This movie reminded Judge Daryl Loomis just how much he likes P.J. Harvey.
"Prostitution simply is. It is like war. War is. I can cry a million times that war is cruel, bad, and inhumane. But war still is."—Michael Glawogger, in his comments on the film
The sex trade is a strange and polarizing thing. More important, it's a difficult thing to discuss critically because nearly everybody has some kind of preconceived and deeply set notion about it, rendering conversation on the topic relatively pointless. Many, with a wink and a nod, call it "the world's oldest profession," but in the next breath decry its existence as exploitative and disgusting.
There's even a prominent American journalist working for a very prominent American newspaper who gets paid a pretty penny to espouse just such an unnuanced viewpoint on the subject. In his mind, all sex work is "trafficking" and these exploited women (because he rarely, if ever, discusses the male side of the issue) deserve to be saved. He believes this so strongly that he'll go so far as to swoop into a Cambodian brothel to "rescue" a single "sex slave" and then pound his chest as a manly hero, the knight in shining armor that these sex workers need.
A number of problems arise with an attitude that this journalist takes. First, who is this woman? Does it make any difference, or is it sufficient to simply label her a sex slave and declare her need of a savior? Second, what happens to all the others when he gets his way and a brothel is shut down? Should all of these women, many of whom have chosen this profession (though, certainly, not all of them; sexual slavery definitely exists across the globe), just go ahead and get a job in a textile factory, where they'll work sixteen hour days for lower wages in sweatshop conditions? Is that exploitation better than what they were already doing, simply because they're selling something besides their bodies?
I write all of this to express my reticence at journalism on the sex trade, including and, in this case, especially a documentary like Whores' Glory. Luckily, I had reviewed the previous documentary from director Michael Glawogger, Workingman's Death, an exceptional piece about some of the world's most dangerous and exploitative jobs, so I had some hope that Whores' Glory would take a similar tact.
Luckily, my assessment was correct; this is a judgment-free zone. Instead of moralizing the sex industry, Glawogger uses fly on the wall techniques to show the prostitutes as they are and how they live. Like his previous two films in his trilogy on workers, the director explores what people do for survival in impoverished and exploitative conditions, by letting the people have their say.
Sometimes, that's quite grim, and Whores' Glory is not lacking in grim moments. He takes viewers to three brothels: one in Thailand, where the workers are marked by numbers to be called out by the boss for clients; one in Bangladesh, where the women must hustle for their trade within a hovel called the "City of Joy"; and one in Mexico, where they reside in a shanty town and customers drive up to their apartment doors for their service. Each of the three scenarios is very different in many ways, but quite similar in others. No matter how different their cultures are mores are, when you're talking honestly to people, nationality starts to fly out the window and, in the end, you are left with people, people who have hopes and dreams, spirits and spirituality, pain and sadness, and everything in between.
This is the real value of Whores' Glory. Its ability to humanize these women without demonizing the women, the profession, or the johns who frequent them is refreshing and welcome, while Glawogger's genuine skills as a director are left as a bonus. His lighting and framing of his subjects is beautiful, which belies some of the grimness of the circumstances he is filming without diminishing it. It's structured as a triptych; he keeps each scenario completely independent and allows them to stand alone. Their similarities are there, but Glawogger's lack of commentary makes viewers connect the dots for themselves. That's a far better way than preachiness and, like the other two films in his trilogy, Whores' Glory is a brilliant presentation of the exploitation of labor, without letting morality and judgment stand in the way of truth.
Whores' Glory arrives on DVD from Kino Lorber in a bare bones release that is just fine, but not spectacular in any way. The 1.78:1 anamorphic image transfer is clear enough for a documentary and displays Glawogger's lighting well, but the handheld, low-budget nature of the film keeps it from being that dynamic. The surround sound mix is similar, with little going on in the rear channels. The dialog and the film's popular music soundtrack come through very well, though, with strong clarity and decent punch. Not perfect, but totally effective.
I highly recommend Whores' Glory to anybody who doesn't come at sex work with a scold's mindset. Yes, it's often sad and there is much exploitation in the industry, but more than in the sweatshops that we sit around and despise? I say not, and Michael Glawogger seems to feel the same. Grim and, occasionally, quite graphic, but better to see the trade as it really is than leave it under cover where we don't have to think about it. Bravo to the director and bravo to the workers who consented to being filmed for the movie. Whores' Glory has given them a platform to express their individual voices, which is absolutely necessary for us who might live in better conditions to begin to understand instead of staying satisfied with condemnation, so bravo all around.
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