The murky moral maze of the Middle East’s burgeoning home-help industry comes under the spotlight in A Maid for Each, a stark documentary that had its regional premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival on December 10.
Most of this sobering film takes place inside the cramped confines of a small, but thriving, agency in Beirut, Lebanon, that matches well-off families with incoming immigrant workers.
The cameras remain static observers, watching as would-be clients size up potential employees based on age, nationality, height, religion, or even their looks.
Aside from a few brief introductory shots, the maids appear only as they do in their clients’s lives – off-screen, and utterly voiceless. To the agency and the host families alike, these women are nothing more than goods to be exchanged.
In the most frank scene, business owner Zein draws a complicated diagram explaining the differing costs by nationality, scrawling arrows and sums to demonstrate how women are imported like livestock – or, in some cases, illegally smuggled – from Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Philippines.
Such candid footage was only available because director Maher Abi Samra is more than an observer – his family is a long-term client of the firm, as he explained during a post-screening question-and-answer session.
“We’re [Zein’s] customers, so if you ask him for potatoes, he will give you potatoes,” he says. “He’s not working in secret. I won his confidence, he became a doll for me to achieve my objective in this movie.”
For the filmmaker, the project was driven by guilt. His cameras go inside homes to expose the tiny spaces the women inhabit, or zoom in on building plans for new luxury apartments, each with a designated “Maid’s room” that is barely bigger than a toilet.
The host families speak off camera, unnamed – most of them, Abi Samra admits, are his friends, too ashamed to be identified. Many more, he says, refused to appear at all.
Among those might be one couple whose long-term maid suddenly committed suicide. They were distraught, but felt better after only two hours of therapy.
One “Madame” compares a new maid to changing a picture frame – you need the edges to prop-up the painting, but the image itself never changes.
Over wide-angle shots of luxury apartments, Abi Samra tells us that it takes a shocking incident such as a murder, rape or disappearance of a maid to register in the public consciousness – and even then their legal rights are fleeting.
“The law doesn’t protect workers,” says co-producer Sabine Sidawi. “When they become servants, all their rights no longer exist. This is a phenomenon which is not unusual – this is the capitalist system.
“We are opposed, but we also rely on these workers inside our homes.”
At the film’s close, after telling one distraught worker that she should shut up and go back to work – rather than be sent to another home where she might be beaten – business owner Zein stands up and declares “let me deal with her”.
The audience are left wondering what punishment was administered to the women.
“I didn’t want you to know if he hit her,” says Abi Samra, “or killed her.
“What mattered to me the most was that he could do [either] – that’s what I wanted to show.”
A Maid for Each screens again at Vox Mall of the Emirates on December 13 at 3.30pm. Tickets cost Dh35.