It’s fortunate that Overseas isn’t an episodic instalment of an exploitative presenter-led TV show focused on “hidden worlds” or “secret lives” because it easily could have been exactly that. It’s a real blessing that a thoughtful, unimposing and sensitive filmmaker such as Sung-a Yoon was the one to make this documentary about women in the Philippines who prepare to work as domestic helpers for overseas employers.
Next to Alfonso Cuaron’s Netflix masterpiece Roma and the astonishing Storyville documentary A Woman Captured, this work is one of the most piercing films about domestic labour. The audience sees a group of trainee women in a learning centre rehearse domestic routines together with the daily grind of a sports team, exchanging advice and anecdotes such as “When you’re assaulted, kick his balls” and “Never cry in front of your amo.” In the pool of women followed, some are neophytes to this world, whilst others have experience and understand everything from identifying hidden house rules to the sort of salary that they should actually earn in each country.
As the subjects learn how to clean every inch of a mansion, make universally appealing meals and protect themselves from domestic violence, there’s a horribly sad undercurrent that runs through the feature. These Filipinas exchange hopes about the lives they want to live with their significant others. However, they have to withhold these dreams until they’ve tirelessly worked for years in a rich person’s house abroad, with no guarantee of safety, fair compensation or even basic respect. We learn that, in some extraordinary cases, the employees have even been killed on the job.
What happens to these domestic helpers once they’ve returned home after long periods away is something that will have to be explored in another documentary. But Sung-a Yoon deftly captures them as they prepare for hardship, determined to reach the light at the end of the tunnel. The filmmaker’s stark, transfixing visual style, aided by a limited visual palette, coats the narrative with a cold layer of dystopia – the Margaret Atwood kind. Overseas can be an emotionally draining viewing experience but it’s an indispensable one, shining a light on the dark heart of modern slavery.
Overseas is released on Mubi on 25th November 2020.
Watch the trailer for Overseas here: