Ramirez’s action facsimile hints at the aesthetics and narrative conventions of straight-to-video movies of the 80 and 90s. Reality is shot in film-like high definition, while Rawnaldo's opus looks like a pirated tape seen on an old TV, down to the 4:3 aspect ratio.

Achieving the contrasting quality was challenging. “We used different cameras for 'reality'. We used one camera and one lens. We had a rule of not cutting unless it was necessary. For the action world, we use zoom lenses and multiple cameras. We wanted the camera to be always moving, so we wanted to create that contrast, and I wanted it to be four by three because I remember watching the action films on TV.”

Rawnaldo and his unlikely sidekick and creator: Salumbides protects Francisco in Leonor Will Never Die / Photo: Carlos Mauricio, courtesy of Music Box Films
Rawnaldo and his unlikely sidekick and creator: Salumbides protects Francisco in Leonor Will Never Die / Photo: Carlos Mauricio, courtesy of Music Box Films

"It took us a lot of time to find the right mix. I had to watch closely these movies shot on film, then transferred to VHS and played on TV. We emulated layers and layers of damage. You may notice little details, like chromatic aberration at the edge of the frame. Sometimes the sound is delayed by two frames. So all these little things. We carefully kept it consistently similar to how these films looked like before.”

Western cinephiles crave the latest from Lav Díaz and treasure the classics of Lino Brocka. But there is a stratum of popular cinema that never makes it to your local art house. “During the seventies and eighties, the industry made hundreds of action films. It was the most popular genre at that time. I did not even recall specific films to pay homage. You would be surprised if you asked people my age. We are all familiar with the tropes, characters, and scenes, even if we don't recall the film titles. It is just so familiar.”

The concept of reality is very porous. In the mundane realm of every day, characters interact with the ghost of the real Rawnaldo (Anthony Falcon), the eldest son, killed many years ago. He can just as easily sneak home to turn on a fan or sit down with his father and share a drink. When Leonor reimagines her dead son as a hero, she engages in a form of creative mourning.

Brotherly ghost: Falcon and Cabrera ponder what to do about their comatose mother in Leonor Will Never Die / Photo: Carlos Mauricio, courtesy of Music Box Films
Brotherly ghost: Falcon and Cabrera ponder what to do about their comatose mother in Leonor Will Never Die / Photo: Carlos Mauricio, courtesy of Music Box Films

“To believe in ghosts is a very Filipino thing,” says Ramirez. “We believe in many myths, and to say that a ghost is present in a room right now is not even an issue. You can say that you can feel the presence of someone, and everyone would say, ‘okay.’” This plot strand allows the director to render tribute to her family history. “When her son passed away, my grandmother would say that sometimes she would see her bed sink as if someone was sitting on the bed. She knew that it was her son. I see it as something comforting because the presence of your former loved one is still there.”

As fantastic as Leonor can get, the movie takes pains to reproduce the family dynamics of elderly parents and grown children. The stage of life where a new generation needs to step up and care for the elderly is vividly recreated, in all its messiness. “There are mundane situations that mean a lot”, says Ramirez. “Like getting your electricity cut off because you fail to pay because you bought DVDs instead. Those are incidents that remind me of my grandma. Sometimes she prioritized things that made her happy over her actual responsibilities. And I do not blame her for that. So she just literally forgets.”

Hammer will fall: Francisco is armed and dangerous in Leonor Will Never Die / Photo: Carlos Mauricio, courtesy of Music Box Films
Hammer will fall: Francisco is armed and dangerous in Leonor Will Never Die / Photo: Carlos Mauricio, courtesy of Music Box Films

Ramirez wears her influences on her sleeve. She brings the spirit of David Lynch and Charlie Kauffman to Filipino culture, but in a kinder, warmer key. Leonor’s fall into unconsciousness manifests in a striking shot of the woman falling from the sky. “As a student filmmaker, my favorites were Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, those directors who made fantastic, very stylized films. And then when I came to film school, I discovered the French New Wave filmmakers, and I fell in love with the work of Agnes Varda, which is a blend of personal but also quirky and whimsical.”

Rarely these cerebral narrative games are deployed with such tenderness. Ramirez is not out to trip you with mind games but to move you. “I want audiences to think about and reflect on anything about life, like little things or big things. To find that connection somewhere in the many characters, the many layers, and the many worlds of the film.”

* Leonor will never day is playing in theaters.

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