On the Job: Michael Glawogger’s Whores’ Glory

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Adam Nayman writes about film regularly for The Globe and Mail, Sight and Sound, Little White Lies and Reverse Shot.

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Image credit: The Match Factory

Eulogizing Michael Glawogger in Cinema Scope 59, Christoph Huber revealed that the late Austrian director—who died on April 23 in Liberia at the age of 55 after contracting malaria during a film shoot—was not a fan of the word “globalization.” This despite the fact that his documentaries Megacities (1998), Workingman’s Death (2005), and Whores’ Glory (2011) were frequently referred to—and upon the completion of the third film, screened together as—Glawogger’s “globalization trilogy,” each tackling different aspects of international life under late capitalism.

Subtitled “12 Stories of Survival,” Megacities explores the slums of different massive metropolises and profiles a number of people hanging on by a thread. The combination of unblinking vérité and staged drama made the film difficult to categorize, especially in the late nineties, when “hybridity” was not yet a buzzword in non-fiction cinema circles. The more celebrated Workingman’s Death uses fluid camerawork and allusive montage to represent a series of godforsaken heavy-industrial outposts; if the footage of a Nigerian slaughterhouse evokes Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts, other scenes seem plucked from the realm of dystopian science fiction. Whores’ Glory synthesizes its predecessors by focusing on a marginal but diverse community of prostitutes and sex workers living in Bangkok, Faridpur (a district in Bangladesh), and Reynosa, Mexico (a small town on the Texas-Mexico border), where they occupy three brothels colloquially referred to as the Fish Tank, the City of Joy, and la Zona da Tolerencia (the Zone of Tolerance), respectively.

Glawogger may not have liked the word “globalization” (removing it from all of the films’ official synopses on his website), but there is no question that Megacities, Workingman’s Death, and Whores’ Glory work together as a trilogy. To go even further, it’s arguable that the latter two films can be separated out as a diptych depicting different forms of physical labour split along gendered lines. The films’ titles are quite suggestive in this regard. Where Workingman’s Death has intimations of nobility and sacrifice (by way of an allusion to a classic Grateful Dead album), Whores Glory seems a cruelly ironic contradiction; the pejorative social and moral connotations of the first word (sardonically?) sanctified by the second.

The implications of these two titles play out in the films in interesting ways. With its spectacular images of men toiling in abject conditions, Workingman’s Death is a critique that almost seems at times to be an homage. In trying to tear away certain illusions held by people living in the developed world—namely the now-you-don’t-see-it/now-you-never-will magic trick of a marginalized workforce—Glawogger practically ends up making icons of his subjects: they are the wretched of the Earth. And it is finally their general indifference to the filmmaker in their midst that truly authenticates this status. So destroyed are these workingmen by the extremity of their daily grind that they can’t—and don’t, and never would—modulate their performances for the camera.

By contrast, the women in Whores Glory seem ready for their close-ups. This is a function of a vocation that requires them to be on display for male clients, and is especially true in the Fish Tank brothel in Bangkok, which renders the business conducted within its walls both literally and figuratively transparent: the girls are lined up behind glass so that prospective buyers can more easily survey the “merchandise.” It is perhaps unsurprising that the subjects in Whores Glory take on iconographic qualities, because their jobs—and this is in every way a movie about labour—often require them to embody the fantasies of others: to shape themselves to the contours of male fantasies, or else exceed them.

What Glawogger’s film makes startlingly clear is that for many of the women he’s filming, the line between inhabiting a persona and a kind of conditioned resignation to one’s status is thin and wavering. In both the Thailand and Mexico sequences, the performativity of the subjects—whether mutely and decorously posed in the Fish Tank or prowling the Zone—is troubling. We wonder how much of their behaviour—both while on the clock and during downtime—is for the camera’s benefit. The vigour with which the veteran prostitutes in the latter segment describe the power they hold over their clients (including graphic depictions of sexual techniques designed to simultaneously pleasure and physically disempower men en route to a big payout) would seem to introduce a new note into Glawogger’s cinema of supremely alienated labour: pride in a job well done.

This wildly destabilizing tone seems to be an extension of Glawogger’s letting his subjects speak for themselves. A truly self-effacing documentarian, the director does not include his halves of the staged interviews. And yet this appearance of dispassionate observation is deceptive. Whores Glory was produced in collaboration with its subjects, a process that included paying subjects to appear on camera—hardly an unprecedented scenario in documentary practice, but one that takes on a different resonance considering the film’s subject matter. “Every prostitute wants to be paid for everything that has remotely anything to do with interpersonal contact,” wrote Glawogger by way of explanation in his director’s note. “This was necessary because we were essentially taking work time away from the women.” In the film’s most controversial sequence, these two streams of economy converge, as Glawogger films a Mexican woman having oral sex with a client in a hotel room—an interaction strategically positioned as the film’s climax.

The question of who is being exploited in this scenario is perplexing indeed. Although the scene is entirely on the level—both subjects are aware of the camera’s presence and it’s an entirely consensual encounter—there is also a sense that the imagery is being achieved at a cost well above the three hundred pesos being paid by the man (possibly in addition to whatever compensation Glawogger offered, as well). It has been said, perhaps most famously by the great filmmaker Luis Buñuel in his autobiography My Last Sigh (1982)that the more specifically a situation can be rendered, the greater its potential for universal implication—and Glawogger understands and illustrates this dynamic well in his documentary work. Yet here and elsewhere in Whores Glory, it feels as if Buñuel’s dictum is being turned inside out. By actively reaching for a sort of universalizing scenario—like, for instance, a woman being paid for sex while a camera dispassionately records the proceedings—Whores Glory arguably tramples over the specifics in the process.

It is the middle section of Whores Glory that is the most problematic in this regard, and it’s not coincidental that these issues arise in the midst of what is both the most religiously rigid and economically depressed region of the film. Plunging the viewer into the “pleasure district” of Dhaka, Bangladesh via snaking camera movements that traverse the labyrinthine structure of both the city and the massive whorehouse that hosts hundreds of prostitutes of all ages, Glawogger doesn’t so much aestheticize the setting as accentuate what’s already there. But certain choices still feel pushy, like the insertion of a P.J. Harvey song on the soundtrack as the film cuts between rigorously framed images of desperate, hollow-eyed young women slouching in hallways. In these moments, Whores Glory feels less like a series of statements about prostitution by those who practice it than a summation on the topic by a filmmaker whose agenda, however empathetic, ultimately supersedes the more modest and contingent attitudes of his subjects.

At its best, Whores Glory locates a balance between what its subjects want (and are comfortable enough) to say about their lives and Glawogger’s artistic-journalistic gesture on their behalf. Leaving aside the collision of imperatives between film art and journalism (a clash that has spawned its own formidable body of literature and debate), Whores Glory eventually frames itself as an ineffectual intervention—an admission that is both rueful and self-excusing. In a long final scene that House Next Door critic Andrew Schenker perceptively relates to Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room, two women smoke crack and discuss their lives. After what feels like an eternity, one concludes “we’re fucked,” and the hard, immediate cut to black that follows her words implies agreement on the filmmaker’s part.

It’s a perfect double-edged epigram for a film that means to encompass a wide spectrum of despair and exploitation, but its poetic cynicism is also off-putting. It’s as if Glawogger is admitting that all his movie can do is repeat something that its subjects—and probably its audience—already know. To reduce Whores Glory (or for that matter, Workingman’s Death) to position papers on globalization is to ignore their complexities and nuances, and yet by tacitly acknowledging the futility of even his own project, Glawogger inscribes a cowed sense of hopelessness on his audience as well as the women onscreen. “We women really are poor creatures,” says one of the residents of the City of Joy, another sadly ideal epigram; while Whores Glory is not obliged to contradict her, the lack of a response from the filmmaker can be construed as either very ethical or very savvy documentary practice.


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