Born in Quezon City, Philippines on March 30, 1955, Marilou Diaz-Abaya is one of the seven children of Conrado Diaz and Felicitas Correa Diaz; they were both lawyers and art collectors. Diaz-Abaya is a Filipina director whose background in filmmaking goes back to her education and devotion to telling stories. Growing up, she had developed an appreciation for the arts since her parents encouraged her and her sisters to take classical piano lessons, dancing, and painting. They were also taken to art galleries by her parents and so her eye for the arts set a good start for her career. Her exposure to art at a young age contributed to her feeling naturally at ease when she started directing.
When she was in third year high school at St. Theresa’s – Quezon City, she was asked by her friend, Robert Yupangco, to play the organ at a mass in La Salle Greenhills (LSGH). She met young Manolo Abaya who was obsessed with football and still photography in LSGH. Within eleven days, he became her boyfriend. The two would eventually share common interests, keep studying, get married, found a production company, and have two children together: singer and actor Marc Abaya, and cinematographer David Abaya.
Diaz-Abaya was a college alumna of the Assumption Convent where she took a Bachelor of Arts, major in Communication Arts degree and graduated in 1976. She wanted to study at the University of the Philippines but her parents did not approve. She planned to shift out after a year, but the Communication Arts chairperson in Assumption, Chinggay Lagdameo, managed to keep her in the department. Here, Diaz-Abaya became more interested in stage acting. She did plenty of theatre-related work for Assumption. She started out as a member of the crew and then moved on to play lead roles. Eventually, she handled theatre projects at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) where she became friends with Amang Santos and Greg de Guzman through her stage beginnings.
In college, Diaz-Abaya was not the ideal student. She smoked cigarettes, jumped over walls, and was punished by school authorities. She would go straight to Manolo’s car, stay there, and cut class—except for the ones she loved like philosophy, theology, and Spanish. After college, Diaz-Abaya attended the Loyola Marymount University. She studied Master of Arts in Film and Television and graduated in 1978 while Manolo was studying at the London International Film School. She graduated ahead of Manolo who was also preparing for a professional degree that would allow him to qualify to join the London union. Because Diaz-Abaya’s parents were conservative, they had to get married first before they could live together in London so when the couple graduated, they went back to the Philippines to get married.
After the wedding, the two went back to London. Diaz-Abaya took further studies at the London International Film School (Film Course 1978) where she practiced her hand in directing films. After graduating, the couple moved back to the Philippines. They put up Cine Filipinas Productions along with their friends from theatre, Gregg de Guzman and Amang Sanchez. The company was funded by their fathers with equipment bought from the States.
In 1979, Pablo S. Gomez interested Diaz-Abaya in the screenplay for Tanikala (Chain). The company had all of the key members of a production team: Manolo was the producer, cinematographer, and editor; Gregg was in charge of management and administration; Amang wanted to do sound since he had also studied at the London International Film School. Diaz-Abaya was tasked to be the director thus starting her 23-year directorial career. In 1980, Tanikala (Chain, 1980) was released. The film was not received well by the box office which caused her to doubt herself and feel like an alien in her own country. In an interview with Agustin L. Sotto, she expressed that she felt there wasn’t wrong with the audience for not supporting and reviewing the film. Instead, there was something wrong with her. Because she didn’t know what made Filipinos laugh or cry, this translated to the film.
The company lost a lot of money, but still had enough to make a few more films. After a couple of months, Diaz-Abaya was introduced to Jesse Ejercito, one of the top independent filmmakers at that time. Jessie expressed his honest opinions about Abaya’s first feature film. He then became her career mentor. With Ejercito’s help, Diaz-Abaya got in touch with screenwriter Ricky Lee. Together, they put together Brutal, the first of a trilogy of films she had worked with Lee.
As Diaz-Abaya continued to direct more movies, she stopped observing the rules and disregarded the expectations of her. Often receiving divided reviews, she said she learned to be more patient. After directing Brutal (1980), Moral (1982), and Karnal (1983), she was already considered one of the most dynamic and important film directors in the Philippines at twenty-seven years old. She spent less time thinking about the worth of her films and expectations of her as a filmmaker because she started to made films for the moment. She made films that are set at specific times and places, but it did not mean that she wasn’t offered to make sexy movies. She got bored with the quality of the offers with sexy themes and just couldn’t muster the courage to do it. Instead, she hoped to have a body of work on women, children, and religion in her career. She shot less films after the trilogy and then went into a hiatus from filmmaking towards the latter part of the ‘80s. Instead, she worked on television programs produced by Armida Siguion-Reyna until the early ‘90s.
The ’90s was set to remember the centennial year of the Philippine independence from Spain and Jose Rizal’s execution hence the production of Rizal-related movies in the film industry. Marilou Diaz-Abaya directed Jose Rizal (1998). With Cesar Montano playing the national hero of the Philippines, the three-hour film was a straightforward historical account of Rizal’s life. Financed by GMA Films, Jose Rizal is the highest-budgeted Filipino film of all time with a total of $2 million in production expenses. It was a huge gamble, but the film surpassed everyone’s expectations. Released on Christmas Day 1998 during the Metro Manila Film Festival, the film was able to return the invested budget.
There was no pressure for Diaz-Abaya to make a certain number of movies in a year. The projects also came infrequently—an average of one film per year—and so she wasn’t forced to give up other activities and interests. She felt like she was in the industry and out of it at the same time; she was somewhere around the periphery and was never really in the mainstream. After directing films in the ‘80s, she worked for television—a decision that she made as she was starting a family. It was also a decision out of boredom from the offers to direct pump-and-grind sex movies. She found them dreadful; one of the offers that stood out included a sexy film about a woman who wanted to have a baby but didn’t want a husband. She wasn’t interested in the stories so she could not muster the courage to direct them. By directing news programs for television, she became more in touch with being “Filipino” which translated into the next films that she directed which dealt with her other interests: being Filipino and her love for the sea.
Diaz-Abaya showed her love for underwater diving in her film Muro-Ami (Reef Hunters, 1999). Also starred by Cesar Montano, the film tells the story of Fredo who leads a team of one hundred fifty divers who employ illegal fishing practices by pounding corals to scare the fish and lead them into the nets. Written by Ricky Lee and Jun Lana, the film bagged many awards in the 1999 Metro Manila Film Festival including Best Actor, Best Director, Best Original Story, and Best Screenplay to name a few.
Diaz-Abaya passed away in October 8, 2012 from breast cancer.