At first glance, Ang Lihim ni Lea seems like another beautifully animated children’s film. After all, it features a charismatic lead character with “powers” – a staple in popular children’s animated movies.
The protagonist, Lea (Princess Cuvinar), is a young girl who moves into a new condominium with her father. Lea later discovers that she can go through walls and doors, and she marvels at her adventures. She is excited to try out her powers at school, only to later realize that her powers are not what they seem.
Based on the 2007 children’s book by Augie Rivera and directed by Rico Gutierrez, the short film actually tackles child sexual abuse. The use of a superhero motif to tackle such a sensitive issue makes this short film unique, and its powerful message has made it a favorite in international film festivals.
Behind the story
Ang Lihim ni Lea is based on a children’s book of the same name, written by Augie Rivera. Augie, who is known for his work on classics such as Ang Alamat ng Ampalaya and Xilef, was commissioned by Adarna House and Soroptimist International of the Philippines to write a story tackling child sexual abuse.
“Hindi naman siya based sa isang particular bata or case. Nagresearch ako at naginterview sa Child Protection Unit sa UP Manila,” Augie told Rappler. (The story was not based on a particular child or case. I conducted research and interviews at the Child Protection Unit in UP Manila).
The decision to present Lea as a superpowered child was prompted by Augie’s research on a phenomenon known as body dissociation.
“Noong una, nagkaroon ako ng idea na batang ghost si Lea. Pero nalaman ko yung body dissociation, and common daw siya sa mga dumadaan sa trauma,” the writer said. (At first, I had the idea to make Lea a ghost. But I found out about body dissociation, and it’s supposedly common among those undergoing trauma).
“They feel like they’re somewhere else while the traumatic experience is happening,” he added.
In the story, Lea’s superpower is actually how she copes with the harassment she experiences from her father. “That’s why it reads like a fantasy story, then there’s this reveal at the end that it’s not really a superpower,” Augie said.
The book ran out of print before recently being re-issued with the help of the Consuelo Foundation, a US-based organization that focuses on the prevention and treatment of abuse in children, women, and families.
From page to screen
In 2011, Rico Gutierrez, a director and close friend of Augie, approached the writer about adapting the book.
“It really hit a mark,” Rico said. “Tapos sabi ko kay Augie, ba’t ‘di kaya natin ‘to gawing short film? Para mas maraming makakita, mas maraming makaalam about these things.” (Then I told Augie, why don’t we make this a short film? That way, more people will see and become aware about these things).
By that time, Ang Lihim ni Lea had ran out of print. Augie saw Rico’s proposal as a way to keep the story alive and deliver the message through another medium.
“Naisip ko, out of print na yung book by then. Baka maganda nga na ilipat siya sa ibang medium. Mas maraming makakanood,” he said. (I thought about how the book had ran out of print by then. Maybe it’s a good idea to tell the story to another medium. More people will be able to watch).
It took a lot of time before the project picked up steam. Augie and Rico encountered some bumps in the road, including financing and finding an animation studio.
“At first, it was the financing,” said Rico. “And then the first animation studio we found moved to Hong Kong. But we just really wanted to do it, share the message.”
After these initial difficulties, Augie and Rico met up once again to recalibrate their efforts on the project. “Nagusap kami ulit ni Augie (Augie and I talked again), and then this time, we had a bit of funds. Tapos nastart na namin magawa (And then we started to do it),” the director said.
The project came to life with the help of friends from their time in the University of the Philippines, including Eugene Domingo and Candy Pangilinan, who were cast in key roles. “I’m so thankful to everyone, talagang isang tawag lang.” (They were only one call away).
Augie said that the only voice role they held auditions for was Lea. “We wanted to make sure the actress was close to the character in age,” he said. “Iba talaga kapag bata yung nagsasalita (It’s really different if a child is speaking).”
When Princess Cuvinar was chosen for the role, the team made sure to tell the parents about the nature of the story. “We called the parents. Pinaliwanag ko, kasi importante na malaman nila yung kwento,” Augie said. (We explained it, because it was important they knew about the story).
Tackling a sensitive issue
It was very important to Augie and Rico that the film kept the message of the story intact, but that it handled sexual harassment in an appropriate manner.
“Importante na ‘di maoffend yung parents (It’s important that parents don’t get offended,” Rico said. “It was important to us that we show Lea telling her story. Usually kasi, natatakot mga victims na magreport (victims are afraid to report).”
Augie agreed, adding that he hopes parents can read and watch Ang Lihim ni Lea with their kids. “Kailangan kasama yung parents, para ready sila sa mga questions ng bata (Parents should be there, so that they are ready to answer their children’s questions),” the writer said. “We also made sure that the resolution is empowering.”
The rest of the crew was also careful about how to approach the story. “Candy and the other voice actors were also sensitive about their vocal tone,” said the director. “We also needed an expert in animation, that’s why we got Avid Liongoren as the animation director.”
Most of the movie was taken from the book, including some of the frames that were originally illustrated by art director Ghani Madueño.
“We also based on the illustrations from the book, kaya minsan halos frame by frame yung salin (which is why the translation was almost frame by frame,” said Rico. “Of course, we also added our own take on some things. But I really want to emphasize how important it is that we encourage victims to come forward.”
Since the film was only finished in August 2020, it didn’t make the cut for most local festivals’ submission deadlines. Although a bit unsure at first, Augie and Rico decided to try their luck in festivals abroad.
“Usually kasi, pag ‘di ka makapunta sa festival, di ka raw mananalo (Usually, they say that if you can’t attend a festival, you won’t win),” Rico joked. “But I think what happened was they really appreciated the theme.”
Ang Lihim ni Lea has won awards in the Cannes International Independent Film Festival, the Buenos Aires International Film Festival, the New York International Film Awards and most recently, the Eurovision Palermo International Film Festival.
The two believe that the film resonated with audiences because of its themes. “They said, ‘you’ve raised a very important social issue.’ I really want to stress that it’s about the message.”
“They said, ‘it’s rarely discussed in animation, the message is so important’. Nakakaproud na dahil sa mensahe (It makes me proud that it was because of the message),” said Augie. “Pwede ka pala manalo kahit wala ka doon (Turns out you can win even though you were not present).”
The Cannes win opened up a lot of doors for the film, which goes by the title Lea’s Secret internationally. “Sali-sali lang kami. Nakita nila nanalo, kaya ngayon puro invite na (We just kept joining. But since we won, we’ve been getting invites),” added Rico. “We also have a screening in Australia in January.”
Despite all the accolades, the true victory for Augie and Rico is the opportunity to reach children and parents all over the world.
“Kapag napanood ng isang bata yung pelikula, at nakita niya yung issue, alam na niya na if may mangyaring ganoon, magsusumbong siya sa nakatatanda na pinagkakatiwalaan niya. (When a child sees the film and finds out about the issue, they know that if something like that happens, they should tell adults they trust),” said Rico.
“Timing rin na nagiingay si Lea (It’s perfect timing that Lea is making noise),” adds Augie. “Kaya siya nagreresonate, kasi pandemic. Mas tumataas rin yung cases ngayon ng abuse (That’s why it resonates, because of the pandemic. Cases of abuse are rising).”
The film is still making rounds in the festival scene, and a local release date has yet to be determined. “Sana mashare namin sa Pilipinas soon (We hope to share it with the Philippines soon),” said Rico.
Augie encourages aspiring writers to bring their own ideas to life. “Kung may gusto kang ikwento (If you want to tell a story), and you feel so passionate about it, go for it!” he said.
Rico also has a message for those interested to enter the world of directing. “Kung walang gustong gumawa, ikaw na magproduce! (If nobody wants to make it, produce it yourself)” he joked. “Importante talaga ‘yung material. Ito ang puso ng isang pelikula (The material is really important. It’s the heart of a film).” – Rappler.com
Jericho Igdanes is a Rappler intern.