Film Review: Help Is On The Way (2020)

Muji and Ana

Every year, I usually spend some time visiting Malaysia. Most of the time, I prefer to check into a hotel in the Chow Kit area of Kuala Lumpur, a place I later learnt is populated with migrants from Aceh Province, Indonesia. Another interesting encounter I had arose from my trip Brunei Darussalam in 2018, where, at the hostel, I met a woman from Central Java who had been working as a cook at the hostel for several years.

These two experiences made me interested in exploring the idea of migration in Asia. Population migration is not only a problem in Europe, it has also begun to cause issues in Asia. Since 2014, I have started watching documentaries which revolve around human migration in Asia.

Of those I have watched, Help Is On The Way (2020) appears to be more dramatic in describing the ideas and motivations behind human migration. Specifically, it explores the case of an Indonesian worker who migrated to Taiwan. This documentary, directed by Ismail Fahmi Lubis and produced by Nick Calpakdjian & Mark Olsen, was awarded Best Documentary at the 2019 Indonesian Film Festival (FFI). Previously, another film directed by Ismail, Tarling is Darling (2017), was also nominated at FFI.

Sukma and Meri

The film opens with the activities of prospective nannies who conducted their training at the Foreign Workers Training Agency’s (Badan Latihan Tenaga Kerja-Luar Negeri, BLK-LN) training centre in Indramayu, West Java. The director successfully manages to surface the complicated inner turmoil of the nannies. The film does not intentionally invite the audience to be sad or compassionate to the subjects in the film. Rather, by using an observer approach, this documentary takes on the perspective of its audience. Ismail manages to erase the gap between the audience and the diegetic and highly constructed reality. Alongside Denok & Gareng (2012) and Nyanyian Akar Rumput (2018), this documentary marks significant improvement in the production of documentaries in Indonesia.

The director of Help Is On The Way, Ismail, choose two settings for his storytelling: West Java, Indonesia and Taipei, Taiwan. The director’s way of conveying work life in Taiwan, told through the characters Muji and Tari, implies the future of the characters Meri and Sukma, who are presently in the Foreign Workers Training Agency (BLK-LN) in Indramayu, West Java. By strategically arranging parts of the story, this film avoids giving itself away from the beginning, which is a common mistake amongst documentary filmmakers. Help Is On The Way is also able to touch on other crucial issues, such as migration, social class, gender and labour rights. Ismail clearly delivers his stance about Indonesia’s women labour (commonly called TKW or Female Workers) through Meri, Sukma, Muji, and Tari.

Indramayu, West Java

Another critical aspect of Help Is On The Way is the discussion about the rich-poor gap in Indonesia through middle-class women. It discusses how, in Indonesia, the rich tend to get richer. Meanwhile, the rural poor have to find ways to double their income to pay off their debts or to increase their standard of living. By working abroad, these women hope for a better life as they will be able to earn a higher income. Thus, they are willing to take on unimaginable jobs. This prompted me to question the role of men in their family: Why does it have to be women who work abroad? However, Help Is On The Way does not give an answer to such a question or any other questions that arise after watching the film, making this film very interactive as it triggers an opportunity for its audiences to have a conversation.

Help Is On The Way will be screening at the Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival (TIDF) this coming May in the Asian Vision Competition section. But due to the latest development of COVID-19 pandemic, they regret and announce that the 12th TIDF due to take place on May 1-10, 2020, will be postponed to Spring 2021. It will be broadcast on PTS Taiwan in May 2020 as well as Go Play Indonesia. Hopefully, Meri, Sukma, Muji, Tari and other Indonesian workers in Taiwan will be able to watch this excellent piece of work.

Reviewed by Akbar Rafsanjani 

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