By Ariel Neidermeier
Transit is a 2013 Filipino independent drama film written and directed by Hannah Espia. Winner of the top film prize in the New Breed section at Cinemalaya, Transit was the Philippines’ foreign-language submission to the 86th Academy Awards. Transit is currently showing at the 2014 Asian American International Film Festival (AAIFF), a premier showcase for the best in independent Asian and Asian American cinema.
Transit follows the struggles of Filipino migrant workers in Israel as they face the possible deportation of their children. It’s a remarkable directorial debut for Filipina writer, editor and director, Hannah Espia.
The film is set in 2009 just after the Israeli government passed a law allowing the deportation of migrant workers’ children, leaving an estimated 1,200 children facing deportation. Many of these children were older, having been born and raised in Israel, and speaking Hebrew as their native tongue. Many of them had never even been to the countries the Israeli government wanted to deport them to.
This is the predicament faced by the children portrayed in Transit. Teenager Yael (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) is half-Filipino and half-Israeli. Her Israeli father is mentioned but never seen. She has lived her whole life in Tel Aviv and speaks only Hebrew. The film follows her tumultuous relationship with her mother Janet (Irma Adlawan), a housecleaner and single mother. Janet has lived in Israel for many years but criticizes her daughter for not knowing how to speak Tagalog and for identifying more with her Israeli, rather than Filipino, roots.
Janet’s neighbor and close friend Moises (Ping Medina) is also an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) who works as a caregiver and is a single father to four-year-old Joshua (Marc Justine Alvarez). Joshua, like Yael, was born and raised in Tel Aviv. The film follows him as he develops ties to his home in Israel; visiting the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and learning the Torah.
After the law is passed, Janet and Moises make Yael and Joshua stay indoors to protect them from immigration police and the possible risk of deportation. Despite their efforts, Joshua is found by an immigration officer and taken into custody. In one of the most poignant moments of the film he stands in the waiting room of an immigration police station and chants the lines of the Torah he has just learned. The scene not only tugs at the heartstrings but spurs questions of national identity and citizenship. If this little boy is not Israeli enough to stay in Israel, then who is?
Rather than focusing on the politics of the immigration situation in Israel, Espia chooses to focus on the human aspect of the issue. Also forgoing a linear storyline, Espia features the specific perspectives of each character. In essence, the viewer watches the same period of time five times but through the lens of different characters. It earnestly captures the plight of each player in the immigration drama, from the children struggling to align their multicultural identities to the parents who fear separation from their children. The film is thought-provoking and showcases noteworthy performances from Filipino heavyweights Adlawan and Medina and talented newcomers, Smith and Alvarez. Even more remarkable is the fact that the movie was filmed in two weeks with a 10-man crew, which just goes to show that Hannah Espia is a young talent to watch.