“Sundance was a long shot. I submitted it an hour before the final deadline,” says Kayla Abuda Galang.
The Filipino-American’s film When You Left Me On That Boulevard bagged the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
“I wasn’t expecting to receive the award at all because it was already a huge honor that I got in,” Kayla tells Vogue Philippines in an exclusive interview. “My focus is just to tell stories that only I can tell, and doing it with a lot of heart, especially about the Filipino culture, where I came from. That’s what transcends in any achievement, in any award or festival.”
The sensibility of the feature film is inspired by her trips to her mother’s Eastern Samar hometown. “I got really immersed in my mother’s community,” says the 31-year-old filmmaker who is based in Houston, Texas. Her first encounter with her relatives was in 2006 since her parents migrated to the US when she was an infant. She returned in 2017 for a family reunion, and then followed by another gathering in 2019.
She shares the joy of being able to visit and see her mom, aunties, cousins, and old friends in their element.
“For a while, when I was growing up, I took their joy and gatherings for granted,” Kayla says. “I didn’t really understand just why they were always doing chismis, always laughing so hard and singing and having a great time. I used to find that sort of annoying, especially as a teenager who was only concerned of her own things.”
The last time she went to her province, she understood the connection better. “They have this inseparable bond,” she says. “I really started to appreciate that when I got older.”
The title When You Left Me On That Boulevard is lifted from the lyrics of the family’s all-time karaoke anthem, Dan Byrd’s “Boulevard.” “I often watched my aunties sang that song. My cousins also sang it, and I would say it’s one of my favorite songs now. I ironically like it—and unabashedly, I love it. It’s one of my favorite songs to sing because of the film and the experience we had around it,” she shares.
The story tails after the mischiefs of a teenage girl named Ly, played by Kailyn Dulay, who was troubled by her unreciprocated feelings for her crush. The character reflects Kayla’s personality during her young-adult years. She describes it as an inside-out quality that feels less observed than a direct expression of the protagonist’s most private feelings.
Kayla also drew out the attributes of the lead from how she actually dressed back in 2006 in Paradise Hills in San Diego, California: V-necks, cardigans, and dark eyeliner to match the jet-black hair with fringes that fell right above the brows.
One dinner scene takes up the weight of the script, with Ly and her cousins puffed weed before joining the meal. It also reveals a bewildering yet heart-warming relationship with her loud-mouthed Aunt Pinky played by Elle Rodriguez and her mother Pacencia, played by Melissa Arcaya
She began to develop the script in 2019, the same year she went to therapy. What she uncovered during the sessions, she integrated in the story. “I realized that a lot of work that I should do was extending love and kindness to myself, so I started to think on that space in my younger self and in my family,” she reveals.
Casting the actors and shooting it in four days in San Diego ran smoothly, thanks to her “film cohorts” that assisted in the production. “It was not production that I was worried of because I had a whole community to lean on,” Kayla says. “I think the most challenging part was getting the funding we need to make it. I submitted to 12 different grants, and I got rejected by all of them. A lot of the funds came from my pocket, from my producer’s pocket, and from a campaign where our community really showed up for us.”
She adds that making “movies is such an expensive endeavor, especially if you want to pay people equitably and fairly because a big value for us is to not severely underpay our cast and crew.”
Kayla first learned the art of directing and scriptwriting at the University of Texas where she earned her degree in journalism and filmmaking. However, as she progresses deeper into her craft, she has invented a system entirely her own: sunny and sharp, free of artifice yet filled with wisdom and intensity.
And the critics seem to agree with her. In 2021, she won the Audience Award for her film Learning Tagalog With Kayla at the South By Southwest, an interactive media, film, and music festival in Austin, Texas.
Much to the delight of movie fans, two Filipino-themed comedy films are already in the works. 06-07 is a story about coming-of-age set in the 2000s while On Earth As It Is In Heaven anchors on how a family deals with grief in modern-day Houston.
“I would probably release On Earth first because it’s easy to manage production-wise and budget-wise, but really, I am open to anything,” says Kayla. “Especially that Sundance has opened new doors and opportunities for me globally.”