Marie Jamora: The Filipino Director Bringing Diversity To The Main Screen

Marie Jamora is a trailblazing Filipino writer-director named as one of the “Five Visionary Asian-American Female Filmmakers.” As a woman of color making a name in the film industry, Jamora faced a lot of adversity because of her nationality. She began her career in the Philippines by directing music videos and TV commercials, and many years later started her platform called “Cinema Sala.” Through this, she aimed to bring to light Filipino stories and gather Filipino artists in the performing arts and film industries. 

It wasn’t until she met the American filmmaker Ava DuVernay that her career flowered into the success that it is today. Jamora made her television debut with DuVernay’s award-winning drama series “Queen Sugar.” This opportunity opened many doors and helped her gain a respected position in the industry. Jamora has also directed short films and shows such as “Family Style” and “Harana” which earned her the Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative Short presented by the Sarasota Film Festival. From struggling to gaining recognition to finding success in such a competitive field, Marie Jamora believes in the power of saying “yes” to opportunities that come your way.

LASM: You went from music videos to short films and now on TV. What’s that been like for you?

Marie Jamora: I was born and raised in Manila, Philippines. I started off my career with music videos, which led me to do commercials, TV and then my first feature film. After I graduated from Columbia University with an MFA in Film, I went home and taught directing for eight years. But when I made my feature film, I got into the Slamdance Film Festival, which brought me to the United States again. I met my husband at the film festival, and so I ended up in LA because he was working there as a filmmaker. I came here just out of pure faith, motivating myself to make it all work. 

When you move to LA from a different place, you basically start from scratch. When I was here in 2013, no one was giving me opportunities to direct as a woman of color. We decided to self-finance my short film “Flip The Record” in 2016, which really opened the doors for me as a director. Later, in 2015, I made a pilot for a digital series called “Family Style,” which is a food and pop culture series, and I directed two seasons of that. But, when I moved here, I realized how invisible Filipinos were. I missed the camaraderie I had with my film industry in Manila. So I started a screening series called “Cinema Sala.” Sala means “living room” in Tagalog. It started in my living room and feature the Filipino filmmakers in LA. That’s how I met Ava. Meeting her gave me an opportunity to direct “Queen Sugar.” This gave me many opportunities in an industry which is really difficult to enter. 

LASM: Did you always envision yourself being a teacher?

Marie Jamora: I wasn’t teaching when I moved here because I didn’t feel the need to. But I got an opportunity to teach at AFI, and I took it. It was like the Universe calling my bluff. I then realized that teaching is something that I really love, not just because I get to learn from the new generation of filmmakers, but also because they keep me sharp as an older filmmaker. It also gives me practice for how I articulate my feelings about cinema and production, which helps me on set. 

LASM: What does “Ava Effect” mean to you?

Marie Jamora: In 2019, Ava invited me to North Carolina to this summit with other advocates of filmmakers of color. I came across many like-minded individuals who were working on the grassroots level. We began to talk about how no one was paying any attention to our work. When Ava gave us a grant, we were all crying because we felt seen and so supported. I remember one of Ava’s team members saying that when she moves forward, she has her arms reached out, and she’s bringing people with her. I felt that because she doesn’t just help people in her immediate community. She helps all communities. 

I was doing Cinema Sala primarily to make friends and watch more Filipino stories, which I loved. But because Ava recognized me, she made me realize that this was something that could create an impact beyond our community. There was a desire for our stories from people outside of our community, and we didn’t even realize that. I think the Ava Effect is really being seen, supported and it has created a new path for many upcoming directors. 

Ava really inspires people. I look to her to see what is possible in life and what is possible for my community. I’ve formed a production company and I’m producing my feature film here in America, mentoring a first time feature filmmaker who was in my first class of students in the Philippines. This is something that is possible because of Ava’s example and I’m trying my best to emulate that. 

LASM: What has your experience been like at “Queen Sugar?” 

Marie Jamora: In my experience, sometimes when you shadow or observe a director onset, you feel like an outsider. When I arrived on the “Queen Sugar” set everyone was very welcoming. Everyone would always greet you with a smile. I had never experienced that before. Ava had created this machine that a first-time director can fall into and feel very welcomed. And while I was working on it, I spoke to other “Queen Sugar” directors about how we had been directing for such a long time. Everybody had almost 20 years of experience before we got this first opportunity. One of our sisters said that her manager called us “rookie veterans.” That was such a suitable name because we had pounded the pavement for so long. This was the first time I was given a big budget and the first time I was trusted by a TV show so much. I never felt that before. The show is made with so much love and by such passionate people who give it everything. 

LASM: What is your favorite memory from one of the shows that you directed?

Marie Jamora: I think my favorite memory was shooting the family reunion. It was the first time that the ensemble had been together since season four. And the energy that I had felt in that room was really palpable. I was extremely nervous, but you have to finish in a certain amount of time, so I had to just set aside my nerves. I knew that there was a lot that I needed to cover because it was quite a long scene. I just had to introduce myself to all these characters I’ve been watching for many years and try to convince them to trust me with the process. 

LASM: Do you believe in divine timing?

Marie Jamora: I think God gives us opportunities and shows us the way. I rarely say no in my life because I feel that saying yes just opens up more things. And I believe that was the reason I crossed paths with Ava and was blessed with this opportunity. Growing up in the Philippines, I would see Oprah’s pioneering work through television and even through her roles in cinema. So being on her network is just the icing on the cake because she was the first to break down those walls and prove that there’s an audience and a desire. She encompasses such power. I hope I get to meet her one day, but I feel that it’s all in one divine circle. Talking to the other “Queen Sugar” sisters and hearing their stories of how they met Ava sounds to me like the doing of the Universe, serendipity or God. I think that’s why it’s so successful and why so many people are drawn to it.

Interview by Tricia Love Vargas
Read Next: Carmen Marron Shares Her Passion In Being A Voice For Latinos In The Media Industry

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