The need for roots, writes philosopher Simone Weil, underlies the most vital and essential of necessities which constitute "the needs of the soul." Few people take this perspective more to heart than the Filipino diaspora, several millions strong, trapped in transit, scattered around the world in uncertain provisional chronotopes. As dramatized by Hannah Espia’s feature debut, Transit, the striving wish to reterritorialize in their place of exile is of uncertain liminality.
Filipino expatriates and their families are precariously subject to the ever-shifting domestic configurations of their adopted countries. In Israel, after the passage of an immigration law in 2009 that aimed to curtail the rights of children born out of foreign workers (primarily those under five years old), there is a sense that they are deemed "hyphenated" and forced back to their supposedly foreign country of origin. In Transit, its Filipino-Israeli subjects must learn to live and hide -- like the film's elapsed migrants -- in the inconspicuous margins of the country they have grown – and grown up -- to call home.
Espia’s deeply affecting first film dramatizes the lives of these Filipinos and part-Filipinos who are in the process of once again being displaced, deterritorialized and broken apart. Set in Tel Aviv, the film is framed as five perspectives of five primary characters: Moises, a caregiver to a sympathetic old man, and his son named Joshua, not yet 5 years old and subject to the new immigration law; Janet, a domestic helper who must contend with her teenage daughter Yael, who is undergoing adolescence and a crisis of identity that favors her Israeli upbringing; and their niece, Tina, who must go into hiding after her visa has expired. Their stories all imbricate, and thus amplify, the bigger picture of a sense of home and identity under threat of forfeiture.
In Transit, the fate of 4-year-old Joshua bookends this film, his impending repatriation means a harsh fate, a destiny of displacement that might be beyond his comprehension, one which will take the deportee to an irregular future of familial separation, an unfamiliar country he will be forced to inhabit and adapt to. Repatriation seems even a misnomer -- Joshua's young worldview is instinctively Hebrew, adopting few Filipino attributes, tendencies and loyalties -- the place of one's birth and childhood is most certainly the place of one’s home and culture, familiarities and customs.
Rootlessness characterizes the fate of Joshua's kind. An absence of freedom -- an instinctive agoraphobia -- in Joshua's known birthplace, is a strong undercurrent within the film. Nurturing spaces across Tel Aviv and the rest of Israel are not meant for children of immigrants anymore – playgrounds have turned desolate and barren. Children subject to the new immigrant legislation must learn to keep indoors, out of sight, and fear the approach of law enforcers. The first things they learn to do is to lie about their identities, to even wear disguises and hide. They must learn to become “invisible.” Such is Transit's indirect indictment of a homeland that cannot provide and sustain, so that it is preferable to hide, fugitive-like, in another country.
If Espia focuses on the Filipino immigrant and his uncertain transit, his efforts at reterritorialization in their adopted country, which they have served with earnest labor and loyalty, face a complicated reality: none of the children here, for one, seem to identify with their parents' ethnicity. What the film calls into question, in the main, is the severity of the new immigration law – protestations against which are made by Moises and Janet and the presence of Israeli advocacy groups seeking the law’s repeal -- which seems blind to its harsh repercussions of dispersing and fracturing families.
As an exilic and diasporic film, Transit is a deceptive example that does not show the usual artisanal aesthetics, but it certainly qualifies as what Hamid Naficy calls "accented cinema" -- not the least for its multi-linguality (not unlike those true-to-life characters they portray, even the cast literally acculturate by learning Hebrew and internalizing "a double consciousness") -- that foregrounds the spirit of uncertainty and liminality at the mercy of countries of migrancy.
While the film depicts the common Israeli as a compassionate human who takes in the Filipino, the law proves to be another matter: a merciless institution to be feared and, helplessly, to reckon with. Espia, however, does not demonize Israeli immigration with draconian cruelty, but they are no less strict, uncompromising enforcers of their domestic and immigration policies. Against this background of unsparing enforcement of laws, Espia weaves human stories of silent dignity and struggle, doing so with mature dexterity and emotions, although momentary, impressionistic narrative gaps in one or two episodes appear (e.g. the episode involving Tina seems muddled and elliptical), seemingly glossed over, presumably owing to logistical constraints. But maybe it's just as well, Transit is better off understated than bogged down in sentimental overload.
Never, it must be said, has a Filipino production on foreign soil demonstrated such a mature and elegant assurance -- never with such controlled drama, with such a familiarity of time and place, with such a marshaling of resources, with such scope and detail, with such texture and tone -- that easily outpaces preconceptions of what the world has come to dismiss as the conventional Filipino film. Espia is a director to watch out for and Transit stands head and shoulders above the field at Cinemalaya 2013.