dir. Michael Glawogger
On a recent podcast Roger and I bemoaned the all too obvious consistency of documentaries, especially those deemed the best in their genre by the Academy Awards. (Of course, it should be noted, the Oscars have gotten slightly better in this regard recently. I have yet to see this year’s winner, Searching for Sugar Man, but I heard some things, some good things about it.) Working as they do in the realm of nonfiction, one would think that documentarians would take advantage of the opportunity to create art out of real life. But alas, documentaries tend to be the most predictable films out there. For the average documentarian, subject is all that matters: probe an important enough topic and all attempts at interesting, innovative filmmaking can drop by the wayside, the thinking goes. Where the documentary format should lend itself to the greatest experimentation, it all too often becomes the bastion of lazily constructed advocacy pieces.
So with a documentary like Whores’ Glory—an examination of prostitution in disparate impoverished locales (Thailand, Bangladesh, and Mexico)—one would think the recipe would be for yet another by-the-numbers advocacy piece: shots of the dire conditions, annotated by either a voice-of-God narrator explaining the details or a collection of talking heads informing us of the dire conditions we just saw, and explaining measures necessary to correct it all. But what we get with Michael Glawogger’s Whores’ Glory is something else entirely.
Glawogger’s film instead functions as a meditation on work—really, really shitty work. Prostitution is a series of business transactions, after all; and Whores’ Glory plunges into the workaday details of this life: the work-related banter between fellow sex workers, the worries about wages, and the bargaining that goes into every transaction. And it’s never pretty. (Actually, it feels wrong to say this, but Whores’ Glory is quite beautifully shot, capturing the vibrant colors as well as the distinct look of each location. It’s a travelogue by way of depressing perversion and subsistence-living.)
Such as the opening Thai section. Set in a Bangkok whorehouse, the prostitutes here are each given a number and made to sit in a brightly-lit glass cage; in the darkened room beyond which, potential clients size up the goods, asking for their desired sex workers by number. It really reduces the sex trade to its ugly meat-market core. Like when a Thai-speaking American tourist decides to choose hooker number 241 even though she’s nineteen and not the fourteen he hoped, and he tries to haggle his way to a discount. (By the way, if you happen to know any American men who look like Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons and who also speak fluent Thai, you really can’t go wrong macing them. They’ll know why.)
And each successive locale brings us deeper into the bowels of hell. In Bangladesh, for instance, the prostitutes are more like indentured servants, living in the shabby tenement that functions as a brothel, and pulling in just enough money for their madam to pay the rent and keep the power on. And when we finally arrive at a Mexican cartel-controlled hooker colony in which prospective buyers drive past the various fleabag motel rooms, sizing up the women standing in each open doorway—women who prostitute themselves so that they can buy the crack necessary to deal with their job and who worship the patron saint of death—the Bangkok scenes seemed downright pleasant in comparison.
Where a typical documentary might give us the details, might implore us to action through the recitation of depressing statistics, it’s nowhere near as powerful as this movie. My one lasting takeaway: I really fucking hate men.