An excellent social documentary I’ve seen at the Sydney Film Festival is Scarlet Road, another Aussie film which was competing for the Foxtel Documentary Prize (won yesterday by Life in Movement). The film follows Rachel Wotton, a Sydney-based sex worker who has many clients with disabilities, and who also works tirelessly to raise awareness of the sexual needs of people with disabilities through the organisation she helped to start, Touching Base.
The film manages to present Wotton’s work as utterly non-confronting – and I mean that as a compliment. There are no filmic flourishes and the construction is unadorned, but this works to demonstrate the normality of sex work. The film begins immediately with Wotton’s voice, so it appears she is telling her own story rather than having it told for her. Wotton herself comes across as an incredibly personable, down-to-earth character, and demonstrates a particular ease with her clients even through large difficulties of communication – a skill that not many people have.
I caught up with Rachel during the week, and she agreed that this was something she hoped would come across in the film. “People have these wild imaginations about what the sex industry is,” she says, “and we really wanted to illuminate the industry, shine a light on it and the people involved.”
She likened the fear of the industry to a child scared of a monster under the bed, but then when you turn the light on, there’s nothing there. She points out that much of the misrepresentation of the sex industry comes from people making up their own minds without actually consulting industry members, and that one of the great things about the film is the opportunity to demonstrate that sex workers are networked as part of an industry, and not isolated like many believe.
The film covers a lot of ground, including Rachel’s work with two of her clients with disabilities, her advocacy and training work, her trips overseas to present at conferences and her personal life.
I asked Rachel how she felt exposing so much of her life on film, especially given the broad lack of understanding of her line of work. “I always felt comfortable that Cathy [Scott, the director] would portray it well, always with dignity and respect,” she says. Cathy and Rachel have been friends for years. “But worries are always there. I know people in NSW who have been hounded out of their homes. I’m lucky, I have a strong network of support, and it’s not the first time I’ve been in print as a sex worker. So it’s got to a point where I’ve tested the waters and I feel comfortable showing my life.” But it can be draining, Rachel admits.
In the film, her friend Pye, a Swedish sex worker, makes the point that every time she meets someone new, she has to make the decision whether to tell them what she does for a living. Rachel concurs that sometimes she just can’t be bothered: “You have to size people up, sometimes they have the usual 20 questions and you have to do ‘sex work 101’.”
Rachel says she’s usually very open about her work, but adds that we’re living in a world where there’s still a lot of discrimination, not just for the worker but for their family also. Rachel makes this point in the film, that her mother can be particularly isolated. It’s not just Rachel who’s taken a leap in opening herself up on film; her partner, Matt, also appears extensively, as do two of her clients with disabilities, Mark and John.
Rachel says that both Mark and John were immediately open to the idea of the film. They’ve always had to struggle for rights in relation to their disabilities and so, she says, they have similar beliefs to her around social justice and equity. In fact, this was the impetus behind Touching Base – two marginalised communities coming together with one powerful voice.
Ultimately Rachel says she’s really thankful for the opportunity the film has brought to raise further awareness of the work she does. She says they’ve achieved a lot of their aims, but not quite yet the main hope mentioned in the film, of getting Richard Branson’s ear. She laughs as she finishes up by asking me to add this mission to my post – so Mr Branson, if you’re reading this, Rachel Wotton is waiting for your call. You can also see an interview with Cathy Scott, the director of Scarlet Road, on the SBS film site.
Scarlet Road will be screening on SBS in December this year.