Su-City Pictures East, LLC

Screenplay & Film Consulting By Susan Kouguell

Month: September 2017

Susan Kouguell Interviews Motherland Documentary Filmmaker Ramona Diaz for SCRIPT Magazine

Susan Kouguell Talks with Motherland Documentary Filmmaker Ramona Diaz

Susan Kouguell interviews Ramona Diaz, filmmaker of Motherland, a poignant documentary in the heart of the planet’s busiest maternity hospital in one of the world’s poorest and most populous countries: the Philippines.


Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

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Susan Kouguell Talks with Motherland Documentary Filmmaker Ramona Diaz

Ramona Diaz (Photo: Justin Tsucalas)

I had the pleasure to speak with Ramona Diaz about her gripping documentary Motherland, now playing in New York City’s Cinema Village, kicking off its theatrical run. Shot in a vérité style, the film foregoes any formal interviews, archival footage, experts’ opinions or narration. The film is intimate and powerful with moments of humor gently underscoring the poignancy of the subject matter.

About Ramona S. Diaz — Director, Producer, Writer, Co-Editor

Ramona Diaz is an award-winning Asian-American filmmaker. Her films include Spirits RisingImeldaThe Learning, and Don’t Stop Believin’ which have been broadcast on POV and Independent Lens, and have screened and won awards at Sundance, Berlin, Tribeca, Silverdocs, IDFA, and many other top film festivals. She has received funding from ITVS, CAAM, Sundance Documentary Fund, MacArthur Foundation, Tribeca Institute, Catapult Film Fund, and Chicken & Egg. Recently she was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and was inducted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Ramona has been a film envoy for the American Film Showcase, a joint program of the U.S. Department of State and USC that brings American films to audiences worldwide.

About Motherland

Motherland takes us into the heart of the planet’s busiest maternity hospital in one of the world’s poorest and most populous countries: the Philippines. The film’s viewer, like an unseen outsider dropped unobtrusively into the hospital’s stream of activity, passes through hallways, enters rooms and listens in on conversations. At first, the surrounding people are strangers. But as the film continues, it’s absorbingly intimate, rendering the women at the heart of the story increasingly familiar. Three women—Lea, Aira and Lerma—emerge to share their stories with other mothers, their families, doctors and social workers. While each of them faces daunting odds at home, their optimism, honesty and humor suggest a strength that they will certainly have to summon in the years ahead.

KOUGUELL: Initially, you started with one idea for this film but it shifted.

DIAZ: I was in Manila researching a completely different film having to do with reproductive justice, reproductive health, and women’s rights. I was following a legislative bill, the Reproductive Health Bill, and I was interested in the social and political drama around it. When I got to Manilla I realized that the conversation there was very black and white, either for or against the bill, and I couldn’t find the nuance. Someone told me to visit the Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital for my research. It’s called a baby factory; that’s how they refer to the hospital. In the first half hour I realized this is where my film is.

Walking around the ward, listening to the conversations the women were having, drew me in. The hospital is also so cinematic. I realized too that I could still include the themes I was interested in — reproductive health, etc., — all in one place. It was clear to me that this would make a better film.

KOUGUELL: How were you allowed access in the hospital?

DIAZ: First, there was the bureaucratic access: I had to go to the Secretary of Health to get permission. This hospital has been covered by media in the past, including CNN and the BBC, but only for short pieces and they were only there for a couple of days so they were used to media attention. But what I wanted was to be there every day for six weeks with access to all parts of the hospital. And they did give me access.

The more difficult type of access was making the staff really understand what I wanted, especially the nurses. To them, (the maternity process at the hospital) was so routine they couldn’t understand why it was special. I think people don’t necessarily think of their lives as being interesting. I knew the nurses were key because they know the ins and outs, and how that place works. Their average tenure there is 25 years. They were sort of the tribal elders; I knew if they understood what I was looking for then I’d get what I needed.

Because I chose to feature patients more than the staff, it made my life harder of course, because you can’t prep for that. Getting to know the staff was important, they sort of became my embedded producers because they knew I was looking for a younger mother, a much older mother and someone in the middle. And they would point out patients; they were on my side.

I chose the women who gave birth to preemies so I could follow them over time, a few weeks. Choosing the specific women was pure instinct.

KOUGUELL: Because you were there every day, the mothers felt they could trust you, yet filming them is very intimate. What kind of questions did you ask them to build trust?

DIAZ: I told them I was making a film about their lives in the hospital in however long their stay was, their everyday experiences. I said, we don’t want to get in the way of you resting, caring for your baby, we’ll never ask anything special of you, and we’ll have the camera on you. They wondered if that was interesting. I said it was interesting for me. I said, your stories will come out through the interactions with other people. Like Lea, she didn’t know she was having twins until giving birth.

We wouldn’t shoot the entire time we were with them, we’d put the camera down and we’d talk. That also really helped. They were interested in documentaries and what it is.

KOUGUELL: Talk about your choice to shoot Cinéma vérité and not use voice-over narration or title cards.

DIAZ: I wanted to mimic the experience I had when I first visited the hospital. I wanted to drop the audience into this organized chaos and figure it out because that was my experience with it. I really felt that the narrative would emerge from the scenes that we were filming. It was purposeful. From the beginning I knew I wanted to do that.

I had conversations with my DP Nadia (Hallgren) and I told her this was pure vérité. I remember the first day we were shooting and we walked away from a nurse doing a procedure and she asked, do you want to interview the nurse, and I said no, and she said ‘great’.  Many filmmakers start interviewing people just in case, but the ‘just in case’ becomes a crux, a go-to when you’re editing and I just didn’t want that option when we were editing.

KOUGUELL: How did you find the structure of the film? Was it prior to the shoot, during it, or in post?

DIAZ: We found the structure in editing. We found it quickly. Typically I edit for nine months, we edited for six months.  What took the longest was pulling the scenes and translating them.

KOUGUELL: Once you started filming did you work from any type of outline or did you just let the camera roll?

DIAZ: It wasn’t a strict outline but I kept notes every day about the characters and places so I knew where we had to cover: the labor room, the waiting room, the ward room where most of the action takes place. It was that kind of list making. Once I got into the characters then I started writing short outlines for myself; I imagined what we could capture based on the stories that were emerging. Sometimes they were so off the mark and sometimes they were right. We followed five to six characters fully and I knew I had to follow them throughout the stay until they got discharged.

KOUGUELL: Your advice for documentary filmmakers?

DIAZ: Certainly, persevere and be passionate. Be clear on what you’re trying to say, and I’m not even talking message. Know what it is you’re trying to say with your film and what you are trying to convey. If you know this, then things will fall into place.

Motherland opens in Los Angeles on September 22nd at the Laemmle Monica Film Center in Santa Monica with a national roll out to follow.

Learn more about Motherland.

More articles by Susan Kouguell

Susan’s Script Magazine article: Jane Campion Talks Top of the Lake, The Piano, Writing and Moviemaking

Jane Campion Talks Top of the LakeThe Piano, Writing and Moviemaking

Oscar-winning writer and director Jane Campion spoke with Dennis Lim at the opening night of her retrospective titled Jane Campion’s Own Stories, about Top of the LakeThe Piano, and being a female filmmaker.


Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars.  Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

Photo credit: Sally Bongers

“You can’t have the agenda to make someone feel.  You have the agenda to tell the story with feeling or tenderly, and how anyone receives it, is how it is received.”

– Jane Campion

Oscar-winning writer and director Jane Campion spoke with Dennis Lim, Director of Programming, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s opening night of her retrospective titled Jane Campion’s Own Stories which runs from September 8-17.

Among Campion’s many accolades, she won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for her 1993 film The Piano as well as the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or, the only female filmmaker to ever receive that honor. Campion is also the second of four women to ever be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director.

Jane Campion’s work is often described as visual poetry; her distinct vision challenges the viewer with her thought-provoking and often nonconformist, psychologically complex, emotionally wrought and raw characters and their layered worlds.  A masterful visual storyteller, her work is underscored with nuances of consistent tones and distinct moods in every scene.

Campion challenges the themes of the female gaze – how women are seen and how they see and capture the world around them – as well as women’s voices (both verbal and nonverbal) in her films, such as The Piano’s mute Ada, or Dawn in Sweetie who imitates and barks like a dog when snapping at her family.

Whether in film or in television, Campion’s work continues to revolutionize how stories about women and their relationships are conveyed. She pushes gender boundaries with her psychological examination of relationships and the lives of her characters with a distinct and raw vision.

Top of the Lake

The award-winning television series, Top of The Lake, is Campion’s return to television since her 1990 An Angel at My Table, based on the autobiography of writer Janet Frame, which was first produced as a television mini-series.

When describing the motivation for doing the project, Campion talked about her love for novels and their length and the opportunity to go more in depth with characters and stories.

I was dying to explore more characters. I saw “Deadwood” and rose from my chair. It was so brave, amazing and raw, it touched me and inspired me; I was thinking, this is where the freedom is.  At the time of “In the Cut,” (2003) cinema was in a bit of a crisis. Everyone was always concerned about, ‘Will this character be likeable? Will this storyline be likeable?’ The thought of having to please people was uninspiring.

The Top of the Lake series was co-created with Campion’s film school friend and previous collaborator, Gerard Lee.

That was one of the gorgeous experiences to have a writer with you the whole time.

In thinking about Season 2, I felt we explored the scenes of Paradise and the wilderness, and so I thought about moving the story to Sydney and how Robin would kickstart her life again, and her drive towards finding her daughter.  I was thinking about the idea of her having adopted out a child and carry that thought of the child for the 17 years, and how her daughter, Mary, would have thought about the mythical mother.

Jane Campion wrote the role of Mary, Robin’s daughter, with her own daughter, actress Alice Englert, in mind.

I loved writing the scene (when mother and daughter meet for the first time); it was one of my favorite scenes I ever wrote. It is such a cliché scene and it’s hard to put the air in something like this.

I do like crime stories. It appeals to that part of me that likes to find out the truth.  I get quite obsessive – about it mattering, does the truth matter?  A crime, a vacuous space around it, as much as you imagine it, there’s a reality around it. The mythic theme of the detective who has to go to the place where the criminal committed the act, it challenges you to imagine yourself. Crimes take you to the darkest places; it’s the restitution of society that it represents. We have the Elizabeth Moss character (Robin), particularly as a woman she holds the theme of being overlooked. She is restituting herself as well as Tui.

When you make films, you are telling stories and you try to do things that you personally are trying to discover in the world. When we made “Top of the Lake” and particularly with the women’s camp and the GJ character there is a particular take on life.

The Piano

One of the most commercially successful independent films of all time and one of the top ten grossing films of 1993.

We were actually surprised with its box-office success. We met Harvey Weinstein (Miramax distributor/producer) who was extraordinary in loving up this movie and bringing these types of movies to a wider audience.

The financier was a concrete maker, and decided in his last years of life to fund filmmakers and share the profits with them.  We were allowed to do the film exactly the way we wanted to do it.

Talking to people since then about the film, it’s such a female point of view. The fact that Ada doesn’t speak, her stubbornness, her interiority, her strength, her point of view, and the piano speaking for her, speaks about not giving a voice in the world – that is not to say you don’t have an opinion.

The Tenth Woman to Serve as Cannes Film Festival Jury President Since it Began in 1946

The Cannes Film Festival has been really good to me.  The year I was president, I suggested an all-female jury. I think it would be really great because for the first time, all those men filmmakers would have to think: ‘What are all those women thinking? What are the women going to like about my movie?’ But they wouldn’t do it. I’ve spent my whole life asking, ‘What are the men thinking?’ and I think it’s time for them to ask, ‘What are the women thinking?’ in a different way than they would have done before.

There’s that feeling overall, ‘Oh, the women filmmakers, let them have that moment.’ That’s what’s really irritating.

Preparing for the Shoot

I do a lot of drawing and sketching to work out my shot lists and to imagine the props, how things will look in a scene, the lighting and how that might be, how the camera might move. Then when you come to set, you know that you’ve thought about what you want and what you need.

Inspiration and Making the Film Your Own

I’ve always been a big reader. I read a lot of diaries as well. Diaries make everything feel very fresh and very real. I’ve always been nosey – like how people organize their bedrooms, their kitchen. I’d be happy to stare at people all day long. Gerard would say, stop staring, it makes people uncomfortable.

I love poetry. I think I’m very influenced by poetry, that sense of Keats’ poetry, all poets. They make something that is so easeful. There’s that sense of always having been there. They find that beauty, that ease, and that memorable quality to a phrase. That inspires me.

I want things to feel at once like they’re effortless and at the same time that they haunt you. Because I’m working in a visual form, one of the things as a filmmaker is trying to do your own stuff. One of the things that grounds me is that I have a seminal image; something that I might have seen on the street somewhere, something that is actually seen by me.

I remember for “The Piano” I was thinking about Ada and the little girl. I was driving down the street and there was a tall girl and a short girl and they were walking very close together and they had this brown hair that was shining and wavy together and I thought, that’s Ada and Flora. That togetherness, that was the image that made me know what to do with them.

That’s one of the ways you know it’s yours. It becomes embodied in you and therefore you know the truth of it. That’s true meaning.

Get more information about the retrospective.

Susan’s online WRITING THE DOCUMENTARY class starts September 7

WRITING THE DOCUMENTARY FILM

FOUR-WEEK ONLINE COURSE

Starts Thursday, September, 7,2017

Documentary writing requires research and an understanding of the audience’s expectations, and how the writer can keep an open mind when challenged by the unforeseen, including the exposing of surprising material and interview subjects’ unexpected responses. This course will examine and offer specific strategies for writing and planning a documentary.

READ MORE HERE