When a Film Gets Things All Right, But Is Still Wrong

·4 min read

Sometimes having good intentions and eye-witness testimony is not enough to make a topical, issues-driven movie connect with its anticipated audience.

The movie “Dea,” recently boarded by Hong Kong sales company Good Move Media, is a case in point. It probes the put-upon lives of foreign domestic helpers, who number several hundred thousand in Hong Kong, but are politically invisible.

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These female helpers, mostly hailing from Indonesia or The Philippines, enable Hong Kong’s middle classes to function as double income families and facilitate the territory’s hard-charging, long-hours work culture. And yet foreign domestic helpers endure often demeaning living standards, sleeping in their employer’s smallest rooms, precarious employment conditions and widespread ridicule for their colorful group activities in public places on their Sunday rest days.

The film was written by a workshop of such women in Hong Kong and neighboring Macau, who had experienced sexual violence in the course of their work. And, for the sake of legal distance and storytelling fluency, “Dea” was made, not as a documentary, but as a fiction film that dramatizes real events.

Dea Panendra, an established Indonesia actress who previously starred in Cannes Directors’ Fortnight title “Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts” and in Joko Anwar’s “Gundala,” stars as the titular protagonist. Bruno Zanin, known for Federico Fellini’s 1973 “Amarcord,” makes a return to film for the first time in a decade as the antagonist.

“Dea” had its world premiere at the Slamdance Festival in February. So far, so good.

But, despite dealing with hot-button issues, the film is being held back by its own socio-political baggage.

Not least of these is that this Asian-focused, female-centric narrative was directed by a white man, Alberto Gerosa. He is a long-time Hong Kong resident, a facilitator at the women’s workshop and runs a low-key cinema space and film archive in Sham Shui Po district.

“In these days of identity politics, Alberto feels he’s become the sore thumb,” said Pearl Chan, who heads Good Move. “But that overlooks the fact that this is the only film I know of where foreign domestic workers play an active role in telling their own experience. And it’s one of the best independent Hong Kong films in a long time.

“It’s got to the point that he’s considering removing himself from the director credit and naming the women instead,” Chan said. She says that Gerosa is willing to make that sacrifice because he’s not a career filmmaker and has little to lose.

Legally speaking, Good Move is consulting for the filmmakers, rather than under contract as sales agent. That’s because the film received support from Swiss Non-profit Thinkyoung and La Fondation Jean Rouch, rather than a conventional industry financier.

“What we can do is get it into festivals which are willing to discuss these issues. This week, we secured a deal with MATTA Cinema, run by filmmakers Ismail Basbeth and Cornelio Sunny, to distribute the film in Indonesia and facilitate its campaign for (Indonesia’s top film prizes) Citra Awards,” Chan said.

The nationality is another potential source of friction. “There is resistance to recognizing it as a Hong Kong film, though it was all written and shot in Hong Kong, with the exception of the beginning scenes in Indonesia. One publication told us outright that it’s not a Hong Kong film, even though domestic workers power this city. And in Indonesia it is getting interest, but (Gerosa’s) not an Indonesian either.”

Good Move’s own credibility may help counter the blowback. It is a boutique operation, but it has been gaining momentum as a discoverer of new talent and purveyor of acclaimed and unexpected titles.

The company is currently selling rights to wildly acclaimed “Me and the Cult Leader,” which has been doing a tour of the world’s top documentary festivals, and is getting strong interest for “Barbarian Invasion,” by Tan Chui Mui, which picked up the second prize at last month’s Shanghai International Film Festival.

Another movie on its slate, “Money Has Four Legs” is also gaining traction for unfortunate reasons. Its director, Ma Aeint, was arrested and detained by the military regime in her native Myanmar.

“This year has been full of frustrations, but when I look back I’m really excited by our lineup,” said Chan.

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