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.