May 7, 2013 Leave a comment
After the screening of the Hot Docs documentary Buying Sex, there was a Q & A with the directors of the film. Anyone in the audience could ask whatever they wanted about the film – like why male or transgender prostitutes weren’t mentioned or considered, or why the directors didn’t have any scenes in Amsterdam. But the Q & A period wasn’t like that. Instead, it was mostly a series of long-winded comments on either side of the debate. Everyone was very passionate when they spoke, and a few debates broke out in the audience between comments. But what I noticed was that the people who were speaking were either unmoved by the documentary or had their beliefs reinforced. There wasn’t really any new ground tread or mistaken assumptions raised. The documentary exists, but it doesn’t illuminate the issues.
A recent documentary I saw a few months ago was Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. The basic story is pretty well-known: the governor of New York resigns amid the scandalous revelation that he was a member, and frequent client, of an upscale escort service. That was essentially the entire story told in the media: another stupid politician getting his just desserts. But the documentary told a different story and gave a fresh perspective of Spitzer. Rather than being a horny rube he was an effective, intelligent and tenacious prosecutor who had his sights set on the alleged corruption of Wall Street, making powerful enemies in the process. The documentary implies that financial moguls may have played a role in the demise of Spitzer’s political career to continue their unsavoury practices. But the documentary is important because it gives a different side of the story from that found in the media. It makes you question whether the personal life of a politician should derail a campaign against financial corruption, or if their personal life should even be in question at all.
Buying Sex doesn’t really shed new light on the issue of prostitution and decriminalization. They do have some interesting perspectives – especially from activists who propose a “third way” to address the problem by criminalizing demand akin to the Swedish model of law – but it’s not very persuasive or enlightening.
There’s a couple brief moments in the film that I really liked, and would have preferred to see a feature-length documentary developed around. I think it was one of the prostitutes in New Zealand (where prostitution is decriminalized and brothels are ordinary apple-pie businesses) who said that she felt more exploited working long hours for minimum wage than selling sex to clients. Another comment was that prostitutes aren’t “selling their bodies” (the common rhetoric for why its immoral), rather, they are selling “services.” I think these are interesting perspectives, and it would have been fascinating for the documentary to explore this route (why is prostitution bad or good) rather than asking whether it should be decriminalized or not.
If the measure of a great documentary is the passionate discussion it generates afterwards, then Buying Sex is a good one. But I think there has to be more than just passionate discussion – you need to gain a new perspective or have your assumptions challenged.