Tales of modern day slavery

Being vulnerable

The filmI am Not Here is not only difficult to watch but also shows how theoretical subjects like power and class come into play in a practical situation.

Through the lives of three undocumented, migrant domestic workers in Malaysia, New York and Zurich, director Ashvin Kumar takes us on a cinematic journey of class divide where poor migrants undergo perilous journeys which involves risks like drowning en route, deportation, arrest, and physical and sexual violence. But what gives them hope in this dark journey is to find a place of greater safety and economic opportunity in a distant country.

“A lot of us have domestic help in our homes, hopefully this film will sensitise us about what these people endure to make sure we have a comfortable life. Also, the issue of undocumented domestic migrants is modern day slavery as the film shows,” Kumar, director of Inshallah Kashmir and Little Terrorist, tells Metrolife.

Being undocumented, migrant and poor are the main reasons why the characters in the film face the atrocities that they do. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights(UNHCHR), there are more than 50 million migrant workers in the world and Kumar, along with his research team, have selected the three characters on the basis of how they responded to the atrocities they faced.

On the one hand, the film documents the mental, physical and sexual violence carried out on a young Bangladeshi woman (name not disclosed) in Malaysia and her vulnerability; on the other hand Kumar has carefully chosen his two other protagonists: Fanny Flores from Zurich and Jennifer Norgriff-Bernard from New York who have fought their share of misfortune and reached a point in their lives where they feel stronger.

The Bangladeshi migrant is still trying to make a legal case with the help of human rights NGOs against her employers who have eluded prosecution once on the same. Whereas Flores, who has stayed for more than 20 years without meeting her family, has been able to raise her three children successfully and they  all are financially independent. Bernard became the first person to start a group for undocumented migrant workers in United States and got it recognised, legally.

For not having an Indian migrant story in the film, Kumar says, “The case is that we have an open border with Nepal and a porous one with Bangladesh. As a result, immigration related exploitation is low in India with relatively low risk of deportation. The countries we filmed in have strong immigration checks. As a result, while there is terrible exploitation, in the domestic sphere in India, it is not specific to immigration, the subject of the film.”

The subject of the 33-minute film was given by UNHCHR to initiate as a sensitisation project about the migration and refugee problem the world faces today.  Pia Oberoi, advisor on migration and human rights, UNHCHR says, “The pattern of human rights abuses of domestic workers are similar all over the world. Their work is invaluable, but we as a society have disregard for menial jobs. Their ‘vulnerability’ is even overlooked in policy making.”

According to a UNHCHR publication, “migrants in an irregular situation are persons who are not authorised to enter, to stay and to engage in a remunerated activity in a transit or a destination country”. (some of them may be undocumented).

Kumar says, “I wanted to go behind the figures and the nameless statistics and tell the human, emotional story about these women – that these are real people with real families and ties. My attempt was to link the lived experience of the audience with that of those who are appearing on screen. So by telling the story of a mother separated by economic necessity from her child for over two decades, I wanted to put the audience in her shoes.”

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