There is only one art, whose sole criterion is the power, the authenticity, the revelatory insight, the courage and suggestiveness with which it seeks its truth. – Václav Havel
One year ago today I published “New Reviews for May”, in which I reviewed two movies (The Pyx and Soylent Green) and a book (Harvey Silverglate’s Three Felonies a Day). I’ll probably do another review column next month, but today I’d like to look at a combination film review and director interview by someone else, and to share my thoughts on it. The film is Whores’ Glory by Austrian director Michael Glawogger; the reviewer/interviewer is Tracy Quan, retired call girl and author of Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, Diary of a Married Call Girl and Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl; and the publication is The Daily Beast.
Whores’ Glory, a ground-breaking and surprisingly accurate documentary about sex workers in three countries…opened [April 27th] in New York and Seattle, after provoking considerable buzz at the Toronto and Venice Film Festivals in September…The…film is a riveting journey into three different enclaves in three religious “time zones”—a Bangkok “fish tank” brothel in Buddhist Thailand, a prostitution compound in mainly Muslim Bangladesh, and finally, Reynosa, a Mexican border town where Lady Death (not exactly a Vatican-approved saint) seems to be as popular as the Virgin Mary. La Santa Muerte, as she’s known, is undeniably spooky, and yet Reynosa is refreshing …Whores’ Glory is graceful in its approach to hardship and completely free of judgment about indentured sex work in Bangladesh and crack use in Reynosa. This attitude also extends to religious belief …Whores’ Glory treats religion as something akin to housekeeping. Girls pray for a good night of business in Bangkok; a Faridpur sex worker purifies the doorway of her room with a paper torch…
It’s also refreshing to see the words “surprisingly accurate documentary” and “sex workers” in the same sentence, but even in the midst of a moral panic Europeans do tend to be much more sensible about such things than Americans are. I really want to see this film, but I’m guessing it’ll be a while before it’s available on DVD; in the meantime I’ll just have to take vicarious pleasure in the fact that the truth about sex work is playing for a while on big screens in several major hotbeds of “sex trafficking” hysteria.
Quan discusses all three segments, but it’s the Bangladeshi one I find most interesting; apparently she did, too, because she spends the most time on it:
Faridpur’s City of Joy is a typical Bangladeshi brothel compound managed by a clique of competitive mothers—older prostitutes evolved into madams…With more than 600 women living and working in the City of Joy, there aren’t enough customers at any given time. Many of the brothel’s citizens began working shortly after their first menstruation and would like a different outcome for their daughters. The world outside is hostile to those aspirations and often dangerous, while the brothel itself provides a lifelong safety net…“It’s a female-controlled ghetto,” Glawogger said, “a very closed community, with six or so mothers who have a very strong grip on the whole thing. If a guy is rude to a girl, he never walks on those premises again.” The few resident males are either biological sons or “baboos” (lovers) of the successful madams. A mother, Glawogger said, has perhaps five girls working for her who may be biological daughters or indentured sex workers…How did Glawogger gain access to such a closed matriarchal world? Here, as in Bangkok and Reynosa, participants were paid for their time because, he said, every hour of filming was an hour when they weren’t earning income. But that’s not the whole story. In 2006, Glawogger was visiting Tangail, 45 miles from Faridpur. The women in Tangail’s brothel section had been warned that a mob of religious fundamentalists was planning to purge the brothel quarter…“All the clients and male relatives ran away,” he said, “but the women stayed and they were ready to fight back.” Glawogger’s photographs of women and girls in their saris, some in full makeup, preparing to defend themselves with clubs, sticks, and sickle-shaped kitchen knives appeared in the local media. “Word got around that we were defending the mothers in the press and this spread to other brothels in other towns.” The women of Tangail, who inspired the making of Whores’ Glory, are its unseen heart, and are the reason Bangladesh is central to this film’s journey. Conventional feminism can’t make sense of this fact: the most courageous opposition to fundamentalism in this country comes from Muslim women who are sex workers.
Conventional feminism can’t make sense of anything to do with sex work, because all its dogma proceeds from the faulty assumption that prostitution can somehow be teased apart from other heterosexual behaviors…which as I repeatedly point out, it can’t. This is especially clear in La Zona, the red-light district of Reynosa, about half of whose streetwalkers have pimps to whom they surrender most of their money…yet can walk away from any time they like. Just as in exploitative non-commercial relationships, the binding force is not usually violence or captivity, but rather an unhealthy, dependent form of romantic love. As long as prohibitionists insist on pretending that harlots are somehow different from other women, they’ll never understand; that’s why we need more people like Glawogger, who can help us to demonstrate the truth to the silent majority who can actually learn from it.