What Nick Spark learned from Jessica Cox

By Nathalie Tomada

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In his docu-film Right Footed, Nick profiles Jessica, who is born without arms yet lives life to the fullest as a pilot, martial artist and motivational speaker.

MANILA, Philippines — American filmmaker Nick Spark starts The STAR interview on the right foot.

He slightly lifts his right foot to “high five” my right foot. “This is how Jessica Cox greets people,” the writer-director explains why he’s giving me a foot bump instead of the usual handshake. 

Spark is doing what Jessica Cox — the subject of his award-winning 2015 documentary Right Footed — does when greeting friends, newfound and old. 

Jessica is the 34-year-old Filipino-American who has embraced her “difference and disability” of being born without arms, to become a licensed pilot, a black belt martial artist and a successful motivational speaker. In the film, you’ll be amazed by what Jessica could do with her right foot, from the everyday to the extraordinary, from opening a soda can, putting on make-up to driving a car and yes, flying a plane!

“I challenge you to think what you’ve always wanted to do,” Jessica tells her audience in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in a scene from Right Footed, “but even more importantly, what is it that’s stopping you?”

There’s no stopping Jessica, and there’s no stopping the spread of the docu-film’s inspiring, transformative message either. Right Footed has since won more than a dozen awards and has been shown in over 80 countries.

Recently, Spark screened his movie in the Philippines as part of the American Film Showcase, a cultural exchange program of the US Department of State, where film experts, directors and producers are sent overseas to hold workshops and showcase their works.

It was a homecoming of sorts for the director as Right Footed was partly filmed in Tacloban in the heartbreaking aftermath of supertyphoon Yolanda in 2013.

In an exclusive chat with The STAR, Spark talks about the impact Right Footed has made (on others and himself), and what it’s like bringing his film to Tacloban nearly four years after their first visit.

How was the screening of Right Footed in Tacloban?

“It was a very emotional experience because the subject of the film, Jessica Cox, her family is from Visayas. Guiuan (in Eastern Samar, where Yolanda made its first landfall), that’s where her mom (Inez Macabare) grew up and where her ancestral house is. Jessica would fly to Tacloban almost every other year to visit. So, she has strong roots there. That was the reason she came to the Philippines after the typhoon. She was working for Handicap International, an NGO primarily doing work with people with disabilities in the aftermath of a disaster. 

“Jessica always believed that the reason she’s able to overcome her challenges has something to do with the fact that she’s Visayan. They say that Visayan women are very tough, they’re warriors, they overcome the odds. She’s always had a belief about that. In the film, she speaks directly about that to people in Tacloban and so it was amazing to be able to show the film there, especially because our audiences were typhoon survivors. To remind them of the spirit of indomitability, that they’re tough people, that they’re survivors despite the tragic circumstances.”

Can you recall your first visit to Tacloban?

“It was such a heartbreaking situation the first time we were there. There was devastation all around us. Everyone we met had lost family members, houses, everything. We were working with people who had become disabled because of storm, or PWDs who’d lost their wheelchairs, they were swept away, so every day was heartbreaking. At the same time, Jessica was able to give people some hope and to talk about overcoming adversity, and it was also uplifting to be with her as a result of that. So, coming back and seeing how transformed the landscape is, and that the city is rebuilt — I personally could only see one or two buildings where I could recognize that there was typhoon damage. I know that there are psychological scars that take longer time to heal but it was really impressive to see the recovery.”

How did you meet Jessica?

“I actually first met her by watching a short video about her. I was really interested in her because of this story of her wanting to fly a plane when she had no arms... So, I sent her an e-mail saying, ‘I would love to meet you.’ I don’t know if (she’d) ever come to Los Angeles, as she was over a thousand miles away from me, but she quickly e-mailed back and said, ‘I’m actually going to get married in Pasadena,’ which is not far from my house, ‘I’m scouting for a location for my wedding, would you come meet me?’ And I went and met her. 

“The one thing we talked about when I met her was her wedding. I thought she would talk to me about the guest list, dress, venue, honeymoon and all those things. Instead, Jessica was very emphatic that all she wanted to talk about was that she was inviting three little girls she’d been mentoring. They were all born without arms or with partial limbs. She’d been working with them to improve their self-esteem and invited them to the wedding. She wanted them to see her get married so that they would see for themselves in her a future. 

“She felt that was important because she herself never had a role model when she was growing up. She never could believe she could have a boyfriend, get married or have a family. She felt it would be life-changing for them to be there. When I heard that was what she was planning to do, I told her, ‘You’ve got to let me film your wedding’ and she agreed to let me do it.”

What made you decide on doing a docu on Jessica?

“I was really taken by her story. She has an obvious difference from the rest of us, having no arms, and I could only imagine how insecure that must have made her feel as a child. I suspected she felt ugly about herself, felt she was an outsider. I could imagine she would have been bullied. And when I talked to her and saw what a strong person she is, how comfortable she is with herself today, I learned that indeed my suspicions were correct that she endured a lot in her childhood and overcame all those things. 

“I felt that it could be a really inspirational story because I know that many children have hidden challenges... When you’re a teenager, there’s so much doubt about yourself and (discomfort). I felt that if Jessica has this very obvious difference from everybody else and she overcame her challenges, making a film about her would help those children with their own problems. That was No. 1. 

“No. 2, I knew that (having a) disability in many countries, it’s overwhelming what happens to you... There are a billion of people around the world with disability. To be able to communicate to them Jessica’s story just by herself would be impossible so a film could make a difference. I think people with disabilities are the most neglected people in the world. They are the ones who in many countries are hidden away. Such as in Ethiopia, they believe if you have a child with a disability, you must have done something very wrong. To me, the idea that we could champion someone with disability and change people’s attitudes through a film — that’s the most powerful thing you can do as a documentary filmmaker. So, I’m extremely happy how the movie has turned out and with its wide distribution.”

Did you expect the film to receive so many awards?

“One doesn’t really make films to win awards; it’s nice when it happens. The special highlight of this film was that we sent Jessica to Rome to our very first film festival (Mirabile Dictu). We premiered this film at the Vatican and it won Best Documentary Award. But to me, the real goal of this film was getting it seen around the world and we’ve been able to do that. I’m very happy.

“There have been so many great moments in the release of the movie. What I keep on pointing to was in the Cleveland International Film Festival where we showed the film, we were approached by a young woman after the screening who said, ‘I’ve been living with an eating disorder and this movie has given me a lot of hope that I can overcome it because it’s about your attitude and the force of your will.’ 

“Another special moment with this movie, which you can find online, is when we premiered this in the US, a family showed up in our screening unannounced. They had driven over four hours to be there (with) the daughter, who had no arms just like Jessica, in hopes of meeting Jessica and seeing the movie... Jessica actually interrupted her duties as hostess for the premiere to sit with this little girl and show her how she puts on her shoes. That was just an amazing moment. Period. But then Jessica gave her a hug and then this armless embrace photograph that I shot went viral and was seen all over the world. That was a really amazing moment, too.” 

As a filmmaker, how did the making of Right Footed impact you?

“I gained a new respect for myself because it was a very difficult film to make. Since I made it independently, there were many moments when I felt I wouldn’t finish it because it was a very expensive project. We traveled to three continents (and) filmed it for two years. And I learned that like what Jessica says, just don’t say ‘I can’t!’ That’s what we did, we just kept on making the film. Somehow, we were able to achieve it.” 

What’s your earliest memory of filmmaking that you think led to this career path? And, how would you advise those who’d want to give it a try?

“When I was in high school, something amazing happened which was my father, a physician, was asked to participate in a documentary about physicians. Being a very curious child, I went in and met the entire crew of documentary filmmakers and watched my father interviewed. It fascinated me. As they say, truth is stranger than fiction. Real stories about real people are some of the most dramatic stories we will ever hear and in a way, they are much more meaningful because they are about real problems. So, that was my focus when I went to film school — to make documentary films.

“(Tips?) I will say that, everyone of us are carrying a phone that’s pretty much capable of making a film. You can teach yourself through a process of trial and error. I just encourage people to start filming because you have more powerful tools in your hands now than when I went to a very expensive film school (University of Arizona). We didn’t have equipment capable of doing what your cellphone can do now. But the No. 1 thing is, people should make films about what (they’re) passionate about... because documentary filmmaking is a tremendous amount of work, very labor intensive. You’d only want to start on something that you know you’ll be able to stay with and is important to you.”

(Incidentally, Jessica Cox will be talking about her story in Dare To Fly — with Brian McKnight, Yeng Constantino and Lani Misalucha — tomorrow, Sept. 15, 8 p.m. at the Cuneta Astrodome in Pasay. For details, call Ticketnet at 911-5555.)

 

 

 

 

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