Overseas watches domestic workers rehearse their art

Director Yoon Sung-A’s careful, compassionate documentary goes backstage with Overseas Filipino Workers in training.

Overseas (2019)

Overseas is streaming on Mubi.

The first shot of Overseas, the second film by French-Korean director Yoon Sung-A, shows a woman diligently cleaning a toilet, beginning to weep as she does so. Framed by a doorway, woman and toilet are isolated and distanced within the shot, pushed into the background; it is a straightforward yet confrontational image and a deft summation of the film’s key themes.

This room is part of a training facility at which Filipino women study to receive their National Domestic Work Certificate, a document that gives them access to a visa and allows them to work abroad. As the qualification’s title implies, the women will be ‘domestic workers’ when they travel abroad, joining the growing ranks of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs).

Overseas (2019)

Scrubbing porcelain will be one of many tasks in a role that demands significant sacrifice, including the heartache of leaving behind young children. OFWs are “heroes” according to President Duterte (“Heroes of the economy,” clarifies one woman cynically); this is boot camp for an army of workers who bring back crucial income to the country.

“No matter how hard you work here in the Philippines, you won’t earn the money you can get from scrubbing toilets abroad,” one instructor tells her pupils, succinctly explaining the global financial inequalities that make OFWs necessary on both a national and an individual level.

Yoon’s painterly framing often sets the camera at a remove from the action, as though filming a theatrical production, a distancing that both underlines the isolation of the subjects and dignifies them by highlighting their performative aspects. Being a domestic worker requires acting skills – ‘inappropriate’ emotions must be suppressed. One instructor tells her pupils: “No matter what difficulties, never cry in front of your employer.” The boot camp is a place to purge undesirable feelings and learn the ‘right’ way to act and react.

Overseas (2019)

In the film’s best scenes the training facility becomes a rehearsal room, as the women role-play tricky situations likely to arise. These dry runs often use the experiences of ‘ex-abroads’ (women who have already completed an OFW contract) as a starting-point: in one, a ‘madam’ berates her staff after mixing up the words ‘carpet’ and ‘curtain’ while her husband (one of the women with a drawn-on moustache) looks on blankly; in another, an attempted sexual assault is stopped by using perfume as mace.

In these scenes the camera springs to life: pans and close-ups transport the viewer into the ‘overseas’ experience without leaving the walls of the building. It is only the film’s final scenes that allow real journeys outside the training centre, juxtaposing the impersonal waiting rooms of an administrative building – where a stunning tracking shot reveals endless stacks of paperwork, each representing an OFW – with the intimate, heartbreaking moment where a mother says goodbye to her sleeping child. Emotional anguish on an industrial scale.