Interview Maren Wickwire, Visual Anthropologist and Filmmaker

Maren Wickwire portrait
© Jill Fager

Your documentary, “Together Apart”, was shown in Cyprus (the temporary home of the Philippine women that you portrayed) for the very first time. How did it feel to see the reactions of the audience?

Standing in the back of the packed event hall at the Goethe Institute, Guil Ann (the young woman portrayed in the film) and I excitedly watched as every single chair was filled. It was an important and successful event for all of us and not less importantly a celebration of our labor of love considering the two years it took from start to finish to make the film. Seeing the high attendance, proved the importance and public interest to talk about issues around domestic workers in Cyprus and globally. It was satisfying to receive engaging questions and feedback during the Q&A session and offered to bring the film to local universities to continue our conversation about labor rights, global economies, transnational motherhood and low wages for migrant workers within the European Union.

How many people watched your documentary at the Goethe-Institut in Nicosia – and how many Cypriots were in the audience?

With more than 150 people attending the event, we were astonished by the large and diverse audience that included many locals, members of the Filipino community and internationals. Karin Varga, the director of the Goethe Institute Nicosia had the briliant idea to combine the film with the powerful photo exhibition Apple’s for Sale by Rebecca Sampson. Together we were able to convey a multidimensional understanding of the nuanced everyday experience of domestic workers here in Cyprus as well as in other countries.

Why do think Cypriots show such little interest in the faith of their housemaids?

That’s a good question we should ask our Cypriot neighbors rather than me speaking for them. Most of the Cypriots I talked to about my film were very curious and expressed mixed feeling about film’s topic. Not seldom, they were either raised by a domestic worker, have a cleaner from southeast Asia, or have hired a foreign worker to take care of their elderly family members. Like one of my protagonists said to me in an interview, without the migrant workers, Cyprus would be paralyzed. For my research I interviewed more than 20 women who all had a different experience with their Cypriot employers. While some women experienced better working environments and less traumatic relationships, most of the women I spoke with worked under challenging and exploitative circumstances. Being systematically forced into a low working class, without the chance to join the Cypriot job market, the women are stigmatized. With my film I wanted to share glimpses into the life-worlds of domestic workers, their weekly rhythms, their hopes and dreams as well as their motivation to go abroad to work under such precarious circumstances. My hope is that my film will change Cyrptiot’s often stigmatizing and racialist perceptions of the more than 40,000 guest workers from the Philippines that contribute in such profound way to the well-being of the most vulnerable people of the Cypriot society, including children and the elderly. And simply see the women as human beings rather than cheap laborers with no agency.

The film concentrates on the long distance relationships of the domestic workers and their families but ignores their working conditions here in Cyprus. Only in the closing credits do you describe the political background and low wages and the fact that the Republic of Cyprus refuses to sign at The Domestic Workers Convention that ensures decent working conditions and fundamental rights for domestic staff. Why was this issue omitted from the documentary?

As you mentioned, the issue was not omitted from the film but was not the main topic. In the mainstream media, domestic workers are often portrayed in light of the horrifying working conditions, sexual harassment, suicide attempts and labor disputes. Rather then following the narratives of victimization, and repeating the stigmatization they are facing in Cyprus, I wanted them to be visible – to be able to proudly tell their life-story. Together Apart shares the complexities and ambiguities of these women’s strategies of mastering their lives abroad as they are oftentimes disconnected from their own families and, in many cases, their children.

You have worked with Guil Ann and her mother, Carren, for a long time so you must have developed a very close relationship with them. Do you normally stay in contact with your protagonists after filming is completed?

Having a background in visual anthropology, instead of trying to convey a neutral, objective and distant position towards my research participants and field site, we became more like friends and very much attached to each other. Going through challenging circumstances, such Carren’s unexpected return home, tied us together beyond the film. We are in touch almost daily via FB messenger and I’m hoping to visit Carren again this year in the Philippines.

You were born in Worms, studied in Berlin, lived in Cyprus for a time and are now living in back in the USA – is “Together Apart” a personal topic?

We live in a time of migration with an increasing movement of people across the globe. Being mobile is for some people considered a privilege, and for others a necessity to sustain their families, escape wars and simply survive. While being fairly mobile myself, I can relate to some of the adjustments and in-between stages domestic workers struggle with. I’m fascinated by the complexities of our time – mainly, living in a globalized world, shifting identities, imagination that is stimulated by our social media feed, changing border landscapes, and the question of citizenship. But what most struck me is the resilience and courage of Carren, Guil Ann and all the other women that I met throughout the last year and the strategies they employed to provide a better future for themselves and their families, which is a fundamental desire that connects all of us across our cultural and socio economic differences.