In Transit with Hannah Espia
Earlier this year we screened Hanna Espia’s brilliant debut film, Transit, as part of our Dap-Ay event here in London. ‘Transit’ follows the lives of five Filipinos living in Israel, the film explores the intersecting stories of Filipinos in Tel Aviv when the threat of a law deporting the children of migrant workers looms their precarious lives. The film is a powerful work that explores the issues faced by overseas domestic workers and subsequently the complexities affecting their children who are navigating conflicting identities. We caught up with Hanna Espia to find out more about the film and the woman behind the camera. Read the full interview below.
Tell us a little about yourself? What you do where you were born, grew, up, live etc…
I’m a 90s kid. I was born and raised in Quezon City and lived there for a majority of my life. My parents traveled a lot and told me and my siblings stories about their travels. Eventually, I ended up traveling a lot as well. So far, I’ve traveled to 30 countries and lived in 3.
Tell us a bit about Transit and what inspired you tell the stories of Filipino workers in Tel Aviv, Israel in particular?
In my mid-twenties, I was working for my mom. She owns and runs a travel and tours company specialising in Holy Land tours. So I was traveling back and forth to Israel for a while. During one of my visits, I met an OFW during an airport transit. He had his 3-month old son with him. The baby was restless and crying the entire time and people were getting concerned. They asked the father why he didn’t wait for the baby to get older in order to travel and he simply said that Israel does not want them to have families there. I was incredibly curious about this statement and went on to research and found out about the 2009 deportation law.
What kind of research did you do in preparation to the film?
Gian Abrahan (my co-writer) and I watched a lot of documentaries and read a lot of news articles about the deportation of migrant worker’s children in Israel. A week prior to filming, myself and a small team – my production manager, cinematographer, production designer, as well as actor Ping Medina, went to Israel to research locations and interview members of the Filipino community.
The Filipino community in Tel Aviv helped us a lot. They told us stories (which were later included in the script) and even let us film in their homes. The apartment where the characters live in the film was an apartment where some of our Filipino hosts lived. One part of the film was shot “documentary style” because we wanted them to share their experiences living and working in Israel. I knew that things like that should not be scripted, so we just rolled the camera while they talked. Actress Mercedes Cabral facilitated the conversation.
Is it true the film was shot in only two weeks?
The film was shot for a total of 14 days – 9 days in Israel, 4 pick-up shoot days in Manila (and Batangas), and 1 day at the Bangkok airport.
The film was essentially told in 3 different languages. Was this the deliberate choice? And what were some of the challenges this posed?
Having 3 languages in the film was a deliberate choice. I wanted the film to have as much authenticity as possible. I told my actors that they can switch in and out of these languages as they please, except for Jasmine (Yael) and Marc (Joshua) who had to be fluent in Hebrew.
The actors had a Hebrew coach prior to filming. Our translator/coach Yuval translated the English dialogue into Hebrew and made a recording of how the words were supposed to sound. Yuval was mostly present on set, but sometimes he was unavailable and that posed some challenges such as not knowing the proper pronunciation. Other than that, the cast memorized their lines well and delivered their Hebrew beautifully.
Upon watching the film, Hebrew speakers mostly praised actress Irma Adlawan’s pronunciation and delivery of the language. Marc had a lot of mispronounced words but since his character is young, they just thought it was cute and natural.
The film tells the same story through a number of different characters. Was is difficult to give justice to each narrative?
To be completely honest, yes, it was very difficult. Looking back, I feel that some of the characters’ narratives were laid out too thin. Some audiences speculate that the film was originally not intended to have a multi-character structure and that we had to do it that way because we didn’t have enough footage (considering the short filming schedule). There is some truth to that, but also not entirely (we actually had sufficient amount of footage). Gian and I wrote the script very loosely, with some parts being completely instructional instead of a formal script. Because I also work primarily as an editor, I knew I was going to play around the structure in editing (with the help of my co-editor Ben Tolentino). Let’s just say that the writing and re-writing of the film does not end until the end of post-production.
Did any of your personal experiences influence or inspire the film in any way?
Absolutely. In my mid-20s, I spent a lot of time at airports because I was working for our family’s tour company, and because I was in a long distance relationship with my husband (who was still my boyfriend then). Originally, I wanted to tell the entire story in an airport – that’s why the film is called Transit. The ending scene, where Moises and Joshua were waiting for their bags at the luggage belt is sort of like my ode to all the waiting and my time spent at airports.
Additionally, the character I most related to in the film was Yael, and her segment in the film holds a special place in my heart. Even though I’m not a third-culture kid, I know what it’s like to be young and rebellious and wanting to be my own person, apart from how my parents raised me. A lot of Yael’s arguments with her mom are somewhat based on my arguments with my own mom. How she related to Joshua was how I related to my brother. I’m really grateful to my cast for bringing these characters to life.
What are your impressions of the current state of Filipino cinema. Are there directors that particularly excite you? What is it like as a women in the film industry?
Filipino cinema offers a diverse and exciting palette for local and international audiences. The local festivals keep churning out really fresh films about a variety of topics. On the mainstream side, hugot films seem to be popular with the younger audiences, as well as travel films ala Eat, Pray, Love. I left the Philippines for my graduate studies in the US in 2017, so I can’t really say much about its current state.
I think women filmmakers in the Philippines are highly respected and sought-after. Philippine cinema has well-loved female directors like Olivia Lamasan, Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Cathy Garcia-Molina, and Joyce Bernal to name a few. We also have game changers like Antoinette Jadaone, Sigrid Bernardo, and Irene Villamor. For documentary, art house, and experimental films we have Baby Ruth Villarama, Sari Dalena, Pam Miras, Shireen Seno, and many more.
They have yet to do their feature films, but the films of Martika Ramirez Escobar and Sari Estrada excite me. People should definitely watch out for what they will do next.
What kind of emotion do you hope your films to invoke with the audience?
My close friends tell me I’m good at making people cry! Kidding aside, I just want my films to feel real. I want to write and create characters who are imperfect, relatable and not manufactured.
You are currently based in the US, what do you miss the most about the Philippines?
I really miss Jollibee! Especially Jollibee spaghetti (sweet sauce with hotdog!) I miss my family, of course. I miss hanging out with my friends. I miss going to film festivals, because that’s always a fun occasion where we get to meet other filmmakers and just hangout and talk about films.
What’s your favourite Filipino film?
All time favourite – Sana’y Maulit Muli by Olivia Lamasan and Jay by Francis Pasion. More recent favourite – Apocalypse Child by Mario Cornejo.
What are you working on at the moment, what can we look forward to?
I’ve been working on my 2nd feature film script Learning to Build a Fire for quite some time now and thinking of doing a major rewrite later this year. I’m also working on another feature film script which I plan to shoot in the US. I’m also working on a number of short films as a requirement for my MFA degree.