Renata’s intention to make a documentary film in which she would learn about the experience of sex-work led to challenging situations. Advertising free sex in exchange for a photograph got no takers; in contrast Maria and Renata did accept the challenge of revealing personal issues in a film, and audiences responded sympathetically.
Secrecy was a major social issue. Her attempt to recruit men willing to exchange a shoot of their faces instead of cash as payment for a sexual service drew many replies.
Married men would be risking conflict with their wife, as well as embarrassing their family and if their children’s school friends somehow found out it would be a big scandal with the risk of social services investigating. But not one person accepted the offer, married or not. Instead, Renata agreed that Maria would teach her the techniques of sex-work, what services to offer and how to seduce and arouse a client – in exchange for learning about film-camera techniques. This process was intense, and at one point in the film Maria challenged Renata to reveal something genuinely personal and serious that almost no-one else knew about.
On the other hand, Renata was pleasantly surprised by the openness of film audiences to asking insightful and sympathetic questions.
The relations between love, sex and money, and the personal issues of people who perhaps had been clients and felt they had betrayed their partners, are hovering around the questions. Watching a film in a cinema offers a collective intimacy in which one could imagine the film being followed by a workshop on social and personal issues.
How long did the filming and editing take?
Maria died a year after we met, from a cancer that had been discovered too late to treat it.
We both lived in Lisbon, and we used to meet about twice a week, and became good friends. The filming took 2 months after several months spent preparing the script and Maria had shown me some photos of her earlier life and a 90-page autobiography. Four months later she went into hospital and died there 2 months later.
Was it difficult to get funding?
The film happened thanks to the time and work of the people making it. About five of us raised 1000 Euros and the Escola Superior de Teatro e Cinema (ESTC) gave us the space and the studio, we hired the equipment, and the post-production cost was 18,000 Euros. Many people said that it would be impossible to make such a film. The producer Kintop was fundamental because the concept was completely out-of-the-box, but they arranged funding from ICA (Instituto do Cinema e Audiovisual), and Jose Barahona and Carolina Dias (Refinaria Filmes) agreed to be Co-Producers.
You also placed an advert for men to exchange sex-work for the use of their face in the film, but out of 400 replies no-one agreed.
I thought it was necessary for me to experience sex work in order to make a film about it. Maria was familiar with working on the street but not through online ads, so we agreed that I’d place an ad with this offer and see what sort of replies we got.
All the documentaries we had seen were made by men with a male viewpoint, and the questions they asked the sex workers were always the same: How did you start? Do you enjoy it? Does your family know? Do you want to leave this kind of life?
We were thinking of other ways to portray sex-work and it was then that the idea of showing clients came up.
I suggested we try to get a client to appear.
It did not matter if the work I was going to do was domination or the usual service, but we wanted a client to show their face in the film – only their face.
Not porn actors?
No, we found guys who wanted to have sex with me, but when they understood that they had to show their face they refused. They were very happy to display the rest of their bodies in the film, including penis pictures, but not to reveal their faces as clients of a sex-worker.
It was a big challenge for you to risk this.
During the filming I didn’t think about it, and the premiere was in Ann Arbor in the US, but when it was due to be shown in Lisbon, I really began to feel nervous about how much I was exposing my identity. If a guy had accepted the offer, the thought made me tremble. And Maria wanted to get an actor, but I said that wasn’t the kind of film I wanted to make. Here society is rather conservative, maybe in Germany or another country we might have found men who would agree.
Anything to add?
Maybe to say that there are many layers and nuances in the project and the relationship I had with Maria. People wonder how someone like Maria aged 62, who had been a heroin addict, and lived on the street could think of making a film, without the training I’d had. But I am not a typical film director, first of all by being a woman. It is important to have these discussions, about who is authorized to make films, how much training do people need? I am interested to see what the intellectual world will think of the film. The media are interested, and the public certainly are: it was surprising how much the audience was affected, some of the people were crying. I didn’t expect this in Portugal because people are more reserved, and prostitution is still rather taboo. In Ann Arbor people came up to me in the street. It reminded me of Brazil where people are more outspoken. But the hundreds of people who saw the film in Lisbon seemed affected by different layers of the film. Some men who had been in the colonial wars in Africa, women who saw it from a feminist point of view and so on.
Maria brought a very warm, welcoming energy to the film, and I think this got through to the audiences.
Men and women?
Both, this was one of the nicest things about the reaction. I was amazed by the number of men of all ages who came to me to comment or ask questions
One of the people in the Q&A was an older man who asked very sensitive questions talking about the colonial wars and about women. And younger men who contacted me on the internet, saying they had been touched emotionally by the film.
Some of them may have been clients?
Yes, quite possibly, it made them reflect, it touches a lot of issues. People were affected emotionally by Maria. The personal is political.
What did Maria want from making the film, personally? Obviously not money.
A month after we finished the filming, I asked her: “Why didn’t you disappear like all the others. Why did you stay till the end? She replied: “Disappearing is easy. I stayed because I liked you”.
After the life she had led, making a film didn’t seem to be a challenge, but rather a safe space of empowerment, warmth, and happiness.
We were hoping we could travel around the world to show the film if it was a success. One of my biggest regrets is that we couldn’t go together to Ann Arbor for example. She also dreamed of going back to Mozambique.
We will never know what effect making the film had on her life, but she had a mission to tell the story of her life, and when I appeared I was able to help her do that, as well as realize my idea of sharing skills and experiences.
She used to say that imagination can never reach reality, and we won’t ever know if the film we imagined and created achieved that for her or not.
Are you working on a new project?
I want to continue with the idea of a co-direction with someone who is not from cinema, and the next film will be about female singers.
I have always had difficulty in singing so this will be a challenge. For the moment I am still very involved with Rua dos Anjos because I was from a theatrical background not the cinema. The film legitimated both Maria and myself as film directors, even though Maria can’t be here today with us.
(Photos supplied by the interviewee and authorised for publication)