In the Philippines, prostitution is not just lucrative business – it’s an industry. Hope in Heaven, by filmmaker Meredith Ralston, examines the country’s sex trade and the young women it traps. Seen through the eyes of two idealistic female students and a male university professor, the film captures two years of Mila’s life and the people who befriend her, the poverty and squalor she lives in, and her hope that one day a foreigner will rescue her. It is poignant and heartbreaking.
Directed by Meredith Ralston and narrated by Kiefer Sutherland, Hope in Heaven is part of a five-year development project funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in cooperation with Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU) and Saint Mary’s University, of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Ralston, a member of MSVU’s Women’s Studies and Political Studies Departments, was the co-project director in the Philippines’ project. It was here she met Mila and felt compelled to depict her story on film for the world to see. Hope in Heaven is her fifth documentary.
The film depicts the social hygiene clinic where hundreds of young women line up daily for health checks in primitive conditions. Following these visits, the women are issued passes certifying their good health. They wear these badges around their necks or on their bikinis while dancing for the Western men. Interviews with prostitutes, mama-sans, community workers, academics and clients expose the complexity of prostitution in two very different cultures. More sobering, seventeen girls (some as young as ten years old) are rescued from a casa, a local brothel and caught disturbingly on film.
Once the film was completed, Ralston knew she needed a powerful voice to convey the magnitude of the devastating conditions in Angeles City. Her first and only choice for the narration was actor Kiefer Sutherland. With strong Canadian roots and a stronger social conscience, Sutherland was readily on board.
“They call me dumb-dumb.”
Mila, a 20-year-old bar girl trapped in the Philippines sex tourism industry.
Who We Meet…
Mila — a Filipino bar girl, 20, from the provinces who is supporting her family from afar. She doesn’t like what she’s doing but hopes to meet an American man and get out of poverty and out of Heaven. Sweet, innocent and probably lying about her age, she loves Angela and Steve and follows them around the squalor in which she lives.
Agnes — a Filipino community worker, 45, from Angeles who works with the bar girls of Fields Avenue. She’s seen a lot and has lost hope that she can help many of the girls, but she still tries.
Angela — a University student, 22, from Truro, Nova Scotia. From a working class family, she is down to earth, optimistic and she loves everything about the Philippines. Angela has a Filipino boyfriend and wants to stay in the county as long as she can.
Jessica — a University student, 23, from Toronto. Jessica is from a middle class family, is self confident and idealistic. She hates the sex trade, the city and being a white woman in a Filipino town.
Stephen — Canadian, 45, ex-cop from Spryfield, Nova Scotia. He is currently a Psychology professor at MSVU in Halifax. Stephen is a self-reflective, politically correct white man in a sexual environment and has a hard time with the men’s chummy attitude towards him and shows it. The attention paid to him by the young girls makes him angry, sad and uncomfortable.
All profits from the film will be donated to the Women Helping Women Center in Angeles, Philippines, and specifically to Mila, who suffers from tuberculosis and quite possibly, HIV.