Remittance: A Story About The Domestic Helpers In Singapore

This article is concurrently posted on The Kent Ridge Common
Remittance is a film exploring the lives of low wage migrant workers in Singapore. It is helmed by prize-winning directors Patrick Daly and Joel Fendelman, both from New York.
Given the great disparities in socioeconomic status, race and country of origin between the directors and the people whom are represented on Remittance, what inspired Daly and Fendelman to explore a field that’s so different from what they’re familiar with?
It turns out that their conversations with numerous foreign low-wage workers have thrown up many insights about the dynamics between these workers and their employers. I was very much perturbed and shamed by how little I knew about these workers existing in the periphery of the Singaporean society – the challenges they face, the discrimination they have to endure and the reasons why they still choose to remain in Singapore.
Foreign domestic helpers receive almost no pay for their first six to eight months in Singapore – to repay their airfare and administrative fees. Their salaries, when they start to receive them, may work out to be less than $1/hour, assuming that they’ve to work long hours each day and receive minimal pay. Very few – if any – Singaporeans would settle for such wages.
Perhaps the most chilling part of this domestic worker ownership is the desexualisation of female domestic helpers, especially among woman employers and especially when the domestic helpers are attractive women. Jealousies by some ‘madams’ may cause them to forcibly cut the long hair of their helpers.
Given the harsh working conditions and the aggravating lack of respect, why are these women still willing to work in Singapore?
For one, divorce is illegal in Philippines and escaping overseas to work is a socially acceptable way of avoiding abusive husbands and unhappy families. Singapore, despite the highly flawed working conditions, might be preferable because these women were at least paid for their work, whereas they might not even be paid back home. This offers them a degree of freedom and social mobility which might be otherwise be inaccessible.
The tension between different factors pulling these women to Singapore and pushing them away is a reality that is under-represented.
It is in this light that Daly and Fendelman chose to explore this sensitive topic.
Initially, after reading the online descriptions of Remittance as a coming-of-the-age story, I had misgivings that the movie might be overly sentimental. However, these misgivings quickly vaporised as my friend and I observed one workshop. We saw these migrant workers smiling as they teased one another and discussed about the cutest animals they’ve eaten. (Apparently, deep-fried day-old chicks are tasty.) As they rehearsed two scenes, their feelings poured forth and we were moved.
So, what happened during that workshop?
In the comfort of Daly’s living room, we lounged about as the stars of the movie settled themselves around a table. They began to read the script, picked apart the typed words and discussed what they’d actually say in their day-to-day conversations as domestic helpers.
The feedback that the ladies gave was subsequently recorded by the directors-cum-scriptwriters. It was this organic scripting process that would eventually give rise to such authentic conversations on the screen. After the script was decided upon, the actresses began to rehearse, one of them sipping from her cup of coffee intermittently. These acting talents would first speak in English, then in the Philippines language, Tagalog.
One scene was so tensed that everyone seemed to be on the verge of breaking down. The portrayal of emotions was so realistic that the hairs on my arms were raised. As these ladies had limited professional acting lessons, they had to tap into their experiences, draw upon what they’ve been through and relive moments that might have been traumatic. As I watched some of them cry silent tears, I wondered what had they been through.
After the rehearsal, Angela, who is playing the role of the main character, tells me that some of them are mothers and some of them already have children back in Philippines. All of them, I realized, have their personal dreams, experiences and vulnerabilities which they drew upon as they acted out each scene.
It was a pleasure and a privilege to be there as the directors go through the script with their talents and hear them tease one another.
Here’re some photos of the workshop that my friend Zhang Zhe took:
Why are these ladies willing to give up their precious Sunday rest time? For many of them, Sunday is the only day in the week which they don’t have to handle brooms, dry laundry and cook meals. What motivated them to volunteer for this movie which would take months to produce and use up many more precious Sundays? Why don’t they shop or have picnics or simply hang out their friends instead?
Daly suggests that the domestic workers see this movie as their project. It is important to them. It’s a movie about them, with them being involved in almost every step of the movie-making.
There’s another reason, I feel, for the depth of involvement these foreign domestic workers express. They are respected by the directors. Their opinions are heard and valued and the script tweaked according to their input. Respect, they’re shown respect which might be difficult to find elsewhere in Singapore, from Singaporeans. They’re valued, regarded and understood as people, each with her unique perspectives and experiences.
Fendelman added that there are feelings of being separated from other people, this sense of isolation in urban cities. Remittance is about connecting people, through the collective story of these women, and that it’s “interesting to see that we’re just people, good people in our hearts, perhaps we just haven’t learnt to open up”.
This movie, even in its current preproduction phase, resonates. We’re waiting to lay our greedy eyes on it when it finally screens next year.
Why not visit this website to find out more about contributing to the production of Remittance?