Culture, Human Rights, Screen

Maria Roxo: from sex-work to film-directing

A sex-worker and a first-time director began making a film which would transform their lives. One from a profession that is often viewed with disgust or through the rosy lens of exoticism, and the other a high-status intellectual role in a liberal society. Maria died before the film was completed.


Photo by Filipe Ruffato.

Graham Douglas


There have been many films featuring sex-work, either as fiction or documentary, but probably none that were co-directed by the sex-worker.

Renata Ferraz directed the documentary film “Rua dos anjos” (English title “Rising sun blues”), and it was important for her not to point the camera at the protagonist as if she were an object to study, literally a sex-object in her case. She felt it had to be a partnership in which the main character was not a marginal person with no value, but someone who had learned different professional skills, and she wanted to share those skills with her own as a film-maker.

This extraordinary film is a real drama in process as it was not scripted, and the two women engaged in a directorial dance of power and self-expression. It won prizes at its premiere in Ann Arbor (MI), and at IndieLisboa it gained the most audience votes in the National Competition

Renata is Luso-Brazilian and this is her first feature film as director. She was a theatre actress for 20 years, and after leaving Brazil she moved through video arts to cinema.

Photo by Samara Azevedo.

She played the part of a sex-worker in 2016, and was invited to play a similar role in the series on Portuguese TV called Luz Vermelha (Red Light, 2019).

Reflecting on “Rua dos anjos” Renata says: “Maria’s life reminds me of the fragility of the human being, how life can change from one moment to the next”.

How did you come to make this film?

I always wanted to make a documentary film in which the subject of the film was also its co-director, to exchange techniques between the profession of the subject and mine as a film-maker. And I was interested in doing this with a sex-worker because I had played this role as Sheila in the film “I was in Lisbon and I thought of you”, directed by Jose Barahona in 2016, (interview with the director in The Prisma).

I felt strange having played this part, not knowing what it was like to be a sex-worker, and I started looking for contacts with whom to make a film. It took 2 years before I met Maria in Lisbon, but I had been looking in the Netherlands, Germany and Brazil. I found people through activists or various associations that support sex-workers, but then at the last moment they would disappear.

Photo by Filipe Ruffato.

I talked to Paula Lee, a Brazilian who had written a book about her experiences in sex work in Portugal, describing the techniques of the work, that she as a girl knowing absolutely nothing, had to learn.

But she had left this world behind and did not want to be involved.

Film-making is a respected profession, while sex work is not even recognized officially in many places. I met Maria through an association for homeless people in Lisbon in 2016, and the plan changed then because she had always dreamed of making a film about her life not just about the techniques of sex-work, which I had imagined.

She makes a very strong statement when she says that imagination can never reach reality.

Yes, she said that the first time we met. I was a bit confused about the direction we were going to take because I wanted to make a film with Maria not a series of interviews about her as subject. It was difficult, for her too, because she did not know this person arriving from a different world, but we established a relation of trust.

What was your relation like with members of her family?

She had two children, the son whose birth is described in the film, and a younger daughter, but she was not sure if she wanted this to be in the film, and I never had time to find out.

Photo by Filipe Ruffato.

Maria had good relations with most family members.

What was Maria’s life like in the capital of Mozambique, Lourenco Marques as it was then called?

She was Luso-Mozambicana, she grew up in a Portuguese family during the colonial period, she did ballet classes and was studying medicine.

She got married, but then that episode in the film happened. She was one of Zeca Afonso‘s students, who was against the Salazar regime, and after some demonstrations, they were expelled from the university and punished by being drafted into the colonial army.

In her case as a nurse, because of her medicine studies, and it was there that she gave morphine to injured soldiers and began to take it herself as a way to forget the horrors she had witnessed. She was only 19 at that time and pregnant.

She came to Portugal after the revolution in 1974?

She and her family went to South Africa after the revolution before coming to Portugal.

Photo by Samara Azevedo.

When did she start sex-working?

She had danced a lot, so in Portugal she enjoyed doing strip-tease, but she was here for about 10 years before she started sex work. She was already toxico-dependent during that time and then got involved as a way to pay for the drugs.

Both of you took the risks of revealing highly personal details about yourselves, and Maria seemed a great observer of your reactions and a great emotional communicator. It was almost like watching a therapist working at times. When you asked if she was happy with the co-directing, she said: “It’s my story so I feel like it’s all directed by me”.

It was important that the protagonist was also placed as a creator, and in Maria’s case she really was that without pretending

It was really challenging, but I think the film we made was much more interesting than the one I had imagined! The biggest conflict was not between us but within me as a film-maker: I had to keep in mind what sort of film I wanted, while Maria was enjoying experimenting with filming.

Photo by Samara Azevedo.

I had to make sure that at the end we came out with a film! Being trained in cinema techniques, I had more power than Maria, who was learning all the time, but she was a woman with huge experience of life.

When it was my turn to be interviewed, we tried 3 or 4 times because I felt that my life by comparison seemed like children’s games.

I depended a lot on the camera operators at this point, Filipe and Samara, and Samara had never used a camera before, but I needed more women in the studio. She thought the project was completely mad, but in the end half the images in the film were filmed by her.

I was so nervous it was very difficult to reveal anything personal. Nothing that we say in the film was created, but the most real part was the interaction between these two women that involved conflict but also a developing affection and intimacy.

It seemed like a drama happening in real time.

A film is a construction, and some of the scenes in which Maria is teaching me about sex-work needed to be rehearsed, but when we talk about our personal stories it is spontaneous.

Photo by Samara Azevedo.

Making this film was a transformative experience for Maria and a radical transformation of my life in the years that followed.

After Maria died, I spent four months completely alone in the Alentejo to come to terms with what we had done.

And now when I am directing a film, I think about what Maria taught me.

How did Maria come to be in that squalid world? The picture of the abandoned building where she worked, strewn with rubbish and used condoms and syringes, was like Cracolandia in Sao Paulo.

When I think of Maria’s life it reminds me of the fragility of the human being, how life can change from one moment to the next.

(Photos supplied by the interviewee and authorised for publication)

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