If you had to guess where Australia's longest running brothel is, you'd probably wager Melbourne or Sydney. But you're wrong. You'll actually find it in Kalgoorlie, a desert town some 600 kilometres inland from Perth. And that makes sense once you realise Questa Casa—or the Pink House, as the brothel is best known—was built at the height Australia's 1800s gold rush. If history has taught us anything, it's that gold and brothels go hand in hand.
But the story of the Pink House gets even more bizarre. Even though sex work has been illegal in Western Australia since 1892, the brothel has somehow managed to operate continuously since 1904, on the same street as the local police station. Sascha Ettinger-Epstein explores this complex arrangement in her new documentary, The Pink House, which she shot while living at the brothel. We caught up with the Australian director to talk about the unique characters in the film, the politics of sex work, and an unexpected murder in the desert.
VICE: Without giving the whole film away, can you tell us a little about what The Pink House is about?
Sascha Ettinger-Epstein: It's a portrait of these two very curious, unusual women living together in this pink tin shed, which has been standing in the desert in Kalgoorlie since 1904. It's the longest running brothel in Australia and Madam Carmel has had the tenure of madam for the last 25 years. [Carmel] really treasures history and in her mind she's the madam of this iconic piece of Australian history. BJ is her last working lady of the night. They just have this interesting, unusual relationship while they're attempting to survive all of the cultural, political, and social changes in a new era of sex work.
How did you come across the Pink House?
I was posted out in Kalgoorlie in 2010 to make a reality TV show called Kalgoorlie Cops. I'd heard it was this notorious outlaw town. The producer had sold this show to Foxtel, claiming that there would be brawls and bikies and brothels but actually, at the time, there wasn't that much happening. Anyway, one night I strolled into the Pink House and I just fell under the spell of Madam Carmel, who loves to talk. I think I emerged out of there like three hours later just going, "Whoah, what a bizarre and fascinating woman and place." [Carmel] is a fabulous raconteur and, of course, BJ was there—she's got a smile that lights up the room, even though she's sort of past her prime. She's so sensual. She's got her own story to tell.
So you made friends with Carmel and BJ?
I was really lonely to be honest. I had a male film crew and they hated me. So after that [first meeting] I started coming back. I needed some female friends. I just started hanging out on a plastic chair at the brothel on my nights off. I was really grateful that they'd just let me hang out in the parlour—they sort of took me under their wing.
So how did you go from hanging out in the Pink House to making a documentary about it?
I hooked up with Claire Haywood, who's the producer, and she helped me shape it into a story by adding in all the politics. Prostitution is completely illegal in Western Australia since 1892. No government has ever been able to address the legislation.
The police realised they were going to need to work with the sex industry because they simply wouldn't be able to stamp it out, so they created the containment policy... an unwritten law where the police turned a blind eye, so long as the women were contained inside the brothels at all times. It was basically like segregation or apartheid for sex workers. They were trapped in the brothel—they had to live there, they couldn't mingle in the town, and they had to work for two weeks at a time and then leave town. It was really quite a shocking violation of human rights. So that's one angle, but the other angle is that the girls got really rich because all the men had to go to that one place and it was strictly controlled.
Madam Carmel really breaks the stereotype of the hardened brothel boss. She's incredibly posh, you might even describe her as conservative, right?
Oh, totally. She's completely conservative. I dread to call her eccentric because I'm sure she wouldn't like that, but she is just an enigma. I lived on the premises for a lot of the shooting, and I can tell you that it was not a persona that she put on for the camera. That's how she really is. Carmel's a paradox, she never really confronts the fact that she works in the "flesh trade."
She also describes herself in the film as "a moral person." What do you think of that?
She doesn't struggle at all with her morality. We pressed her many times on the ethics of her business and she sees herself as this madam of an English manor—she manicures the gardens and it's all lovely. Superficially, everything's morally upstanding but, really, the sex trade isn't that simple. Women are there because of drug issues and low socio-economic circumstances. Some women choose it, and all the advocates for sex work say, "We choose to do this job and we love it." But not all women have that experience.
After watching the documentary, I'd say BJ's experiences as a sex worker really calls Madam Carmel's morality into question.
Absolutely, she's lived off the earnings of BJ's work. Having said that, she charges the girls like $20 a week rent and gives them a good cut. She's very genteel, she's not a greedy madam. She said to me once, "The madam is the mother. She looks after them, she makes sure they're fed." It's like a little dysfunctional family.
What about BJ, was it confronting to see her go off on drug binges and become involved in (spoiler alert) a murder?
I never could have foreseen what would happen to her. She's had a hectic life and I knew that she had a lot of trauma but I could never have predicted it. But that's documentary filmmaking—the truth is always stranger than fiction. I knew she was involved with some pretty crazy people out there in Kalgoorlie but I couldn't imagine that she'd become entangled in this really, really macabre experience. In the film, we can't reveal much of that murder because of the sub judice laws. There are still appeals being made now so you can't go beyond what's been reported by the media.
What conclusions can we draw about sex work from this film? It's obviously so complex...
Every story is individual. That's the only thing that I could conclude. Between BJ's moments of wicked humour, there were quite a few moments where she gave a moralising sermon. She'd say, "I want to talk about this because I don't want other women to do this, it's not a good career path and I could have done something much better with my life." But then at other times she said, "I'm proud of what I've done and where I've been." I guess everybody's views fluctuate when they're looking back at their life.
These lesser known, dare I say feminist, histories—do you think they are important stories to tell?
I do hope this slice of history can be preserved. It's really quite a fascinating era. People don't realise that prostitutes came from all over the world—being entrepreneurs—to make their fortunes on the gold fields, just as the prospectors and miners did. Women came from everywhere, from France and Japan and all over the place. It was known all around the world that Hay Street, Kalgoorlie was the money making district. It's quite amazing that we had a little slice of Amsterdam in the middle of this remote desert in a gold mining town that most people haven't heard of. It's the unwritten side of the gold rush.
The Pink House is screening at Sydney Film Festival on June 15.
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