The most vibrant and colorful film in Venice last year was, troublingly, Michael Glawogger's three part documentary on prostitution, Whores' Glory, which is getting its US premiere this week at the Museum of the Moving Image's retrospective on the director. The film is beautiful—diverse geographic, national, cultural and social spaces filmed with attention to costuming and colors more befitting a fictional production (cf. Bonello's opulent House of Tolerance, Hou's Flowers of Shanghai). Yet its beauty is one based solely on the liveliness required of its subject trade, the need for appearances and the bustle implicit in selling sex.
Each section takes a different location, a difference space, a different kind of prostitution, a different religion of the prostitutes. After a stunning laser-show prelude, where women in a glass booth floating above a street tag in green ray beams potential clients down below, the first segment begins, taking place a similar glass booth, a "fish tank," in Thailand where clients browse the selection of girls behind the glass and order them by number. Lateral tracks define the space, tracking across the girls seated on bleachers in the tank, across the clients in chairs inspecting what's offered. The second section is in an enclosed brothel district in Bangladesh, a labyrinth of alleys and cramped rooms where places of business are the homes for the girls as well. Where the Thai girls literally clock into work, the Bangladeshi girls live and work in the same place. The film concludes in La Zona, near the Mexican-Texas border, a corridor of streets cruised by slow moving cars keeping an eye on motel doorway silhouettes.
After the first public screening of Whores' Glory in Venice I talked to the director about the project.
NOTEBOOK: Did you always conceive this film in a three part structure?
MICHAEL GLAWOGGER: No. Like all of my films, I only know after the first filming. Once you have something you get a feeling for the whole project. Before that you want to look, you collect, you conceive things—but you don't know. I wrote a book this thick [indicates a big, fat book] for financing with many, many places I researched. There was Naples in it, there was Vienna, there was Nepal, and later on I went to Africa. But after the first sequence you know more what you're looking for. I knew when I filmed Bangladesh that I had done something quite...it was a manifesto, it was substantial, and I knew I couldn't break it down to 20 minutes, so I knew the film had to be something different. And the whole religion thing started to come up also in the research. So then I thought it should be like a Hieronymus Bosch painting, it should be like an alter; the only difference then was to have three different cultures, three different religions. And then I knew what I was looking for; I knew I wanted a left side, a beginning that is more lightweight, that is more glamorous, with Buddhism in a more easy-going surrounding, and I knew I wanted to end on something heavy, deep and Catholic.
NOTEBOOK: How did you find these specific locations? Were they simply places that granted you permission or did you want to find places that fit certain criteria for the project?
GLAWOGGER: Well, the world is not a super market, and especially the world of prostitution is not. But I circled around; I was told about places, I went there, I saw it, I liked it but I didn't get permission. Or I looked in Thailand, which I know well, I looked at over one hundred "fish tanks" and got permission for one; by chance it was one of the five that I considered being one of the best locations. So I was lucky there. The whole thing, in this world, is that you also have to get access. There were many places I would have been very interested to shoot but there was no way I could ever think about it. But these three fit into my concept; its very important to me, also, that these are places that in a visual sense tell me a story. It's very hard for me as a filmmaker to come across something that has no place. Look at Thailand: there is the glass between the women, they sit here, the men sit in the dark, they sit in the light, and the glass turns into a hot mirror when they sit there. The place already tells a story of separation, in America you'd say a "tender separation." In that sense it's fit for a movie. Also, the labyrinth in Bangladesh; behind every door there is a different world. Same with the cruising of the cars and the women are standing [in Mexico]. That's all very important for me. I'm looking for places; I'm looking for content, but I'm also looking for places.
NOTEBOOK: So the spaces clearly determined what turned out to be different shooting styles for each section.
GLAWOGGER: Oh yeah, I mean if you had cars on an unpaved road going 20 miles an hour, that's a real challenge, you know! It puts a certain kind of slowness into your movie, but you can't let it be too slow!
NOTEBOOK: I can imagine the entire pre-production of the film was fraught with negotiations. How difficult was it to shoot these private-public interactions, business being carried on, with a crew, you, cameraman, sound guy, how'd they let you do this?
GLAWOGGER: [laughing] I don't know! I think they got so tired, they just said "just do it, get the fuck outta here!" No, I mean, in a way it's easy too; as you can imagine most of these places are controlled by some kind of mafia. These are people, you can say they are criminals, on the other hand they are pretty straight-forward in their deals. The Mexican mafia demanded that they wanted to watch my films, so I came there with DVDs and they watched the movies, and they said "You did this in the film? What does it mean when you do this?" The funny thing about Mexico was that they said I could do anything but not to do drugs or sex in the film [the Mexican section in the final film includes both].
NOTEBOOK: I take it you didn't show that part of the film to them.
GLAWOGGER: Oh yeah I did! They didn't care anymore, it was a straight deal, they wanted some money for it, they got it, and they stick to their thing.
NOTEBOOK: In the first two sections of the film you show the madams, pimps or some kind of management system, but in that Mexican section the prostitutes seem these lone figures, they have their own rooms, they run their own lives—it seems much more independent and lonely, but I can't imagine that's the whole story.
GLAWOGGER: Well it's so diverse. There's so many control systems. One lady talks about the pimp system, which is far away but is very active, like putting spells on girls' underwear and making them fall in love with the pimps. But that's only one part; there is the mafia rule and there's also the personal pimp. But that didn't have much to do with the women's everyday life, so I left it as something that goes in like the wind, you know.
NOTEBOOK: Or the cars cruising by.
GLAWOGGER: Yeah. Of course there is pimping. In Bangladesh it's female pimping and there is mafia and you have to arrange with them, otherwise you are just another journalist doing some hidden thing without concession from anybody, which I consider to be the worst thing you can do, and then having the voiceover of the journalist's opinion of the place. Actually, that's how I got the trust of the girls, I said I'm not one of them, you aren't going to find your image on the internet next week, I'm not going to bullshit you with the local newspaper or TV station, your mom is not going to see it, you can trust me and say only what you say, I will not put any words over it. And that convinced many of them to go ahead with it, because they sensed they had a stage where they could speak out. I don't like giving the sense I'm saying "these poor creatures" or whatever. The outcome is very diverse, you see victims, you see girls who do it of their own free will, there are so many things that are true to this life, but it's all done in a consensual way.
NOTEBOOK: I would think that for every girl that agreed to talk to you there was a dozen more that wouldn't do it. Do you think that the people who agreed to speak, because they are a self-selecting group, present a certain side to the topic? Maybe a more performative side?
GLAWOGGER: In a way...but they are all performative, it's their job. They are a perfect cast of actresses.
NOTEBOOK: The film almost seems a documentary on a theatrical production. There's no time when the people you are watching are not at once themselves and this thing they are projecting publicly.
GLAWOGGER: Yeah, there are many layers to that. But in the beginning, see, only the older women speak out because they have nothing to lose. They did the job, they know about it, they know all sides, and they normally don't have family pressure any more because they've done it for forty years. With the younger girls it's much more difficult because usually they are much more scared, they have more to lose, they have more customers to lose because when you are young and pretty they crawl in front of your door, they don't want to waste the time. But slowly, it was kind of funny, but when you hear the older women talk to us the next day some of the younger ones would come to us and say "what she said was not all true!" And I would ask them if they wanted to speak and sometimes slowly they would come up or they'd give an interview but not appear in the film—you can't have it all. What was also the advantage of the locations was that it's a community, and a community has a life and when you are inside this life the reactions travel and continue. It would have been much more difficult trying to film just one prostitute, but in the fish tank they all have a strange relationship because they depend on one another because they are bored all day, they gossip and talk to one another. And when one gets picked five times they hate her. It's very normal. So, on the other hand, when you go there with a camera and one says something then the five surrounding girls say "oh come on, that's bullshit!" and so the interaction is going on. Even the girl who would not easily speak up in that situation would then speak up because she wants to contribute her side because something's not true in her opinion.
NOTEBOOK: What was your sense of the differences between these three communities? It struck me that in the first segment the girls come to work together and that time together is their community, but then they go home to their own, separate houses. In the second segment, their work and their homes are the same place.
GLAWOGGER: The first part is certainly like that, the second one is definitely a prison without closed doors, like a cultural prison because if you walk out you can't go anywhere. And the third segment is a mixture. Some come because they have the room rented as a room of work and some stay when they like and some just stop by the Zona sometimes, they don't come every day.
NOTEBOOK: So the rooms in the Zona aren't apartments they girls live in but are more like hotel rooms for services?
GLAWOGGER: Yeah. It looks like a motel. It goes back to the Mexican-American war, really old stuff, the place is really near Texas, across the border is McAllen and in the old days you'd see horses riding through and, they told me, people used to lasso girls.
NOTEBOOK: Have you shown the finished film or segments to any of the participants?
GLAWOGGER: I showed to all of them the whole film. I did a roundtrip because I promised them; with the exception of Thailand because all of the girls were gone.
GLAWOGGER: Gone! Married or working in another job or they made it big or small or just left.
NOTEBOOK: The fish tank culture seemed to have a very quick turnaround, they were always talking about new girls coming in.
GLAWOGGER: Yeah, and also it's the other way around, it's hard for the owners to keep the girls. If a place has no good customers the girls would go, because there are so many places and they talk to each other and one says "come to club so-and-so, there are better customers" and they all go there. It is very hard work to have good mothers, madams, to keep girls in line or bring in new girls.
NOTEBOOK: And what were the reactions of the Bangladeshi and Mexican audiences?
GLAWOGGER: In Bangladesh it was quite ethnographic in a way...almost two years had passed since the filming and they didn't realized the authenticity of image of themselves. One mother would see herself on the TV screen and she was a little, almost..."what is this?...What this woman here says is absolutely true and the whole world should hear it!" And then she'd reflect for a second and then realize "Oh, that's me!" It was very interesting in that sense, obviously while we filmed she was not aware of the outcome of what the project would be, but at the same time she was proud of what she said. In Mexico, also like in the movie, they are the most reflexive people, philosophical people. They would really watch the whole movie, they think Thailand is hell, they say "we pray we get to live in Mexico because we would never want to sit behind glass and not be able to communicate with our customers. How would we be able to know if we liked or disliked them?" They were very aggressive about Bangladesh, saying "what is this bullshit with the children there?" And all this without understanding the language because I only had English subtitles and they don't all speak English. Vana, the one who was so explicit about the rimming and the ice cubes and everything, she said "yeah it's great what I say there, but are my tits ok? I was a little ashamed but I think they're ok for my age, don't you think?" It was so human, it was very nice in that human sense, and we discussed the film for a long time. They really loved the music, the Mexican girls said "oh this song, I don't know her but she has a great voice, she's shouting out and we love that."
NOTEBOOK: Tell me a bit about the soundtrack, which is made up predominantly of PJ Harvey and CocoRosie.
GLAWOGGER: We started, actually, with PJ Harvey, because we wanted this proud woman singing love songs, and first I asked her to do the whole soundtrack but then we found out two things. One is that her music doesn't work for everything, and the other is that the movie is not only female, because the customers kept coming into the film, so we started allowing musical duets on the soundtrack—but there's not one song in the film sung only by a man. So it was an evolving concept and we tried to find the tone for each segment.
NOTEBOOK: There's that amazing CocoRosie song with Antony which suggests a kind of homosexual, transvestite or transgender element to the film that you don't include.
GLAWOGGER: Yeah where that song is is the only turn around or flipped segment in the film, when the girls go out to a club on their time off. That was really amazing to me, because the mafia in Thailand were very strict about rules, and for the girls to go out with me had to get approved by the boss and by the madam and I took three girls out and said "ok your work is over, I bought you out let's have fun" and they showed me this place [a club that provides male hostesses who spend time with female clientele] and I couldn't believe it, these boys, their hairdos, I thought the girls were making fun of me. But they said "No! They're so nice, they hold our hands, they pour the whisky, look at this one in the white suit!" And I realized I had to have this, as normally I don't do this, I stick to the subject, but there I liked it because the sequence opens up like a butterfly with the vain guys coiffing their hairdos in the back room. But it was important to me that the next day the girls had to go to the fish tank again, there was this circle that was closed.
NOTEBOOK: The Thai girls seem lucky in that sense, we see them go out, we see them go to their own apartment, have a bit of a home life. You have a very different sense of their exterior lives.
GLAWOGGER: Well, in the beginning you can do that in the movie, have that freedom, but in the last sequence...
NOTEBOOK: You've set up the rules already...
GLAWOGGER: Exactly, you've set up the rules and you need to tie the bag or close the cupboard or whatever.
NOTEBOOK: Religion in the first and third segments seems very integrated into the daily lives of the women but in the second segment it struck me as more of a social or cultural structure than daily faith or spirituality. You see some rituals but people don't really talk about it or participate in the same way.
GLAWOGGER: Yes, but that's because I thought the overall structure is so dominated by religion. In Bangladesh the whole ghetto of prostitutes is actually because of religion. If it hadn't been in that kind of male-dominated society that says "you keep in your place, you either stay at home or be in a brothel" it wouldn't exist. The whole religion is like the dome on this neighborhood. In sexual connotations it really comes out, when they say "my mouth won't take a cock in it because it says the words of God"...then I thought that was enough religion for this section!
NOTEBOOK: What was it like interacting with the clients?
GLAWOGGER: Mainly, I wouldn't have thought it would have come up that much because I thought getting them to talk would be very difficult, but it came up by itself. Because I was going again and again and leaving the place and coming back trying to convince the girls, the regular customers came up to me and asked what the fuck I was doing. So I explained the movie and they cursed at me say "oh you journalists, you pissers, you always give us the red card and say we are the horrible guys and criminals and blah blah blah, are you one of them?" I said "come on, my film is a stage for these things, if you feel about prostitution and you have the balls and the guts to speak up, be my guest, I'm here." The moment that started I couldn't free myself from them! If they did not have a family or a job to lose they would all want to speak up. Sometimes they are stupid little kids, but I couldn't hate them, when I was nineteen I probably behaved like that too, in a way they were fun.
NOTEBOOK: You were originally thinking of shooting in Austria? There are no European locations in the finished film. Was there a particular reason for this?
GLAWOGGER: No, no particular reason. If we take globalization seriously than the world is one place! [laughs] No, but this is so in the mind of the people, many journalists ask me, "ok this is a Western look why don't you film at home." I mean, if I go to a brothel in Vienna it's exotic to me! Or even more than a middleclass fish tank in Thailand. It makes no sense, this old vision; the whole film is Western in that I look at it, it's male in the sense that I look at it—that's enough. If I found a great location in Austria that fit the whole style of the film I would have done it, but I don't do it for that other kind of a reason, to include "the European side" like a check list. I can find in Europe, and I did, exotic things, like women in Poland sitting in the woods reading comics all day on a chair waiting for cars to stop, and they drive with the customers into the woods and fuck them in the backseat of the car, come on! I don't have to go to Mexico to find such things, but on the other hand I chose locations that were more talkative in their cinematographic spirit.
NOTEBOOK: So it goes back to you finding spaces you wanted to film.
GLAWOGGER: That was so important to me, that the location tells a story too. All these three locations tell a story without anybody saying one word.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think the legality or illegality of prostitution in these places determined aspects of the filmmaking?
GLAWOGGER: I don't even know all the places it was legal or not. In Thailand you can't even mention the word prostitution when you ask for permission because they say "What could you want to film? There is no prostitution!" They have a strong censorship, I had a censor on my side during all the filming. I had one in Bangladesh too but there the guy was so corrupt it was easy, you know? In Mexico nobody gives a flying fuck, if the mafia says that's cool, it's cool. But illegality...there are so many places where prostitution is illegal and prostitution exists, it's called escort services or massage or karaoke or dancehall or it's called marriage, you name it it's there. Marriage I say because in Iran all the brothels have a thing called the muta marriage, it's a marriage where you marry the woman in a brothel for two hours and then you get divorced again, and the imam is sitting there waiting for you.
NOTEBOOK: It's a religious legality to enable prostitution?
GLAWOGGER: Yeah you can marry a prostitute for two weeks if you want to take her on vacation. You see, it doesn't matter about legality.
NOTEBOOK: It sounds like from your pre-production research there was a huge amount of material.
GLAWOGGER: That's always true with my movies.
NOTEBOOK: Do you feel like you filmed all that you could film for this story?
GLAWOGGER: Within the sequences, yes.
NOTEBOOK: Were there any places you really wanted to film but were unable to?
GLAWOGGER: Yeah. In Tokyo, there was a house where there was a room, I only know it from photographs, because they wouldn't let a white guy even go in. It's decorated like a school bus and all the prostitutes in there are dressed in school uniforms without underwear. And the Japanese men go in there in their business suits and their briefcases after work and they would pretend to ride the bus home and they would rub the girls and grab things while the girls pretend they are not there, they're just riding home. The cost of this service is called "the bus fare."
NOTEBOOK: That's unbelievable.
GLAWOGGER: But a white guy can't even go in there, it's so racist—you can't call it otherwise—because if a white guy touches these girls it would destroy them, they couldn't use them any more.
NOTEBOOK: Were there other things you wanted to film, not places? I was thinking, while watching your film, of Bertrand Bonello's House of Tolerance which played at Cannes, which because it's fictional has access to private moments with prostitutes one would think a documentary couldn't show.
GLAWOGGER: Two answers: for one, always yes. Whatever theme you have you see things you'll never get, whatever it is, little moments, special things. If you mean content-wise, there's not much missing. There are even things I had to leave out because I didn't have the running time. I had a scene where a boy is so in love with a girl in Bangladesh that he desperately fights with the madam to buy her out and they don't want to let her go because she's pretty and has many customers. It's a great scene but it only works if you show it for 7 minutes; same with the crazy girl running around in the Zona in Mexico. That scene is actually twelve minutes long, it's a take that's a movie in itself, it's wonderful, I always cry when I see the last part. But the whole segment is 25 minutes long so I couldn't do it, you know? But you know there's not much else. There's a part of La Zona that's extremely high class but on the other hand it's quite boring...there's always more. But in terms of substance I'm really satisfied.
NOTEBOOK: That's fascinating to me, because I would assume that due to the secrecy and shame involved in filming prostitutes and their stories, this subject would be one of the most difficult things to comprehensively film.
GLAWOGGER: It is difficult, but there's one thing I hate which is filmmakers who brag about the difficulty of their shooting, I really hate that with all my senses, so I'm not going to do it!
NOTEBOOK: But between Workingman's Death and this, they're films that with almost every scene as an audience member you are aware of how the filmmaker had to get into the position to film what's on camera. We're conscious of that very difficulty.
GLAWOGGER: Otherwise I wouldn't stand with a short lens so close to them! I mean look at this American film that I think even got an Oscar, called Born into Brothels, which actually bullshits you because it beats around the bush all the time and the director sent children in to take pictures where she should actually film, so she's never there where the film has to be, but everyone thinks this is a charming idea when it's chicken shit, you know?
NOTEBOOK: Do you think filming was easier or harder cause you were a man?
GLAWOGGER: Different. Let's be honest, it's a man-woman thing; I'm flirting with the girls, they're flirting with me. There's no way around that. A woman would be different, especially in that surrounding because a woman is always a suspicion, she can never be a client, she's another woman, maybe she's taking guys away or whatever. It's as simple as that and it really plays into it. But maybe they'd be honest with her on different levels.
NOTEBOOK: In a way, you're almost reversing your roles, you have to seduce the girls to tell their stories to you.
GLAWOGGER: Yeah but they're giving and I pay them, so the relationship is quite like I'm a john, a regular john with a camera.
NOTEBOOK: Is it as expensive to film as it is to have sex with them?
GLAWOGGER: A little more than a blowjob per story.
NOTEBOOK: Per story? Like the way that girl in La Zona charges per position?
GLAWOGGER: Absolutely. They love this method, in a way, because it's honest.