Gwapa (Beautiful) is a vibrant, real-life story about two unlucky Filipino families and their struggle for a healthy future. This is a stunning and remarkable tale of faith, will, and love that spans over a year, and hopefully, two mission trips. My connection to this cause goes back to 2009 when I travelled to Ecuador with Faces of Tomorrow, a non profit organization that offers free facial reconstructive surgeries to children in need. I was excited, to say the least. But I was a little overwhelmed too. I was offered the project with only a couple weeks to prepare. Not to mention, it was my first documentary ever and I was completely on my own. I knew it was going to be difficult, both physically and emotionally, but I wasn’t expecting this experience to have the tremendous life changing effect that it did. It was incredible to see so many families’ dreams come true. To see the joy in their eyes that their child will grow up healthy. Beyond my bleeding heart, I’m also a very curious person. The surgical aspect of the mission was mind-blowing. I spent hours upon hours in the surgery rooms observing these incredible operations. The precision needed to operate on an infant is truly a gift. Clearly awe-struck, I must have asked a million questions. Fortunately, all the doctors and nurses obliged my curiosity. Thanks to my wonderful teachers, I’m quite confident with my knowledge of the subject, for a layman that is! After 10 emotional days, I returned home feeling rejuvenated. Like after most trips to third world countries, I was full of thankfulness for all the fortunes I had in my life. I made a ten minute short film appropriately titled “Faces of Tomorrow” that was mainly used as a promotional tool for the organization. However, I entered it into a few festivals, in hopes of bringing the cause to a wider audience. The film won Best Documentary at the 2010 Octaedro Film Festival in Quito, Ecuador and it was nominated for a 2009 Maverick Movie Award for Best Chronicle.
However, I really wanted a lot more exposure for the cause and the importance of Faces of Tomorrow’s work. So when Dr. Brian Rubinstien, founder of Faces of Tomorrow, approached me about documenting their 2011 mission trip to Bohol, Philippines, I jumped on the opportunity to take another stab at producing a better film on this crucial subject. Having travelled with Faces of Tomorrow on a previous mission, I thought I was prepared for this experience. But I was completely wrong. The poverty and the severity of the cleft deformities among the Filipino people is staggering. I was absolutely blown away and felt impassioned to bring light to the extremity of the conditions. This is the primary motive behind this documentary. We hope that Gwapa (Beautiful) will serve as an educational resource to help perpetuate local, national, and international discussions pertaining to cleft issues in developing countries like the Philippines. Since many people in wealthy countries aren’t aware of the problem, we hope this film will shed light on a culture hardly explored and how its poorest deal with personal strife.
As I stated above, there are two families featured in this film. But for the purposes of the article, I’ll only focus on the main characters. When I first learned of the Bulabos family, I knew there was a wonderful, real-file story to be told. Once I met them all in person, my suspicions were realized. Teodoro Bulabos and his wife, Violetta, are caring and kind-hearted people. Their children are like any other children, but even sweeter and happier. Teodoro Bulabos and his wife, Violetta, live near the southern coast of Pitogo Island with their five children, three of which were born with severe cleft lip and cleft palate deformities. They live in a small, bamboo hut without running water or electricity. Teodoro and Violetta are very poor, but they are hard-working and loving parents. Sadly, the Bulabos children don’t socialize much with the other kids in their village for fear of getting teased. As a mother, it has been Violetta’s long-term hope to get their clefts fixed as it hurts her to see her children ridiculed. Beyond that, kids born with cleft deformities, especially open palates, are far more susceptible to disease that can result in serious illnesses and death. Like many other Filipinos, Teodoro and Violetta have little access to medical care. The dream of a healthy future for their family was a distant one until Violetta heard about the Faces of Tomorrow mission in Tagbilarin City, the capitol of Bohol. The family is too poor to afford the expensive eight hour journey by bus and boat. So, Faces of Tomorrow sent an outreach team to bring the family to the hospital, fully paid. Teodoro couldn’t miss a day of work, so Violetta and her eldest daughter, Liza Mae, had to make the long journey with the young kids alone. There is no guarantee that the children will receive the surgeries they need, but thankfully, all three kids were chosen as patients. However, the three kids were scheduled for surgery on the same day. It was something of wonder to watch Violetta care for her kids through that tough sixteen hour day. Afterwards, she had quite the fan club.
It didn’t take long to fall in love with this wonderful family. Violetta’s three children, Ruby, Zubael, and Aires, are some of the happiest and loving children I’ve ever met. Almost instantly, my fellow filmmaker and close friend, Sabina Padilla, and I felt totally accepted. It was no wonder there were lots of tears when we had to say good bye to them. Likewise, the thought of never seeing the Bulabos family again was devastating. Violetta is not only an amazing mom, but she is a remarkable woman as well, and I felt especially close to her. Even though I couldn’t speak the same language, there was a mutual respect and love for one another. Her eyes are very kind and her smile lights up the room. I feel incredibly privileged to have met and documented such a strong and powerful woman. Same goes for her kids. They are some of the poorest people I’ve ever met, living on $1-2 a day, yet they are absolutely content with what they have. I found that to be the most inspirational part of their story. Violetta and Teodoro don’t want wealth or possessions, they only want their kids to grow up healthy. After spending seven days in a metropolitan city, they couldn’t wait to get back to their “nipa hut,” even though there wasn’t much to go back to. Living in the US, this type of mentality is completely unheard of. In the three weeks I spend in the Philippines, I never encountered a single beggar. Overall, this experience made me reevaluate my own life in so many ways and has made a much better person. I’m forever in their debt for that.
This experience has also taught me the importance of creating a well-rounded story. Gwapa (Beautiful) started out as short film and has since taken on a life of its own. I edited a rough cut from a terabyte of footage from last year’s mission, which was quite a feat to do on my lonesome and left me feeling very drained. I also felt that I was too close to the subject and it only had an effect on me given my personal experience with the families we featured. I really didn’t think there was any more than a twenty minute story there. But after sharing the rough cut with close friends and family, I was blown away by the positive feedback. The unanimous comment was the desire to see more of the families and I completely agreed. Gwapa (Beautiful)’s inspirational message deserves more attention, especially since we intend to reach a large audience. So, I assembled a team of passionate and dedicated filmmakers, Carlos Espinoza, Lindsey Rowe, and Sabina Padilla, to help me raise the funds to complete the film. Gwapa (Beautiful) is a time sensitive project because Zubael and Aires will be getting their second set of reconstructive surgeries this January, when Faces of Tomorrow will travel back to the Philippines for another mission. Likewise, we plan to spend over two weeks with these families to explore their daily lives, including school, work, religion, and tradition, compiling all the ingredients needed for a solid documentary.
Just a few weeks ago, we decided that crowd-funding was our best bet under the time restraints we’re facing with the January 2012 deadline. Either we make the money now to fund the trip or we don’t film the second mission. Such is the life of a documentary! It’s a given that it’s not going to be an easy task raising a large chunk of money. But as a crowd-funding veteran of a successful campaign, I find solace in knowing that there’s a wonderfully supportive and loyal indie filmmaking community ready to support our endeavor. It’s really a family effort! That’s the single most important factor behind my decision to crowd-fund for this project, just 6 months after my first campaign for my short period thriller, “Feast of the Foolish.” It’s not just about donations, it’s about getting others to help you spread the word. And we’ve been so fortune to have so many people join our cause from day one. We’re just half way through our campaign and we’ve already been featured on Indiegogo’s homepage and as their Project of the Day. That’s all because of the caring filmmaking and philanthropy communities and their help in promoting Gwapa (Beautiful) on our behalf. Likewise, the project has been featured on websites like Take Part and Kidult as well. As a filmmaker, it’s so important to have support for your films and crowd-funding is such a great way to get people pumped about your film. It’s wonderful to know that we’re not the only people excited to see this film get made. As a filmmaker and a humanist, that’s the best gift I could have asked for this holiday season. To learn more about how you can get involved with this inspirational film, please visit www.indiegogo.com/gwapa-film, www.gwapafilm.com, or www.facebook.com/gwapafilm.
Meg Pinsonneault is an award-winning filmmaker/screenwriter in the LA area and a crowd-funding veteran. She is known for her enthusiastic and contagious dedication to indie and DIY filmmaking. She is the co-founder of Weird Pixel and the director/producer of the upcoming feature documentary, Gwapa (Beautiful). In the filmmaker’s own words, “Where there is a camera, there is a way.” Follow Meg on Twitter and on Facebook.
Filmmaker Meg Pinsonneault on the best way to approach corporate sponsors, whether she is plan-oriented or fatalistic, why she feels she is on the right career path and how to use jealousy as motivation.