Breaking The Stigma : A Film’s Effort To Raise Awareness About a Highly Misunderstood Disease

Culion Movie #breakthestigma
“Culion” Cast and Crew

Leprosy has long been around, and ever since it has suffered the horrible stigma surrounding it. Those who carry the disease bear the burden of being discriminated, ridiculed, and isolated from society. The visible manifestation of the disease by physical disfigurement and the lack of knowledge about its true nature cause people to fear it.

The stigma was so terrible to the point that Hansen’s Disease patients were forced to wear demeaning bells to warn everyone of their presence so others could avoid them. It was believed that the disease was a curse given as punishment to sinners, and that those afflicted were considered “unclean”. All they had about the disease that time were myths that were far from having any scientific basis at all.

It was not until the late Norwegian physician, Gerhard Henrik Amrauer Hansen discovered in 1873 the bacterial agent that caused leprosy that the world finally had credible information about the disease. This, however, only made matters worse for those suffering from it as it was determined that leprosy was indeed transmissible.

The stigma worsened. The patients were shunned even more by society. It was even thought that leprosy was a form of STD or a stage of syphilis. It also didn’t help that there was no known cure for it. The only method they could think of to prevent the spreading of the disease was isolation.

Thus, leprosariums were built in different parts of the world. Culion island in Palawan was among them. At a time when the cure for leprosy wasn’t discovered yet, the government ordered segregation in order to protect the healthy.

But as everything else has progressed over time, so did the treatment for leprosy. With the discovery of three antibiotics collectively known as Multi-Drug Therapy, leprosy is now curable. Despite this, the stigma remains.

It is for this reason that Mr. Peter Sing and his wife, Mrs. Gilie Sing of iOptions Ventures Corp. decided to produce a film that would carry a very significant advocacy. The couple fell in love with the story of Culion the moment they heard of it and were so touched by the untold stories of struggle, hope and triumph that they felt the story had to be told. In a one-on-one interview with Mrs. Sing, she recounted how the movie Culion came to be.

“We fell in love with the history of Culion. It is unique in the Philippines, part of world medical history, and yet not many Filipinos know about it,” said Mrs. Sing.

She added that her husband was the first one to learn about the story of Culion seven years ago.

Meron kaming survey na ginawa about Culion for a client. That is how he got there. Then dinala niya kami last year. Nagulat nga din siya n’ung nakarating siya sa Culion the first time na meron palang kwento d’yan sa Palawan na ganyan and walang nakakaalam.

Mrs. Sing said that it is the film’s purpose to educate the Filipinos about the unique history of Culion, eliminate the stigma of Hansen’s Disease by humanizing the characters, and to open up Culion to more tourists who are eager to learn about its history and also help in the further development of the municipality.

After being inspired by what they learned about the island of Culion, the couple who would become the executive producers of the film, reached out to one of the country’s most brilliant producers, Shandii Bacolod to oversee the production of the film and set everything in motion.

“To be honest, I was completely clueless about Culion. Wala akong alam sa history nito. But when Executive Producer gave me a call and discussed Culion, naloka ako. So I started doing my own research, and there it was. It’s rich history. It’s heartbreaking. Mabilis sa part ko, I feel like I am always drawn to projects that are brave and tackle themes na hindi conventional. I also believe na CULION is a story that needs to be told. Now,” Bacolod said.

It is sad but true. So many Filipinos are oblivious to the fact that right next to a tourist spot that is Coron is an island of great importance due to its historical root. It is nothing but irony that what was once a very famous island known for being one of the most advanced leprosarium in the world is now an unknown place to most Filipinos.

What’s even more heartbreaking is the fact that the very few people who know the island think that it is still a place where leprosy patients are thrown to. But so much time has passed, so many things have changed. Culion is no longer a leper colony, but a flourishing and peaceful municipality.

“I honestly believe na ang purpose ng film is to make everyone remember a forgotten story. More than a tragedy, Culion is a story of human spirit, resilience and triumph,” said Bacolod.

The producers hope that the film can help eradicate the stigma associated with leprosy — a disease that had caused so much anguish, suffering and trauma in the past to the point that even the term leprosy is so revolting for the ones suffering from it that they prefer the name “Hansen’s Disease”. It seems that the pain of being treated as pestilence and being scorned by society is far worse than enduring the physical effects of the disease itself. And that is the very thing that the film wants to put an end to. It is trying to deliver a message to all of us — a message that can hopefully help end the leprosy stigma on the island of Culion as well as in the whole world.

“Hansen’s Disease is curable. Huwag tayo matakot. Huwag tayo mandiri. Tama na ang panahon ng ignorance at discrimination. Tao tayong lahat. Pantay-pantay,” Bacolod said with conviction.

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