The Learning

PBS Premiere: Sept. 20, 2011Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: What is The Learning about?

Ramona Diaz: The Learning is about four Filipino teachers who were recruited from the Philippines to teach in Baltimore city. That's the specific story, but it's more about the social costs of immigration, what immigrants give up to come to this country to find a better life for their families. The Learning is very particular because it's set within a public education system. It straddles two big stories, public education and immigration.

POV: How did you find this story?

Diaz: The education reporter, Sara Neufeld, of The Baltimore Sun, was writing a series about one of the teachers. It was amazing. I had no idea that U.S. school districts were recruiting from abroad. It's not only Baltimore city. As a matter of fact, Baltimore city was late into the game. Bigger school districts have done it — New York, Los Angeles, and Florida were doing it. It was interesting to me and that's how I started down this road. I thought, "I'm going to shoot for one year and it'll be done." But, it is never like that.

POV: How long did you work on the film?

Diaz: I started at the end of 2005. I flew to Manila with the recruiters. First, I asked permission because I felt that the story couldn't be told if I wasn't allowed in the classrooms. When I was granted permission, they invited me on one of the recruitment trips. I started filming earnestly in 2006. We finished filming in 2008. I wanted to capture the journey of these teachers from the very beginning — from recruitment, through their first year in the system, to reuniting with their families in the Philippines.

POV: How did you go about identifying who you wanted to follow and what kind of stories you were looking for?

Diaz: In the beginning, I asked everyone. There were 400-500 teachers wanting to come to Baltimore city to teach. They allowed me to make an announcement before the interviews began. I said, "the idea is for me to film you being interviewed." Also I said, "of course you're more than welcome to say no, if you're not comfortable." To me that's the first test. If you're allowing me to film what is probably the most important interview in your life, you'll be good in front of the camera. A handful said yes. Maybe out of 400, somewhere around 30-40 said sure. I was expecting just a few, so I then had to choose from that. We filmed these [30-40] teachers. Once I turned on the camera, I just knew. To me it's very intuitive. Of course I was also thinking of my film. I wanted someone who was single and leaving a family behind, but no children. I wanted someone who had an infant child. I wanted someone who was leaving older kids. I had those broad ideas, but nothing very specific. However, during the interview I said, "I'm just going to choose the characters that seem interesting to me." At the end of the day some of them chose me too, because they were very interested.

POV: Tell us who your subjects are and a little bit about each of their lives.

Diaz: Dorotea Godinez is a science teacher. She teaches high school science. She had been teaching in the Philippines for 27 years. She was leaving behind four children and a husband. Then, there was Rhea, who I actually discovered in Baltimore city. I did not meet her in the Philippines. Somehow, she didn't pop up there, but she popped up in Baltimore. There was something about her that was so peculiar. I couldn't put my finger on it. She had married young. She had older children. She intrigued me. She was also interested in self-help books and she talked in that self-help manner. Angel was single. She's a middle school teacher. She teaches math. She's a great teacher. She's in her early 20s, but by then had been teaching for four or five years. Then there's Grace, who was leaving behind an infant child. She is a math teacher. In Baltimore she ended up teaching at one of the highest ranked high schools in the state.

POV: Are there specific subjects that the schools are recruiting for?

Diaz: Yes. They were recruiting for math, science and special education.

POV: What is it about the teachers in the Philippines that are particularly attractive to U.S. school systems? Is there a historical connection between the school systems?

Diaz: Yes. English is the language of instruction. That is a legacy from the American colonial period. The Americans set up the public school system [in the Philippines] very much like the public school system in the United States. They mirror each other. Also, there are a lot of education graduates in the Philippines which helped it become a recruitment hub.

POV: What aspect of immigration did this particular story highlight for you?

Diaz: I admire people who leave everything they know, everything that's familiar to them, to go to another place where they have no ties. These teachers had no idea where Baltimore was. I like the idea that they are saving themselves. They're not waiting for someone else to save them.

POV: Have they essentially become the main breadwinners and supporters of their families back home?

Diaz: Yes. They become the breadwinners of not only their immediate families, but extended families. Sometimes they even become the breadwinners of the whole community, because it's now known that they are people who have jobs in the United States and earn larger salaries. Coming back, they must now be rich and have enough money to support everyone.

POV: Their remittances back home are essentially a lifeline for their families to live on. Are foreign remittances a significant portion of the economy for the Philippines?

Diaz: Foreign remittances really prop up the economy. It's a big problem. As a matter of fact, these workers are called OFWs, "Overseas Filipino Workers." They are known as the "bago bayani" in the Philippines, which means new heroes. They're the heroes of the Philippines, because they are leaving, not only helping their families, but helping the country survive.

POV: What were some of the surprises that you can came across as you were putting it together?

Diaz: Angel and her Disney fairytale wonderland theme came as a surprise. I knew it existed, but I had no idea to what extent it existed. I forgot that whenever she was in her home, she wore a Disneyland sweatshirt. She was surrounded by Disney stuff in her classroom. That is all part of her vision of America — a vision of a wonderland. She goes to Florida and sees Disney World for herself and it's validated — what she came to America for. She relates this to her students. She says, "I was poor, but now I've fulfilled my dream. Now I'm teaching here."

POV: Can you talk about your filmmaking aesthetic? Why did you choose to tell this film in this particular way?

Diaz: I don't think I could have told it in any other way. It had to be in a vérité fashion because I was following a year with them. In order to get intimate access, I needed to be in their lives. I was lucky because I was living in the same city. I did tell them, if there's something that's uncomfortable, that you don't want me to shoot, we can talk about it. If there's something that we've already shot and you don't want in the film, let's talk about it. Or, if it ends up in the film and you're still uncomfortable, let's have another conversation. But of course, as I was shooting I had no idea what was going to end up in the film.

POV: So what are the elements that drive your filmmaking choices?

Diaz: We shot every week, one day a week, keeping in mind we had to follow storylines as they unfolded. Then, we chose which teachers to focus on. I was also very aware that I had to stick to the point of view of the teachers and not the students, because I didn't want a confused film.

POV: There are a few students who become characters in the film. How did the teachers culturally adapt to working in the Baltimore schools with a very different population and culture than they were used to. Was there training for them coming in, or were they just put in the classroom?

Diaz: There was training for them. Before the school year started, there was a week of training. There were certain things they were told they couldn't do. They couldn't be too "touchy-feely" with the kids. The Philippines has a touchy-feely society. You grab and touch and put your arms around people. It's part of the culture. However, I think until that first day, nothing could have fully prepared them.

POV: Have the teachers seen the film and what's their reaction been? It must have been a difficult year for them on some level. It must be hard for them to look back on it.

Diaz: I'm very thankful for the access they gave me. I think I was able to develop a trust, and an understanding that they could stop the camera rolling any time they were uncomfortable. That was always my deal with them. They've seen the film. Grace, the woman who leaves her infant child, she said, "I'm not that person anymore." I think people will understand that. It's a slice in time. It's a particular time in their lives. People evolve. I believe that the audience is smart and they do understand that in real life, feelings evolve.

POV: What's the percentage of Filipino teachers in the Baltimore school system?

Diaz: I think out of 6,000 there are 600 teachers. So 10 percent are Filipino teachers.

POV: Is the goal ultimately to bring their families here?

Diaz: They have as a matter of fact. Angel is now married, so her husband's here. Grace's family's here with her. So is Dorotea's.

POV: Can you talk a little bit about your filmmaking process? How do you look for subjects? How you chose them and then how do you approach researching them? Do you storyboard or script?

Diaz: I read. I read newspapers. I'm always aware that things are happening around me. Then, something catches my attention. I've always wanted to make a film about overseas Filipino workers. This film is my homage to them because I've always admired them, but never knew my way to tell their story.

POV: What is the particular point of view that you're bringing to this story?

Diaz: It's more apparent nowadays that what filmmakers choose to show is not necessarily what happened in real time. It is an interpretation of it. It is subjective truth. Although it may not be literally this happened and then that happened and this happened, it's still emotionally true.

POV: What would you like a PBS audience to get out of watching The Learning?

Diaz: I want them to experience what these women experienced. I want them to see what they go through. If it elicits empathy, I think the film would have succeeded. I want them to know that there are people all over the world who sacrificed to come to this country — sacrificed big time.