Sexually exploited women share their stories in disturbing documentary

Shelly and Don

The trick in making a good documentary is knowing when to stop.

The story that continues after the end of Rosie Dransfeld’s disturbing new film “Who Cares?” – a stark look at street prostitution in Edmonton – is just as tragic and touching as anything in the documentary itself. One of the main subjects, Shelly, who comes off as funny and likeable despite having a back story that’s the stuff of nightmares, is hoping to attend the film’s gala Edmonton premiere on Tuesday, Nov. 27 at the Garneau Theatre.

Problem is, she’s in jail at the moment. She’ll be in court again on Monday – so here’s hoping. (UPDATE: She’s out and will be there!)

Towards the end of the film, Shelly’s friend Don tells the camera, “I really do love her.” She wasn’t around, and only heard him say it when Dransfeld screened a rough cut for the two friends several months later. The filmmaker recalls, “They were both just laughing and crying, and we were hoping they would say something about the film, but they just looked at each other and hugged each other and she said, ‘You really do love me!’”

To be continued …

With no narrator and no musical soundtrack, the thread holding Who Cares? together is a man who’s been accosting women on the street with an unusual proposition. It’s OK. He’s a cop, and he’s not trying to bust them. Cpl. Joe Verhaeghe of the RCMP just wants to know who they are, his mission from Project KARE to collect data and DNA samples from women in high-risk lifestyles in the tragic event they are murdered, so their remains can be identified and, hopefully, their killers brought to justice. The program was started in the wake of the Robert Pickton case in Vancouver. Long before the serial killer was caught, women in the sex trade complained to police about him, but as Dransfeld says, “Nobody believed them,” let alone even knew who they were. Pickton told police he had committed 49 murders.

After Vancouver, Edmonton has the highest rate of missing and murdered women in Canada, the filmmaker says.

Mean streets

This story starts in the summer of 2011, as Dransfeld and her crew rode along with the Project KARE task force on its late night rounds – around 118th and 107th Avenues, Stony Plain Road and other areas. They encountered some willing participants, and others who just told the cops where to go. The filmmaker, minus her camera, had spent nights at a now-defunct bar on 95th Street playing pool, earning the trust of the women, some still selling their bodies, some struggling to turn their lives around. Furtive encounters with Johns are documented – obviously no interviews – along with a good deal of in-depth talk with sex workers who felt comfortable enough to open up on camera.

Being in the thick of it took an emotional toll, says the filmmaker, whose similar, Gemini Award-winning work “Broke” documented the world of pawn shops and poverty. Who Cares? is quite a bit heavier.

“There’s always a difference between me being a filmmaker and a person,” Dransfeld says. “As a person it was really heart wrenching. It really took a piece of me. But on the other hand, as a filmmaker, I have an obligation to step back and look at it from a story perspective. I sometimes think I would love to step in and make life better in that moment, but then people wouldn’t have the chance to experience this devastating moment. I have to step back and just let it happen.”

The filmmaker touches on another aspect of attempting to document real life – the effect of the observer upon the observed. An early scene shows Shelly praying that she has a good day of making “my movie.” She also declares to the camera, “I’m done,” and later on makes a clean break to Calgary. While she since relapsed to her high risk lifestyle in Edmonton, it’s clear the making of the film had a positive effect.

A former prostitute named Courtney (right), who had quit after being on the streets since she was 13 – and has been in detox for meth addiction 26 times – was given her own camera. What ensues are riveting, raw scenes of a person struggling with recovery. All other reality shows pale in comparison, shaky camera or no shaky camera. She has a lot of drama in her life.

There are numerous other women just like Shelly and Courtney on the streets of Edmonton. Most people don’t – or won’t – notice them. It’s like the “slaughterhouse effect,” Dransfeld says. Do those of us who eat meat really want to know what goes on in a slaughterhouse?

And every so often, another missing person poster goes up.

Vicious circles

Prostitution is legal in Alberta. It’s a crime to “communicate” for the purposes of prostitution, however, which makes legality completely moot. Women who get caught face heavy fines, which they often pay off by going back on the street.

Selling sex for money isn’t the only vicious circle at play here.

“These are highly damaged women,” Dransfeld says. “Most have experienced sexual abuse as little girls, they have mental issues, they are often addicted. If I was out there, I would take drugs, too, just to get through the day.”

While Who Cares? was filmed in Edmonton – in the summer, not the winter, to avoid it becoming “an Edmonton story” – similar scenarios and worse are seen in cities around the world.

“It’s the story of sexual exploitation,” Dransfeld says. “It’s the story of men. They are not visible, but they are the danger in the background, these men who just think that women are there to satisfy their sexual needs and to play their power games and the games of racism and whatever else is on their minds. It’s disgusting.”

In a rare move, the RCMP granted the filmmaker and producers at the National Film Board complete editorial control over the project. Dransfeld also wanted to film a “John school” – a day-long program that men charged with soliciting attend in exchange for a lighter sentence and no criminal record – but “there was no way.”

One question that isn’t addressed in the film is this: Not all men who hire prostitutes are bad guys, are they?

“No,” says Dransfeld. “There are ones that really need a blowjob or even on some level care for these women. And certainly they’re out there, too. But what remains is the whole idea that somebody gets paid to satisfy somebody else’s sexual needs. In my eyes, that’s sexual exploitation.”

There is a short scene in Who Cares? where an old man at the bar asks Courtney for a “date.” She politely turns him down, only later almost breaking into tears as she shares how hard it is to escape the stigma of having once been a prostitute. As for the John, why on Earth would he allow his proposition to be filmed?

“He knows he was being filmed,” Dransfeld says. “But they forget. That’s my job as a director – to make them forget there’s a camera.”

That’s the other trick in making a good documentary. Who Cares? will screen on Tuesday, Nov. 27 at the Garneau Theatre, with an encore presentation planned for next month. The filmmakers and as many subjects as can make it will be at the opening. A Q&A session will follow. Attendees are asked to bring “winter accessories” to donate to women on the street. It’s cold out there.