Out of Print

Samantha Lee Goes Back to School

by Jonty Cruz
Photos courtesy of Samantha Lee
The acclaimed filmmaker on continuing her education and learning more about herself in the process.

Samantha Lee knew almost instantly what she needed to do after feeling helpless seeing the national election results in May of 2019: she was going back to school. It was a decision made in the nick of time as the University of the Philippines’ (U.P.) deadline for applications was two days away. But while some would see this as too intimidating to act upon, Sam saw it as just the push she needed. It’s something she’s been used to ever since she was young: “I find it impossible to work when I have no deadline or quota,” she says at one point over email.

It’s been a little more than a year since she made that decision and a lot has changed, not just for Sam but for everything else as well—even this interview.

When I first messaged Sam about this feature, it was originally supposed to be about the impact a continued education has on creativity and how she balances her studies with her film career. But like the very best of conversations, it quickly became about life and finding our own way through it.


Hey Sam, before we get started, can we talk about where your career was before you went back to school? What was life like after making two acclaimed movies?
I spent the last chunk of 2019 trying to rediscover who I was outside of the word “filmmaker.” It’s been such a big part of my identity, ever since I took up Film in U.P. in 2006. I have this tendency to take everything I do very personally and I think it all came to a head after my last Q&A for Billie and Emma in New York last October. At that point, I had spent most of my year touring the film and travelled to Osaka, Toronto, Tel Aviv, Los Angeles, Cardiff, Taipei, and New York. I ended up kind of tearing up during my last Q&A in New York because I really didn’t know what I was supposed to do after.

Whenever I would meet up with industry friends, the first thing they would always ask me was: “What are you working on now?” It wasn’t even “How are you?” It’s as if a lot of who we are is tied to the work that we do. I just wanted to spend some time being “me” and in order to do that, I needed to find out who “me” was.

Is that why you wanted to go back to school? Or was it another reason altogether?
It was the morning after the results of the 2019 elections came out. I just felt so helpless and I needed to do something. I knew that I always wanted to take up something related to gender or women because it’s a cause I’m so passionate about. So I looked it up and the deadline for applications was in two days and I didn’t really have time to overthink what I was doing.

“Love whatever you want unashamedly.”

What course are you taking up now and did you pick it with your career and goals in mind?
I’m taking up my second master’s in Women’s Studies and Development in U.P. Diliman. And I’m taking it up entirely for fun.

Any particular topic or lesson that’s stood out for you thus far?
I really enjoyed being able to look back on the history of the Women’s Movement and just seeing how far we’ve come. I mean we have this thing called Marxist Feminism named after Karl Marx, who wasn’t looking out for women’s interests at all but not a lot of people question that!

Why do you think that is?
Some people just accept history as is, because we were taught to believe in whatever is in our textbooks or whatever. But history is only someone’s version of what happened, and just because something has been going on for hundreds of years doesn’t mean it’s right.

I’m still lobbying for Marxist Feminism to be renamed to Jenny Marxist Feminism.

 Has school gotten easier or was it hard to get back into the swing of things given that you’re still working?
It’s been really tough. And this is my second master’s! I took up my Master’s in Communication at RMIT in Melbourne, and it was so different because RMIT is known to be an industry-centric school. So basically we spent two years learning from people in the industry who would assign us projects that we could put in our portfolios.

U.P. is more theory-centric. Every week I would have to read 50–100 pages or entire books for a quiz next meeting. These are books that are written in English but they might as well have been written in a foreign language.

When I was doing my Master’s in Communication, it was something that was aligned with what I did for a living, so everything felt like second nature to me. But now I’m a fish out of water. Everything I’m learning is stuff I’m hearing about for the first time, while my classmates are already experts at it. Like my classmates had already read most of the texts assigned to us during their undergrad, so there was definitely a lot of stuff to catch up to.

I’ve also learned to set boundaries. Like I would tell my [film/ad] producers not to send me anything for approval during class hours or not to schedule meetings and shoots on days when I have class. I used to have to leave Makati early to make it to my classes in U.P. on time, and to make up for it I would be sitting in my car an hour before classes talking to different members of my crew. If Zoom was a thing a couple of months ago, we would have definitely done a parking lot Zoom session. I’m glad that the people I work with have been very understanding and supportive of what I’m doing. 

“I just wanted to spend some time being ‘me’ and in order to do that, I needed to find out who ‘me’ was.”

What does the structure and system of school do for you creatively?
I’m someone who has always enjoyed and thrived in structure and boundaries. I enjoy having independence in a confined space. I think this is because in Poveda, we had this thing called Individual Work which basically meant that we got an hour each day for three weeks to complete activities from each subject. All my friends spent the first two weeks just hanging out and chatting and would cram everything in the third week but I was the opposite! I get really inspired and motivated by boundaries and structure, which also backfires sometimes because I find it impossible to work when I have no deadline or quota.

Why do you think constant education is essential to nurturing creativity?
There’s this classic adage that says: write what you know. I think it’s my responsibility as a storyteller to not only write what I know but to really know what I am writing about. I think one of the reasons why it takes me so long to write a film is because I really dive into the research process. I read books, watch films, listen to podcasts, do interviews, etc. I really actually do enjoy that part of the process. You can’t build new worlds with a shitty foundation.

What are you learning most about your experience in school now given the pandemic?
Now more than ever I’ve seen the inequalities that people experience and how that can affect the access to things that we want to have. For example, I take for granted that I have access to Wi-Fi and that I am in an environment that is safe and I don’t have a lot of responsibilities to think about. I can set aside some time each day to make sure I get my school work done. This isn’t the same story for my classmate who has to find an internet cafe that is open just so he can check what our homework is that week, or my classmate who has to take care of her children. These are things that I didn’t really have to think about or notice when we would show up to the same place at the same time every week. Back then we were just characters with no backstory, seemingly on equal footing.

What else have you been learning from your classmates and how they view the course or topics you’re all taking up?
I have classmates who really do work in communities and I learn so much from them every time they report or recite in class. All the good work that they’re doing in this world makes me feel so small and insignificant!

Any surprising things you’re learning now that you didn’t expect?
That I can write eight papers and read over 1,000 pages of academic text in two weeks.

“You can’t build new worlds with a shitty foundation.”
Can you share any of the readings that really stuck with you?
I’ve really enjoyed reading works by this Black queer author named bell hooks. She wrote the book called Feminism Is for Everybody. She stood out because her book was the first one that I read for class that really went deep into talking about intersectionality and about how different aspects of who we are and the circumstances we are born into can grant us certain privileges. Emily Ratajkowski likes her too, so now we have something to talk about for our meet-cute.

Sidenote: What’s a feminist film you’d recommend?
Oh, I can never get enough of Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

Do you see any of your creative work or those that you’ve loved and admired in a different light based on what you’ve learned so far?
Yeah, most definitely. One of the first questions we were asked in one of my classes was “What’s your bias?” Being the newbie that I was, I thought she was talking about BTS members! But it’s about recognizing and acknowledging what set of lenses you view the world through. I never gave much thought to why I liked what I liked, but [bias] is so much more than that. I can’t watch a Wes Anderson film now without being hypercritical of the way he portrays minorities. I can still LOVE Rushmore but my eyes are now open to the weaknesses of that film.

I know you also took a writing workshop with the legendary writer Ricky Lee. How’d that come about?
I think writing has always been my weakest point. This has a lot to do with the fact that I didn’t get accepted as a writer for my school newspaper when I was in third grade! I thought that if I was just more confident in my writing then I would be able to do it quicker or whatever but that didn’t turn out to be the case.

What are some of the interesting things you learned in his workshop?
He’s a really big advocate of the shitty first draft, which was something I’d always been hung up about. I mean this is one of the legends of Philippine cinema saying that all his first drafts are not that great (which I’m sure he was only saying to make us all feel better about ourselves).

Do you think your continued education reinforced or reshaped how you view your career or your goals as creativity?
No, because I see my continued education as an added bonus. No one treats you differently because you have a master’s degree. I took [my degrees] up because I really love learning and I didn’t want to stop. It’s one of the few things in my life that I really did just for myself. When I left for Melbourne the first time, people were so against it because my career was just beginning to pick up and I was getting a lot of work. I left anyway because I wanted to live in another country. With this one, it was kind of the same reaction: people are always so hesitant about the time that going to school takes away from time you can do work. But you really just have to decide if this is something you want for yourself and stick with it.

How are you seeing your career path now? Is there anything in particular you want to do now given what you’ve been learning?
I don’t think I can ever not be a storyteller. I’ve always seen my further education as something that supports my filmmaking, not something that will take me away from it.

I’m looking forward to getting my PhD as well!

What other things besides school can help people nurture their creativity?
Love whatever you want unashamedly. Whether it be doing a deep dive on British monarchs, or doing a review of related literature of your favorite HAIM songs through Genius, or spending half a day watching all of David Dobrik’s vlogs, whatever takes you out of your own world can only inspire you.

What would you say to those considering going back to school to pursue further studies?
Time you spend on yourself is not wasted time!

Last question: How are you?
I've been rereading one of my favorite books which is Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke, where he talks a lot about solitude and embracing it. One of the things he says is "To be an artist means: not to calculate and count; to grow and ripen like a tree which does not hurry the flow of its sap and stands at ease in the spring gales without fearing that no summer may follow. It will come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are simply there in their vast, quiet tranquility, as if eternity lay before them." There are a lot of things that are uncertain now, especially in the film industry. We are forced to think hard about the kinds of films we want to make and how we can adapt to the current circumstances. But I think for the first time in my life, I'm in the process of just being, and I'm fine with that. ︎

Jonty Cruz has worked at Esquire Philippines, The Philippine Star, and Rogue Magazine. He also co-founded All Good, a social-impact storytelling platform.