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Photo by Chris Yong

Making film stars out of Singapore’s domestic workers

By Rob O'brien

The shoestring budget film Remittance depicts the hardship of life in Singapore through its ensemble cast of real life domestic workers. But now they are waiting for its message to reach the people who matter most — their family and friends at home.

In a dark and damp karaoke bar on Joo Chiat Road in Singapore, an American film director barks instructions to a group of extras plucked from the city’s expat community: “You’re in a sleazy bar chatting to pretty Asian girls while drinking beer… you’ve probably got the easiest job in this film,” he says.

It is halfway through an ambitious but exhilarating film shoot. The film is called Remittance. It was shot in Singapore in 2013 on a miniscule budget of $50,000, and it follows the life of Marie, a foreign domestic worker from the Philippines — played by Angela Barotia — as she struggles to cope with demanding employers, long hours of work, and separation from her family.

Singapore has around 250,000 domestic workers, who cook, clean, look after children and the elderly and do many other household chores. Keen to document their hidden lives, Daly and fellow director Joel Fendelman originally intended to make a documentary. They interviewed hundreds of migrant women and men from across Asia working as maids, bar girls, waitresses, construction workers and sailors.

“The national narrative of these women [in the Philippines] is that they are heroes: they go off and bring in 10% of the national economy. It’s huge,” says the director, Patrick Daly.

In all they spent about a year “hanging out” with migrant workers — going on dates, attending birthday parties, going to church, sitting through NGO classes — to better understand their lives.

“Throughout the entire process we were very aware that we were two middle class white American guys trying to tell a story about women from the developing world — how could we possibly understand what their lives were like? — these were critiques we anticipated at the beginning,” says Daly.

Remittance has only three professional actors in it and an ensemble cast of mainly Filipina domestic workers and laborers, who responded to casting calls through Singapore NGOs. Angela works full-time as a domestic worker. Yolanda Bermas, another cast member, gave up her weekly day off to star in the film. She first came to Singapore in 2002 to save up enough money to open a piggery back home in Bacacay, Albay province, in the Philippines.

She found the first few years in Singapore very difficult. Shortly after starting work her husband left her for another woman, meaning she would have to raise her daughter, now 14 years old, on her own.

Yolanda wanted to leave Singapore and come home but her mother convinced her it was best to remain working so she could continue to earn.

“I only planned to work here for two years but my circumstances— or rather my husband’s unfaithfulness — changed my plans,” she says through a series of Facebook exchanges. “My friend told me about the film Remittance — she gave me an address and an audition time. I introduced myself [to Joel and Patrick], told them how long I had been working in Singapore, how my employer treated me, what I do on Sundays, and about my family. They explained the concept of the movie. I think I was lucky to be chosen.”

Angela, who plays the main character in the film, moved to Singapore in 2009 from Albay-Bicol province in the Philippines. Before that she was a vegetable seller. She moved to support her husband and two daughters. Many employers wouldn’t have allowed her to take part in the film but her Singapore employer backed her, even taking on a new worker for three months to allow her time to shoot.

After Daly and Fendelman found their cast they spent months doing rehearsals to customise the script and dialogue with the women, working in their native Tagalog dialect, to ensure the film felt comfortable for them. The end product includes stories of working life in Singapore — having salaries doctored, being forced by an employer to cut their hair short or taking on extra jobs to pay off agent fees — all of which came from the cast’s own experiences.

“There is nothing in this film that hadn’t happened to one of the girls,” says Daly. “It is not directly their life story, but everything we included was told to us by the women who took part. We wanted the women to act as little as possible.”

Domestic workers in Singaporedon’t have much freedom. Many have their phones confiscated and curfews are common, so co-ordinating film production around their work schedules was difficult, as was gaining their employers’ trust.

“Some reached out directly to check that I was legitimate (Daly was a Visiting Fellow at theUniversity of Singapore and most of his film crew were students from the university). They wanted to know I wasn’t exploiting them. There were some actors we wanted to cast in the film but their employers said ‘no’. Some thought that we might be shooting a porn film,” he says.

On set the lines would often be blurred between art and reality. One domestic worker was called because their employer couldn’t get the baby to sleep. “We had to rush her home in a taxi,” Daly recalls. Another was told by her employer not to forget her place: “You’re a maid, you’re not a movie star.” Just in case she had eyes on Hollywood.

One of the few working actors in Remittance was Prem John, who lives in Singapore and made his feature film debut
One of the few working actors in Remittance was Prem John, who lives in Singapore and made his feature film debut (photo - Chris Yong)

Domestic workers are much more attuned to such power plays and are in fact constantly finding ways to advance their lives, Daly says.

“There is this great book called Weapons of the Weak by Jim Scott, about power dynamics and relationships, it is about the little things powerless people do to disrupt social order,” he says.

“One of the strong messages is that you shouldn’t assume the powerless have no power. There are many things they can do to regain control of their lives in spite of external dominance. When I was looking into the behaviour of Singapore’s domestic workers, I saw lots of that happening: there were all of these little subversive ways which the women were trying to carve out some control for themselves, to reassert some agency and power in their lives.”

Remittance is currently screening at film festivals across the US. It was turned down by the Singapore International Film Festival and is now targetting screenings in countries either most reliant on domestic workers, such as Hong Kong and the Gulf States, or ‘sender’ countries such as the Philippines, which has more than 2 million overseas foreign workers.

Daly wants the film to start a discussion about the problem of workers’ rights, and the fact that domestic workers enjoy none of the security and norms as other professions.

“These are workers — like you and I — so treat them as workers the same way you and I would like to be treated in our professional environments. For some reason being a domestic worker especially, all the normal rules of labour seem to not apply any more…you don’t have to give them time off, you can control their personal lives, you can intervene in their lives in a way that most of us would never find acceptable in our professions. I think that conversation needs to happen more widely, particularly in countries that deal with migrant labour issues.”

Photo by Chris Yong

Yolanda and Angela are both eager for it to be seen at home in the Philippines, not because they want fame but because they would like their families to see what their lives entail in Singapore — “to walk in our shoes” and experience the daily sacrifices they make.

“Being a domestic worker doesn’t define who I am,” says Jolanda. “This work is a decent job. And the film will help people understand that we are human beings too. We have feeling and needs.”

However, now back at work in Singapore homes the Remittance experience has exacerbated frustrations about their predicament. They also worry how this film will be perceived if their families see it. After all, don’t all movie stars earn a lot of money?

None of the women got paid to be in this film as they are prohibited from working outside of domestic work. It is against Singapore law.

“When we were filming I felt free. I was doing something different instead of scrubbing the toilet in the house, even though I was scrubbing it in front of a film and crew,” says Angela. “For us women, working mothers, overseas workers, we need to be appreciated and people need to understand the value of what we do. We need to take a deeper look at our situation, for women like me, for our families back home.”

Photo by Chris Yong

“I feel the character [of Marie] stronger now than ever,” she adds, “every time I watch the [Remittance] trailer I feel it and there are tears in my eyes. I’ve been asking some friends the same question — what keeps them staying for so long in Singapore and why they keep sending money home instead of keeping it for ourselves and the answer is that they get used to life here and it becomes easier and less stressful than being at home with all the financial problems and family issues,” she says.

“Sending money for the family, for food, for occasions, school fees, family members’ medication and a lot more financial needs, is part of our culture. We have to give as long as we are earning.

“I feel some kind of a regret in accepting this film project… that now my family expects a lot from me… I will feel some kind of relief if people in the Philippines could see Remittance, and see the hidden faces of all of us OFWs [Overseas Foreign Workers], instead of what they see on our Facebook posts.

“I don’t think any of them will understand what we are going through until they step into our shoes.”