“Transit” – 2014 Asian American International Film Festival Review

“Transit,” the beautifully affecting and gracefully directed debut feature by Hannah Espia, proves to be perfectly titled. All of the film’s characters exist in a socially and governmentally enforced existential limbo, a perpetual in-between-ness where they are caught in the Scylla and Charybdis of opposing homelands and cultures. They must be in constant motion, either working or evading immigration authorities, since most of them are of questionable status or residing outside of the law.

Espia and co-screenwriter Giancarlo Abrahan have crafted an emotionally moving and cleverly constructed narrative that renders the issues it explores in deeply human terms, without resorting to speechifying, strident agit-prop or overwrought melodrama. “Transit” sensitively deals with the plight of Filipino migrant workers in Israel – of which there are currently some 40,000 – who are part of the diasporic communities scattered across the globe known as OFWs, or overseas Filipino workers. The film adopts a Rashomon-like structure to its storytelling, divided into several eponymously-named sections depicting the POVs of each of the main characters. Key scenes are repeated throughout with subtle but important variations from slightly different perspectives.  As the film progresses, the connections between these characters are more fully mapped out, deepening our understanding of their struggles, joys, pains and conflicts.

Each person, in turn, takes his or her place at the center of the story. First, we meet Janet (Irma Adlawan), a house cleaner and single mom who’s lived in Israel for many years, and who had a daughter by an Israeli man who is no longer in the picture. However, her life in Israel is threatened by the fact that she now resides in the country with an expired visa. Janet’s younger brother Moises (Ping Medina) is also a single parent with a four-year-old son, who works as a live-in caregiver for Eliav (Yaztuck Azuz), a wheelchair-bound Israeli man. Because of new, rather harsh immigration regulations that stipulate that children under four years of age born of migrant workers will be deported, Moises decides to hide his son indoors until he turns five, when presumably he will be out of danger of the authorities.

Into this situation arrives Tina (Mercedes Cabral), a friend of Janet who’s traveled from the Philippines to earn money for her family back home, but soon runs into many difficulties. Janet’s teenage daughter Yael (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) causes her mother no end of grief because of her refusal to identify with her Filipino heritage, her lack of ability to speak Tagalog, and her insistence that she is an Israeli. Especially angering her mother is her relationship with Omri (Omer Juran), an Israeli boy, most likely because this brings up bad memories of Janet’s failed relationship with Yael’s now absent father. Lastly, we see these events through the eyes of Moises’ son Joshua (Marc Justine Alvarez), who at a very young age must learn to hide, lie and evade the bad cops on the street, who seek to take him away. He is still able to play and have fun like any other kid, but the fear and uncertainty that surrounds him casts a dark shadow.

Espia combines an emotionally wrenching situation with a formal rigor and elegance in visuals – there are some great images of Israel provided by cinematographers Berhil Cruz and Lyle Nemenzo Sacris – that belies its very fast shoot of just 13 days. Espia’s cast is also in fine form, especially the central performances by veteran actress Adlawan and Medina, who wonderfully convey their internal conflicts at fighting to stay in a country that seems to barely tolerate them and looks to find the slightest excuse to expel them.

The film’s technique of recurring temporality brings a freshness to tropes that may otherwise seem over-familiar, especially since the experiences of OFWs is a subject that is well trammeled in many films, both Filipino productions and otherwise – one recent example being Singaporean director Anthony Chen’s fine film “Ilo Ilo.” Espia weaves the stories of her numerous characters with much success; the only flaw is that a couple of them get short shrift, especially Tina’s story, which doesn’t quite get the full development it deserves. However, this is a minor quibble for such an accomplished film, especially one from a young director making her debut. The accolades and honors Espia has already received, including a top prize from the Cinemalaya Film Festival – the Philippines’ most prestigious indie film festival – and its selection as the country’s entry for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, prove to be more than well deserved.

“Transit” is the centerpiece presentation of this year’s Asian International Film Festival (AAIFF). It screens on July 27, 7:30 p.m., at City Cinema Village East in New York. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit AAIFF’s website.