Saturday, 8 December 2012,9 am. I was enjoying a cup of hot chocolate at J Co-Cilandak Town Square Jakarta. Two pieces of doughnuts and one sandwich had been served on a small plate. I had just finished one. I was still full, after a filling breakfast at Makara Hotel-the University of Indonesia this morning, just before I checked out. I was waiting for Ani Ema Susanti, an Indonesian Domestic Worker (IDW) returnee. She was currently engaged in documentary movie production and learned to become a director.

I had contacted Ani two days earlier, when I just arrived in Jakarta. My main purpose was to attend an international conference on communication at the University of Indonesia-Depok. The conference had just finished on Friday evening, and I had this Saturday morning free before I flew back to Surabaya in the evening.

I have known Ani since last year. Around October 2011, when we were just acquainted on Facebook, she asked me to assist her in doing the English subtitling for her latest short film, Donor ASI (Breast milk donor). This film later was selected as the best film in the category of documentary film at the 2012 Indonesian Film Festival. Of course this winning had nothing to do with the assistance I had given. Ani had already had  quite a list of achievements in various film festivals.

I had barely sipped the hot chocolate when a text message from Ani came into my mobile phone. “Let’s go to Blok M Plaza, instead, mbak[1]. It’s closer to Damri bus terminus to the airport.”

Five minutes later, as I waited under the stairway near Baskins and Robbins, a gray car was approaching. A young woman got out of the left front door. “Dik[2] Ani?” “Mbak Tiwik, right?” We greeted each other almost simultaneously. We hugged and kissed on the cheeks, as if we were old friends who had been parted for so long.  It was actually our first meeting.

Wearing a long-flowered Muslim dress, a brown long-sleeved T-shirt, and a simple veil of the same colour that covered almost the whole part of her chest, Ani looked very simple and modest. No make-ups. Her voice was gentle and quite slow. From the driver’s door, a young, good-looking man got out and helped me put my luggage into the trunk. “I’m Ibnu, mbak. Ani’s husband.” We shook hands, and he opened the back door, letting me in. There in the back seat, a middle-aged woman holding a baby nodded politely. I reached for her and hugged her. It was Ani’s mom. She represented common women from the village. Modest and sincere. I  felt like I was in the middle of my big family, especially when I knew that Ani came from Jombang, a small town in East Java, only a two-hour drive from Surabaya. The dialect we shared made us converse smoothly.

I had not even started my interview, yet our conversation was already packed with rich data. From the front seat, Ani told me about her latest film about youth and anti-corruption movement. “Still fresh, mbak. I haven’t even had the master. I was going to hand it in to Nia, but I left it at home.” Ani mentioned Nia Dinata, a famous young film producer who had been assisting Ani through her production house, Kalyana Shira.

Ani also talked about her busy days studying Film Production at SAE Institute, Jakarta branch. This international-scaled creative industry school had awarded Ani with full scholarship. “Endless assignments, mbak. And the courses are in English.” Her mother added, “once she’s home, she would sit in front of the computer till late at night. I keep motivating her…don’t give up…leave the baby to me.”

10.30 am. Solaria cafe in Blok M Plaza had not been open yet, but we were allowed to sit inside. We took a table with four seats on the corner. I deliberately chose it to ensure the quality of recordings I would make later. Ani looked calm and comfortable with a voice recorder put on the table. It was apparently not the first time for her to be interviewed. Her profile had appeared a number of times in the media. Somehow, her voice turned firm, yet gentle, when she talked about her writing and films.

Although I have been following Ani’s activities for quite some time, there were unexpected information popping up in our conversation. I asked her about her first film, Helper Hong Kong Ngampus (Hong Kong Helper going to College, HHN). This film was produced when Ani was still studying Psychology at a private university in Surabaya. It was one of the finalists in the 2007 Eagle Award held by Metro TV. I had not seen the film then, but I could feel its impact from what Ani told me. A director of an employment agency read about Ani’s nomination in the Eagle Award, so he contacted Ani and let her use the facilities in his training centre for shooting purposes. Ani was eventually involved in trainings for departing IDWs in that agency, and she used the film as a media. I thought that the manager in the maid agency was quite open-minded. He apparently intended to minimise problems, and saw the film would encourage new IDWs to have clearer vision to work overseas.

To Ani, media had a strong impact on one’s perspective. HHN succeeded in changing the mindset of several IDWs regarding their motivaton to work. While some may have escaped from pains in their lives, many others actually went for financial reason, without really knowing what the money would be for. After watching the film, they questioned the plausibility of the plot. “Working as a maid to go to college?, that’s nonsense,” some of them commented. Ani responded,” Why not. Look at me as the proof.”

Ani’s motivation to work overseas revealed a heart-breaking story. Ani and her mother took turns telling me how their big family considered education unnecessary for women. Back in the 1990s, Ani’s uncle studied Indonesian Literature at the same teachers’ college I went to. “If my uncle could go to college, why couldn’t my mother,” Ani protested in silence. When she was telling me this, I was actually trying to recall whether Ani’s uncle was in my circle of friends.

Ten years had passed since Ani finished her work contract in 2003, yet not much had changed in terms of people’s perception of education. She went straight to college in Surabaya, on which her neighbours commented cynically. “What’s that for? She will end up going abroad again,” Ani’s mom imitated the neighbours’ comment, indicating a common perception that once one becomes a domestic worker, she will always be one. On the other hand, Ani perceives education as the most important aspect in one’s life. “I believe that I can get out of poverty through school.” I couldn’t agree more. Her book and films best represent her spirit.

Ani’s days have always been filled with literacy practices. She liked to write since high school. Whilst in Hong Kong, she wrote about her days in her diary. She would later change the format into a novel and offered it to some publishers, who rejected it. It was only when she was more settled in film production that her work, now back to its diary format, was published under the title Once Upon a Time in Hong Kong.

There were a number of factors that had enabled Ani to accomplish all of these. She was fortunate to work for an educated couple in Hong Kong. Her female employer worked at the university. They actually requested Ani to extend the contract, but let her finish a month earlier upon knowing that Ani was determined to go to college. By contract, early termination may have put Ani in heavy fines.

Ani saw herself as an IDW who was free from any discriminating treatment. She was even responsible for managing main financial obligations in the employer’s family, making her know her employers’ professions and their earnings. Furthermore, Ani’s room offered more-than-sufficient private space.

An egalitarian employer-employee relation between Ani and her employers continued beyond the contract term. When Ani did the shooting in Hong Kong for her other film, Mengusahakan Cinta (Fighting for Love) (2010), her female employer appeared in some scenes. This film is about women’s right to define their own reproductive rights.

Of all the films you have directed, which one did you like most?” I asked her. She quickly mentioned HHN. Both the film and her diary had been reviewed in various public events. Somehow, I assumed that the opportunity to speak before an audience had changed her shyness to confidence. Ani herself admitted that she once hid her identity as a returning migrant worker. However, upon receiving encouraging reactions from the society, she realised that her status was not something to be ashamed of. In fact, she could utilise it to make people aware of the importance of clear vision when one decides to work overseas. Ani also recalled her neighbours’ change of attitude. Now, knowing her reputation in the world of creative industry, they eventually looked up to her. Ani had become a role model for young women in her village. “I want my daughter to be like Ani. She can go abroad first, get enough money, then go to college,” Ani imitated one neighbour’s statement.

Spending two engaging hours with Ani and her family, I saw a very different profile of an IDW, one who is smart and opinionated, unlike the common pictures I read of IDWs in the previous studies. While dumb and passive workers do exist within IDWs’ community, and such representation also prevails in Indonesian society, such identity is actually constructed by its sociocultural context. This means that the negative stereotypes can be reconstructed. I believe that the media can play a tremendous role in identity reconstruction. Therefore, I offered myself to do movie screenings of HHN for various audiences. Ani agreed and promised to send me a copy.

Overcoming poverty through education. Getting out of misery through books. These messages kept buzzing in my ears. This urge kept me awake at a business lounge of Soekarno-Hatta airport, while I was waiting for my flight back home to Surabaya. I have no doubt that more amazing stories are waiting for me out there. In some small towns in East Java. In Hong Kong. They are not stories of pains, but the power of words. IDWs’ literacy practices are the evidence that they also have voices worth listening to.

Soekarno-Hatta airport, Jakarta, 8 December 2012

[1] Mbak is a common Javanese address for a female adult.

[2] Dik literally means sister or brother. It’s commonly used to address people of younger age.