“You can reveal pockets of love through little things like Leonor, or through people, or through art, or through just being kind to the people you work with, being kind to your audience, seeing people as people.”
Despite the fact that it’s a quasi-action film with gunfire, intense fistfights, TVs falling on heads, and even torture, there is an immense well of warm and conscientious kindness at the core of writer and director Martika Ramirez Escobar’s debut feature Leonor Will Never Die.
“I think it stems from my impression or probably the fact that the world is a really sad place,” Escobar tells The Asian Cut over the phone when I ask her what inspired the kindness. “You can reveal pockets of love through little things like Leonor, or through people, or through art, or through just being kind to the people you work with, being kind to your audience, seeing people as people.” The kindness, Escobar says, stems from a desire to make the world a less sad place.
Leonor Will Never Die is a film that is swiftly becoming a favourite for many, as evidenced by its various awards nominations and wins (early last year it won the Innovative Spirit award at Sundance Film Festival; Escobar took home the Amplify Voices award at Toronto International Film Festival; it’s nominated for Best International Film at 2023’s Independent Spirit Awards). Part of its appeal seems to be that inasmuch as it is a work of art, the film also seems as textured as a person, reaching out to meet and engage with viewers to the extent that they do the same.
“I realized that after making Leonor, even the film itself was a growing character,” Escobar says. “I mean, we all treated it as a life form, but I didn't expect it to be so much a life form that even now that it's screening in theatres, it feels that the film is still growing. It feels like in every screening, in every type of crowd, depending on where in the city it's playing, what time of day, it's always different. And it just proves that a film or a work of art or cinema is like a person. Like a human. It's a growing thing, and it always changes.”
Indeed, Escobar’s debut is changeable, fickle, self-correcting, but also challenging and frustrating, rewarding rewatch after rewatch. The film is a kind of figure onto whom viewers project all their anxieties and dreams, and for Escobar, a figure that, in its kindness and fallibility and humanity, portends hope, trust, and ultimately a kind of freedom.
Accordingly, it’s tough to succinctly or satisfyingly pin down the plot of Leonor Will Never Die, mercurial as a person, or a memory of a person, that it is. It’s tough to capture in writing all the metaphysical and extratextual leaps and bounds it makes through images that often feel like grainy memories of movies watched in childhood, those charming stories whose dire moral planes and healthy serving of justice are a perennial balm to our milquetoast reality. One must try, nonetheless.
The film more than blurs the wily line between fiction and reality, doing away with it entirely as it has the titular Leonor (Sheila Francisco), a retired filmmaker, returning to an unfinished manuscript after years spent away from her typewriter. She’s having trouble completing it, and one day, as she’s clearing her mind in her garden, a TV carelessly thrown out a window sends her into a coma. Bedridden in a hospital in the real world, Leonor traipses through a dream world as real as rain – she becomes the hero of the action film she was working on, toying with her own plot in ways more tangibly and viscerally than an author perhaps should. Escobar tells me that because it took her four years to pen a “decent-looking script,” her inspirations for Leonor are vast and varied, which can certainly be detected in the various layers of the film.
“The filmmakers that inspired me kept changing as the years went by,” she says. “When I first wrote the draft of the script, my favorites were Spike Jones, Charlie Kaufman – the music video people who create fantastic DIY work. And when I was in the middle of writing, I was very much into the French New Wave filmmakers, and it's Agnès Varda who I would say is the most influential in writing Leonor during its middle years. [...] It's really a mix of so many influences. And in between, of course, there's Mulholland Drive by David Lynch. There's Welcome to the Dollhouse by Todd Solondz. They are the filmmakers and films I really like. There's Persona by [Ingmar] Bergman.”
One of the most captivating scenes in the film for its kindness, and the ways in which it is endlessly mineable for meaning, is the one wherein Leonor apologizes to one of her characters; it is a scene that serves as a tender lesson, showing us how to be. In her life, Leonor lost a son, Ronwaldo (Anthony Falcon) to an accident on one of her sets earlier in her career. The incomplete manuscript she enters into after her concussion follows a young man named Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides) whose brother is killed by the corrupt mayor’s evil son; Ronwaldo takes it on as his mission to protect his town against the corrupt mayor.
When Leonor meets the fictional Ronwaldo’s mother, Lolita, the latter weeps with the ache of grief at having lost one of her sons. The sight of the weeping mother moves Leonor, who, with her typewriter, was the architect of Lolita’s pain and tears. In a stunning and moving few frames, we see Leonor apologizing to one of her characters, a creation of hers, for putting her through so much agony.
“Leonor felt responsible for what happened to Lolita’s son and for how Lolita is now,” Escobar explains. “In the script in Leonor, Leonor herself wants to change her mistakes. She wants to rewrite her regrets. She wants to revise her life in a way that it becomes ideal before she passes away. But of course, we know that that never really happens. But I think as people, we all try our best to write the best versions of our lives. And so that's part of the thought, that act of having that conversation with a fellow mother whom she feels very responsible for since it's her character and her world.”
“For now I don’t feel like apologizing,” Escobar says when I ask her if she’s ever wanted to apologize to one of her characters. What she feels instead is responsibility. “It's more of the gravity of my responsibility as a filmmaker and probably creator or artist. I feel the gravity now more than ever, that whatever I make with people can potentially affect a person and how he or she thinks about the world, how they can be towards people, how they can probably help make the world a better place. So it's that responsibility that I often keep in mind, and I'm consciously mindful of constructing my work in a way that hopefully it adds something good to the world, big or small.”
The optimism driving through a lot of Escobar’s words and much of the film itself comes in great part from Escobar’s grandmother. “My grandma tends to redeem life to me every time I talk to her,” Escobar says. “I still honestly think that life sucks. And every time I talk to my grandma, it feels like she sees so much beauty in it. And I think I try to embody that through Leonor as if I'm learning also how to appreciate the world and its people.”
Escobar has travelled with her grandmother a couple of times in promoting the film, and she recalls the unaffected joy with which her grandmother approaches the world. Leonor is based in part on Escobar’s grandmother, who endlessly affirms the idea of looking at the world with the hope and optimism that Leonor espouses. We can see Escobar’s grandmother’s joy in Leonor, not only vis-a-vis the excitement Leonor takes at seeing her characters come to life, but also the joy she takes in wholeheartedly enjoying art and music in her real life to such a jubilant extent she forgets to pay her electricity bills.
“When we are in tourist spots, she [my grandmother] would often take photos of the flowers and the animals around and not the tourist attractions,” Escobar says. “And for me, it's a bit silly, but it's also meaningful. Like, I mean the good parts of life can come from little things, and I shouldn't be focusing on how sad the world is generally.”
Escobar says that she looked to many people around her as she crafted Leonor Will Never Die, looking for a collective validation from her co-workers — everyone from producers, writers, casting directors, editors, to those who assisted in sourcing funds — to ultimately assist in making the film feel complete. This communal filmmaking process is also something that Escobar believes has led to the film finding such great resonance among audiences. “Because it’s made by many people, not just one mind and one brain,” she says.
She goes on to note the amount of freedom she was allowed in the film’s production process, which facilitated experimentation as she looked for a proper ending for the film (it took a few years for her to find an ending that felt right and made sense, one that the producers felt was fulfilling and that the actors were proud of, she says). “Even in the Philippines, it's rare to have a producer entrust a director who doesn't know what ending to make,” she says with a laugh. “So I also think that it's that trust that led to the completion of the film and also the journey of the film.”
The labour of looking to others for assistance in completing the film, in creating something meaningful, can be seen in Leonor Will Never Die, too. Near the film’s end, Escobar herself emerges on screen, and we watch her conversing with a co-worker about the proper way to end a movie like Leonor. Just as Leonor appears in her own film as an active agent, so too does Escobar appear in her film, demonstrating the labour of creative construction.
In many senses, Leonor Will Never Die can be seen as a film about a love for film, about filmmaking itself, but there is also another, more universal pull to this movie that is experienced by any viewer, regardless of vocation; it presents a vision of hope and possibility despite hurdles or dead-ends, despite a TV falling on your head. The film seems a balm to an existential crisis we have been experiencing all over the world in recent years, even as, as Escobar says, it is certainly a particularly Filipino film, speaking to a rich and textured history of action movies and how the Filipino public interacts with creatives.
“We've seen so many sad films, especially at the height of the pandemic, everyone is just down and it feels like the future is the most uncertain at this point,” Escobar says. “So I just wanted something joyful, even for a while.”
Leonor Will Never Die is available to stream on Music Box Direct.