A Filipino athlete who, despite all the odds, managed to push past his limitations and make the country proud in the Paralympics—this is a story of Ernie Gawilan, as told by Los Angeles-based Filipina filmmaker Kelsy Lua.
Gawilan is a 2017 short film chronicling the life of Ernie, a Filipino swimmer who was born without legs and fingers on his left hand, but who managed to qualify for the Rio 2016 Paralympics. The film was edited, directed, and produced by Kelsy which won second runner-up at a Philippine film festival, Istorya Ng Pag-Asa (Stories of Hope), an event organized by the incumbent Vice President of the Philippines, Leni Robredo.
The five-minute film takes its audience through a slice-of-life montage of Gawilan’s life and training. This is backed by a quietly poignant piano score, as well as a voice-over from the swimmer himself in his native Filipino where he recounts the story of his life. As the film progresses, the score swells into a moving string arrangement as Gawilan’s story becomes increasingly personal and inspirational, and the shots of his training become faster and more action-packed.
Gawilan survived an attempted abortion and was orphaned at a young age. He was taken in by his grandfather and began training at a swimming school run by nuns. In 2008, he placed second in his first-ever swimming competition. The athlete he lost to took him under the wing of the Philippine national team, with whom he traveled around the world, winning fifteen medals. In 2015, he satisfied the Olympic qualifying time for the 400m freestyle event, allowing him to compete at the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Throughout his life, Gawilan long watched as other athletes accomplished feats he dreamed about achieving himself with much more ease than he could manage due to his disabilities. As he grew older, he realized, in his own words: “we need to conquer obstacles in life. There’s a purpose for us in this world…no matter how hard life is, you have to remind yourself to focus on something. We must always look to our spirit for strength. I wrap myself around [my swimming career], because this is what makes me happy.”
Gawilan’s beloved grandparents have long since passed away, but he dedicates his achievements to them, as well as to his coaches and friends: “I get strength from the people who love me…I am thankful because they molded me into the person I am today. [They taught me] not to be ashamed of myself.”
The story of Ernie Gawilan’s life was one that editor, producer & director Kelsy found so inspiring that she felt compelled to make a film about it. Lua says: “I want to bring to light tales that inspire and affect people…this is not just limited to raising awareness about unsung stories that people might have overlooked, but also to make them realize things they have not given much thought to.”
The final shot of the film — footage of Gawilan competing at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, followed by a brief, almost second-long shot of the final scoreboard — seems to sum up the most powerful idea of the swimmer’s personal journey: that it is not his time or position that mattered, but that he had already won by rising above the many adversities in his life.
Watch Kelsy Lua’s Gawilan here.
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