A study in scarlet

Catherine Scott and Rachel Wotton on Scarlet Road.

by Val Kermode

Catherine Scott's new film, Scarlet Road, tells the story of Rachel Wotton, a sex worker who specialises in providing her services to people with disabilities. Screening at Sheffield Docfest this week, it was followed by a Q&A in which the two women answered questions from the audience. They were joined by a local representative of sex workers, and the Baxter family, who appeared in the film. (Rachel was seen paying a supportive social visit to the mother of several Down syndrome children, including Otto, who naturally longs to experience sex like everyone else and whose mother has been pilloried in parts of the press for saying she would like to pay a sex worker for him to lose his virginity.)

Not surprisingly, a film about sex produced a capacity audience, but the first question came from Otto: “ How long have you been a sex worker, Rachel?”

Rachel laughed, “Oh Otto, for 18 years, and I'm still enjoying it.”

Cathy explained that she had known Rachel for 11 years. When she thought about making this film she said “Great. This time I get to make a film about a mate.” But it wasn't easy at first, as Rachel kept saying there were things she couldn't film. Cathy said “Well I can't just make a film about you walking down the street.”

Rachel was asked “How did you get over those hurdles?”

She said “This film was a collaboration thing. Cathy worked closely with me and listened not just to my voice but to those of other sex workers.”

Cathy said “the more I showed Rachel the rushes and what I was doing, the more she gave me access.”

Rachel jokes that she has learned so much about documentaries that she now watches them in a different way and comments on the camerawork.

A film-maker from Malaysia who makes films about sex workers said he has had threats from religious groups. Did the director experience anything like that?

When this was shown in New South Wales, Cathy says, she was afraid. “ Although everything in the film is legal, there are always weirdos out there.” She was afraid mainly for Rachel. But she was very surprised that out of the thousands of emails that followed, not one was bad. She was praised for creating such a “positive and complex” picture of sex work.

Then there was the inevitable and important question about the other side of sex work – it's not all happy hookers.

The director said she always gets this question at Q&As. She wanted to make a film which showed the world through Rachel's eyes. She doesn't feel obliged to refer to the darker side of sex work. Every festival has some docs about that.

Rachel took the mike and talked with passion on this point, saying that when people see a documentary or a programme about the bad side of sex work, they don't say “But what about the happy side?” So why the other way round? She talked about the majority of sex workers being “ordinary, average working mums” and said there were probably some in the audience tonight. “We walk among you!”

Much more discussion followed. But thank you Cathy for opening our eyes with your film and thank you Rachel for being who you are.

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