The plights and rights of sex workers are getting a bit of well deserved media attention at the moment, with Hackney Council imposing a nil policy on sex establishments and controversial cuts in funding for key organisations. What better time for London’s first ever Sex Worker Film Festival on Sunday 12 June, which aims to “give a voice to sex workers, whose lives are too often stereotyped and voices too often silenced.” Featuring short films and documentaries by and about sex workers, the rarely acknowledged positive side of sex work will be juxtaposed with negative issues.
Dr Heidi Hoefinger, a social researcher from the University of London, is one of the collective organising the Film Festival, and she kindly agreed to talk to us about its ambitions.
Please give us a quick summary of the Sex Worker Film Festival. In order to fight the stigma and stereotypes of the sex industry, which either victimise or demonise sex workers, we wanted to put together a programme of films and documentaries, by and about sex workers, which instead offers a more nuanced look at the diversity, contradictions and even pleasures of the industry. Specific themes include self determination and empowerment, identity, sexuality, intimacy, migration and the global movement for sex workers’ rights.
How did the Film Festival come about and who is involved? London’s First Ever Sex Worker Film Festival is organised by the Sex Worker Open University. We are a grassroots collective of sex workers, academics and allies which began in 2009, when we brought together over 200 sex workers, allies, activists, academics and visitors from the UK and abroad, to participate in discussions, workshops, actions and art exhibits over five days in venue across London. Because we encountered so many interesting films and documentaries by and about sex workers along the way, we decided to host a special screening event which would feature and celebrate some of this amazing work! All funds raised from the film festival will go towards the next Sex Worker Open University event which will take place throughout London from 12-16 October 2011 (we are currently accepting submissions; please visit the site for more info on how to submit).
What gave you the idea to create the first Sex Worker Open University? Though many of us were involved politically in other sex worker organisations and collectives both in the UK and internationally, we wanted to create a specific project which focused on the power of the arts, skills-sharing, critical debate and socializing as a means of fighting stereotypes and de-stigmatizing the industry. We wanted to share ideas, learn from each other, and ultimately empower sex workers, whilst highlighting the richness and complexity of peoples’ diverse experiences within the sex industry.
Recently there has been controversy over Hackney council’s new zero-tolerance policies on sex establishments. Is this why you chose to host the Film Festival in East London? We were, indeed, actively involved in campaigning against those policies. We participated in protests and meetings alongside the Hackney dancers, and many of our SWOU collective members, are, or used to be dancers (in other locations) as well. One of the highlights of the film festival is the first public screening of the film, Hands Off (UK 2011), directed by Winstan Whitter, which tells the story of the fight between the Hackney strip clubs and the council’s attempts to illegalize and close them down.
What are your highlights at the Film Festival? This is the first film festival of its kind in the UK! We’re featuring films from the UK, USA, Brazil, Canada, Australia, and Europe. It will be the international premier of The Street in Red (UK 2011), directed by Clare Havell and Atieh Attarzadeh, which addresses rights of sex workers to public space, and critiques moral landscapes, and the hypocrisy of anti-sex work laws purporting to make streets safer. This will be the first UK screening of Transfiction (Brazil 2007), directed by Johannes Sjoberg, which focuses on identity and discrimination in the daily lives of transgendered Brazilians living in São Paulo. It is also the first UK screening of 69 Things I Love about Sex Work (Canada 2006), directed by Isabel Hosti, which is fun piece about the pleasures of being a sex worker; and Working Girl Blues (USA 2009) which considers the pluses and minuses of many types of jobs. As stated above, it will also be the first public screening of Hands Off (UK 2011), by Winstan Whitter.
The Film Festival will certainly draw attention to some of the issues that sex workers face. What do you hope to achieve by running it? We hope to broaden people’s perspectives, and debunk some of the myths and stereotypes that plague sex work and sex workers. We hope to destigmatize the industry so an individual’s choice to work in the industry is respected and their voice is heard, and that sex work is viewed as a valid profession. This will help to stop the discrimination and break the isolation so that people can work in safer conditions.
What would you say to those who may have preconceptions or prejudices about sex workers? Sex workers are a diverse group of people, of all ages, sizes, colours, genders, classes, races, ethnicities… Sex workers are mothers, fathers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, daughters, sons, lovers, partners, husbands and wives…Sex workers are teachers, nurses, journalists, writers, academics, performers, cultural producers, healers, therapists, youth workers, students… Sex workers are NOT victims. Sex workers are NOT criminals. And sex workers deserve rights and respect like everyone else!
The Sex Worker Film Festival will take place on Sunday 12 June, 1.15pm, at the Rio Cinema, East London.
Photo from ‘Hands Off’ courtesy of the Sex Worker Film Festival