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Co-opting the OFW story via ‘We Don’t Dance for Nothing’?

This is a story of overseas Filipino workers (OFW) told by a “Chinese–Greek American director raised by dancers in New York” (using the words Stefanos Tai describes himself with). So – off the bat – there ought to be claims of co-opting, of appropriation.

And – here’s the thing – even if there’s none (including from #Cinemalaya, which hosted the film to close this year’s film festival), this is actually something that stayed with me after watching Tai’s “love letter” to “the Filipina domestic workers of Hong Kong” who he said he befriended so he became part of their world somehow (i.e. “I have been a part of their joy, felt their fears, and heard their heartbreak”).

As an advocate of “for, by”, I must, therefore, say that this tainted the way I view this film…

WHAT IT’S ABOUT

The premise of this film is “simple” enough; though “simple” mainly because we’ve all already heard, if not seen, stories of female OFWs including in Hong Kong this way – i.e. working overseas to send money home, putting up with strict employers and getting support from fellow OFWs.

In 2019, when Hong Kong faced numerous protests because of China’s anti-freedom policies in the former British colony, we follow one OFW who – while making a living as a domestic helper in Hong Kong – has to deal with an employer who’s “sala sa init, sala sa lamig” (one whose attitude is indeterminate). Throw in the “anak-anakan” children of the employers, the Pinoy barkada, some dancing (check its title, hey…), and a lesbian lover, and you have “We Don’t Dance for Nothing”.

WHAT WORKS

There are many to like about this film, to be honest.

  1. The blend of stills and live-action footage (for the entire film) is an interesting directorial decision.
  2. Hiring predominantly non-professionals is always a plus; not only do we get this opportunity to discover fresher faces, but it actually adds this sense of “real-ness” to what’s being shot and shown.
  3. Technicalities are well-managed – e.g. for the editing (by Makamoto), admirable was the decision to turn the dancing as the (mainly) “moving” parts of the film.
  4. Placing the flick in the middle of the HK rallies created this broader context about the struggles for independence (no matter that we all seem to have different versions of the concept).

WHAT DOESN’T WORK

But then… this film is, as is always said, not perfect.

  1. Start with the co-opting. This is actually the second film that pops to mind when I think of appropriation in this year’s Cinemalaya; the other one is “Bakit Di Mo Sabihin?”, Real Florido’s film about a deaf couple struggling to keep their relationship going, and which hired non-Deaf actors.
    This is somewhat tricky for me – i.e. I believe that “anyone” can (and should) tell stories, whether they’re closely linked to the narratives, or as outsiders-looking-in. But when stories of oppressed populations are told by outsiders who may just see these narratives as ways to boost themselves (e.g. as filmmakers) and not even the minorities who are basically just turned into passive subjects, then… this ought not be supported.
  2. The blending of stills and live-action footage is not a common approach, that’s for sure; but when it’s the style used for an entire film, watching becomes… tedious.
  3. The voice-over, particularly of the main character, was (at times) flat.
  4. Much ado was given about the dancing (e.g. it’s even in the title), but why Pinoy OFWs in HK dance isn’t even explained (instead, the focus seems to be on the figurative “dancing with life”, even if we do see actual dancing in the film). This takes away from the relevance of dancing among Pinoy, as a whole, particularly for those outside the Philippines. See… any Pinoy would know this; but a non-Pinoy, like Tai, may not know or may not have been told of this. So don’t expect to see something akin to Baby Ruth Villarama’s “Sunday Beauty Queen”, similarly tackling OFWs in HK, this one dissected through beauty pageants.
  5. There were incomplete/unresolved narrative lines – e.g. Why is the main character THAT angry at the world? If it’s because the world hasn’t exactly been good to her, peaking in her working as a maid in a country where people (like her employers) aren’t exactly very accepting, I’d understand. But we don’t even see how the world hasn’t been good to her; or her bosses being THAT bad; or… you get the point. This incomplete picture sadly doesn’t allow us to fully identify with the main character.
  6. There were half-baked storylines – e.g. thanks for the representation, but… what did the lesbian story did to push the overall narrative again?
  7. The dancing – beautiful as the dances may be – was jarring at times. These dances “break” the flow of the story; and since these dances use live-action footage, they are actually the showstoppers, taking away from the story.

IN THE END

Asked about co-opting Pinoy stories, Tai gave a “safe” answer – i.e. that he hopes for more of these same stories to be told, not just by the likes of him, but by others (including Filipinos, and even OFWs themselves).

He is right, of course. The truth is, many films have already been done about OFWs (though almost always focusing on domestic helpers, emphasizing their hardships, often at the hands of foreign employers, and how they succumb to or get over these difficulties, usually with the help of Pinoy communities). From Chito S. Rono’s “Caregiver” (2008) to Rory B. Quintos’ “Anak” to Zig Dulay’s “Baggage” (2017), and so on. But we’re really only scratching the surface here; so yes, more and more telling should be done.

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But the telling ought to be done right.

And this starts with dealing with the power structures in filmmaking – e.g. allowing the oppressed to tell their own stories, not sieved through an outsider’s lens/way of seeing… (p.s. I told you the co-opting affected my way of seeing this film)…

CREDITS:
Featured dancers: Anson Bean, John Maguigad, Natalie Law, Nishien Valdejueza, Jenny Suen, Jhoshwa Ledesma, Margaret Enriquez, Russell Aranza, Dea Puentespina, Rhys Torres, Chrishna Tumbaga, Steven Lee, Annika Mo, Benedict Wan, Whampy Cordero, Eliana Mary Suarez, Janesa De Guzman, and Larissa Mui.
Producer: Paloma Choque
Executive producer: Roger Young, Mariel Mendoza
Producer Designer: Catherine Wu
Co-producer: Lukas Borovicka
Associate producers: Katrina Chen, Malah Quinay, Vanko Ng
Editor: Makamoto
Sound design: Jack Tse
Music: Bill Liang
Additional music: Justin Porteous
Director of photography: Ran Zhang
Costume design: Jhoshwa Ledesma
Choreographers: Jennifer Chiang, Lauren Beare

“We Don’t Dance for Nothing” is part of the 18th edition of Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival.

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