Ramona S. Diaz’s follow-up to her award-winning documentary Imelda (2003) yet again explores the parent-child dynamic that defines the relationship between the United States and the Philippines. Seemingly obsessed with the way that identity, culture, and power intersect with each other, Diaz’s sophomore film The Learning(2011) is an empathetic portrait of four female teachers who gamble everything they have to work in the Baltimore City School District under the auspice of providing some financial security for their families back home. The great historical irony in the film’s premise is that, at the start of the 19th century, during America’s first attempt at Imperialism, the United States had taken it upon themselves to dictate not only the curriculum being taught in Philippine schools but also mandated that English be the primary language spoken in the classroom. Over a hundred years later as American school systems found themselves facing budget cuts, teacher strikes and failing test scores, the Philippines former benefactor came a-knocking and, just as they had done several decades ago when they began culling the medical schools and hospitals for nurses and later on physical therapists, the educational recruiters came.
Although clocking in at less than 90 minutes and having only shot for one year during these teachers” lives, The Learning perfectly captures the pain, sorrow and emotional compromises that most newly arrived Filipinos must make when they first arrive in the States. The four protagonists in Diaz’s documentary, though divided by age and life experiences, share much in common. All four are women, they each have families (immediate as well as extended) that they must support, each has primarily worked in the Philippine public school system as either math, science, or special education teachers, and they are all somewhat naive about the challenges ahead of them.
The most experienced teacher, Dorotea Godinez, is much loved by the pupils in her rural classroom back in the Philippines. Crying and singing, they bid her a farewell song on her last day. However, in her Baltimore classroom, her vibrant personality shrinks each day as her students whittle away at her patience and confidence. Though not for her lack of teaching ability since even her superiors admit that the students test scores in Dorotea’s class have improved since her arrival, but as Dorotea herself states, there is a wide gulf between a Filipino student and American student’s definition of respect. While children in the Philippines have been taught to show respect through supplication, her Baltimore City students constantly abuse and exploit the motherly attention she bestows upon them. Watching Dorotea’s evolution in the classroom, one can’t help but yell at the screen, wishing for her to stop playing the victim and take control of her class again. But, a fear of losing her job keeps her from doing anything other than making empty threats.
Suffering less from idealistic notions about teaching, Angel Alim-Flores and Grace Amper have left everything they know and love to chase after the American Dream, symbolized by the paychecks they receive and the money they dole out to their families back home. As the sole breadwinner in her family and still in her mid-twenties, Angel”s expression of anger and frustration toward her father, who continually pumps her for more and more money, is quite palpable. Her displeasure at the situation occurs even as she takes pleasure being the family”s sole financial lifeline, the main cause of stress for many newly arrived Filipino immigrants. To their families back home, who live far below the poverty line, the United States really does seem like a country paved with gold online casino and literal money trees. Of course the reality for these women is that they have debts and bills to pay; plane tickets and Visa requirement fees alone cost several thousands of dollars. And though these women constantly send money back home, animosity can quickly grow between family members who perceive that they’ve been “forgotten” by their far more fortunate cousins, siblings, or even daughters. For 32 year old Grace Amper, the pain of being forgotten is far greater since her goal of building a dream home for her husband and child has cost her the chance to hear her infant child’s first words or be there for his first steps. This is a price she begins to pay when she returns to the Philippines and her son is completely oblivious to who she is, and cries whenever she tries to hug him. Grace is even mistakenly called an aunt by the maid and nanny that she is paying to take care of her child and husband. This calls into question whether providing for her family is even worth the pain if she is thought of as nothing more than a stranger or worse, a human ATM machine.
What makes The Learning such a remarkable film is the way it up-ends your expectations and portrays Filipinos as not just the grinning nice person you work or are acquainted with. Coming from such a religious and traditional culture as the Philippines, these women evolve and change, running the gamut of emotions as they try to balance school and the home lives they’ve temporarily put on hold. Diaz’s film is a documentary not just about the sudden cultural clash that newly arrived immigrants feel when they first arrive, though. In fact, The Learning is very much a feminist study of how a patriarchal society like the Philippines is trying to cope with an exponentially growing female population that has taken over the traditional male role of provider and exploring exactly where this shift in gender dynamics will take the country. This is a situation perfectly exemplified by Rhea Espedido, the fourth teacher we follow, who seems at first to be a quiet introverted type coming to the States primarily for a paycheck. Later on, however, we learn that underneath that calm exterior is a woman running away from an unhappy marriage. Her journey, in my opinion, is the most fascinating to watch since you initially expect her milquetoast personality to crumble under the stress of moving to a foreign country and the eventual disintegration of her marriage. But, instead of being defeated, she thrives under these anxieties and embraces her new found independence. She becomes in a very realistic way a symbol of Filipina feminism, adopting Western ideas of female empowerment and unselfishly thinking about her needs without compromising Filipino notions about family, playing mother to her children all the while staying married to a man she feels no love for.
These women”s futures are still being written by their daily choices and the uncontrollable variables that affect everyone, but The Learning is a powerful film during its most quiet and unassuming moments. Be it Angel showing her class a videotape she made of her trip to Disneyland, Grace’s Skype calls to her husband and infant son, or Rhea’s tearful conversations with her husband as she always attempts, but eventually fails, to leave him. Ramona S. Diaz’s film captures the crippling loneliness and isolation that all OFWs, Overseas Filipino Workers, must feel. However, as the Philippines become more and more dependent on the money that this new class of overseas workers provide (According to Diaz’s film in 2010, twenty billion dollars were sent back to the Philippines to support extended families there) what will become of the country when the cash flow eventually dries up or worse when the workers decide to abandon their roles as indentured servants to their country as well as their family”s back home?
* You can view Ramona S. Diaz”s film “The Learning” for free until October 20, 2011 at PBS” POV website.