Five Memorable Recent Films by Sex Workers

Grab some popcorn and check out these films that screened at Whorehouse Cinema and the Red Umbrella Film Festival

June 2024
April 2024
June 17, 2024
Supported By :
Red Insight

Between Whorehouse Cinema and the Red Umbrella Film Festival, there’s starting to be a trend: sex workers taking back the narrative in the film industry. 

We wrote about these festivals and what they mean for the portrayal of sex workers here. We also wanted to give space to the wonderful films themselves. We’ve picked out six films that are worth watching.

There are films like The Oleanders and Kenya, which closely follow the lives and memories of several trans women as they navigate a terrifying transphobic world, and support each other. Others, like Fly in Power, deal with the dangers of criminalization, told through a migrant sex workers’ mutual aid and advocacy group. Happy Ending takes a trip into the consciousness of a sex worker, as they seek to reconnect with their own physicality and pleasure.

Taken together, these films represent a challenge to the mainstream film industry’s portrayal of sex work, moving away from the stereotypical use of sex workers as punchlines or punching bags. 

Grab some popcorn, and enjoy learning about the films below.

The Oleanders (Paola Revenioti)

Paola, Betty and Eva are the three striking women in their sixties who guide us through the nighttime city streets of Athens in the documentary film The Oleanders. Given the stark mortality rates for trans women, they are somewhat surprised at still being alive. And they are very much alive; they ran out of fucks to give several decades ago. They are virtually sisters with a healthy appetite for each others’ gossip, which dates back to their youth. Every single scene shares their camaraderie, affectionate teasing, in-jokes and prevailing dark humor. 

There’s a distinct absence of voiceover, the conversations are naturalistic and nudged along by Paola, who wrote and directed the film. It’s an intimate vantage point, and their camera shoots back at any attention they receive as they stroll around the city. The cinematography is simple, but within this series of nighttime shots there is never a dull moment, thanks to their anecdotes. It is safe to assume that there’s many more salacious stories that didn’t make the final cut. The women talk proudly of devouring countless young studs, and revel in the scandals of their rich and famous clients.  

They find safety in the shadows, and recall the intricacies of each area and how to operate within them; the best spots to get changed, find supplies, have a drink, take clients and most importantly, evade the police. Witnessing our protagonists smoking, reapplying lipstick and shooting the shit in front of the Greek Evzones Changing of the Guard is a personal highlight. They completely brush off this backdrop and continue chatting, while this preposterous performance continues. Stern men wear very long tassels and very large pom-poms, making powerful exaggerated leg movements, vying for the ladies’ attention and failing to get it. 

Kenya (Gisela Delgadillo)

In Mexico City, we meet Kenya, who has just witnessed her friend Paola’s murder. In the depths of grief, Kenya fights for justice while the murderer walks free - despite there being plenty of witnesses and evidence. She also fights for her friend’s basic human right to be correctly buried and mourned as a woman. Amid the extreme violence faced by trans women in Mexico City, Kenya tries to set up a safe haven for her community while struggling to ensure her own survival.

Kenya is a beautifully shot documentary feature film that feels like a biographical drama, utilizing cinematic techniques to intimately follow our protagonist's journey. Kenya maneuvers hectic city streets and jam-packed homes which pop with bright traditional colors, at points redecorating and embellishing spaces, symbolizing the love and vibrancy of the community that keeps her going. Kenya’s emotions are laid bare as we witness her bravery and grace, a thin veil for her vulnerability and anger.

This film forms a touching tribute to Kenya’s friend Paola, while honoring the chosen family around her. This deeply personal debut deserves all of the awards; it is currently up for one nomination and Whorehouse Cinema is its third festival screening.

Rising Sun Blues (Renata Ferraz and Maria Roxo)

Rising Sun Blues (Rua dos Anjos) is a radical Portuguese project in which two women, a filmmaker and a sex worker, pair up to co-create a film. The disparity in their respective backgrounds and privileges is palpable, so it is refreshing to see equal power dynamics 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 marginalized artists in such a way.

Fly in Power (Yin Q and Yoon Grace Ra)

After a sex worker died during a police raid of a US massage parlour, a group of Asian and migrant workers needed to find ways to honour her and protect each other. They formed a grassroots mutual aid and advocacy group Red Canary Song, and went on to make the documentary film Fly in Power. The film was produced entirely by women, trans, non binary and queer people of the Asian diaspora; at least 50% of them were sex workers and it shows. They capture the love and care that’s held within chosen families, and celebrate women supporting women while fighting for their rights. Fly in Power is the world’s first film to centre an Asian massage worker, telling her story with her own words, narrative and editorial choices.

Happy Ending (Eunju Ara Choi)

One notable short film was Happy Ending, a dreamlike animated piece of poetry which is 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 visceral little film that spoke such truths, it made me want to hold hands with whoever was sitting beside me.

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