When Mother Comes Home for Christmas

Country of Origin: ,
Running Time: 109 min

When Mother Comes Home For Christmas, directed by Nilita Vachani, follows the life of Josephine, a domestic worker in Greece, as she prepares to go to home for Christmas after eight years away from her family. Vachani films the personal moments of Josephine’s life, capturing her caring for Isadora, her young Greek charge, cleaning the windows of her employer’s home and packaging up all the gifts she’ll take back to Sri Lanka.

Josephine is one of many Sri Lankan women who migrate to Greece, Europe and the Middle East to perform care work, sending the money home that sustains their families. In the documentary, Vachani captures a workshop, run by the Sri Lankan bureau of employment, that trains women how to use blenders, microwaves and vacuums. The trainers also tell the women how to behave and to “Never let them think you are lazy.” The workshop even provides a section on training how to use a condom, specifically about getting protection from AIDS.

Sri Lanka is in the business of exporting domestic workers, as the statistics played across the screen (70% of women workers are in care work abroad) tell us. Even at the airport, as Josephine’s family waits for her to arrive, the radio plays a song that honors domestic workers, claiming “how lucky to work in a foreign land, lucky for government protection…I promise to return home with treasures for everyone.”

However, we also see the great cost of this migration. Scenes of Josephine helping Isadora get up in the morning are followed by a scene of Josephine’s son, Suminda, at his boarding school in Sri Lanka, getting up with a group of young boys, without any parental figures. The voiceovers of letters are perhaps the most painful, as we hear the short words between Josephine and her family. In one letter to Josephine’s sister, we learn that she has been caring for Josephine’s children, as Josephine apologizes for Suminda’s troublesome behavior and promises that she’ll buy something at the duty free on the way home.

The costs of migrant domestic work, the tensions and strains transnational families, and their hopes for the future are most strongly felt as Josephine returns to Sri Lanka for her month-long visit. We learn that she has earned enough money for her elder son to buy a bus and enough that she and the family can search for a house to buy. We also learn all the ways in which money is tied to tough family decisions, as her daughter prepares to get married and Josephine must negotiate with the groom’s family about a dowry.

Just as the film begins with long takes of the sea, sliding out from under a moving boat, Vachani ends the film with a long take of the ground, sliding out from under a moving train, as Josephine reads her first letter back to her children after her visit, expressing her regrets, her hopes for the future, as the train enters a tunnel and disappears from sight.


In Global Woman, by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hochschild, a description of When Mother Comes Home for Christmas is included in the introduction. They write, “For Josephine can either live with her children in desperate poverty or make money by living apart from them. Unlike her affluent First World employers, she cannot both live with her family and support it” (2).

Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration, and Domestic Work, Rhacel Salazar Parreñas

“Remittances: The Perpetual Migration Machine” Michele Wucker (2004)

Hide and Seek (Dir: Su Friedrich, 1996)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 64 min

Produced by Eva Kolodner and Katie Roumel
Black and White, 16mm
Distributed by Women Make Movies

Hide and Seek is a film that includes both documentary and narrative in telling the story of young and adolescent lesbians as they are first discovering their sexual orientation. The documentary sections are all reflective: older women remembering their youth and their feelings surrounding sexuality. They often speak about gender expression, specifically whether they were “tomboys,” refusing to wear dresses, playing rough and dirty games, and almost exclusively hanging around with the boys. Though this is an entirely legitimate reminiscence of lesbians, it potentially conflates gender and sexuality, making lesbians somehow less female than heterosexual women. In addition to reflections on gender expression, the women reflect on their early desires for other women ranging from friends to teachers and their experimentation, especially with friends. These documentary sections are interspersed with an acted out narrative of a young girl, Lou, displaying many of the characteristics described by the women. Lou, a young tomboy, refuses to wear dresses, plays with the boys, and by all indications, has a crush on her best friend. As the film progresses and Lou and her friends grow older, Lou’s female friends begin talking about boys, making her feel even more excluded from their heteronormative female world. Meanwhile, she also gets her period, excluding her from the boys and making her “a woman,” as her mother insists to her daughter’s great chagrin. The film ends still in the girl’s early adolescence. She does not come out as a lesbian, and the women in the documentary do not speak about their experiences coming out to family and friends, only to themselves, and only partially. Mostly it addresses youthful experiences surrounding gender and sexuality experienced by lesbians rather than a coming to terms with a lesbian identity within oneself and within the context of a heteronormative world. Indeed, Lou’s 1960’s world seems to be a wonderful place of nice friends and family and no racial or class tensions. This rose-tinted world is reflected in the documentary reflections of the older women. They recall little in the way of tension especially in terms of race and class, as if these issues do not intersect with or affect youth and sexuality.

Added by Professor White: New York-based Su Friedrich has been making experimental personal films since the 1970s and is known for her rigorously structured, precisely edited work, which brings together queer and feminist filmmaking and the avant-garde. Gently Down the Stream, Sink or Swim and Damned if You Don’t are in the Tri-College collection.

Useful sources:
Griffith, C.A. and H.L.T. Quan. “Feminisms and Youth Cultures” Rev. of The F Word, Hide and Seek, and Daughters of Dykes. Signs. Vol. 23, No. 3, Spring 1998. Pp. 862-867.

Holmlund, Chris: “When Autobiography Meets Ethnography and Girl Meets Girl: The ‘Dyke Docs’ of Sadie Benning and Su Friedrich”
In (pp. 127-43) Holmlund, Chris (ed. and introd.); Fuchs, Cynthia (ed. and introd.); McAfee, Lynda (filmography and videography) , Between the Sheets, in the Streets: Queer, Lesbian, Gay Documentary. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 1997. x, 274 pp.. ( Minneapolis, MN: Visible Evidence 1 ). (1997)

Subject Headings:
Lesbian Teenagers
Teenage Girls
Gender Identity
Coming Out (Sexual orientation)

Alexandra (Sasha) Raskin 2007