The film looking at women migrant workers follows the thread of Dolma, sentenced to death for killing a Filipino co-domestic in Kuwait, presenting the multiple responses to this event, the upheaval and fractures of the family, the women’s advocacy group, Nepali society and officialdom.
It presents a rare glimpse of the women’s situation in the Gulf States extremely sensitive to outside scrutiny of their treatment of foreign workers. It exposes the fundamentally vulnerable condition of ill-educated and ill-prepared women from a poor country making this enormous journey.
The film shows a glimpse of gritty migrant conditions, rarely permitted to be filmed by the Gulf states, with its well-known sensitivity to outside criticism of its labour policies and practices.
The stories of disillusionment and, occasional, transformation, capture the essence of the Nepali migrant experience, and the enormity of his journey.
on the trilogy of In Search of the Riyal, The Desert Eats Us and Saving Dolma
I made In Search of the Riyal, which showed Nepali would-be migrants, what were their social and family conditions, a range of migrant stories in Qatar itself, and then an older migrant who typified the returnee. My second film Saving Dolma, is about women who work as domestic workers in the Gulf, through the story of a woman who was jailed and sentenced to death in Kuwait for killing a Filipino co-domestic worker. It shows the impact and disorder in the migrants’ existence, their vulnerability to family upheaval and fractures, which is their bane.
When discussing migrants, the overarching question that invariably pops up is the moral one, which might be formulated as this: While the contribution of migrant workers to Nepal’s economy is sizeable, way surpassing all other sectors, is the experience of migrant workers in the Gulf essentially good and positive or a losing proposition and negative?
Filmically, the answer intrinsically dependent on the material and how it is put together to make the film. Thus, in the case of the first film, the answer is mixed, because we see the difficulties that propel the would-be migrants to go abroad for a livelihood; and in Qatar we catch up with two characters who we knew before leaving for the Gulf; one’s experience is almost wholly positive, touchingly so, for it shows the comraderie and bond that Nepali workers thrown together in one place develop, to the extent that they hate to leave; the other’s is mixed, beginning with the negative as he was initially in danger of not being paid, it turns out not wonderful but alright and fulfilling the objective of his going. At the end, the verdict is clear: while 30% of workers have a negative experience that taints the while, it is still 70% that do alright. The film ends with the returnee, who badly wants to stay home for the sake of his family but is forced to go, until he gets a job that lets him stay; but the job is helping to send others out to the Gulf, so that his personal triumph doesn’t extend to others; ie: going is a necessity.
In the women’s film, there is no single message that can be extracted easily, though we see that the women migrant’s situation is fundamentally one of vulnerability in general; from the case of Dolma, we have a real sense of deeper despair, at the family unraveling, upheaval, and fractures that come with the territory of migration as a fundamental condition of distortion.
The Deserts Eats Us focuses on a leading migrant destination for Nepalis. As the title suggests, it does not set out to balance the good and the bad though it shows both; most of all, it shows the migrant’s despair, at the distortion of his condition, working in an alien setting at low wages, intense heat, long hours, his loneliness abated only by spending money to call home, and the burden of the loan and high interest he took to get here, which seems more and more like a gamble. We meet see a range of migrant workers; in a crowded dormitory at the labour camp, clothes hanging on improvised clotheslines, toiletries strewn about, where workers tell us it was on the backs of Nepali workers that Qatar developed; they liken Qatar to a famous Benares sweet, which you regret if eat it, and regret if you don’t.
We meet Nepalis who come here for one job and are instead sent to the desert to grow vegetables or to herd camels; the camel tenders say there’s no work but 24 hours duty; the vegetable growers sleep inside a broken-down bus, which is hot during the summer and cold and windy in winter.
These ordinary people have the courage and resilience to cope with the extraordinary conditions of being migrant workers. Without question, some of them are glad they came here; they have been able to save and send home money; as one says, given my educational level, I am doing alright here; I have sent money home.
We have two protagonists; one a journalist who also appears in the first film, as the guiding view of the migrants we encounter. He is a man of the people, disturbed by his experience, the hope and excitement he began with is greatly diminished; his is the voice that in the first film describes the migrant worker’s experience as ‘70% are alright, 30% have bad experiences, but the 30% taint the whole.’ The other protagonist is a hugely successful Nepali, who understands the plight of the migrants, who is strategic as in his advocacy that only skilled workers should come; who says how he and others like him that were pioneers to Qatar have bled and shed tears, to pave the way for Qatar to become more receptive to the import of Nepalis workers; he reveals that his success is driven by his need to prove himself; his father abandoned his mother when he took another wife; as a result, he had a difficult childhood. But that childhood steeled him for the challenges of life, and it is that which has made him successful. He is the voice of reason. The only shadow cast on him is when he answers the phone to a Mr Lee from Korea, saying “Don’t worry about your labourers. I will control them.” But he is also right about the futility of striking as one can only lose out. The Gulf States do not tolerate protesting workers.
The answer to the moral question in the first film might be: that it can be worthwhile for people as it is the only alternative. Further, that it is a necessity one must accept. Nevertheless, the desperation, despair, hurt, as well as the danger of losing all and even risking life – for nothing except to simply earn what is a basic livelihood back home – taints the whole enterprise, and that by any criteria, exploitative wages and sub-human conditions cannot be justified no matter what the subject themselves say or feel.
In terms of the two protagonists, what we understand is that while some may become successful, the majority who can be said to ‘make it’ is not enough, for the suffering, risk, humiliation and displacement wrought by by the experience.
The film takes a position beyond the moral relative. The chilling story, told with a stuttering humour, of the Vietnamese eating a Nepali, is emblematic of the often hopeless migrant enterprise, including the misplaced blaming, and thus points to the fundamental distortion of his condition.