LONDON - A television mini-series from Belgium marked a milestone for Filipinos in Europe after featuring two major characters specifically from the Philippines, complete with bold narratives depicting familiar and plausible experiences of migrants from developing countries.
British Filipino actress Rhoda Montemayor with fellow cast members from Eigen Kweek
“Eigen Kweek”, which launched on Dutch-language Belgian channel Een in October 2013, told the story of a small farming community in West Flanders, where two Filipino sisters settled in search of a better life.
“I believe it’s the first European TV show that has main characters that are specifically Filipina,” said actress Theodosa Tadiar who plays Nenita, a fictional migrant from Caloocan City who moved to Belgium after marrying a local farmer.
The UK-based Filipino actress added she is “proud” of the project, “because there are so many Filipinos in Europe but not a lot of stories about their experiences. I think it’s long overdue and I hope that after this TV show there will be more.”
Filipinos already have a presence in European media, from documentaries on poverty, disasters and travel, to talent shows with Euro-Pinoy contestants, and even on film, theatre and TV shows.
In most cases, however, Filipinos appear only in minor supporting roles, and often as domestic workers or medical staff, or as generic Asian characters without a specific national identity.
Crucially, it is believed Eigen Kweek is among the first of European productions to include well-rounded fictional characters who are depicted specifically as Filipinos from the Philippines.
British Filipina actress Rhoda Montemayor, who plays Nenita’s sister Julita, could hardly believe her eyes when she read the script during the audition process.
“A lot of times when I go up for things, it just says ‘from that part of the world’. This was actually a Filipina character,” she recalled, adding it was an “important” part which carried some pressure.
“It was quite a big task which I was quite nervous about because I wanted to do it properly. It’s hugely important because the characters are so racially specific as Filipinos.”
Montemayor, who recently starred in British film “The Knot”, describes her character Julita as “fun-loving” and “care-free” in contrast to her older sister Nenita who is more “controlled” and “conservative.”
“To represent the Philippines was really important to me,” she said, “specifically for the kind of subject that this covered. Nenita and Julita didn't go over to West Flanders for love, they went out of the desire for a better life which is a reality for a lot of people from the Philippines.”
Tadiar, a seasoned theatre actress in both Manila and London, describes her character Nenita as “strong” due to “a lot of hardship” she had to endure, including abuse from her own husband.
“Her husband is not very nice,” she revealed. “He’s not violent but verbally abusive and very ill-tempered, and treats her basically like a maid. In that sense she’s quite a strong person. She’s had to bear a lot. She is typical of a lot of Filipino who had to move away and undergo this kind of hardships in order to support their family.”
Eigen Kweek stars Theodosia Tadiar and Rhoda Montemayor made a TV appeal on behalf of the Philippines after the devastation of typhoon Haiyan in November 2013
Behind the scenes, the actresses contributed to the authenticity of the script by collaborating with the production team on the details of their roles, particularly on Tagalog dialogues between the Filipino characters.
“We tried to keep the Tagalog more colloquial,” Tadiar noted, “because the translations were a little bit formal. There was a lot of editing going on in the first reading which was really interesting. I’m very grateful that they were open to that.”
Language plays a key part in the mini-series, which uses Flemish, English and Tagalog in its dialogues. It highlights interactions between local Europeans and the migrants that join them in the continent, along with other elements of intercultural relationships.
The British Filipino actresses, who mainly spoke English and Tagalog in real life, experienced the challenges for themselves while on set in Belgium with a European cast and crew.
“I was the foreigner,” said Montemayor, who was born and raised in England. “They were all speaking a different language. I had to stay focused through the whole thing just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. That was difficult. But they all spoke English. So when they spoke to me or gave any directions, they spoke to me in English and everyone was really lovely.”
“There were certain times when we couldn’t be part of the discussion,” Tadiar added. “Rhoda and I just sat in silence, but the crew was very gracious about it. They welcomed us and made us feel comfortable.”
The six-part drama, which is set in rural Heuvelland, tackles a heavy concoction of universal themes covering financial crises, crime, family life, relationships and migration, many of which reflect the current socioeconomic climate and cultural landscape in Europe.
“The challenge was to keep it real,” Tadiar said. “Not melodramatic, not overly sentimental. Just a genuine portrayal of someone in such a situation and to keep it as real as possible.”
“Eigen Kweek” is out now on DVD.