EU Premiere, 70 mins (2011, Australia)
“It meant working with Rachel as a filmmaker, and not just her friend,” says Scott, smiling over at her documentary subject who’s flown from Australia with her. “So while she had to trust me, I also had to trust her to show me and allow us to film what would be good for it; what would be really interesting.”
It’s difficult to think of exactly would not be interesting, given the film’s revolutionary take on sex work in Australia, and a fittingly curious, packed-out-to-the-point-of-a-reserve-list audience who were waiting in the wings of Sheffield’s Showroom Film Theatre for the EU premiere of Scarlet Road.
Scarlet Road is quite possibly the most as-close-to-perfect documentary you could hope for at a Documentary Festival. At once revelatory, glorious, extremely surprising and extremely political, Scarlet Road explores sex in a way no-one would have expected It’s all about how the sex industry works on a pragmatic level for the disabled community. And by works, I mean, cast away your preconceptions and really think… Got it? Now imagine that your main character is an intelligent, joyous, and compassionate woman who is not only a proud sex worker, but one who’s campaigning for disability rights, and studies an MA. Now imagine that her clients are people with disabilities, from cerebal palsy to MS, who, prior to Rachel, had no means of sexual expression.
And this is why it this documentary is so interesting. It is so hugely different from the typically hard-edged tale of the images we are used to seeing on our screens as reportage. While trafficking is a global human and sexual rights issue, the most interesting thing is that everyone seems to forget: trafficking exists where the sex industry is illegal. We’re rarely given a chance to see where it is legal – and what positive effects this can have on a community that’s so typically marginalised across the world. Australia is currently divided in terms of the sex industry – and the film makes no secret of this. Indeed, after its first SBS screening in Australia, Catherine did not, as expected, get any complaints. “Relentless Touching Base was completely inundated,” she says. “And yet, I didn’t receive a single [negative] email. Not one.”
Sex work is already a lawful occupation across Australia. The Australian Taxation Dept already accepts taxes from sex workers throughout the country, and laws have changed in other states and territories since the age of the Commonwealth – just not to decriminalisation.
Scott’s main character is our documentary subject, Rachel Wotton. Rachel represents Touching Base, who campaign for awareness about the reality of an industry that can serve a practical purpose – both women do well to bring the best out of her subjects. Rachel’s clients and even their families do not shy away. If anything, they are proud ambassadors of a movement.
“People with a disability have an intrinsic right to sexual expression. This right enables people to develop relationships, have sex, explore and express their sexuality and achieve intimacy without personal or systemic barriers. Furthermore, necessary personal and systemic supports must be provided for the expression of this right.”
Rachel is one of that incredibly lucky breed of women who, while incredibly photogenic, is actually stunning in real life – with her identical face twin being Reese Witherspoon. In the film, we are immediately invited into her world of work and her personal life – and throughout the film, we discover how she tows the line between a long-term relationship and her job. Understandably, this could have created real tension for Catherine Scott and Rachel, who are friends as well as colleagues.
“Catherine involved me in each edit, it wasn’t a case where, with other filmmakers, they take it away and come back when it’s finished. I was really involved,” Rachel says of the post-produciton process. “Working on this has actually ruined documentary for me! I watch now and I think ‘Oooh, that wasn’t a great cutaway!’”
To Scott’s credit as a director and at the heart of it all, she’s a great storyteller and journalist. The film as this knack of answering questions about our perceptions of prostitutes in the film – just when you think of them. I really don’t want to give the game away. Just believe me when I say it’s a thoughtful, heart-warming documentary which is unafraid of taking you to the precipice throughout.
In attendance at the film’s premiere at Sheff Doc Fest (that’s Sheffield International Documentary Festival), I can personally say that it was very warmly received – and I was lucky enough to sit and laugh with Otto Baxter and his family, right at the front, who’ve benefitted from Rachel’s outreach work tremendously. Truly, it was refreshing and transformative to be watching a documentary in an environment that was supportive of a director bringing light to such a taboo issue. And of a feisty, scrappy cast of documentary subjects who even try to get Richard Branson to sponsor and campaign with the Touching Base charity.
“I just forgot to mention – Virgin Atlantic flew us here! So we have to say thankyou to Virgin Atlantic,” Catherine says after the premiere. So really, it turns out they’ve nearly got him on board.
All in all, a gorgeous 70 minutes which spills over with a genuine love and care for its subjects and subject matter. Which makes sense really – some of the best sex, surely, is loving sex…