The Brothel Project, a 52-minute documentary directed by April Butler-Parry and produced by Gillian Hrankowski, debuted this weekend at the Victoria Film Festival. Jody Paterson, one of the catalysts and stars of the film, writes about what it’s like to go from newspaper columnist to movie star — and the journey that led to this much-talked-about film.
I guess I can consider myself a movie star now, even if The Brothel Project is the only film I ever star in. I don’t know if I’ve ever been as nervous as I was in the moments just before the movie started, having not been allowed to see it before its debut on January 31, 2010 at the Victoria Film Festival.
I’ve been writing a regular column for the Victoria Times Colonist for the last 14 years, putting forward this or that opinion fairly boldly. So you’d think I’d be well past the what-will-people-think-of-me stage. I think of myself as having the hide of a rhino from all the barbs that have come my way over the years.
But I was truly anxious sitting there in the darkening theatre. And it wasn’t only because I was soon to be up on the screen confessing to the whole wide world that I was dabbling in illegal activities. It’s just very different to take a bold position in a column — which for all I know may never get read — compared to putting it out there in front of 200 movie-goers who actually paid to be there.
It was one strange journey that had brought me to that point. The idea of a “social enterprise” brothel had started out as a joke three or four years ago between me and a work colleague, Lauren Casey.
She’s a University of Victoria researcher with a sex work background. We were both working at a Victoria non-profit at the time, the Prostitutes Empowerment Education and Resource Society (PEERS). We’d been griping about how hard it was to raise funds for anything to do with helping sex workers, and imagining a place that could provide a good, fair workplace for indoor, adult sex workers while also diverting some of its profits to services helping sex workers who wanted out of the business.
Neither of us took the conversation too seriously. But then I rather impulsively talked about the idea one day to someone from the local media, and that was that. Victoria filmmaker April Butler-Parry caught wind of the conversation and was on the phone to me not more than a couple of days later, asking if she could do a documentary on us trying to develop a different kind of brothel in Victoria.
The Brothel Project was born. I thought of it as a lark at first. But having a film crew hang around with you for the better part of two years isn’t always as fun as you might think.
April and her crew were as polite and low-profile as you could hope for from three or four equipment-laden people following you everywhere, but that didn’t change the fact that every conversation we were having, everything we were getting up to in those long months, was now “on the record.”
A film crew’s presence fades into background noise when you work together that long. But getting comfortable with them really just means that you’re now at even greater risk of blurting out something you’ll come to regret. (Having now seen the film, I’m happy to report that I can live with everything I said.)
There’s not much demand for a film where nothing happens, and I do wonder how much Lauren and I actually would have accomplished were it not for an anxious director pushing us to get on with things. I hadn’t expected that and didn’t always like it, but at least it kept us moving.
In the end, we couldn’t make it happen. The sale of sex is legal in Canada, but virtually everything else about it — the marketing, the location, even the money that sex workers earn — is illegal. What we learned from the experience is that it’s just not possible to set up the kind of brothel we envisaged, given that so much of the adult industry is criminal.
We’d pictured community investors helping us get started, a community board overseeing the place, a good working relationship with police. But how’s that going to happen when people are risking criminal charges just for their association with the industry?
True, the odds are pretty low that anyone will end up criminally charged for their involvement with a brothel. Less than four percent of the sex-trade-related charges in Canada in a typical year are for keeping “a common bawdyhouse,” even though there must be thousands across the country.
But that’s not to say it couldn’t happen, especially if a project is high-profile. As Lauren and I discovered for ourselves, just being out there talking about a better workplace for sex workers is enough to bring a whole lot of heat straight toward your project.
In our case, Victoria Police received a petition signed by more than 700 people demanding that police act to shut down the brothel we were attempting to open. It felt very strange to be singled out for trouble when we were trying to do something good, but that’s just one of the inexplicable things that can happen when the subject is the sex trade.
It wasn’t all for nothing, mind you. Over the course of the shooting I met a very interesting young woman who owns an escort agency here in town, and I help her out where I can in building a better workplace. She gives me hope that positive change is possible even within a criminalized system.
And now I’m in a movie — a good movie, too, and one that I really hope will get people thinking about some of this stuff. Maybe that’s as much as I can hope for right now.
(The Brothel Project will air on Global TV in the spring.)
“The Brothel Project” by Force Four