In conversation with Vanessa Scully on Maid in Mayfair (2017)

Vanessa Scully, Maid in Mayfair, 2017, still from video. Image (c) Vanessa Scully

Eva Bentcheva: Your recent two-part experimental video series, Maid in Mayfair (2017), deals with ‘reimagining’ the predicament of Philippine domestic workers in the UK. What was the inspiration behind these works?

Vanessa Scully: Maid in Mayfair is an artistic inquiry into the Philippine diaspora, and the exploitation of domestic workers who have, in effect, become displaced economic refugees. As an artist, my work is issue-driven and based on lived experiences. This topic is important to me as my mother left the Philippines to work in Australia in the 1980s. For various reasons, she has not returned home – not even to visit. Like her, I identify myself as being part of the Philippine diaspora and feel that I have a personal responsibility to unearth this issue in a multi-facetted way.

Bentcheva: The films are neither an exposition of the economic motivations to work abroad, nor a conventional documentary about domestic workers’ experiences and hardships. Could you talk about how the videos are structured?

 

Scully: Maid in Mayfair is a series of experimental film works which are episodic in nature. They all explore the wider theme of the Philippine diaspora, and focus on the representation of Filipinos in mass media culture. The films were originally made with the intention of being shown in an exhibition space, such as the Philippine Embassy in London. With this context in mind, the works could be shown on multiple monitors, playing on a loop as part of an expanded film installation. Thus far, I have shown them in a cinema-like setting for which I have edited them to be shown as a single screen work. The works are released as a pair, starring the same actor (Charlene Hamilton) as the protagonist, and co-exist as a cohesive series both conceptually, technically and aesthetically. The first pair are companion pieces, told from the point of view of the servant’s fantasy. In contrast, the second pair (which is currently in production) will be from the point of view of the ‘master’. For this future project, I plan on exploring the Philippine diaspora through the displacement of the Overseas Filipino Domestic Worker, Mail Order Bride and Child Sex Slave.

 

The films, although aesthetically cohesive, contradict and fluctuate between imagery appropriated from Hollywood genre films, such as romantic comedy, Disney fairytale, sci-fi, and horror. Using the language of appropriation, prayer and performance, they function as a basis for an experimental hybrid film form, which is at once aesthetically pleasing, exploratory and critical. These contradictory elements are meant, on the one hand, to be enjoyed by the audiences. On the other hand, they are also meant to invite contemplation on that enjoyment, and the issues at hand. All of the films will have a similar approach to editing and duration, and will be split into two parts – drawing upon documentary and fiction filmmaking practices, making it at once both real and fantastic. 

Vanessa Scully, Maid in Mayfair, 2017, still from video.

Image (c) Vanessa Scully

Bentcheva: In addition to borrowing elements from romantic comedies, Disney fairytales, sci-fis, and horror films, Maid in Mayfair also proposes to marry the genres of documentary and fiction in what you refer to as ‘docu-fiction’. How did your interest in merging these genres come about?

 

Scully: The question of classification is particularly relevant to Maid in Mayfair. In essence, this is an experimental film form which I have placed outside of any specific film genre by bringing together strategies from both documentary and fiction filmmaking traditions. I am interested in the idea that a work of art has the potential to have social impact. Social impact can take many forms; at best, it can contribute to social movements, build awareness and initiate changes in cultural and political attitudes. Although Maid in Mayfair does not exclusively work towards these goals, I am interested in relating this body of work to a politically charged environment around domestic workers’ rights and predicaments – both on and offline.

 

In terms of the documentary elements of the film, my friend, Father Jason Dy - a Jesuit priest and artist based in the Philippines -  dedicated a prayer to Overseas Filipino Workers, which is performed in the films as a monologue by the lead actress, Charlene Hamilton. During a residency in Liverpool in 2015-16, Father Jason met a community of Filipinos who had emigrated with their families to ‘greener pastures’. Based on their collective experiences, he developed a six-part prayer. This prayer was subsequently performed at a peaceful protest by the actress Anne Marzan, who also stars in Maid in Mayfair. Marzan led a group reading at the Arab Emirates Embassy in London, for Jennifer Dalquez - an OFW on death row who resisted rape by fatally wounding her Emirati employer. Since this incident and her imprisonment in 2014, the campaign group, ‘The Voice of Domestic Workers’, have been calling for her release. In relation to my own practice, I collaborated with artist Liam Scully in order to develop separate campaign videos for ‘The Voice of Domestic Workers’, which, I am proud to say, are currently circulating on social media channels.

 

I also like the idea that a work of art can be enjoyed as a form of entertainment, which is why I am drawn to the tradition of fiction filmmaking. Whilst studying for an undergraduate in Fine Art, l noticed that many students seeking to make careers as ‘serious artists’ perceived ‘entertainment’ as an artform which lacked credibility. In other words, ‘entertainment’ was seen as an untouchable territory, an enemy to critical thinking and a tool of propaganda, used by corporations for profit and power. The original source material for Maid in Mayfair was appropriated from the Hollywood film Maid in Manhattan (2002) starring Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes - a modern day Cinderella story, presented as a straight romantic comedy. In Maid in Manhattan, Jennifer Lopez plays the unskilled immigrant, working as a chambermaid in a five star hotel in New York’s affluent Manhattan. The film exploits serious issues centered on class and immigration, in order to present a homogenised form of romantic comedy. The primary focus is to provide entertainment in order to make money, and does not attempt to tackle the issues presented. In my opinion, it completely fails on a comedy front. Despite its shallow shortcomings, the film was a huge success at the Philippine box office. No doubt this was because the film starred Jennifer Lopez, a fellow Hispanic, and more obviously the story itself mirrored the working lives of domestic workers looking to greener pastures for a better life.

Vanessa Scully, Maid in Mayfair, 2017, still from video. Image (c) Vanessa Scully

Bentcheva: Yet, by merging documentary and fiction, Maid in Mayfair takes on a lighthearted and sometimes comical mood, all the meanwhile addressing very heavy themes and serious issues. Was this something you were consciously trying to convey? What is the intended effect of doing this?

Scully: I explicitly wanted to appropriate the lighthearted and comical mood of Maid in Manhattan within my own work, as means of critiquing Hollywood as an entertainment industry and a business. However, whereas Maid in Manhattan exploits live issues and real case scenarios to create entertainment, Maid in Mayfair exploits the fairytale aesthetic in order to highlight and discuss those very real and difficult issues which have been silenced by Hollywood in the first place. I dissected the film, reducing the story of Cinderella to three minutes. In order to disrupt the beautiful image, I used the editing device of loop and reverse, hopefully prompting the audience to think critically. Despite the transformation from maid-to-princess, the fantasy is never quite realized; the editing tools rather sever the linier narrative which we expect to see in a more ‘conventional’ film, if in a subtle way. 

Bentcheva: In other words, disruption plays a key role in these works. 

Scully: For me, disruption is not only a formal device, it is also a metaphor for the various forms of social impact which, I hope, this work can relate to. These artistic interventions disrupt the escapist proposition from maid-to-princess, by means of highlighting the unjust system which keeps domestic workers paralysed in a dire situation, time and time again. I believe the distribution of these types of films and television programmes has a role to play in that. At the end of my work, I present a quote taken from an article on the current Philippine regime’s rhetoric around ‘ending’ the exploitation of domestic workers abroad. It states, “President Rodrigo Duterte, the 16th President of the of the Philippines, has promised to repatriate Overseas Filipino Domestic workers with their homeland. After four decades of separation, Duterte claims ‘this will be the last generation to work abroad’. The Filipino workers believe Duterte is their ‘last hope’.” By inserting this quote, I disrupt the fantasy, and drill home a message that the present discourse around ending the exploitation of domestic workers has a long way to go.

Bentcheva: Returning to the representation of domestic help in popular cinema, if part of the problem is that Hollywood homogenises the experience of migrant domestic workers, in what ways does your work address differences? After all, Maid in Manhattan deals with Latino domestic help in the USA, whereas Maid in Mayfair centres on the Filipino experience in Britain. Is there perhaps another way in which your work seeks to explore Hollywood and American popular culture’s influence, more broadly, on the Philippines? 

Vanessa Scully, Maid in Mayfair, 2017, still from video.

Image (c) Vanessa Scully

Scully: I am interested in the relationship the Philippines has with America, particularly in relation to its cultural identity. When I first started researching the Philippine diaspora four years ago, I asked myself why did Maid in Manhattan do so well at the Filipino box office, despite the critics’ scathing reviews. I concluded that there may be something in the story which is particularly appealing for cinema-goers in the Philippines. Perhaps it is the fact that many relate to 'J-Lo’s' Cinderella story, her search for a better life in the West and the racial and economic battles she faces along the way. Perhaps they look up to her, want to be her and thus embrace her story as their own? Within this tale of success, Jennifer Lopez is a poster girl for the USA, living proof that the American Dream is within reach. Yet, for me, Maid in Manhattan is deeply problematic: it anaesthetizes the true reality and representation of domestic workers’ lives. By casting Jenifer Lopez as a modern-day Cinderella, an immigrant who has actually experienced the ‘rags to riches’ transformation, the film adds a layer of reality to this rom-com fiction which perpetuates the mantra of ‘happily ever after’. Yet, if you take even a quick online and search topical hashtags on social media platforms such as #endexploitation and #moderndayslavery, it becomes immediately evident that these very real issues are presented through a multitude of voices, going far beyond the single Cinderella resolution. For instance, Alex Tizon’s non-fiction story 'My Family’s Slave' (2017) which was published in The Atlantic last year is testament to this. In my opinion, we need to challenge how Hollywood masks over these very real issues related to modern day slavery. Perhaps one way of doing this is by presenting a fictional agency to the oppressed.

 

It is interesting to see how American fantasies feed into the cultural psyche of the Filipino nation. Equally, another effect of the Cinderella resolution is also mirrored in racial stereotypes, where Asian women based in the West are branded as gold diggers, looking to exploit western men for their money and visas. As a first-generation Australian having migrated to the UK as an adult, I too have experienced these accusations. Disguised as banter, these jokes are a form of casual racism. I wonder where this comes from and if this perception will ever be changed. An American, intersectional feminist movement I relate to is: #notyourasiansidekick, which calls to stop the dehumanisation, demonization, stereotyping and hate against Asian American women. They state: ‘We need feminism, because we are not your Mail Order Brides, the cure to your yellow fever, your fantasy sex toys, or your subservient housewives. We are strong, independent and capable Asian American Women’. It is not until Asian women are able to fulfill their dreams, beyond providing for their families, will this public perception shift.

 

Bentcheva: There seem to be many aspirations in this work – the hope of better working and living conditions, a revision of stereotypes, and, lest we forget, a celebration of agency and fantasy. You often refer to your own background in relation to these themes. Is Maid in Mayfair, perhaps, also a personal aspiration within a larger utopic vision?     

 

Scully: Maid in Mayfair is also a reflection of my experience as the daughter of a Filipino domestic worker. My interest in popular media, representation and fantasy certainly have an important place in my own background. I grew up with the presence of the English royal family on the media. My mum would even joke that it was my destiny to marry Prince William - more affectionately known to us just as 'Wills' - since he and I were born in the same year. In a way, the very title of my work, Maid in Mayfair, also pokes fun at my hopes and dreams of working in London as an artist, where an abundance of opportunities and adventures are presented daily. More importantly, thinking beyond the classification of the film as a hybrid ‘docu-fiction’, I aspire for the work to have historical meaning and represent a political moment in time. As I mentioned, amidst calls by the current Philippine government to end migration abroad by improving conditions within the Philippines, Maid in Mayfair is an homage to the brave women who leave their home country for work and a better future for their families. On a personal note, this moment in time is about reclaiming my mixed-race heritage and not whitewashing my Philippine identity. 

London, February 2018

Interviewer: Eva Bentcheva

Vanessa Scully is a Philippine-Australian artist based in London. She is currently pursuing an MA in experimental film. Her works explore the themes of identity and exploitation, particularly in relation to the Philippine diaspora. She is the recipient of an Arts Council of England grant to develop this series of short experimental films on the topic of Philippine domestic help in the UK. These films traverse the genres of documentary and fiction, in what Vanessa terms ‘docu-fiction’.

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