Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In a darkened theater at the Shang Cineplex, I watched “Daddy” Leo Selomenio — a domestic helper in Hong Kong — as he sat on a city bus drenched with rain. “Sunday Beauty Queen,” one of this year’s Metro Manila Film Festival contenders, was showing. A few moments into the film, Leo would reappear with Mylyn Jacobo, a fellow domestic helper, who is dressed in full beauty queen regalia for a pageant. Later, in a beautifully-edited, slow-motion cut of people holding umbrellas against the rain, I would first glimpse Hazel Perdido, whose work in Hong Kong includes regularly walking a scrappy black dog.
Two hours later, out of the cinema and into a fashion designer’s studio apartment in Mandaluyong, I would meet Daddy Leo, Mylyn, and Hazel in the flesh. And to see them, talk to them, and laugh with them right after seeing “Sunday Beauty Queen” is jarring, all because in the cinema, it’s easy to pretend their stories are based on a script. It’s easy to keep some distance. It’s easy to shelve their narratives as nothing but well-written fiction.
But “Sunday Beauty Queen” is no work of cinematic fiction. It is a documentary, intermittently shot over a four-year period by director Baby Ruth Villarama and editor Chuck Gutierrez, in the process of which the community of domestic helpers became family. Hazel, Mylyn, and “Daddy” Leo would not remain as characters on a screen. As I watched them raucously fitting out dresses they would wear to the MMFF awarding ceremony, their presence remains overwhelming and, as I was fresh from a film screening, still surreal.
“This is not an escape. This is life for them. This is what makes them alive,” says Villarama, recounting the words of an anthropologist who has been studying the diaspora of Filipino communities in Hong Kong. “Monday to Saturday, they don’t have a life, they’re like robots. But on Sunday, they transform. This is how they want to live. These are dignified people. They need to have something for themselves.”
The magic of the storytelling behind “Sunday Beauty Queen” — one of the eight official MMFF entries, and the only documentary in the lineup — is on how it insists, almost rebelliously, to portray its subjects with so much vibrancy and life, in all its glorious and joyful complexity. It does not veer too far away from reality, it seems. Mylyn, who went home to General Santos after recently ending her employment, remains cheerful even after suffering a few setbacks as a domestic helper in Hong Kong, as seen in the film. After flying to Manila on Dec. 13 to help promote the documentary, including a few TV guestings and even a video interview with social media personality Mocha Uson, Mylyn revels in the experience. “Nananaginip ba kami?” she asks. “Biglaan ata,” she laughs. Leo says the film has given the three of them — Mylyn, Hazel, and himself — the opportunity to bond more closely, as they did that day while Hazel and Mylyn fit dresses for the MMFF awards night, which they will attend together.
“Mami-miss ko itong mga ‘to,” Mylyn says. Adds Leo,“‘Yung moments namin, grabe talaga, sobra. Kaya nga sabi namin ni Hazel, ayaw na namin bumalik sa Hong Kong, kasi pagbalik sa Hong Kong, trabaho na naman kami!”
Yet these are empowered women, not victims of circumstance. As “Sunday Beauty Queen” masterfully captures, these women have fully embraced who they are, contradicting the usual narrative. Leo, a lesbian and the figurative “father” that binds the OFW pageant communities in Hong Kong together, talks from a position of conviction, not disadvantage, when discussing life as a domestic helper: there is a need to negotiate with the employer, he advises, if any domestic helper desires to be happy abroad. There is a need to push further and treat them as you would your own family.
“Para maging masaya ka, love your work,” he says. “Kailangan i-condition mo ang sarili mo pag-alis mo sa Pilipinas na katulong ka … pagdating mo sa Hong Kong, i-embrace mo ‘yan. ‘Di mo sasabihin na, college graduate ako, bakit ako nagkatulong dito? In the first place, bago ka umalis ng Pilipinas, alam mo kung ano ang pagtatrabahuhan mo.”
Says Mylyn: “Sa abroad, ikaw lang ang makakatulong sa sarili mo, wala nang iba.” Hazel nods in agreement.
“I want people to fall in love with these characters,” says director Villarama. “Kasi ‘yun yung napapanood ko sa award-winning documentaries … these characters are empowered. They’re not victims, they are fighting for their right but they are fighting in a way [that] they are alive, they have their flaws, weaknesses, they have their strengths as well ... ‘Yun yung challenge for every film, gusto ko ma-capture ‘yung humanity ng bawat character, even yung flavor ng Hong Kong, ‘yung usok, ‘yung traffic.”
The film started as an investigation into the phenomenon of Filipina domestic helpers lending their passports for loans. When Villarama discovered the reason why, she instead focused on the pageants, and began coordinating with Leo to shoot footage. The resulting intimacy with the storytelling is a result of the production team’s deep immersion into the domestic helper community. “Marunong silang makibagay,” says Mylyn of Villarama’s team. “Halimbawa, uupo kami sa street, makikupo rin sila, kumakain din. Kahit sa bahay, kahit masikip. ‘Di kami nahihiya sa kanila. It’s work as a team,” with “team” including the very subjects of the documentary themselves, as Mylyn implies.
The documentary gracefully slides upon each narrative, belying the skill and effort that went into its editing and production. Gutierrez and Villarama first attempted to edit the hundred-hour raw footage through Skype, which did not work. Gutierrez thus went to the U.K., where Villarama was studying and writing her thesis under a Chevening scholarship. Fortunately, Birmingham City University supported Villarama and allowed the use of its facilities to edit the film. “It’s world-class, Hollywood standard,” says Gutierrez. Villarama even says that at that time, Steven Spielberg was there at Birmingham as well, working on his next project.
The work was, in Villarama’s words, “medyo madugo.” But not a tinge of that was evident as she and Gutierrez stood in the studio apartment where Martin Bautista, a fashion designer, assisted Hazel, Mylyn, and Leo as they tried outfits for the big night the next day. It is as they all said: this is family, formed through a sincere effort to reach out to one another as fellow human beings, and not just as stereotypical subjects of an oft-discussed issue. Hazel, who I just saw wrapping a balikbayan box earlier in film, now stands in front of a mirror in a stunning white gown, confident as she was onscreen. Mylyn jumps around and eggs Hazel on, her striking countenance as indefatigable as it was when she was rolling around onstage during her talent performance in “Sunday Beauty Queen.”
“We made a promise to them, that we’ll make a good film, something they can be proud of,” says Villarama. “Ayoko kasi na pagkatapos ng movie na mahihiya sila na andoon sila sa pelikula. Gusto ko after ng film, ‘yung employers nila, mga kamag-anak nila, will be happy … ‘yung purpose nila sa buhay, ma-echo ng film.”