The deportation of children born to foreign workers in Israel comes under the spotlight in the affecting human drama “Transit.” Centered on desperate measures taken by Filipino parents to prevent the forced removal of their Israeli-born, Hebrew-speaking children, this gracefully directed and inventively edited pic reps an impressive debut for helmer and co-scripter Hannah Espia. Winner of the top film prize in the New Breed section at Cinemalaya, “Transit” is the Philippines’ foreign-language Oscar submission, indicating a strong festival run and possible sales to specialty broadcasters.
Though dealing specifically with laws affecting some of the 40,000 Filipinos currently living and working in Israel, “Transit” also speaks to the broader global picture of displaced people — whether refugees, asylum seekers or foreign guest workers — who have left their homeland in search of a better life. Wisely resisting the temptation to tubthump on political themes, Espia and co-scripter Giancarlo Abrahan stay firmly focused on how such laws impact on human relationships.
The story takes place in 2009 and 2010, when Israel announced changes to citizenship status of children born to foreign workers. For Janet (Irma Adlawan), a cleaner and single mother who has lived in Israel for many years, this means the possible deportation of teenage daughter Yael (Jasmine Curtis-Smith), whose Israeli father is mentioned but never seen. Living in even greater fear is Janet’s brother, Moises (Ping Medina), a home-care nurse for kind-hearted old man Eliav (Yatzuck Azuz) and solo parent of 4-year-old Joshua (Marc Justine Alvarez ). With tough new laws promising the removal of children under 5, Moises takes the extreme step of keeping Joshua indoors until his next birthday, at which time his legal position improves somewhat.
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Also in the mix is Tina (Mercedes Cabral), a Filipino friend of Janet’s who arrives in Israel with high hopes of sending a significant sum of money home to her family. In one of very few scripting flaws, Tina’s absorbing story fizzles away by the film’s midpoint. Janet’s and Moises’ respective dramas are much more satisfyingly played out, both of them concerned with the notion of identity. Janet is saddened by Yael’s inability to speak Tagalog and unwillingness to identify with her Filipino background; with an Israeli boyfriend, Omri (Omer Juran), Yael sees herself as exclusively Israeli. Moises’ frantic attempts to hide Joshua from authorities raises questions of whether the perceived promise of a better future is worth the price of living in such fear, and whether the boy, like Yael, will grow up to reject part of his heritage.
Assisted by clever editing that replays previous scenes in slightly extended form, shedding greater light on characters and conflicts, the pic is constantly engaging and frequently moving. Scenes set among the larger Filipino worker community around Tel Aviv effectively capture the spirit of camaraderie among outsiders, as well as the flipside of suspicion surrounding those who may have turned informant for their own gain. Israeli civilians are shown as sympathetic to the foreign-worker cause; immigration officials and police are seen as neither relishing nor objecting to their work.
“Transit” is very well performed by high-profile thesps (Medina, Adlawan, Cabral) and talented newcomers (19-year-old Curtis-Smith, 8-year-old Alvarez), many of whom learned Hebrew online just prior to production. Showing no signs of having been filmed in less than two weeks, the impressively mounted film boasts smooth lensing by Berhil Cruz and Lyle Nemenzo Sacris, and a lovely, subtle score by Mon Espia.