Director Michael Glawogger has a knack for shadowing pimps and hookers through the city's armpits. If he could stick his camera into a sulphur pit, a mining crevice, a slaughterhouse, or a city-sewer while knee-deep in slime, he'd do it. The third part of his existential trilogy that began with Megacities and Workingman's Death culminates in the whorehouses of three metropolises -- in the fishtanks of Bangkok's red-light districts at Faridpur; the City of Joy -- a whore-ghetto in Bangladesh; and in the Camorra-run brothels and crack-joints in Reynosa's La Zona in Mexico. Besides the CocoRosie soundtrack what makes Whores' Glory unique, is the girls have separate spins on sin, sex and capitalism through the prisms of their separate faiths, Islam, Buddhism and Catholicism.
One sunny afternoon, we sat at a midtown park chatting about Asian prostitutes, and I recalled the hostile reception I got once when trying to shoot inside Sonagachi, Kolkata's whorehouses where they were naturally more welcoming of men. "No, women couldn't go there. It's the opposite of the world outside. Complete female rule," stated Glawogger who is Austrian, and shoots with an all-male crew.
Faridpur in Bangladesh, much like Mumbai's Falkland Road, is an all-female ghetto hundreds of years old, and Glawogger films like a fly on the wall observing some incredibly candid conversations and bitch-fights that makes Zana Briski's brilliant 2004 documentary Born into Brothels appear tame. "When you're there everyday for so long, they just live their lives. We weren't sneaky to catch anything -- they get angry because they steal customers from each other, and they don't care about others [watching] -- they just want to hit each other," Glawogger recollected. "Of course, there are limits," he says. "The mothers are quite brutal, but you don't see it probably to the extent that it is happening. Also, when the first attraction is over, people get bored of you."
It took Glawogger a bit of negotiating to film in these sin cities, and two years to gain permission in Thailand. "The king of Thailand, a very adored figure, said there is no prostitution in Thailand. So you have to apply [to shoot] about something else." Glawogger returned over and over again, gaining his contacts' trust, giving them photos, money and gifts. "Slowly, we became part of it."
He selected girls that knew each other enough to gossip freely. "I usually give them a task -- to have a conversation while they wash, lice each other, do make-up, so it comes naturally." Sometimes they show-off for the camera: "I caught them often lying to me, telling different stories, but I made a contract to myself, whatever they say is truth, because even if they do come up with funky lies -- it's part of their job to fake it, so why shouldn't they fake it with me?"
"Thai girls don't make such a fuss about sex, they are playful," says Glawogger speaking about their Buddhist take on life. Workers mainly cater to Thais, though there's a big industry catering to foreigners. "Thais are quite racist about it because they don't like girls that have been touched by foreigners. The Japanese are even worse about it. Very high-class brothels in Bangkok are exclusively Thai. If you're a white guy, they'll politely say you can only take girls with the red numbers, and if you asked why, they'd say the others are students, or that foreigners have too big dicks."
"From prostitutes you can get a world geography of dick sizes," says Glawogger laughing.
Now, even Asian girls learn to imitate western ways of being 'sexy,' and with Internet chat-rooms and gay apps like Grindr being used in Bangkok and Goa, geo-tagged hookups have gone global. I tell him that in Thailand, I get mistakenly approached, as I'm told my breasts are big by Thai standards. "Yes in Thailand you'd be good, but not so good in Bangladesh, because they all want bigger bellies. They really power-feed the girls -- with steroids sometimes. They even bleach them."
I notice that they say penis in English even when speaking in Bangla. "Yes pay-nis, pay-nis...they have no word. No word for fuck, only the word work, doing work," says Glawogger having gotten to know their girl-talk.
In her on-camera monologue a Bangladeshi girl coyly suggests, Allah did not make her mouth to suck dick. "Oh it's very tame," he explains, "she puts up her sari and it takes 5 minutes, there is no undressing. But of course they are lying about this dick-sucking because they do it for special money. Also, it's interesting in terms of linguistics because they don't have a word for it in Bangla, and it's called doing ice-cream," Glawogger quips.
He gets the johns, who are usually stigmatized, to unload on camera. "Many people go to brothels -- and they're not the kind that rape young girls or are horrible people. The only huge injustice is it doesn't work both ways, [except] in Thailand. Young men in the subcontinent want to brag, be manly...either they do some gay stuff or go to brothels. As a young man in Bangladesh you can go nowhere, the house is full of family; the park is full of policeman. You can only have sex when you're married. They go in and the conquest costs 50 takas. [U.S. 60 cents]
Whorehouses seem to be the most democratic of places. "But there are also many bad things," says Glawogger. "When a young woman is alone on the street she's already considered a whore, so they can just grab and sell her. In some social areas, if these girls fall in love, and if the guy finds a way to sleep with her, she's fucked, then he can sell her as a prostitute because she had sex before marriage."
In a visceral and poignant scene, a woman wails at her own misery: The desperation makes one question how fate conspires to place them there -- trapped and 'born to die' as one mused in Workingman's Death. But Glawogger questions my patronizing view, "I am not so sure about the no-future thing -- it's more about the moment, of how and when we do things. There is no right life. What's powerful is how they cope. I'd probably be happier working in a shipbuilding yard than in an office in Manhattan..." he says, looking at the caged midtown skyline around us. "A lot of people say, I could never live like that, but I totally disagree. Everybody can live like that when they have to. Going to an office and swallowing pills and seeing a shrink to make you happy is also not the solution."
I suggest that in every human culture, prostitution is the oldest alternative and by-product of mainstream monogamous culture. "I think it makes men utterly happy when they can just choose, and say No.33 -- now! And the second aspect is they can go away afterwards," says Glawogger frankly. "We are a pseudo-monogamous culture, enjoying the pretense of being monogamous and doing the opposite. The brothel is nothing more than a playground for easy access."
Glawogger, who has shot in other Islamic countries, says sometimes the industry is ambiguous. "In Iran you can marry a prostitute for two hours, or marry her for a week and take her on vacation." And then you can divorce them: "There are imams sitting in the brothel doing it," he says.
In Mexico, Glawogger filmed a consensual sex scene between a prostitute and her preferred customer. I asked him what the difference was between pornography and prostitution with issues of privacy.
"In the process [of filming] I got turned down by many women who were otherwise quite frank, but said 'listen I have an old daddy and he's going to get a heart attack if he sees me.'"
After completing all three segments, he traveled back to preview the film with the prostitutes in each country. "It was amazing, especially with the Mexican women because they were getting so angry about Thailand." The Mexicans pitied the Thai in their fishtanks not being able to connect to their customers. "They hated it, saying, thank god I live in Mexico," he chuckled, "The Bangladeshis were totally uninterested about everyone else and just wanted to watch themselves. From an ethnographical sense they were amazed. For instance Hassina, the mother, saw herself, and pointing to the TV said, 'what this woman says is true...what she says, the whole world should hear!'" Amused, Glawogger tells me they liked the film so much they gave him 'permission' to take them to the market and buy them new saris -- he obliged.
What were his next projects, I ask. "I'm always traveling the world hunting after a theme. Now, I'll try to make a film about nothing."
Every 10 years a filmmaker comes along and takes the genre to the next level. Watching footage of the slaughterhouses in Nigeria in Workingman is tough on the eye, but remains a devastating depiction of death, showing how close animals and humans come in their abjectness. I tell him I would love to seem more from Africa next. "I think Africa really shocks me," says Glawogger, "and I am not easily shocked. And I haven't even seen the worst. Those are happy guys with good jobs [in the slaughterhouses]; it's a strange beauty; can death be beautiful? It's something unexplained, and those are the moments I am after."
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