It seems that audiences never get tired of seeing prostitutes on film. From 1913’s faux documentary about white slavery, Traffic in Souls, to 2009’s Chloe, with a wife who perversely hires a prostitute to test her husband’s fidelity, the movies have served up a variety of fallen women to suit every taste—hookers with hearts of gold (The World of Suzie Wong, Sadie Thompson), child prostitutes (Taxi Driver, Pretty Baby), happy hookers (Pretty Woman, Risky Business), and a great many maneaters who meet bad ends (Pandora’s Box, Of Human Bondage, Monster).
In the early decades of the movie industry, prostitution was one of the few reliable means to inject sex to sell tickets without bringing down the wrath of reformers. But the sheer volume of cinematic chippies bespeaks a need in audiences that goes beyond titillation. Conflicted feelings over women’s independence are not easy to discharge against women working at real professions; instead, they are constellated through sanctioned disdain for those who claim the right to sell their bodies. At the same time this arrangement allows audiences to ogle and fantasize about them safely and anonymously for only the price of a ticket. For allowing this trespass, many actresses are paid off with often-substantial roles that have become a fast track to an Oscar.
Of course, despite our fantasy that the money they accept in exchange for sex indicates a freely chosen exchange for their services, prostitutes generally are the least free of women. The viciousness of the cycle of poverty, psychological abuse, and rejection keeps them trapped in a dangerous and degrading life. This reality is served to us raw by Israeli director Keren Yedaya in her much-honored 2004 debut feature Or, My Treasure.
Or (Dana Ivgy) is a teenager who washes dishes in a restaurant and collects recyclables to keep herself and her mother Ruthie (Ronit Elkabetz) housed and fed—except that she’s not actually making enough to meet either of those goals. Or eats at the restaurant or at her neighbor’s home, and when the landlord tries to collect back rent from Ruthie, an older prostitute who has just returned from the hospital for an unspecified ailment, she tries to offer her body instead, something that has worked with him in the past. He’s not interested anymore. She hands him the small amount she’s made from the house-cleaning job Or arranged for her to keep her off the street corners.
Both Ruthie and Or are desperate for love. Or’s budding romance with her neighbor’s son is quashed by his mother, who has seen Or’s random trysts with boys who line up outside waiting to see who will get a chance to offer her a cigarette and go off with her under the stairs. Ruthie, on her way to work, is stopped by the lover who left her and blows off her job to welcome him back with sex. He abandons her again, and in almost a trance of resignation, she returns to the streets. With her desperate attempts to create a normal life in ruins and her emotions trampled and spent, Or finally crosses the line herself.
Or, My Treasure spares us nothing of the sordidness of the life Or and Ruthie lead. Or rummages through trash looking for bottles and cans to recycle. Ruthie turns a trick in an alley with one man while his friend pukes his guts out nearby. She returns home one night with blood coating the inside of her legs, and Or must wash her up and put her to bed. All through the movie, Yedaya’s camera remains stationary, impassive, paralyzed, as the characters move in and out of view. Through this technique, Yedaya, a fervent feminist who has sheltered prostitutes trying to get out of the life, removes the comforts of a finely crafted, manipulated narrative and forces us to confront our own passivity and leering depravity in the face of this misery.
Films are very frank about sex and nudity these days, but the economic hardship many single women face has remained more veiled. A growing number of largely female filmmakers have sought to expose this economic oppression, for example, Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008) and Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River (2008). With unblinking anger, Or, My Treasure seeks to shatter the image of the movie prostitute we’ve comfortably projected our own needs onto and expose the economic plight that makes this choice of work no choice at all.
Marilyn Ferdinand is the proprietor of Ferdy on Films and cohost of For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon.