Whores’ Glory

04/15/2012

Austria & Germany / 2011 / Thai, Bengali, Spanish, Japanese & English

Directed by Michael Glawogger

Still from 'Whores' Glory'Moving through three distinct tones, Michael Glawogger’s Whores’ Glory takes the viewer to three very different places and cultures in which prostitutes practice their trade. In its close contact, both verbal and visual, with its widely varying subjects, the film achieves an uncommon intimacy that both plays off of the viewer’s inherited notions and complicates them beyond recognition. Diverse and contradictory topics will become condensed by one activity, while consistent threads make themselves known at the same time. The result is both a profoundly resonant, almost religious, experience with a marginalized part of human societies, and also a desolating, troubling one, in which the viewer feels disgusted with his or her own responses – but also electrified by the strength being demonstrated all around them.

In Thailand things run with incredible efficiency, and at a level of legitimacy that is surprising in a nation that officially denies the existence of prostitution within its borders. In the aptly-named Fish Tank, apparently one of many such places in Bangkok, women sit on one side of the glass, brightly-lit, each bearing a number, and arranged according to price. Men sit in a darkened room on the other side and select which one they want for the night. The customer then pays (some by credit card) and gets into an elevator with the woman he has chosen, and they disappear from the film together. This is very much a workplace for the women – they put on makeup and get dressed up, clock in, and show up talking and debating with one another. Glawogger follows some of the women during the daytime, as they spend time together like friendly coworkers, eating out and gossiping, just as ordinary as anyone else in the outdoor cafe.

Then in their spare time, the women turn things around, and go out to a club that is full of young, male escorts. Now the women are the ones paying, buying the drinks for these pampered dandies and dancing the night away with no pressure to be professional or subservient. While this represents a sort of inversion of what they do for a living, it is also in-keeping with a lifestyle that is always bound up in monetary transactions. This does not render any less genuine their interactions with either their clients or the boys they visit – there are still emotional realities to them, just often with money in the forefront. Interestingly the realization of the women’s striving comes in the form of paying escorts for themselves, while in many other ways they seem to live quite modestly.

Whereas the Bangkok brothel (a hybrid ‘escort service’ and gentleman’s club) is a visual dreamworld, spectatorship turning into sexual fulfillment once the glass enclosure is crossed, there is considerably less performance involved when it comes to the labyrinthine  red light district of Faridpur, Bangladesh. Here everything is exposed, and there really is no line between work and living. Through cramped corridors, women, men, children move – streaming through, shuffling and pacing, talking and running errands. Each room off to the side bears a woman and her bed, surrounded by posters, perhaps a television or a radio if she is rich. It feels like – and in many ways is – an enclosed city, an endless, hive-like dormitory unbreached by natural light. These are living quarters as well as professional space. A woman carries a brass bowl out of her room and pours the water and a used condom down a shared drain in the hallway. Women work all day, taking breaks if they have to, but entertaining up to ten men a day if they want to scrape by. Prostitutes who have grown old and out of favor lament their deterioration. A teenager, alone and newly arrived, sobs in the corridor while being harangued by an older woman. So much is beyond our understanding, so much instantly recognizable.

Still from 'Whores' Glory'The first (Bangkok) chapter is bracing for how open and professional prostitution is, but the second (Faridpur) is striking for how oppressive things seem; the women there are trapped within multiple boxes – caste, class, gender, religion – and could not escape if they wanted to. The atmosphere is fermented, moldy with abject gloom. Girls are sold by desperate families, and become like indentured servants to the madames of the district. Eventually a girl will gain a bit of independence, and one day become a madame herself. Experience results in saving a bit of money, which increases a woman’s respectability within the community – but it is still a community apart, and always will be. It is both isolated by and maintained through male dominance, a trickling down of control within the society. But, like in society, women are afforded power of their own – to haggle with customers, argue their views on matters, even pull the men in by force. And they have the freedom to develop attachments that are personal and private. It is a living, after all – in the most encompassing sense of the word.

In light of the vacillation between self-determination and oppression between (and within) the first two parts, the arrival in Reynosa, Mexico comes closer to the images of prostitution that people in the West might think of, but also at this point seems considerably more ambivalent. The Fish Tank was a bit like a market, Faridpur a prison, and here, near the border with the United States, in a place known as La Zona (The Zone, with Tarkovskian flourish), things more resemble a wild frontier. Partly because the setting seems so rugged, the lines of motel-like rooms have a desolate openness about them, as women stand in the doorways waiting for men to drive by in SUVs and pickup trucks and stop, with any luck. It has the neglected, under-the-table and illicit quality that is also highly visible in its own way, qualities we may most often associate with prostitution. But it is also a community in itself, with bars and strip clubs teeming in the vicinity.

Things in the Zone are a lot more informal and irreverent than in the two other places. At the same time the women to whom Glawogger speaks don’t seem to have any illusions about what they do. Some are seasoned veterans who no longer work in the business, while other seem wedded to it for life. They speak openly about their experiences, sometimes getting partially naked for the interview – if so much is already coming to the fore, then why not? And, the filmmaker may be thinking: some people will call it exploitation no matter what, so why not? Two prostitutes share hits from a crack pipe while reminiscing, their unselfconscious exchange devolving into celebratory chaos. A woman gallops past the doors and outdoor lamps at night, half-crazed, pulling her clothes off. It all feels like performance art, but pinned to the ground by clear and straightforward confession, reminding one of Catholicism itself.

In the Bangladesh segment, a young woman relates that she refuses when clients ask her to use her mouth on them, because that part of her body is reserved for uttering God’s name. This staid and quite conservative religious environment contrasts with Mexico (where Catholicism runs deep in the subconscious, but with a certain denial of its connections to sex), and Thailand (where the women use Buddhism to pray for lots of clients and money before they start work for the night). Religion becomes an unexpectedly present and consistent factor throughout the film, but providing yet more variety to the three different backdrops. Whores’ Glory is much more about religion than sex, or even politics, the latter two making up a considerably small part of the overall conversation. In many ways it is about consolation, the ways in which people deal with their choices and the decisions made for them by their environment.

Still from 'Whores' Glory'All three settings include a crucial amount of time spent with the clients of the prostitutes, men who can seem just as melancholy, trapped, and poignant as the women themselves do. Their purpose for being there is never rendered in black and white. Glawogger travels in the cars of the men cruising the Zone, and groups of friends who pull up in a car talk unashamedly about why they frequent the place. There they are allowed to engage in things that their normal lives don’t permit, but at the same time: this is everyday life for them, like it is for the women. A young barber in Bangladesh admits that he is addicted to visiting the red light district, saying that the prostitutes have an important role of keeping the amount of harassment and rape of women low. This attitude is fit inside of Islam’s notions of why women should be modest, and doesn’t actually seem hypocritical in the space of the brothels, where things are kept covered as much as is possible. One can see why someone in that environment would think that way, and it is telling evidence of why it can be so easily tolerated within the same space as conventional morality.

While watching Workingman’s Death (2005), with its soft glides and instantaneous compositions, it is easy to forget the showman aspect of what Glawogger does. There is a love and a need for extreme situations, normalized in the case of the earlier film, but bracing here because it feels as though it is filling all kinds of remote corners of people’s lives. He looks for unalloyed and uncompromising places, but ones that will provide a show for the audience, one that is compelling and identifiable. While that film and Whores’ Glory are similar in style and approach, here he seems to fully embrace voyeurism and explicitness that can be just as confounding as secrecy. He encounters bombast and sensitivity, and responds in kind, playing the role of chameleon to his surroundings. The breaches of taste and restraint are justified in part because of the empathy that is already established, and then partly because he has no use for such restrictions in the first place.

The intimacy of Ulrich Siedl’s Animal Love (1995, and on which Glawogger worked as DP and editor) – feeling so intimate that it becomes carnivalesque – reemerges here, jumping between scenes of candid clarity and inexplicable performance. At work and away from work (or simply, being on some off-hours) identity becomes a blur, extreme closeness diluted with an equally strong degree of playacting that takes a variety of forms. Levels of artifice, imposed and self-imposed, slide in and out of focus, giving way at times to raw feelings and the abrasions of experience, but all equally important to who each particular woman is. The Thailand chapter is all about immaculate appearances, with prostitutes and their johns behaving courteously to one another in the public sphere of the Fish Tank; in Bangladesh there seems no room for elegance, but shards of it show through nonetheless; in Reynosa the inner seams of the bare-bones establishments go unconcealed, and couldn’t be any other way.

It may be that, in incorporating rehearsed and directed elements into the more candid tastes of life, the filmmaker is at least attempting to do justice to the entirety of the women’s public lives. There is sometimes no way to tell the difference between actuality and acting, if that difference exists at all. That is the way things are in this side of things, because there is little privacy, and because performance is so integral to what the prostitutes do. The only scene that shows sex between a prostitute and her client (in the Zone, toward the end of the film) is clearly set up and consented to, but the only element of rehearsal is that the two people in the scene have done this many times – probably with one another – and the motions come so naturally that there is no spontaneity left in it. This is one of the extreme fringes of acting, so true to life that its very enactment becomes theatre.

Still from 'Whores' Glory'One of the great nonfiction filmmakers still shooting on film (super 16, with no lighting equipment used), Glawogger adapts his minimally-realized technique to bring about magic in the colors and light qualities of each very different setting. In the Fish Tank, the look is black lights, lasers, and the womb-like darkness bordering the bright clarity of where the women sit; in Faridpur, it is the glow of bare bulbs on cheap sari cotton, blue-green walls rippling with grime and gloom; and in the Zone, the cold neon of karaoke bars and the damp hum of electric Jesus shrines. Like in Workingman’s Death, the irrepressible visual sensibility covers up the modest production values. There are, to be expected, thrilling (and unbelievably steady) trips following a person in transit, lateral tracking shots that define a space’s dimensions and time its breath, split compositions and beautifully-connected stillleben that settle the already unhurried motion.

More so than the visual stylization, the pop music on the soundtrack can feel like an unnecessary gloss on what we are experiencing, a manner of forced prettiness or imposed intimacy that it does not ask for. Workingman’s Death, whose original score by John Zorn deflects a range of outside associations, manages a musical interplay with the polished images that hoists them up a cinematic notch. But here we have crossed over into discomfort once again – why is the music of privileged people essentially narrating images of people who have such difficult lives? PJ Harvey rasps through the corridors of Faridpur, mingling with Bengali pop songs on the television; Antony duets with CocoRosie while the Thai women dance with their androgynous escorts. Once again – like with the theatricality, or the face-to-face interviews – this is just as much about what the filmmaker experiences as what the people with him in each shot are going through. So there is a dialogue between his music and theirs, between what he relates back to them and what comes from their surroundings. The decision not to shy away from affecting the shots, to add a personal touch without it amounting to distortion, liberates the film so that it is not two sides of a window but rather a form of exchange in itself.

For the viewer the film is so instantly polarizing that a sort of numbness descends, making the painful parts easier to bear, but also making the joyful ones feel uneasy, like a bandage on a deeper reality. Brazen irreverence sometimes seems a way to match and neutralize the bitterness, contrasting with the quiet solace of religion. One Bangladeshi girl, in a discussion about laughter and mirth, says that we laugh so as to help cope with sadness. But her friend, who is there, responds: no, we laugh because we laugh, in spite of what the larger picture may look like. Even the most explicit talk or activity of the film has little to do with eroticism, and everything to do with the power structures of the society in which it is taking place. Across the varied subjects of the film, prostitution comes across as just an extreme version of womanhood (more specifically, in this case, womanhood), just as poverty and inhabiting a large city are remote (but teeming) points on a spectrum of human existence.

What we see is never one thing; each portrait is like a double-exposure. There is no shortage of repression, to be sure – there is also sadness, desperation, abjection. But there is strength, determination, power, not just in each place, but within each individual, or encompassed in one light gesture. The filmmaker is sure not to show one side of things without also finding the right space for its antithesis to emerge. Glawogger has said that he seeks out a subject that creates a knot in the spectator’s mind, something that cannot be pulled too far in one direction or the other without gaining in complexity and intractability; something that refuses answers. Ultimately the film resides in a place that is eerily free of ethics, a more basic and unaffected part of the mind that reverberates with identifiable emotions.

Still from 'Whores' Glory'Avowedly not an ‘issue-based’ filmmaker (meaning: this is a film about prostitutes, not prostitution – just as Megacities (1998) isn’t really about cities themselves), he uses the topic not as the stage on which he can prop up his subject to make a point about them, but as the rope he uses to lower himself down through the varied layers of human beings’ existence. That difference in intent from many investigative reporters is crucial to breaking down barriers with his subjects, of meeting them at eye level without the gaze that falls on one particular side of opinion or prejudice. At the same time an affectation of coolness or a denial of partiality towards the subjects would be a detriment to the obvious connection that is there, and they are empowered because nothing that they may choose to reveal about themselves is rejected.

This is so far from merely a hidden camera or a ‘talking-head’ documentary that its noncommittal politics seems, at first blush, wasted on such enviable access to a very tough subject. But any speck that notion has disappeared by the end of the first segment, when the complexities have truly sunken in. While it is stylized and full of affectation meant to hold fast to the viewer’s attention and brand the consciousness, its humanism actually lies in non-intervention, in building the type of understanding that must be a stepping stone for real change to be made, if it can be. It doesn’t tell people what they are or aren’t, besides what is obvious, but tries to show as much as can fit about every facet. The degree of access that the filmmaker managed to get can only be puzzled over, and was in fact hard-won over months of building a working relationship with all those involved.

Whores’ Glory is neither solely a pity piece about exploited people, nor entirely an insensitive burlesque that makes prostitutes out to be feral, debauched, or wholly unrelatable. Throughout the film, there are moments of each that flash in front of us, but that is mainly due to our associations, stemming from what we have seen in the past and how we imagine things to be. In accessing both of those opposing qualities, Glawogger is attempting to essentially dredge them up from deep within the viewer and himself, to show how far from reality (or at least, only partially embodying reality) those images really are. Things are harsh, hopeless and cruel, but that is not everything. While remaining true to its art, the film directs its unwavering gaze at topics that cannot be beautified, skimmed, or covered up. Refusing condescension of any form, it affords the people in it a great deal of power to make themselves heard, as their voices and experiences are amplified through the mode of cinema.

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