Filming sex/gender: The ethics of (mis)representation

Anna Wilking

As a visual anthropologist, I went to the field with the intention of making a documentary film about one of my informants, while also conducting ethnographic research with sex workers who worked on the streets of the historic district of Quito, Ecuador. Over the three years I ended up staying in the field, I spent time with forty women. I examined how they negotiated their multifaceted identities as mothers who were also sex workers – subjectivities frequently viewed as mutually exclusive in Latin America, where religiously inflected gender norms often position mothers as saint-like figures in the social imaginary and sex workers as fallen women, sinners in the eyes of the Catholic Church. I planned to make a film that would use one woman’s story to represent the lives I saw around me – a narrative based on a single mother who had turned to sex work to support her children. Instead, I made a film about an exception. This case is about this (mis)representation.

In Ecuador and throughout Latin America, where sex work is decriminalised, prostitution is a viable work option for women who lack formal education. Although they typically earn roughly the same amount as the other jobs they qualify for in the domestic service industry or manufacturing sector, these women chose sex work, and in particular, street prostitution, because as freelance workers they could set their schedules around the needs of their children. Indeed, the women who solicited clients on the streets of Quito’s historic centre worked regular nine to five hours, coming and going as they pleased in the middle of the day to shuttle their children between school and daycare.

They also confined their work to daylight hours because they worked in a neighbourhood that transformed into an open drug market at night. They were not organised in any formal way, but due to the rapid gentrification occurring throughout the historic district, my informants were starting to unite to fight for their right to remain in the area. In my film, I wanted my viewers to see that these sex workers were typical Ecuadorian women, who had jobs that they treated like any other.

It will resonate with anyone who has ever made or attempted to make a documentary film, that I had series of false starts. I started filming Javier and his children one day while waiting for my intended protagonist to show up. Eventually, Javier and his children became my primary protagonists. He was the partner of one of the sex workers – Kati – and was always on the streets. Their household was unusual for Ecuador: Javier was the main childcare provider for their three children, while Kati supported the family through sex labour. Their youngest child, Josue, was born with severe cognitive and physical delays and needed full-time care, which Javier lovingly provided. In fact, part of why Javier was the principal parent was that it was he, rather than Kati, who had the patience and skill to care for Josue, as my film depicts in several raw, emotional scenes.

Javier, his children and I spent our days on the streets, so it comes as no surprise that he became one of my closest informants. Javier described the complex social relationships, and in particular, the dynamics of drug trafficking in the neighbourhood. Early on, he established himself as my unofficial bodyguard during fieldwork, a role magnified once I told him my plans to start filming. Javier thought I was extra vulnerable in the area as an outsider, which was probably true, though over my three years in the field I became comfortable and as long I left before sunset, I always felt safe. We made a deal that he would look after me, and in exchange, I would take him and his children to Carmen’s cafeteria, where lunches costs $1.50 for soup and a main course.

Even though I had been worried about the ethical issues involved in making a film with any of the sex workers, my discomfort was compounded with Javier and Kati because they were more marginalised than my other intended protagonists. They were both addicted to base, a yellow powder that has a similar effect to crack cocaine. Significantly cheaper than cocaine at $1a baggie, base is the drug of choice of South America’s most impoverished citizens. Although the possession of all drugs for personal use is now legal in Ecuador, I was worried about exposing their consumption. Though it was farfetched, I wondered if they could get in trouble with the Ecuadorian child protection services. I was also uncertain to what extent their families knew about their drug use and Kati’s involvement in the sex industry.

I discussed my plans with Javier and Kati for the final product – that I hoped the documentary would travel widely on the international film festival circuit, obtain theatrical or televised release, become available publicly online and ultimately receive distribution. There was the potential for countless people to become intimately acquainted with the details of their lives, which anyone, regardless of their subject position, might feel uncomfortable with, but for individuals who were already facing discrimination and stigmatisation, the stakes seemed particularly high.

I was particularly cognisant of how the final product might produce surprising results, as neither my protagonists nor I could have anticipated the success of my first film, Carmen’s Place (2009), which focused on transgender teenage sex workers living at a homeless shelter run by an Episcopal priest in Queens, New York. It played widely on the international festival circuit, obtained distribution and is still in circulation today. I had thought I was making a film in obscurity that would never amass a public audience, so I had not approached my protagonists with the same caution. The success of Carmen’s Place caught us all off guard, but luckily, the people in my film had been supportive of me throughout the process and were pleased with the end results.

Having learned my lesson from Carmen’s Place – that my film with Kati and Javier might circulate more widely than I anticipated and that I would not be able to control its path once it was released – I started running through possible outcomes. What if, for example, Kati’s mother was to find out about her drug use by watching my documentary on YouTube one day? (This particular worry turned out to be moot because during the filming, Javier, desperate to get Kati into rehab, told her mother every detail of their lives.) What if my narrative about Kati was viewed as representative of all the sex workers in Quito’s historic centre? I did not want my audience to associate drug use with sex work, since most of the women did not consume drugs. Nonetheless, I was intrigued by Kati and Javier’s story because they were one of the few dual-parent households I had come across in Ecuador where the father was the primary child provider.

Filming went relatively smoothly for a while, until ‘it’ happened – the major climax of the story. Kati disappeared. I had become extremely close to them by that time and when Javier called me to say that Kati had not come home in two days, I feared the worst. I was absolutely distraught and as Javier and I checked the city’s morgues, hospitals and prisons, continuing my film was the last thing on my mind. I have almost no footage from that day, or the days that followed. The footage I do have is terrible quality; as the snippets I include in the film show, much of it is out of focus, has inconsistent audio tracks and is riddled with other technical difficulties. For many in my filmmaking circles, this wrinkle in the plot was viewed as narrative gold: my film had achieved a punctuated climax that many other filmmakers only dream about. But for me, due to the unusual duration and intensity of my filming Javier and Kati, my interpersonal relationships with them took precedence over getting the story. My professionalism as a filmmaker had worn thin, which I accepted as a natural consequence of this project.

Filming came to a halt in the days and weeks that followed Kati’s disappearance as we began to realise what had happened. Kati had moved to a nearby city, Ambato, with her lover and was not coming back. Javier and the children went back to his family’s house in Guayaquil –his natal city on the coast, while Kati and her new partner established their lives in Ambato. At this point, I decided to put the film to rest. It had taken an emotional toll on me, and I felt depleted. Now that Kati and Javier were living in different cities in Ecuador, I also knew it was not feasible to continue on a practical level. Kati had left her children and I did not want to make a film about a ‘bad’ mother.

However, for my own sake, I felt compelled to go to Ambato to find Kati to verify that she was alive and well. I brought my camera in case she wanted to record an interview about the struggles she had faced leading up to her decision to leave. When I finally found her in the red-light district, Kati wished to share her story on camera.

The recording recounted Javier’s first week back in Guayaquil, where he was staying with his brother in Kati’s absence. Prior to this, Kati and Javier had claimed that Josue’s developmental problems were related to Kati having fallen on three different occasions during her pregnancy; this is what they told doctors, family and everyone on the street. But, in the interview Javier shares with the audience that Kati smoked base throughout her pregnancy with Josue, who was born with severe cognitive delays.

Everyone sympathised with Kati, but no one was fooled. It was common knowledge that Kati and Javier were addicts, especially since they procured base from dealers in the neighbourhood and lived in a single occupancy hotel known for its drug consumption. When Javier showed up with Josue in his stroller, the sex workers were always cordial but as soon as they were out of sight, they gossiped wildly about Josue’s condition, all of them shaking their heads and tsk-tsking. As a result, the interview is powerful because Javier finally acknowledges that Kati had never fallen during pregnancy.

Immediately following Javier’s disclosure, we see Kati share her story. This was the interview I filmed in Ambato after her disappearance. It was one of the last times I ever saw her. In the interview, Kati explains why she abandoned the family: she was fed up with Javier’s abuse, of being the breadwinner and of working in the sex industry. The interview ends on a heart-breaking note. When asked whether she would see her children again, Kati wistfully states that she would indeed, once she gets her own apartment, where she will bring them – one day. We later learn that Kati does not contact her children over the next several years.

Although everyone understood why Kati would leave Javier due to abuse or because she fell in love with someone else, no one in their social circles, including her family, could comprehend why she would leave her children. Back on the streets in Quito, the sex workers were horrified by Kati’s decision, as many of them were single mothers who had turned to the sex industry to give their children a stable future.

I decided to continue with the film. I took a long break to regroup and figure out how to move forward. The film’s narrative arc ended up focusing on Javier’s redemption story. Over the next couple of years, I travelled to Guayaquil once a month to film Javier as he got back on his feet. Indeed, he made a lot of positive changes. First and foremost, he became sober after thirty-three years of smoking base. He also applied to government aid for families with special needs children and settled into permanent, family-owned housing.

My story did not turn out to be about a sex worker or the plight of a single mother. Instead, it is the sympathetic portrait of a single father, the ex-partner of a sex worker, who may or may not have been abusive.

While conducting my research and in writing, I had not wanted to present sex workers in a bad light. In hindsight, I can see how problematic it was that I had wanted to construct a decidedly positive portrayal of sex workers’ lives, a portrayal reminiscent of the old ethnographic ‘noble savage’ trope. In turning away from the story of a heroic mother and toward a struggling father, I have also seen the value of focusing on what is neither obvious nor representative.

Javier remains the only single father I have met in Ecuador. That I could have initially overlooked the value of his story strikes me as telling of the lack of space that exists – not only in the gendered politics of Ecuadorian life, but in anthropological stories as well – for men to be caregivers.

This is an important lesson for the anthropology of sex and gender. As a woman interested in gender equality, compelled to study female sex workers because I was drawn to their specific struggles as women, it finally dawned on me the extent to which I had privileged the female experience in all my work. Although I had been hesitant about using Javier as the protagonist because I had wanted to make a film about a single mother, the film continues to be a story about parenthood – not a simple, glorious parenthood, but a messy parenthood, fraught with contradiction. In this sense, my documentary is not just a (mis)representation, but it is also an interference, shifting the collective gaze of sex work away from the body of the woman, while making room for vulnerable, nurturing masculinities to be part of the story.

The story I set out to tell never materialised, but as is often the case, I ended up with something much more powerful. Lesson learned. As filmmakers and ethnographers, our most compelling contributions are often those that emerge once we let go of our burdens of representation – in the sociological sense – of having a case stand in for the majority.

I am not suggesting that we no longer think about how we represent our informants. Making the film was arduous, but I am grateful for my anxiety along the way. I still remain unresolved and somewhat uncomfortable about Kati’s portrayal, which is part of the reason I write to address these issues. Representation of any sort is fraught, its ethics slippery rather than black or white. Perhaps that discomfort is part of the exchange, something that accompanies the gift of my protagonists’ stories; perhaps the question ‘could it have been done better?’ is something that should haunt us, forming part of our ethical responsibility.