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A truly ‘winning’ film

“Gasgas” (scratched, worn-out) is how many folks would describe yet another story, another column, a documentary, or even a movie on the plight of overseas Filipino workers.

For over 30 years now, Filipinos have been leaving home and loved ones to find work abroad, mainly to earn enough to put their family members through school, build a home for them, pay health bills, or simply finance a move away from the depths of poverty. Over the years, we have been scandalized at tales of hardship and exploitation, protested the execution of Filipinos accused of crimes abroad, and cried as we listened to stories of abandonment and betrayal.

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Indeed, I have lost count of the number of movies alone that have focused on the lives of Filipinos abroad: from the pathos and tragedy of Flor Contemplacion’s real-life execution in Singapore, to the Sharon Cuneta starrer “Caregiver” about a wife who realizes the fraud that her marriage has become while caring for elderly clients, and even the romance that blossoms between an intrepid entrepreneur/domestic and the stranger she takes in as he searches for his missing wife in “Milan.”

One would think we have had enough of OFW stories. Yet here comes “Sunday Beauty Queen,” which was the only documentary that broke into the circle of feature movies selected for the Metro Manila Film Festival, and then made history when it ran off with the Best Picture award. The documentary, about domestic workers in Hong Kong, perhaps the earliest foreign destination for Pinay household workers, also won additional recognition: the prize for Best Editing, the “Gatpuno Antonio J. Villegas Cultural Award,” and the “Children’s Choice Award.”

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What sweet vindication for a movie that many feared would be ousted from theaters after just a few days!

“Sunday Beauty Queen” refers to the one day in the week when Hong Kong’s domestic workers are allowed time off, but which, for the women covered by the documentary, is the one day in the week when they can “really live.” After a week’s drudgery and confinement in their employers’ stifling flats, the women break out of the drudgery of their working lives and transform into peacocks, prancing about onstage in their glittering gowns and outlandish costumes, competing for sashes and dinky trophies in any number of beauty pageants for the Pinay DH community.

The first worker we meet is Leo Selomenio, who identifies as male (he is called “Daddy Leo” by his friends and wards), and found his calling by organizing beauty contests for both straights and “les,” all for charity. He serves as both guide and resource person to the worlds of the Sunday beauty queens, while helping explain the dilemmas they face in coping with their employers’ demands while heeding the call of their needy families, and the complicated rules enforced by both the Hong Kong and Philippine governments.

While it would have been easy for documentarist Baby Ruth Villarama to milk the women’s stories of all their pathos and hugot, she wisely and kindly chooses to lighten the emotional load with moments of levity.

We meet women like Hazel Perdido and Mylyn Jacobo, who with Leo came home to Manila to help promote “Sunday Beauty Queen” and ensure it remained in theaters.

One powerful scene shows Hazel, who is tied to house-sitting (and looking after the dog) for her employers, watching her son’s graduation on her cell phone, bridging the distance and the fuzzy signal with emotions that dissolve into tears. In another scene, another caregiver to an elderly ill employer, confesses to sitting in the kitchen of the flat’s window, watching planes land and take off, wondering when her turn to depart Hong Kong will come.  Other women, like Cherrie Mae Bretana, are shown bantering with their employers, and sharing most of their days with their young wards. Clearly, there is mutual affection and trust between them.

It matters little, in the end, who wins in the two pageants the documentary covers. For in being allowed to view the lives of these plucky, brave, resourceful and empathetic countrywomen, we all end up winners.

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TAGS: Metro Manila Film Festival, ofws, Sunday Beauty Queen
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