Diaz began working on And So It Begins (for which local nonprofit Docs in Progress in Silver Springs served as the fiscal sponsor) in 2021, as she followed the lead-up to the 2022 elections in the Philippines.
The film chronicles the people-led movement in the country to restore and defend democracy and its intrepid female presidential candidate Leni Robredo, who was contending against the frontrunner Bongbong Marcos, son of former president/dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and no-holds-barred social media attacks. Though taking place halfway around the world, these dynamics—and the high stakes for the health of democracy—sound eerily familiar as we enter our own rollercoaster of an election year.
While Diaz notes that “It’s not my intention to just look for stories about women,” profiles of strong women are a throughline of her Sundance oeuvre. And So It Begins, which she also wrote and produced, is a companion piece to the 2020 Festival premiering A Thousand Cuts that tracked the courageous battles for a free press in the Philippines of Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist Maria Ressa and her colleagues. Imelda (2004) explored the life and work of Imelda Marcos (the mother of Bongbong and wife of Ferdinand), and Motherland (2017) portrayed the patients and staff of a busy Manila maternity ward.
A condition of having a film accepted at Sundance is the filmmaker attending the Festival, an experience Diaz calls “exciting and then overwhelming.” Screening at Sundance is a celebratory moment for sure, she says. Also, however, “It makes you feel very vulnerable. You feel exposed,” she admits, even for a several-time veteran like herself. “That’s your baby up there [on screen]. Will people like your baby, basically? And that’s the whole other level of Sundance because of having so many eyes on it at the festival.”
Although And So It Begins has already secured domestic public television broadcast, the director is still looking at other avenues for distribution, such as streaming platforms and international sales, and awaiting the critical and industry reception. “It’s just the beginning,” says Diaz of the premiere. ”You’re always hopeful about where it will go from there.”
Last year’s Sundance marked a low point for the independent documentary film industry. Despite a strong crop of well-reviewed features, very few were acquired and picked up for distribution at the Festival, engendering a lot of soul-searching and teeth-gnashing about the end of the “golden age of documentary.” Diaz is a bit more sanguine about the shake-out. “The documentary world has always had inflection points, right?” she said. “I think it will reinvent itself.”
In fact, she finds a few reasons to be optimistic about the future of the industry. She’s confident that independent creators will continue to create, despite the often punishing market conditions, “Films will get made somehow, because there will always be those storytellers that, no matter what, will get them made.” Plus, there’s an appetite for fresh viewpoints and content. “All those celebrity and sports and true crime docs, I love them and watch them,” she said. “But at a certain point the audience will start looking for more variation on the menu.”
Furthermore, “It’s our job as artists to keep on pushing the envelope in terms of how to view the world,” she argues, and to push audiences by showing “them stuff that they don’t even know they want. That’s what we’re here for. And that’s why new voices are always important.”