Sunshine Lichauco de Leon – ‘Curiosity, Adventure and Love’ a Film in the Philippines
Last updated August 30, 2019
In this podcast, Sunshine Lichauco de Leon joins Derek for the second time. They talked about Sunshine’s fantastic award-winning film which is called Curiosity, Adventure, and Love, a documentary which is based on her grandmother’s life and it also gives some great insight into Manila and the Philippines.
- Sunshine shared that the film is a biography meeting humanity meeting history.
- For Sunshine, this film is a life project, working on it for almost 20 years.
- Sunshine shared that making the film was the most powerful thing that she could ever understand.
- The biggest challenge was how to weave her grandmother’s story with the history of the Philippines.
- Sunshine realized in making the film that Filipinos both in the Philippines and outside of the country don’t know much about the history of the Philippines.
- Her goal is to get people interested enough in the broad strokes of Philippine history that they will want to go learn more.
- The story of her grandmother and her experiences give us an interesting perspective on who the country was before the war and what the country might have done to change the people during the war and what became of the country after the war.
- Sunshine states that the film is resonating with people is because it’s reminding them of these basic human truths that we sometimes, we forget.
- Sunshine states that making the film was like a dream that you never dreamed of coming true.
- Sunshine shares that she didn’t really have a set plan for making the film. What was important was the story had to be told.
- For Sunshine, it was never about the money, fame, or have a global message. It was about finishing the film that she was proud of.
- As there has been an overwhelmingly positive response to the film, Sunshine states that this has driven her to make sure the film gets to as many people who want to see it as possible, not to make money but to make an impact.
- It’s important for anyone to understand the past and where they can go in the future, and how to reconcile the two.
- The film serves as a different lens through which people view life, opportunities, possibilities, obligations, and even pains in life.
- Although the film is about the history of the Philippines, it is actually a film about humanity.
- There’s so much in this world that divides us, but we have more in common than there is which divides us.
- It is our duty to help each other.
- The biggest lesson is don’t let go.
Derek: Hi, and welcome back to another episode of the Outsource Accelerator Podcast. My name is Derek Gallimore and this is episode 78. Today, we have Sunshine Lichauco de Leon back with us. We originally interviewed Sunshine back in episode 65, so if you want her back story, if you want to know how she got to this point go and listen to that episode.
In today’s chat, we talk about Sunshine’s fantastic award-winning film which is called ‘Curiosity, Adventure, and Love’. I don’t need to explain it here because we talk about it in depth during this episode. Really, it’s a fantastic film and we discussed how Sunshine came to make this film despite her having no formal film training.
Really great episode and some great insight here into Manila and the Philippines, and I’m sure everyone will enjoy this take something from it. If you want any show notes, any information, go to www.outsourceaccelerator.com/78.
Derek: I’m super excited to be joined again by Sunshine Lichauco de Leon. We spoke to her previously and this time, I’m really excited to be talking about her multi-award winning documentary called ‘Curiosity, Adventure, and Love’.
I want to just jump straight into this and do you mind, I’m a huge fan of this documentary. Is it a documentary or a film?
Sunshine: Yes, documentary.
Derek: It’s officially a documentary and well, I’ve actually got welled up. I got quite emotional seeing it because I’ve felt quite, for some reason, paternal for Manila, having really spent two or three years in Manila watching the film. It had a really big effect on me and it’s enjoyable and I encourage everyone to watch it. Can you give us an intro the film and what it means to you?
Sunshine: Okay, so the film is a blend of, I say it’s biography meets humanity meets history. Now, I say that it’s history meets biography meets humanity and basically, it blends the story of my grandmother who is 105 years old now who is American and came to the Philippines in 1930s. It blends her life along with the history of the Philippines, which she has personally witnessed since arriving here in the 1930s at the age of 18 and it blends that together with the life lessons of someone who literally has seen the world grow up.
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So it is—what does it mean to me? It is, well, it’s a life project. I’ve been working on it for, I’ve been working on this film for seven years, but I’m working on the idea since 1998. That’s about 20 years that I had, that I became aware this was a good story to tell. I originally thought it would be a book and then through some amazing luck, I met a filmmaker who met my grandmother and said, “No, you should make a film,” and I said, “Okay, I’ll make the film.”
Derek: And it’s a fascinating story because…
Sunshine: Yeah, I’m trying to think how to answer that question, what it means to me. It’s like it is the most important thing that I have ever done in my life. I never knew that I would say that when I was working on it. It took me seven years to make this film and I joke up my friends. I was like, “You raised a child, I raised a film.”
Sunshine: You know what I mean? It’s just the realization. It’s that feeling that I can’t explain when you’ve had something in you for so long and you didn’t understand what it was or what it was capable of being or whatever become anything, but suddenly having that actually manifest as something is the most powerful thing that I could ever understand.
Derek: It seems like such a story that needed telling because you do it so brilliantly and that you’ve traced the very turbulent times of the Philippines with the World Wars and huge hardship that the country goes through. And then Jessie who is the main character obviously, it sort of weaves the story. She’s been through all of it and she’s there narrating through her experiences and direct memories.
Sunshine: It is. The challenge in the story was how to make it—how to explain this? I’m a first time filmmaker so I didn’t actually know anything about film making. When I started to tell the story, I just knew that we had a good story. The challenge was how to weave together the different parts. How to weave together her journey to the Philippines, who she was, what she believed in, how she lived her life with the history of the Philippines, with the insights. She’s quite poetic about how she sees the world and when she was 101, the Philippine government gave her honorary citizenship for all the things she has done to help the Filipinos.
Sunshine: It’s an interesting story to weave together because the challenge was how do you weave together the story of a woman with a story of a country with a story of humanity, I mean, because her whole life has been about in service to other people in the spur of the moment, you know what I mean? It wasn’t there’s a grand pawn. “I’m going to give $100,000 to x charity.” That was not who she was. It was like, “Oh, I happen to see this person walking down the street and I talked to them and I found a way I could help them and I did.”
It’s a different approach to life that I wanted to show. I wanted to make a film that would get people to understand the history of the Philippines, the people in the Philippines and outside of the Philippines. I found that both didn’t really know much. I don’t claim to be a historian so it’s not a historical film, but my goal was to get people interested enough in the broad strokes of Philippine history that they will want to go learn more.
Derek: Actually, it’s quite a kind of swashbuckling history in a way, isn’t it really, because it was a very affluent Southeast Asian country originally wasn’t it? It had, it was…
Sunshine: No, when my grandmother came here, the Philippines, there’s quite a movie. Harper’s Magazine called the Philippines the most beautiful capital in Asia and I think it’s very important for any country or any person or any family to understand their past and to understand where they can go in the future, and how to reconcile the two. I think that her story and her experiences give us an interesting perspective on who the country was before the war and what the country might have done to change the people during the war and what became of the country after the war.
I think that there’s just a lot to learn from her. I think that, I mean, I wanted to make a film that taught history but I wanted to make a film that also, I call her Nana and there’s a lot of what I wrote down in following her around in my life that called “Nana is ____” just like a one-liner. It’s about marriage, about love, about trust, about compassion, about whatever. I thought that those were really important to share, but I think in retrospect, now that I’ve seen the film’s journey from the time that we started introducing the film to the world, I think that Nana has a way of living.
I call it Nana’s Way now and I think, I hope that the film encourages people to just look at a different way of living, a different lens through which to view life and their opportunities, possibilities, obligations, and pains even in life. I think that one of the nicest things someone told me is “This is a film about the Philippines, but it’s actually a film about humanity because it shows you the better side of who we can be and I think…
Derek: With Jessie being the main character.
Sunshine: Jessie being the main character. I mean, I set out to make the story about the Philippines and her life and her wisdom, but it has taken on a different life, you know what I mean, of its own and I’m happy about that. I didn’t expect that but I think that in the age that we’re in where there’s a lot of uncertainty and confusion and fear and anger and darkness, I think that….
Derek: And it’s so sad as well, isn’t it, how a country can go from being one of the most beautiful cities in the world to being a warzone and having to take people in and feed people.
Sunshine: I think that’s one of the things that I learned in making the film was that the Philippines has gone through these very extremes highs and lows of where they stood in terms of the world community, in terms of just themselves, and you can’t—in order to understand where we, anyone, a country, a person, a family is today, you have to understand their history and that’s one of the reasons I made this film is because I will never claim who or who doesn’t know their history, but I will understand that there is always a need to understand it better.
My grandmother provides a different perspective through which to see that history and that in itself was worth making the film. I will never say that she’s right or anyone’s right or wrong, but I think that history is about perspective, and so you need to be able to understand that, right?
Derek: And what I took away not actually knowing the history and seen the film was that, and I can only imagine from the perspective of Filipino watching it is that the country has come from greatness and it has got a very strong backbone, isn’t it? Incredible history.
Sunshine: I think the people in this country are the biggest assets and I think that’s what my grandmother saw. I think that when she arrived here, she was alone. She didn’t know anyone. She didn’t have any family and she met the Filipinos and she’s like, “They are home to me and if they are my family, I’m going to treat them as such,” you know what I mean? The other day, I asked her, “Why did you help the Filipinos?” She said, “Because they are my people.”
I think it’s just a matter of like how you look at things and I think that, I don’t know. There’s so much that divides us now in this world, right? I think like the world that we’re in now is a different world. Nana has seen the world divided and she has seen it come together. Now, it’s dividing again. I think that there are probably lessons in her life and in our film that we need to remember that we have more in common than there is which divides us and that our duty is help each other. She says in the film, she said, “Somewhere along the line, everybody helps us.”
Therefore, it’s our duty to help other people. Someone asked her, “How did you survive during the war?” She said, “By not thinking about other people.” People ask me, “How has your grandmother survived to 105 and been in such good shape?” I was like, “I think it’s because she doesn’t ever believe that she’s any older than she ever was.” She is who she was at 80, you know what I mean, or 60.
Derek: She seems to be very resilient.
Sunshine: She believes in what she believes in and it doesn’t change no matter how old she is. I know that’s a hard thing to understand. It’s a hard thing to do, but it’s something that – she believes that we’re all equal and that no one deserves to be, she’s better or worse than anybody else and it is our duty to help each other. There are many simple beliefs that we tend to forget.
Derek: What are her thoughts for the future of the Philippines? Is she confident? Is she bullish?
Sunshine: She sees the world the same regardless of the day where in, that we are human beings, we should love each other. We should care for each other and be fair.
Derek: Right the fundamentals, yeah, because she has seen so many set of political changes and it comes back to the basics, yeah.
Sunshine: Yeah, I think that that’s important to remember that we, like, despite the political differences, despite ethnic differences, despite this or that, like, who are we? What is our role? What is our job as humans? Does it matter that I have $100,000 more than you? Should I treat you differently? Should I care about you differently? No. She would say no. She said, “You should never look down on someone because they are not born in the same level you are.” That is essentially, that will never change in who she believes and I think that maybe that’s why the film is resonating with people because it’s reminding them of these basic human truths that sometimes, we forget.
Derek: Yeah. They are kind of universal stories, universal truths and so it has a high resonation with people, doesn’t it?
Sunshine: I mean, we’re living in a world in which fear and anger are very prevalent. Fear and anger, I think are with a lot of evil, the film is the antithesis of that.
Derek: Yeah, I mean, it shows a lot of hardship but there’s so much hope in it and so much joy.
Sunshine: It’s sort of like we’ve all been through hell, but we choose how we get out of it. We either get out of it and we believe that….
Derek: And then Jessie herself is always so positive.
Sunshine: I mean, it’s not without having lost, but it’s who she is and right there wrongly, you know what I mean? It’s example that she chooses to follow. I think she just looks at a different, I mean, she lives life on a different beat than most people. I can’t explain it. I mean, it’s not like she’s perfect or ideal, but she does gives you pause to think about something in a different light, like, okay, the Japanese occupation and everybody is scared of Japanese sentries and no one wants to talk to them or deal with them. She decides to give him tea and she decides to give them tea because it’s a stormy night and she says, “Well, maybe in the future, he will treat a Filipino kindly because someone treated him kindly.” It’s just a different way of looking at things, right? You and I would probably think, “Well, why would we do something nice for that man?”
It’s just a different way of looking at things and I think that there’s never a harm in showing that side because sometimes, we need that. We all get stuck in our current ways of life and current ways of thinking. We’re busy and we’re too busy to do this and do that. Perhaps she reminds us, I mean, like, even I when I go in the elevator, I mean, this is a funny thing, but every time I go in the elevator. There’s always that point in the elevator where no one looks at each other, right, because you’re like, “I’m stuck in the elevator with this person.” Because of her, I always have to smile at people in elevators even if I don’t want to.
Derek: She has touched you.
Sunshine: Because she reminds me that we’re all humans and we’re all stuck there together and like, there’s no harm in smiling. Literally, I can’t go in an elevator without smiling. It’s horrible. People look at me like I’m strange but it’s just like every time I go in an elevator, I think because she reminded me of that one and sometimes, it’s those little moments that make the difference in your life, right?
Derek: Wow. This film has been an incredible journey for you and it was 10 years, seven years in the making, but in fact 20 years in the….
Sunshine: In the thought process.
Derek: In the conceptualization. I actually knew you as you were building the movie and it was very much in nuts and bolts technical build that you were involved in them, but then the film was released and it has been so popularly received. It’s an incredible film and it has taken a life on its own and then so you’ve found yourself move into the next phase now, which is the film festivals and the promotions and winning the awards. Did you ever think that it would be such a popularly acclaimed film because again you’re coming from a background of this is your first film, you are self taught?
Sunshine: I can honestly say, I’m coming from background that I had no idea what I was doing. No. I was telling someone recently that it’s like a dream that you never dreamed of coming true. My dream – if I had one – was just to finish the film and to have my grandmother able to see the film because she was already 104 by the time I finished it. You can imagine trying to make a film between someone’s age, 98-104. Every year, people are reminding me of how old she is and that you should finish the film soon.
Derek: The predominant motivator was for the film to be a tribute to your….?
Sunshine: Honestly, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t have a plan, so when you say “your predominant motivator is…” I’m like, “I don’t know.” I just, I wish I was more strategic. I didn’t really have a set plan. All I knew was in my gut that the story had to be told. Other than that, I had no rules of how to do it, when to do it, how long it would cost, how long it would do, what would happen next, like, zero for better or worse. I mean, I think if I did, I wouldn’t have done it.
It was to my blessing that I didn’t understand what I was trying to do, but I think that Nana, I mean, my worry was that she wouldn’t see the film and I had this weird feeling that if I didn’t finish the film while she was still alive, it would never get done and it would haunt me. I needed to finish the film while she was still alive to see it. Of course one never knows how long 102-year-old would live, so I was racing against…
Derek: Yeah. You’ve got to make a sequel.
Sunshine: No, I was racing against this invisible time clock, which is hard to explain, but all I knew is that it needed to be done soon, but you have to understand, I didn’t have a plan of how I was going to do it or who I was going to do it and when it was going to be done. It was a lot of luck. It was a lot of luck and just like hoping for the best and seeing an opportunity and taking and just praying that that was the right idea. I mean to this day, I’m sort of sitting here going, a year later going, “Oh my God, the film is done and people like it.” I mean, it never occurred to me when I was making the film, what would people think of it because I was so obsessed with just finishing it.
For me it was never like about making money or being famous or having this global message. It was just like, “I need to finish the film that I’ve been working on for a very long time and I need to make the film one that I’m proud of.” It didn’t need to be famous. I didn’t think beyond finishing the film and maybe that was naïve or maybe it was just the function of like where I was and I couldn’t think beyond that moment. So now that it has gone, well, now that we’ve won awards and we’ve had much greater reception than I can never, ever dream of, I tell people, it’s like a dream I never had coming true. I don’t really know. It’s like, wow! This is amazing, like, I created it.
It slowly dawned on me, like, friends will say to me every once in a while, well, you’ve created a work of art and I was like, “I did?” They are like, “Yeah, this is always going to be here,” and I was like, “It is?” You don’t understand what you’re creating when you create it. You just create it because it’s in you and you have to create it. I’m thrilled now that people love it, but it was never the goal in creating it. Now that the response has been as overwhelmingly positive as it is, it has driven me further to do everything I can to make sure that the films gets to as many people who want to see it as possible in as many formats as possible.
At this point, the project is not about money. It’s about impact and my grandmother asked me the other day, every time I tell her, “Okay, what’s happening with the film?” I report back to her, like, I give her messages that people give her and she looked at me the other day, she goes, “Are you making money off of it? I hope.” I said, “Well, no but I’m working on it.” I said, “But it has impacted lots and lots of people.” She said, “Okay, that’s good.” I never set out to make this film to make money because in the beginning, people said to me, “Documentaries never make money,” and I was like, “Okay, well, I’m doing this because, just because I think it’s a really good idea and I think it’s one that can touch people and impact people.”
Derek: And the proof is in the pudding there, isn’t it?
Derek: The proof is in the pudding.
Sunshine: I guess it was in the pudding.
Derek: It has a fantastic story.
Sunshine: And I’ve gotten amazing response. People are asking me from all over the world to see it, which is really great. Now, I’m trying to figure out how to get it to them. You make a film because, sometimes, I guess this is true with everything that you create. I think you create something because – I never had this experience. I didn’t understand this. I never considered myself a creative person per se, but now when people ask me how did this happen? What was the story? I think well, actually, it was always in my gut. I don’t remember, it’s hard for me to remember a time when I didn’t believe that this had to be done. I didn’t know what quote this was. I just knew that we had this amazing woman with interesting stories that people really found interesting and we had this country that no one knew about.
It took me years to form the idea, but the concept, the gut plant was always there and I just, luckily, I never let go. I think that people sometimes do and the biggest lesson I can tell people from my own experience is don’t let go because I had this lesson in 1998. That was 20 years ago when I first thought, “Oh my God. Nana is really cool. We have to tell her stories. We have to use this for something.” I didn’t know what that something was. It took me 10 more years to figure out that it would be a film, but I think the best lesson I can offer is when you have something that you can’t let go of and you don’t understand why, you have to just let it sit there because it took me 10, 15 years before I understood what I was to do and it took me another eight years to figure out who I was going to work with.
You just have to—my friends like literally when I showed the film in New York, I showed it in New York in particular, I mean, I lived in New York for 10 years and my friends, they came to the film and they were like, “Someone knew they were like Sunshine.” I remember when we had coffee 15 years ago and you told me about this.
Sunshine: I remember when we talked about the 10 years ago, like they all remember. I was always talking about this, but I didn’t know in the days that I was talking about it that I absolutely had no idea what I was talking about. I just said I’m going to make this film. I have to tell the story, but I had no idea the practicality of how it was going to be done. I think the most important thing for me was to understand and to advice people, don’t let go of that if you have something that keeps staying in you, you don’t understand the how, when, where, who, what the practicality, just wait.
Keep it there because, like, I built other careers. I did other things, you know what I mean, but when I never let go and I kept saying it to myself, when half the time, I would say it to myself, I have no clue what I was going to do. People would say, “How’s your film?” I’m like, “It’s fine,” but I had no plan. Sitting back now, it’s like the biggest thing I’ve done in my life. There are many things I’ve done that I’m happy and excited and proud of, but this one was a thing that I never dreamed would give me….
Derek: It’s never getting away, isn’t it?
Sunshine: Yeah, it’s never getting away and I never dreamed that would give me as much satisfaction and joy as it has, and probably will lead me to my next project. I don’t know what it is yet.
Derek: Okay. I hope you enjoyed that and learned a lot and got a lot of insight into the depth and complexity of the history of Manila. So I’m really a great fan of ‘curiosity, adventure, and love’. If you do want to know more, I certainly encourage you to check out the film. Go to our show notes and that is at www.outsourceaccelerator.com/78.
If you want to ask us anything, drop us an email at [email protected].