THE FILIPINA FEMALE GAZE: A review of MARISOL, a film by Hella Wenders


Or, Anticipating the Revenge of the Balik-bayan Cargo Cult

A Review of MARISOL (2009)—a film directed by Hella Wenders; cinematography by Merle Jothe; produced by Barbara Mutschler and Florian Gerstenberg ; German Film and Television School, Berlin, Germany

by E. San Juan, Jr.,
Fellow, W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University

We live in the era of the global commons, but very few have actually met their neighbors—except as subalterns: household maids, hotel service-workers, nannies, most likely college-educated women from the Philippines. The ubiquitous phenomenon of Filipina domestics and overseas contract workers (almost ten million), known also as Overseas Filipino workers (OFW), has become a tedious and soporific topic for cynics and skeptics. Scholars have categorized them as modern indentured servants of the global ecumene. If you mention that at least five OFW cadavers/coffins arrive everyday at the Manila International Airport, a big yawn greets you: “So what else is new?” Those still awake may prod: “Why? How did this happen?”

Like millions around the world devastated by global capitalism’s meltdown, the lives of migrant Filipinas/as have become redundant or disposable. This began in the 1970s. The Marcos dictatorship, supported chiefly by the United States and the IMF-World Bank, institutionalized the export of “warm bodies” to the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. In the neoliberal global market, the nationality label “Filipino” quickly became equivalent to “servant” or “maid” in Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and elsewhere. After 9/11, the terrorist Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines may have eclipsed the OFWs. But with the continual brutalization of Filipinas in Okinawa, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and the “Nicole” scandal (“Nicole” is the Filipina raped by an American soldier subsequently convicted but “kidnapped” by the US Embassy while his case is on appeal), with hundreds in jail or awaiting execution, their plight will continue to haunt the conscience of “the pillars of society.” It may even disturb the sleep of State functionaries whose salaries depend on OFW remittances.

Marisol’s Sister: The Hanged Woman

One example is Flor Contemplacion whose case is well-known in the Philippines, but not in the global North. Accused of killing a fellow worker and a Singaporean child, and despite witnesses testifying to her innocence, Contemplacion was hanged in March 1995 by the Singaporean government. Instantly she became a national heroine. She continues to symbolize the unconscionable plight of Filipinas abused, raped, and killed by their bosses. Then president Fidel Ramos, threatened by a groundswell of sympathy for the victim, intervened; but given the historic subservience and bankruptcy of the Philippine nation-state, OFWs will continue to endure barbaric humiliation and exploitation. The fate of Flor Contemplacion stands as a haunting sign of what awaits Filipinos–unless they organize, refuse this intolerable status quo, and help liberate the country from imperial oppression and poverty.

The current Arroyo regime and its predecessors have survived chiefly due to the $12-14 billion OFW remittance. That is more than enough to cover the huge foreign debt and subsidize the obscene privileges of the tiny local oligarchy and the corrupt military/police. At least 1.3 million families, 7.9% of the total 16.5 families of 90 million Filipinos (most of whom survive on $2 a day), rely on OFW earnings for their survival. With the global economic downturn, a small drop in their household incomes will produce extreme hunger, criminality, and untold social upheavals. At least half a million OFWs work in Europe today, with at least 54,000 in Germany alone. The European Union’s new immigration policy will target undocumented migrants by penalizing their employers. What happens to OFWs in Europe and in the diaspora around the world, will deliver an impact with profound consequences. This is why this film about the agonizing plight of a Filipina domestic in Berlin, Germany, serves as an emblematic alarm-signal, a wake-up call, a portentous omen of things to come.

Marisol, the protagonist of Hella Wender’s short film, easily proves herself the uncanny half-sister of Flor Contemplacion. We wonder how a film can depict the structural situation of Filipino poverty driving thousands of wives/mothers to seek work abroad and preserve their integrity/sanity amid abuses, isolation, and uncertain future. One way is to condense the complex total social situation into the experience of a typical individual, into one or two representative episodes. It’s a challenge that Hella Wenders takes up, with intriguing success.
Her film is itself a “balikbayan” box we have to unpack. It uses the predicament of an illegal Filipina domestic in Berlin struggling to support her family (Luis, her husband, and two children, Jason and Lizelle). She thinks of them everyday and wants to go back home—she even orders a plane ticket under a false name. She holds up chiefly because her sister Wena, a domestic in Hong Kong, reminds her of their dream of one day becoming free, owning a store back home.

The normal routine is disrupted. One day Marisol’s husband calls to tell her that her sister Wena is dead. We expect Marisol to collapse, but except for one traumatic instant of abjecthood, she holds up. What happens to her dream of rejoining her family? She is undeterred. We saw her earlier taking care of two German children and cleaning windows. The film then focuses on Marisol—wife, mother, sister, family provider–filling her “balikbayan” box with commodities, gifts lovingly itemized as though they were fragments cut off from her body. Somehow she succeeds in paying for the shipping of her dead sister Wena: a “balikbayan” with a cruel twist. At the end, together with German friends and compatriots, Marisol vicariously participates in the burial of her sister via the computer’s Internet screen.

Media Seduction Vs. Aura of the Balikbayan Box

Will the dead rest in her grave? Is everyone pacified then, assured that Marisol will eventually realize the dream she shared with her “sacrificed” sister? Having hurdled this ordeal, will she move on to dare take other moves? What are her alternatives? These are a few questions aroused by Wender’s film. How about us, the audience: Do we learn anything? While OFW families are disrupted by their country’s neoloconial underdevelopment, migrants re-imagine their community/fictive family with the help of prosthetic devices such as cellphones and electronic mail, satellite TV, internet, that help sustain identities and lifestyles across shifting or porous boundaries. Technology extends and trains the human sensorium for survival in a dis-integrated anomic world, or in contested terrains. In postmodern jargon, these fluid and hybrid identities of OFWs inhabit the crucible of global ethnoscapes; presumably their psyches, if not their bodies, are able to elude bureaucratic definitions and traditional judgments. Do they?

The theme of a Filipina mother working abroad, without valid documents, is one pregnant with sentimental and melodramatic possibilities. No messianic guardian comes to the rescue. Wenders is able to deepen this figure by sophisticated camera work and nuanced framing of scenes and their calibrated sequencing. On first acquaintance, we are impressed by Marisol’s lively but sober demeanor. The upbeat foreward looking tonality of the film is conveyed by the introductory shots: sailors/workers gracefully doing gymnastics, smooth transition from ship to flowing traffic overlapping with Marisol’s buoyant address to her sister: “Dear Wena….” Her voice-over evokes the dominant affect of the film. It centers on motherhood indexed by the “balikbayan” box. The leitmotif of sending/receiving packages, plus the recollection of two sisters over their mother’s love, sutures the montage of departure/removal, a transition from Manila to Berlin that easily folds us into the cinematic narrative.

Throughout the film, the “balikbayan” box operates as the central unifying trope: it connects dispersed family members, like the umbilical cord. Though separated, Marisol and Wena are united by memory of their mother and a dream of freeing oneself from serfhood to take up an independent pettybourgeois life—the dream of millions. Marisol is shown cleaning windows, symbolizing both aspiration and blockage; she cooks and minds the German children, a surrogate fulfillment of what her family and society expects. Unlike the child in the theme-song “Anak,” Marisol did not disobey her parents by indulging in wicked vice only to repent later. No pathos here, no melodrama, no tears—except shouting at the vacant urban landscape, a protest against some existential injustice or malice sprung on her from above. The film is very quiet, disturbingly reticent. Is this a deliberate provocation, a Brechtian estrangement-effect, challenging us to complete the film which ends with a medium-shot focus on Marisol’s face?

Dialectic of Speaking and Listening

One alternative is offered by the film: utterance. And access to the facilities of communication. Language unites and divides, but here the Filipino/Tagalog sutures episodes of loneliness and painful endurance. We soon discover that Marisol’s sister Wena lives a double-life: her poetic efforts overshadow her bondage to household chores. Through a phonecall, Wena transmits her prophetic message of a monsoon outburst veiled by the overheated afternoons, allowing them to “fly to the moon.” The power of poetic language supplements, more exactly prescinds, electronic media. Their conversations dissolve the physical and temporal distance that separates them, compensating for their drab alienating circumstances. How long can this last? And can illusory relief by art/communication—the talking cure in which Wena becomes the analysand, Marisol the mute analyst–resolve material, historically structured adversities in our everyday life?

For OFWs, despite kinship networks, the danger of individualist solutions always proves seductive in a competitive global marketplace. There are now organizations like MIGRANTE that provide support (emotional, legal) to make up for government apathy or hostility. However, Marisol and many others are exposed to hazardous psychic injuries on top of physical harms. How do we handle sudden turns of fortune—actually, what’s more horrible than death are marital infidelities–allegorized by interruptions of phone calls, sudden Internet fadeouts, silence? Unexpectedly Wena dies—not an accident but a homicide. No one else can help pay for her return home except Marisol whose precarious status exposes her to possible arrest and deportation. Will she resort to extreme, law-breaking measures? Marisol is already a lawbreaker. But her plight encapsulates risk, alienation, and hope. Her contact with her German employer is defined solely by the money-wage (captured by a brief scene). In Berlin, Marisol’s life-world is inhabited by children, women friends, cellphone, computers, and money. She seems never to engage in any pleasurable leisurely act—except videoke conviviality with other Filipinas and their German friends in a club. Apparently she has no one to replace Wena, someone with whom she can regularly communicate or confide to, linking past and present with the future.
Of course there is the ubiquitous Filipino priest who represents the absent family, homeland, parents. He is shown consoling an illegal OFW (Rica Santos), betrayed by another Filipino, jailed and about to be deported. She personifies the possible future of Marisol and countless others. It is Rica Santos to whom Marisol later confides outside “Gigi’s Meeting Point,” their common predicament establishing their fictive kinship, while other Filipinas and their German friends sing the song “Anak” about a child who repents for having ignored her parents and strayed from the straight and narrow path. Should Marisol repent being an OFW?

Using “Anak” seems a deftly ironic choice here. Providing continuity to several scenes in the film, this popular song underscores the importance of parents and the need of children to heed their counsel lest disaster overtakes them. It warns children not to strike on their own without the guidance of authority, esp. the father. But the father in the film is starkly undercut, glimpsed only in the unstable computer-screen, eclipsed by the strong mother-figure of Marisol, the lawbreaker. The film interrupts Marisol’s conviviality with the news of Wena’s “suicide” (several Filipina maids who fell from buildings in Hong Kong were really murdered by their employers). Marisol protests, suggesting that Wena should be put in a “balikbayan” box—a fulfillment of her mother’s desire cited at the beginning. Fast foreward and we see Marisol confiding in Rica the sister-surrogate, reflecting on their own somehow intertwined, “weird” fates: one wants to stay but cannot, and the other wants to go home but cannot.

Jump-Cuts and Syncopations

Marisol is a parent without power. Her reliance on electronic media—cellphone, computers, Internet—as a way of preserving contact with her husband and children is contingent on her budget, her free time, and access to such prosthetic devices. Despite this electronic prophylactic, Marisol’s distance from her family is underscored by the fact that she cannot really maintain long exchanges with her children—in one scene, the scream of the German child cuts off her connection with her family. Moreover, her customary deference to the husband insures that she will always be at the receiving end of the line, unable to initiate action except as a response to his call for help. In short, Marisol’s agency seems undercut, annulled, diminished. When her sister Wena, at the start of the film, reminds her of their dreams, based on their mother’s sacrifice as an OFW herself, Marisol is unable to release pent-up feelings except by shouting to the anonymous space outside, to blank windows facing her apartment—a poignant image of frustration and helplessness.

Where or who is the Other who can listen to Marisol? In the process of grappling with this crisis, Marisol is driven by an imperious need to express herself, defying external law or inner prohibition. It is this need to communicate that the film foregrounds, an emergency appeal. This, I submit, is the film’s over-riding purpose: to compel us to listen, to understand. It’s a powerful challenge hurled to cyberspace and the open market, in quest of a responsive audience/viewers.

Solitude is conceivable only because of its opposite: community, solidarity. After the news of Wena’s death, Marisol is faced not only with the tragic deprivation of her other self. Wena incarnates Marisol’s submerged speaking self, the poet-rhetor, who reminds her of their common dream. It is the erotic Other that is sacrificed so Marisol can go on. The reality-principle dictates that she defer her return so that the sister can return—literally, Wena’s homecoming in a coffin as the other “balikbayan box.” Marisol rhetorical question to the empty urban space: “What do you want me to do?” is really addressed to the audience, the others who care. She demands from Luis (via cellphone) to talk to her sleeping children; but her “load” aborts communnication. The camera switches to Marisol walking the Berlin thoroughfare like a somnambulist, one of the few close-up shots—except for the cellphone/computer screen faces of her sister and family. She counts and wraps the money to send, via her friend, as though praying in her kitchen-sanctuary.

In one of the most dramatic moments of the film, with images of gleeful playing children alternating with shots of the WESTERN UNION office, Marisol runs in front of two policemen whom she served earlier. She wants to be arrested, interrogated. Her muteness is a desperate appeal for help—to be deported and sent home. However, her friend suddenly intervenes, wresting her away before the police can demand her ID and thus authenticate her identity: Marisol the mother/outlaw. Fast forward and we see Marisol repeating Wena’s poetic utterance—“Where did you come from? Where are you going?….bruised, struggling, crawling on all fours out of the abyss, craving for bliss without end,” demanding more from her compatriots, from those who are watching and witnessing this film.

The film itself offers German women’s solidarity. It concludes with prayers for Wena’s soul by Marisol’s friends, via computerized tele-screens attending Wena’s burial. A gesture to acknowledge Filipino mores is made: the Filipino priest, smiling, consoles Marisol with the remark that Wena has been bumped “first class” on her flight to heaven. This quasi-religious ceremony in secular Europe, the quiet camaraderie and unobtrusive solidarity, the calculatedly subdued ending—all these displace our anxiety about the crime, leaving us with Marisol’s thoughtful, handsome face. We surmise that she will resume her normal life with possibly more awareness of the injustice and danger that lurk behind the civilized facades of the wealthy employing nations. Is there surplus vision or needs accumulated in her consciousness that calls for collective action?

The Dreamer Sacrificed

More questions are triggered by the film’s somewhat abrupt end: Is Marisol, as shown in this film, a pathetic example of the helpless OFW? Postcolonial scholars are anxious to counter the stereotype belief that subalterns like female domestics don’t have agency. They disagree with the view that OFWs are totally victims of patriarchal discourse and masculinist violence. They argue that Marisol has agency: she invents a fictional person, “Olivia Flores,” that orders one-way ticket. She shouts that one day she will reveal her real name, fulfill her dream of doing what she wants (as the song “Anak” hints, without repentance). Her maternal and nurturing power is fully demonstrated by her ability to calm the screaming German child in her care, even though that task also confirms her distance from her family.

Here are the partial answers. When the film opens, we see sailors and workers exercising in harmony in front of a ship about to embark. City landscape smoothly blends with the recollection of Marisol’s mother and her balikbayan box peppered with kisses, imagining herself contained in the box sent to her children. This “balikbayan” box that holds gifts, token commodities, etc. functions as the chief synthesizing trope, the allegorical synapse or synergistic node of the film. While we observe Marisol packing her “balikbayan” box, ensuring the safety of its delivery, we also keep in mind what is not shown—the absent montage of her sister’s body being deposited as in a cargo container for shipping home, paid for by Marisol’s savings. We never see Marisol’s own box being shipped, but we see the coffin of her sister being laid to rest in her grave, surrounded by her mourning relatives—“bumped first class” in a flight to heaven. Our last image is of Marisol’s melancholy, thoughtful face, as the camera focuses on her, somewhat distanced from her community, replicating her earlier pose at the food-shop as she ponders giving up to the police. The solitary domestic is left bereft of companionship, isolated, even though we remain aware that it is there in the margins. Do we allow the priest to have the last word, the last “joke”?

Probably not. The film’s intent is to arouse questions and disturb our peace. The film’s style of articulating closed and open spaces succeeds in dramatizing Marisol’s dilemma between “risk-taking” and “security-maximizing,” to use sociological jargon. The arrangement of the scenes is meant to stage the dilemma all OFWs face: one between striking on your own, daring to struggle against customary prohibitions—as the theme song “Anak” warns against—or opting for safety behind law, patriarchal authority, and the opium of religion. It’s a classic existential situation.

What stands out, however, is a nexus of loaded signifiers. Marisol’s situation of risk and maternal resolve is a play on the motifs of the homely and the unhomely, both condensed in the German word “heimlich” which Freud made famous in his essay, “The Uncanny.” Marisol’s homeland (embodied in the electronic images of husband, children, Wena) becomes a cyberspace mirage, fading in and out, charged with frightening possibilities, destroying the bourgeois ideology of privacy and monogamous, heterosexual normativity. Meanwhile, Marisol’s network of friends/compatriots serves as a linkage to the emergent community of Migrante International, allowing the sisters of Gabriela Silang and of Rosa Luxemburg to meet. In this sense Marisol’s female gaze becomes uncanny, answering the misogynist question—“What does a woman want?”—with the threat and promise of slaying the patriarchs: the capitalist State, Hong Kong criminal employers, predatory transnational agencies, and the entire corrupt, unredeemable Filipino bureaucracy/oligarchy parasitic on OFW remittances, colluding with U.S. imperialism in keeping the country impoverished and subservient since the end of the Filipino American War of 1899-1913.

Marisol, stricken with anxiety and desperation, nearly surrendered to authority. That trauma-filled episode in which Marisol’s identity was at stake, dissolved quickly with her friend’s swift snatching of her body from the clutches of the State. Marisol is the mother who displaces the absent father—subaltern fathers have been emasculated by the neocolonial Arroyo state, obeisant to the imperial behest of the U.S. and predatory finance capital. While the paternal German welfare-state harbors threats such as the police and alienated employers, it permits temporary escape from enclosures such as the workplace (bar, house with German children to attend). It is also outside Gigi’s restaurant/bar where Wena’s poems are recited–a cry for help, an assertion of the right to happiness with loved ones, the right to self-fulfillment with others. In antithesis, some enclosure are hospitable: Gigi’s Meeting Point, the church-like place where balikbayan boxes are stored and confidential exchanges with the Filipino priest takes place, Marisol’s bedroom, her friend’s car. The Filipino priest serves as the index of the traditional homeland, accessible as listener to illegal migrants, a native counterpart to the Western psychiatrist/psychoanalyst, filling in for the absent authoritarian Filipino State.

For Whom the Bells Toll?

Art, cinema, surely cannot take the place of everyday working life or dominate it. But it’s useful for understanding oppressive institutions and imagining alternatives. Without it, we will remain victims of commodifying capital, money, and consumer goods dictating the content of our souls. Is it enough to be thankful to Hella Wenders and her co-workers for this richly compressed film and take pleasure in the character of Marisol, in her quiet fortitude, her patience, her dignified forbearance amid such paralyzing ordeal? After all, it is her sister, not her children or her husband or mother, who dies in this film.

As I have suggested earlier, Wena symbolizes Marisol’s authentic self, the exuberant twin-soul, who articulates her dreams and the future for her, as well as for millions of OFWs—for the whole dispossessed and diasporic Filipino nation. There is no chain migration here, only the extended family held together in a web or network of virtualized kinship and solidarity, enabled by modern means of communication, specifically cellphones, computerized television, etc. Despite geographical dispersal, communal and familial bonds are precariously maintained, affections sustained despite interruptions and reifying noises. Wena’s transmission is sometimes delayed, so that the unfolding of time is never linear, often recursive, sometimes anachronistic. This message of the film concerning the unpredictable dialectic of proximity and distance, past and future, open and closed spaces, necessity and accident, which escapes commodification by commercial establishments represented here by WESTERN UNION/ASIA IMBISS, is perhaps the most profound lesson to be inferred: organization and political consciousness-raising are needed.

Perhaps we can rescue Wena from the dead and make her speak to her sister again. She might say to Marisol that she needs to break out of her routine and question the condition of her life together with others, such as the OFW group, Migrante International, is doing. We do not need the cheap consolation of evangelical religion, the escape that Sarah Balabagan, the OFW flogged in Saudi Arabia, has chosen. We have other models: for example, Connie Bragas-Regalado, the fighter for migrant rights, or the women in Migrante Europe who attend to the needs of undocumented kababayan. This film is directly a critique of such packaged evasion. It is an oblique critique of individualist self-help. It sharply poses the limits of such solitary claustrophobic efforts even as it partly celebrates Marisol’s courage, resourcefulness and strength, knowing that her family and community (in the interstices of the film-shots) are with her in the struggle. She becomes Olivia Flores, the incommensurable trickster-figure.

As the film unfolds, Wena the domestic emerges in the network of communal exchanges as Wena the poet, inventor of images and figures that transform barriers into opportunities, unleashing the energies of dream for advancing the concrete projects of everyday life. This film succeeds in enabling our discovery of this poetic voice within the domestic serf, the insurgent dreamer, who may be suppressed now, but will always haunt us, especially those vampires and parasites who feed on the remittances of these postmodern indentured servants, even “modern-day slaves,” as Bridget Anderson aptly describes them.

In the process of inventing the correct praxis, Marisol draws sustenance from Wena’s words. Maintaining tactful aesthetic distance, the film allows us to empathize with that sacrificed voice whose words penetrate windows and walls (the Berlin Wall seems to have metamorphosed into a Chinese ‘Great Wall” in Hong Kong) to open up a gap, the revolutionary break, not only for reunion with her family but also re-possession/liberation of the ravished homeland where bodies and souls, bloodied from fierce global class wars, can once again be reunited, nourished and fulfilled in collective sharing. Mabuhay kayong lahat, Marisol!

E. SAN JUAN, Jr. is director of the Philippines Cultural Studies Center, Storrs, Connecticut, USA. He has taught at various universities in the US and around the world: University of Connecticut, Washington State University, Brooklyn College (CUNY), University of the Philippines, Leuven University in Belgium, and Tamkang University/National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, among others. His latest books are US IMPERIALISM AND REVOLUTION IN THE PHILIPPINES (Palgrave), IN THE WAKE OF TERROR (Lexington), TOWARD FILIPINO SELF-DETERMINATION (SUNY Books), and CRITIQUE AND SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION: Lessons from Antonio Gramsci, Mikhail Bakhtin and Raymond Williams (Edwin Mellen Press). He is currently Spring 2009 Fellow of the W.E. B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University.hella-wenders21hella-wenders2

About philcsc

E.SAN JUAN, Jr. directs the Philippines Cultural Studies Center, Washington DC, USA and lectures at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Manila, Philippines.

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