Acronym OFW stands for Overseas Filipino Workers. Sung-a Yoon, Korea-born director living in Brussels, in this Belgian-French co-production searched for human stories hidden behind the dispassionate term. However, she is not interested in migrant workers in a broad sense. What she focuses on are women who serve as domestic helps and nannies. It is estimated that every year, 200,000 Filipino women decide to travel abroad to get income as household service workers. Often having signed up for two-year contracts, they travel to rich, developing countries all over the globe, often leaving behind their own children. However, it is not uncommon that OFW are toiling not returning home, thus without seeing their close ones, for years.
The movie begins with a 4-minutes steady sequence of a young female cleaning the toilet. Barefoot, in an apron, and a protective net covering her hair, she methodically rubs the lavatory with a rug: toilet seat and below, afterward the floor beneath. The scene is long enough, that after realizing what we see, we start wandering who the woman is and how she feels. Soon comes some kind of answer for the latter: we hear sobbing and suddenly the woman stops, overburdened and dulled. After that brief moment, opening credits appear.
Despite the emotional prologue, in “Overseas” Sung-a Yoon does not succumb to the lure of simplifications. She could have just shown her subjects as victims of capitalism, disparities and a human vileness and only through the lens of humiliation and poverty. Instead, she chooses to portray migrants as artisans of their own fortune, who aren’t just vulnerable objects of pity. They knowingly decide to migrate. They have plans they wish to come true (like opening a restaurant or pursuing studies), aware that abroad they would be able to earn double, if not more, they could have earned in their homeland. And finally they are aware, what are the possible ups and downs of their future job.
To paint a portrayal of OFW women, Sung-a Yoon invites us to a center where they undertake “a comprehensive training program, validated by a National Certificate”. Trainees are learning skills useful in their future assignments, but these are not only things like cleaning, taking care of infants or changing clothes of bed-bound adults needing assistance. They also taught how to deal with homesickness and hazards of the job like psychological (depression and suicides among OFW workers are not uncommon) and physical (also sexual) abuses. Being deprived of food or a downtime by employers are also on the risks’ list. The training method is enacting possible scenarios and in this role-playing exercises, future OFW stand for themselves, the housemaids, as well as their employees. Some of those ladies have already been working abroad and they can share their experiences, including situations when they were treated like robots. One of the important lessons they get is “Never cry in front of your employer”.
The majority of the movie’s construction swings from documenting reenactment scenes, flashes of trainers’ lectures, and brief moments, when the characters are captured in moments of solitude and reflection. In the final stages, we leave the training center to see the economic migration as a part of a huge business, with stacks of documents piling up in administrative offices.
Sung-a Yoon, tactful, with a respect for her heroines, balances between creative and documenting elements in a well-executed manner. She is not exclaiming any accusations or pointing blacks and whites to her viewers, mostly building a foundation for discussion and reflection. Never nearing to emotional blackmail, which would be an easy solution considering the subject, is the big strength of “Overseas”. It also gained the Warsaw Film Festival’s jury recognition, winning the documentary competition section.