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Award-winning documentary centers on children with cleft palates

ONE in 700 babies is born with cleft lip or cleft palate, which means the affected child has difficulty eating, breathing, and speaking. In the Philippines, one in 500 babies is born with the condition.

The HollyShorts-winning 35-minute documentary Every Day After offers a focused view on life with this condition within that larger context.

It follows Jary, a boy who was neglected and shunned by his own parents because of his appearance, and Jessa, his older sister who protects and raises him in their stead. Watching their story unfold is undoubtedly an important lesson on the realities of cleft treatment.

For Emmy-winning American director Elisa Gambino, the appeal of Jessa and Jary’s story goes beyond its educational value — it is also a beautiful testament to the power of a loved one.

“It was a profound honor to direct this film and share Jessa’s masterclass in unconditional love,” she said in a video message at the premiere screening on Jan. 31 in Power Plant Mall, Makati City.

“Through our film, we shed light on the daily challenges faced by a boy who is seen as imperfect and share the resilience, struggles, and triumphs of Jary and Jessa,” said Ms. Gambino.

Every Day After, filmed in black and white, is as much about Jessa as it is about Jary, depicting her unwavering dedication as a sister who raises him alongside her own two children in a fragile house on a hill.

“There’s a reason I decided to film it in black and white,” said Neal Broffman, the film’s cinematographer and editor.

The choice was inspired by a 1940s photo essay in Life Magazine called “Country Doctor” by W. Eugene Smith. “[The photographer] spent a year in a community in Colorado, following a doctor who sees his patients. I wanted to emulate that classic, black-and-white documentary style,” Mr. Broffman explained.

As the world’s largest cleft-focused organization, Smile Train saw the value in supporting the documentary, which began production in 2022. While the charity group provides training, funding, and resources in over 75 countries to provide 100%-free cleft surgery and other forms of essential cleft care, more can still be done to spread awareness in the Philippines.

Smile Train has supported more than 80,000 cleft surgeries, as well as the delivery of vital non-surgical cleft care, over the past 20 years. With Every Day After gaining attention, the goal is to inspire meaningful conversations about the availability of cleft treatment.

“Clefts are one of the most common birth conditions, but many parents do not realize that they are treatable — babies and children with clefts can lead healthy, fulfilling lives,” said Jun Grimares, Smile Train’s program director for the Philippines, at a panel discussion after the premiere screening.

He added that future educational screenings of the documentary will help attract donors and sponsors who could make monetary contributions.

“At Smile Train, we aim to make comprehensive cleft care treatment more accessible to patients, and this documentary helps create that awareness that help is available,” Mr. Grimares said.

After the screening, the film’s producer, Elaine Bobadilla, told BusinessWorld that it wasn’t easy putting together the documentary with the American film crew due to various logistical hurdles.

Jessa and Jary, for instance, were not the first choice of subjects for the documentary.

“It was serendipitous. We followed different families at first, and it just so happened that every time we visited some of them, there were hindrances, like the baby in the family would be sick. It all fell into place that we came to focus on Jessa and Jary,” Ms. Bobadilla said.

She explained that she and the filmmakers were drawn to the unconditional love between the siblings.

“Sometimes it’s the people whom no one imagines of who can do the things no one can imagine. That’s the unique type of love story we thought was worth sharing to the rest of the world.”

Every Day After provides a nuanced look at the complexities of the healing process for cleft lip and palate patients, from the health inequity they must overcome to the strength and empathy of their families and communities.

For more information on Smile Train, visit smiletrain.ph. —  Brontë H. Lacsamana

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