Director Joanna Bowers on documentary The Helper and empowering women

One of our favourite films of 2017 so far is a documentary. It happens to feature our favourite mountain climber and domestic worker, Liza Avelino, who is climbing Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds for HELP. If you haven’t seen The Helper, put it on your must-watch list. Director Joanna Bowers is the talent behind the lens that wanted to shed some light on the domestic worker community in Hong Kong. We caught up with Joanna and discussed the challenges and opportunities of this incredible documentary.

HELP: What is The Helper about?

Joanna: The Helper chronicles diverse stories from Hong Kong’s domestic worker community, uncovering the inspiring combination of grit, pride and determination that drives them. In a city, renowned for wealth and luxury, The Helper brings to light the sacrifices they make to support families - both in Hong Kong and at home. Often seen as the second mother in many homes, the stories show the immense contribution they make to Hong Kong society; a domestic backbone provided to so many. This is in the face of heart-breaking separation from their loved ones. Each feel wrenched from families, often missing crucial stages in their children’s lives, but do so willingly to financially provide for them. Yet these contributions regularly feel under-recognised, and the constraints suffered by many leave them feeling exposed, and sometimes even homeless. False accusations, relationships and financial hardship often means they struggle for a fair hearing.  But the overriding message is a positive one. The Helper gives a human face to an often-critiqued community, countering negativity with uplifting stories of personal achievement.

HELP: What inspired you to create The Helper?

Joanna: As soon as I arrived in Hong Kong and spent time in Central on a Sunday I was fascinated by the stories of all the “domestic helpers" congregated on their days off - unable to blend in with the rest of society because of their financial restrictions. I was introduced to my producing partner, Tony Verb, as someone who also wanted to create some content exploring migrant domestic workers and through his membership of the WEF’s Global Shapers community here in HK, we were connected to the domestic helpers roundtable initiative. We were suddenly introduced to key organisations working with migrant workers and knew that we’d have the access we needed to make a film.

HELP: What were the biggest challenges you faced during filming and how did you overcome them?

Joanna: The first challenge was, naturally, funding. We ran a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised most of the funding we required. It was also a great way to determine whether there was an audience for the film. The resounding support we received both during and after the campaign has been a wonderful confirmation that people are interested in these women and their lives and want to know more.

The second challenge was finding our main subjects for the film and earning their trust so they would share their experiences with us. We needed them to give us access to their lives – and to have all our conversations captured on film! Unequivocally, every one of the women we profiled in the film has been through an incredibly difficult and emotionally fraught journey. I was so grateful to them for being brave enough to share their experiences with us.

Thirdly, I was pregnant with our daughter Jemima during most of the filming of the documentary. I was so excited to be making this film that I had to remember to sit down and take rests and remember that I couldn’t jump around or carry equipment quite as much as normal!

HELP: How long did this project take to create and what do you hope to achieve from it?

Joanna: We started filming interviews for the Kickstarter trailer in around April/May 2015 and we just had our Hong Kong premiere of the completed film on 14 May 2017. It only took two years in total from conception to completion, which is incredibly quick for a documentary!

We hope to create a shift in perception with the documentary – to share insights into the lives of these incredible women with the goal of increasing empathy towards them and to ultimately improve how they are treated and respected at large. The Helper is all about maternal sacrifice and women empowering women. These universal themes are very timely as the number of migrants globally increases.

HELP: What’s the best piece of advice someone’s ever given you?
Joanna: Just go for it! Extraordinary things happen when you attempt the hardest challenges. I’ve found this to be very true.

HELP: What advice would you give to a domestic worker who's interested in doing something other than domestic work?

Joanna: I’m continually inspired and impressed by the incredible domestic workers that I meet in Hong Kong who are focused on a dream and intent on achieving it. It can’t be easy when you are also a fulltime domestic worker! Two of the women we feature in the film, Liza Avelino and Joy Carbonnel, both have plans for new careers and I’m so excited watching them steadily moving towards those goals. I’ve also been very touched by the generous offers of support and guidance I’ve received from many different professionals to help empower these women to achieve their dreams. To domestic workers interested in doing something other than domestic work, my advice would be don’t afraid to ask for help!  

The Helper features several inspiring women, including Liza Avelino, who is climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in August 2017 to help support our organisation. You can learn more about Liza and donate to her fundraiser online.

Follow The Helper Documentary on Facebook and on the website,

Joanna graduated from the University of Leeds with a BA in Broadcast Journalism before beginning her career in film in Los Angeles starting in television commercial production.  Working her way up in the industry, roles included content development for Warner Music Group and networks including MTV, VH1 and CMT, and casting independent feature films and digital television content for the Publicis Group, before she began her directing career unwittingly when asked to direct the short film Inviolate Rose.  This was quickly followed by a TV pilot and a range of other commercial, fashion and narrative projects. Joanna now lives in Hong Kong working as a producer, writer and director creating original content throughout Asia via her company Cheeky Monkey Productions. Recent shoots for brands include Cathay Pacific, HSBC and The North Face. Joanna just premiered her feature directorial debut, Kickstarter funded “The Helper” documentary chronicling 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. Joanna is currently in post-production on feature documentary “Inside Out" she is producing.