Meet the Fokkens
Directed by Gabrielle Provaas and Rob Schroder
This new documentary by Gabrielle Provaas and Rob Schroder feels like a sex comedy, harnessing humor’s potential to disarm viewers. The 69-year-old Fokken twins, dressed identically in purple berets and sleek black boots, are first seen walking the canals and streets of their native Amsterdam, shopping and greeting friends. They are robust, garrulous blondes with husky voices and easy smiles, which suggest that this could be a film about aging graciously while preserving a joie de vivre. Since Martine also buys a box of condoms, and stops by her sex booth in the Red Light District, prostitution emerges as the heart of the sisters’ story, but we don’t learn immediately how these two got into the trade, and are instead treated to lighthearted dialogue in which they reminisce about the “cruiseshipfuls of men” they’ve served in almost 50 years.
By withdrawing the backstory, the filmmakers play on our expectations: don’t we secretly hope that a film about prostitution will subvert the usual grim scenario in which sex workers are oppressed? The brash Fokkens seem to fit the bill of sexually liberated, independent women. Martine, who is still in the business, is brazen about her corporeal assets and, in spite of her ample figure, remains undaunted by the slim young girls across the alley. She appeals to men who are either older and seek women their own age, or who need a domineering figure for a masochistic act. It is reassuring to hear her describe some of her clients as kind, gentle men seeking affection, though this doesn’t always jibe with the image of her wielding a wood plank or a whip. That sex work takes extraordinary affection and compassion seems to be the overall message of the film, which is oftentimes refreshingly matter-of-fact and, in the scenes shot in Martine’s cubicle as she’s working, pretty funny in its crude demystification of sex.
But just as we accept the reassuring tale of mutual benefits, which makes sex work look like yet another profession, a more disturbing thread emerges: Martine and Louise have been undone by love. Louise had her first baby young; the girl ended up in foster care, while Louise’s husband, who from the start showed a frightening propensity for violence, forced her to quit her job at a factory and take up prostitution. From here on, the comforting story of sexual liberation unravels: the husband turned pimp is the familiar figure of a ruthless sex boss. And when the two women defy their pimps to open their own brothel, the government shuts them down. Its rationale is not completely clear, and neither is the reason why Martine followed in her sister’s footsteps, but it all seems to boil down to the inevitable conclusion that Amsterdam’s sex trade, for all its lawfulness and organization, is a more genteel version of a sex mafia. This means unequal terms dictated to women, a situation which is unlikely to have improved over the years, as Dutch women plying the trade have been increasingly replaced by even more politically disenfranchised counterparts from pooper parts Europe and beyond.
The grim aspects of prostitution are marginal to the documentary, but they form a looming shadow, against which the two sisters avow their solidarity. The sight of these two frolicking in the snow, like jolly grandmothers, is touching, but the journeys down the memory lane have a dispersing effect, making the film seem a bit long and unfocused. Ultimately, it’s Louise’s angry outbursts, when she confronts her daughter’s forgiving stance towards the father who abandoned her, and whom Louise holds responsible for forcing her into the trade—“he beat me into it,” she says—that resonate the most. A prostitute’s sexual freedom is a fiction; though this isn’t news, the film confronts the issue with rawness and panache.
Opens August 8 at Film Forum