Montreal filmmaker Rodrigue Jean was planning to make a documentary about gay prostitutes in London when he was working there in the 90s, but hit a wall when he wasn't given the creative freedom he wanted. When he moved back to Montreal a few years ago, he decided to work on the project in his hometown with the help of a community organization called Action Séro Zéro. He spent one year with 11 hustlers, filming them against a window that overlooked their city while they told their stories. Men For Sale is a grimy, touching, and utterly compelling documentary. Rodrigue speaks to an eclectic variety of young men—most of them drug addicts and almost all of them in the sex trade to fund their habits—who speak with brutal honesty. I phoned Rodrigue in Montreal to talk about his experiences.
VICE: I really enjoyed your film.
Rodrigue: Thanks. There was quite a saga around the film. It was produced by the National Film Board of Canada. Usually I'm the co-producer of my films, but you sort of become their employee when the National Film Board produces your work. Unfortunately, we didn't see eye to eye on some things.
What did they want to do?
Well they thought that if it was an hour and a half it would be very successful. Obviously, I didn't want that. I'd been shooting for a year and a half. So the National Film Board kicked us out twice.
They just said "Out, finished." They thought it would be a commercial success as an hour and a half, and there was a whole thing about it in the newspapers. Other directors got involved, and it was finally resolved in public, when they let me have the two and a half hour version, which was released in cinemas here a couple of years ago.
The one I saw was an hour and a half.
I wasn't even aware that the short version exists on DVD. That's the first I've heard of it. Television commissioners here were adamant that they would get an hour and a half version, but I didn't see it. What you've seen is not really the film. The first cut was eight and a half hours. The battle was to give those young men a chance. If you compress a film like this you get all the intense bits about sex and violence and all that, but if you let them speak they have a chance to defend themselves, and it becomes something else. But I knew from my experience in the UK that things like that could happen. Commissioning editors at TV channels wanted it, but they wanted to put an American in charge of it!
When was this?
I spent the 90s in London. 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 were afraid that their own kind would be exposed.
The TV companies were afraid?
Yeah, they're always afraid! At the time, there was someone who was working for Thatcher devising new policies for youth, and he was buying kids, buying sex. Well not children, but young people.
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 politicians and people on television buy sex. So I guess that's why they were afraid and wanted to control the edit, and it never got made. I came back to Canada to carry on my work in fiction and sort of forgot about the project, until I was approached by producers from the National Film Board. I thought carefully, because once you start again, it's so engaging. Once you start you never stop, and I knew it would carry me through many years, and that's what happened.
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, but I don't think it exists any more—there are different projects now. I think it was one of the first projects in the world 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. I recorded stories on video 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 as 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 that prostitution is miserable. I wanted to let the sex workers speak for themselves. When you work with them, you see that 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. I found it terribly interesting. People could see this film and it could be their son or their brother or their friend. It really worked out in Canada—it touched people and they felt like we were all part of the same community.
Why does this all appeal to you so much?
Like lots of people, I came to the city from the country, and when you come to the city as a young person, you're like an interior immigrant in Canada—you don't know anybody and you become friends with people who do all sorts of things, many of them who are sex workers. I got to know many sex workers, 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 organization 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. They soon recognized that I knew what I was talking about. It took about a year and a half of negotiations before I was accepted.
And did it take a long time with the kids to earn their trust?
No no no. It doesn't take long for people 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 that I'd much rather work with sex workers than young students because they're 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. 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 to show that he had control over his life. Obviously they don't have control, once they're addicted to crack. The older sex workers say that 20 years ago there was a decent trade when there was no crack around. Now, 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 and 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 had heard of male prostitution. The film was also about that—that it's not considered as important as female prostitution and most people are unaware of it. I was presenting them as people.