This was a fascinating documentary about a new YouTube fad, changing one’s eye color, which is done, surgically, in India. It sounded very dicey, and, as it turns out, it is.
The documentary, written and directed by Liza Mandelup of the Parts & Labor film enterprise, followed the journey of Raymond David Taylor of Miami as he set off for India to have his brown eyes turned into a color described as “frost.”
It seems that there is a thriving cosmetic industry in Cairo, Mexico, Panama, and India and, of course, the recent deaths of two American citizens in Matamoros, Mexico, (we now know), was a trip for cosmetic surgery. A friend of mine flew to Costa Rica for dental work, so I’m surprised I had not heard of this latest vision fad, but I don’t spend much time watching videos on YouTube.
David had a very rough childhood, even getting kicked out of the house while young, at one point, and he (and most of the other patients) seem to think that “Changing me will change my outlook on life.” As David says, “If I feel sad one more day, I don’t know if I’m going to make it.”
He doesn’t have the money for the surgery, but a well-written letter to BrightOcular explaining his desire for the implants brings an offer from them to come have the cosmetic procedure for free, if he will let the company use his story and his photos for advertising purposes.
We then meet others on this medically unregulated journey, including Izzy, a woman from New Delhi, a young man from Japan, a male underwear model and a beautiful girl from Jamaica, but the focus is on David, which filmmaker/writer Mandelop explained was her attempt to initially start out with three main characters and trace their journeys, with one emerging as central to the story.
She described this engrossing film journey into eye surgery this way: “I wanted to visually convey it. I wanted to do something that people wouldn’t think was cinematic, like eye surgery, but make it cinematic. It became an emotional journey. David allowed me to make the film that I was craving.”
In the course of the journey, we meet David’s mother, who also suffered a rough, abusive life, but tried her best as a young single mother to care for her children on wages of $2.35 an hour. David’s mother and David don’t agree on a lot of things. She is okay with David’s being gay, but she says, “I cannot deal with that if you start cutting parts of your body off and adding stuff.” She adds that she thought he was a great female impersonator. Mom’s point-of-view is, “You’re stubborn. You don’t listen.” She adds, “You’re never satisfied with the way you look.” Others in the film describe the cosmetic procedure as “a bandaid to the past.” Most of the others have selected jade green as the color their brown eyes
It is a big blow to David when they do three patients’ surgeries simultaneously and, in the process, he is given jade green eye color by mistake, rather than frost. This will mean another eye surgery to fix the error.
If you are thinking, “This can’t be safe,” you’re right. It is only about four months post-surgery after David undergoes the procedure that he describes it as “the worst mistake of my life” when headaches and visual problems begin.
All of the prospective patients seem to want to transform to some ideal person they have created in their heads. When the subject of the film appeared before us in person, however, the audience got the feeling that the subject of “Caterpillar” has, in fact, bettered his life, moving back to Brooklyn and now working as an EMT. He explained his mother’s absence from the showing as his way of “avoiding drama.”
On the left, Director Liza Mandelup and Raymond David Taylor, subject of the SXSW documentary “Caterpillar”on SXSW Opening Night, March 10, 2023.
Some other patients, we learn, who did not heed the United States opthalmalogists’ warning about the damage the implants have done (or are doing) to their eyes ended up blind or partially blind. One former patient whom David tracks down after he begins encountering headaches and blurry vision said that he woke up after 5 years with blood on his cornea. “I had to remove them or go blind.”
The unfettered access to the surgery and the patients seems quite unusual. That is, until we learn that the leadership of BrightOcular is very circumspect. No one ever comes forward to represent BrightOcular or another entity called Spectra. These agencies exist and are offering this service and heavily advertising how it will “change your life” on social media, with beautiful pictures of patients like David. They are not as forthcoming about the negatives of the procedure. The Indian physician who says he, personally, would not undergo the procedure knows this is a very risky way to change one’s outlook on life and seems to convey that through his reticence to heartily endorse the procedure.
David bought into it with words like, “This is my new beginning. I’m changing,” or “Beauty matters. Beauty gets you through the door.
Musical selections like “Stand By Me” and “I Want to Dance With Somebody,” selected by Music Supervisor Melissa Chapman, merge with the early upbeat theme of positive change seamlessly and add much to the extremely well-done production.
Afterwards, the writer/director (Liza Mandelup) and David, the chief subject, answered questions about the inspiration for the film and its aftermath. Liza said she had been doing research on the apps that can change one’s appearance when she learned of this eye surgery. She sent the BrightOcular company an e-mail asking I f she could do a documentary about the process. They were very positive in their response and never really surfaced as an entity. Their leadership remains a mystery.
Writer-Director Liza Mandelup.
She cautions that David was one of the few patients who listened to the warnings from U.S. eye doctors, post-surgery, and had his implants removed fairly quickly. Others have faced the need to have cornea transplants and some have gone blind because they refused to give up the implants over a period of years. One patient, asked what she would be content with in regards to improving her appearance, answered, “What am I content with? Just more.”
Among the best compliments of the terrific job the filmmaker did with this riveting documentary was a woman who stood up in the back during the Q&A and said, in heavily accented English, “You mean this was a documentary? I thought it was a movie!”