Sunday Beauty Queen

Community News & Features May 25, 2017 at 4:21 pm
Baby Ruth Villarama and Chuck Gutierrez (Producer and editor of the film) Photos: Althea Manasan

Baby Ruth Villarama and Chuck Gutierrez (Producer and editor of the film)

Documentary on the joys, triumphs and struggles of the 190,000 OFWs in Hong Kong

By Althea Manasan

When filmmaker Baby Ruth Villarama first visited Hong Kong’s Central District, she was surprised to see thousands of Filipinos sprawled out on makeshift blankets, chatting with each other, playing on their phones, and just hanging out.

It was Sunday, the one day of the week that most Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong are off work. Many of them spend it socializing and relaxing in the city’s Central District.

“Some of them were sleeping, some of them were painting their nails, some of them were just chit chatting, trying to figure out how to communicate and help with their children’s assignments back in the Philippines through Skype,” Villarama told an audience at the University of Toronto last month.

Her latest documentary Sunday Beauty Queen follows several Filipino caregivers in Hong Kong as they spend their only day off each week preparing for a beauty pageant. The film, which was the first-ever documentary to win Best Picture at the 2016 Metro Manila Film Festival, recently had its Canadian premiere at this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto.

Photos: Althea Manasan

Photos: Althea Manasan

The University of Toronto hosted a public forum with Villarama, where she spoke about how she made the film and how it exposes the issues facing the 190,000 Filipino Overseas Foreign Workers in Hong Kong.

“Most of the OFW stories are sad and depressing,” Villarama said. “We don’t really get to know who they are as a person — what are their joys, their triumphs and their struggles.”

That’s what makes Sunday Beauty Queen different. The documentary, which Villarama filmed over two years travelling back and forth between Hong Kong and the Philippines, takes us into the private lives of several caregivers, even taking us inside the homes of their employers.

We learn about the hardships they suffer: homesickness, gruelling hours, and even abuse. But we also get to see their moments of fun and excitement as they spend their Sundays with their kababayan and as they bask in the pageant spotlight.

Chuck Gutierrez, Baby Ruth Villarama and Robert Diaz

Chuck Gutierrez, Baby Ruth Villarama and Robert Diaz

More than a beauty pageant

One of the characters we meet is the gregarious Leo Selomenia, who is known in Hong Kong’s Filipino community as “Daddy Leo.” Selomenia has been a domestic worker in Hong Kong for 35 years, and began organizing beauty pageants in his spare time. (The first ones were originally for lesbians; Selomenia himself is transgender.)

He is behind Miss Tourism, the major pageant held every summer around Philippine Independence Day and which serves as the grand finale of the film.

Although filled with singing, dancing and elaborate costumes, the pageants are not all just for fun and games; they serve a higher purpose.

Villarama said that when she first approached the Philippine Consulate in Hong Kong to ask about the pageants, officials considered the events to be “superficial.” They said that instead of sending more money back home, the contestants would waste money on their costumes and makeup.

“These are things sometimes other people don’t understand,” Villarama said.

But as well as being a “necessary escape” from the drudgery of daily life, the pageants actually raise funds to help domestic workers in times of tribulation. “They need to help each other because the [Philippine] government is not giving them the support that they need,” Villarama said.

One of her major concerns is the “14-day rule”: OFWs who are terminated by their employer have only two weeks to find a new job before they are deported back to the Philippines. Domestic workers can be fired for a variety of reasons: some are let go for simply missing their curfew. Villarama says there have been cases where some were fired after being diagnosed with cancer.

SBQ_8835The money raised by the pageants help house the terminated OFWs. If they can’t find work, some opt to go to nearby Macau, where they can temporarily escape deportation beyond the two-week limit — anything to avoid being sent back to the Philippines, where they will have to start from scratch, paying new training and placement fees, which can cost upwards of $2000 US.

“These situations expose a lot of people to more human trafficking, more abuses and unnecessary payments,” Villarama said.

She hopes the film will help encourage the Philippine Consul General in Hong Kong to lobby for better recruitment processing and for policy changes, especially to the 14-day rule.

(A push from foreign governments has already helped implement new rules in Hong Kong requiring employers to install secured grilles on windows if they want domestic workers to clean the exteriors. This legislation came after several workers fell to their deaths while being forced to clean windows, prompting discussions with consulates from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Bangladesh, countries where most OFWs in Hong Kong originate.)

Changing minds about OFWs and Filipinos

Sara Jane Enriquez

Sara Jane Enriquez

Villarama said she also hopes the film will help audiences see domestic workers in more nuanced ways.

“We don’t need sympathy, we need empathy…and also respect,” Villarama said. She also argued that while Filipinos hold Western culture in high regard, Westerners don’t have the same level of respect for Filipinos, as evidenced by how OFWs are treated abroad.

Sarah Jane Enriquez, a close friend of one of the caregivers featured in the film, said she hopes the documentary dispels the idea among fellow Filipinos that working abroad is easy. She worked as a caregiver in Hong Kong for five years before moving to Canada.

“I was so happy [this film was made] because [Villarama] is helping us as OFWs to tell our families, other employers, other people how hard our job is,” Enrique said at the public forum. “We’re not just ATMs.”

Robert Diaz, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Women and Gender Studies Institute, first watched the film when it screened at the Metro Manila Film Festival and said he was struck by way Philippine audiences reacted.

“I heard a lot of friends who have seen it say, ‘I never thought that this happened to our kababayan,’” Diaz said. “I think the film manages to use the pageant to entice you, to really understand its story, and that’s why it touches you deeper.”

He thinks that the documentary will also have an impact on Canadian audiences, forcing them to look at how their own lives are affected by Filipinos, and vice versa. There are about 660,000 Filipinos living in Canada, according to the 2011 census, with many having arrived under the Live-In Caregiver Program.

“I think [Sunday Beauty Queen] will challenge Canadians to think of our stories not as one-dimensional portrayals of pain, but rather that we’re multidimensional people that have links and connections to the Philippines and to other countries,” Diaz said, adding, “and that we have fun and that we have joy.”