Shining a spotlight on ‘invisible’ Filipino workers in Japan
Japan seems like the perfect place for Filipinos who want to leave their country to find work. It’s a first-world country, it’s only a four-hour flight from their homeland – and it’s the home of karaoke, the perfect recreational activity for people from such a musical culture.
Yet, Japan only attracted three per cent of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) last year, according to the Philippines Statistics Authority. Compare that with the UAE on 15 per cent, and Saudi Arabia, the top destination, which hosts more than 25 per cent of OFWs. Yet, this was not always the case.
Director Lawrence Fajardo’s film Imbisibol (Invisible), which had its international debut at the Toronto Film Festival yesterday, tells the stories of four OFWs living in the city of Fukuoka in the aftermath of a 1989 Japanese crackdown on overstayers – workers who remain in the country after their work contracts expire.
“That’s why we chose the title,” says producer Krisma Fajardo, who is also Lawrence’s wife. “They’re not supposed to be in Japan. Legally they’re not there. And then they’re also not in the Philippines, physically, so it’s like they’re invisible. These people tend to lay low and not attract attention.”
Benjie – played by Bernardo Bernardo, a star of the Filipino sitcom Home Along da Riles – wears a face mask as he sweeps up rubbish at a factory during the day. At night, he washes dishes at a bar. The work schedule is tiring as he nears retirement age and he nods off often to compensate.
Manuel is half Benjie’s age, but his career as an “entertainer” might be over soon if he can’t attract more female customers. He tries to keep up with his younger co-workers by applying make-up and dying his hair.
When we first meet Rodel, he counsels a friend not to get caught up in an argument with a superior in case he loses focus on his job at a lumberyard. Rodel then earns a promotion because of his head-down, nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic.
Looking out for Fukuoka’s OFWs and overstayers is Auntie Linda, who, when she’s not collecting their mail and planning their finances, houses them in an apartment next to the home she shares with her Japanese husband.
“A lot of the workers are entertainers, though there are also skilled workers,” Krisma says. “They can sing, they can dance, they can mingle. They’re very sweet.” “We are really known as sweet people who can take care of you,” says Lawrence. “That’s why some people, especially the Japanese people, love Filipinos, for that kind of trait.”
Lawrence wanted to shoot the film, an adaptation of his stage play, in Fukuoka because his previous films Amok (2011) and Shackled (2012) were so well received there. But despite the mutual admiration, and even though the story is set at Christmas, there is not much good cheer to be found in it.
“We really wanted to show the reality of overseas Filipino workers,” he says. “People tend to think because you live abroad it’s easy to make money, it’s fun. But the reality is isolation and separation from your family. That’s the voice of the film. “We would like to show Filipinos to whom this happened historically. It’s the truth of Filipino migrant workers living abroad, not only in Japan but in other countries. We call them modern heroes. They send money, millions of dollars to the Philippines. They help the economy and help their families. So this is the voice of the OFWs, this is their story, their life and their sad story that we Filipinos need to know.”
Imbisibol swept the major awards at the inaugural Sinag Maynila, an independent film festival launched by renowned Filipino director Brillante Mendoza. The film is one of two Filipino films at TIFF – the other is Erik Matti’s Honor Thy Father, about a Ponzi scheme pitched to Pentecostals.
Updated: September 14, 2015 04:00 AM