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The Future is Female: In Conversation with Filmmaker Baby Ruth Villarama

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As March heeds to a close, we culminate International Women's Month by featuring Filipinas who are breaking barriers in their career, one of whom is award-winning filmmaker Baby Ruth Villarama.

Baby Ruth has been telling stories for more than a decade as a producer and documentary film director. She earned her master's degree in film marketing and distribution from Birmingham City University in the UK as a Chevening Scholar. Through her films, she won the 2018 UK Global Alumni Social Impact Award for influencing global conversations and policy changes on migration and modern-day slavery.

In 2016, she directed the documentary film Sunday Beauty Queen, which premiered in the 21st Busan International Film Festival and was an official entry to the 2016 Metro Manila Film Festival. Baby Ruth is also a part of Voyage Studios and Daang Dokyu, organizations that enable Filipino stories to reach a wider audience.

Below, Looking for Juan talks with the award-winning storyteller about her experiences in the industry and in championing women in her films. Some parts have been translated for accessibility.

Why did you choose to work in the film industry? 

Maaga akong naulila sa magulang. Maaga ko ring napagtanto na lahat ng tao ay lilisanin ka at some point. Ang matitira lang ay mga kuwento at awiting magpapaalala sa ating kasaysayan, karanasan, at mga pangarap. Dahil dito, pinili kong ialay ang buhay ko sa paglikha ng pelikulang dokyumentaryo na magpapaalala kung sino tayo bilang tao at Pilipino na may ambag sa mundo. 

Maraming sa atin ang bumubuo ng opinyon at paniniwala base sa mga kuwentong nabasa, napanood, narinig, at mga kinalakhang tradisyon. Ang lente ng paghabi ng dokumentaryo ay bahagi ng pagmulat sa mga kamalayang ito. Kung hindi maingat sa proseso, maaaring magamit ang pelikula sa pagpapalawig ng galit o ilusyon. Gusto kong maging bahagi ng isang henerasyong nagpupursiging i-angat ang kapwa sa pamamagitan ng mga kwento na magbibigay pagkakataong na taumbayan naman ang maging bida. 

I lost my parents early. I also realized early on that everyone will leave you at some point. All that is left are stories and songs that will remind us of our history, experiences, and dreams. Because of this, I chose to dedicate my life to making documentary films that remind us of who we are as human beings and Filipinos who have contributed to the world.

Many of us form opinions and beliefs based on the stories we read, watched, heard, and the traditions we grew up with. When weaving a documentary, the lens we use is part of the awakening to these realities. Unfortunately, if not careful in the process, the film can be used to prolong anger or illusion. I want to be part of a generation that still strives to uplift others through stories that give people a chance to be heroes, too.

What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome in the film industry? 

The biggest obstacle I had to overcome in the film industry was convincing people that there's value in producing stories that matter. So many producers in the Philippines are comfortable in the short-lived form of entertainment that they often miss the big picture of opportunities to elevate the film industry. 

There is also increasing traction in documentary films from the outside. If only more champions could see value in that, there can be a sustainable future for real stories and hopefully create more impact to solve our enduring social problems. 

Did you ever think it would be less challenging/more complicated if you were male?

I've always set my mind to live in a genderless society. I firmly believe that each gender has its strengths and needs that complement each other. I'm thankful to be born in a matriarchal society that respects women. However, my heart goes to places in our society where victims of abuse still hide in fear. 

I bring my camera to communities to get any assignment done without thinking that being a girl is a limitation. My mindset embodies the fact that being female has many advantages to improve relationships. Filipina power is real, and we can choose to see the best of it.

Gender is also not the problem. The problem lies in the insecurity and poor mindset of people who think they have an exclusive right to look down on others—that girls are mere objects of power. The moment you hurt a woman by discounting her strength, you lose her respect, and no money, ego, or machismo can save you.

What are the advantages of being a woman in your field? Alternately, what kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face, and how did you overcome these?

In general, people see women as harmless beings. So when I do our immersions and research in sensitive areas, two things usually happen: I get ignored or get a gender pass. Both can work because I prefer to be invisible in my line of work. That's where I get to film moments as naturally as possible because I am welcomed as an invisible part of the community.

Sometimes it doesn't work. Access can be tricky because some people tend to require a level of authority from me. They are not aware that independent filmmaking exists. Sometimes, they see me as seemingly weak, irrelevant, too kind, too fat, or too opinionated that they exploit or disregard my ideas. Sometimes, they see fellow women filmmakers and me as a threat because we speak our truths, which I find funny because we carry cameras, not guns. I may be kind, but I am not blind. 

How did being a woman help you progress as a filmmaker? Did you have any realizations from your years of being a female filmmaker?

I dream of a cinema that can offer people something more lasting. Where I am now as a filmmaker is the amalgamation of various childhood exposures to people whom I've put on their shoes along the way. I realized that the experiences I witnessed from them and fellow female filmmakers propelled me to choose this career. 

I grew up watching Kara Magsanoc's Batas Militar amid EDSA 1 and the aftermath of Martial Law. I saw Ditsi Carolino's Minsan Lang Sila Bata in a dark room of our school, and Ramona Diaz's Imelda alone in a huge cinema. I threw myself on rallies, catechisms, journalism, and community outreach works. These collective exposures led me to find my purpose and improve things through my style of storytelling. 

There is also strength in numbers, of patiently paying it forward, so I want to acknowledge the men and the LGBTQ+ allies who understood the years and tears of working hard for a better society, for a stronger gender power. All of their works are the wings of my dreams. 

How do your work champion women? Could you give us an example?

One word: Sunday Beauty Queen. The goal: Department of OFWs.

Through the truths shown in the film, it became a neutral platform for communities and policymakers to gather and discuss, without bias, the areas that need collaboration to improve the conditions of migrant workers around the world.

We also launched the invisible crown impact campaign. We partnered with like-minded organizations, lawyers, and personalities that share the same passion for raising the bar to improve things for the better. I cannot change the world alone. There is strength in numbers, and that's how we champion women—together. 

Our films have also championed other causes such as the LGBTQ+ communities through Jazz in Love; discouraging the senate from discussing the reinstatement of the death penalty through Dance for Life; developing the youth, community, and sports through Little Azkals, Boy with No Shoes, and other films for social change.

What projects or organizations are you currently working on? How will it make a difference? 

At the moment, we are working on a story piece about restorative justice and seek the ability of women to forgive themselves from the bondage of their past. We are grateful to the Bureau of Corrections, Department of Justice, and the Correctional Institution for Women for opening their gates so we can find silver linings in our justice system's complicated situation and the inmates' families we're documenting. We're also working on a story about Doris & Digong and their personal experiences about press freedom in collaboration with exceptional journalists in the industry. 

I'm also working with fellow women documentary filmmakers (Jewel Maranan, Monster Jimenez-Cornejo, and Kara Alikpala) in figuring out how to bring more documentary films closer to people. We're mounting it on our own. We hope that with the right encouragement and support, we'd be able to finish it and share our work with everyone soon. 

If you had the option to advise young girls wanting to pursue filmmaking, what would that be? What is your message for women in general?

To all beautiful women out there, it's time to release yourselves from the authority you give others to control over you. You are enough. You have the power to live the life you deserve because you can, and you will, whenever you're ready. All you have to do is choose and fight for your freedom. If you want to be a storyteller, decide to become one and excel at it to support others. Wear your invisible crown, no matter how broken it may be. Then, the people who truly matter in your life will see that you will shine through. And when you finally do, please pay it forward so other women can shine and win. 

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