Monday, August 20The Voice of London

London Sex Worker Film Festival: Giving Voice, Agency And Respect To People Within The Sex Industry

Part of a bigger project by The Sex Worker Open University, the festival aimed to raise awareness through a varied selection of films, which did not shy away from issues connected to sex work, such as immigration, race, LGBTI rights and violence.

Words: Alina Kay, Subeditor: Lauren Burgess

By Alina Kay
By Alina Kay

Soho, London’s sort-of ‘Red Light District’, has for many years been the hub for the British sex industry. But it’s not what it used to be in the 80s. It has now become safer, thus more tourist and gentrification-friendly. But the government’s ‘clean up’ of Soho’s streets from prostitutes and drug dealers has had major consequences for the sex workers, who are suffering evictions and are forced to move to less safe areas in the city. The London Sex Worker Film Festival held on November 8, aimed to show that sex workers are not people without agency and that they deserve understanding and respect.

The fourth edition of the festival at the sold out Rio cinema was full of valuable, funny, and different from the usual stigmatised portraits, stories of women and men who use their bodies to make a living. It was a cheeky, empowering and sexy afternoon of insightful films about all the different aspects and issues of sex work. A mixture of short and full-length pieces, mainly documentary style, provided a fully encompassing, educational, but also fresh and liberating view on sex work. Each picture ended with an eager round of applause and often whistles and encouraging words from the mixed audience of sex workers, supporters and other cinema-goers. Because guess what? Not every prostitute has been trafficked, and not every stripper is a drug addict. Although these people do exist, for others it is a lifestyle, a conscious choice, and a method of survival.

The first session opened with a self-shot short by Sunshine McWane Diary of a Peep Show Girl, followed by feature documentary The Red Umbrella Diaries. The full-length documentary was the most touching, uplifting, and memorable film of the afternoon. It looked at seven individuals within the sex industry in New York, who were asked to tell their stories as a spoken performance at Joe’s Pub. It followed them as they prepared for the big event, and during their moments on the stage. The film was, above all, a celebration of these people’s stories – a very different and fresh view on the sex industry. It created a sense of support and warmth not only between the characters in the film, but also within the cinema. None of the characters in the film were forced into sex work and they were proud of their jobs. Two out of the seven characters were men and through their stories they proved that male prostitutes and escorts experience the same kind of stigma as women.

The second session opened on a more serious note, with Becky’s Journey (dir. Sine Plambech) – a story of a Nigerian woman who has tried twice to improve her standard of living by going to Italy to sell herself, but never actually making it to Europe. The film is effective in the way it portrayed the difficulties of border-crossing and the hardships that follow with that quest, within the African continent, and outside.

The next short documentary Soy Negra, Soy Marica, Soy Puta – I’m Black, I’m Queer and I’m a Whore, transported the audience to Bogota, where Diana Navarro, a transgender sex worker and a lawyer, has made it her life mission to advocate for the rights of sex workers in her country. Next – a totally different scenery in 16mm: All That Sheltering Emptiness (dir. Gina Carducci & Mattilda Bernstein). It is a story of a callboy in NYC, visually abstract, yet verbally intriguing.

Unfortunately, the only UK-based film of the festival disappointed. Shot on 35mm, critically-acclaimed Roxanne is a fictional short that depicted a Soho-based transgender prostitute, who starts to take care of a little homeless girl. The story is sweet, but it lacked urgency and momentum, which there was plenty of in most of the other films.

To contrast the hopeful, yet gritty London tale, the audience was invited to the private lap dance room of Zahra Stardust’s Beautiful Monotony. The title could not have described it any better: self-shot, it documents Zahra’s daily routine. Ironic and honest, it succeeded, perhaps better than any other film in the festival, to portray sex work as ‘normal’ job.

Erika Trejo, director and protagonist of the last film of the afternoon, Mixed Whore, describes her film as: “[it] defends the freedom of migratory movement, the decision to migrate in order to work in the sex industry, to not be infantilised, to reclaim one’s sexuality and the body as a political base.” The film left people in awe because of its honesty, but the extremely poor cinematography let down the overall impression of the picture.

Luca Stevenson, by Alina Kay
Luca Stevenson, by Alina Kay

It was liberating and empowering to see nudity on the big screen, which connected with the audience, who did not hide their admiration for the human body. The main point to take away from the festival was that sex workers are unduly stereotyped and stigmatised in our society, which allows no agency to those who ‘sell their bodies’. We, as a society, should not look away from the trafficking, disease and other exploitation problems that sex workers often face, but we should also take responsibility to move away from prevailing stereotypes and criminalisation of the sex industry. Business is business, and work is work. How would you feel if you were getting evicted from your much-loved central-London flat because of what you do for a living?
As Luca Stevenson of the SWOU poignantly remarked during the Q&A session at the end: “some sex workers are drug users, some sex workers are exploited, some sex workers have an abusive relationship with their partners, some sex workers do it as a hobby, and [some] love it as their job. Sex work, as anything else in life, is not this monolithic thing, where everyone is cursed. Criminalisation is what really is responsible for the inability of sex workers to fight against exploitation.”