During the second program of Pay As You Go, the short clip from Sex Workers (And Proud of It) stood out. Though only a series of talking head interviews, professionally, but not impressively staged, with prostitutes and sex-work advocates, the 15-minute segment exudes an urgency unseen in the other films on the bill. Director Jean-Michel Carré starts slowly, allowing his prostitute interviewees enough time to give a feeling for their personalities and the texture of their particular role in the sex trade. As they progress from describing their work towards justifying it, Carré picks up the pace. Quickly introducing new subjects, and rapidly cross-cutting between their increasingly brief and direct statements, he builds towards an overwhelming collective insistence for a humane legal framework for prostitution. This is agile non-fiction argumentation. Without decontextualizing or reducing the responses to his questions, Carré has marshaled them into an active, vivid drama.
Sadly, this excerpt in an anomaly in the otherwise sloppy feature-length piece. The film begins by hopscotching around various forms of sex work — stripping, pornography, the sex toy business — before settling in to a focus on prostitution that lasts its remaining two thirds. This material isn’t presented like an introduction, and in concert with the title, suggests that the movie is a structurally-imbalanced inquiry into the various sex professions instead of one concerned primarily with exchange of money for actual sex. In these early sections, Carré leans heavily on banally prurient cut-aways to black-lit, anonymous strippers. Throughout, we are subjected to clips of sexually-suggestive television commercials. It appears that this found footage is supposed to comment on our hypocrisy about erotic display, but that point seems tangential to the force of the prostitutes’ complaints about the legal system, and because they are presented virtually unedited, they end up seeming like real ad breaks.
Although film’s whole does not maintain the directorial precision seen in the clip screened at Union Docs, the interviews remain as substantial and compelling as they seemed. The prostitutes featured here speak plainly about their work and the hassles they face in Sarkozy’s France. The film is most interesting when they are given time to describe the quotidian practicalities of the job: how they report their income, their feelings about their clients, how they negotiate fees and protect themselves. Carré’s refusal of sensationalism also allows him to highlight rarely-aired aspects of the profession, like the high incidence of handicapped clients, and the complete lack of social services available to aging hookers denied a pension. At its best, Sex Workers (and Proud of It) functions as a demystification of prostitution as an actual practice. This effort isn’t flashy or hand-waving as it was in some of the other films that screened on Saturday, but accomplished entirely by letting people talk at length about the details of their lives. Certainly many of the subjects are strident in lobbying for the legalization of prostitution, and, sometimes less convincingly, about the social value of what they do, but the film does not rely on this rhetoric alone to make its case. It is evident from these women and men’s stories that the ban on prostitution does far more to place prostitutes in peril than to curb the sale of sex. This is a liberal commonplace, but I think it would be difficult for anyone to walk away from Carré’s film sanguine about the ability of the prohibitionist approach to make life more dignified for people drawn or compelled to sell their bodies.
While it is in many ways formally unadventurous, Sex Workers (and Proud of It) maintains a certain novelty. As many of the speakers note, most popular portrayals of prostitution focus solely on the enslaved or the drug-addicted; those forced into this life by circumstance or by other people. Everyone here has, for one reason or another, chosen prostitution as a long-term career. I have no idea how much of the field this really represents, but these are voices we rarely get to hear on either side of the debate. And we are even less likely to see the mouths that issue them. Even in pro-sex- worker docs (Happy Endings?, for example, which was also exhibited as part of Pay As You Go) the whores and johns typically appear with their faces shielded and their voices masked. With one exception, everyone here speaks directly to the camera. The parenthetical declaration in the film’s title is not just asserted, but made manifest. The subjects’ candid self-presentation peels away the crust of familiarity that clings to this style of documentary interview, and make it vital and engaging again. This allows for a special bond between speaker and audience that sustains serious attention throughout this sometimes frustrating film. Early in the movie, Isabelle, one of the movie’s major characters, notes “The prostitute as a human being is of no interest. It’s the idea of prostitution which is of interest. And that’s where political parties, some feminist groups, the whole social debate over prostitution [come in]“. Sex Workers (and Proud of It) begins to refute her by earnestly investing in the lives of individual prostitutes, and in so doing, redirects “the whole social debate” toward more fruitful ends.