Maher Abi Samra’s disturbing documentary “A Maid for Each” takes a cool-headed look at a Beirut agency that traffics — a charged word but a pretty accurate one — in domestic help. Watching the film feels like viewing a chilling reality through a two-way mirror: Some may take comfort in thinking the situation of domestic servants in Lebanon isn’t “our” world, but in truth, the commodification of foreign home workers by type (“my Filipina,” “my Mexican”) is a near-universal problem. The situation is more charged in Lebanon than in many nations due to the way female workers are brought into the country. Yet the rigid caste system so baldly on display, with servants treated as nonentities, is merely less hypocritical than what exists in Occidental homes. Abi Samra’s artful, formalistic methodology succinctly exposes the dehumanization process, and his film has deservedly earned several awards, including Dubai’s best documentary prize.
For projecting a heightened level of discomfort, few openings can match the wordless establishing shot of an immaculate living room, into which arrives a well-dressed woman who sits down on the sofa and artfully arranges her legs while a maid follows, standing, hands held together, sheepishly looking out. The contrasts in body language, together with the fixed, voyeuristic viewpoint, brutally expose the nature of the social hierarchy: power versus subservience. In the following sequences, we hear people talk about the servants they grew up with, women whose most important quality was their ability to live alongside the family, but not within its fabric.
Most of the documentary is devoted to the Al Raed agency, its owner Zein El-Amin, and his assistant Amal Barakat. Located on the second floor of a shoddy corner building in downtown Beirut, Al Raed connects those in need of maids with some of the thousands of women in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and the Philippines who want to come to Lebanon as domestic servants. The figures are astounding: Approximately 128,000 women from those four countries arrive annually in a nation of just 4.4 million.
Between scenes with clients discussing their need for “obedient and gentle” girls (why are cleaning ladies always “girls,” even when they’re mature women?), El-Amin makes a flow-chart on the office’s plate-glass window showing the process and costs by which recruiters in the four countries channel workers into Lebanon — legally for the Sri Lankans and Bangladeshi, illegally for the Ethiopians and Filipinas. Breaking the system down in this way reinforces a parallel with slavery, or at best indentured servitude; there’s no sense of the individual, just the commodity. Barakat helpfully tells clients, “You can always return her and get another,” and since the women are sponsored to come to Lebanon, their employers can beat them without fear that they’ll run away.
Tiny, sparse maids’ rooms, meant to be as inconspicuous as the inhabitants themselves, are shot obliquely, tucked in as an afterthought behind kitchens, or carved out of an enclosed balcony. For employers to tolerate the presence of an outsider in their homes, they have to make certain that presence takes up as little space as possible. Controlled pans across apartment windows at night, anonymous and innocuous, are more real than the people living inside (visuals are more polished than Abi Samra’s debut, “We Were Communists”). Within the dingy walls of Al Raed, however, the camera remains stationary, allowing signs of commerce outside to make their own silent commentary.