• Festivals

Martika Ramirez Escobar, Sundance Award-Winning Filmmaker at 29

When 29-year-old Martika Ramirez Escobar thought of making her feature directing debut, Leonor Will Never Die, she never imagined it would take her eight years to finally see her film completed. And that Leonor Will Never Die would end up competing in the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and win honors: World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Innovative Spirit.

This Manila native was undaunted by the challenges of being a young emerging female filmmaker and pursued her dream by looking for financiers.

Being invited to premiere Leonor Will Never Die, her homage to 1970s and 1980s Filipino action films, in the preeminent film festival for indie films was a surprise bonus.

She was beside herself. The writer-director couldn’t believe her film featuring an “action star grandmother” was offered a screening at the prestigious US film festival. She forwarded the email from Sundance to her producers to verify that it was true.

And now, Escobar, in her first time ever to participate in the Sundance festival, is elated that Leonor Will Never Die has bagged a prize.

Escobar, who graduated from the University of the Philippines’ film school, said, “I was surprised, like everything else from the moment we got invited to Sundance. It feels like I’m in a dream and I’m sure that’s how it will feel for the rest of my life.

“It is rare for a filmmaker to be given absolute creative freedom and it is also rare to have a young Filipina filmmaker enter a big festival such as Sundance, and even rarer for an unconventional film such as ours to be recognized.

“So, I see myself as someone who is very lucky but also someone who represents progress. I am privileged to have been given all these and of course, a big part of that is the hard work, talent, and dedication of my entire team.”

“But I have to acknowledge that along with this win is a responsibility to make good use of what I have been given – as a filmmaker, Filipino, woman, daughter, friend, and simply just a human. I still can’t process all of this. But one thing is clear and it’s that if I’ll be making more films and working on other films, all I dream of is to spread more love through them.”

The clever movie-within-a-movie tells the story of Leonor Reyes (portrayed by Sheila Francisco), a grandmother who was once a major player in the Filipino film industry after writing and directing a string of successful action films. She misses her previous exciting life as a filmmaker. And she is now relegated to the realities of unpaid electricity bills and the struggles of facing violence out in the streets.

When Leonor reads an ad looking for screenplays, she tries to look for her unfinished script about a young man, Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides), who is trying to avenge the death of his brother at the hands of thugs. Things get out of control and crazier when Leonor gets into an accident, goes into a coma and her imagination runs wild.

About the Sundance award for Innovative Spirit, Escobar commented, “Films can speak, and films can be heard, and today I’m glad that our film is felt by the jury. Thank you so much, Sundance. Our spirits are smiling.”

The jury citation reads, “Switching in-between genres, this film within a film follows an ailing screenwriter who enters her unfinished screenplay of a gangster film to experience and edits her own creation. Constantly shifting in tone, the film is a playful display of the love of cinema. Its innovative and risk-taking spirit is especially commendable.”

As the writer-director-executive producer of the dramedy, Escobar learned a lot from her experience. “I think the biggest takeaway is that filmmaking is a process that involves relationships with people and places and everything around you because I used to think that when you’re a director, you just direct everything.

“But really, it’s the collaboration of everyone and it’s really the work of the whole team. It’s not just mine as the writer-director. So yeah, that’s one of the takeaways. And also, I realized the process of making a film allows me to learn more about life in general and people, and that’s the reason why I like making movies. It’s not just to entertain and it’s not just to earn. It’s like a teacher.”

She added, alluding to the political situation in her country ruled by President Rodrigo Duterte and in the thick of campaigning for the presidential election in May: “The Philippines is about to enter the third act of a bad action movie. Just like Leonor, I hope to get our story back — the one without the need for violence, corruption, and heroes. I hope we find the one where we get a happy ending for all of us.”

And who was the first person she told of her win?

“My grandma and mama. We were having lunch when I had the call from our programmers Charlie Sextro and Heidi Zwicker who told me of the win. I love the timing, too. My grandma was about to hand me her senior citizen card when I told her about it and her wallet was open. I saw the photo of my grandfather who passed away last year. I know he heard the news, too.”