By Arnel Ramos

They are true, devoid of pretense, and full of life and hope in the face of drudgery. They are the true heroes. They are the true beauty queens.

Some of the best television programs in any given year are more often than not in the documentary format. But documentary as full length feature is still a novelty in these shores, especially in the case of the heartwarming and heartbreaking Sunday Beauty Queen, it happens to be an official entry in this year’s hotly-debated Metro Manila Film Festival.

It is actually hard to find fault in this movie. It is that good and real and spontaneous. Not once does the viewer feel that a scene was staged, which is, in this writer’s mind, one of the pitfalls of doing documentaries.

Sunday Beauty Queen uses the mini-stories of five female domestic helpers in Hong Kong as microcosm for the stories of the thousands of others who are struggling with a similar plight. Combating homesickness, these workers also risk losing their jobs if they break Sunday curfew, or when their employer dies, and are only given two weeks to find anew employer or face deportation.

Sunday Beauty Queen follows them as they stick together on their one free day of the week, finding escape and camaraderie in competing and supporting an ongoing annual calendar of pageants.

One of these women, Leo, who is actually a lesbian, is the organizer of the pageants and a community leader for the Filipino workers.

Director Baby Ruth Villarama paints a devastating portrait of women who work hard for the families they left behind and are selfless and resilient. The beauty pageant actually becomes an event that liberates the contestants and at the same time helps others, the spectator-workers, survive a tough and lonely predicament.

Chances are you have a heart of stone if you won’t feel a lump in your throat when one of these women narrate how she has been terminated by her employer and it was her son’s birthday the next day and she’d probably just call him and greet him because it was all that she could send his way and then she stops short, her tears suddenly falling profusely.

Or watch out for that scene where a worker who cares for a sick old man receives aphone call from one of the man’s daughters. She breaks the news of the old man’s death and breaks the nanny’s heart.

But then these moving scenes are interspersed with unintended humor as the beauty queen hopefuls vie for the title.

The miracle of BabyruthVillarama’s documentary is that it doesn’t present these women’s collective plight as something we should take pity on. Instead what it derives from the viewer is empathy, that feeling of understanding and sharing one or more persons’ experiences and emotions. Produced by Voyage Studios, Tuko Film Productions, Buchi Boy Entertainment and Artikulo Uno Productions, Sunday Beauty Queen is one of the best films of 2016, and not just of the festival. It features non-actors who are so much better than twenty starlets combined.

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