A Different Kind of Film Festival in Amsterdam

This summer, sex workers came together to celebrate cinema – and challenge the traditional film festival model

June 2024
December 2023
June 17, 2024
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This article was created in partnership with Red Insight

“Can you name a single sex working film director? I doubt it!”

It was a rainy, grey Saturday night but the heat was rising inside Cinetol, a DIY arts space in Amsterdam. A motley crew of dancers, drag and cabaret artists performed everything from strip tease to spanking, and even a rather shocking electro-stimulation show. Outside, the Peep Show Hoes lured people in with their mobile immersive performance peep show.

This big arty party marked the Netherlands’ first-ever sex worker-led film festival, Whorehouse Cinema. The main thesis of the weekend-long event was to reimagine the film festival for maximal inclusion. It was both a celebration of films that come from an overlooked perspective, and a way to help those filmmakers get the exposure they need to infiltrate the mainstream.

Whorehouse Cinema is such a camp, creative event that it may not align with the most prevailing perceptions of sex workers, but that’s kind of the point. Sex workers have consistently been subject to problematic representation in the media and culture, rarely having any control over the narrative. I grew up with popular culture using sex workers as the punchlines and the punching bags. On film, a sex working character is typically inserted as a plot device - be that a joke, a sex scene, a downward spiral or a murder scene. 

Taken together, this representation means that an already vulnerable section of society is rendered even more vulnerable through repeated dehumanization; being portrayed as disposable makes it very hard to fight for your recognition and your rights.

Alexis Wilson Briggs, one of the festival’s organizers, believes that the only way to change the narrative is to create and promote art that is sex worker-led; not just to chip away at this notion of sex workers being fair game for violence, but to replace it with complex, relatable and uplifting stories.

“When people are telling stories about us, rather than us telling our own stories, it distorts the lens,” she said. “Discrimination is inevitable when we’re the subject, not the decision maker or creator.” 

For Alexis and the festival’s other organizers, it wasn’t enough to simply speak out against this representation; instead, they decided to build their own alternative film ecosystem.

Cinema Vérité

Film festivals are a particularly elitist and exclusionary corner of the art world. Making a film is already a costly endeavour, but it’s less well-known that film distribution costs are typically around half of the amount spent on film production - a huge slice of the pie for low-budget indie filmmakers.

Having to cough up extra cash to apply to festivals (typically around $50-$100 per entry) with no guarantee of acceptance means many up-and-coming and DIY projects remain unseen. Some festivals aren’t even open to the public; Cannes exists for industry professionals and Hollywood darlings to schmooze among their safe, wealthy inner circle.  

Siobhan Knox was one of the featured film directors at the festival. She told me that for many people in her chosen line of work, filmmaking is simply inaccessible.

“Sex workers, as much as all marginalised people, are excluded from producing our own work,” Siobhan said. “Filmmaking is expensive and technical. It relies upon networks and contacts, while we often need anonymity for our safety.” 

Siobhan has always been a performer. Early in life she was a childhood champion in traditional Irish dance. Later on she turned to choreography and pole dance, and helped found the Sex Worker’s Opera, a multimedia project that features interviews and performances from sex workers around the world.

She took the Opera to Amsterdam in 2018, and found a flourishing local community of queer sex worker artists. Two years later, some of this community got together to form queer.red and the queer.red foundation, to support sex worker artists and share their work.

Inspired by the London Sex Worker Film Festival, the group decided to stage a full festival in Amsterdam. They opted for the name Whorehouse Cinema, as a cheeky nod to arthouse cinema, inspired by a history of inextricable links between sex work and the arts.

The festival would be entirely designed and led by sex workers and allies, and would abide by its own set of rules – including the choice to waive festival entry fees, so filmmakers could submit their work for free.

Behind the Scenes

“Organising a film festival is not complicated, it's just a shitload of work. But in the details, there is the devil.” 

I spoke with Plette ter Veld, one of the festival’s core organizers. Plette is an experienced film festival producer; he helped start TranScreen, a transgender film festival that has been running in Amsterdam for a decade. 

Plette told me that film festivals are usually part of an expensive, complex film distribution model that can be inaccessible to marginalised artists. Plette and his colleague Majk Mirković - a fellow TranScreen co-founder and producer – worked closely with queer.red to build things differently, starting with a team comprised fully of current and former sex workers, allies and advocates working in sex work policy. 

“We decided early on that members with sex work experience would make the decisions, and everyone else would offer support and facilitation,” Plette said.

Trust, skills sharing and leading with lived experience gave way to another key principle: mutual support. “We realized that being queer or disabled or marginalised comes out in different ways. And when these roads come together, life gets really tough and we have to take care of each other. We need solidarity between all groups, so we’re more sensitive to people's needs – and we hope that’ll take us a bit further than regular film festivals.” 

Plette and Majk joined Alexis Wilson Briggs and Aline Fantinatti to make up the core organisational team for Whorehouse Cinema. I spoke with Alexis over a well-deserved wine one night. She previously worked as a pro bono criminal defence attorney for activists in the US, as well as being a former sex worker herself. I complemented Alexis’ glasses, and her response was to flip up one dramatic frame to reveal another. 

Alexis told me about queer.red’s model: “Our primary goal is to find funding for sex worker artists, funding that they don’t already have access to.” They pay all contributors a screening fee, while most film festivals only pay to screen the films that they have specifically requested. “We wanted our fund to give as much money as possible to sex worker artists, who were exhibited or contributed with designs, performances or any other part of the festival.” 

Alexis and I got talking about the money, honey: “We have government funding and sponsorships, since there’s no such thing as capitalist clean money or fully ethical funding.” The team tried to find the best way to work within that structure, and set up some core values around finances, like choosing to waive a submission fee. They kept costs low by finding a mission-aligned venue that was excited to host the event (staff were spotted on their days off returning to watch more movies).

They also avoided a costly digital platform, which festivals usually rely on to process submissions. Instead, they reached out to their communities and networks and sought out cultural events, to build networks, contacts and interest in the festival. 

“We focused on reaching a community that wants to see art that’s about them,” Alexis said. “So we were meeting other people, seeing other films, and using those relationships instead of a corporatised platform to start building our list of programming.”

Shifting the Lens

When it came to film selection, Alexis explained that queer.red prioritised sex worker artists as a core value, which informed all of their decisions and shifted their thinking about film.

“When watching shorts or films, our first question is: ‘Who made it?’,” she said. “Even if the film resonates, we have to walk this all the way through. When we pay a screening fee, are we actually paying a sex worker artist?”

Since the filmmakers' backgrounds bore more relevance than the films’ topics or genre, the programme was open to a wider subject matter. The festival ended up with a “handful of many different things to create a full programme”.

One standout film was Rising Sun Blues (Rua dos Anjos). The radical Portuguese project portrays two women, a filmmaker and a sex worker, pairing up to co-create a feature film. The disparity in their respective backgrounds and privileges is palpable, so it is refreshing to see equal power dynamics at play in their process of mutual mentorship.

Part fly-on-the-wall documentary, part film within a film, it’s a layered yet sparse piece of slow cinema. As the women exchange personal stories and vocational techniques, a friendship forms. They flip the script and take it in turns to be the narrator and character, revealing each others’ fears and discomforts which can make for uncomfortable viewing. It is humbling to see a filmmaker try such a sensitive experimental approach, but equally it feels about time for feminist artists to be collaborating with more marginalised artists in such a way.

Another notable entry was Happy Ending, a dreamlike animated piece of poetry, based on the anonymous testimony of a Korean sex worker. Words and bodies intertwine to capture the pain of providing pleasure for others, in the absence of your own. A claustrophobic stream of consciousness opens up to a personal physical exploration, and a sexual reawakening. Happy Ending is a beautiful little film that spoke such truths; it made me want to hold hands with whoever was sitting beside me. 

Deep and Cheap Media & Equipe Ephemere (Indélébile/Graffiti Politique) follows the covert operations of a feminist activist graffiti group through the night in Paris. Anonymous, intersectional women come together to create political graffiti and show support for sex workers. They brandish “respecter les putes” (respect whores) in huge letters across a city centre monument - a brazen example of allyship in action. 

The featured shorts, films and artwork all point towards the potential for real cultural and social change. One of the attendees I met at the festival was sex worker arts researcher Dr. Imogen Flower. She told me that that community-led art can challenge misconceptions, and give voice to matters which may otherwise remain unknown and unheard.  

“We move away from tokenistic representations and tired, damaging stereotypes perpetuated by people with limited understanding,” she said. “It also creates opportunities for critique of situations and representations that might otherwise go unchallenged by people who are not personally affected by them.”

But it’s not just about creating more positive, honest representations in place of damaging, well-known portrayals. Imogen is emphatic that peer-led art, and platforms like queer.red that support it, give way to more provocative, extraordinary art. 

“Artistic boundaries can be pushed, and culture can become more reflective of the people who are part of it,” she said. “There’s space for plurality and depth – more representational nuance, more exciting creative explorations, and more radical politics.”

Films and Activism

For attendees of Whorehouse Cinema, films were only one part of the weekend’s festivities. Other events and exhibitions focused on education, activism and empowerment. Through their programming, queer.red helped raise awareness of the ways sex workers are spoken over, silenced and stigmatised in both art and media.

One of the notable events was a workshop by film scholar and pornographer Yvette Lurs, on incorporating cinematic techniques into erotic content creation. Yvette’s practical how-to guide for solo content creators included everything from traditional lighting setups and set dressing, to the techniques used by high budget porn makers to create an amateur feel.

Another standout exhibition was Reimagining Sex Work. The project addresses the Dutch mainstream media head on, exposing the problematic words and photos that members of the media use when reporting on sex work. The artists behind the project created a press image bank and a media guide, which they’ve toured around the Netherlands.

The role of activism was made clear for me when I met Vera Rodriguez at the festival party. Vera is a photographer and former stripper who works for the Red Umbrella Fund, the first and only global philanthropic fund that is run by and for sex workers. 

Vera has campaigned through cabaret numbers, arty exhibitions, pole dance classes and feminist porn, but film has a special place in her heart: “We needed a space in Amsterdam to share culture, to bring people together from different backgrounds as movies can change the narrative in their minds.” 

She told me that it was vital to create moments in the festival for people to talk, get involved and let loose - and the evening’s events did just that. Sweaty, glittery partygoers were moving in unison to pumping house, disco and techno tracks. A drag queen sashayed down the runway, and leapt up onto the central circular stage to climb the full length of the stripper pole. She raised her stiletto heel, flung back her platinum locks and blasted her bubble machine into the air. 

Vera summarised it perfectly: “If you can have fun together and bond, then you can do activism as well. If you can dance together, then you can fight together.”

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