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Approximately eight hours before the screening at CAAMFest 36 (and second showing in San Francisco in general), Alexandra “Allie” Cuerdo, director of the documentary ULAM: MAIN DISH, shared her hopes that the audience will engage in conversations about it.

 
“I’m hoping that people talk about it,” she stated. “I’m hoping that people will talk about it with their families, with their friends. We’ve gotten a lot of amazing people coming up in the Q&As – professors mostly – that want to teach the film; for their film classes and for their Asian American studies classes.”

ULAM follows the recent surge of the Filipino food movement, by way of interviews with many chefs and restauranteurs who’ve been trailblazing the way.

The idea was originally thought up by Rey Cuerdo, the film’s producer and Allie’s father, but it was never pursued. When it was brought up three years ago over Thanksgiving dinner, Allie asked a simple question: “Why not?”

ULAM is Allie’s first feature film, but her eight years of experience working in various roles on film sets and at studios such as Columbia Pictures, Disney Imagineering, and Buzzfeed had her well prepared for this role as director. Together with Rey’s 34 years of working mainly in the business side of the film industry, the collaboration between daughter and father encompassed the focus necessary for the making of ULAM on all sides.

“It was very rewarding, because I saw [Allie] grow during these last three years,” said Rey, as he spoke of what it was like to work on a film his daughter directed. “I saw what kind of filmmaker she was becoming, considering that this is her first feature film. All the training and all the experience that she had working in all those various jobs, all were being put to good use, all were being applied into finally doing a film from step one all the way to complete.”

ULAM was executed by way of short shoots shot both in Los Angeles and New York over the course of three years. In between time, Allie would work day jobs, in order to finance the film. While she could have pursued the crowdfunding path to complete the film sooner than later, she had her reason for not doing so.

“I think for me, I wanted as a filmmaker to… I think I came into it with a little more experience as producer, because I was so used to producing these very short shoots for Buzzfeed,” she explained. “Basically the more experience I had as a filmmaker, the more I realized how much I can stretch my dollar. So I really wanted to be able to fund and control each individual shoot.”

In other words, she wanted to focus more on the film and less on what perks to give to backers.

The longer production time wound up being a blessing when it came to when the film was being made.

“It was moving quite fast; the Filipino food movement,” she mentioned. “These restaurants were opening, and so I really wanted to catch them and kind of not wait. We kind of got lucky and it unfolded really organically over three years.”

Both financial and time restrictions made way for nights sleeping on couches and working around the hectic schedules of the chefs and restauranteurs ULAM features. But much like how her cinematographer got stuck with a tiny rental Miyata to carry all the camera equipment in, improvisation and working with what was available became a mindset to embrace.

Long sequences of chefs at work and three-hour Kamayan feasts were shot without any direction given. Allie wanted the scenes to be as natural as possible. As a result, she witnessed foods she grew up with be prepared by chefs who’ve either previously worked in Michelin-starred restaurants or should be Michelin chefs.

“I’ve never seen certain dishes be prepared, and in a commercial kitchen,” she reflected. “That was really interesting. I’ve experienced most Filipino food at home, in terms of ‘My mom makes this, and my grandmother makes this.’ So I know how chicken adobo is prepared. But then in the documentary, one of our chefs, Andre Guererro, he worked with his family in kitchens growing up. So when he made chicken adobo, our minds were blown.”

ULAM is coming at a time when Filipino food is, at long last, entering the mainstream conscious; so much to where restaurants like the LA-based Rice Bowl are being recognized as among the best in the country. Allie and Rey believe that this sudden attention has no one answer, as expressed when they were both asked about this.

“The press and the mainstream [are] just catching up to something that we knew all along, which is that Filipino food has always been good,” said Allie. “It’s just a matter of perception.”

“It’s not like there’s one recipe that [the restaurants are] all doing,” Rey added. “They’re putting their own creativity to the chicken adobo, for example. Even in the Philippines, because the country [is made up of] 7,000+ islands, everybody cooks adobo differently.”

Beyond last night’s screening at CAAMFest, Allie and Rey are hoping for ULAM to be picked up by a distributor, and have the film made available in theaters for even wider audiences. They also hope that the documentary contributes significance to the lacking number of stories told from the Asian American community, particularly from the Filipino American community.

“There are so few films that are representing Asian Americans in the media, and I think that for us to be able to contribute to that, we contribute to a positive representation is really important, and the fact that professors want to show this film in their classrooms is incredible, because all that means is that more people will grow up seeing Asians being excellent and that is the most important thing,” Allie stated.

Be sure to check out Offender Erin‘s interview with Alexandra and Rey Cuerdo about the film, from her coverage of the San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase.

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