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Producer Samantha Gao: Zenaida’s Dream Achieved

Producer Samantha Gao: Zenaida’s Dream Achieved

Samantha Gao
Samantha Gao

  Zenaida is a film which displays that the way in which you tell a story is just as important as the story itself. The reasoning behind why things occur the way they do and why people’s actions have meaning; these are what makes a film unique and intriguing. As producer of this film, Samantha Gao not only possessed the skills and impressive resume needed; she also understood the intersect of the characters in a very real-life manner. Having worked with Ms. Gao previously, director San-San Onglatco understood that Samantha could enable her to manifest this delicate and emotionally very sensitive tale. Additionally, the producer’s understanding of Asian culture and LGBTQ culture could lead the creative direction of the story with tenderness and care. Filmmakers and society have reached an understanding that informed and authentic storytelling is not only what is most desired, it is what is most emotionally poignant. 

  From the opening scenes of a man involved in his morning prayers to the following moments of him delivering his first performance in a drag bar, it’s clear that this film wants to challenge our preconceptions about identity. The man featured in these scenes is an undocumented Filipino-Muslim named Ibrahim. He spends his days as a caregiver for an aging Filipina diva named Zenaida and his nights aspiring to be a performer himself. Ibrahim’s heart is consumed with aspirations to perform. To authentically establish this environment, Samantha immersed herself in the LA drag queen community. Her research informed the casting, shot design, set design, costumes, and color palette, allowing the creation of a neon colorful world that established the tone of the film successfully in the very first scene. One of the most touching scenes in this film is when Ibrahim and Zenaida sing an acapella version of Zenaida’s hit song in the aging singer’s LA mansion. Recognizing that the moment was quite as carefree as hoped during filming, Samantha suggested that they let the actors actually sing rather than lip-syncing to the prerecorded performance. The outcome was a far more relaxed and uplifting moment. As she so often does, Samantha Gao perceived “what could be” in this moment. This is far more impressive when considered with the fact that principal photography for Zenaida took place at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. Momentary pivots became the norm for this film, demanding all of the producer’s abilities and insight. The final scene of the film takes place in a theater with Ibrahim performing on the stage to a full audience. Originally planning to utilize one-hundred-fifty background actors, covid protocols and safety for the cast and crew prohibited any more than ten. This final scene was crucial to the story. Samantha devised a system of filming the ten background actors and implementing a combination of practical special effect makeup, camera movement and framing, and visual effects in post-production to create multiple layers on the screen which fabricated the appearance of a packed theater audience. Samantha notes that even this was not her greatest achievement for the film. Her skill in obtaining financers from the Philippines, China, and U.S. is what allowed everything else to be created for this film. 

  Zenaida, the film, leads by example. Its message is loud but not heavy handed. To reach an audience and gently ask them to consider the lives of others, this is the avenue to understanding and perhaps even acceptance. Samantha Gao informs, “Our goal was to present a story devoid of judgment, allowing the characters to authentically embrace their identities and fostering connections among people from all walks of life. Following our screening at the Asian American International Film Festival, a group of attendees approached me, expressing their gratitude for the film. They commended its unflinching and unbiased portrayal of minorities, celebrating how it allowed the characters to shine as their true selves. Zenaida is a story about survivors and dreamers. It is about the human spirit’s resilience to continue amidst adversity in pursuit of a dream and a better life. The journey to achieve one’s dream is not easy but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. It’s all too common to confine ourselves within boxes defined by our appearance or cultural backgrounds. With this film, our intention was to convey a universal truth: beneath our differences, we share the common pursuit of our dreams. No one should ever feel ashamed of who they are. Zenaida strives to drive home this powerful message of self-acceptance and the collective human experience. Being able to achieve this goal with our film was incredibly rewarding part for me.”

Writer: Winston Scott

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