'Overseas': Film Review | Locarno 2019

Courtesy of Locarno Film Festival
Well-balanced hybrid shines welcome light on the plight of ex-pat household servants.

Sung-a Yoon's Belgian-French documentary examines the training of Filipina maids leaving behind their own families to enter the global domestic workforce.

The most sympathetic, illuminating study of domestic labor since Roma, French writer-director Sung-a Yoon's documentary hybrid Overseas ranked among nonfiction titles unveiled at the Locarno International Film Festival this year. Observing the training of maids from the Philippines before they are sent off around the world to join the teeming ranks of the nation's "OFWs" (Overseas Filipino Workers), the Belgium-France co-production is a cleverly constructed and briskly edited glimpse into the tough realities of a semi-invisible profession. Plentiful further festival bookings will follow for this first feature-length offering from the Korea-born, Brussels-based director.

It arrives some seven years after Full of Missing Links, Yoon's 68-minute autobiographical essay-film which she made after a decade of more conceptual shorts. Here she takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to an inner-city training facility, where young women receive rigorous and extensive instruction in what to expect in their new workplaces. The potential hazards and negatives of the job are repeatedly emphasized ("it's a matter of luck"), and the film includes plentiful first-person testimony of verbal and even physical abuse: Many OFW maids complain of being treated like robots or slaves, with sleep and/or food deprivation not uncommon. "Never cry in front of your employers," the trainees are told by one no-nonsense instructor, "it shows weakness. Filipinos are not weak!"

The bulk of the film alternates between role-play enactments of typical scenarios (usually presented via fixed-camera tableaux) and downtime when the women share their experiences, hopes and fears. Newcomers mingle and benefit from the advice of more seasoned "ex-abroad" workers: monetary specifics are exchanged, with wages ranging from the monthly salary of around $350 available in Oman to more than $550 in Hong Kong.

No mention is made, however, of the financial setup of the training academy itself. Yoon is clearly more interested in the proceedings' psychological and sociological aspects, presenting the role-plays in a detached manner which nonetheless brings out their bizarre and humorous aspects. But these welcome moments of levity never detract from the fundamental seriousness of the subject matter. Yoon shows appropriate interest in and respect for the tough psychological traumas that OFWs ("so vulnerable") can often suffer, manifesting in loneliness, depression and, in extreme cases, suicide.

Most of the maids sign up for two-year stints during which they will have minimal or zero contact with their loved ones back home. "Rule number one," they are reminded, is their motivation "to help [their] family. It's all about sacrifice. ... What you earn abroad, you cannot make here."

The bulk of the running time is vérité stuff, punctuated with more obviously staged interludes in which we observe trainees in reflective solitude. Overseas actually begins with a four-minute sequence in which a woman is shown cleaning a bathroom, gradually becoming overwhelmed with increasingly loud tears. The combination of "straight" documentary and more stylized sequences is thus apparent from the early stages, and Yoon blends the two with confident and productive aplomb in a work of quietly impressive technical competence.

In the latter stages, we go outside the confines of the training center and follow the women as they take their next steps toward leaving their homeland. Scenes of bureaucratic efficiency and corridors full of paperwork hint at the vast scale of the OFW phenomenon: Around 10 million Filipinos work abroad, their remittances contributing more than $30 billion to the country's economy, around a tenth of total GDP. The film includes mention of the Philippines' notoriously hardline President Duterte hailing OFWs as heroes and heroines, but scores by going deep into the personal circumstances that underpin such soundbite rhetoric.

Production companies: Iota Production, Les Films de l'Oeil Sauvage, Clin d'Oeil Films
Director-screenwriter: Sung-a Yoon
Producers: Quentin Laurent, Isabelle Truc
Cinematographer: Thomas Schira
Music: Frederic Verrieres
Editor: Dieter Diependaele
Venue: Locarno International Film Festival (Filmmakers of the Present)
Sales: CAT&Docs, Paris

In Tagalog, Ilonggo, English
90 minutes