The most famous movie about a prostitute is also the one with the happiest ending. In Garry Marshall's 'Pretty Woman', Julia Roberts' Los Angeles streetwalker is swept off her feet by Richard Gere's dashing businessman. And in this rose-coloured view of sex work, his intentions aren't gross.
Coming together over the course of several years, Elke Margarete Lehrenkrauss' documentary 'Lovemobil' follows Rita from Nigeria and Milena from Bulgaria as they perform sex work in caravans along a German country road. The young women have escaped difficult economic circumstances in their home countries and are looking to earn money; they feel obligated to send Euros back to their families. Through conversations with the women, the film emphasises the subtleties of human trafficking: the coercion, the manipulation, and the vast variety of reasons why women enter into illegal sex work. While Lehrenkrauss doesn't judge sex workers, she does make it clear how immigrant women are exploited. For Milena and Rita, it's not a job - it's something they are stuck doing.
Milena operates via a seedy pimp but Rita rents her caravan from Uschi, a tough older woman who keeps her in line and advises the woman about pricing her services. She also appears to care for her, after a fashion. Uschi isn't what you'd imagine a pimp or a madam to be. A former prostitute herself, who has reinvented herself into a kind of slumlord out of economic necessity. Her home is filled with tiny dogs that she coddles. Yet, when a local priest accuses her of exploiting Rita, she argues that "30% of the girls in Africa are bred for this job". Eventually, Rita attempts to upgrade to a seedy brothel, but faces more racist attitudes from the grubby patrons.
'Lovemobil' deliberately keeps the sex acts off camera so that Lehrenkrauss can focus on the humanity of these desperate lives, filming Rita trapped in a caravan, looking sadly out a window adorned with a neon heart, or Milena rationalising her decisions. The film is filled with moments that thwart stereotypes, revealing the naked heart of a person rising, resisting, failing, and falling in sex work. With a photographer's eye, Lehrenkrauss juxtaposes the grim nature of the work with the beauty of the forests in which their caravans are parked.
The film is filled with moments that thwart stereotypes, revealing the naked heart of a person rising, resisting, failing, and falling in sex work.
The majority of sex workers aren't fantastical bleach blonde starlets with whiter-than-white teeth: they are real working people who get frustrated with the constraints of their various jobs, lifestyles and microeconomies, just like everyone else. And despite sex-positive feminism's tense efforts at wishing away the ugly parts, there are indeed many sex workers who are unwillingly trapped in prostitution as well.
"Sex work" has become such a catch-all term that it's difficult to pinpoint exactly what it means - and with a term so hard to pin down, forming an opinion about the definition becomes equally complex. Mixing the beautiful and lurid, 'Lovemobil' provides audiences with plenty of food for thought.