Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"In one remarkably intimate scene we watch a woman saying goodbye to a sleeping child so tiny that he won’t really understand what has happened when he wakes up and Mummy isn’t there."

“Never cry in front of the employer. It shows weakness. Filipinos are not weak,” says the trainer.

The women are gathered in a house to learn the skills they will need to get work as cleaners, nannies, carers and other kinds of domestic workers overseas. Some 59,000 Filipinas are working abroad in these professions at any given time, and because a lot of them are young, it often means separation from their young children. Despite their wages seeming very low to most people in the countries where they work, however, there is simply no way they can earn that kind of money in he Philippines. It enables them to pay off debts, own the homes that they rarely see, get a good education for their children, pay for medical treatment and more.

If you buy into Priti Patel’s suggestion that domestic work is unskilled, this film will disabuse you of that notion pretty quickly. Doing this kind of work professionally is not the same as doing it for oneself. One cannot simply muddle through. These women have to be able to meet the high standards of hotels. They need an understanding of old fashioned etiquette rarely used by residents of wealthy countries today. They need to be able to lift disabled adults without harming them or injuring themselves. They need to be able to calm difficult babies and identify health problems the parents may have missed. They need to be willing to clean up the foulest of messes without complaint – without the slightest sign of displeasure – even when they know that those responsible for them have been careless or deliberately obnoxious because they know there’s someone there to pick up after them. And they need to keep their employers happy by balancing humility, firmness and an alertness to shifts of mood that exceeds the skills of many trained psychologists.

Women alone overseas are vulnerable. In training, they role play scenarios that may crop up in service, from dealing with complaints about a supposedly dirty bathroom to asking a physically dependent employer for a holiday. They also explore the best ways of fending off an employer’s unwanted sexual advances. Chatting later whilst they clean up the kitchen, they say in passing things like “a man tried to rape me once” and “she was beaten to death by her employer... she was in the freezer for over a year.” A frequent theme is the absence of any authority to which they can turn if things start to go wrong. Local law enforcement often ignores them and they don’t feel protected by their government. Their survival depends on a combination of luck and their own skills.

Despite this, it’s separation from their families – often for years at a time – that weighs on the women most heavily. In one remarkably intimate scene we watch a woman saying goodbye to a sleeping child so tiny that he won’t really understand what has happened when he wakes up and Mummy isn’t there. When she sees him again, he’ll probably look completely different. Closely tied to this is the sense of home. buildings may disappear and the streets may flood sometimes but director Sung-a Yoon captures the sense of a place that is dearly loved by its residents, who must watch it fade away into the night as they take water taxis to the airport and the planes that will carry them away.

Despite all this sadness, Yoon shows us that Filipinas are not weak. She also captures that special sense of warmth and camaraderie that emerges when people get to bitch about work together, something that most viewers will find themselves able to relate to even if their workplaces are very different. In doing so, it breaks down the barriers that can keep people from recognising domestic workers’ humanity. It paints a stark picture of the damage done by colonialism and international economic inequality, but it’s in its depiction of common concerns that it finds its power.

Reviewed on: 23 Feb 2020
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A documentary about a learning centre where women hoping to find domestic work abroad prepare themselves what for what lies ahead - including homesickness and potential abuse.
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Director: Sung-a Yoon

Writer: Sung-a Yoon

Year: 2019

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: Belgium

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