Recently a YouTube video called “VAMP Protests ‘Prostitutes of God” went viral.
Produced by Vaishya Anyaya Mukti Parishad (VAMP) a sex worker rights organization in Sangli, it was a series of testimonies by people who had featured in the VBS documentary by Sarah Harris - “Prostitutes of God” - which explored sex work around the cult of Goddess Yellamma and linked to the Devdasi tradition. One after another, these people asked the filmmaker why she betrayed their trust by insulting their gods, misinterpreting their culture and portraying them as craven victims.
VAMPs video is lo-fi and basic, but its power packed and direct. In all the verbiage about the possibilities of digital media, this stands out as a politically creative and impactful moment.
It’s not the first time people have felt this way about a documentary produced by a first world filmmaker/network about an “Indian problem”. Dana Briski’s Oscar winning “Born into Brothels” met with much criticism. Outside a small group, this was dismissed as the pettiness of over-intellectual, permanently discontented activist types who don’t understand what it takes to tell a good story. The VAMP video, as a direct testimony of the subjects themselves is hard to ignore as carping. It also throws light on how documentaries work, and so, how not to make them.
“Prostitutes of God” is not an exceptional film. In fact it’s a copybook example of what most networks ask for in a narrative about unfamiliar cultures. A central character – here the filmmaker - leads us through her journey among the natives, providing a point of identification. Her eyes become our eyes. What do Ms. Harris’ eyes see?
First, the never-before ‘insight’ that ‘India is a land of extremes, ancient tradition and modern capitalism’. Then the de rigueur bonding scenes to establish ‘intimacy’ - giggly chapatti making, arch condom games and fake sari shopping overlain with commentary about how ‘these people’ lead terrible lives, suffering the iniquities of tradition in a superstitious society. There’s some truth in these clichés, but are clichés the only way to understand the truth? These eyes see them only as examples who speak in generic sound bites. They never show us people with humour, sensuality, agency, choice or contradictions. Nor do we understand sex work differently from the common perception as a terrible fate to be rescued from, or the difference between an empowered sex worker and one who isn’t.
The filmmaker declares the Yelamma myth incomprehensible –some bizarre story about ‘fat gods in gold bikinis’. If the Indian informants were inarticulate, (as the film makes clear by using translators who can’t speak English well and using that for feeble humour) there’s Wikipedia. Reading the entry I found it comprehensible enough that the myth was a way of legitimizing courtesans/prostitutes to ensure respect and livelihood unlike the moralizing which renders sex workers illegal, unorganized, improverished and vulnerable.
Strangely, the film is part of series that is meant to take you into an edgy reality. But frankly calling people pimps and whores while mashing their reality into baby food for feeding babies is not much edgier than little kids using bad words whose meaning they don’t know.
Documentaries exist to deepen our understanding of the world. At their least they explain something simply and clearly. At their best they provide a textured experience of the unknown, and by presenting people as complex individuals, not types, create a compassionate understanding and awareness about the issues, the subjects and our prejudices. Unfortunately the form “Prostitutes of God” chooses, allows for neither.
Producers respond to this criticism by saying some things must be ‘simplified’ to help their audiences enter the unfamiliar. Have they read the comments on the film’s website? Most are in the unthinkingly racist “what’s wrong with these barbaric people” category. Maybe it’s time to try another method to change views that have existed for centuries?
The only thing that’s changed is the version of the documentary now on the website. After VAMP called them on it, the producers hastily removed a part of the commentary , which disclosed a characters’ HIV status without permission. The fear of litigation keeps us honest?
So much for the other defence producers make: we care. Maybe. From the film, Sarah Harris comes across as a nice enough person. But niceness does not prevent mediocre analysis or filmmaking. The hard work of questioning your assumptions might. And it would lead to a very different kind of film
In fairness, this is not limited to firangis. We can find unthinkingly offensive do-gooders among ourselves as easily. Noble intentions (sometimes called “human interest stories”) can be dangerous, for they absolve us of interrogating ourselves. We must cast others as fallen victims so we can be seen as their uplifting saviours. Sometimes being a devil, or his advocate, may be the better path.