Filmmaker Juliana Piccillo's documentary "Whores on Film" explores how sex workers' images have been exploited over time by the movie industry.
Tucson-based director Juliana Piccillo’s engrossing new documentary Whores on Film wrapped long before the flashy, female-dominant crime drama Hustlers hit the screen. Still, the latter’s gangbuster box office success — which includes critics’ raves and a first weekend gross of $33 million — dovetails nicely with the world premiere of Piccillo’s deep, cerebral dive into the cinema of sex work, which is scheduled for a September 27 debut during London’s upcoming Raindance Film Festival.
Naturally, Piccillo has an opinion on Hustlers, which stars JLo and Constance Wu as stripper pals who slip Mickeys to horny high rollers and make cash advances from the dudes’ credit cards long before the groggy gropers know what hit them.
“Even if it’s fun and even if the sex workers are the heroines – it’s two steps forward, one step back,” Piccillo explained of the film during an interview for this piece.
Piccillo acknowledges that Hustlers’ filmmakers took pains to hire actual ecdysiasts as consultants, and handed a minor role to the risqué rapper Cardi B, herself a former stripper. But she was bummed that the film ended up telling a clichéd tale “about dancers drugging and robbing clients.” Basically, the flick is a high-heeled, cocaine-fueled romp on the surface with a fairly conventional morality tale lurking about an inch below.
“It’s the most high profile film about strippers in a lot of years and it’s perpetuating the stigma [that] sex workers are thieves and clients are scumbags who deserve to be robbed,” Piccillo complained.
My hustlers review: while it celebrates the community and resilience of sex workers, there are many horrible tropes: the women are punished in the end, actual transactions of sex for $ are portrayed as the ultimate degradation and clients are total slime balls.
— Whores on Film (@WHORESonFILM) September 16, 2019
Certainly, no one will ever mistake celluloid cotton candy like Hustlers for heady high art featuring sex workers as heroines, such as Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria or Jean-Luc Godard’s My Life to Live. But Piccillo’s recurring theme throughout her near-comprehensive documentary is that how sex workers are depicted in popular culture is important, even if the product itself leaves much to be desired.
Such depictions affect the reality of sex workers’ lives, Piccillo contends. And in her rigorous survey, she interviews sex workers, activists and academics about how Hollywood exploits those in the sex trade, projecting society’s myths and fantasies onto them, while often exposing sex worker characters to extreme violence in the process.
“Representation matters,” Piccillo explained. “Representation impacts policy. What people think they know about sex workers honestly affects how laws get made.”
Directors and writers frequently portray sex workers as objects of pity, disgust, shame and rescue. On film, their lives rarely end well, regardless of their sex appeal. Their characters are considered disposable and inhabit the extremes of human existence.
Legendary sex workers’ rights activist Carol Leigh, aka, “Scarlot Harlot,” who is credited the coining the term “sex worker” in the 1970s, serves as one of Piccillo’s talking heads. She explains that the “image of the prostitute” is often relegated to social opposites: the “wealthy call girl” on one end, and someone who is “on the street and suffering,” on the other.
“Our society can’t seem to accept the range of people’s experiences in between,” Leigh says.
From the “happy hooker” extreme of the spectrum, there’s Julia Roberts winning the love of Richard Gere’s rich corporate raider in Pretty Woman and Shirley MacLaine’s fun-loving French tart in Billy Wilder’s romantic comedy Irma la Douce. Contrast those with the grittier reality of Jon Voight’s male prostitute Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy and Charlize Theron’s sex worker-turned-serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster.
Even the happiest of hookers is a mere puppet of the storyteller. Juba Kalamka, a bisexual art activist and co-founder of the “homohop” group Deep Dick Collective, tells Piccillo that “the stereotype of the sex worker” has become “a lazy and convenient foil” for filmmakers, one they can easily twist to their own purposes.
Similarly, Nat, a performance artist interviewed for Piccillo’s film, observes that sex workers are so marginalized that epic violence can be inflicted on them in TV shows or other media without consequence.
“How do you make it okay to show someone raping and killing a woman?” Nat shrugs. “I don’t know, make her a whore. ”
To drive home the point, Piccillo shows us a montage of sadistic and tough-to-watch movie clips, including Theron’s Wuornos being raped with a ratchet, Jessica Alba as a prostitute being brutally beaten in the film version of Jim Thompson’s hard-boiled crime novel, The Killer Inside Me, and actress Angie Everhart as a call girl and police informant being run over by the same car twice in the erotic thriller Jade.
Piccillo closes the segment with Nat offering an enigmatic smile, saying, “People wanna watch us die.”
It’s difficult to do Piccillo’s film justice, but the conceit of having former and current sex workers and activists commenting on the portrayals of their community in the popular media is a genius one.
Viewers may be familiar with better-known personalities in the documentary such as Leigh or porn pioneer Annie Sprinkle, but Piccillo also includes artists like Nat and Kalamka, as well as authors like David Henry Sterry and Florida academic Nicholas de Villiers. Piccillo peppers the audience with an array of voices old and new, keeping us interested in much more than just the clips she spotlights.
Piccillo said she had to do PhD-level research to tackle this topic, and it shows. So does her skill at her craft, which is not surprising given that she’s taught filmmaking at the University of Arizona and has enjoyed a successful career behind the camera shooting both corporate videos and independent films for the past 30 years.
Despite the scope of Whores on Film, sex workers are so ubiquitous in films that there’s no way Piccillo could reference every example. Louis Malle’s controversial homage to New Orleans’ Storyville, Pretty Baby, and Bob Fosse’s crowd-pleasing musical about taxi-dancers, Sweet Charity, are a couple of faves that do make the cut.
Piccillo seems particularly fond of two recent films by director Sean Baker, Tangerine andThe Florida Project, which feature sympathetic, non-judgmental depictions of sex workers.
The latter, a touching slice-of-life film set in a cheap Florida motel within eyeshot of Walt Disney World, stars Willem Dafoe as the motel’s manager and follows the tale of a six-year old girl whose mom makes ends meet as a sex worker while living there.
“It’s up there with Roma as one of the best movies I’ve seen in the last five years,” Piccillo enthused.
More than introducing viewers to important films they may have overlooked, Piccillo’s documentary is like a master class in the movie industry’s enduring fascination with sex work.
Piccillo says she plans to do the festival circuit on the hunt for a distributor, so Whores on Film won’t be on a streaming service like Netflix anytime soon. But if you get the chance to catch it at a special screening, take it. You will not regret it.