Alex Westfall
The Rose of Manila

The Rose of Manila screens as part of the BFI Future Film Festival from 18-21 February, free on

BFI Player

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Archival footage and reenactment evoke a moment in the life of young Imelda Marcos, the wife of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Imelda is known for her embezzlement of public funds and her unwavering refusal to recognise the human rights violations committed under her rule. The events here, based on a true story, take place a month before Ferdinand swept her into the sphere of politics and power.

Hi Alex thank you for talking to TNC, how have you been holding up during these very strange times?

I’m holding up! I’m lucky to have spent this past year with people important to me. There was a three-week period in the spring where all I could bring myself to do was chop vegetables. Just totally, emotionally numb. Recently, though, I’ve found that the most trivial thing will reduce me to tears—the keys of a piano, the way light comes into a room, a meme.

Has this time offered you any new creative inspiration?

Unexpectedly, this unlocked emotional dimension has made space for ideas and creative growth. All summer, I was in the darkroom making black-and-white images. Nothing beats the unhurried physicality of that process. For my ‘day’ job, I’m tasked with interviewing artists around the world who work in new media—filmmakers who shoot scenes within a video game engine; painters who compose within a virtual reality space. It’s magical to step into the creative universes of others, even if momentarily. I’m also bringing two film projects of my own to life and light... in slow, steady increments.

Congratulations on having The Rose of Manila selected for the BFI Future Film Festival, what does it mean to you to be part of In Their Shoes section?

I feel immense gratitude. It’s an honoUr to have the work recognised by the BFI—especially by its young programmers. I felt strongly about telling a Filipina story, not only because that is my lived experience, but because space is not quite carved out for our stories. Thanks to luminaries like Isabel Sandoval and Shireen Seno, that space is growing bigger. Filipinx narratives in film are often sentenced to social realist dramas, so I wanted to critique the country’s history through an aesthetic that subverted that. I hoped to show that Filipina characters can have dreams—even if those dreams pan out in a dark way.

Can you tell me a little bit about The Rose of Manila, how did this film come about?

In the 1980s, the Marcos dictatorship threatened my mother’s family, resulting in her exile to Los Angeles. That’s where she met my father. Whether I like it or not, there exists a strange, cosmic entanglement between myself and the Marcos's.

I grew up in Manila, and my fourth grade screened for us Imelda by Ramona Diaz. I had never felt so disgusted yet allured by a documentary subject before. In Diaz’s film, Imelda is profoundly unaware of the grief she had caused the nation, and harbours a mind-boggling obsession with beauty and wealth. One of my brilliant professors, Ariella Azoulay, introduced me to Anna Stoler’s idea of colonial aphasia—that crimes left unspoken over time result in collective forgetting. Looking back, Imelda’s incapacity to acknowledge  the regime’s wrongdoing felt applicable.

Flash forward to 2018, when at the library, I found what was essentially a book-length transcript of an interview with Imelda. The story of her participation in a beauty pageant in 1953—and the extraordinary outcome of that competition—caught me. She clearly wanted to be a star from birth. I found myself stuck on the parallel between Imelda’s quest for the pageant crown and the way she treated her public role. I also thought about the suffocating white beauty standards that enveloped my upbringing...remnants of the Philippines’ colonial history.

I’m compelled by Saidiya Hartman’s concept of critical fabulation: that we can enrich our understanding of the present through imbuing the archive with fiction and imagination. The Rose of Manila was an experiment in enlivening the archive, as well as in testing its limits.

What where the biggest challenges you faced bringing this film to life?

Strike a balance in tone—in weaving in Imelda’s evil (whether you see it as innate or learned) into her inner world. The line between history and fiction, between archive and imagination, is so fragile. You realise how powerful images can be in shaping one’s perception of a person, a nation, and history itself. There’s a responsibility with every angle, garment, facial expression.

Looking back is there anything you would have done differently on this film?

We finished the film in June. Since then, I’ve thought a lot about the ways the filmic medium has been colonised. What would it mean to make a film outside of white and western notions of time, narrative, categorisation? There’s a long legacy of artists who have been doing this work for years...Mati Diop, Apichatpong Weesatherakul, Tsai Ming-Liang, Trinh T. Min-ha, Garrett Bradley...I could go on! I think Rose brushes up against these confines—in the way history, time, and Imelda’s life might be rendered elliptical. But thinking even more radically beyond these structures is a path I hope to continue on.

What has been the most valuable lesson you have taken away from making The Rose of Manila?

Two days before the shoot, a volcano erupted five kilometres from our home base. Our set was now a health hazard and restrictions barred key crew members from travel. I was prepared to cancel it all...but in 36 hours, my collaborators and I rescheduled, rewrote, adapted. It was a miracle that we made the limitations work. We had also planned to shoot the entire film on 16mm, with the digital recordings as a back-up. When I went to process the footage, almost all was out-of-focus due to a camera malfunction. My faculty guide, the great RaMell Ross, encouraged me to embrace multiple formats. The collage of digital, film, and archival ended up lending itself to the confluence of Imelda’s past, present, and future. From all of this, I’m reminded to move through the creative process as one of discovery.

"It’s the greatest gift to hear about my work through the lens of their experiences and disciplines."

Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?

I think it all stemmed from my deep, early love for photography...and more generally, the process of looking. I made my first print in the darkroom when I was 11. I love the three-dimensional quality of film...Something about placing sound, image, text, time, and people in the same space. The aliveness from all of these moving parts feels proximate to life itself.

What has been some of the best advice you’ve been given?

I have the following in my notes from talking with another faculty mentor, the wonderful Jennifer Montgomery:

“consumable doesn’t matter!!! create something”

Poetry! I think it speaks for itself.

Should filmmakers continue to push the boundaries of the films and stories they want to tell?

With care, yes. Especially femme-identifying and filmmakers of colour. I think it’s easy for conventions sweep a project off its feet—coverage of a scene, the flow of dialogue, and I mentioned this earlier, but the linear unfolding of time. I notice these constructs are upheld by the technology, too—a camera’s settings, a writing software’s mechanics, an editing program’s layout. At a certain point, you realize the arbitrariness of it all. There’s a sense of liberation that comes with that.

Do you have any tips or advice you would offer a fellow filmmaker?

I love long-sustained phone and email conversations about ideas. I’m constantly bouncing things off friends who are ceramicists, writing books, directing plays, illustrating, studying law, programming computers. It’s the greatest gift to hear about my work through the lens of their experiences and disciplines. I get so much energy from every correspondence...and love to participate in dialogues about their work, too. It’s like you’re taking each other along on your respective journeys.

What do you hope people will take away from The Rose of Manila?

Can something as ‘worthless’ as a girl’s ego have a ripple effect on the destiny of a nation? I hope that people meditate on scales of time and causality; on monumental effects of an allegedly insignificant action. In many ways, it’s similar to how something microscopic will make me cry.

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