Appellate Judge Tom Becker will not be undersold.
"We destroy lives."
Men for Sale is a Canadian documentary about male prostitutes. Director Rodrigue Jean spent over a year conducting interviews with the sex workers, many of whom he met through Action Séro Zéro, an HIV-prevention and outreach organization in Montreal.
For the most part, the men here are fairly interchangeable. With one exception, they are in their late teens or early 20s. They identify themselves as heterosexual and use the money they making hustling to support drug habits. They had horrible home lives, they are aimless, they have difficulty making emotional connections, they are in and out of prison, and they are generally sick—though not with HIV, they are quick to point out—and unhappy. Almost all of them are beat-up and unkempt, with bad skin and teeth, looking far older than their ages.
The problem is that they're just not all that interesting. After a while, their stories all start to sound pretty much the same. Here and there, a few stand out. One guy has a pregnant girlfriend, and he talks about wanting to do right by his child, but he just can't get it together. At one point, he talks about winning some money at gambling. He spends his winnings within an hour on a phone and some jewelry (for himself), and before the night is out, sells those things to get money for drugs. You look at him less as a tragic figure than a fool, and your sympathy goes to his unborn child, who will most likely end up in foster care.
Jean interviews more than half-a-dozen guys, talking-head style, over the course of several months, and the interviews are presented chronologically. Unfortunately, he doesn't give us any on-screen identification, leaving it to the viewer to remember each guy by sight. At first, I thought this was to protect their anonymity, but they occasionally say their names anyway. Since he bounces around so much from person to person, with some guys appearing early in the film and then not showing up again for long stretches, on-screen tags reminding us that this is, say, "Anthony, age 19," would have helped enormously, as would some text giving us a little update on anything that might have happened between their appearances. He also should have considered limiting the number of interviewees, maybe giving us three or four people that we could have gotten to know in depth rather than the parade of random sound bites that we get here.
It also might have been a good idea to try to find subjects whose stories and experiences differed some. Surely, there are street hustlers who identify as gay or bisexual, and who are on the street because their families rejected them because of their sexuality. While the majority of street hustlers likely blow their money on drugs, alcohol, and the like, there are some who are doing this to try to attain or maintain a legitimate lifestyle. Instead, we're hearing the same things from the same general type of people over and over, and it just becomes tedious. We empathize with their terrible situations, but since they're criminals, junkies, and sociopaths is not that enlightening and, ultimately, not as moving as Jean evidently feels it should be.
The exception here is a guy who's much older than the others and is filmed in his own apartment. He gives us his name early on—Danny Brown—and he was, apparently, a fairly successful porn actor in gay, straight, and bisexual films 20 or so years ago. He's still working in the sex industry, though he seems to realize that he can't do so much longer. He talks about how the men he meets—"regulars" for the most part, and having worked in porn means he still has some level of name recognition. He notes that his clients like to watch his videos during sessions, and he shows a few clips of himself back in the day. At one point, he talks about having recently gotten some film work, $100 for a "quickie," underground shoot that he describes in graphic, but funny, detail. Unlike the other guys, he's no longer a street hustler, and although he's also fairly down and out and struggling with addiction, he has a much clearer sense of self and an overall better outlook than the interviewees who are 20 or so years his junior. He's also pretty engaging and more sympathetic than the rest. As a 40-ish former porn actor who most likely is gay and seems pretty pleased with his earlier life, he really doesn't belong in a film that otherwise focuses on young drug users who grudgingly sell sex to make quick cash, but his story is by far the most interesting here; unfortunately, he also gets the least screen time.
Apparently, there are three versions of Men for Sale, and the screener sent to us at DVD Verdict contains the longest, a whopping 145 minutes. It is an unconscionable length; considering how unengaging and repetitive the material is, I can't imagine much would be lost in the 75- or 52-minute version, unless Jean excised the Danny Brown segments from these.
There's nothing on the screener besides the film, which was evidently shot on video with a very, very low budget. Audio is in French with nonremovable English subtitles. I hope that the finished product has a few extras that offer some context—maybe some background on Action Séro Zéro or some follow-up on the men.
Well-intended, but overlong and not all that compelling, Men for Sale feels more like a student project than an accomplished documentary feature. If you're curious—or Canadian—it might hold some interest.
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