(Belgium, France 90 minutes)
Dir. Sung-A Yoon
Recalling Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, Overseas opens on a four minute fixed take of a domestic servant at work. In Korean filmmaker Sung’s understated exposé doc, we watch a young Filipina meticulously cleaning a toilet and the floor around it in a school set up to train such workers. Long takes, static camera, and fine detail constitute Sung’s visual approach throughout her observational movie that gradually reveals disturbing and then infuriating facts about OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers).
At first the young woman at the toilet seems serene. But as she scrubs, wipes, and brushes, working away at that crapper as if it were a giant pearl, we hear faint gagging sounds, which turn to crying and abject weeping. “This is where I am?,” she seems to be thinking: “Where am I?”
We’re in a purgatory where OFWs get trained to be efficient, uncomplaining, obedient servants in the countries where they are posted by their agency, mostly in Asia and the Middle East. Only a few exterior establishing shots capture the lushness of a country consisting of 7000 tropical islands. Overseas does not specify that the school is in the island group, or region of Visayas, almost 600km from Manila. The girls in the film speak the regional language of Ilonggo, and we hear smatterings of Tagalog and English.
The school consists of various mock-ups of kitchens, dining rooms, bedrooms; they’re all “laboratories,” somewhat surreal signs on the walls announce. The OFWs learn to clean and set tables, practicing lines like “Your water, ma’am.”
The doc shifts between observing the girls making beds and cooking European meals under the supervision of conscientious teachers, acting out typical situations that might occur abroad, and long contemplative takes of intimate moments. Before she departs for God knows what fate, one of the girls spends her last precious moments with her baby.
Isolation, loneliness, and missing their family are among the problems that induce sky-high levels of stress among young women who often feel trapped in inescapable two-year contracts.
Overseas offers a rarely depicted POV, whether it’s from the Philippines, or countries like Jamaica where those smiling hotel staffers in the All Inclusive resorts are paid slave wages. We get up close and personal with Third World women desperate to support themselves and their families. Through role-playing in which teachers dress up and bitch up like bosses in Singapore, Dubai or Saudi Arabia, as well as stories these experienced Filipinas tell their students, the film exposes what many domestic servants endure.
Depending on the luck of the draw, servants may find themselves begging an indifferent, evasive boss for vacation time to see their children. Horror stories range from being slapped by a Saudi harridan because the toilet is not pristine enough, to overwork and sleep deprivation, to not getting enough time to eat. Inevitably, sexual molestation and getting raped on the job are key concerns for these young domestics.
The girls do show a sense of irony and even defiance about the abuse, joking and laughing their way out of tears about the loutishness of being grabbed. But their feelings about the situation are summed up by one girl’s question: “Is there hope for someone like me?” Meanwhile, hardline Philippine bossman President Duterte has anointed domestics as “heroes to the government” because hundreds of thousands of them transfer truckloads of cash to his country every year.
In one scene, a young hopeful does a Facetime interview with a potential employer, her face an obsequious mask, her best smile plastered across her face. One woman complains of being treated “like a robot.” In a scene involving a global map, and excited talk about Paris and London, you wonder how many young servants will more than a glimpse of the world beyond Visayas.
The film does not refer to the murder of OFWs, or the execution of Flor Contemplacion in Singapore on apparently false charges. From her experience and the grapevine, a Filipina I know confirms everything the film says, including the suicide rate among OFWs. She also told me the well documented story of the 66-year-old Texan who snuffed out his 24-year-old Filipina wife and stored her body in a freezer. According to the lady, the body was there for a year.
The training schools and agencies are obviously aware of potential abuse in countries like Singapore, where they say you can be arrested for spitting on the street. Teachers advise their students to be strong, to not let themselves be “treated like animals,” to perfume spray attackers in the eyes. If necessary, they’re told to go to the Agency, or Immigration, or in really dire situations, the police. Unfortunately, says the Filipina I know, many of the girls have no idea how to get to those places, and some bosses confiscate phones.
For its filmmaking excellence and revelation of a story people need to know more about, Sung-A Yoon’s Overseas is a must-see doc.