While Hollywood filmmakers and media outlets often tell stories of female sex workers, their male counterparts remain shrouded in mystery. Even among Montreal non-profit organizations, there is the female sex worker advocacy group Chez Stella, but there is no equivalent group for men. A handful of feature films like Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin have told tales of these men’s lives, but those movies are fiction. Enter Acadian filmmaker Rodrigue Jean (Lost Song, Yellowknife), whose new documentary Men for Sale opened in Montreal and Quebec City theatres last week.
Men for Sale paints a portrait of men who, for a variety of reasons, find themselves looking for tricks. Jean’s look at 11 sex workers was shot over the course of one year in partnership with Séro Zéro, a local organization that promotes sexual health among gay and bisexual men. Talking with Jean at Café Tredici in Montreal earlier this week, he spoke about the wide array of men who participated in the project. “Not having all the boys be tall, handsome, muscular and all that was important to me,” he says. “To show that these people are coming from a lot of different places as well — some having been born in the country, others never having left the city of Montreal, a few Métis kids, you know… the whole lot.”
Jean uses a pared-down, unobtrusive approach to filming these young men, breaking the interviews down into monthly vignettes as subjects are filmed in close-up, their backs to a plate-glass window looking out on city streets — the unknown urban jungle serving as a contrast to the safe interview space.
“Often the problem with films that deal with prostitution is that you feel as though the director is getting off on it, that he becomes a client as well,” he says. “So it can be quite dodgy. In making this film, it could have been very easy, filming downtown and at night, to make a very edgy film that would have been super successful. It’s very easy with a subject matter like this to just line up the sound bytes and get excited, have people get off just listening to it. That’s what I wanted to avoid. And part of the fight with them was about that.”
Jean is alluding to the drawn-out and much publicized battle that pitted him against producers InformAction and the National Film Board of Canada, who were unwilling to grant Jean the creative leeway to release his two-and-a-half-hour cut. But that was a non-negotiable for the director. “Everybody always knows better than the people concerned, everyone has a better opinion than the ones who are directly concerned,” he says. “Same here with selling sex. It’s too easy for viewers to draw hasty conclusions and be done with it.”
After an extended hiatus during which production was halted and a community of producers, film critics and directors rallied around the project, Men for Sale is now finally being released as it was intended. And the bad publicity is most certainly behind the NFB’s decision, says Jean. “The NFB is currently fighting for its survival with the rightwing government,” he says, “so I don’t think they welcomed such bad press.”
Jean’s original extended cut leaves viewers pondering over a great deal, including how our consumer culture encourages this type of “predatory capitalism,” as the filmmaker puts it. He mentions a line in the film that comes courtesy of a young man who has just been informed by a doctor that the skin rash on his face is the result of manipulating filthy money. “Ça d’l’air qu’y a rien de plus sale de d’l’argent” (“Looks like there’s nothing dirtier than money”), he says to the camera without blinking.
Another strong undercurrent that runs through the film deals with shifting notions of masculinity and sexual identity. While most of the men interviewed consider themselves straight, their frames of reference for drawing the line between hetero and homo behaviour are incredibly varied, and testify to the diversity of young male perspectives out there. But Jean argues that not everyone is ready to confront that truth. “There are many people who refuse this idea of a fluid sexual identity. They say: ‘This is impossible, they’re lying.’ So you end up thinking that sexual identity is something that belongs to the wealthy classes. If you don’t have money, you can’t afford a bloody sexual identity. I think those identities were constructed around political oppression, they were a means to an end, but surely they’re not universal. And when you’re making a film like this, you have to deal with that on a daily basis.”
Men for Sale can be seen at Cinema Parallele in Montreal until Oct 1 (see Cinemaparallele.ca). The film will also screen in Moncton at the Festival international du cinéma francophone en Acadie (Sep 25 to Oct 4). Nfb.ca/men-for-sale.