We initially thought about Remittance as a documentary set in Singapore focusing upon the difficult conditions that low wage migrant workers face, as well as the challenges of maintaining connections with their families and lives back home. We interviewed hundreds of women and men from across Asia working as maids, bar girls, waitresses, construction workers and sailors. We were overwhelmed by the range of stories and experiences and the difference between their lived realities and their aspirations – material that we felt would tell a powerful bottom up story about how globalization affects hundreds of millions of people living below the line around the world.
The more we ventured into the world low wage migrants have created for themselves in Singapore, the more it became apparent we were only seeing part of the story. We heard so many horrible stories about abuse, long hours, disrespect and failing families back home, and so were stunned by the amount of women who wanted to stay in Singapore, in spite of those conditions. This led to a major shift in focus as we began to explore why – how bad could life be at home and what did life in Singapore have to offer that we were not seeing?
We found for many of the women working as domestic servants the answer was freedom, or at least a form of it. Hundreds of thousands of women from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka work in Singapore – and they would not be here if they had better opportunities at home. In some cases women are trying to create better economic opportunities for their families – often remitting all of their wages to support their entire extended families. For other women it was a refuge from domestic abuse and broken relationships – migration being a socially preferable option to divorce. In just about all cases, their lives back home were highly prescribed by the values of their often conservative communities and the weight of family expectations. Many of the women with children of their own were married in their teens – and being a woman in the developing world is often a 24/7 job, with no wages, hard work and little thanks. One maid told us that she never had a day off until she started working in Singapore
As we developed the project and decided to switch to a narrative film, we focused on the lives that these women carve out for themselves in their limited free time, and how they are able to create moments of freedom while working in servitude. We spent months hanging out with them on Sunday, which is usually their one day off a week, picnicking, going shopping and tagging along on dates, and in the process discovered a totally different side of Singapore – one that most Singaporeans and the more affluent expatiates know little about. We also discovered that behind the shy smiles, and polite ‘yes ma’am’ that the maids project to their employers while working, they were dynamic, engaging, ridiculous, silly and completely three dimensional people.
Remittance is a street level window into the lives of these complex women told through our main character Marie. At it’s heart it’s a coming of age story – the blossoming of a middle aged woman as she explores for the first time what it is like to make decisions about what is best for herself. It is set against the constant backdrop of a tenuous relationship with her employers – who represent the flaws and ironies of a liberal and progressive class who rationalize servitude through what they see as their benevolence – and her family back in the Philippines, who demand more and more from her. Marie goes to Singapore for selfless motives – to support her family, but the very process of doing so creates distance, removes her from the lives of her children, and causes a falling out with her husband and children. They see her as abandoning them, while she sees them as being greedy and selfish. We bring her back home in the third act of the film. We want to show the audience more about life in the Philippines – and to expose the problems that such women face upon returning. Migration is a transformative process – and for many it is difficult and often uncomfortable to adjust to life back with their families. Suddenly there are 24/7 demands, people constantly want money assuming that anyone who worked abroad is rich, and they need to sink back into the expectations of their local communities. When Marie gets back home to put her faltering family back together, she is frustrated as the person she has become is not well suited for life in the Philippines. We end the film with her considering going back to work overseas.
This is not just a Singapore story but a global story of the commodification of labor, the exportation of mothers from poor third world countries to first world nations. Singapore is a microcosm of what is happening across the globe – it could be LA, Rome, Dubai, New York, London, etc. Our aim is not to judge but to use a compelling and human story to problematize the effects of globalization. As storytellers we have a very anthropological approach. Our process involves spending time in the various communities, developing relationships that allow for access to worlds not usually shown to outsiders. We are interested in telling the less obvious story and celebrating the drama of everyday life.