L.A. Asian Pacific Film Fest Interview: Michele Josue on Crafting a Careful Portrait of the Fil-Am Community in “Nurse Unseen”

At one point in “Nurse Unseen,” Jo Koy can be seen during a standup special joking “This is a good day to get injured in a show,” well aware that many of those who have come to see the Filipino-American comedian are likely in the health care service industry, an observation so glaring that later on in Michele Josue’s compelling history of the Fil-Am community’s profession of choice, Michael Che and Colin Jost traded one-liners at the Emmys about how unrealistic “ER” was when in 15 seasons of the show, no Filipino nurses ever commanded the spotlight, let alone could be seen in the background. They are front and center throughout Josue’s second feature, a warm look at the selfless work of Fil-Am nurses whose role in the U.S. health care system came to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic when so many worked on the front lines and suffered a disproportionate amount of deaths, making up just four percent of the overall nursing staff of hospitals nationally.

As “Nurse Unseen” notes, Rosary Celaya-Olega, the first nurse to pass away in America due to the virus was Filipino, coming out of retirement when the COVID crisis called – and fittingly, May Parsons, the first to administer the vaccine in England was also Filipino, which was hardly a coincidence when as Josue lays out, the history of the Philippines as a colony under Spanish and American colonial rule uniquely prepared its citizenry for roles in the health care, trained to take care of others and ultimately becoming the country’s most prized export when taking jobs at hospitals in foreign countries that required skill and were unwanted by locals. In the midst of the pandemic, the filmmaker finds that this situation hasn’t changed much since the 1960s when waves of Filipinos arrived in the U.S. as a result of LBJ-signed Immigration Act and generations of Fil-Am nurses have become a backbone to the American medical system, content to keep their heads down and stay behind the scenes yet rising to the occasion in times of emergency.

Josue wastes no time making clear the story is a personal one to her as her family and colleagues of the late Dodo Cueva recall the dedication of the veteran of the Children’s National Hospital in the opening minutes of “Nurse Unseen,” but widens the scope considerably in the film that follows as she looks into ERs and ICUs to find all the nurses that save lives every day while making a life for themselves in America and supporting families back in the Philippines. With the film about to take the west coast by storm with premieres this week and next at the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival and CAAMFest in San Francisco, the director spoke about getting her arms around such an enormous subject, filming in hospitals in the midst of a pandemic and investing the film with a sense of kapwa throughout.

It seems incredible that no one has made a movie about this subject before. Was this brewing before the pandemic?

My great-grandmother, grandmother and aunts and cousins come from that path of being a nurse or a doctor, so it has been brewing in my mind for some time. My aunt was a veteran oncology nurse and she passed away several years ago, but she really had such a big hand in raising me and I always wanted to honor her in some way. As a filmmaker, I thought of course [that could be] through film and when lockdown and the pandemic happened, it just crystallized for me, like, “Wait, why aren’t we discussing the role of Filipino nurses in our country more?” We were watching the news and seeing how pivotal our nurses were in just caring for all of us and I thought that it deserved a bigger spotlight, so I talked to my creative partner and I was like, “This is a story we really need to explore and share with not only the Filipino community, but the greater community” [because] I think it’s just known as this vague joke, this stereotype that all Filipinos are nurses, but there’s a real history and a legacy behind that and I took it for granted. I’m making this film to learn more about my personal history and to impart that knowledge to others.

It’s such a sprawling story, did you know immediately that the best way into it was actually to share your personal connection to it at the start?

Yeah, we’re talking about over a hundred years of history and there’s various avenues into that story, so it was a real struggle from a storytelling point of view how do we even distill this beautiful, complex, layered story into a watchable feature-length film? In the end, a lot of the inspiration came from Dr. Catherine Ceniza Choi’s book “Empire of Care” about the history of migration of Filipino nurses, but I’ve done this in my other films [where] the easiest way to go about it is to just do a really simple, chronological narrative, so I [thought] I’m going talk about my personal connection to this story so audiences understand why this is so meaningful to me and how my story’s representative of so many families out there and then just march through the history of American occupation, how they brought over an Americanized-nursing educational system, and how that begat so many Filipino nurses, and how they wanted to go to the United States and then all the way up to present day, [finding out] how so many Filipinos were on the front lines and suffered so disproportionately in the pandemic.

We did have to give ourselves certain arbitrary parameters to make this story in our film, so [geographically] we decided to focus on New York and California because those are the two places in the United States [with] the highest concentration of healthcare workers, so both were epicenters of the pandemic and [we wanted] to talk to Filipino nurses who could speak to that experience, and then people just came to us really. Once we announced that this is a project that we wanted to embark on, people were like, “Hey, you should talk to my Tita, you should talk to my Tito,” and it just came about organically. We spent a long time doing our research and pre-interviewing people over Zoom and just finding the right people to really be captains of these different chapters in our story.

Was there anything unexpected that takes you in a different direction than you might’ve thought at the beginning of this?

It’s hard to think about because that always happens on a micro and macro level. When we were embarking on this project, we were not really aware of how the rise in anti-Asian hate would play into the story that we were telling, but we decided as a team that it was very important because it was so unfair that these nurses were literally sacrificing themselves or potentially sacrificing themselves in the hospital to care for us while battling all this vitriol and violence on the streets and that was something that we saw play out during the course of the filming, and it’s still playing out now, unfortunately.

You also manage to get into the hospitals at the height of COVID, which seems like it must’ve been difficult.

It was absolutely difficult to get into the hospitals, but we felt we needed that and we wanted to be in there and have our cameras and our point of view. Because it was still the first and second wave of the pandemic, we were finding it really hard to get in there, but we worked with Mount Sinai in New York and Los Angeles Downtown Medical Center here, which is Filipino-owned, and they let us come in and film with their strict parameters so everyone was safe, both in their hospitals and in our filmmaking team.

It’s really elegant how you do dip into the past as well, part of which includes these tasteful recreations of life in the Philippines and a lot of rich archival material. What was it like summoning all that history?

Yeah, we weren’t making a purely academic film. We wanted to still make it poetic and artful wherever we could and I really had envisioned before we started filming, how could we really capture the spirit of these pioneering nurses coming from the ’60s and ’70s? So we did these artistic recreations of nurses filmed that on different film stock, like Super 8, so you could really feel that nostalgia in the film grain and the saturated colors. And we had a plethora of archival materials to work with. I’m an editor, so I love just getting my hands dirty and there were just so many wonderful photos of nurses back in the day [when] they had to wear their all-white uniform with their hair up and the white nursing cap and white shoes. All those pictures were so beautiful and I was like, “This is our history. This is amazing.” It was a ton of material, so it was hard to cut it down.

There is a very familial feeling to it, but it is at the same time it is quite serious in intent, an incredibly tricky tone to pull off – were those things at odds as you were putting this together?

That’s my ongoing style I’ve been developing and the way I like to learn and watch things is with my heart, so with this story because it’s so close to my heart and so important to our community and our families, I really wanted it to feel like you were you were living with our families and really getting to know our communities on a human emotional level. So if a shot was imperfect but it felt warm, I would keep it in. It was really all about like maintaining a certain tone of community and love and family and togetherness. The Filipino term for that is kapwa and I really wanted to imbue that the whole film with that spirit so you know what our Filipino community is all about. It’s really about the collective and lifting each other up and supporting one another, so that informed a lot of of the artistic choices we made.

It’s early days, but what’s it been like getting this out into the world?

I often say that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, especially in documentary filmmaking and my first film took me six years. This one’s been a two-year process, but it’s been really special. As all independent filmmakers can attest, it’s really hard to just get a film financed and made, so to be at this part of the journey is meaningful. We had a world premiere at Cleveland International Film Festival and we won the Global Health Competition Award there and to bring it here [to Los Angeles at the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival], where a lot of us are from, —where I’m from, it’s a whole different experience. I know a lot of my friends and family and colleagues and a lot of nurses will be in attendance, as well as a lot of the cast and crew, so I’m just giddy with excitement. Also a little nervous, but we’ll see how it goes.

“Nurse Unseen” will screen on May 6th at the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival at 4 pm at the Aratani Theatre at JACCC and CAAMFest in San Francisco on May 12th at the Great Star Theater at 7:15 pm.

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