Cinemalaya 2013 Review: Hannah Espia's TRANSIT, An Arresting, Moving Portrait Of The Filipino Diaspora In Israel
Joshua (Marc Justine Alvarez), who has lived all his life in Israel, is a few months shy of his fifth birthday. Moises (Ping Medina), Joshua's father, aware of the risk of his son being deported if caught, keeps Joshua indoors. Janet (Irma Adlawan), Moises' sister, takes care of Joshua while Moises is out to work as a caretaker for a wealthy retiree. She also has to manage Yael (Jasmine Curtis-Smith), her teenage daughter from an Israeli former flame, who now has to grapple with being neither Filipino nor Israeli. Tina (Mercedes Cabral), freshly plucked from the Philippines and assisted by Janet to her new life as an overseas worker, witnesses a family in fear of being suddenly uprooted from a foreign land that they have decided to call their home.
Transit is a marvel of restraint and control. Embellished sparingly with visuals that are never too extravagant, too opulent to distract, the film is painted with delicate colors, which complements the fragile situations the characters move in.
Opening with an image of Joshua in an airport, his small frame backdropped against giants in the form of airplanes landing from and departing to all corners of the globe, the film seems to mediate expectations, revealing the modesty of its story against a world of bigger problems. In truth, the story that Espia explores is one that seems too removed, too remote to be of moment. However, what Espia manages to do is tremendous. By dissecting the issues arising from a very specific troubled group, she navigates the blurring of cultural and national identities of individuals who are caught in a trap between two countries.
The word diaspora was first used in the Bible to refer to the exile of Jews from their homeland by invading conquerors. Espia's choice to tackle the Filipino diaspora in the land that first experienced it renders some poetic effect, enunciating not the irony of the situation but the repetitions that seem to be the fate of all merging cultures. Transit is told from the various perspectives of its many characters, often repeating certain scenes to reveal facets that can only be depicted if seen through the eyes of the various participants. More than just a display of creative storytelling, the technique that Espia utilizes enunciates the necessity of understanding the contrasting motivations and interests, amplifying the emotional investment that pays off in the film's subtle but moving conclusion.
The differences between the Filipinos and the country they adopt as their own but barely tolerates them are tremendous. Espia covers the extent of the difference, by chronicling a Philippines that seems to dissipate even more every year. Her scope is immense but she laudably concentrates on very palpable and very specific frustrations, heartaches, and triumphs, emotions that are shared by all of humanity.
Tina carries her homeland inside a worn luggage. She offers trinkets from home, packets of sour soup to remind her hosts of the Philippines they have not visited in decades. Janet and Moises speak both Filipino and Hebrew. They insist on their being Filipinos, forcing that dated idea of nationality to their children. Their children, however, reject the idea with reason. They do not speak Filipino, and have never been to the Philippines. Their only linkage to their parents' homeland consists of bedtime stories repeatedly told to soothe their curiosity.
Espia paints a scenario where the characters are all confused, all tired from futilely maintaining illusions from a faraway motherland or struggling between two clashing alliances. Transit is a document of fractured identities, an essay that declares the very familiar concepts of citizenship and nationality as shallow facades that are maintained by laws and enforced by borders.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)