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No retirement package for prostitutes in red-light district

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Arecent National Film Board documentary titled Who Cares aspired to be a call to arms on the subject of street prostitution, tying the activity together in a package with drug addiction, violence and pimping.

One can understand the film's vibe of dire straits: the Edmonton women depicted were truly living in desperate circumstances. The police presence exists not so much to control the trade but to take DNA samples of the women to help with identification in the event that they ended up dead.

At the very least, the made-for-European TV doc Meet the Fokkens offers a somewhat less bleak view of the flesh trade. In Amsterdam, where prostitution is legal and the workers operate from their own storefront operations, a prostitute can stay in the business into her old age in comparative safety.

That is precisely the case with Martine Fokkens, 69, who used to work in the Dutch city's sex trade with her twin sister Louise, before Louise finally dropped out due to arthritis.

Martine looks downright grandmotherly in animated conversation with her sister. She looks considerably less grandmotherly in dominatrix duds, tapping on her window front to passersby or administering spankings to one of her regular customers.

Martine isn't in it to support a drug habit or appease a pimp. She still keeps her hand in, as it were, because she can't afford to retire. She also can't afford to show her resentment of this fact to her customers, although she freely admits her feelings to the doc filmmakers, referring to her profession as "this nonsense."

It emerges that this was not exactly a chosen profession for either of the sisters. The film reveals the sad back story of Louise, who, decades earlier, was compelled to prostitution by her husband, with whom she had three children. Martine evidently joined her sister out of a sense of solidarity.

If that seems an especially wrong-headed choice, the close relationship between these sisters is a heartening thing to behold. They are so sympatico, they actually create paintings together and even launch a gallery show of their charmingly lurid primitives.

One holds the hope that a late-in-life career change to art might offer a respite from the admitted indignity of prostitution, but that does not appear to be the case.

Seen against the much bleaker perspective of prostitution in Canada, the doc does suggest that legalized, red-light district prostitution, while no less desirable, is at least a safer alternative to the profoundly dangerous trade as it is carried out in this country.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Other voices

Excerpts of select reviews of Meet the Fokkens:

The movie takes on one of the world's most infamous (and increasingly perilous) sex capitols, Amsterdam, through two illustrious lives that refuse symbolism and pathology.

-- Joseph Jon Lanthier, Slant

Everything about this Dutch documentary screams cute, from the title to the subject matter.

-- Farran Smith Nehme, New York Post

Meet the Fokkens

Directed by Rob Schroder and Gabrielle Provaas

Cinematheque

18A

Dutch with English subtitles

75 minutes

3 out of five stars

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 15, 2013 D3

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