Transit (2013)

What do you do if your host country suddenly decides to force you to part with your children by deporting them?

This is the question Filipino director Hannah Espia confronts us with in her debut feature, Transit. Whilst this film, set in Tel Aviv, is about a Filipino family’s struggle to stay together by hiding their children from Israeli immigration police, it is a universal story in the age of global diaspora. Although I am well aware that this is a touchy subject which many of us might find ‘unappealing’, I am going to ask you to spend your precious time to closely examine this film. It is not only because this is an important subject; it is because the way Transit tells the story of displaced people is at once engaging and enlightening. Giving a voice to the silenced and a face to the faceless is something cinematic art does best, and Espia carries out this mission with exemplary skill and sincerity. Therefore, if you decide to follow my advice to dedicate 90 minutes to watch this fine film, not only will you learn about the world which you share with strangers, but quite a lot about yourself as well.

Espia succeeds in creating a quality film precisely because she does not veer from the personal stories of each character. She gives equal importance to the voice of each character, and skillfully demonstrates the precarious nature of immigrant life. It is tough, confusing, miserable, and dangerous. When one confronts the subject like this, it is easy to succumb to the temptation to focus on the obvious, that is, the cruelty of immigration policy adopted by the host country Israel. Confronted by such an absurd policy of deporting children under the age of five to be separated from their parents and families, it is difficult not to react in quick anger. Whilst this reaction is perfectly understandable, or even necessary, it also tends to render the narrative one dimensional, and the human side of the story tends to get lost in the process. Fortunately, and remarkably, Espia shows great restraint: this film captures the audience by strictly keeping the narrative up-close and personal. This is because Espia chooses to stay true to the experience of the displaced, and resists the urge to make a grand political gesture. I for one greatly appreciate her humane sensibility and artistic commitment shown here.

The importance of her approach becomes starkly clear in the scene where Yael (Jasmine Curtis), the teenage daughter of Janet (Irma Adlawan), witnesses the outburst of her Israeli boyfriend. He declares just how much he hates the injustice of his country’s immigration policy, and asks why Yael seems removed from it all, despite she and her family is deeply affected by it. In reply, Yael expresses the total sense of powerlessness: there is nothing she and her people can do about this law, since they are not protected by the state. This scene is short and rather mundane compared to more dramatic turns of events in this film, yet, in fact, it hits the heart of the matter; the ones who has little or no protection from the state cannot afford to speak out against it. It is the privilege of a citizen to express his/her opinions, political or otherwise. As such, the fear of confrontation with law silences ‘aliens’ in the most inhumane way possible. And it is this fear that denies the agency of the ‘strangers from abroad’.

However, the worst effect of this fear is: it tears apart the fabric of the most intimate relationships, such as family and friends. The fear of deportation forces members of a closely knit community to turn against each other. Some are even forced to work as informants to the immigration police. Transit stays true to Espia’s commitment to honor the experience of each character and present it as it is. As a result, it sometimes feel like a documentary film. This characteristic often brings tremendous immediacy to each character’s experience and facilitates our empathetic response to it.

Despite many such great attributes, this movie is not without its’ flaws. Whilst each element of the story is emotionally absorbing, the way different perspectives are put together feels forced at times. For example, there are a few repeats from the opening scene in which Janet is calling a certain number on her cell phone. Although it is a scene which sets the tone of the movie, when you see it for the second or third time, it feels neither natural nor necessary. That being acknowledged, there are some breathtaking moments created by this method of telling and retelling a scene from different perspectives. Some of the scenes are slightly altered to reflect the different ways in which each character experienced a certain episode. At times, such a difference gives a much deeper insight into the heart of each character, and it definitely helps the audience to appreciate their struggles. Whilst it is certainly an effective method, and Espia’s execution is nearly perfect, there remains one problem; the chosen method ultimately prevents the audience from emotionally fully committing to the story. We are always aware of the method in which different perspectives are put together. This stylistic awareness considerably weakens the intensity of our emotional response to the movie, and it is a real shame. It makes me wonder if Transit could have achieved an emotional intensity of Bergman films if Espia kept its narrative straightforward.

Still, Transit deserves all the praise already given to it by many critics. Espia is undoubtedly talented, and I look forward to seeing what she can offer with her future projects. She has a sensibility and temperament which enable her to find a way to confront difficult issues without reducing them to a political statement. And this quality needs to be nurtured if humanity hopes to survive beyond this age of dogmatic confrontations.