"Who gave you the right?": Indian sex workers talk back to filmmakers
Not that I would expect post-modern, transnational feminist film work to come out of the slimy "it's not misogyny/racism, it's ironic!" Vice-magazine's video site, VBS.tv, but the thirty-minute documentary "Prostitutes of God," on devadasi sex workers in India is dangerously western-centric, anti-sex work, and completely misrepresents the sex workers it focuses on.
The white British host, Sarah Harris, narrates the film with an air of derision, from the way she speaks about Hindu legends and traditions ("convoluted, surreal," "doesn't make much sense," calling Hindu icons "garish"), the ease with which she switches from "she" to "he" when referring to a trans sex worker, obvious translation issues, to the overall lack of attention to the economic environment that sex work exists and an assumption that prostitution is inherently wrong. All this is sandwiched with observations of how India is "A land of contradiction! East meets west! Old meets new!"
Only there's a twist to this one-sided voyeurism--the subjects are taking the filmmakers to task for misrepresenting their lives.
Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP, Prostitutes’ Collective Against Injustice), a sex worker collective within SANGRAM, an Indian NGO working with sex workers, made a video responding to the compromised representation of their work, their gods, and their lives and families. The filmmakers did not let their subjects review the film (as promised), outed a women with HIV/AIDS (the clip of which has been removed), and gave a dangerously generalized and unresearched view of devadasi prostitution. In an open letter to VBS, SANGRAM and VAMP address the film's cross-cultural egregiousness: "Instead of depicting this reality of empowered women going about their important work of dealing with violations of human rights, women’s rights, right to health and livelihood, Sarah Harris chooses to portray them as pimps or helpless victims." Read the full letter here.
The voices of devadasis and their community speaking directly to the camera, their language and culture unfiltered through a visiting foreigner, stands in stark contrast to Sarah Harris's narrative that generalizes the life of sex workers in India and approaches their traditions and belief systems with disbelief and disdain. Anita, featured in the VBS film begins by saying "Who gave you the right to laugh? You have taken advantage of us." One man says, "You named the film 'Prostitutes of God'. This title is inappropriate. Who told you all devdasis are pimps and traffickers who force daughters into sex work? My mother used her money from sex work to raise me. I would not be here without it." At the end of the video, a woman holds up a piece of white paper. "This is an informed consent form. Have you signed any such form?"
The video is part of Sangli Talkies, "the newly-launched video unit of SANGRAM / VAMP," and shows how the internet and new media are being used to actively fight racism, misrepresentation, and exploitation. As the open letter states, "In the age of the Internet, women in countries far away who used to be the objects of white people's gaze with no right of reply now have access to the representations that are made of them, and the technological means to answer back."
An Open Letter to VBS TV regarding the film "Prostitutes of God" [Association for Women's Rights in Development]
The Means to Speak for Themeselves: Sex Workers in India Respond to Flawed Prostitutes of God film [Feministing]
Talking back: Indian Sex Workers Speak themselves [CarnalNation]
Indian Sex Workers Fight Back Against Misrepresentation [Waking Vixen]
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