Diane Paragas on Her Portrait of an Aspiring Country Singer, “Yellow Rose”

Diane Paragas is an award-winning director, editor, cinematographer, and producer of narrative features, documentaries, and commercials. She owns and operates Civilian Studios, a Brooklyn-based production company. She is best known for “Brooklyn Boheme,” her feature length documentary about an African American arts movement that she made in tandem with writer and critic Nelson George. After being the first documentary to open the Urbanworld Film Festival, the film was acquired by Showtime and went on to win the Black Reel Award for Best Documentary. “Yellow Rose” is Paragas’ debut narrative feature film.

“Yellow Rose” is now playing in select theaters.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

DP: “Yellow Rose” is the story of an undocumented Filipina teenager. She dreams of being a country singer until her mother gets arrested by ICE and she is forced to go on a journey to find a home and find her voice.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

DP: I grew up in Lubbock, Texas, and when I was a teenager I felt like “square peg” music was also my outlet but a different kind than Rose. I liked the idea of her loving country music and that she was so Texan but the place didn’t love her back.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

DP: I hope people will get to experience the human side of what happens when undocumented families are separated.

I also hope that people will root for Rose and come to love her and the music.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

DP: The biggest challenge was really getting the film financed and made, which took a long, long time. People just didn’t think there was an audience for this kind of specific storytelling. Given the response the film had on its festival run and the fact that Sony Pictures acquired it and is releasing the film in theaters across the country, that shows that there is a place for this story.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made. 

DP: We got most of our funding from ABS-CBN which is the largest film and TV company in the Philippines. And the rest came from individual private equity investors who incidentally are mostly Filipino-American. I think it’s a great lesson to go to people who have a vested interested in the content of your film because they will share the passion you have for wanting to tell those stories.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

DP: I’m a cinephile and always have been, but I came to filmmaking much later in my career.

I didn’t go to film school. I ended up teaching myself film through my work.

I’m definitely motivated to make movies that highlight the other.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

DP: The best advice I ever received was never work with assholes. Something I still hold fast to today.

The worst advice I ever got was to make a female character “more likeable.”

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

DP: Keep making films. Listen to your instincts.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

DP: One film I greatly admire is Niki Caro’s “Whale Rider.” It had so much heart and I loved the story of family.

Recently I was blown away by Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” It had such a decidedly female voice and perspective.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

DP: I’m basically a homeschool teacher for my daughter, but it’s also given me some time to rethink my next film which I’ve reimagined as a WWII magical realism pop opera. More on that soon.

W&H: Recent protests in the U.S. and abroad have highlighted racism and anti-Black police brutality. The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

DP: Hire women and POC both above and below the line. Also, start changing the executive structure at the studio executive level since they are ultimately the decision-makers.

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