"Whores' Glory": A Riveting Look at Sex Work in 3 Countries
Photo Credit: A still from
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Prostitution isn’t just the world’s oldest profession. It’s also a longtime focus of cultural obsession, across many historical periods and on every continent, from the poetry of Catullus to the woodblock prints of 19th-century Japan. There’s such a long history of male artists, writers and filmmakers who depict prostitution in erotic, romantic and sentimental terms that it’s only natural to approach Austrian documentarian Michael Glawogger’s “Whores’ Glory” with suspicion. Indeed, in the film’s opening scene, Glawogger’s camera directly engages the lurid allure of sex work, showing a group of scantily clad young women in a Bangkok brothel called the Fish Tank as they try to attract clients: Pretending to make out with each other, pressing their breasts and buttocks against the window, using a laser pointer to pick out likely-looking men on the street. But those are just the opening moments of a long journey, a daring, novelistic and unforgettable account of the real lives of female prostitutes in three very different countries and social contexts.
If “Whores’ Glory” successfully resists romanticizing the lives of women who sell their bodies to make a living, Glawogger also does not surrender to what you might call the vulgar Marxist alternative, in which such women are interchangeable victims in a vast, mechanistic sexual economy, stripped of any agency or personality. Indeed, if there’s an ideological point (and a smidgen of hopefulness) to be found in “Whores’ Glory,” it lies in the film’s insistence that the women Glawogger meets in Thailand, Bangladesh and Mexico remain defiantly individual, even in the face of a system of sexual and economic exploitation they cannot (or at least do not) resist. Indeed, “Whores’ Glory” has a surprising double focus on the women’s economic lives and on their spiritual and religious pursuits. If one is inevitably reminded of Marx’s famous remark that religion is the opiate of the masses, one might also remember that his preceding comments were not nearly so harsh: “Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation.”
Right after that scene with the girls from the Fish Tank strutting over the Bangkok street, Glawogger introduces an extraordinary epigraph from Emily Dickinson, one that convinced me right away that this movie was something unusual. “God is indeed a jealous God,” Dickinson wrote. “He cannot bear to see/ That we had rather not with Him/ But with each other play.” Indeed, we have already seen brief vignettes of women in the three countries talking startlingly about their relationship to the divine. In Reynosa, a battered Mexican border city across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas, the street hookers all seem to pray to La Santissima Muerte (the Most Holy Death), a demonic female entity who seems to coexist with God and Jesus in their version of Roman Catholicism. In the City of Joy, a filthy warren of stone buildings in Faridpur, Bangladesh, a young woman tells the camera that she resists clients who demand oral sex by telling them that Allah did not make her mouth for that purpose; it is the mouth she uses to recite the suras of the Quran.
It’s details like those that make “Whores’ Glory” both a wrenching journalistic exploration of real life and something close to great cinema. This film, which took four years to complete, is the third installment in Glawogger’s series of documentaries about work in the era of globalization, which began in 1998 with “Megacities” and continued with “Workingman’s Death” in 2005. (I’m coming late to his work but what I’ve seen so far is absolutely remarkable — and you can see it for yourself in a retrospective that just concluded in New York and will soon reach other cities.) While the fluid camerawork of Wolfgang Thaler is never ostentatious, this film has considerable artistic ambition, with a score by Pappik & Regener (members of the German band Element of Crime) and soundtrack songs by PJ Harvey, CocoRosie and other indie-type artists. I suppose some viewers will find those ingredients intrusive or distracting, but sometimes the music (and Monika Willi’s remarkable editing) serve to create a little dreamlike distance from what we’re seeing on-screen. Without that distance, “Whores’ Glory” might be too difficult to sit through, quite frankly.