SXSW 2012 And The Sex Trade: Scarlet Road and Eden
By Alex Cranz
I’ve been thinking about this a while. These were two films I desperately wanted to talk about after seeing them at SXSW in March but I was having trouble figuring out how to approach them. On the one hand you have Scarlet Road, a sex positive documentary about a sex worker in Australia who deals primarily with clients who are disabled. And on the other hand you have Eden, a narrative film about one woman’s abduction and two years of slavery.
One is about the wonder of sex and how it can be transformative and the other is about the horrible acts men will commit in the pursuit of sex.
I’m kind of amazed it took me so long to realize that when writing about either, I absolutely have to mention the other.
I was…hesitant going into Scarlet Road. While I am certainly a sex positive individual and I strongly believe that women have the right to pursue any line of employment they so choose I’ve often been troubled by the sex worker rights movement. Not because I find what they do dirty. I don’t. But because the most vocal members of the movement tend to be well-educated middle class white women. When, as I understand it, the majority of women sex workers are not well-educated, are born and live in poverty, and are women of color.
The movement feels remarkably exclusive to me and it seems like too often these women fight to be heard and respected, but refuse to acknowledge the reality we live in and the most problematic parts of sex work for most people.
Scarlet Road made me even more hesitant because it is about a woman that caters to people with disability whom, according to herself and the clients, cannot get sex otherwise. Again, that’s a little alarming to me.
But I am not these clients. I have not had their experiences. I have not lived their lives. I cannot speak to what they go through or how difficult it is for them. I cannot cast judgement on them or criticize them simply because of my experiences.
So I tried to be very open-minded going into the film and very conscious of my own prejudices, and as the documentary unfolded I found myself thinking of my preconceived notions while also being absolutely moved by what I was witnessing. The subject of the film, Rachel Wotton, is a smart, kind woman who genuinely wants to help others. She is active in the international community trying to remove the stigmas attached to sex work and I applaud her for it. Her moments with her clients and the joy they experience from working with her are really wonderful to watch.
But she never addresses those elephants in the room. The film has a very narrow and idealistic view of sex work that outright ignores the experience of many other, and less fortunate, sex workers. It also neatly skirts the issues concerning clients, who often perpetuate a cycle of abuse and misogyny. The men of Scarlet Road are all good-hearted men who would be unable to experience physical sexuality without the aid of a prostitute. In such a bright and optimistic film as this that darkly cynical undercurrent is alarming, and never addressed.
And as a counterpoint to Scarlet Road (which was directed by Wotton’s close personal friend, Catherine Scott), you have Eden This is a film I think about when I go to bed at night. A film I try to recount to my friends and family. It’s a terrifying film. The knowledge that it is, in fact, based on real events makes it more harrowing.
First, you may ask, if this is real. If a woman was really kidnapped, forced into sex slavery and then escaped from it than why wasn’t it on every news channel? Chong Kim (on whom this film is based) is Korean-American and from a very insular community. She is not white, blond and from a telegenic family that will sit beside her and weep softly as Nancy Grace prods her with uncomfortable questions. She is not privileged and does not have connections. When she managed to escape she was not in a good place and her road to recovery was long, painful and not the sort of story the mainstream media wants to tell.
Writer Richard Phillips came across her story in a Korean language newspaper and was stunned by it. He sought her out and they slowly developed a script that chronicles the time from her kidnapping to her escape. Later writer/director Megan Griffiths got involved and this film was born.
At it’s heart is Jamie Chung. You might remember her as eye candy in Sucker Punch or from her past as a reality TV star. Just from looking at her CV I didn’t have high expectations. What a terrible preconception on my part. Chung is extraordinary. The character and the story are tricky. Because in order to survive, Eden has to do things no one should ever have to do. She has to hurt people and kill people and look away after betraying other victims. That isn’t pleasant or likeable but Chung illustrates that conflict. She makes it palpable. You never think that Eden has “turned.” She’s a caged human being who lulls her captives into feeling secure around her, all the while waiting for the right opportunity to arise so that she can escape.
Beau Bridges and Matt O’Leary are the face of the organization that has stolen her autonomy. They’re the men who handle the captives. Who give them kittens when they’re good and take them out back to be shot when they’re bad. They’re so damned cavalier about what they’re doing and it ends up being more terrifying than a lot of horror films. They don’t twirl mustaches or rant and rave. They’re just men trying to do a job and get by and that job just happens to involve the systematic abduction and rape of women of color.
But there is something traditionally villainous about Bridges and O’Leary’s characters that isn’t present in other, just as horrible, men and women in the film. Those two are frank. They’re honest and upfront.
It’s the other, more insidious ones that leave you shocked. The woman nurse who treats it as a job and tries, sometimes, to be friends with the girls and women she helps enslave. The frat boy who doesn’t question where the stripper/prostitutes for his party come from. The government officials who use the service and are too old, educated and connected to not know that they’re engaging in the trafficking of underage girls. The woman who sees a girl covered in blood and begging for help and who doesn’t do a thing when a man drags that girl away.
Eden is about one woman’s remarkable experience but it is also about the complicity of every person who looks away or doesn’t asks questions or silences those who would speak. This system that Eden is dragged into doesn’t appear from the ethers. It is created to subjugate those already often silenced by society. The women that the sex workers rights movement often ignores? They are the women at greatest risk to be abused.
So while I did like Scarlet Road and I felt it put forth some good ideas and made me more comfortable than ever with the sex workers rights movement I am also frustrated by it. As Scarlet Road actively ignores the biggest problem facing sex workers. And that isn’t legalization. It’s the current culture we inhabit that objectifies women and treats them, quite literally, as objects.
Eden understands that and presents it in one of the most engaging and least graphic films I’ve seen in quite a while. The horrible things Eden experiences are never shown. Simply implied. For a film entirely about the systematic rape of young women we do not see a single sexual act. Not one. Eden, and the actress portraying her, are never exploited by the camera. It is enough to know she is exploited. Director Megan Griffiths doesn’t deem it necessary to further that exploitation by showing it.
And that works. We live in a rape culture now. Women, every woman, is aware of rape. We know that threat. We ponder it when we pull on a tight skirt or heavy eye make up. When we sit at a bar alone or accept a drink from a stranger we are aware of the danger. The possibilities cycle through our minds and we must live with those ideas every day. So we do not need to see them presented on film. Our worst ideas do not need to be realized. It is enough to know that they are happening.
In Eden, Griffiths keeps those thoughts at the forefront. She never lets you forget them. This, she says, is the harsh reality of the world. This is the present. And there, in Scarlet Road is a utopic future. One where misogyny is squashed, where the silenced might have voices.