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LOCARNO 2019 Filmmakers of the Present

Review: Overseas


- Yoon Sung-a paints the portrait of an almost invisible female economic migration, that of the young Filipino women who go live abroad to work for rich foreigners in order to feed their families

Review: Overseas

Yoon Sung-a is noted for her short film And I’ll Keep in My Heart, selected in Cannes’ Cinéfondation in 2008. Overseas [+see also:
interview: Yoon Sung-A
film profile
is her second feature length documentary, following Full of Missing Links, which was released in 2012. The film is selected this year at the Locarno Film Festival in the Filmmakers of the Present section. In it, she touches on the little known destiny of OFWs (Overseas Filippino Workers), these young and not so young women who choose to go abroad, sometimes without returning to their country or seeing their families for several years, in order to feed their loved ones. Women who are nicknamed by Philippines president Duterte "the heroes of our nation".

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It isn’t without irony that these young women, at the center of Yoon Sung-a’s film, are surprised to hear that, by abandoning their families, they become heroes just like soldiers defending their country. They are very much aware that the servitude they embrace in countries that are much richer than their own allows to feed their country with strong foreign currency, and that they represent a significant economic force.

Heroes in the eyes of the country, they are also the heroes of a world comedy of domesticity, where workers are exported like so much merchandise. The Philippines maintain a full blown industry of housemaids, efficient and docile employees who are motivated by the goal of making abroad double, even triple, what they could hope to make in their own country.

Overseas brings us, in the space of a few days, at the heart of a specialised training centre, a kind of exile waiting room, antichambre for the departure and the family heartbreak that awaits them. There, the young women learn the art of serving somebody, within the confines of a demo house. They are taught how to set the table, take care of the children, talk to the employers living in the house. But they also learn — perhaps above everything else — ways to face potential bullying, scolding, aggressions and other kinds of harassments which they might be the targets of.

It is precisely this learning and its staging within the formation centre that gives the film such a particular dimension: through role play, the students alternately play boss or housemaid. Among the young women, some have already lived abroad, and seeing them replay short scenes of their daily lives in Dubai, Oman or Hong Kong allows us to both see them in a dominant position, and to get a glimpse of the reality of life overseas.

Contrary to what is suggested by the sight of hundreds of files piling up in the corridors of administration, each only identified by dates and locations, the heroes of Overseas are never reduced to their modern slave status. Far from being the passive victims that their job may suggest, they are the actors of their own lives (hence the power of those staged reenactments), masters of their futures. Because each one of them has hopes, on top of the desire to feed their families. One of them dreams of being an architect, the other wants to open a pasta restaurant.

This paradoxical tension between the kindness of the teachers and the content of their teachings (learning to endure violence and harassment), between here (their houses, their families) and elsewhere (which makes life at home possible), the vital force of these young women and their immense vulnerability in the households they are sent to like merchandise, are what gives its power to the documentary — practically a chambre piece — set at the heart of a worldwide housemaids factory.

Overseas is produced by Belgian company Iota Production and French company Les Films de l'Oeil Sauvage, and co-produced by Belgian company Clin d'oeil Films. The film is sold abroad by CAT&Docs.

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(Translated from French)

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