Meet the woman behind The Helper documentary
Joanna Bowers is a woman on a mission. As a producer, filmmaker and mama she has always been passionate about telling stories while communicating larger issues. Inspired by her own helper’s story – and domestic helpers in Hong Kong – she set off to create an eye-opening (and hopefully “heart-opening”) documentary about these women’s lives. So often, the polarising conversation around domestic helpers causes many to disagree about their views online. Joanna hopes that this film highlights the complicated and often sacrificial choice these women make by coming to Hong Kong to work for our families. The film’s aim is to highlight these incredible women and foster appreciation and empathy towards them. We’ve been big fans of Joanna as she started off this project via Kickstarter two years ago, and we can’t wait to see all her hard work come to fruition. Learn more about how Joanna balances her work and home life and be inspired by her film, “The Helper” documentary as it comes out in select theatres this summer. Make sure to “like” their Facebook page to get updates on the film.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you ended up in Hong Kong.
I grew up in the UK and was lucky enough to go to a very international school where I made friends from all around the world. That played a big part in opening my eyes to how many places and cultures there were to explore. The day after I graduated from university I moved to Dubai for my first job!
Later, I followed my dreams to Los Angeles where I spent 11 years in the film and television industry, eventually working my way up to producing, directing, and setting up my own company Cheeky Monkey Productions, with the ambitious goal of creating content for an international audience, exploring stories that might not normally be given a voice, and finding compelling and unique ways of telling them.
When I arrived in Hong Kong for a visit on a whim in 2011, I was impressed by how supportive the government is of entrepreneurs. I set up Cheeky Monkey Productions Asia here, landed my first big commercial client (who booked me for a shoot that took us all over Asia), and haven’t looked back! Hong Kong has such a vibrant film culture and is a great place from which to make content that appeals to both Eastern and Western audiences. As a filmmaker, I’m enjoying the unique and inspiring perspective it gives me.
I also met my husband, Alex, in Hong Kong, and our daughter, Jemima, was born here, so it was the right move on so many levels!
Where did the idea of “The Helper” documentary come from and what is it about?
From my first weekend in Hong Kong, I was fascinated by the visual spectacle of thousands of domestic workers sitting out on the walkways in Central. The storyteller in me knew instinctively this was something to be explored, that these women’s stories were going to be worth sharing, but at first I had no idea how to go about telling them.
Several years later, through my producing partner Tony Verb, we were introduced to The Domestic Helpers Roundtable which was an initiative out of Hong Kong University working on issues facing migrant workers in Hong Kong. That forum introduced us to everyone involved in the sector – NGOs, unions, consulates and more, which gave us a broad understanding of the issues facing domestic workers and access to a lot of women with stories to tell. I also saw Jane Engelman’s video of her Unsung Heroes choir singing “I Wish I Could Kiss You Goodnight”, bawled my eyes out watching it, and knew they had to be involved in the film too!
“The Helper” documentary chronicles the diverse stories from Hong Kong’s migrant domestic workers, exploring the immense contribution they make to society in the face of heart-breaking separation from their loved ones.
After interviewing many domestic helpers, what was an occurring theme to their story?
The recurring elements in almost every woman’s story was the maternal sacrifice they had made in order to create a better future for their children. That became our central issue and a jumping off point for most of our storylines. The irony is that the presence of such capable caregivers here in Hong Kong enables so many local mothers to comfortably return to the workforce – sacrificing spending time with their children in order to bring a second income into the family to also make life better. The parallels are evident. As a result of this, our film is a celebration of women empowering women, a profile of the inspirational strength of mothers no matter where they come from in the world. You can find our more about “The Helper” documentary here.
What were some challenges you faced when pursuing this project?
Initially the biggest challenge was finding the funding needed to produce a feature documentary, but we ran a successful Kickstarter “crowdfunding” campaign and that confirmed there was an audience for our film. Once we began filming, the main challenge was earning the trust of the women whose stories we wanted to tell enough that they would open up and share their vulnerability with us on film. We worked hard for that, and I think being a female director and a mother really helped.
What was one memorable moment or story in the process of creating this film?
There have been so many incredible moments making this film – constant yoyo-ing from laughter to tears (particularly given that I was pregnant with Jemima for a lot of the filming and full of hormones!).
One particularly memorable moment happened just before the climax of one of the main story lines, when the Unsung Heroes choir were due to perform on stage at Clockenflap music festival. I may have been a little ambitious in assuming that I would have no problems being on-location to direct the shoot at nearly nine months pregnant. So I was rather disappointed when my blood-pressure shot up five days before the show and my doctor admitted me to hospital, assuring me that I wouldn’t be leaving until the baby arrived! As a result, I had a wonderfully exciting evening watching the show on Clockenflap’s live stream from my hospital room (and my fab team did a great job with the filming in my absence!).
What do you hope to accomplish with your film?
I’d love to create a shift in how domestic helpers are perceived. To have them recognised and valued as an incredibly important part of Hong Kong society and for that feeling to translate into a feeling of gratitude and empathy towards them.
How has this film changed your relationship with your domestic helper and how you view the many women who work here for families in Hong Kong?
In many ways, our helper, Janai, was a huge part of the inspiration to make this film. She grew up in the Philippines while her mum was away working here in Hong Kong as a domestic helper. Her stories have given me a huge insight into just how complex life is for these families. She’s saving to return home to earn her master’s degree, so she can have a career and hopefully make her mum’s incredible sacrifice worthwhile. I really respect that.
As a mother myself, I have so much admiration for the strength of Hong Kong’s domestic helpers and the sacrifices they make. I’m also conscious of the fact that it’s just by virtue of the place I was born that I’m not in a similar situation.
Can you tell us about how your career was pre-baby as compared to post-baby?
I used to spend a lot of time on planes, particularly going back and forth to the US for projects, so I’ve definitely travelled a lot less for work during this first year or so. I’ve really embraced being able to work remotely with people now thanks to technology, so I’m also probably a lot more efficient with my time.
How do you balance work and mama life?
Having my own company means that I can mostly dictate my own work schedule and choose whether I work from the office or at home (unless I’m on a shoot or in an edit suite) so that gives me a lot more flexibility. I often take Monday mornings and Friday afternoons off to go to Kindermusik and My Gym classes or play dates with Jemima – so that usually means catching up on work after she goes to bed. But getting to spend that time with her makes it so worthwhile since she’s growing up so fast!
Read more: Our Guide to Indoor Playgrounds
How do you save time? Can you share any organisational tips and tricks?
I write a lot of lists and most weeks I order groceries online from HonestBee to be delivered! Janai is also fantastically organised and so she’s integral to keeping us all running smoothly.
Read more: Top Online Grocery Stores in Hong Kong
What do you do to get in that “me” time?
Doing yoga or going for a run definitely play a part, but the honest answer is drinking wine with my girlfriends! A lot of them have children who are at similar ages so it’s great to share stories and laugh about it all.
What do you find to be the most challenging part of parenting?
Sleep deprivation! Jemima is generally a pretty good sleeper, but how brutal are those sleep regression nights? Thankfully, my husband, Alex and I take turns getting up.
Favourite family holiday spot?
Alex’s sister lives in Tuscany, Italy, and my brother lives in the south of France, so I love taking Jemima both places to spend time with her cousins during the summer. There are endless opportunities for road-trips in between the two places!
What are your favourite spots to eat at with your family in Hong Kong?
We both love cooking so we tend to eat at home quite a bit. When we do venture out, Metropolitan in Sai Ying Pun and Little Creatures in Kennedy Town are favourites. Jemima also loves the avocado toastie from Winston’s Coffee Shop in Sai Ying Pun, which we take to the park with us.
Read more: Our Favourite Brunch Spots in Kennedy Town
What’s the best advice you’ve received as a parent?
Everything changes constantly…
The unsolicited kind.
Something that you wish someone had told you about motherhood?
How much you laugh.
What has been your most humbling moment as a mum?
So many “covered in poop stories”… where to start?
How do you keep the romance between you and your husband alive with such a busy work and family life?
Put baby to bed at 7 pm! Having the evenings to ourselves is key.
As a mama, I wish I were better at…
Remembering the names of my daughter’s friends’ parents!
I wake up in the middle of night thinking about…
Whatever film I’m working on. I’m often writing or editing in my dreams!
Bedtime is always smoother when…
Jemima’s Kissy Rabbit (the smelliest little rabbit in Hong Kong) is on hand.
My favourite moment of the day is…
When we go into Jemima’s room in the morning and she beams one of her great big smiles at us and jumps up and down with excitement!