Happy voices in Bahasa Indonesia and Filipino filled the lobby of Golden Village Tiong Bahru cinemas on Sunday, 25 Aug 2013, as members of the TWC2 family came together for a screening of Ilo Ilo. This first feature film by Singapore director Anthony Chen won the Camera d’Or at Cannes earlier this year in May. It stars well-known Filipina actress Angeli Bayani as a domestic worker in a Singapore household, Yeo Yann Yann and Chen Tian Wen as the mother and father in the home, and first-time actor Koh Jia Ler as the son.
Like so many families in Singapore, the parents are too busy with work and the boy is largely left to his own devices, often getting into trouble in school. The family hires a maid, Teresa (Angeli Bayani), which changes the dynamics of the family immediately. The boy resists having her around. She herself is unwittingly caught up in a few family secrets. Meanwhile, her own family presses her to send more money home.
Set in the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997/1998, it isn’t long before the father loses his job. Just when the boy has finally taken to Teresa, the family’s finances deteriorate and hard choices have to be made. . . .
With a generous donation from benefactors Lee Foundation and others, Transient Workers Count Too was able to arrange this screening in advance of the commercial season of Ilo Ilo. We booked a hall with about 360 seats, choosing a Sunday when domestic workers would have a day off. A complex logistical exercise then followed with tickets distributed through TWC2’s partner organisations, the Indonesian Family Network (IFN) and Filipino Family Network (FFN) — networks of domestic workers. In the lead-up to the event, TWC2 treasurer Noorashikin also led outreach activities at places where domestic workers often congregate to distribute information leaflets, complete with free tickets.
Meanwhile, volunteer Terence Kek was tasked to organise male workers for his quota of tickets. These special pass holders, for lack of job and money, have very few entertainment options. This was an opportunity to provide one for them.
Altogether, about 80 percent of the tickets were used to benefit workers. Volunteers, who deserve to be appreciated, and representatives of partner organisations took up the balance of the seats.
Leaders of IFN chose to make final issuance of tickets on the day itself, but there was no space, except the floor . . .
TWC2 also included a voucher redeemable for popcorn and coke for every ticket issued to IFN, FFN and Terence Kek’s group. Many workers arrived early, and it was fortunate they did, for they had to queue up to get their drink and snack.
At key moments through the film, there were murmurs of recognition. The audience easily identified with the awkward situations or difficulties that the character Teresa faced in adjusting to a new job. “It’s really like that,” said Nina (name changed) on exit. “I also had difficult time with the children when I first came.”
Interestingly, the domestic workers were quick to pick up signals from the body language of the mother and father characters, signals that those of us who aren’t domestic workers missed. At a few points, there were chuckles of familiar knowledge from among the domestic workers in the hall, but the volunteers had no clue what they were responding to.
Besides being relevant to their experiences — “I hope the film can be shown in Philippines,” suggested a member of the audience — the film was also highly enjoyable. “So funny,” said her friend.
It seemed well worth the effort to have an outing like this.