Indie drama highlights plight of leprosy survivors
“We want this to be a story of triumph, something that will remove the stigma attached to the island,” declared filmmaker Alvin Yapan on why he agreed to work on a film project that highlights the lives and struggles of members of the leper colony in Culion, Palawan.
“We don’t want to add to the stigma attached to being a leper. They don’t want to be called lepers or ketongin, but patients or survivors. They don’t want to refer to the disease as ketong or leprosy; they prefer Hansen’s disease,” explained Yapan when the movie, “Culion,” was presented to reporters recently.
Yapan said he was well aware of how difficult it would be to direct “Culion,” which is currently in its preproduction stage. “But the fact that it’s Ricky Lee writing it has caught my attention. It’s my first time to direct a movie I didn’t write myself. I don’t know why, but I always seem to gravitate to themes that are challenging to tell.”
Yapan is the director of the controversial 2016 crime-drama “Oro,” infamous for featuring scenes involving dogs getting slaughtered.
Lee said the story is set between 1940 and 1941, at a time when leprosy still had no cure. “If you have the disease, wherever you are in the Philippines, you will be brought to Culion, which was like a prison. You will no longer see your loved ones,” he added.
The movie tells the story of three best friends (Anna, Doris and Ditas). “The first character entered the colony when she was 9,” Lee shared with reporters. “She grew up being brave, determined to leave the colony. She refuses to fall in love because this will force her to stay on the island. But she will eventually bear a child.”
The second character, meanwhile, has had several failed attempts to kill herself, said Lee. “Five years before being sent to the colony, she left her fiancé without any explanation, after she learned that she has the disease,” he explained. “The third one, Ditas, is a woman of faith. She believes that a cure will soon be discovered.”
Lee explained that the story was not “true to life, but is based on true experiences. It’s a composite. We will not include details in the story that did not happen for real.”
Producer Mark Shandii Bacolod said they have met several survivors. “They’re healthy, although they have visible markings. We had dinner with them and the meeting had been very emotional. ’Di namin kinaya.”
Bacolod said they recently organized a two-day audition and are already in the process of completing the cast. “We will be flying everyone to Culion,” he announced.
Yapan added: “Imagine that there are patients who come from different parts of the country—Bicolano, Tagalog, Bisaya, and indigenous groups like the Tagbanua—as well as French, Spanish, Japanese and Americans. They’re all on a small island, interacting.”
Bacolod explained that this led to the creation of a Culion union. “To unite them, they created a small government, with its own money. Our research was thorough,” he said. “Now they’re starting to accommodate tourists. Culion is now a safe and happy place in the middle of the sea.”
There’s a need to tell the story of the community that existed there, Yapan insisted. “Only recently, Culion has become a municipality of Palawan again. Life there is slowly changing. It will be sad if we would simply forget this particular chapter in our country’s history—because it’s very unique. They say Culion is one of the biggest and most advanced leprosaria in the world, yet no one seems to be highlighting this.”
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