“Caterpillar” Is Outstanding Documentary at SXSW 2023

“Caterpillar” was a fascinating documentary at SXSW 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.

Endlessly struggling to feel seen, David becomes infatuated with a mysterious company’s promise to transform people’s lives by permanently changing the color of their eyes. After traveling to India to get the controversial procedure, he begins to question if this artificial beauty will give him the fulfillment he truly seeks.

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, 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 fad, but I don’t spend a lot of time watching videos on YouTube.

David had a very rough childhood, even getting kicked out of the house while young, at one point, 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. Still, a well-written letter explaining his desire for the implants brings an offer from BrightOcular to come to have the cosmetic procedure for free if he will let the company use his story and 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 the filmmaker/writer  Liza Mandelup explained was her attempt to initially start out with three main characters and trace their journeys, with one character emerging as central to the story.

Writer/Director of “Caterpillar,” Liza Mandelup.

She described this riveting 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, 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.” And, she adds, “You’re never satisfied with the way you look.” Others in Caterpillar describe the cosmetic procedure as “a bandaid to the past.” Most of the others have selected jade green as the color their brown eyes will be after surgery. It is a big blow to David when they do three surgeries simultaneously and he is given jade green by mistake, rather than frost, which will mean another eye surgery to fix. All of the prospective patients seem to want to transform into someone else, an ideal they have created in their heads.

If you are thinking, “This can’t be safe,” you’re right. It is only about four months post-surgery that David describes undergoing the procedure as “the worst mistake of my life.”

 Writer/Director of “Caterpillar” Liza Mandelup and Raymond David Taylor, the chief subject.

Some patients, we learn, who did not heed the United States ophthalmologists warning about the damage the implants are doing to their eyes ended up partially blind after a number of years.  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 until we learn that the leadership of BrightOcular is very circumspect. No one ever comes forward to represent that entity or another such provider called Spectra. These agencies exist and are offering this service and heavily advertising how it will “change your life” on social media, with pictures of patients like David.

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 seamlessly and add much to the extremely well-done production.

Afterward, writer/director Liza Mandelup and David, the chief subject, answered questions about the origin of Caterpillar 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 and sent the BrightOcular company an e-mail asking if she could do a documentary about the process.  She remarked that the company received her request very positively, but no one from the company ever emerged to guide her or supervise the process, which includes some gruesome close-up shots of the patients being operated on.  She cautions that David was one of the few patients who listened to the warnings from U.S. eye doctors and had his implants removed fairly quickly. Other patients have faced the need for cornea transplants; some have gone blind because they refuse to give up the implants.

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.”

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