Whores’ Glory, a ground-breaking and surprisingly accurate documentary about sex workers in three countries from Austrian director Michael Glawogger, opened Friday in New York and Seattle, after provoking considerable buzz at the Toronto and Venice Film Festivals in September. Last week, I sat down with Glawogger, who was visiting New York for a retrospective of his work at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. Whores’ Glory is the sequel to Workingman’s Death (2005), which gave the same frank treatment to men doing hard physical labor in mines and slaughterhouses.
The new film is a riveting journey into three different enclaves in three religious “time zones”—a Bangkok “fish tank” brothel in Buddhist Thailand, a prostitution compound in mainly Muslim Bangladesh, and finally, Reynosa, a Mexican border town where Lady Death (not exactly a Vatican-approved saint) seems to be as popular as the Virgin Mary. La Santa Muerte, as she’s known, is undeniably spooky, and yet Reynosa is refreshing. Cars cruise the street. Half-dressed ladies stand like Madonnas in front of their motel rooms. It seems like the natural order of things.
Whores’ Glory is graceful in its approach to hardship and completely free of judgment about indentured sex work in Bangladesh and crack use in Reynosa. This attitude also extends to religious belief. “I’m a Catholic atheist,” Glawogger told me, and he calls religion “God’s worst punishment,” but Whores’ Glory treats religion as something akin to housekeeping. Girls pray for a good night of business in Bangkok; a Faridpur sex worker purifies the doorway of her room with a paper torch. (Not as exotic as it sounds: in New York, we have crystals, astrology, and exorcism salts.)
The Bangkok “fish tank” bordello is glitzy and businesslike. The girls have great hair and they punch a time clock. According to Glawogger, they also get a base salary and keep 100 percent of their tips. Customers (mainly Thais, plus a few expats) gaze through a one-way glass, while the girls stare at a mirrored wall, gossiping. When a man, looking through the glass, confides, “We’re the commodities here,” he’s more insightful than you think. There’s a feedback loop in prostitution that can turn a provider into a consumer. The mirror slows that process down, but money is something she buys with her body. And later, after work, the providers of pleasure go partying with professional bar boys in a host club. The mood becomes tender, fluid, and unbearably wistful when the bar boys primp in front of their own mirror.
Faridpur’s City of Joy is a typical Bangladeshi brothel compound managed by a clique of competitive mothers—older prostitutes evolved into madams. The plumbing is basic—those fish tank girls wouldn’t last five minutes here—and the power gets turned off at night. A brown-skinned girl, after washing her customer, tosses a used condom into a plastic basin filled with water and carries it chest-high through a corridor of exposed stone.
“They have to go out to a place where they can throw the water away,” Glawogger said, “but it’s also—with this hierarchy and competitiveness—to show ‘I had a customer.’ Really a proud thing. ‘Look, girls. Hey!’ ”
With more than 600 women living and working in the City of Joy, there aren’t enough customers at any given time. Many of the brothel’s citizens began working shortly after their first menstruation and would like a different outcome for their daughters. The world outside is hostile to those aspirations and often dangerous, while the brothel itself provides a lifelong safety net.
Some of the women Glawogger met here were evicted from Tan Bazar, the oldest brothel compound in the country and, until the violent expulsion of its 1,600 residents in 1999, the largest. (Prostitution in Bangladesh was legalized in 2000 because a group of Tan Bazar sex workers, forced to live in a home for vagrants, went to the Bangladeshi High Court.)
“It’s a female-controlled ghetto,” Glawogger said, “a very closed community, with six or so mothers who have a very strong grip on the whole thing. If a guy is rude to a girl, he never walks on those premises again.”
The few resident males are either biological sons or “baboos” (lovers) of the successful madams. A mother, Glawogger said, has perhaps five girls working for her who may be biological daughters or indentured sex workers.
“It’s like a schoolyard in a way. Young boys go there because they couldn’t live out their sexuality anywhere else,” he said. “Families are big, the home is full of people, parks are filled with police. Most of the girls are young, so they fall in love. And if his adored cookie is on the third floor, a boy has a hard time getting up there. The other girls are saying, ‘Come with me, I’m better.’ ”
A girl may also be instructed by her mother to tell him oral sex is off limits because her mouth recites the suras of the Quran. “The girls don’t even take their clothes off,” Glawogger said. “They can just pull up their saris to have sex.”
How did Glawogger gain access to such a closed matriarchal world? Here, as in Bangkok and Reynosa, participants were paid for their time because, he said, every hour of filming was an hour when they weren’t earning income. But that’s not the whole story.
In 2006, Glawogger was visiting Tangail, 45 miles from Faridpur. The women in Tangail’s brothel section had been warned that a mob of religious fundamentalists was planning to purge the brothel quarter, a reenactment of Tan Bazar’s violence. “All the clients and male relatives ran away,” he said, “but the women stayed and they were ready to fight back.”
Glawogger’s photographs of women and girls in their saris, some in full makeup, preparing to defend themselves with clubs, sticks, and sickle-shaped kitchen knives appeared in the local media. “Word got around that we were defending the mothers in the press and this spread to other brothels in other towns.”
The women of Tangail, who inspired the making of Whores’ Glory, are its unseen heart, and are the reason Bangladesh is central to this film’s journey. Conventional feminism can’t make sense of this fact: the most courageous opposition to fundamentalism in this country comes from Muslim women who are sex workers.
Collective action of that sort is hard to imagine in La Zona, the part of Reynosa where anything goes, including crack. “It’s kind of medieval,” Glawgogger said, “like the sanctuary stone.”
The working ladies of La Zona are streetwise philosophers, loners who stand apart on the sidewalk (unlike the huddled sex workers in the fish tank or the City of Joy). Isolation can be liberating, but it can also be the method by which a male pimp stays connected.
“The pimps are in another town, a thousand kilometers away,” Glawogger said. “A pimp might have one girl watching another without her being aware. The girl reports to him by phone and gives him almost all the money. But,” he said, “they can leave. Just by saying ‘It’s over.’ ”
When I asked how many had broken away from pimps, he shrugged. “About half, but it’s a very difficult thing to do. It’s emotionally difficult. They feel very dependent. Love,” he added, “is always the problem.”
According to one girl in the documentary, black magic is a typical method of keeping a girl entangled, and we get the impression that the girls who were filmed don’t have pimps. Are they stronger? Unimpressed by the bonds of romantic love?
Perhaps La Santa Muerte gives them the confidence to practice some black magic of their own.