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Friday, July 30, 2021

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Two deeply different narratives of sex work...

Screen Grabs: Two deeply different narratives of sex work in ‘Working Girls’ and ‘Medusa’

Plus: Saudi Arabian feminist mythology soars in 'Scales' and 'Dachra's creepy atmospherics.

As institutions and audiences continue to slowly stumble out of hibernation, back into the light—or the collective dark of on-site screenings—local film events are still running about 50-50 between “live” and “virtual.” On the latter front, there’s the Windrider Bay Area Film Forum, which Thu/8 through Fri/16 offers an online-only roster of “important independent films which explore challenging issues in our world.” Every program is followed by moderated Q&A’s with filmmakers.

The first three days include Carterland, an overview of that ex-POTUS’ highly progressive impact on environmental and social justice legislation; River City Drumbeat, about a Louisville, KY youth drum corps that’s celebrated community African heritage; and three shorts. A second weekend features two Netflix documentary features (free for viewing with Netflix subscription): Paralympics portrait Rising Phoenix; and Giving Voice, whose six talented high schoolers compete in the August Wilson Monologue Competition. More info and tickets.

Among on-site local events, a highlight this weekend will be the Roxie’s showing of Lizzie Borden’s newly restored 1986 Working Girls, with the filmmaker in person, interviewed by local author/activist Carol Leigh a.k.a. Scarlet Harlot. Making the striking, overtly polemical feminist-futurist imagining Born in Flames three years earlier, Borden had realized some of the women involved were artists who supported themselves with sex work. She turned elements of their professional experiences into this coolly reportorial fiction centered on Molly (Louise Smith), a lesbian raising a child in an interracial relationship. But that private identity gets left behind at her current place of employment, just as the folks back home remain unaware of the precise nature of her job.

That’s because Molly works in a Manhattan “whorehouse”—though she detests that term—secreted in a “respectable” uptown apartment building, its vibe as tastefully anonymous as a corporate office suite. There, she and other women pulling shifts don whatever persona the mostly older, white male customers prefer, while setting their own (not always respected) personal boundaries. Working Girls takes place over the course of one such shift, which turns into a “double” when Molly (to her considerable annoyance) is coerced into staying longer by their boss Lucy (Ellen McElduff), who provides a “safe space” for their more-or-less freelance work in exchange for a healthy cut of the take.

A vain, greedy fusspot reminiscent of Betty White’s Sue Ann Nivens character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lucy is a caricature of “career woman” as hyperfeminine back-stabber. But all the “girls” under her roof are relatably down-to-earth women with more-important outside lives and interests, as well as ambivalent feelings about this well-paying gig—three of them will call it quits during the film’s concise 90-minute progress.

But this isn’t a hand-wringing portrait of victimization, any more than it is the usual “titillating,” exploitative movie view of prostitution. (The limited glimpses we get of sex acts are very unerotic, underlining their transactional nature for those providing the service.) While the clothing or decor styles may have changed, Working Girls has otherwise dated very little for a 35-year-old film, having an almost documentary-like matter-of-factness that insists on seeing its subject as a labor issue, albeit one inevitably much bound with elements of inequality and misogyny. Co-presented by non-profit sex worker health and safety clinic St. James Infirmary, the Roxie program is Fri/9 at 7 pm. Details.

Sex as commerce seems to be a theme this weekend, as Landmark Cinemas open another restoration project, a double bill of Fred Halsted’s early 1970s gay porn classics LA Plays Itself and Sex Tool, films so idiosyncratically artistic that they remain the only titles of their genre in the (NY) Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. See 48 Hills’ feature on them here.

There’s also the British genre hybrid Medusa, a first feature for writer-director Matthew B.C., which is likewise about “working girls.” At the start, Carly (Megan Purvis) is reluctantly returning to a trailer caravan secreted in a wooded area, where she re-joins several other women entertaining male customers. As in Borden’s film, there is a camaraderie and humor between them, if also no illusions that this is what they’d ideally like to be doing. They have a minder-slash-pimp named Jimmy (Thomas Beatty) whose veneer of looking out for their best interests is none too convincing. He’s clearly more exploiter than friend, and Carly is in a vulnerable position, as she’s apparently been driven back here by need for the heroin he’s all too willing to provide her.

Soon she’s got a worse addiction to worry about, believe it or not. That’s because she’s persuaded into visiting an off-site john who has a “pet” snake, which bites her—starting a process of transformation apparently linked to a mystic religious cult. Medusa is subtitled Queen of the Serpents, and it gets dumber-sillier as retro horror elements take over the narrative. The film also suffers from the fact that lead Purvis is both the cast’s unexplained sole American, and its weakest link. Still, this is an enterprising, resourceful low-budget feature that offers an intriguingly offbeat portrayal of sex work … at least, until it goes off a fanged kill-count deep end. New Era Entertainment has just released Medusa to DVD and TVOD, with further digital platforms to follow.

Sex for any purpose save procreation seems verboten in the fantasy microcosm of Shahad Ameen’s Scales, another new streaming release. This is a feminist parable from a surprising place, Saudi Arabia—where maybe you have to involve mythological places and creatures to put out any such message.

Life is harsh on a barren island where the wholly isolated populace relies entirely on the sea for sustenance. In return, each family sacrifices a daughter to the “Sea Maidens.” When one poor fisherman (Yaqoub Alfarhan) can’t bring himself to surrender his firstborn, he’s demoted to the community’s lowest rung, and Hayat (Basima Hajjar) grows up shunned by all. Rejected by women in this rigidly gender-separated society, she decides to prove she merits a place among the brawny, shirtless men weaving fishing nets and going out to sea. But they have an adversarial relationship to the mermaids who swim hereabouts, and Hayat feels the pull of an aquatic sisterhood even as she’s trying to fit into a two-legged patriarchy.

Thin on dialogue but rich in arresting B&W imagery, Scales is not a particularly subtle allegory, but then the situation of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia (even more so five years ago, when this 2019 festival premiere was shot) calls for fairly blunt metaphors. While not everything here works, this is a poetical and distinctive effort whose commentary ultimately seems to go beyond gender relations to indict humanity’s abuse of nature, and suggest an apocalyptic end result to climate change. It’s currently getting a limited theatrical release from Variance Films.

Shifting back towards a more grisly shade of fantasy is another 2019 title belatedly arriving from the Arab world. Billed as Tunisia’s first horror film, Abdelhamid Bouchnak’s debut feature Dachra starts with the very Blair Witch-like premise of three college students (Yassmine Dimassi, Aziz Jebali, Bilel Slatnia) deciding to investigate a purported madwoman-witch’s story as a video project for a class. This ultimately leads them to an isolated village (or dachra) where, well, things aren’t right. As they’re mostly too busy arguing with each other, our protagonists don’t realize too late that they have wandered into a deadly trap.

It’s certainly obvious to us, however, because while the script may seem like a compilation of genre cliches, Bouchnak and his collaborators (especially cinematographer Hatem Nechi) really have a flair for creepy atmospherics. There are no characters or plot twists that will stick with you, but stylistically Dachra manages to transcend its derivative concepts to arresting effect for nearly two full hours. Dekanalog is releasing it to limited theaters and virtual cinemas This Fri/9. More info.

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