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"Nurse Unseen" documentary showcasing Filipino nurses premieres at CIFF

Rosary Castro-Olega was the first health care professional to die of Covid-19 in Los Angeles County.
Michele Josue
Nurse Unseen
Rosary Castro-Olega was the first health care professional to die of Covid-19 in Los Angeles County.

The documentary “Nurse Unseen" dives into the experience of Filipino American nurses, who were adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The film is making its world premiere at the Cleveland International Film Festival this Sunday, March 26, at 5 p.m. at the Key Bank State Theater.

Nurse Unseen filmmaker Michele Josue discussed the documentary on Tuesday’s “Sound of Ideas” alongside Rose Ferguson, who is a nurse manager at Northshore Gastroenterology and secretary of the Philippine Nurses Association of Ohio.

“I actually have a very personal affinity for the Cleveland Film Festival. They’ve always been really good to me and I always say it’s one of my most favorite film festivals,” said Josue. "I just felt with the healthcare community it would be a really great fit for this film."

Michele Josue
Nurse Unseen
"Nurse Unseen" will make its world premiere in Cleveland.

In 2014, Josue won CIFF’s Roxanne T. Mueller Audience Choice Award for Best Film for her first feature film, “Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine.”

Nurse Unseen

It's common for Filipino Americans to pursue a career in nursing. There are cultural reasons, but also historically significant reasons, such as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that sought after migrant nurses, often from the Philippines.

Nurses across the United States were on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Filipino American nurses saw a higher death rate at the heights of the pandemic relative to other nursing demographics.

“It was akin to going into war. Our opponent was a disease,” said Maricar Gomez, a nurse practitioner at the Cleveland Clinic and the president-elect of PNAO. “Sadly, a lot of our Filipino cohort in nursing did pass, but I know it was because in their heart they wanted to do the right thing,” she said.

While nurses of Filipino descent make up just 4% of the US nursing workforce, they accounted for nearly a third of registered nurse deaths at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to National Nurses United.

“That’s a whole generation of our history just gone, so it’s important for it to be documented,” Josue said.

Josue said she’s dedicated her craft to telling the stories of Filipinos and Filipino Americans, which she said are histories that are often forgotten.

“If we don’t tell our stories, who is going to tell them for us? Or if other people do tell it for us, they might not do it in a grounded, real, sensitive, meaningful way that these stories deserved to be told,” Josue said.

Nurse Unseen digs into the history of Filipinos becoming an integral part of the US medical workforce and it showcases the many struggles Filipino Americans faced working on the front lines, including seeing loved ones die, fighting for support from the medical world's powers that be and facing anti-Asian racism fueled by COVID-19 scapegoating.

Josue will be part of a panel discussion after the Sunday premiere along with nurses and family of fallen nurses, which is partially why she decided to take this film on the film festival circuit versus sending the film straight to a streaming service.

“Our culture is really footed in kapwa and community and sharing and being with one another and supporting one another,” Josue said.

Kapwa is from the Filipino language Tagalog used to describe solidarity and shared identity amongst Filipinos.

Nurse Unseen will play again at CIFF on Monday, March 27 at 11:50 a.m.

Gabriel Kramer is a reporter/producer and the host of “NewsDepth,” Ideastream Public Media's news show for kids.