Baby Ruth Villarama is a documentary filmmaker based in the Philippines whose recent film, Sunday Beauty Queen, follows domestic workers competing in a pageant. She shares her advice for new documentary makers.
Documentary film-makers need passion
We also need an interest in learning and communicating the stories of others. Documentary film-making is more than artistic expression – it’s people's stories. It takes a lot of patience, commitment and passion to pursue that story.
Good communication skills and appreciation of the visual arts are helpful.
Love your characters
If you love your characters, so will the world.
Then I take it one day at a time. I don’t worry about gaining funding or pitching to a world-premiere festival at first, because you can get overwhelmed when you think about these things. I concentrate on whether I have a good story to tell or not.
Start small, but start right
Always put your ideas in writing, no matter how stupid they may seem.
I love sharing my stories with other people, because I get new ideas. I am also learning from the best in the industry.
Do international co-productions if you can
With Sunday Beauty Queen, my last film, I worked with a Japanese producer and a producer from Hong Kong. We did post-production in the UK with Birmingham City University, who provided us with one of the best post-production facilities a film-maker could ask for.
This mix of cultures helped to achieve a universal tone, while championing the film's local identity.
Sunday Beauty Queen is a story of modern-day slavery
I told the producers that the film I wanted to make is a true Cinderella story. The subjects, Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong, are rehearsing for a beauty pageant. They must return to their employer at midnight. If they miss their curfew, they run the risk of getting fired. If they get fired, they have 14 days to find a new job or they will be deported. I knew the situation and determination of these woman was a story that the world must hear.
In Hong Kong, there are nearly 400,000 documented domestic helpers, including Filipinos, Thais and Aleutians, and many more hidden from view. They gather on Sundays in parks across Hong Kong to rest and enjoy their one day of freedom, some dancing and preparing for a beauty pageant. I thought this was a beautiful story.
I started with very basic skills in photography
I didn’t have any background in documentary film-making, so I learned as I went along, to go with the flow and embrace every story that comes along. And I learned to be a very keen observer: presenting stories in a new light, in different ways. I watched many award-winning documentaries to get inspiration and learn how to capture the moment without the uncomfortable feeling of intrusion.
In Sunday Beauty Queen, there was a lot of unspoken pain that was not shared directly by my subjects, but you can feel that it’s there.
It’s important to understand how to capture unspoken truth about love, about hatred, about emotional violence visually, while preserving the person's dignity. When the camera rolls we let the emotion of our protagonists flow.
The camera is a powerful tool
Experiences I have had growing up, like never having had the chance to meet my biological mom, may have made me more sensitive to understanding broken families or people searching for something in this world.
We may not agree with the subject's personal views or judgements, but the camera is a powerful tool. Documentary film makers need to be responsible in how we use that tool. It’s our job to elevate people to an artistic form, for the audience to appreciate their voices.
One way to protect the subject's dignity is to produce the documentary with a skeleton crew, which means more days of filming. You are building a relationship with the subject and forming a special friendship which would be more difficult to do on a crowded set.
In the Philippines, support for documentary films is close to zero
Unless you work for a broadcasting company that does magazine shows, or the documentary is structured for cinemas, it’s very difficult.
Documentary film makers normally apply to pitching forums outside of the region, such as the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), Tokyo Docs and Doc Edge in New Zealand, all easily found on the web.
I don’t see myself as a filmmaker who has this amazing story. I see myself as a messenger who by chance found a story of someone who I think the world should listen to. I keep it personal and conversational, and just tell the story of someone.
Baby Ruth is an alumna of Birmingham City University and Chevening scholar. Nominate an international graduate of a UK higher education institute for the Study UK Alumni Awards 2019, or apply yourself.