Put bluntly, it was not a gamble but a daredevil risk.
A feature length documentary in a Christmas film festival where rom-coms, fantasy and horror movies have become the staple menu for the past God-knows-how-many years? More than that, a documentary that does not deal with anything that screams on headlines, exploit controversies that add pages to tabloids or even play partisan politics with issues presently plaguing the nation. But the subject matter of the film is as timely as it is timeless not only about the resilience of Filipinas who will sacrifice everything for the love of their families.
Baby Ruth Villarama's SUNDAY BEAUTY QUEEN goes much farther than the lives of our kababayan domestic helpers in Hong Kong --- the nineteen thousand registered women who work close to twenty-four hours six days a week, sleeping in cramped quarters while serving their amos and their children from five in the morning until they practically drop unconscious with exhaustion. What is even more painful is that these women hold college diplomas: they finished IT courses, Hotel and Restaurant management ... and even education.
But circumstances have forced them to opt for the higher paying job even if it meant giving up whatever it was they spent years learning in school. Because they had to. For their families back home. For their children. One of them bluntly said that her residence back in the Philippines is far better than one of the houses in Hong Kong where she served ... and yet she was treated badly, fed leftovers, berated for sitting on the sofa and made to sleep on the kitchen floor near the refrigerator. And these were the daily difficulties she had to endure until she found employers who embraced her and took her in as family.
For luck plays an important role for these OFWs in finding people who will treat them like human beings ... and give them any semblance of affirmation or even love.
This is the story behind the documentary --- and watching this film is a roller coaster ride of laughter, tears and even anger. These women --- our daughters, sisters, wives, mothers --- endure sufferings ranging from exhaustion to humiliation yet exhibit such strength of inspiring proportions, braving pitfalls and picking themselves up with minimum fuss hoping that the next round of events will be better. One cannot help but cry, marveling at how strong these women have become --- and just how much, how far they are willing to endure and sacrifice for the children and siblings they left home.
They find their strength not only in the occasional opportunities where they can find love and appreciation from their wards and employers --- but from each other.
How many times have we seen the Filipina domestics huddled together with their baons in various venues in Hong Kong each Sunday, swapping stories and trying to create an illusion of home and transplanted nationhood among themselves on that single day they are given to rest? SUNDAY BEAUTY QUEEN explores that world --- and these women. And somehow, we do not only learn to understand what they are going through. We see ourselves as Filipinos --- as to what we have become in the mythology of the Bagong Bayanis.
This is the price paid for the dollars being sent home to prop our economy. Our principal export is our people. As one of the kindhearted Chinese employers said: if the Philippines stops sending its domestic helpers to other countries, the world order will collapse. And as Jessica Zafra once wrote: Filipinos will conquer the world because of the maids, yayas and housekeepers who manage the lives of people of all nations and of varying degrees of influence and power.
SUNDAY BEAUTY QUEEN will break your heart. Twice.
It will break your heart to see the individual and collective lives of these women --- and you will understand the pain they live through and how they all hope for that day when they will come home. It will break your heart to see not only their anguish but how they love their alagas and how these children end up loving them as surrogate parents. It will break your heart to see our kababayans cry because of the affinity they develop to the kindest employers who show them kindness and ... yes, acceptance ...as they grapple with loneliness in a foreign land.
It will also break your heart to know that this beautiful documentary may not last through the ten day run of the MetroManila Filmfest.
The reasons are clear and understandable. It is all about practicality and economics, the inevitable as they call it. It pains to see a beautiful movie not getting its audience because the movie-watching sector of our population is unprepared to patronize full length documentary films. This is an untested genre, as I mentioned --- and even in world cinema, the documentary never stood a chance when put side by side with feature presentations. Documentary films, like shorts, have a niche market ... and knowing Filipino audiences during the Christmas season, it would always be the rom-com, the comedy and the horror movies that will surge ahead of the others ... especially those starring unfamiliar faces or untested genres.
Thus, in a tamer festival such as this year's version of the MetroManila Filmfest, it is the well-made romance comedy like Vince, Kath & James or the heart-filled Die Beautiful (that stars a familiar yet reinvented Paolo Ballesteros) or the moody suspense film Seklusiyon (fueled by the branding of Erik Matti). It is understandable as to why these are the highest grossers in this year's festival where an experiment is taking place, deliberately defying all expectations and formulas.
Hopefully, the MetroManila Film Festival will also devote as much effort and time to promote their entries in a manner that is strategically designed to even the playing field. Despite how good or well made a film is presented, when it is not marketed properly not only by the producer but more so by the festival as an organization, then the box office receipts will suffer. Since you are only given two days to prove your worth in the ten day fiesta (you get pulled out of the movie houses on the third day if you are not delivering the figures in the box office --- understandably again), there is a need for the first day surge so that word of mouth can be fast-tracked.
Why select a documentary when the festival has little if not any time to promote the genre? Why choose a mixed-media film to be one of the finalists --- if there is no proper promotion to something so completely new and promising? That is an even bigger failure than the "unappreciated response" of the public who was never even given a chance to know what Sunday Beauty Queen and Saving Sally are about.
In the meantime, we must celebrate the moment for what it is worth. Baby Ruth Villarama's film should hopefully open bigger doors and possibilities for Filipino documentary filmmakers. Festival or not, it is about time we legitimize the genre --- as one that can be more awesome, more brilliant --- and more truth bound than works of well-designed fiction.
To all behind Sunday Beauty Queen, you are the reason why Filipino filmmakers should keep working ... creating and more so, evolving. Congratulations.