Celina Mae Medina is a 22-year-old Filipina independent filmmaker, and her graduate short film Ophelia has been garnering international festival acclaim. The film revolves around a depressed college student and her various attempts at acquiring medical help. While the rising numbers of mental illness sufferers amongst youth is a worldwide epidemic, the escalating numbers in the Philippines are further exacerbated by a culture strained by stigma. After a near thirty year battle, the country’s Mental Health Law, which recognises mental health as a basic human right, was finally signed in 2018.
Medina’s film focuses not only on the titular character but her parents, too — placing emphasis on the growing divide between the educated youth and an older generation that was honed to believe that ‘positive thinking’ and quack doctors are the answer to mental health conditions.
In May, Ophelia will be screened as part of the Cannes Short Film Corner. Medina’s film aspires to further catalyse the growing conversation surrounding mental health in the Philippines and around the world, so I caught up with her before she heads to the festival.
GM: Hi Celina Mae! First of all, I want to congratulate you on your film’s selection for the Cannes Short Film Corner. Did you always want to be a filmmaker?
CM: Hello! When I was younger I was actually already set on becoming a lawyer. However, honestly, I’ve always been entranced by films. It wasn’t until I realised that I enjoyed writing, editing videos, and being behind the camera, that I want to become a filmmaker. I come from a middle-class [Filipino] family and my parents are supportive of whatever path I choose. I am privileged to be able to change my goals and pursue filmmaking as a career.
GM: Being a filmmaker myself, and a Filipino one at that, I am curious to know about the film scene in Manila. Do you think there’s enough support for independent and aspiring filmmakers? Especially aspiring female filmmakers like yourself?
CM: I believe that our industry is more progressive nowadays and there are a lot of female filmmakers out there that inspire me such as Sigdrid Bernardo, Dwein Balthazar, and Antonette Jadaone. But honestly, I believe that our independent filmmakers need more support especially from the government and the masses. The biggest competition of local filmmakers are Hollywood films and as much as we like foreign films, it is important that we prioritise our local filmmakers.
GM: And just a follow up, I am currently on a mission to watch more films by Filipino filmmakers, I’m such a fan of Sigrid Andrea Bernardo and Petersen Vargas. Are there any other Filipino filmmakers that you wish mainstream audiences paid more attention to or are inspired by?
CM: I love Sigrid Bernardo’s works! I have my eye on Dwein Balthazar as well. Her film Gusto Kita With All My Hypothalamus really left an impact to me. However, I know that her work may not be for everyone.
GM: I initially found out about your work through an old high school friend on Facebook, she shared a link to your campaign and trailer. Like Ophelia, she’s currently studying in Manila. Your film’s themes have undoubtedly resonated with a lot of people our age. What made you want to tackle the topic of mental health?
CM: Well I have always been an advocate of mental health and using it as a primary topic for my thesis just made sense to me. It’s funny because throughout my thesis journey, I finally had the courage to seek help for myself and get diagnosed. Because of my thesis, because of Ophelia, I found out that I have a bipolar II disorder and finally got the treatment that I desperately needed.
GM: Not only did you direct Ophelia, you also wrote the script (which I think you did a wonderful job at by the way!). What sort of pre-production and research did you do for such a delicate and current topic?
CM: Since it’s my thesis film, we were required to do thorough research before even writing the script. I chose autoethnography as the main method for my thesis. It is a form of qualitative research wherein an author uses self-reflection and writing to explore anecdotal and personal experience [to connect] to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings
I used my personal narratives of first-hand experience with depression and second-hand from my family and peers. It took me two years to finish this research because during that time my depression was getting the best of me. But this thesis, although it was one of my main stresses at the time, also became my own therapy.
GM: One of the things that really touched me while watching your short film was how it did not dwell on Ophelia’s sexuality. It incorporated her relationship with another woman like any other heterosexual relationship, something I still rarely see with films and TV shows from the Philippines. What made you decide to include this aspect of Ophelia’s life in the film?
CM: Well for one thing, I also identify as a member of the LGBT community. There are tons of cases about LGBT people suffering from depression that some studies even claim that our sexuality is a factor in our depression. But I didn’t dwell on Ophelia’s sexuality because I wanted people to see her as herself. She is more than just her sexuality. She is made of a multitude of things. I didn’t want people to succumb to a surface level understanding that Ophelia is depressed because of her sexuality. If you are asking me why I decided that Ophelia should have a girlfriend, well I would ask “why not?”
GM: Another thing I really loved about your film was the beautiful cinematography. How was finding and collaborating with your director of photography?
CM: My DoP and gaffer are friends of mine. It’s been amazing collaborating with them because [they] have a similar vision for the film. They manage to understand what I have in mind and seamlessly translate it visually.
GM: Finally, I want to ask about your future projects. Are there any themes or topics you’re keen to tackle in your projects after Ophelia?
CM: Well, colleagues of mine are recommending that I make a full length out of Ophelia but honestly, I’m not sure if I like that idea myself. I recently made another short script but this time it’s more about life and death in general. I guess it can be seen as cynical but to me it’s a celebration of life. I’m not sure when will I produce it but I am still working on rewriting it.
For now I also want to focus on learning how to produce films. I’ve been collaborating with a few of my friends/colleagues and I’m excited to see what we will come up with.
Interview by Graciela Mae
Graciela Mae is a Filipina studying Film, Television and Digital Production at Royal Holloway, University of London. When she’s not watching films, she’s probably attempting to make films herself. She swears she has other hobbies. Her favourite movies include Rushmore, Cléo from 5 to 7, 20th Century Women, and Carol. You can find her on twitter: @notgracielamae