‘To reveal the struggles and triumphs of OFWs’

Community News & Features Apr 27, 2018 at 5:00 pm
Filipina domestic helpers as beauty contestants in Hong Kong.  (Photo provided)

Filipina domestic helpers as beauty contestants in Hong Kong. (Photos provided)

Baby Ruth Villarama on her film ‘ Sunday beauty queen’:

By Althea Manasan

The Philippine Reporter

An award-winning documentary featuring Overseas Filipino Workers will be screened in theatres across Canada next month in a special one-day event.

Directed by Baby Ruth Villarama, Sunday Beauty Queen follows the lives of five domestic helpers in Hong Kong. Filmed over a period of four years, the intimate film explores not only the hardships and struggles of these women’s everyday lives, but also the joy and empowerment they find by joining local beauty pageants. Organized by the Philippine tourism board, the extravagant pageants are held on the OFWs’ only day off: Sundays.

The film, which was named Best Picture at the 2016 Metro Manila Film Festival, will be shown at 20 cinemas across the country on Monday, May 14. Tickets must be reserved in advance online at ca.demand.film/sunday-beauty-queen.

Villarama, who has a background in journalism, started making documentaries for ABS-CBN before going on to create content for international organizations and then her own independent films. Her previous documentaries include Little Azkals, about a group of boys training with the Philippine Football Federation, and Jazz in Love, about a gay Filipino man who travels to Germany in order to marry his boyfriend.

Villarama brought Sunday Beauty Queen to the Toronto Hot Docs Film Festival last year to positive reviews. In a discussion about the film hosted at the University of Toronto, she explained that she made the film in order to reveal both the struggles and the triumphs of OFWs to audiences around the world. “We don’t need sympathy, we need empathy,” she said, “and also respect, a sense of respect.”

We asked Villarama a few questions about making Sunday Beauty Queen. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Baby Ruth Villarama, Sunday Beauty Queen Director

Baby Ruth Villarama, Sunday Beauty Queen Director

THE PHILIPPINE REPORTER: How did you first hear about these beauty pageants in Hong Kong?

VILLARAMA: We first encountered the beauty pageants in 2011 when we were promoting another film in Hong Kong. Noel Servigon, the Philippine Consulate General to Hong Kong, was doing several community works at that time, and we got to witness some of his team’s work in supporting some of these beauty pageants — judging pageants almost every week. I first saw the pageants in photos shared by one of the consuls, and was taken by surprise as no one was really paying a closer attention on what these pageants mean.

It took me two years more years after that first encounter before I was able to spell out that these pageants are not the pageant we normally know of. It was organised not to display physical beauty of women, but a very unique political statement to the Hong Kong community, that despite the almost inhumane working hours they are exposed everyday, they are choosing to stand up and be beautiful! That they will choose to be an asset rather than a liability to Hong Kong, with a wish that somehow a leader would champion their request to extend the 14-day rule of the HK government and give them working-hour options.

The biggest surprise is that these women join pageants not really for the crown or personal prize, but to give support fellow workers in temporary shelters who are in need. Overall they choose to be a Sunday Beauty Queen to reclaim their lost dignity because of the near-slave treatment they live every day.

Other pageants raise money to do outreach for their community back in the Philippines. I listened to all angles on how to tell it, even the not-so-good side of the pageant — that some Chinese merchants are confiscating Filipino passports under loan in exchange for borrowing a pair of shoes or gown, or some money to organise the pageants. There are cases that passports or ATM cards are forfeited because of extreme practice. Its was also a growing concern. I [wanted] to tell it all, but in the end, I decided to tell what are the important things that the world can take away from the story of our Filipino women in another country. Sunday Beauty Queen is an important story because the Filipino diaspora in Hong Kong resonates with the lives of millions of other migrant workers around the world.

Scene from the film - beauty contestants put up a show.  (Photos provided)

Scene from the film – beauty contestants put up a show.

TPR: How did you meet the women that you featured in the movie?

BRV: I met the women featured in the film through Daddy Leo Selomenio, a domestic helper who is known for organising the biggest beauty pageant in Hong Kong. We visited his house that also stands as a halfway home for fellow domestic workers who wish to rest from their workplace, as well as a house to go to when they have nowhere to go when the get terminated.

We met his partner Mommy Judy, and we learned that their love story started the idea of organising a pageant in Hong Kong.

Daddy Leo met Mommy Judy in a bar in Wanchai — heavily drunk and apparently depressed as her husband had just left her. Daddy Leo was working part-time selling sex toys in that bar and their conversation blossomed into a beautiful friendship. Realising women like Mommy Judy needed an outlet to empower themselves when shit hits the fan, Daddy Leo started a series of small pageants called Kabisig ChicBoy and Beauty and the Best, an LGBT-driven event to bring people together to uplift their lonely spirit. He shared there is a silent growing number of women who are committing suicide because of their emotional problems with their employers and families in the Philippines. The pageant grew from a personal endeavour to what it is now — a shared experience to empower one another.

TPR: How were you able to get such intimate access to the women’s lives and their employers’ homes?

BRV: Time is always a friend of every persistent storyteller. We took the effort to visit every candidate in their working place, in their hang out place and know the space they live in. We took time to get to know their employers, understand their thoughts about their domestic workers and see if there’s a window to bring them in the story. I became friends with each one of them. That’s the thing with documentary film, one needs to give time and space to let it bloom.

Taking care of the elderly.

Taking care of the elderly.

TPR: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during production?

BRV: The irony about documentary filmmaking in Southeast Asia is that for a region with so many pressing stories on human rights and the environment, documentary filmmakers receive the least support to develop what we’re trying to contribute to the world. Finding the right resources from the right people was one of the obvious challenges we faced, and also the uncertainty where to bring our films outside the festival circuit. I really hope to bring the film to as many audience as possible not for anything else, but because it’s a must-see, especially to those who wish to find a dose of inspiration in their daily struggles.

Another challenge is the language and cultural difference with the place. Hong Kong as an island is very much part of the story. We needed to immerse ourselves into its complexities, so it also was a tedious process getting to know a foreign country away from the tourism brochures. Internally, there was also the challenge on how willing are we to open our minds to live at the other side of the HK spectrum — not just as filmmakers but also as humanists that can see the story through the lenses of an employer, of a worker, of a displaced worker and from the point of view of the very system we’re trying to question.

TPR: Did you learn anything that surprised you while you were making the film?

BRV: I was surprised to learn so much about my countrymen in the making of this film. That it is not just about their smiles and various stories, but to witness the highest level of resilience to endure anything in the name of love is the ultimate surprise for me. I also found myself on the verge of giving up several times, but I kept on because their strength was just infectious!

It is also surprising to realise that if Filipino workers one day decide to rally together to demand better workers’ rights, they can indeed make the world stop revolving without OFWs. Seventy per cent of the maritime workforce are Filipinos. More than 10 million Filipinos work abroad. Imagine the impact of their absence to the world economy. These Filipinos go beyond the economic numbers. They affect the hearts of every home.

TPR: Have your subjects seen the film? If so, what do they think?

BRV: Yes, there were the first ones who saw it. We flew them back to the Philippines to watch the premiere night here, and to those who did not make it home, we organised a high-level screening in Hong Kong through Asia Society, and we invited their employers to watch it. it was an emotional reunion of ideologies, pains and life.

TPR: Has the Hong Kong government responded?

BRV: The road is still long but after we released the film in 2017, the the Philippine Consulate in Hong Kong organized other sending countries (including Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal and India) to enact a new ordinance that will disallow employers to ask their maids to clean windows.

There have been unreported deaths of workers falling off from cleaning windows. I still hope the Hong Kong government will be open to improve their stay-out policies and extend the 14-day rule to at least 30 days. I also hope that the Philippine government and other sending countries can demand insurance and 24-hour life-line protection and insurance from recruitment agencies that are charging hefty fees from our workers.

TPR: Has there been any impact on domestic workers in Hong Kong?

BRV: The impact is in the empowerment that they now know the voice they have and that they are not alone in their personal battles in a foreign lands. Working abroad can present a big hole of isolation from one own’s identity. Cinema has such immense power to open their minds and souls to either be aware or take action within one’s capability.

The film has surprisingly united legal practitioners to organize a series of free legal missions to Hong Kong and other cities. It has given an opportunity for NGOs to use the film to strengthen their voices. It has awakened the film industry in the Philippines that it is not only famous stars who can make us believe in the power of self love, but ordinary people like the Sunday Beauty Queens can entertain audiences, too, and give them something more lasting.

TPR: What has been the reaction to the film in the places you’ve screened it?

BRV: The interesting part is for a common issue like migration and slavery, most of the audience reaction were like my own reaction when I heard about their story — utter disbelief that something like this exist somewhere in this world. There’s always a validation of that element of disbelief and surprise that for a highly financial island like Hong Kong, there is a story like this in its back lot, and it’s a story most of us are choosing to ignore, but the truth is, it is the story we all need to hear and experience.

When we premiered it at Hot Docs last year, I met a Canadian who used to work in Hong Kong, and he was quite taken aback after seeing the film. Two months later in June 2017, I bumped into him in Hong Kong watching Daddy Leo’s beauty pageant. He was touched by the story and at the same time curious to see the actual pageant himself.

It felt like we’ve gone full circle. In a screening in Korea, a woman confessed that every time she visited Hong Kong, she tries to avoid the Central Station every Sunday because she finds the presence of domestic workers there annoying — an eyesore to the city. After seeing the film, she realised she is doing a disservice to herself. She finally understood that there are truths unsaid beyond what we initially see in the surface.

TPR: What’s the most important thing that you want audiences to takeaway after watching your film?

BRV: The film is not just about Sunday Beauty Queens, it’s also about knowing where people stand in the grand scheme of things at the moment. I hope the audience can see that each of them has a purpose in this world — no matter what their backgrounds in life maybe. The goal is to find that purpose and fulfil it to the highest potential possible. Life is difficult, but seeing the Filipino soul through this film, I hope they can find inspiration in what’re they’re going through and empower them to be part of change — either by knowing better or by telling another person about the Sunday Beauty Queen phenomena.

I also hope that the next time we see a Filipino, or any migrant worker for that matter, that we may have a wider perspective. We’ll never know what they’re going through just to be in that place. Let’s go back to our roots and expose what really matters in life.

TPR: Do you have any future projects you’re working on?

BRV: Some films in the pipeline:

TOUCH THE COLOUR (director) – a documentary film on restorative justice about a group of women prisoners who are transforming a prison into a humanist experience as they try to win their inner war amidst the ongoing drug campaign in the Philippines. I hope it can be a VR experience. The story is scheduled to undergo development and pitching at the Tribeca In/If story lab in Jakarta, Indonesia, next month.

THE ULTIMATE KONTRABIDA (producer) – a narrative film about the most hated villain in Philippine cinema trying to make a come back, and the real mission that will change his life and the landscape on how we perceive people’s looks and colours.

‘TILL WE MEET AGAIN (working title) (writer) – a narrative film based on a real story about a woman Adel who works in a funeral special service unit sorting out memorabilias of dead people in the UK. It’s a work nobody wants to do until one death moves her hidden life to finally live and break free.