There is never any doubt during Diwa's 18-minute running time that this film, which is screening this weekend as part of HollyShorts, is far more than a story. It's far more than a personal experience. It's far more than simply "another" immigrant tale.
Diwa is a pissed off work of wonder.
Let's see if THAT quote ends up on their movie posters, eh?
But seriously, every fiber of Diwa's cinematic being avoids the caricatures, trite expressions, and warm n' fuzzy endings so often associated with these types of films. Co-writers/directors Aina Dumlao and Bru Muller aren't interested in making you feel better.
They're interested in making you think. They're interested in making you feel. They're interested in making you reflect and squirm and identify and wanting to get off your ass and actually do something.
Starting off with current U.S. President Trump's now infamous Mexican speech heard 'round the world, Diwa embarks on the fictional yet universal story of Diwa, a young woman from the Philippines who enters the U.S. undocumented in pursuit of a better life to help her family back home.
Diwa's story is familiar, one that is replayed over and over and over again in the U.S., yet where Diwa truly excels is in its ability to balance sympathy toward the plight with a stark honesty about the violence and exploitation inflicted upon those whose only desire, some dare call it a crime, is the pursuit of a better life.
Dumlao, in addition to co-writing and directing the film stars as Diwa, whose arrival in the U.S. appears at first to be met with warmth and welcome as Elmer (Eddie Martinez) offers her work and the future seems promising. Not surprisingly, Elmer's welcome is a facade concealing darker desires and depravity that, once disclosed, lead Diwa down a different yet seemingly just as dark journey through an immigration system that is often just as brutal.
The story in Diwa, while fictional, is one that resonates personally for Dumlao, a recurring player on HBO's Ballers and CBS' MacGyver, who has fashioned the emotional core of the story around her own personal and familial experiences. Perhaps, one might suspect, that is precisely why Diwa plays so powerfully - this absolutely terrific ensemble cast seems incredibly emotionally attuned to the stark yet vital material and the film, at times difficult to watch, is equally compelling and impossible to not watch.
In addition to Dumlao's stand-out performance, Maria Pallas and Leslie Thurston shine as two well-meaning Americans caught within the confines of bureaucratic hell and Shaw Jones is horrifyingly human in a role that could have easily come off as nothing more than a caricature of an abusive, hostile officer.
There's more. Much more to recommend about Diwa including Corey Cooper's mesmerizing cinematography and the original music of Ramesh Kumar Kannan.
While it may be tempting to dismiss Diwa as yet another familiar immigration story or simply as a reactionary piece of cinema, the truth is that Dumlao and Muller have created a vital piece of cinema with a story that captivates and a refreshing honesty that never compromises. It's a difficult film to watch, but it's a necessary film to watch.
You'll be glad you did.
Critic's Note: Diwa picked up the prize for Best Diversity Short at HollyShorts!
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic