Fri, Aug 11, 2006 - Page 16 News List

Sex workers' film festival raises eyebrows

A film about the plight of prostitutes in Taipei is being screened at the Hong Kong festival, but authorities there are none too happy


Actress Cheung Yuet-hung is shown portraying an independent prostitute on the set of the movie Sisters and Zi Teng. The movie is part of the three-day Hong Kong Sex Workers' Film Festival that kicks off today, an underfunded but comprehensive look at the lives of prostitutes across Asia.


Hong Kong's newest film festival doesn't feature Jackie Chan (成龍) or Jet Li (李連杰) kicking down doors and punching villains. This one is all about prostitutes.

The inaugural three-day Hong Kong Sex Workers' Film Festival that kicks off today is an under funded but comprehensive look at the lives of prostitutes across Asia — told by the sex workers themselves.

The festival, hosted by the Hong Kong sex worker support group Zi Teng (紫藤), aims to offer an alternative to the stylized and stereotypical portrayals of prostitutes in mainstream cinema, curator Yau Ching said.

The nine-movie program includes contributions from Canada, the US, Taiwan, India and Hong Kong. The films are not only about sex workers, but are either made entirely by them or in conjunction with a director.

Yau, who teaches cultural studies at Hong Kong's Lingnan University, said that mainstream filmmakers tend to take a “whore or Madonna” approach to depicting prostitutes, painting them as either victim or predator.

She said she hopes to break such stereotypes by presenting a series of documentaries that address the day-to-day realities of prostitution from the perspective of sex workers.

“Very few films talk about their job specifically or their relationship with society as a sex worker,” she said.

Letting the subjects tell their own stories offers a unique viewpoint, Yau said.

“They (prostitutes) try to support a family, just like other mothers, so their self-perception, the level of self-respect is different,” she said.

Among the offerings is The Story of the Taipei Prostitutes, about a campaign to fight a ban on prostitution in Taiwan's capital. Another short film outlines the “sex worker's manifesto” drafted at the first National Conference of Sex Workers in Calcutta, India, in 1997.

Two films revolve around pioneer sex worker activist Carol Leigh, who is credited with coining the term “sex worker” and who founded the San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Video Festival.

One obvious gap is the lack of films from China, where unlike in Hong Kong sex work is illegal. Curator Yau said she knows of underground films about sex workers in China but didn't have the resources to bring them to Hong Kong.

Yau, who volunteered her services to Zi Teng, said the festival was organized on a shoestring budget. Filmmakers donated their movies and a friend offered cheap printing services for publicity materials.

The films will be shown at Zi Teng's small office space that accommodates about 50 people, located in a run-down pink building that also houses an hourly motel, or “love hotel.”

Another obstacle has been what organizers allege is government harassment.

Zi Teng staff member Elaine Lam said the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department called the group Monday ordering them to obtain a license for the film festival, saying the public event turns its offices into an entertainment venue.

Lam suspects bias, characterizing the film festival as a small-scale event that doesn't justify a strict interpretation of the law. Organizers have sidestepped the legal problem by asking ticket buyers to join Zi Teng, hence making the film festival a private, members-only activity.

“A lot of groups organize film showings. Officials haven't tried to enforce the law on them,” she said.

Asked for comment Wednesday, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department didn't respond immediately.

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