Montreal filmmaker Rodrigue Jean was planning to make a documentary about gay prostitutes in London when he was working here in the 90s, but hit a wall. A few years ago, back home in Montreal, he picked it up again - after getting help from a community organisation called Action Séro Zéro. He spent a year with 11 hustlers, filming them against a window that overlooked their city while they told their stories.
Men For Sale, which was recently released here on DVD, is a grimy, touching and utterly compelling documentary - while he speaks to an eclectic variety of young men, most of them are drug addicts, almost all of them working in the sex trade to fund their habits, and they speak with brutal honesty. I phoned Rodrigue in Montreal to talk about his film.
VICE: Hey man, I really enjoyed your film. Why did you decide to make it?
Rodrigue: I spent the 90s in London, I wanted to make the film there. And commissioning editors at TV channels wanted it, but they wanted too much editorial control. In the UK, youth prostitution is much harsher than in Canada. Because of the class structure in the UK, kids are less educated than in Canada, so their lives are much more miserable. And people in the press and media, they buy sex from those young people, so I guess they are afraid that their own kind would be exposed. At the time, there was someone devising new policies for youth, under Thatcher, and he was buying kids, buying sex. Well not children, but young people.
Wow, that's pretty conspiratorial. Was this in the papers at all?
No, no, no, no, no. This is what we hear from the young people. It's the same thing in Canada, lots of people on television, and politicians are involved.
So what were you doing in London in the 90s, were you working with these kids?
Yes I was, there was a project in Earl's Court called Streetwise Youth, I don't think it exists any more, there are different projects now. It was one of the first projects in the world I think, for young sex workers. I started working as a volunteer with the idea of making a film, and I ended up getting trained and being a worker as well. And I recorded stories on video there for this documentary that never got made. It was all ready to go, so when I started in Canada the research had been done, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
And what was that?
To let young people speak for themselves. I saw as many films I could over the years about prostitution, and a lot of them are the same, people come with these ideologies and they meet these sex workers just to prove a point, that prostitution is miserable. And I wanted to let the sex workers speak for themselves. When you work with them, their lives are very rich. Because they encounter so many people and have such difficulty, they have a view of the world that's quite acute. So that I found terribly interesting. People could see this film and it could be their son or their brother or their friend. And it really worked out in Canada, that's what touched people, they felt like we were all part of the same community.
Why does this all appeal to you so much?
Well like lots of people I came to the city from the country. When you come to the city as a young person, you're like interior immigrants in Canada and don't know anybody. So you become friends with people who do all sorts of things, and lots of people I became friends with were surviving as sex workers, I got to know many of them, so I've been close to it by accident all my life.
And you got help from Action Séro Zéro.
Yeah, Action Séro Zéro is like Streetwise Youth, it's a big organisation and they have different projects, and they've had one with sex workers for many years. It took a long time because they get requests from journalists almost every week. But they soon recognised that I knew what I was talking about. But it took about a year and a half of negotiations before I got accepted.
And did it take a long time with the kids to earn their trust?
No. It doesn't take long for them to know who you are. Imagine, they go in a car or in someone's house, they've got to be very aware, very quick at sussing people out. Their survival depends on it. So they suss you out very quickly. I teach cinema at university and I say as a joke I'd much rather work with sex workers than young students, they're much more interesting.
They're certainly very compelling in the film. The first guy, who you come back to a lot, talks about getting businessmen addicted to crack and ruining their relationships, and he says "That's what we do, we destroy lives - all we care about is getting crack."
I still see him now, and I think that was him wanting him to show that he had control over his life. Obviously, if he's addicted to crack, he doesn't have control. 20 years ago, the older sex workers say there was a decent trade when there was no crack around. Now though, with crack everywhere on the street, they have absolutely no control over their lives. And they know it.
The discussions about sex are fascinating too. At one point in the film you suggest that prostitution might be a way of figuring out sexual identity, and you get conflicting responses. One guy says he's not gay at all, it's just work, and the next one says you have to question why you're still doing it with no aversion after a certain amount of time.
We all know who we are, what we like, or at least we think we do. But these people I work with don't have the luxury of a gay identity like you might. So it seems that sexual identity is a luxury. They have sex with men, and they have girlfriends. Their circumstances don't allow them to be so defined.
How is this all viewed in Montreal?
Well it's not very well known. People always make a big fuss about female prostitution, but for most people, my film was the first time they heard of the male issues. And the film was also about that, that it's not seen as important as female prostitution, most people are unaware of it. And I was presenting them as people.
One of the guys in the film says "The guys who vote for laws against us are the ones who come looking for us at night." Do you think that's why it's not a bigger issue, because people are keeping their distance?
Not really. It's with female prostitutes, they'll have sex for free and then arrest them. The police, the judges, there's a whole economy around it. It goes all the way up the chain.