Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Prostitute (1980)

Tony Garnett, the veteran producer of many classic BBC plays and dramas, as well as the producer of several Ken Loach films, made his directorial debut in 1980 with Prostitute - an unsurprisingly hard hitting quasi documentary film which depicts the life of street girls in Birmingham and London and deals in feminism and sociopolitical questions.

Garnett approached his subject via extensive research, necessary to win the trust of the real life women who worked the streets of Birmingham. Once accepted he was host to a litany of stories that gave him an unprecedented account of their lives and lifestyle and some of them accepted roles in the final film - though Garnett, discreet and faithful, refused to state who were the professional actors and who were the pros.

Forget the likes of Secret Diary of a Call Girl and Pretty Woman, Prostitute offers an authentic, warts and all depiction of the world's oldest profession without recourse to the melodrama, eroticism and sentimentality that usually afflicts films and programmes on this subject matter. Garnett seems fascinated in the detachment these women have, how they could turn a trick for a visiting businessman or salesman in town and still be at the gates in time for their children at the close of school. The message of Prostitute is that these women sell their bodies for better hours and better money than what they could receive from the factory or supermarkets of the day and that they should have the right to do so, without hindrance from the justice system and its enforcement by the police. 

It is police harassment, and not drug/alcohol abuse or violent and abusive pimps, that is shown to be the main hindrance in Prostitute; the tale beginning with one working girl - walking home and not actually soliciting - hauled off the street and forced into an unmarked car to be arrested and brought before the courts for a prison sentence, simply because she is known and is thus an easy target to help boost an officer's slack arrest rates. This action spurs on one of the film's main characters, an idealistic social worker, to start a campaign to get a reform on the laws regarding prostitution. The activist's flatmate Sandra, a prostitute herself, leaves Birmingham and heads to London to try and work as a more upmarket call girl with an agency and this is the film's other central storyline. However, when Sandra falls out with the agency boss she's forced to work privately from her flat and the film goes full circle when she is raided by two shady Met officers, forced into a sex act and robbed of her week's takings. She returns to Birmingham, broken whilst her prostitute friend is released from prison.  

Despite the circular narrative, Prostitute is a largely episodic and low-key film, near improvised by the cast  to give it a documentarian naturalistic air. There's no moral judgements, no wagging of fingers or impassioned pleas to consider the plight of the women - this is a rare look into a world that we all know exists but we tend to ignore or pretend that it does not. It's eye opening and extremely explicit in places (one scene shows a punter being given 'relief' in a dingy massage parlour) but wisely shorn of any erotic stimulus, giving it a strangely feminist approach. Garnett reports as he finds and as he could find no issues with the lives of the girls (such as the substance abuse you would perhaps normally expect) he does not include it - though he is on record as saying that may have been more to do with the time the film was made - focusing instead on girls who accepted this as their occupation and found within it just as much to complain and laugh about as those in more legal professions; as evinced in a very strong and amusing scene which sees two Northern girls crying with laughter as they gossip over the different types of clients they have and their stereotypes (Japanese are small and quick, Americans are generous, Arabs are big and not quick to tire) Crucially it ends with them expressing a complete ambivalence towards sexual intercourse and that, if it stopped for them tomorrow (outside of business one is led to presume) they would not miss it - putting paid to the silly old argument and male fantasy that nymphomaniacs work as prostitutes.

If Prostitute has any flaws it is in its somewhat hands off approach to the private lives of the girls it chooses to represent. Sandra may be the film's main character, but precious little is ever really explained about her domestic set up. She lives with the social worker, her boyfriend Winston and her son Michael, but her relationship with Winston isn't particularly loving or close - his reaction to her departure to London is never highlighted and we are shown that he simply accepts that it is his duty to look after her son. It's never actually stated whether Michael is his son or not, so vague is this aspect of the story, pushed to the sidelines as Garnett focuses on 'the job'. Also somewhat disappointing is the inability to answer the question of what is the ultimate effect on selling one's body. It's clear that money is the deciding factor for the girls (though it is in itself abstract as their rewards are never dwelt upon, nor is there any depiction of them being afforded a better lifestyle than their contemporaries down the factory or supermarket beyond Sandra briefly claiming that she's 'kept' Winston for years and effectively bought him a Jag before now) but the actual cost this life has upon the women is routinely ignored as Garnett concentrates solely in the here and now.

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