Claiming Our Voice is a documentary project by Jennifer Pritheeva Samuel/Fine Grain Films. The story centers on a group of South Asian immigrant domestic workers who have become community activists with Andolan, a Queens-based workers center, as they create their first original theater performance. Here, the filmmaker discusses how she approached the subjects of immigration and activism as both an observer and participant, and how her own views of culture and diaspora were complicated in the creative process.
As a child of Sri Lankan Tamil parents with family spread around the world, a consequence of both internecine violence and limited economic opportunity, I have always been drawn to stories and images of diaspora and ways immigrants create “home” in new countries, what they take with them and what they leave behind.
For the past six years, through my multimedia project Home Away from Home, I have documented South Asian diaspora communities in New York as well as Kenya, South Africa, and Trinidad. I was looking for subjects in New York when Chitra Aiyar, a friend and immigration lawyer, told me about Andolan, an organization with which she volunteered. The Queens-based workers center was founded and led by female South Asian immigrant domestic workers as a means to support each other and collectively organize against exploitative work conditions. The members were embarking on a theater project, “”Sukh aur Dukh ki Kahani (Stories of Joy and Sorrow),” featuring the their stories and were collaborating with interdisciplinary artist, YaliniDream, a poet, performer, singer and dancer committed to bringing under-represented voices to center stage. Having grown disenchanted with the media’s portrayal of domestic workers as victims, Andolan members wanted to share stories from their lives, not only as low-wage workers but as multidimensional women engaged in a broader movement for social change.
I came to this project without a strong sense of what the final product would be. I knew there was the natural arc of refining the theater production but beyond that, similar to the theater project itself, I had to let the process unfold naturally.
Upon meeting members of Andolan for the first time at a rehearsal in Jackson Heights, I was immediately drawn to their compelling stories — solo journeys to the United States, exploitative work conditions in New York (often at the homes of South Asian employers), escaping from abusive homes and taking legal action against employers with support from their peers. The Andolan members were a diasporic family bound by members’ shared experiences and activist mission. These women were fighters.
The women of Andolan challenged my cultural and gender stereotypes of South Asian women. Based on my own experiences, my image of a South Asian woman was someone who was docile and always did what was expected of her; reliable, loving, even-tempered and powerful in her role, but never so strong as to upset the conventional dynamics of her household or workplace.
As I heard Andolan members’ stories, I was blown away by their bravery. As they describe in the film, the Founder and Director of Andolan, Nahar Alam, was escaping a domestic violence situation when she emigrated to the United States and began babysitting. Shaku, another member and character, married when she was a teenager in Bangladesh and, forced to support herself and her children, decided to accept the offer of work from diplomat family moving to the United States. They had each emigrated alone and then, in an unfamiliar country, managed to organize to demand their rights, even as new immigrants, often with no family or community support beyond their fellow Andolan members.
The stories I had grown up around were stories of a different class, era and immigration policy — South Asian men with advanced degrees emigrating alone to pursue education and jobs, and then eventually marrying or bringing their families over to meet them. Even the stories I had heard in Trinidad, Kenya and South Africa involved men traveling alone to pursue work opportunities — as indentured servants or as merchants — their children and grandchildren eventually identifying culturally more as South African (or Trinidadian or Kenyan) than as South Asian.
While they defied stereotypes, Andolan members did share one typical experience of living in the diaspora — they were both South Asian enough, and yet also “American” enough, that their romanticized notions about each place had been sullied.
Getting to know these independent women made me realize how frequently I had superimposed my own interpretations of being South Asian on others. I also discovered how completely inadequate the term “South Asian diaspora” was to accommodate such vastly different journeys spanning centuries.
The nature of the project and the footage did not lend itself to the issue-driven model of documentaries I had previously worked on for public television. Instead, the driving force of the film was the theater project where domestic workers would create and perform their stories on the stage in hopes of educating their communities and preventing further injustice. I wanted to develop the main characters further so I wove character sketches of them within the overarching storyline of the theater production. It was important for me to interview and show them in their own homes since so often, as domestic workers, their primary association is their role in the homes of others.
As a storyteller, I didn’t want the final product to feel like a didactic piece or a public relations video for the organization. Throughout the editing process, I consulted frequently with YaliniDream who had facilitated the theater project and Chitra who was interested in how Andolan would be represented on film. One of my first decisions was to highlight a few characters rather than include all the Andolan members who had participated in the theater project. In some ways this was counter to the collective ethos espoused by Andolan, but I knew some of the characters were inherently more compelling on camera and the decision would make the film stronger.
By far the most painful decision I made was to cut one of our strongest characters because she no longer wished to be included in the film. She had married someone in the United States and his family didn’t know about her past as domestic worker or an activist. It wasn’t about having a signed release. The women that make up Andolan understand how their stories can impact and inspire others. But ultimately it is their lives on stage and on camera, and I respected that her personal choice took priority over the film. None of the Andolan members were not surprised by her choice; despite their advocacy, the stigma of being a domestic worker remains strong. It was common for members who had transitioned to other kinds of work to no longer want to be associated with the domestic worker movement.
Overall, I feel proud of Claiming Our Voice and grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with these artists and organizers. The project was a vehicle for me to develop my own voice as a filmmaker, and hopefully the film will amplify the voices of the women so viewers can connect with their stories as well.
Learn more about the film and their fundraising campaign at claimingourvoice.com.