In Sunday Beauty Queen, filmmaker Baby Ruth Villarama tracks the lives of five charismatic and courageous women who choose to reclaim their dignity by competing in a pageant that serves as a voice for the 190,000 Filipinas working at menial jobs in Hong Kong.
SDTC: How did you learn about this domestic helper beauty pageant phenomenon?
BRV: We discovered them by accident in a trip to Hong Kong in 2011 while promoting another film at the Hong Kong Filmart. The workers were there – thousands of them at Hong Kong’s central station – lounging on public side streets and in makeshift picnic areas.
While most of them rest and chat with fellow workers, we took notice of a group of young women busy rehearsing some dance numbers. Investigating closely and through our conversations with them, we learned there’s a community of Filipinos organizing beauty pageants for various reasons. At first we thought it was all for their entertainment and to temporarily escape from their realities. But it appears to be more than “beauty that meets the eye” sort of thing.
The Philippine Consulate also urged us to do an investigation due to the fact that some candidates loan their passports just to raise funds for their gowns or buy their tickets to win a crown. We realized upon digging deeper that the Consulate’s claim is just a few isolated cases to get rid of certain administrative responsibilities.
Filipino maids in Hong Kong join beauty pageants not to win some cheap crown but to get something beyond money. For a day in their life once a year, they regain their identity as Filipinos who naturally love life and freedom, a sense of purpose to help fellow Asian workers who are deported due to sudden terminations and abused through their domestic work. It’s a real-life Cinderella story we have overlooked for many years and it’s important the world knows about them.
Which of these subjects stood out to you the most? Why?
BRV: We followed about sixteen candidates in a span of four years and in all honesty, each one of them possesses unique stories that tug so many facets of reality. It was a challenge to zero in on the five characters that made it into the final cut of the film. In the end, we chose those who can represent the big picture of overseas Filipino workers and their actual lives not told in the news.
We hope that each subject speaks differently of their experiences, to show the whole reality of migration – of living away from home due to economic forces, of shattered relationships despite the financial rewards, of carrying the burden of the world in a single stroke of decision, of loneliness and happiness – each subject carries so many ironies and universal truths to grasp as employers and observers of this phenomenon.
What struck you the most about these domestic helpers?
What struck me the most is their resilience to the fact that no matter how society rips them off in exchange for a meager salary to provide to their families back home, they manage to laugh and find happiness amidst their dire situation. A conversation with the film’s character Daddy Leo struck me when he said, “The moment I land in another country to work as a house helper, I am no longer that person who graduated from a good university back home. I am no longer that person who feels. I am a house helper under the mercy of my employer.”
As a filmmaker you get to process statements like this, and put the question out there: is this the kind of life set up we want to go on in the world? There are physical wars we bear witness to, abuses and deaths we almost apathetically deal with every day, but I think there is an economic war that we are all involved in and affected by, despite the fact that we chose to live through it every day.
There are ten million Filipino migrant workers scattered around the world, known relics of the old apartheid system with millions of other migrant nationalities who are escaping the harsh realities from their respective countries.
OFWs alone remit about USD$30 billion annually back to the Philippine economy contributing big to the nation’s GDP growth. Human labour is the Philippine’s top export next to electronic products.
These people are almost invisible and unrecognized, but their sweat and hard labour allows the world to go on business as usual. While they play a crucial role in taking care of their bosses’ children, managing kitchens and houses, they remain exposed to abuses because of poor policies on domestic labour. That’s what struck me the most.
What aspect of the pageants surprised you?
I’m surprised to know that the candidates don’t really see the pageant as a competition. They don’t really care about the prize or who’s the most intelligent or beautiful. They are just happy to be able to express themselves and give a sense of hope to those who are struggling in shelters and halfway homes.
What do you want audiences to take away from this film?
I just hope at the end of the screening, the audience will somehow find strength and inspiration from the journey of the SUNDAY BEAUTY QUEENS. Hong Kong seems like a different world from Canada but I hope they will see a bit of themselves in the eyes of these women – that no matter how different our shoes may be, we all are struggling just the same to find our own piece of happiness in this world.
Lastly, a little dose of empathy to look straight into the lens would mean a lot for us to remember them as women who are fighting modern slavery by simply trying to be happy and beautiful even for just one day.
How did making this film change your view of domestic helpers?
My mother was once a domestic helper and unfortunately I never really got the chance to meet her, but regardless of the distance and some missing pieces, I’ve always been proud of her work and I just want the world to know that.
This film is my ode to her and to millions of workers around the world striving to keep it real.
Sunday Beauty Queen screens April 29, 30 & May 7. Get tickets here.