A heartwarming film about a Filipino nanny overseas
ILO ILO, a Singaporean entry at TIFF
By Dyan Ruiz
Even with the thousands of Filipino nannies working around the world including Canada, it’s rare to get insightful glimpses into their stories. The film Ilo Ilo captures in a heartwarming and intimate way, the relationship between a domestic helper and the family she works for.
The award-winning film, Ilo Ilo, centers on Singaporean parents who hire a domestic worker from the Filipino province of the same name to take care of their trouble-making young son. The film had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this September.
Ilo Ilo is inspired by the childhood memories of the Director and Screenwriter, Anthony Chen, who had a Filipino nanny from when he was four-years-old until he was 12. Chen was on hand for the screening on Sept. 13 at the Bell TIFF Lightbox theatre and told the audience after the film that it “came from a very personal place.”
Like the domestic helper in the film, Chen’s nanny was from Ilo Ilo named Teresa and was also nicknamed Auntie Terry. “I remember that there was this moment at the airport when I was 12, when she was leaving,” he told the audience, “I wasn’t a small boy any more, I was quite a big boy, and I was just crying and crying and crying, and it was so painful. I thought there was something in there.” This “small piece of emotion” he said, was what started the process of his writing, then directing his first feature film.
When introducing the film, the TIFF staff member said when it had its world premiere screening at Cannes Film Festival last May, it received a 15-minute standing ovation. It went on to win the Caméra d’Or (Golden Camera) award at Cannes for the best first feature film.
Ilo Ilo is set in the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 and is beautifully filmed with many touching and humorous moments, especially between the domestic helper and the mischievous boy.
Unlike in other films where the domestic worker is a secondary character or whose plight is depicted with melodrama, Chen is successful in depicting Terry as a fully developed character like the others in the film. One particularly striking example is when the young boy named Jiale finds out that Terry has a child back home in the Philippines. The boy shouts at her accusingly, “You left your son?!” Terry snaps back that she’s no different than his mother who goes every day to her job, leaving him to be taken care of by a stranger.
Chen said that what is usually reported in Singapore media and other countries in Asia where there are many domestic helpers from the Philippines and Indonesia are negative stories of the nannies abusing the children, the maids stealing, the employers abusing the maids, or the domestic helper running away.
“Among a lot of the domestic helpers in Singapore, what they saw was a film that humanizes them because for the longest time, they have always been seen in a very negative light,” he told the audience.
The audience included Althea Balmes and Jo SiMalaya Alcampo, the artists who are creating a comic book about Filipino-Canadian caregivers called “Kwentong Bayan: Labour of Love.” Balmes said that the film had her recalling her “yaya” (nanny) that she had growing up in the Philippines, and the flood of emotions and sense of loss she felt when her family left for Canada.
“I think this is a very important film for the community to support,” said Alcampo. “This filmmaker really talked about humanizing caregivers and I think that’s what we’re trying to do in the comic book.”
Although set in Singapore, the film definitely has resonance in Canada, where the Philippines is the number one source country for immigrants in large part because of the Filipinas who emigrate through the federal government’s Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP).
Chen does not consider himself to be an activist or believe that his film will bring about more rights for domestic workers. “I’m not sure if it will change the plight or the treatment of people,” he said, “We’ve had 100 years of cinema and yet there’s still so many wars and atrocities around the world. I don’t think that cinema can change the world, but I think that cinema can change the way you see the world.”
Before the screening Chen told the audience, “The film is a small, small film, but it has a big, big heart.”
The story that the film has taken the filmmaker is also heartening. After the film won the Camera d’Or, “there was a huge media frenzy in the Philippines. I don’t know why!” he said with a laugh echoing that of the audience. “I think because there’s a Filipina actress in it and the film is titled after a province in the Philippines,” he continued.
“The Filipino media actually started a search for the real Auntie Terry. They started through television, through radio, through newspapers. They asked for a photograph, so I gave them a photograph of me when I was young and her,” Chen said.
“The Philippines is a very huge country, 90 million people. So I thought, this might take six months, a year, or we might not find her. Two weeks later I got an email and they found her! So, the first time I went to the Philippines was to Manila to cast for my actress. The second time I went to the Philippines was to Iloilo to meet her for the first time in 16 years,” he said as the audience reacted with gasps of glee.