Sung-a Yoon’s feature documentary Overseas starts with a static shot of a young Filipino woman cleaning a bathroom. After a while, she starts to cry, but still carries on with her solitary work. The scene illustrates a core point taught at the training centre for Filipino workers about to work abroad as maids, which the film portrays: Never let your employers see you cry.
At the training centre, the women are prepared for the tasks they will perform as so-called OFW’s (Overseas Filipino Workers) in Asian and Middle-Eastern countries, such as cooking and serving meals, cleaning houses and infants, and perhaps also cleaning disabled family members. The challenges they will meet are plentiful, both in terms of being away from their family – whom many of them will be supporting through this assignment for at least two years – and from the constant demands and sometimes abuse from the families they are off to serve.
The training includes role-playing of more or less typical situations for this line of work, where the soon-to-be housemaids take turns in playing the part as the OFW and various members of the employer families. Some of the participants have already been working abroad, and can thus share their experiences with the first-timers – serving in the film as confirmations of what is depicted in the role-playing sessions. The re-enactments make up a substantial part of the film, sometimes adding a sense of odd humour. Just as often, however, these dramatizations show the gravity of some of the incidents the workers may have to face – amongst which are sexual harassment and even attempts of rape.
The women are prepared for cooking and serving meals, cleaning houses and infants.
Yoon’s approach is observational, with a tableaux-style somewhat similar to the Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl. But even though its visual style is partly distanced, as well as the film not focusing on one main character, Overseas is far more empathic towards its protagonists than the case usually is with Seidl’s films.
Money and ethics
The Belgian-French production was screened in the international feature documentary competition at the Message to Man festival in St. Petersburg in September, where I was part of the …
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