The original title for this recent Dutch documentary, Ouwehoeren literally translates to “old hookering.” As a Dutch figure of speech, ouwehoeren refers to someone who is chatting endlessly, babbling on, or talking bullshit. This wordplay suits not only the subject at hand but also the narrative style for Gabrielle Provaas and Rob Schröder’s new film. During its relatively short running time of 80 minutes, the audience is presented with anecdotes and life stories from Louise and Martine, twin sisters who, at almost 70 years of age, have worked for a large portion of their lives in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. While Louise has recently retired, the same option is not available for Martine, who finds herself muddled in debt and unable to support herself on her state pension alone.
Character study documentaries have a long tradition of deviance as a primary narrative force. This deviancy does not necessarily have to be negative (take for example the Direct Cinema documentaries of the 1960’s and their fondness for the life of celebrities); the premise seems to be that if someone is quirky, odd, bizarre, freakish, deviant or otherwise exotic enough, it will necessarily make for an interesting film subject. It’s surprising how this naïve mode of thought is still so prevalent in contemporary filmmaking even after acclaimed documentaries such as Allan King’s A Married Couple or Michael Apted’s Up series have upheld that ordinary lives can make for equally compelling cinematic pieces.
While a documentary about elderly prostitutes might seem distinctive, I recently caught a Brazilian short film entitled Praça da Luz (watch it here) that deals with a very similar topic. During its running time of a mere 15 minutes, the film is comprised of short interviews with elderly women who turn tricks in downtown Sao Paulo. As much as these women differ from the Fokken twins, the overall tone of both films was curiously similar: a lighthearted approach whose comedy comes from two different angles. First, we laugh at the recounting of some of their most bizarre stories from their decades of work — the Fokkens at one point reminisce about rabbis and chaplains who were regular customers. The other comedic angle is more problematic and difficult to pull off: the strangeness in seeing nice old ladies, who we’d probably expect to be playing bridge on any given night, candidly discussing their sexuality. Louise Fokken at one point even verbalizes this stigma: “Some people pass by the window and laugh at me. You aren’t allowed to be old”.
It’s precisely in these rare moments where Ouwehoeren manages to transcend the generic deviant character documentary and further explore the sociological implications of its subject. However, the directors often opt for a different approach, as the film’s focus turns to the quotidian lives of the sisters and their many stories, as if we were visiting an elderly relative and listening to them reminisce about their old days. Amidst all the lighthearted conversations about banging clergymen and overweight, tough looking (yet surprisingly kind) Hells Angels members, we are also treated to touching recounts of the Fokken twins’ life stories, as well as some background information about how they ended up where they are today. These moments are both predictable and shocking, with harsh life story involving an abusive husband who started pimping the twins. Even in a country such as Holland, abuse in the sex industry is still commonplace. Particularly striking is a remark by one of the twins when remembering how they lost their own brothel to the so called “sex bosses” who run the prostitution business in Amsterdam and who seem to have shady connections with the local police and government. This all seems fascinating and interesting stuff but, yet once again, the en passant remark never once returns to the argumentative front line.
Unsure of whether it wants to focus on the personal or the political, Ouwehoeren often falls into a narrative void, failing to combine both of these dimensions into a cohesive narrative and a solid argument. That is not to say it is a failure. There are some truly human moments here, and the directors must be praised for capturing the subtleties in the intimate and loving relationship between the twins (Louise at one point declares that she became a prostitute out of sympathy for her sister). There are also some beautiful contemplative scenes once the heads stop talking. We see Martine cleaning her lobby entrance in her Red Light District apartment while casually arranging her high heel boots on her window display along with several other kinky garments and S&M accessories. “It takes all sorts”, she explains.