This month's Global Parent is filmmaker Joanna Bowers whose documentary The Helper about foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong was released last month to rave reviews. The Helper focuses on the stories of women from the Philippines and Indonesia who have left their families and usually their own young children behind to earn a living taking care of others in countries wealthier than their own.

Joanna gives voice to stories that usually remain untold. She shows us the husbands whose indolence places the burden of both earning and care-taking on their wives and the children who never understand, even once grown, that their mothers left so they could have a better life. She films the women as they soothe other people's babies while they ache to hold their own and captures their talents and dreams which go far beyond taking care of a home. Needless to say, there isn't a dry eye in the house during screenings. Joanna told us about her inspiration, her daughter and how telling helpers stories has affected her relationship with her own helper.  

I grew up in Kent in the South East of England - they call it the “Garden of England” and most of my favourite childhood memories involve wearing wellies and going to feed the ducks, fishing in streams and trekking through fields to visit horses. I grew up pony crazy probably as a result of that.

Ever since I was very little I was a performer and a storyteller - I first saw the Nutcracker on television at Christmas when I was about two and then spent the rest of the holidays on my tiptoes until my parents relented and sent me to ballet class.   My parents had to sit through countless hours of plays and ballet shows all the way through school - then when it came time to deciding what to study at university I found a Broadcast Journalism course that taught me about writing and filmmaking and it seemed like the natural choice.

I lived in Los Angeles for 11 years working in the film industry before I came to Hong Kong. By 2011 I was ready for a change - LA was getting a bit too LA for me!  A friend was moving out here and I came out to visit for an adventure and ended up staying…I met my fiance here in Hong Kong.  It’s crazy because we met online but later figured out that he used to live upstairs from me in my first Hong Kong apartment.

I’ve always been drawn to making films that explore women’s stories and so from that first weekend seeing the thousands of Helpers sitting out in Soho I was fascinated by them.  I was unfamilar with the domestic helper culture at that point as I was new in town, but knew that there was an interesting story behind why these crowds were unable to integrate into the rest of society on a Sunday.  When I met my producing partner Tony Verb a few years later and he was also inspired to tell their stories we were motivated to get a film going.  

I’ve been so moved and inspired by countless women I’ve met during the making of the film - the strength of character they have is very admirable.  The story from the film that have affected me the most would be Vilma.  Vilma is a single mum working so hard here to make ends meet to look after her three children who are back home in the Philippines with family. Her daughter was sexually assaulted by a neighbour which was heartbreaking and really hilighted the level of risk these women are taking to try and make a better life for their families.  Unfortunately because she had to return to Hong Kong to keep working Vilma has been unable to pursue prosecution for her daughters attacker and that seems so unjust.

Editing the documentary

I focused on the Helpers identities as mothers because I wanted to make a film that shone a spotlight on them in a positive light and in a way that other parents could relate to both within and beyond the region. The issue of migrant workers is so polarising both here in Hong Kong and internationally that I felt like exploring the angle of maternal sacrifice would make a more compelling film that people from all over could glean insights from.

Liza, who was featured in the documentary, giving a TEDx talk this month

When my helper first started working with me, I was a single girl who just needed a bit of cleaning and laundry done - so life has changed quite substantially since then.  I initially hired Janai because she has just graduated from university in the Philippines and wanted to work in Hong Kong for a short time to save money so that she could return home to get her masters in Psychology. I liked the idea of being able to help empower another woman to pursue her dreams.  Since making the movie and having my daughter she’s become such a crucial part of the family - as I wouldn’t have been able to complete the film if she wasn’t there as part of our team. 

It was a surprise for me to realize how much fun motherhood is. Our little household is hilarious and I love that. Finding the balance between working and being a mum has been a hard adjustment. Making this film has taken up a huge chunk of my life over the last couple of years and yet I don’t want to miss out on the fun things like playgroup and ballet class.  I’m also now very conscious having made this film of how lucky I am to be able to put Jemima to bed and kiss her goodnight, since there are so many mothers in HK for whom that isn’t possible - so whenever remotely doable I rush home for bedtime.

    Jemima is a proper little character and has been since day one.  She knows exactly what she wants and bosses us all around to get it - which makes my Mum laugh as apparently I was quite similar!  She sings constantly, loves to dance and has very strong opinions on what to wear!

    I hope she stays just as bold and fearless as she grows up - I don’t want my little girl to think that there’s anything in life that she can’t at least try to achieve!  I’m very passionate about empowering women and gender equality throughout society.

    The response to the film has been positive beyond even our wildest dreams as we’re constantly being contacted by people who have watched the film and found it so impactful.  We’ve sold out over 22 screenings at the cinema in Hong Kong and are just about to start screening in 3 more locations because there is so much demand for the film.  We just had a Singapore premiere and will have more screenings there - and we’re in talks to start screening in Macau and mainland China.  We’ve also just begun a corporate screening program and plan to begin a schools screening program in the new year.  All this support is exciting for us beyond just awareness as 51% of proceeds of the film will be donated to three NGOs working to help vulnerable domestic workers in Hong Kong - these are Pathfinders, Enrich and Mission For Migrant Workers.

    I’m passionate about telling inspiring, international stories featuring ethnically diverse casts including strong women and unique perspectives. To that end I’m currently developing more original content including scripted feature films, documentary films and television series incorporating those elements.  And this month I’m shooting a promo video for Box Of Hope who are a non-profit whose work I really admire!  

    I love the Baby Hero brand for their uniqueness and beautiful design - they are always my go-to new baby gift for friends as they are so quintessentially Hong Kong!  I also love giving a gift with such integrity and I think the “giving back” element makes them extra special particularly to new parents.  I’d definitely be down to get involved if you ever wanted to tell your story on film…

    You can support Joanna by watching The Helper documentary at the cinema, sharing the trailer on your social media, requesting that the company you work for book a private screening or suggesting that your child’s school plan a screening.  Also by getting involved in her “Thanks A Million” campaign on Facebook which is a public showing of gratitude to domestic helpers globally.

    The Helper documentary - Official Trailer w/ Chinese Subs from Joanna Bowers/ CheekyMonkeyProds on Vimeo.