Twenty-four-year-old Jessica dela Merced has been experiencing a little bit of unexpected fame recently. The Filipina American, San Francisco native is currently a second-year graduate student at New York University and her short student film, Bleached, has been the subject of much buzz on the Internet – and it hasn’t even been completed yet! We sit down with the rising auteur to get the scoop behind her film and its controversial topic, skin bleaching in the Asian community.
Audrey Magazine: What’s your reaction to the recent buzz on blogs and Twitter about your film?
Jessica dela Merced: The movie isn’t even done yet and the fact that the trailer alone is getting a lot of attention is crazy. Even this interview is insane! [Laughs] But I think that’s just indicative of how big of an issue this really is. Some people who’ve heard about my film have asked me, “So … those bleaching creams exist?” and I say, “Yeah! I didn’t make that up!” It’s crazy how some people don’t know about those products or the harmful consequences they can have.
AM: What inspired you to make the film Bleached?
JDM: With everyone they sometimes buy into that whole beauty thing, whether they want to change their weight, their appearance or their skin color. And it’s just started to really bug me. I’m guilty of falling into that whole thing myself, but it just really disappoints me that other people’s opinions of you can change who you are. It can make people second guess themselves and that’s a dangerous thing. I know it’s impossible to not listen to what other people say and we have a long way to go for men and women in terms of just accepting who you are and being happy with it.
Honestly, my mother never made me use bleaching cream. I don’t remember exactly how I became familiar with this topic, but I know that when I was younger I wanted to use the soaps and the creams myself. My mom introduced them to me, but like I said, she never forced me to use them. I just always had this weird desire to use the products and I really wanted to explore that with this movie. It’s not autobiographical at all in terms of my mom forcing me to use bleaching products. I hope no one thinks that about her because she’s a saint! [Laughs]
AM: How did you come up with the story and are any characters based on people you know in real life?
JDM: I’m Filipino so I know how most Filipino families work. [Laughs] The characters are loosely based on my family and friends who aren’t so confident with how they look. That really upsets me so I put that all into my main character [Lenny, played by dela Merced]. My film isn’t just about skin whitening cream. There are a lot of beauty issues that do come up. Overall, it’s a movie about a girl who knows herself, but she gets confused because of other people and she starts to lose herself. She’s forced against a wall and has to find herself again and I think a lot of people can relate to that.
AM: How was the filming process?
JDM: Filming is complete. We shot the movie in San Francisco this past November. I planned for this to be a half animation movie so I’m working with an animator right now. It was tough being the director and main actor of the film. I also had a small crew to work with because I had classmates from New York fly in and I had friends from Los Angeles come to help. It wasn’t as big of a crew I could have had if we had shot in New York, but I really wanted the film’s story to be authentic so we shot in San Francisco.
AM: What was your favorite part about filming?
JDM: We shot at my old high school [St. Ignatius] so I was able to cast students as extras. It was really cool to go back there and incorporate them into the film. There’s also a vomit scene that’s my favorite. It’s really hilarious and I can’t wait for everyone to see it!
AM: How did Henrietta Gard and Elaine Pinto get signed on to the project? How was it working with them?
JDM: I actually had a really tough time with casting. It was hard finding Filipino actresses in general. We did casting in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco and couldn’t find anybody. I found Henrietta Gard and Elaine Pinto through SF Casting. They were pretty much the only two people who submitted for the roles and, luckily, they were perfect for the mom and grandma. This is Henrietta’s first film because she usually does print work, but she was amazing. I think the reason why she was so good for this role is not only because she’s Filipino, but she’s also very aware of the whitening cream issue. She has a really interesting back story. Her ticket to get to America was to become a flight attendant for Philippine Airlines, but they only accepted light-skinned Filipinos. Henrietta was dark so she stayed out of the sun for an entire year just to get that job. It was too perfect! When I heard that story I knew she was the right person for the role.
AM: Last I checked, on the film’s site more than $8,000 was raised. How did you feel when you found out the goal was reached?
JDM: I pretty much cried, to be honest. I felt like George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life. [Laughs] I worked all this summer and saved money and thought, “I’ll just keep working until I make enough money for it,” so I was stressing about money a lot. The first donation was actually made by my friend and I could not stop crying! Friends and family members donated. Most weren’t even my family members! People I don’t even know donated. Just knowing that there are people out there who don’t know me but donated because they believe in this project is such an amazing feeling. I’m also thankful for everyone who’s been spreading word about the movie. It’s so great!
AM: What are your future plans for Bleached?
JDM: I’ll be submitting the film to festivals and I’m hoping it’ll do well in the film fest circuit. It’s a story that hasn’t been told yet so I hope it can make its way around film festivals.
AM: What do you ultimately hope to achieve with the film?
JDM: I want to open people’s eyes to this issue and for them to realize that it is a problem. It’s a problem not just for Filipinos or Asians, but everyone. It’s a big thing in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Philippines and India. The products are sold in the black market in the United Kingdom and are being sold here in the U.S., but called “blemishing cream.” I’m not saying that it’s totally wrong to use these products, but as soon as you try to change other people by saying they need to use them it becomes a problem and it needs to be addressed.
AM: What do you hope people will take away with them after watching Bleached?
JDM: Honestly, I hope that people don’t feel like I am lecturing them with this movie. I wanted to tell this story because I have been prone to feeling bad about how I look and even wanting to be Caucasian at one point in my life. I just think now, in retrospect, it’s just so ridiculous. I think people who use skin whitening products need to think about why they use it and why they feel they need to change themselves. I hope the film inspires people to look at who they really are. It’s hard to really see yourself because there are so many things that influence us like the media, friends and family. It’s difficult to really know who you are and to be happy with yourself, but if you can start earlier, the better off you’ll be.
If you’d like to know more about Bleached or how you can help support the movie, visit the film’s website www.indiegogo.com/bleached-the-movie or contact Jessica dela Merced at email@example.com.