In Baby Ruth Villarama’s affecting documentary, the lives of several Filipina domestic helpers working in Hong Kong are followed as they work for the whole week, save for Sunday, their day off. Instead of resting, these helpers come together to a beauty pageant organized by Filipinos for Filipino contestants. The film brings to light their motivations in joining the pageant as well as their troubles and concerns as they try to make a living in a foreign land.
One of the results of the revamp that the Metro Manila Film Festival went through, it is a pleasant surprise to see a documentary film made available to the general public. Rarely has a documentary film made a dent at the local box-office (I can only think of Ramona Garcia’s Imelda). While relatively new to the MMFF audience, Sunday Beauty Queen proves itself as a very worthy (and necessary) inclusion to this year’s film festival.
The topic itself is packed with political implications, and the film does not shy away from that. Exploitative employers, problematic government policies, questionable lack of funding at shelters, and the appalling ‘necessity’ for exporting Filipino workforce were all discussed by the interviewees, one way or the other.
However, the film’s decision to stay with the “queens” (as I’d love to call them) humanizes the entire narrative. Underneath these socio-economic complications are the homesickness of the helpers, their separation from their families, their guilt of not sending enough money on time for their families’ needs, their desperation to look for a new employer after being summarily terminated. These elements bring out the tenderest core of this film.
Aside from the informative superimposed titles that provide necessary information, the decision to keep the film’s aesthetics to simplicity gives it the beauty it deserves: the vividness that comes from its realness and rawness without turning into miserabilism. The film imbues a realistic optimism to the story that the film feels like it breathes.
Emotions, sadness and happiness and everything in between, flow like a very natural and alive being. With its sincerity and directness in telling this story, the film finds its strength in relying on the stories these queens have to tell.
Also noteworthy is how the film carries the very same spirit these queens have: finding hope despite the struggles. These women worry about their curfew, their employers, their desire to go home, but finding the lightness of the human soul in those moments give the film a cathartic feeling. True enough, the film induces laughs that come from the humor of their life, not with cheap antics or jokes.
The situation of these queens are indeed bittersweet and heartbreaking, and the film does not try to shy away from that. Here is a film that does not simply immerse into the lives of these queens, but embraces them and the film reflects it. The film is celebratory of these real-life heroines without finding the need of overhyping life. The story is there, and the filmmakers’ respect to keep it as clean and neat as possible deserves huge respect. More so even, these queens deserve our immense respect.
For an audience mostly used to narrative films, this film is not hard to grasp. It tells the years-long story of these women in a smooth flowing narrative, thanks to skilful editing, clever camerawork, and effective music that remains unobtrusive of its function of showing light on the lives of these women, and ultimately, the Filipino diaspora in general.
The first wave of Filipinos going abroad for work started in the 1970s, and until now, this phenomenon continues. With that, this film feels timely as it is timeless. It feels urgent and necessary. Nice call of the MMFF selection committee in including this to the official entries.
For a lack of a better word, this is an important film.