Ilo Ilo domestic worker to return for Singapore premiereBy Rob O'Brien Aug 15, 2013 10:27AM UTC
Auntie Terry, the Filipina domestic worker who inspired the award-winning Singapore film, Ilo Ilo, will return to the city-state for its home premiere next month.
The story about a Singaporean family and their domestic worker, called Teresita “Auntie Terry” Sajonia, has captured the hearts of audiences and film critics around the world. The film, directed by Anthony Chen and based on his own childhood experiences, won the coveted Camera d’Or award at the 66th Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, the first Singaporean film to win such an award.
Set during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, the film portrays the relationship between a family and their new domestic worker, Terry, focusing in particular on one of the young three boys she cares for.
The inspiration was drawn from the sadness Chen recalled at saying goodbye to Terry at Changi Airport, when she left his family 16 years ago to return to Ilo Ilo in the Philippines.
Discussing how the film came about, Chen told an audience at an event held by the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute this week, that he was driven by that single childhood memory.
“In Singapore you end up chasing grades, your childhood gets left behind,” he said. “This was a personal film… that came from one emotion.”
Chen was recently contacted by a man in the Philippines, where the film has now reached cult status, who offered to help find Terry. The family lost contact with her after she left Singapore, but she was located largely thanks to Chen’s mother managing to recall her date of birth.
The reunion didn’t follow the Hollywood script. Chen, who visited Terry with his brothers, said that the young, vibrant, city girl who wore bright red trousers and loved music now lived in abject poverty in a tiny hut in rural Ilo Ilo.
Her hut was surrounded by the better-serviced properties of the family she helped support as a domestic worker. More details of her life of poverty were revealed on the film’s Facebook page.
“She tells us she is in poor health, and she’s not sure what she can do in the city. She planned to be a nurse-midwife before she went to Singapore, but she did not end up taking the exam. Even after she returned home, she could not fulfill her dream as the nephews whose studies she sponsored offered her no financial help,” the post reads.
“Living in poverty, she has not seen a doctor in 16 years, and turned to traditional herbal treatments whenever she fell sick.”
On his trip, Chen took Terry shopping to buy a new dress – the one she was wearing had been given to her by his mother 16 years ago. He also bought her a new pair of glasses. When they asked Terry what more they could do to help, she asked only for a pig.
The experience left the film director “with more questions”: ‘Where did all the money go that she saved?’ ‘Where was the smile of the young woman who helped raise him and his brothers for 8 years of their formative lives?’
The interest in the Philippines in Ilo Ilo and its inspirational lead (played by Filippina actress Angeli Bayani) has drawn huge national interest – newspapers, magazines and television producers are all keen to hear what became of Terry.
Next month, a national Philippines airline has offered to fly Terry back for the Singapore premiere of the film she helped inspire. It will be the first time she has stepped foot in a foreign country since she left Singapore; Ilo Ilo will be the first movie she has seen in a cinema.
She’ll also be reunited with her former employer, a prospect which Chen says has been particularly emotional for his mother.
While Ilo Ilo is shining a light not just on the hardship of working in servitude, but the positive – and largely ignored – side of the jobs that domestic workers do, Chen says it isn’t a judgement on the people that chose to employ them.
“No one in this film is being judged,” he says. “The parents, the helper, the kid… I’m not interested in judging them. All of humanity is flawed.”