Wide shot of Kayla in her short, Learning Tagalog with Kayla, which premiered at SXSW Film Festival 2021

Interview: ‘Learning Tagalog with Kayla’ filmmaker Kayla Abuda Galang

SXSW 2021 Online was fantastic this year, and one of the shorts I watched was Austin filmmaker Kayla Abuda Galang‘s Learning Tagalog with Kayla. I read a press release and recalled vaguely what the film was about. I was chilling in my robe, with my adorable tabby cat Matcha by my side, and decided to give the short a watch. And I’m so glad I did. The next four to five minutes blew me away.

On March 23, SXSW announced the 2021 Audience Awards winners, and Learn Tagalog with Kayla won the Texas Short Competition. So well-deserved!

Summary of Learning Tagalog with Kayla

In this comedic but vulnerable short, Kayla is pleased to teach you the basics of Tagalog, the language of her homeland. She teaches conversational phrases and common expressions and when time permits, her multitude of coping strategies in isolation.

About Kayla Abuda Galang

Kayla Abuda Galang is a filmmaker based in Austin, Texas, dreaming up stories rooted in nostalgia, music, and girlhood. Her most recent short film, Learning Tagalog With Kayla, premiered at SXSW. Her directorial and editing works have also been official selections at Atlanta Film Festival, Aspen Shortsfest, Austin Film Festival, and Florida Film Festival. Currently, she’s exploring Filipina girlhood in mid-2000s Southeast San Diego through her next short film and feature film debut.

Watch the teaser 

Read our interview:

Congrats on winning the 2021 SXSW Film Festival’s Texas Short Competition! What were your thoughts when you found out?

Kayla Abuda Galang (KAG): Thank you so much! When I found out about the Audience Award, I screamed and ran around my house. And then I couldn’t focus for like, four hours. Ha! But really, I was just stoked. It’s been exciting to see such a huge response to a film that I originally only meant to share with friends.

What was your inspiration for creating this short film? 

KAG: I’d say the inspiration for the film was personal sadness, a deadline for a community art showcase, and my “model student” part of my identity I’ve always had. The script stemmed from a stream of consciousness I wrote one afternoon, and I noticed how focused I was on my discomfort at home and all the little joys I had for coping.

What message did you hope your audience took away from the short? 

KAG: This is kind of a hard question since I didn’t even really consider what people could take away from it when I made it! The more responses I see to the film, the more I think the answer is this: that it’s okay to be present and engaged with your sadness, and that it’s totally okay to laugh at it all too.

I loved how the short begins as like an educational language tutorial and then transitions into an empathetic look into life during the pandemic. How did you come up with that way of storytelling for your short?

KAG: Being Filipina, and culturally valuing hard work, respectability, and politeness, I’ve always had a buttoned-up, “model student” persona that I’ve brought to formal spaces. When asked how I’m doing, I often mindlessly say, “I’m fine,” or, “Good!” I mean, a lot of people do that, and I get why, but it started to really grind my gears to have to pretend to be okay throughout various moments of last year. So, I thought it would be funny to flip the script in a space where you normally wouldn’t expect that to happen: a pre-recorded language lesson.

What was your biggest challenge or setback in creating this short?

KAG: The biggest challenge was recording the Tagalog dialogue. I don’t speak fluent Tagalog at all. I had my mom translate my script and record a voice memo of each line in both English and Tagalog. I’ve always been good at parroting whatever my parents say, but these were long, unwieldy sentences. Everything sounded so silly coming out of my mouth. I got so frustrated that I even asked my sound person if I could just get a text-to-speech generator to do my job, but he said no! He defended my own idea from myself.

What advice do you have for young women looking to break into the film industry as a writer/director?

KAG: Know what you value in a collaborative space, and then find your filmmaking community and mentors who know your values. Talk to your filmmaking friends! Reach out to filmmakers you admire! You’d be so surprised at how willing people are to talk with you, collaborate with you, and help you out.

What’s coming up for Kayla?

SXSW 2021 may be over but you can catch screenings of Learning Tagalog with Kayla at Aspen Shortsfest 2021 from April 6-11 and at Atlanta Film Festival 2021 from April 22 – May 2.

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