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 international film critics’ (FIPRESCI) jury. Our jury gave the FIPRESCI award to Hassan Fazili’s Midnight Traveler, which follows the filmmaker’s family for almost three years, fleeing from Afghanistan to Europe via illegal migration routes and extensive stays in depraved refugee camps – filmed in its entirety on three mobile phones. This film has already been reviewed in Modern Times Review, so I will not elaborate on it any further – apart from giving it my warmest recommendations.
Another feature doc in the same competition was American filmmaker Luke Lorentzen’s rather similarly titled Midnight Family , which among two other prizes at the festival was awarded the main jury’s Golden Centaur Grand Prix for Best Film.
At the beginning of the film, a text explains that in Mexico City, with a population of nine million, the government operates less than 45 emergency ambulances. Therefore, a loose and somewhat shady system of private ambulances is running much of the city’s emergency healthcare. The film follows the Ochoa family, with the father, his two sons and a friend of the family owning and operating one of these ambulances. The film’s most central character is the oldest son Juan, 17 years of age, apparently running most of this nightly family business. He admits that he likes the adrenaline the job provides but is nonetheless seen handling seriously wounded with impressive maturity.
At the end of the day, the aim of these private ambulances is to make money. The Ochoa family doesn’t necessarily have the most advanced equipment or skills, but through listening in on police radios, they often get to the scene of the accidents before the government’s paramedics. The film shows the Ochoas racing other rivaling emergency cars to get there first so that they can provide their services – and hopefully get paid for it.
Midnight Family shows the effects of this ideology in the Mexican capitol
The dilemmas rising from this are sometimes brutal: Should they drive the patient to the nearest state-owned hospital, or slightly longer to a private one, with more chances of receiving payment? On several occasions, we witness them not getting any money, for instance, if the patient doesn’t have the proper insurance. Leaving people with serious injuries still doesn’t seem to be an option. All aspects of the hospital choices aren’t always completely clear, due to the film’s fly-on-the-wall approach. However, this is more than compensated for with the film’s closeness to its subjects, both in situations of extreme stress (without focusing too much on the sometimes heavily injured patients) and in the quiet stretches of waiting for the next emergency.
Midnight Family is an intense documentary thriller but at the same time a warm portrait of a family trying to make ends meet – which also includes paying bribes to the police to stay in business – without judging or defending their actions.
Moreover, the film depicts an extreme version of a money-driven welfare system, thus giving a raw and unsettling portrayal of today’s ruthless capitalism – which links it thematically to the equally strong Overseas. Whereas Midnight Family shows the effects of this ideology in the Mexican capital, Overseas has a more international scope, conveying – and giving a voice to – an underprivileged and hugely overlooked class of silent workers in the global economic system. It’s time we see and hear their cries.