Tuesday, March 26, 2013

'Who Cares' Unveils the Lives of Edmonton's Sex Workers

 When Shelly Sowan was a little girl, she wrote her name in the drying cement on a corner in her neighborhood. Years later, she stood at that same corner as one of Edmonton’s prostitutes.

“Nobody wakes up one day and decides to make prostitution their career,” says writer/director Rosie Dransfeld of Who Cares. “It’s heartbreaking.”
“As a filmmaker, you have to step back – but as the observer I believe in these women,” she says. “I believe if you give a person a chance to tell their story they’ll feel empowered. They’ll see opportunities that they haven’t before.”

Who Cares is a stigma-shattering representation of Edmonton sex trade workers, putting faces to an often misunderstood job description. As well as showing women being picked up by Johns and visited by vans from Project KARE – a unit that registers sex trade workers, tests them for STDs and provides water, condoms and information – the film gives the audience a look at their day-to-day lives. Whether they’re taking the bus to the counsellor’s office, getting a drink at a local bar or playing with their pets, the film shows the connection between the women in the sex trade and women who are not.

Moving from Germany where prostitution is legal and readily available, Dransfeld noticed a pattern in her community similar to where she grew up – that even though prostitution was illegal in Canada, there was just as much of it in Edmonton.

“I wanted to show women that this is what it’s like in their backyard,” says Dransfeld.”

Unlike some documentaries which use flattering lighting and emotional music to persuade the audience to see a certain perspective, Who Cares is filmed to capture the realistic lifestyles of women working in Edmonton’s sex trade. The documentary often has no music and most certainly no glamour to give the audience the raw version of the women’s stories – mainly the stories of two women: Courtney Heather and Shelly Sowan.

“No one sees the person,” says Heather. “They just see the prostitute from 107th Ave.”

“Many of the women on the streets grew up impoverished,” says Dransfeld. “70-75 percent end up in foster care, where their family bands are destroyed. These women have a history of being abused sexually and physically, using drugs [when they grow older] to dissociate.”

Sowan, who often holds onto a teddy bear for comfort, was raped as a child.

“The film is very emotional,” says Dransfeld. “I’ve never been so angry in my whole life.”

Rape. Heroin scars. Burn marks. Prescription pills. Homicide. The documentary shows a side of prostitution people might not often think about. It’s the kind of thing that is often pushed away in the back of minds. Dransfeld wants to bring this uncomfortable truth to light.

“Edmonton has the highest rate of prostitution in Canada after Vancouver,” says Dransfeld. “[These women] often suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but programs for therapy are only short term.”
“[We’re] very caring and very underfunded. Why [doesn’t the government] have more money for these associations?”

“You can sense that the audience were angry – as they should be” says Dransfeld. “[But anger] is the first thing you need for change.”

Hollaback! Alberta, a cause that works to fight street harassment, is one organization that supports Dransfeld’s initiative for change.
“These are people, and they have to be treated like people,” says Lauren Alston of the organization. [In the film, Dransfeld] does a really beautiful job of letting us in and letting us see the vulnerability of people.”

“These girls are getting abused on a daily basis, says Officer Joe Verhaeghe from Project KARE. “They get it from everywhere – the pimps, the Johns, the other girls. It’s like nobody’s on their side.” “We’ve registered girls as young as ten and as old as seventy. I haven’t seen any change in the past 8 years.”

When asked if prostitution should be legalized in Canada, Dransfeld says she doesn’t think so. “Women are often fined, causing them to work more and put themselves in more danger – but legalizing prostitution won’t make these women safer. We should only charge the men.” “There must be many angry men out there,” she says. “80 percent of abuse is from Johns. Why do men think they have the right to satisfy their sexual needs with women’s bodies?”

 In the film, Sowan talks about mentally leaving her body and going somewhere else while her dates beat her.
Heather talks about coming close to death after a man starts choking her and stabs her when she struggles.

CEASE is an Edmonton organization that works to build empathy in Johns by telling the stories of women on the street. They also work to help sex trade workers receive AISH to have income and housing stabilized, as child abuse often leads to mental illness, disability and homelessness. But while John school works to educate perpetrators, it only goes so far.

“We need to educate our boys to respect women,” says Dransfeld. “We also need to educate our girls to be more confident.”

Watching the film, there’s a sense of urgency that these women need to be helped. The question is: What can an average woman do?

“[As sex trade workers] we have to help ourselves before we can be helped,” says Sowan. “If [you know somebody] who’s willing to help themselves, just be there for them. Offer them a coffee, a meal – never money. Look them in the eyes and show them that somebody cares about them. I always felt like nobody cared about me.”
“We need more resources. We need longer programs, she says.”
“I’m always looking for new ideas,” says Verhaeghe of Project KARE.

Sowan is currently in a one year treatment centre. Her goal is to travel to Thailand to work to stop human trafficking. Heather is building a career as a House Mother – a previous sex trade worker who helps current sex trade workers get off the streets. Her business is called Mending Broken Angels.

“Using toilet water in a public bathroom stall to shoot my dope – that’s how desperate I was; and look at me now,” says Heather. “I’ve totally cleaned up my life. I have my own place and my own apartment,” she says. “I thought I’d be going home in a box and I’m glad it didn’t happen that way.”

Who Cares will be available on Shaw on Demand January 8th, or online at www.nfb.ca/whocares.

“The film is about Edmonton, but I hope everyone will watch it because prostitution is a worldwide issue,” says Dransfeld. “It’s a human rights issue.”

For more information on Mending Broken Angels, contact Courtney Heather at 780-240-7421. To get in touch with Project KARE, go to www.kare.ca

Article published in Jan/Feb 2013 Issue of Edmonton Woman Magazine.

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