Director Interview: Liza Mandelup on CATERPILLAR

Liza Mandelup’s CATERPILLAR, her second feature-length documentary film after JAWLINE, follows a man named David who becomes obsessed with a cosmetic surgery, performed in India, that can change the color of his eyes. For David, doing so represents a new beginning, a fresh start that will change his relationship to himself and the way that people look at him. CATERPILLAR made its world premiere at SXSW and is currently at DOC NYC. We spoke with Mandelup about her approach to story and character, and the theme of beauty that runs through her films.

Science & Film: Where did your interest in this story begin?

Liza Mandelup: I started thinking about beauty as a currency. A lot of my films start from very abstract ideas. The form comes after. I really felt like I was thinking about how our society values beauty in such an extreme way, and how social media has totally exacerbated that.

When I get the idea, it sits in the back of my head, and I'm on the internet, and I'm talking to people, I'm doing other shoots, and I met this woman while I was on another shoot. I was complimenting her eyes. I was like, Where are you from? Who in your family has these beautiful blue eyes? I don't know why I was asking these questions. And eventually, she was like, I went to India and got these eyes. That sentence radiated in my brain. What does that even mean? You went to India and got these eyes? She tipped me off to what the company was. I went home that night and looked at their YouTube channel, and I was like, this is bonkers, what's going on here? It all happened from there. I got in touch with the company, the company said you can make a documentary, and helped me find people to make it with. It was one of those things where I was just kind of poking around, and then next thing you know I had this incredible access. I was like, Okay, gotta get funding for this. It really took off from there.

S&F: Now that you say that, the direct line from your film JAWLINE to this film wasn't in the forefront of my mind when I was watching CATERPILLAR, but this is definitely a theme you've explored previously.

LM: I really like films where, when I say it, "it's a film about a controversial eye surgery that takes place in India," you have no idea how to visualize that. That is what gets me excited, that challenge, and showing people that I'm going to make this cinematic film about this thing that doesn't seem cinematic, and seems totally random. I got so excited thinking about all the metaphorical ideas: to see and be seen through a new set of eyes. The idea that the company was selling: see the world differently, change your perspective, and have other people see you differently. All these things are really symbolic of beauty but also so literal to eyes.

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When we were filming at one point when we were in India, I realized that our characters are going to change color eyes at some point and the film is going to feel different. It was this sort of symbolic thing about aesthetics and beauty where it was almost like the camera gravitated towards the characters more when they had these new eyes. Then, the next chapter of this film is understanding, does this work?

S&F: One of the weirdest parts of the film is when the surgery doesn't go as planned and then they all have the same color eyes, which is actually so artificial. In reality, everyone's eyes are different...

LM: Eyes feel like they are something that is you and not something you're ever going to change. Cosmetic procedures are a part of my interest, and I continue to be interested in that and how you can obtain beauty and define it for yourself. But also, it is defined by society, and you think you're defining it for yourself. What really made me want to tell the story here was I never thought that eyes were something that you ever thought to change or to feel insecure about. They are just who you are, you are born with these eyes. It's not supposed to be linked to vanity, it's supposed to be linked to your identity, your DNA. It felt like such an interesting thing for a company to convince people that this is something you can change. As we were making this I was like, is this something people thought about changing, or were they told to change it through this company? I think a lot about psychology when I'm making films. The psychology of being fed videos on YouTube and what are your own ideas, and what are the ideas that you're being convinced to believe? This film lives in that gray area.

S&F: How did you pick your main character, and how much of his background and story did you want to get into?

LM: Once I met David's mom, I realized that his mom has not accepted his identity, and he really wants to change his identity. My interpretation this dynamic with his mom was that he was looking for something that he could change about himself, while his mom could also still love him. His mom would repeatedly tell him, I can love you, but only to a certain degree. If you go too far, that's just not my son. I was also interested in relatability. People have such complicated relationships with their mothers, and you never stop kind of defining your whole life by the love that you have from your mom. I was interested in how we were able to witness and film how that [relationship] was having such an impact on how he viewed himself.

I also think that you have to see this film and understand how much value society puts on blue and green eye—people aren't going there to get brown eyes. What does that symbolize?

S&F: You said that the company was on board with this film, what about the second half when you explore whether or not it worked?

LM: Well, here's the interesting thing about the company. The company is anonymous, nobody, the company would reveal themselves to me, and I never got anything besides a first name. When we went to India, the actual company BrightOcular was not there. I asked if they were going to send someone, but they wouldn't reveal who they were. I never got anybody to talk to me from the company, besides email. When I was in India, I realized what was actually going on: this is a company that does the YouTube videos, gets people to India, and then once you're in India, you're just in the hands of these doctors in India. So it's true medical tourism. But the people going into the procedure were not always aware that it was medical tourism. So, the access actually came from BrightOcular, where they were like, yes, you can make this film, but I never got to meet them.

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S&F: So just to understand what you mean in terms of medical tourism, they're basically just sending people to the hospital and then they get a cut of whatever people pay?

LM: Yeah, a big cut. You can look at them like a travel agency, and content marketing, where they set up all the YouTube videos. They work with somebody that makes those contacts but the actual BrightOcular company is sort of like the middleman. They have virtual consultants for the whole thing. It basically makes you feel like you're working with an American company. And then what's in the film is you get to India, and you realize, maybe I'm not working with an American company, I've just been emailing with an American company. By the time the patients are there, they're sort of confused, but they're already there. They've already paid money, or they've already told everybody and set up their whole life to come back with a different look. So, it creates a lot of misinformation I would say. The company has existed in the shadows intentionally, I think.

S&F: Have you had any feedback from them on the film?

LM: No. I would love for someone at the company to get in touch with me. We spoke after we came back from India and stayed in touch but then it just kind of fell off. I asked for like interviews with them, obviously and nobody would come forward for an interview. Someone would have to tell me who they are, and I think they're not willing to do that, because they've been set up to intentionally be mysterious.

S&F: I don't know that you would know this, but, is this unique for a medical tourism company?

LM: To be honest, I didn't go into becoming an expert in all types of medical tourism for this film. I was really focused on the film, but I think that when we were in India, you saw that you could go to India and can get hair transplants, all these things. A lot of the people we were filming with had other procedures done abroad. That's a whole other film and a whole other world. I think the way the company is operating is strange. I wouldn't go around saying that this is like normal. It felt strange to everyone in the film, that's like a part of it.

I wanted to stay with the experience of the patient trying to rationalize Should I do this, should I not do this? I stay really close to my subjects—I hate that word, to be honest. Like, David is now a friend of mine. But I try to stay in their mindsets. That is a big part of my process. For JAWLINE, I never went around interviewing people about the top-to-bottom exploitation in the industry. It's more about the human experience and how humans grapple with what they're going through. And for my process, I need to be educated, but I also need to stay in the perspective of the people that I'm filming. This is a human story about someone who went through something, and if you pull out too much, I don't feel like you get that. I pull out a little bit to show you there's a larger world around them, but my focus is in making a relatable character with a human story that has a lot of emotional depth and has people contemplating how to exist.

S&F: My experience watching the film was also thinking about how the procedure was a success, even though it wasn't in some physical respects, but that it did help David become more comfortable with himself.

LM: Here's the thing, when people ask, how do you choose a character? I only know I've chosen the right character towards the end. That's the scary thing about documentary. I have a background in casting, and I feel like I give a lot of thought to who I'm going to take a risk on. But really, you don't know that you've made the right decision until you're in the edit and you're like, did this person's perspective shift? Did we start in one place and end in another? Sometimes you film with someone whose perspective doesn't shift and that person can't really be in the film in a big way, because, to me, to really complete the journey that I'm looking for, and also how to call it in the end, is when someone has a different perspective of the experience that they lived. And I truly felt that with David, that he was like, I got to walk a mile in someone else's shoes, and I learned something from it. I love that story. I love that idea because I think that fantasy of: what if I could be a different me, a different version of myself, or me 2.0, or you with the better life, can I just be you? Those ideas and anxieties are things that people are riddled with, and I thought it was interesting to put that into a film.

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