Filmmaker Samantha Lee wants to make films she feels her younger self would have needed to see but that simply weren’t around at the time in her native Philippines. “I didn’t come out until I was 23,” she says. “I didn’t really think I was gay because I couldn’t relate to the gay people I saw in the media.” Her new film, Billie and Emma, revolves around the romance shared by two teenage girls. In its charming simplicity, this heartwarming romantic comedy drama touches on delicate themes, such as homosexuality, teenage pregnancy, religion and the education system. Furthermore, while it carries on the director’s work of advocating for better representation of women and LGBTQ+ in her local cinema, it also speaks to an international audience.
The fact this latest feature of hers, which is screening at this year’s Outfest in Los Angeles, is different from her previous feature Baka Bukas in both setting and approach coincides with Lee’s central goal as an artist. “Since there aren’t a lot of queer stories being told in the Philippines at the moment, I want to be able to tell a whole variety of stories whenever I’m given a chance. It’s just a matter of consciously making sure that you’re not always stuck with the same kinds of characters, with the same kinds of geographical backgrounds. It’s about being able to open yourself up to being able to explore all these different kinds of stories from everywhere in the country.”
One of the ways in which Billie and Emma differs from Baka Bukas is that it is set in the ‘90s, an era still defined by CD walkmans and paperback novels. This idea, she reveals, came from her wish to include a particular song from this era in the scene of the title characters’ first kiss. On the other hand, it also allowed her as a writer/director to explore “a world without a lot of technology, or without a lot of screens. The fact that you had to go to someone’s house in order to talk with them, instead of just texting back and forth. In love stories, that’s a more fun thing to explore, instead of just messaging back and forth and not being in the same place.”
While Billie and Emma takes place in a small, fictional village in the Philippines, the details of its story are autobiographical. “There are definitely parts of me scattered throughout the film. Like, for example, the choice of the book, the choice of the song.” Like Billie, she too had short hair and went to an all-girls Catholic school where she was made take care of an egg and pretend it was a baby, and where the young people would regularly be told in class, among other things, that homosexuality was a sin.
“Having gone through a Catholic school for my first 18 years really did a number on me, and I keep thinking about what kind of person I would be like if I wasn’t raised under that heavy-handed influence of religion,” she says. “That’s why this film tries to critique that institution in a sense. There are lines in the film that are ridiculous when you hear them, but these are the lines that teachers say at Catholic schools and that young children hear constantly while they’re growing up.”
Lee believes some progress has been made in the Philippines over the years but also, that there’s still a lot of work to be done and things that need to be fought for. In fact, Billie and Emma’s story is partly inspired by the battle for passing an anti-discrimination bill in the Philippines (SOGIE) – a battle that has been ongoing for almost two decades. Specifically, what sparked the gem of the idea of accosting the themes of homosexuality and family in Billie and Emma was a tweet she came across from an opposer of the bill that said, “No to SOGIE, yes to family.” “Why can’t we have both? Why does passing the bill mean that we’re going against the concept of what a family is?” Lee wonders. “And we’re not even asking for marriage equality yet. We’re just asking for protection against discrimination.”
As mentioned, while the story of Billie and Emma is set in the Philippines, it speaks a universal language that makes it relatable on a global scale. This is certainly helped by the central love story and the chemistry shared by the two actresses in the lead title roles that makes it credible and charming. Emma is played by Gabby Padillia, a professional actress in her first lead role in a film. For Billie, Lee explains she was “really looking to cast an openly gay actress. But that doesn’t really exist in the Philippines. So, I put out a casting call on social media and I found Zar [Donato], who is a non-actor, to play Billie.”
Working with a lesbian non-actor made the coming out sequences a real on-set bonding experience about living as queer women in a really small conservative town in the Philippines. As for the chemistry between Donato and Padilla, Lee explains that it might have been a simple case of opposites attracting. “It helped that they both have such opposite personalities. Zar is a lot younger than Gabby and she’s very hyperactive on set, while Gabby is more focused on the work. When Zar gets in her space, she kind of gets a bit annoyed and that tension, I think, translated into chemistry when we started rolling.”
Lee also feels her own experience of working on her previous film helped shape Billie and Emma. “I learned to be more flexible,” she concludes. “I think when you’re a first-time filmmaker, you’re so attached to everything. But eventually, you learn that the world doesn’t end if you don’t get that one shot or that one thing that you wrote in the script. I think this was more of a relaxed, chill experience on set for me. Pre-production is still a nightmare for me. But on set, I was able to enjoy the process and to be present, and to not be obsessive over the little things.”
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Samantha Lee