Vous êtes servis

7/05 – 20:00
Halles de Schaerbeek
9, 15, 16/05 – 18:00
8/05 – 20:00
FR / Indonesian > NL / FR

To Serve, a three-part project that examines the present mechanisms and worldwide branching of ‘domestic personnel’ as a social phenomenon, will be premiered at this year’s festival. The three-part structure of the work makes three different approaches possible. The point of reference of this ambitious creation is Jorge León’s Vous êtes servis, a film in which he reveals how young Indonesian girls are recruited and trained to become a maid. Each month, thousands of them leave for the Asian mainland or the Middle East in search of a better life. But the dream often turns into a nightmare: without papers, exploited and abused, they soon find themselves treated as modern slaves. Still, they keep pouring in: schools incessantly receive new recruits eager to learn about rules of conduct, patience and how to use microwave ovens. León reveals a complex economical and social system that is mostly hidden and often leads to disastrous outcomes. But his camera also manages to capture the human dimension: glances, a smile or a meaningful silence reveal the women’s personalities and the stories behind the faces.

Jorge León

Quentin Jacques,
Abdi Kusuma Surbakti

Jasna Krajinovic

Marie-Hélène Mora

Luc Thomas

Kunstenfestivaldesarts, KVS, Halles de Schaerbeek


Centre de l’Audiovisuel à Bruxelles, RTBF

Supported by
Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Damaged Goods, Centre pour l’égalité des chances et la lutte contre le racisme/Centrum voor gelijkheid van kansen en voor racismebestrijding, Fondation Roi Baudoin /Koning Boudewijnstichting, Communauté française Wallonie-Bruxelles, Loterie National/Nationale Loterij

Thanks to
Centre du Cinéma et de l’Audio visuel de la Communauté française de Belgique

Project coproduced by
NXTSTP, with the support of the Culture Programme of the European Union

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Vous êtes servis

On present-day servitude

There was a “small” event that triggered your project.

Yes, I met a girl who was originally from Indonesia who, with a whole group of servants, had been brought over as part of the luggage of a prince and his family from the United Arab Emirates who were staying in a hotel in Brussels. This girl had run away because she could no longer put up with the violence she encountered in her dealings with the princesses. She’s now trying to be acknowledged in Belgium as a victim of human trafficking and a trial is due in a few months. By escaping, this young woman performed a highly symbolic act with her desire to live resulting in her thwarting the illusion of fate. In the conversations we had, she found it very hard to talk about it because she greatly feared reprisals. She confided to me in bursts. I rapidly understood that this girl’s life was remarkable because she had rebelled, but that several other women shared her situation. I set off for Indonesia in the hope of understanding. How could a girl of twenty come to Belgium in circumstances like this? What are the stages in this remarkable journey? What is the logic underpinning it?

In Indonesia, on the ground, how were you able to break the law of silence, if there is one?

I soon discovered that the whole world knows about this industry and this type of practice, which happen to be legal and backed by the government. But almost no one knows how it really works. When I started speaking to training centres, people were astonished. I was given the opportunity of filming in one of these centres, which allowed me to understand and follow the industry. Recruiters there go to extremely poor villages and offer young girls work as maids in the Middle East or in Asia, Taiwan and Singapore for example. They’re offered much higher salaries than they could ever earn in Indonesia, as well as the possibility of going to these countries without incurring expenses at the outset. The recruiter will get paid, but retrospectively. Obviously it isn’t always this straightforward. Some women have to mortgage a piece of land or a house to finance their training in one of several training centres found in Java’s main towns. This is where they learn how to be a servant: how to use the microwave and the washing machine, and the basics of their future employer’s language so that they can understand the orders they’re given. And then they wait. It’s impossible to predict how long they’ll stay there: sometimes a few weeks, sometimes several months until the agents of the centre they’re at find them an employer. Obviously their stay at the centre has to be paid for.

And who does pay for this training and for their stay at the centre?

They do. To start with, no one asks them for money other than for enrolment fees. It will be taken afterwards, deducted at source from their first salary payments. And that’s when their future is revealed. If they’re lucky and are sent to kind bosses, they can return home with a sum of money. On the other hand, if things go badly, they go really badly. When they master the language a bit and find themselves with employers who have very specific demands, they experience a hostile world from which it is hard to escape. Rape, abuse, outrageous working hours…

But the hope for a better life is a powerful driving force; people talk of thousands of women leaving Indonesia every month to work abroad as maids. It’s a system that works very well. Leaving a country is also about wanting to prove that you’re capable of building a better life. Failure is taken badly by everyone around them, so they have to keep quiet about their suffering. I found out about what they endure through statements and letters, some of which are read out in the film.

There are two extremes in your film: the apparent “normality” of life in the training centres where you had access – apparently without too much difficulty or the need for a hidden camera – and the violence described in the letters that are read out and reveal a different reality.

What appears “acceptable” on screen came after several rejections, mainly in Jakarta. A growing number of associations are raising the issue of abuse and NGOs are not popular with the recruitment agencies. A foreigner wanting to film inside those places is bound not to be welcome. There are also centres that are not recognised by the authorities and unfit for habitation and worse besides: behind the door of one of them I saw around ten girls neglected like human animals. It would have been very hard for me to forge a real link in a place where people are not even able to communicate. This link is vital to me and I wasn’t remotely interested in the option of filming secretly. So I filmed in a centre that looked like a girls’ school.

Isn’t it all the more terrible that this system seems so “normal”? What is abnormal has been permitted and legitimised. They don’t have to be secret about it.

Yes, but even within this completely legitimate industry, some of their practices are being compared to the mafia, for example the link with debt. People leave and once they’re far away deductions are made from their salary. The girls are told they have to pay expenses that no one ever mentioned before, sometimes exorbitant ones. It is then that the system reveals its perversity. Some women who, after initially working abroad, come back to their family with their salary are forced to leave again to help their children or husband, fully aware of what awaits them. The young woman who opens the film was on her third period of exile, each one unhappier than the last. She came from a centre where trainers dressed in military uniform and forced recruits to get up at night and go and count gravestones in a cemetery… If they were able to confront imaginary demons, they would be able to handle the other demons encountered elsewhere. What she told me became a long monologue which doesn’t have a place in the film, but might be included in the play which will form part of a triptych on this topic, with Vous êtes servis at its heart.

Through the letters, your film reveals a very harsh reality: loneliness, exhaustion and psychological bullying.

Everyone knows about it, but without knowing how it really works. As soon as people knew I was interested in this reality, they were very natural in the help they gave. In a village, I met a man who had collected letters written by women from their place of work and addressed to their relatives. I had these letters translated and that was when the violence of their situations appeared in all its brutality. I decided that a disembodied voice, a voice without a body, would read some of these letters and give “news from the front”.

How did you organise your findings and come up with a structure for your film?

In the training centre I soon realised that it would be impossible for me to attach myself to anyone in particular, to a particular girl, because she might be leaving the next day. I had to accept that they might leave and this was crucial when I was writing the film. I devised a quite linear structure: a woman arrives and a woman leaves. From a dramaturgical point of view, the idea was to create a sense of continuity in these girls’ journeys, but experienced by different people. The girls symbolically hand over the baton, we move with them to the different stages they encounter as they do their training. So there is a to-ing and fro-ing in the form, created between the notion of the group and the individual.

The relationship to the body, to its loss, is central. As maids, these women are condemned to being invisible, melting away into uniforms that merely indicate their function.

And the shots of objects?

These are “still lifes”. These items were already around when I was writing, but as interfaces, mediators between the person who serves and the one being served. And then comes the scene with the photo shoot which was essential. All the girls who come to the centre have to go through a rite of passage. Their hair is cut and they pose against a red backdrop, dressed up as maids. This is where I got the idea of using the red background for exhibiting the objects. Like them, the women are reified, already dispossessed. In Indonesia I learnt that smiling in a photo is contrary to all proprieties. Generally it’s believed unseemly to show one’s teeth. But this is what they are asked to do and it seemed an extremely violent act to me. This photo session poses the question of the relationship with the subject.

In your film you rejected the idea of seeing them in their employers’ houses or listening to and filming the employers.

The idea I started with was that never to feature any discussion “about” things or close to them. I listened to the girls and the recruiters. A different film could have been made. But I chose a zone, one where words are rarely heard. We know what the masters say, in everyday life it’s always being offered in a variety of forms. I never wanted a film with double standards. Then we’d have been getting into conducting an investigation or a sociological study. I wanted to make a film from the inside. Based on these women and their experiences.

All the violence is off-camera?

What should I show of these links to everyday life at the employer’s? Either show nothing – in front of the camera the whole world would be playing a role – or get caught up in a sort of voyeurism where I’d find it hard to imagine filming a girl being ill-treated. When writing, I’d decided not to go beyond the airport and separation, not to enter somewhere else. The airport is a heavily symbolic place. These girls are going away and I’m going away too. And then, later in the editing, I introduced this elsewhere through the objects … For a few seconds we leave the airport, and images appear from a golden world, a possible Eldorado.

And the soundtrack? There are very different tonalities between the scenes of everyday life and the voiceovers reading letters.

It was like putting together a piece of music. We were filming in a really noisy place. It was next to a busy road, there was a dreadful racket but at the same time there was something interesting in the violence. Meanwhile we recorded the reading of the letters in absolute silence, in the depths of the countryside, because no sound studio was available... In terms of perception, there is a contrast between the outside world and this internalised tonality. The letters are read by a woman who set up a dance school to offer these young girls an alternative. She’s not deluding herself, but she’s doing something locally in her own way.

A conversation between Jorge Leónand Jacqueline Aubenas

Brussels, 13 February 2010

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Jorge León (°1967) graduated at the Brussels Institut National Supérieur des Arts du Spectacle (INSAS) and has been working as a photographer and film director. He was also active a dramatist and stage designer for various projects. As a photographer, he worked for Belgian and foreign artists and companies, among who Olga de Soto, Wim Vandekeybus and Meg Stuart/Damaged Goods. Léon’s photos have been exhibited at various locations across Belgium and abroad and were published in newspapers such as The Times and Libération. At the 1999 Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Léon created his installation Unfinished Stories. More recently he has been active primarily as a filmmaker, with a series of films including De Sable et de Ciment (2003), Vous êtes Ici (2006), Between Two Chairs (2007) and 10min. (2009).

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