BEIRUT: There’s a lot to be said about migrant labor in the MENA region. In the past decade or more, one sector of the migrant labor force that’s proven particularly attractive to filmmakers in Lebanon is that of female domestic servants. Among the earliest forays into this subject, released in 2005, was Carol Mansour’s half-hour-long “Maid in Lebanon.” Three years later she followed-up with the 40-minute “Maid in Lebanon 2: Voices from home” which focused on domestic workers’ relationships with the home countries, from which they may absent themselves for decades at a time.
The subject has lured other nonfiction filmmakers. In 2006 Al-Jazeera broadcast Dima Al-Joundi television-length “Maid For Sale,” focusing on Lebanon’s Sri Lankan domestics. Debuting at the Berlinale in 2016, Maher Abi Samra’s “Makhdoumin” (A Maid for Each), is the closest we have to a feature-length scrutiny of the political economy of Lebanon’s migrant domestic labor market.
This year Carol Mansour returned to the subject with “Thank You Soma.” This documentary spin on the road movie premise follows 20-something Nour Sidani as she accompanies her family’s Sri Lankan domestic on a vacation to her hometown of Kandy.
Produced in collaboration with the International Labor Organization (with whom Mansour worked to make “Maid in Lebanon 2”) the 55-minute “Soma” will have its Beirut premiere this week, on International Migrants Day.
The film opens in the Sidani family home, where Nour sits, reading. She calls the maid, Soma, and asks her to bring her a cup of tea, following the request with a smiling, “Love you!”
Sidani recounts how Soma has been in her life for as long as she can recall, and confides how she’s come to assume that (though she’s no longer a young woman) she’s come to assume that her parents’ servant will help her raise her own kids, if ever she has any.
Such assumptions aside, much of Sidani’s contribution to the film’s voice-over narration is devoted to authentic-sounding expressions of affection for Soma.
When the young woman’s attitude toward her servant does sound proprietorial, it tends to be expressed in childlike terms - as when she describes being jealous because Soma sometimes seemed to like her younger brother Hammoudi more than herself.
If Sidani’s voice is too nice to be taken as representative of most employers of domestic servants in this part of the world - particularly those who are abusive of their employees - her naivete about Soma’s life beyond the Sidani household makes the young woman an appropriate vessel for Lebanon’s innocence of where their domestic servants come from.
Sidani shares the voice-over narrative with Soma herself, whose name, she informs the camera, is actually Hasipattuwale Gedara Sumanalatha. It has too many syllables for her employers - first Sidani’s aunt in Tyre, then her mother and father in Beirut - so they promptly renamed her “Soma.” Soma’s own parents call her Shantih (basically “peace”).
For some the most interesting part of this story is that of Soma. How she’s first chosen to migrate to someplace much closer to home, Singapore, but that proximity had made it more intolerable to be separated from her children - respectively 10 months and 18 months at that time.
After few minutes of exposition, the conceit of Mansour’s film clarifies. Her camera (wielded by Talal Khoury) follows Soma and Nour Sidani through Beirut airport, where they climb onto a flight to Sri Lanka. Innocent and well meaning, Nour will emerge from her holiday in Soma’s hometown of Kandy with her blank slate (one shared by most people in the audience) a bit less blank.
As Soma escorts Nour on a tour of her parents’ home, the young woman’s voice-over remarks that, while she’d been expecting to find a typical Third World house, she found the house to be very proper - divided into rooms and so forth. “It’s not what I expected,” she concludes.
She also glimpses something of the local economy that Sri Lankan domestics feel they must escape. Picking tea, the local cash-crop, pays you $5 per 20 kilos picked.
The camera also captures some of the awkwardness of first encounters.
A swathe of Soma’s relatives, including her adult son and daughter, meet the travellers and the affair is about as stiff as you might expect. Somewhat later in Kandy, Soma introduces Nour to her parents, and the physical awkwardness task of greeting Soma’s family repeats itself.
This encounter is juxtaposed with a conversation back in the Sidani family home, with Nour flipping through a handful of family photos - including her baby pictures and more recent shots - all of which have a younger version of Soma in the frame.
It led to a peculiar displacement of maternal affection. During Soma’s early years in Lebanon, social media hadn’t developed to the point where she could maintain close contact with her kids, so they simply grew up without her. Nour remarks that thanks for smartphones, Soma seems to have a much closer relationship with her grandchildren than she did with her son and daughter.
The experience appears to provoke some re-election on the state of the relationship. While her $450-a-month salary seems high by some standards, Soma has a lot more responsibilities than she would if she were to take a job overseas.
Nour also re-evaluates her own relationship to domestic labor. She finds she doesn’t like the way Soma and her relatives treated her as if they worked for her.
Nor is she comfortable with the feeling that it’s okay to ask someone to fetch you a glass of water from the kitchen. Being pre-programed to feel that she’s there to serve me is, she says an “ugly mentality.”
“Thank You Soma” will be projected at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil 18 Dec. 18 at 8:30 p.m.