The never returning guest workers

“In Germany they were called ‘Gastarbeiter’, i.e. guest workers. They were supposed to work in the country for a few years, to save money for their families, and then return home. Workers underwent rigorous health inspections (too demeaning for tourists), and they put up with this in order to earn money to pay for their wedding, to be able to buy a tractor, or to send wages back to their hometown.” [1]

The videos (un)knowingly capture the ‘quirks’ of post-socialist countries. The people comment on the neighbour’s expensive fence. This singling out of expensive (or at least quality) products was a staple of the “Gastarbeiters” (guest workers). If a child came to school with brand new shoes, every adult noticed. If the neighbour has a brand new appliance, the whole street knew. As the narrator states, the mother generation remembers a time when their belongings were taken by the state and ‘re-distributed’. So this new focus on material wealth is showing the transition to capitalism. One grandfather beckons his daughter to come back as “she has land, what else could she need”. As if that piece of land could solve all their troubles in this new regime.

Zoe Aiano’s article Postcard from the Land Without Mothers [2] mentions the narrator acknowledging “the damage caused by the decision to pursue materialist ends at the expense of familial bonds, attempting to heal one generational trauma by unintentionally instigating another”. While it did leave an effect on the children, there is something to note. Even more people immigrated from Moldova since the 1990’s. This is not to downplay the pain of absent mothers, but highlight how the country’s economy left them with little choice. In a 2021 listing of “Sovereign states by employment rate”, Moldova is listed near the bottom. Its employment rate is listed as 47.4, while the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) listed the average as 68.5. [3]

While the proverb “it’s easy to get used to good things” rings true, material goods is not the only reasons mothers embarked on this odyssey. The generational trauma had an effect on several generations from then to today.

An interesting thing to note is that one of the home videos dates to the year 2008. At this time, touchscreen smartphones were becoming more common. [4] The “Instagram” era of internet was a few short years away. And yet, the ending text states that the tapes ceased. A period where real-time video calls and even easier video recordings were available, the connection was lost. The children passed several milestones without their mothers present.

”All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – wrote once Leo Tolstoy. The attempts of recording an “ideal family” fall flat. While the relatives try and show support by urging the children to talk to the camera, the kids aren’t comfortable. One father even continues recording his daughter, despite claiming he isn’t. The mothers would get recording of their children sick with pox, imitating Britney Spears’ fashion choices (low rise pants and belly shirts), drinking alcohol and crying on camera. I imagine that, instead of finding comfort, the mothers would be worried sick.

My father was a migrant worker. Several scenes in the film reminded me of my own childhood. The chickenpox, the school choir, the uncomfortable formal dress and stockings. All those awkward stages of childhood, my grimacing face recorded on home video. In an odd, twisted way, it was comforting to watch someone else having these same experiences growing up. The film’s director, Otilia Babara, stated that the intention was to show audiences that their experience is shared and “it is not only you who lived through this” [5]. While it is a worthy topic in Moldova, this shared experience of “absent worker parent” is also very common in other parts of the world.



Ana Marija Vukovic
ELTE BTK Film Studies