October 4, 2010

Indian Sex Workers Fight Back Against Misrepresentation

Last week, VBS TV (the video arm of Vice Magazine) debuted a 30 minute documentary called “Prostitutes of God”, which features some of the members of VAMP, a group that is part of the organization SANGRAM (I visited them last fall on my trip tot India). The representation of the women and their lives in the video, however, was painted with a very broad brush – one that obscures the complexities that women in sex work face in their work, worship, and family lives.

VAMP members were very upset by how they are portrayed in the film. They have used their media savvy to speak up about the film – read their below statement and watch the video directed to the film’s producers – and have channeled their rage to make sure that the filmmakers are held accountable for their work and the damage it does to sex workers. This problem of misrepresentation in the media certainly isn’t one that is exclusive to sex workers, but the standard issues of representation are compounded by the fact that sex workers are the subject of the film and that the film’s producers are from the global north and the subjects are from the global south. Furthermore, class inequities result in a film that doesn’t delve into the root causes of poverty, just obsesses over their manifestation in the sex industry.

The VBS filmmakers got up close and personal before betraying the film’s participants too – the interactions with the sex workers in the film are chummy, and frequently take place in the sex workers’ homes, but in the film these relationships are twisted so that the filmmakers endanger and mock their subjects. In the second episode, the filmmakers visit with a young woman whom they later reveal is HIV positive and who they assume is spreading HIV like wildfire among the community. During the third episode of the film, the filmmakers visit with a trans woman who is a sex worker – they misgender her, mock her in the film, and don’t contextualize the experience of trans women in the sex industry at all, but depict her as a freak and a transvestite.

Here’s VAMP’s response:

This brief (3.5) minute clip by the Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP, Prostitutes’ Collective Against Injustice), encapsulates a succinct response to ‘Prostitutes of God’, a sensationalized and factually flawed documentary produced by Sarah Harris for VBS TV. Countering the distorted perspective in the film, women from VAMP present their incisive views about sex work; religion and faith; livelihoods; issues of consent; ethics and cross-cultural sensitivities while making documentary films.

The women in Sangli from VAMP recorded video responses to the film. In the age of the internet, women in countries far away who used to be the objects of white people’s gaze with no right of reply now have access to the representations that are made of them, and the technological means to answer back. A naive westerner may seize the headlines, but there’s now scope for there to be a debate and to bring those who in the past would have remained voiceless victims into that debate to represent themselves. It is a great opportunity to put the record straight.

This clip has been produced by Sangli Talkies, the newly-launched video unit of SANGRAM / VAMP.

Since this video went online last week, it’s created a bit of a stir – as it should.

Bebe Loff, Associate Professor and Director of the Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights at Monash University in Australia, has written a piece for RH Reality Check, “Prostitutes of God:” Film Mocks, Belittles Sex Workers.

Paromita Vohra, a Mumbai-based filmmaker, writes about the ethical issues in her piece Vamps, victims, and videotapes in the Mid Day.

These writings, in cooperation with many comments and notes from sex workers and allies from around the world, has gotten at least a bit of a response – the film has been edited to remove the information about the HIV status of one of the women, which was revealed without her consent. We’re all keeping the pressure on; ultimately we hope to get the film taken offline, with a public apology issued. But in the meantime, chipping away at it bit by bit is important.

Gone are the days when filmmakers from the global north could swoop in and document things they perceive without consequence. But media makers shouldn’t view the act of their subjects watching the end product as a hindrance to telling the story, as it seems that these filmmakers have. “Subject” is no longer even a good word – media making, especially when it is about a community, should be collaborative in order to have a chance at reflecting even a modicum of honesty.

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