Expression
April 5, 2021

Drone Go Chasing Waterfalls

Saira Ansari

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In a seismic shift, I find myself considering a sentient drone as an ally, an object of comfort. Otherwise, for the place I call home, it signifies only death and destruction – carrying out precision strikes, remotely, coldly, and without consequence. When I first began to travel, I learnt of its other uses as a tool for recreation (filming beautiful, inaccessible nature or destination weddings) and public good (fighting fires or discovering new tribes in the Amazon jungle). I couldn’t believe that people didn’t instinctively cower and seek shelter when they saw the death machine whirring above them.

In Stephanie Comilang’s sci-fi-docufilm Lumapit Sa Akin, Paraiso (Come to me, Paradise)1, the drone has taken on an entirely new role. Altered from an it to a she, the anthropomorphic flying object is a confidant and chronicler of thousands of Filipina domestic helpers living in Hong Kong. She is Paraiso: ever present, moving between iPhone cameras, WhatsApp confessions and secret meditation videos, tenderly storing in her cache records of dances, manicures, Bieber songs and malnourishment. She keeps a check on the women, and takes their news back to their families. In return, she brings updates on husbands, children, needs, requests, and so on. We never see her, but we look through her ‘eyes’ and hear her ‘voice’ as she hovers around high-rise buildings and inside malls, broadcasting her thoughts in Tagalog: a digital, levitating Filipina matriarch.

Introduced as a phantasm in a small metal body, she is a freak alloy of the physical and the metaphysical worlds. (part machine) She doesn’t pass judgement on all that passes through her: she calculates, collects and communicates without bias. I have a #purpose. I am the transmitter, I am the vessel. But as she narrates their story to us, (part spirit) she embodies a perceptive being that, disconnected from a physical body, can offer only information, unable to exercise empathy even when she feels it. Like Spock to Kirk. The judgement – and reflection – is left to us.

There is no way to sugar-coat it. The exploitation of low wage migrant workers across the world is horrifying. The case of domestic workers is worsened by terrible isolation, as they are often working alone and not allowed to leave their premises. Comilang’s film documents how thousands of such women in Hong Kong find the ability to locate each other on their one day off – magnetic grains of flesh, drawn to each other, clumping like mercury and vibrating in shared experiences. Eating, dancing, talking, sleeping. The comfort of another body that is recognisable, speaks the same language, and understands the same loss. Poignantly, this same community enables a constant return to the daily Numb: bodies healed for the week, seams stitched up until the next time they get together to contain the unravelling.

Image courtesy of the artist and Warehouse 421

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Many years ago, I went to a small comedy club in Al Quoz. The line-up included a number of local stars and first timers and, generally speaking, it was a good night. Until the last act. A young man stepped on stage and launched into his brand of offensive humour – a popular style, though very tricky to navigate. He started with the woes of dating as a desi man in Dubai, and how it was hard to find a good match, preferably a white woman. He listed all the ways in which one could fail, descending into a pit of mating horror stories. When a Filipino woman was the only option left, he threw his hands up and declared, one had finally hit rock bottom.

Is it ok to say that the only good thing that came out of it was the largely cold silence and a few boos? But sadly, as expected, there were a few chuckles too. I looked around and saw a Filipino couple in the front row. They looked…diminished. The bile in my throat had hurt.

In what ways is this place different from Hong Kong? In how many more ways is it similar? In fact, I am not really sure we exercise a comfortable distance from the subject matter at all.

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Image courtesy of the artist and Warehouse 421

The drone floats high above a lush green landscape of the Philippines. She lingers, not moving forward or backward, or climbing or descending; just shifting her vision from side to side, recalling where she and the other women came from, and what they had left behind. She may be a matriarchal spirit from the ancestral land but, back in Hong Kong, her connection with the women depends on the collective signal strength emanated by their digital devices: it is strong at the weekly Sunday assembly, where hundreds sit together in the open, yet leaves her alone and adrift the rest of the working week, when the women are concealed indoors.

Comilang’s video employs the tools of speculative and science fiction to talk about serious, real life issues. By giving Paraiso a human voice (her mother’s, actually), she lends agency to the various bits of technology2 that allow the workers a few moments of repose, connection and social cohesion. This story, in its fantastical manifestation, is as much about labour conditions as it is about systemised loneliness, and suggests that women uniting is not only about community, but survival.

There is a brief moment in the film where a woman standing on a pedestal takes a trust fall into a group, is swung back up smoothly, a moment later promptly dropping back for another – without a pause, and smiling throughout. I watched that moment on repeat, going back and forth until it seemed like she was a happy clock pendulum in a microcosm of buoyant women bean bags.

[The title] Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you're used to – TLC, 1994.
[1] Stephanie Comilang’s two films – Lumapit Sa Akin, Paraiso (Come to me, Paradise) (2016) and Diaspora Ad Astra (2020) – are currently being shown at Warehouse421 (Abu Dhabi) as part of Float, an exhibition curated by Murtaza Vali. The show runs from 6 February to 21 March 2021.
[2] A reverberation from All That Perishes at the Edge of Land (2019), a film by Hira Nabi shown in Murtaza Vali’s previous exhibition The Stonebreakers, which lent a female voice to a shipping vessel.
Saira Ansari is a researcher/writer with an interest in South Asian art history, global modernity, publishing practices and science fiction.
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