Diane Paragas tells a timely and timeless story in her narrative feature debut “Yellow Rose”

Filmmaker Diane Paragas

“Yellow Rose” is the timely story of a Filipina teen from a small Texas town who fights to pursue her dreams as a country music performer while having to decide between staying with her family or leaving the only home she has known.

I was fortunate to speak with the director of the film, Diane Paragas (“Brooklyn Boheme”). “Yellow Rose” is her narrative feature debut. We talked about her 15-year journey into bringing this personally inspired story to the screen. We discussed her talented cast, specifically Broadway star Eva Noblezada (Hadestown and Miss Saigon) who plays Rose, the main character. Eva is a Grammy®-winner and two-time Tony Award®-nominee, and “Yellow Rose” is her screen debut. We also discussed Diane’s hope that people who see the film will leave their politics at the door and experience the journey of an undocumented Country singing teen. Paragas described herself growing up as a square peg in a round hole, feeling different in a Texas town, but coming to a place where she really knows her voice. And the story of Rose reflects that. The film is at once very timely, and timeless.

Today“Yellow Rose” releases in select theaters across the US.

REBECCA MARTIN: How did you come to this project?

DIANE PARAGAS: I wrote the script a long time ago, like over 15 years ago. I grew up in Texas, and when I went to UT [The University of Texas], I was a square peg in a round hole–this weird Filipino girl in the middle of Texas. Of course a lot of the story comes from my childhood and upbringing, but as the years went on and I kept pursuing the film, it started taking on another meaning, especially this version of the film. I leaned more into the immigration side of the story, which incidentally was always in the script, but I followed the mom’s journey a little bit more in this version. And the trajectory was more about Rose finding a home, as opposed to “A Star is Born”-type of journey. The narrative definitely shifted, and is a reflection of the times that we are now living in. 

But “Yellow Rose” was always about a girl who wants to be a country singer, and that’s really it. It was this very personal movie based on some experiences that I had. I feel that’s what you want in your first narrative project, for it to be something really personal. And I think that was this movie, it just took me a very long time to make it. 

Rose (Eva Noblezada)

MARTIN: You have an incredible cast. Is this the first onscreen role Eva Noblezada], who plays Rose? I’ve never seen her before, although I know she’d done a lot of theater. How did you find her for this role?

PARAGAS: Yes, this is Eva’s first film of any kind. She’s never been on a short, and she’s never even been on a set. She was all Broadway. Having said that, she was a Tony-nominee at the time we cast her. We shot the film in-between her finishing up with Miss Saigon and beginning Hadestown, which won the Tony last year for Best Musical. She was nominated again, so she’s a two-time Tony-nominee, and a Grammy winner for the Miss Saigon soundtrack. As she is a Broadway person, this film is going to be her introduction to most people. Eva’s just an extraordinary talent. I really hope people can see this performance. It’s something to behold. 

MARTIN: How did you get connected to her, was there someone in charge of the casting?

PARAGAS: No, I reached out to her manager and had mentioned the script, which she really liked. I consciously did not go to see Miss Saigon. We had already shot a short at that point, but I knew she was tied up. I just didn’t want to get my heart broken. When I found out the show was ending, that’s when we had this window to send them the script, and I went to see the play. I had dinner with her that same night and offered her the part on the spot because her performance in Miss Saigon is incredible, but mostly it was because the way that she acted was very cinematic, and that is what I responded to the most. Even with all of that, I didn’t know what to expect until we started shooting. She just blew me away. 

Priscilla Garcia (Priscilla Garcia) and Rose (Eva Noblezada)

MARTIN: I would love to dive deeper into the immigration side of the film and how it paralleled with the relationship between the mother and the daughter. 

PARAGAS: One of the big things of the film is the fact that there are many undocumented Asians in this country. I think often when you say “undocumented”, the first thing you think of is the Latinx community. Filipinos are the third largest undocumented population in the US. But it’s just not something that you see reflected onscreen. My parents who arrived here, came on a Visa, and when the Visa ran out, there was one point where we were in risk of being deported. But as reflected in the film, I feel our parents kept it from us to a large extent. We didn’t really know it was serious at all. But it was. Luckily we were able to stay legally.

We’ve had our brush with immigration with my own family, but I certainly know a lot of people that have undocumented status. It’s just known as part of the Filipino-American community. This was definitely something that I wanted to focus on, because it’s a big issue within our community. 

Rose (Eva Noblezada) and Dale Watson

MARTIN: What was your reason for bringing the stories of immigration and country music together?

PARAGAS: It just kind of fit together in the story that I imagined. I think it was a metaphor for her loving this music and having the place where the music originated not love her back. Not just the music world, but the country itself was rejecting her. It just seemed like a convenient metaphor. 

MARTIN: What do you hope people will get from this film, besides just falling in love with the story?

PARAGAS: One thing that I was very conscious about when I made the movie was to not be this polemic film where you’re beating this ideology down people’s throats. I wanted it to be a human story that showed the humanity of what happens when a mother and daughter get separated. It’s not about pointing fingers, it’s not about forcing people to take a stance on an issue, but simply to show the experience itself. Like what happens, and how does it feel? I hope it gives a window into the lives of the undocumented, particularly young people who get taken on this journey and are not party to being the decision makers, yet they’re left in this position where they are either separated from their families or deported.

Rose (Eva Noblezada)

I also just hope people can leave their politics at the door, and give this movie a chance. I remember telling Eva, part of my pitch to her to be in my film was that I wanted to make a classic film that was timely and timeless. The kind of movie that movie lovers love. In this film, you have a romance, you have music, all the things that make a movie great. And I think it’s the kind of film I hope will bring back that love that we have of the theatrical experience, or being in a theater and hearing that beautiful sound–in this case, Eva’s beautiful voice. I think that there is something for everyone in this movie, and I just want people to get to know this character. She’s such a great character, and such a great story to follow. 

Rose (Eva Noblezada)

MARTIN: Advice for Emerging Female Filmmakers?

PARAGAS: I think the story for me was that I was just told “no” a lot. I was just told this is not a story anyone wants to see, it’s not a film that there is an audience for. Even after we made it, we were told that from a lot of buyers. A lot of festivals didn’t take us. At the end of the day, we were sold to a major Hollywood studio, and will be released in hundreds of theaters across the country. My advice would be, stick to your guns, and tell a story that is as unique to who you are as artist, and as a person. Because I think it’s changing, Hollywood is changing. There are so many platforms that you can make movies for, you can make content for, that are wanting to see these stories that are unique from female perspectives, people of color, from all types of people.

And don’t make a movie that you think people will want to see, make a movie that is personal to you. In film school, often you watch these movies, and there’s a tendency to want to be a copycat of those films, or to think these are the type of films that are getting into Sundance, and getting out there. Or the tendency to imitate your auteur hero, when really you want to figure out what your own voice is. Stay with that and you’ll get noticed, and will find people who will believe in you. But always stay true to yourself. It’s a simple thing, but I have the living proof that it’s worth it too, to stick to your guns. 

Rose (Eva Noblezada) and Elliot (Liam Booth)

If you don’t remember history, you’re condemned to repeat it: Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield on her doc ‘The Kingmaker’

I had the pleasure of speaking with Lauren Greenfield, the filmmaker who directed “The Queen of Versailles” (2012) and “Generation Wealth” (2018) about her latest documentary, “The Kingmaker,” during the The Chicago International Film Festival. She has spent most of her career exploring the idea of wealth and the truth behind it. In “The Kingmaker”, a deeper and uglier truth emerges from the story of Imelda Marcos, a woman with extravagant wealth, who was first lady to husband Ferdinand Marcos, president of the Philippines (1965 – 1986).

During her husband’s reign, she bought an island and brought in animals from all over the world so her son could have a zoo, and then evicted the indigenous people who lived on the island. Fast forward from 1977, and the aftermath is horrifying. It goes darker and deeper from there, as we disturbingly see this corrupt government under martial law coming back into power with the presidential election of Rodrigo Duterte. The film is chilling, and is a cautionary/real-life tale reflecting our current situation in the United States. This is a must watch for everyone before election time.

Andy Bautista and Lauren Greenfield at The Chicago International Film Festival (2019)

Read my conversation with Lauren below as we discuss her powerful and timely documentary. We were also joined by Andy Bautista, who served as the Philippines’ Chair of the Commission on Elections and also was in charge of securing all of the money that the Marcos family had stolen from the Philippine government during the presidency of Benigno Aquino III (2010 – 2016).

REBECCA MARTIN: What drew you to the subject of Imelda? Growing up, I just knew about her shoes. If you had a lot of shoes, people called you Imelda. I seriously knew nothing else about her or the Marcos family.

Imelda Marcos and her shoe collection.

LAUREN GREENFIELD: Yeah, originally it was her fame about her shoes. I had been looking at wealth and consumerism, and she was this iconic reference point, so it was kind of something from the history books. When I found out she was alive and back in the Philippines, and she talked to me, I was excited, but what really got me interested was the article about the animal island. 

MARTIN: Oh my god, that was so awful. Once that was revealed, I knew she was not a good person.

GREENFIELD: It was like the ultimate extravagance. People know about the shoes, but here was an island that was populated by indigenous people, so it involves human rights and animal rights. It was very symbolic because it was creating this unnatural situation that you can’t control, and that you don’t know what the consequences are. It’s like “Jurassic Park” (1993). And so the fact they kind of birthed this, and then had to go into exile, the animals and the people are meant to fend for themselves. Kind of a symbolic story about the consequences of wealth and power. The legacy that you can’t even predict, like the unintended consequences. 

MARTIN: I do appreciate you taking us way back, so you could see where this situation came from.

GREENFIELD: Well the island we shot, that’s in present tense. I was interested in what happened to them and what happened to Imelda. So I kind of thought it would be this survivor story. I was just puttering around with all of these things in her past: the dictatorship in her past, all of that, the rise of the Marcos regime, and the animals. I never expected it to turn into a comeback story. I thought that when she was a congresswoman, it was just a nod to her past. I didn’t realize it was the edge of a much bigger comeback for the family. A lot of the Marcos children were in office, but once she decided to go for national office for vice presidency with her son, that was a game changer. One step away from becoming the president again. Then it really turned into a political story. We ended up bringing in the past as it bubbled up. 

Imelda Marcos

MARTIN: I really appreciate that because it seems that in the news you only get bits of it, not the whole picture. It was great that you painted the whole picture. That kind of goes with that quote from Imelda: “Perception is real, the truth is not.” I appreciate you filling in the gaps with truth. 

GREENFIELD: I think in the past, people have dismissed her as crazy or delusional. Or in her own world. That’s where I started with her, and that’s what I thought in the beginning. But that is to underestimate her, the same way a lot of people underestimated our president, and didn’t take him seriously. She is really smart and full of agency. But I realized she was an unreliable narrator, and that a lot of the things she was saying were untrue. So I started bringing in truth tellers like Andy Bautista, people who you could tell were credible, those who give the audience a sense of what really happened. And that really dictated the structure of the edit. If you didn’t put the truth right next to what she said, you didn’t get it, because she sounds so convincing. 

MARTIN: By the end you don’t believe a word coming out of her mouth. 

ANDY BAUTISTA: But then she would give spontaneous admissions that were actually true. Like her saying she had a 170 bank accounts.

MARTIN: That’s what you were in charge of, right Andy?

GREENFIELD: Yeah, that would have been useful information for him. 

One of the reasons she was a great subject was because of her candor. Even though some of the things are not true, there are a lot of revelations because she has very little filter. And she isn’t afraid of anything. So like she’ll say–like she said to Andy–if I say the Picasso’s mine, can I have it back? If I say the Monet’s mine, can I have it back? 

Imelda Marcos at her home

MARTIN: That was a funny scene, although I don’t like to say it’s funny because it’s so messed up, but when she switched out the Picasso and Monet with family photos since she owed the money to the government. There you see the truth sliced right next to the perception.

But what I wanted to talk about was the strong women in this film, going all the way back to Cory Aquino, whose son Andy worked for, is that correct?

BAUTISTA: Yes and Cory was the one who created the Presidential Commission on Good Government to recover the Marcos’ illegal wealth. Then she passed away in 2009, and her son Benigno Aquino III became president, largely because of the mother’s passing. There was a lot of sympathy.

Leni Robredo, Vice President of the Philippines

GREENFIELD: And I think the current vice president, Leni Robredo, is kind of in the mold of Cory. 

BAUTISTA: Her husband passed away in a car accident, so there are a lot of similarities. 

GREENFIELD: And this is a person who does good. She’s fearless. 

MARTIN: Glad to hear that she is still going strong. There were some scary things that were happening towards the end of the film.

Etta Rosales, congress woman

GREENFIELD: Yeah, she’s fighting for her life. She’s fighting, she’s the head of the opposition, running against Duterte (Rodrigo Duterte). So her and May (May Rodriguez), the rape survivor, and Etta (Etta Rosales), the congresswoman, are incredibly brave.

MARTIN: I’m so glad they were in the film, just because those are other stories that are important to be told. There are a lot of scary people in this film, like Duterte.

GREENFIELD: And they are real. Duterte is so sexist. 

BAUTISTA: Did you hear the latest? He was given a doctorate in Russia. One of their organizations was giving him an award, and he said, “You know what, I don’t like awards. Just give me the most beautiful girl in the room that I can have dinner with, and I will remember you forever.”

Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines

MARTIN: That’s disgusting. Again, I appreciate you putting a complete picture together.

GREENFIELD: I’m tired of hearing about Trump. I’m kind of overwhelmed. Yet this story is such a reflection, it’s such a cautionary tale for us. I hope, that because of Imelda’s celebrity, there’s some black comedy in the beginning of the film, people will go on the journey, and also will reflect about what’s going on here. 

MARTIN: How long did it take to make the film?

GREENFIELD: It was a five year process. Two years mostly consisted of editing. And I made a couple trips too during that time as things started to change because the story was changing in real time. When Duterte won, I realized that was the end of the story, and that really implodes the structure. It wasn’t until I was able to establish the time between the Dutertes and the Marcos family that I could really end the movie.

Rodrigo Duterte and Bongbong Marcos

MARTIN: Not really a good ending, is it? I mean hopefully things will be good, but you’re right, it’s a cautionary tale. I’d like to discuss the idea of hope. I think that’s so important in these dark times, and I got hope simply from hearing those people’s stories who had to deal with the pain of the Marcos family and their reign–like the activists, and Andy. For the people who watch the film, they are going to remember these stories. As much as the idea that ‘perception is real’, truth always sticks, I feel. You hear people tell their stories that are full of truth and reality, and that’s the thing that sticks with people. And that goes with wealth too, like what’s shallow and fake . . . 

GREENFIELD: And in the movie, Imelda–the frames and the interviews with Imelda–are gilded, whereras the truth-tellers in the film are just raw.

Imelda Marcos

MARTIN: Very close-up. 

GREENFIELD: And very little decoration. 

MARTIN: What are your hopes for this film? What kind of impact would you want it to make?

GREENFIELD: I hope for us it’s a cautionary tale. What we saw there is how fragile democracy is, how in the space of one election, the things people kind of assumed would go away came back. Here we see the threat to our democratic institutions. It’s a good reminder that we cannot assume that those are intact on their own. 

MARTIN: Watch this film before the election. 

GREENFIELD: Exactly. That’s true for here and elsewhere.

Andy Bautista

BAUTISTA: My hope first of all, is that these kinds of films are very important, for Filipinos in general, to make informed judgements. Because judgements are being made, but they are not informed. Lauren’s independent. This production is not really a Filipino production, it’s an objective assessment of what the situation is. I think the hope is in its call to action. Right now there is a lot of apathy. It’s a bit riled up. 

I was looking at the people of Hong Kong who were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. If you think about it, these people are really fighting for what they believe in. 

GREENFIELD: I am really excited because the film is going to go to the Hong Kong film festival. And yesterday it was asked to be in Rio de Janeiro.

MARTIN: That’s interesting because there was another documentary that dealt with similar themes, Petra Costa’s “The Edge of Democracy,” about the politics in Brazil.

“The Edge of Democracy” (2019)

GREENFIELD: Yeah, it’s happening all over the world. Yes, the subjects of the film are dark, but I think the hope is (A) It could be a cautionary tale, and (B) there is a record, like you said, that can be seen as a reference point, with misinformation and propaganda. I think you’re right that the audience knows when somebody is telling the truth and when they are not. You have people like Andy, May, Etta, and Leni, and there’s just something authentic about their voices. And with Imelda, in the beginning, before you know that she is lying, you still get the sense that–

MARTIN: Like something fishy is going on. There’s something not right about this.

GREENFIELD: She is presenting to the camera, how she wants to present. Whether it’s moving the gold sheep…

MARTIN: There was that funny bit where she had all the pictures and she then knocks one off, and keeps going. Then a guy comes from out of nowhere and starts picking up the glass behind her.

BAUTISTA: And then Lauren focuses the camera on the man picking up the glass.

MARTIN: Yeah I guess you have to laugh at these things, but it’s pretty awful as well. 

I wanted to talk about representation. Could you share what you feel you were representing that is not represented as much in film.

Leni Robredo, Vice President of the Philippines

GREENFIELD: The misinformation that’s going on in the Philippines now, the real story of martial law, and hearing from the survivors. May had never told that story of the rape before we filmed her. That was so powerful. I think she was even surprised at herself that she was so honest in all of the details. I know the Marcos family have had a lot of platforms for their voice. It’s important to establish what the Marcoses are trying to put forward, and carefully deconstruct that, because we all need to hear the other voices. Those are the ones historically that have been deafened down. Because of the fear of Duterte, before the Marcos family, we don’t hear Robredo’s (Leni Robredo) amazing voice. The indigenous woman who spoke up about what happened to them are so powerful. It’s true that it happens to be all of these incredibly brave women who are speaking out. We’ve got Leni, we’ve got May, we’ve got Etta–I mean Leni’s the one standing up to Duterte, it’s unbelievable. So that was one thing to represent, and I guess the story I wanted to tell is how if you don’t remember history, you’re condemned to repeat it. 

MARTIN: That’s so true. 

BAUTISTA: It’s about the past, and how she is able to really rewrite the past. Again it’s the concept of this information of fake news, which to me, makes you think about the continuing relevance of the first amendment. The American concept has always been the interplay of ideas and the best idea will eventually win. I think Zuckerberg was saying that in Georgetown. But if one side has a little bit of resources…

Imelda Marcos’ son Bongbong Marcos

Let’s circle back to the animals. There is a very powerful message here about political inbreeding and dynasties galore. It leads to things not being taken care of…

GREENFIELD: Victims of corruption. 

BAUTISTA: She wanted her son to have his own zoo, like Lauren was saying. To her, there seemed to be nothing wrong with that.

Imelda Marcos and Ferdinand Marcos

GREENFIELD: Just to get back to the female side of it, it’s interesting how Imelda molded a unique power of that time. Being the kingmaker and expressing her power through the men, she was able to seduce and charm all of these world leaders with her feminine wiles. She said it was kind of helpful that they underestimated her. So I think, in a way, it is Leni that represents a more contemporary kind of female power. Again, like Andy said, she did get into politics because of her husband, but she’s using her power to express herself as an empowered woman, not somebody who is using her sexuality to manipulate. 

“The Kingmaker” trailer

“The Kingmaker” releases in theatres on November 8th, 2019