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'Vous êtes servis' gives household slaves a face, but subject deserved a more powerful film

At first glance, domestic help is not the most exciting subject for a triptych of film, theatre and performance. That is, of course, because the maid in the old-fashioned sense is virtually extinct with us in the West. But elsewhere there is plenty of demand for submissive girls who work themselves to death seven days a week, as we learn from the revealing film 'Vous êtes servis' made about this phenomenon by Spanish-Belgian photographer and filmmaker Jorge León.

The documentary is part of the project 'To Serve' for which León joined forces with New Zealand choreographer Simone Aughterlony. The theme raised in the film is further explored and viewed from other angles in the theatre performance 'Deserve' and the performance and conversation series 'House without a maid'. The performances can also be viewed separately.

Some 35,000 freshly-prepared domestic workers are flown over from Indonesia to destinations in Asia and the Middle East every month. An entire recruitment and training industry has sprung up around them, and that is also where León has set up his camera. 'Vous êtes servis' consists largely of footage of the day-to-day running of such a centre where young women are taught the intricacies of serving tea and changing poopy nappies. Do not underestimate it, because they also have to master the language of the host country, e.g. Chinese, after a huge sum has been put on the table as an entry fee. Those who unexpectedly do not find a job overseas lose everything.

So far, it is a worthwhile but relatively conventionally filmed impression that occasionally threatens to become somewhat repetitive. What this sketch lacks in tension is partly made up for by short interludes in which desperate letters from previously dispatched domestic workers are read out. Mistreatment and humiliation are commonplace. In the process, it is striking that the selected letters are all from the Middle East. What the treatment is like in Singapore, Taiwan or Korea is less clear. Gradually, however, it becomes clear that the women, who are sometimes very sad because they will not see their children for a few years, have resigned themselves to their fate in advance. Towards the end, we briefly catch a glimpse of the lacklustre role the husbands play in all this.

Poignant enough, but as the foundation of an artistic triptych about servitude, dehumanisation and globalisation, 'Vous êtes servis' is nevertheless on the tame side. The formation lines that should serve as a stimulating commentary on the everyday observations look somewhat arbitrary and improvised. The montage of photos in which the girls are all posing with convulsive smiles in the same anonymous chequered aprons is nice, by the way. Unfortunately, this is again spoiled by the poor quality of the video used. The subject matter is, you could sum it up, more captivating than the film itself, which could well have used a bit more artistic muscle.

'Vous êtes servis' can still be seen on Fri 24, Sat 25 and Sun 26 September.
'Deserve' will be played on Fri 24 and Sat 25 September.
'House without a maid' can be visited on Sat 25 and Sun 26 September.

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Leo Bankersen

Leo Bankersen has been writing about film since Chinatown and Night of the Living Dead. Reviewed as a freelance film journalist for the GPD for a long time. Is now, among other things, one of the regular contributors to De Filmkrant. Likes to break a lance for children's films, documentaries and films from non-Western countries. Other specialities: digital issues and film education.View Author posts

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