DOXA 2012: Films look at sex trade from different perspectives
There’s an intense legal debate under way in Canada over prostitution, and this year’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival includes several works with timely insights into this issue.
Scarlet Road, directed by Australian Catherine Scott, is an intimate look at how a well-educated, upper-middle-class sex worker named Rachel Wotton brings comfort and physical intimacy to two men with severe disabilities. Reached by phone in Sydney, Scott describes Wotton as a “good friend” who nevertheless imposed strict rules on what could be filmed. Wotton, who has been in the trade for nearly 20 years, told Scott she wasn’t going to be seen pulling a stocking up her leg, and she most certainly wasn’t going to allow her boyfriend to appear in the film.
Scott explains with a laugh how she knew for years that sex workers often have firm boundaries—and how she experienced this firsthand when she started filming. That’s when the director decided to break the rules of documentary filmmaking and show Wotton the rushes.
“The more I could let her into what I was doing—and talking to her, and all that stuff—the more she relaxed,” Scott recalls.
Once this deeper trust was established, Wotton allowed Scott to film her over three years in intimate moments with wheelchair-bound clients John, who has multiple sclerosis, and Mark, who can’t speak because of his cystic fibrosis. In the end, viewers also hear from Mark’s parents and Wotton’s boyfriend.
“She’s offering something quite special,” Scott says. “She’s incredibly skilled to be able to make people feel really good about themselves. She gets a lot of enjoyment about making people feel good. I think that comes through.”
In Australia, Wotton is an articulate and high-profile sex-workers’ advocate, which sets her far apart from the women who appear in Who Cares? by Edmonton director Rosie Dransfeld. Shot in the style of cinéma vérité, the film takes viewers into the grittiest, most dangerous part of Edmonton, where drug-addicted survival-sex workers sell themselves to men cruising through the neighbourhood. In a phone interview from the Alberta capital, Dransfeld explains that she wanted to show how, even in the post–Robert Pickton era, these women are still in incredible peril—and little is being done for them.
“People drive by or walk by and just spit at them and throw pennies at them,” Dransfeld says. “This is pretty much a daily experience. It’s not just men that are doing this. Women do the same thing.”
The director’s anger is palpable over the phone as she cites a study by the John Howard Society that indicates 80 percent of the assaults and crimes in the area are committed by johns. “These are middle-class men between 20 and 70, driving around in SUVs and trucks,” she says.
The film shows compassionate police officers in a van, collecting DNA samples from the sex workers for the purpose of identifying them should they be harmed or killed—and one officer admits that it won’t help these women. This is supplemented by vivid portraits of three extremely vulnerable sex workers.
“It was my toughest film to do,” Dransfeld admits. “You fall in love with these women. They are amazing survivors. They are very resilient.”
Who Cares? doesn’t offer solutions, leaving that up to the viewers to ponder. Quebec director Ève Lamont, on the other hand, presents a case for the abolition of prostitution in The Fallacy (L’Imposture), which zeroes in on women trying to exit the sex trade. Numerous former prostitutes tell horrific tales about how they entered this industry without serious concerns, only to be lured into a world of violence and addiction.
Anthropologist Rose Dufour, a sex-trade abolitionist and counsellor, suggests in the film that if prostitution enabled its practitioners to make something of themselves, she would expect them to be “sexually accomplished, radiant women”.
“This is hardly the case,” Dufour says. “Prostitution is so unnatural that to practise it, all these women must self-dissociate.”
It’s a claim that Wotton, the central figure in Scarlet Road, would be quick to refute. And the contrast between these films reflects, in many ways, the arguments that will soon be put before the Supreme Court of Canada, when it rules on the legality of brothels.
DOXA presents Scarlet Road at 6 p.m. on Saturday (May 5) at the Vancity Theatre.
Who Cares? screens at 7 p.m. on Wednesday (May 9) at the Vancity Theatre.
The Fallacy (L’Imposture) screens at 5 p.m. next Thursday (May 10) at the Vancity Theatre.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.