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Transit: Transnational Filipinos In Exile

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By Mike Rapatan

Hannah Espia’s Transit is a complex film with a minimalist style that masks its multi-faceted subject. It is intimate in its characterization yet it is global in its reach. It is refreshingly laconic yet it is eloquent in its discourse on the Filipino diasporic experience. It is understated yet it is forceful in its critique of State programs to rein in the growth of migrant families.

The family on trial seeking remedy for its distress involves Joshua (Marc Justine Alvarez), four-year old son of Moises (Ping Medina), a caregiver recently estranged from his wife Susan (Toni Gonzaga) who has married an Israeli. Being a year short of the age specified by Israeli immigration law, Joshua as the son of a migrant worker fails to meet stringent residency requirements and thus faces deportation. Aware of this threat, Moises hides Joshua from the authorities with the help of his sister Janet (Irma Adlawan) and her daughter Yael (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) and other friends and neighbors. In spite of his hawklike watch over Joshua, Moises’ efforts prove to be futile as Joshua’s status is uncovered by the police when Joshua tries to save and revive Eliav (Yatzuck Azuz), Moises’ elderly ward.

At the station, Moises desperately convinces the police to grant Joshua some form of reprieve. Being Moises’ son, the immigration authorities consider Joshua a Filipino. But in a poignant rebuttal to the authorities’ harsh verdict, Joshua starts to recite a passage he learned from Eliav taken from the Book of Leviticus thereby demonstrating to everyone at the precinct that he is in spirit a true Israeli.

This scene could have been milked for its melodramatic power considering that the spotlight is on a child fighting to preserve his paternal ties. But Espia resists the facile route of emotional oversimplification and sentimental reductionism, a cliché resolution technique evident in past films on the transnational Filipino such as Rory Quintos’ Anak and Joel C. Lamangan’s Migrante. Instead, Espia controls Moises’ panic and anger upon being rejected by the police and stages Joshua’s fluent recitation in a stark and spare way. Of particular significance in this mise-en-scene is a series of shots of people of different nationalities staring at Joshua as he recites the passage. The shots of these foreigners detained in a State office visually underscores the irony of Israel long esteemed as a haven for the reunion of the dispersed now acting as the advocate of family break-ups. Moreover, the passive posture of people of different races crowding in a police station and the close-ups of their stoic reactions mirror first, the State’s project of erasing cultural differences and homogenizing alien identities and second, the dissipation of agency in diasporic families as they struggle to hurdle and disentangle the contradictions encountered in the migrant space they find themselves in.

On one level, Joshua’s declamation may be seen as a stirring plea to repeal an inhumane law that separates children from their parents. However, for Espia, the same scene embodies another layer of meaning. In an earlier scene, Joshua in playful banter with Moises asks him how he could be Jewish. The question startles Moises who proceeds to remind him that he is Filipino. But Joshua avers that he will never be Filipino because he does not speak Tagalog nor likes adobo. Then, in a succeeding scene, Joshua excitedly learns from Eliav the Leviticus passage about the Sabbath while wearing a kippa. Joshua’s public recitation of the scriptural lines at the precinct reminiscent of a Jewish boy’s reading of an excerpt from the Torah at a bar mitzvah suggests the invisibility of his Filipino homeland. Joshua’s delivery is emblematic of the self-imposed displacement of the Filipino identity, a performance of cultural effacement and severance from national bloodlines and origins. Espia’s intertwining of empathy for Joshua’s case and distancing from Joshua as he conceals his lineage in this scene thus perceptively encapsulates the conflicting condition of the transnational Filipino.

At the film’s end, while waiting for a connecting flight to the Philippines at Bangkok’s cavernous Suvarnabhumi International Airport, Joshua searches his pockets and his bag for a vial of sand he took from a Tel Aviv beach. Unable to locate it, he rushes to a viewing deck and stares at the planes parked on the tarmac. Moises asks why he ran and Joshua wonders out loud if his memories of Israel will fade now that the souvenir vial is missing. He is scared to forget Israel. Joshua’s fear echoes a similar impression expressed by other hyphenated children of migrant workers who find the rhetoric of homeland empty and meaningless. For example, the restive adolescent Yael (convincingly and unobtrusively played by Curtis-Smith) interrogates the repressive and punitive nationalistic assertions of her mother and reaffirms in frequent arguments with Janet her established identity as an Israeli. While an older generation of overseas Filipino workers regard their stay abroad as transitory, an economic strategy for material gain prior to a comfortable retirement in the Philippines, the younger generation of children like Yael deem their residency as a permanent departure. In their minds, they are exiles who have no trace of nostalgia or affection for the home country. In one scene, Yael declares to her circle of fellow Filipino-Israeli youth that “I don’t think the Philippines is our home”. But while they uphold the benefits of the new land, they also run into varied social and political barriers in their quest to fully actualize the promises of their new citizenship. Being Filipino in flesh yet foreign in language and psyche, these children lead splintered lives or fade into anonymity and obscurity or as the closing titles convey, hide.

In the hands of another director, the legal issues of Joshua’s case could have been fuel for some bombastic propaganda on human rights and family unity. But under Espia’s probing and insightful handling (in triple roles as director, screenwriter and editor), the intricacies and ironies of Joshua’s predicament are subtly unraveled. The weighty analysis stands in the background and never upstages the natural and restrained performances of the well-cast ensemble led by the intense Irma Adlawan and passionate Ping Medina. Through a seamlessly edited three-episode structure creatively maximizing the limited shots taken in Israel, Espia distills the essence of Janet, Yael and Joshua’s personal perspectives and at the same time reveals the vital intersecting points of their relationships. Hence, her incisive direction privileges a humanist voice rich with understanding and palpable compassion for her characters over exhausted narrative devices that treat characters as pegs, mouthpieces and symbols of ideological constructs.