SBIFF has always been a documentary-friendly zone, going way back before digital technology brought the cost factor exponentially down and put the mean of production in the hands of the workers and wannabe doc artisans. This year’s crop is even more quantitatively strong than usual, and covering a veritable world, so to speak, of subjects.
Even more than the typical, welcome culture shock of switching from one nationality and culture to another in back-to-films at the Metro festival HQ, catching two wildly different documentaries back-to-back invites a certain reality-based whiplash. It’s something of a happy problem, and a metaphor for the purposefully diversified festival mandate to experience two such divergent docs as Nicky’s World and Whores’ Glory in a single afternoon in the festival field.
If the prospect of a documentary delving frankly into the world of prostitution, a three-part portrait of brothels in Thailand, Bangladesh and Mexico, sounds iffy bordering on exploitative, think again: German director Michael Glawogger’s brilliant Whores’ Glory is far and away the most powerful doc I’ve yet seen of the current SBIFF crop so far. He wisely keeps an objective cool, leaving narration and intrusive filming techniques out of the picture in his bold examination of the world’s oldest profession, dealing with the dark and dehumanizing aspects of the “workplace” and workers’ conditions, while also acknowledging the venerable reality of the profession.
As a purely visual and atmospheric piece of work, Whores’ Glory is a wonder, reveling in the expressive might of a well-made shot and an artful savoring of the indigenous color, light, and gaudy décor of brothels. But we’re never allowed to wallow in detachment, even without handy narration to guide the way and lead our emotions. Glawogger cunningly moves from eerily slick and professional operations — replete with time punch clock for workers — in the Fish Tank in Bangkok, to the increasingly squalid and depressing alleyway brothel called, ironically, the City of Joy, in Bangladesh, and the Zone in Raynosa, Mexico. A graphic sex scene, the business at hand, is depressingly void of feeling, a plumbing encounter, with no more human feeling than the coyly interjected scene of dogs humping.
Along the way, the director touches on both the accepted business aspect of sex work, when a Thai man calls it “a clear deal, and when it’s over, it’s over,” and the subjugation of women and desperation at the core: in a sad, poignant interview with a shy young Indian woman in the “City of Joy,” she reluctantly reveals her innermost thoughts, softly saying,“Why must women have to suffer so much? Isn’t there another path for us?”
For something completely different, Nicky’s World is a beautifully made and beautifully intentioned Holocaust-oriented tale, tracking back over the story of a pre-WWII project spearheaded by altruistic businessman Nicholas Winton, “Britain’s Schindler.” Alerted to the plight of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakians in 1938, as the Nazi war and anti-Semitic machinery was on the onramp to the onset of the actual war, Winton designed a program to save hundreds of Czech children. They were corralled on a train of salvation, shipped to English foster families, leaving behind Jewish parents and relatives who mostly perished in the next several years.
What results in director Matej Minac’s finely done doc is a film richly textured with archival footage and photographs, dramatizations of key scenes, and, most importantly, interviews with now-aged survivors who wouldn’t be alive were it not for Winton. As such, Nicky’s World is literally life-affirming, and a rare Holocaust film in which tears of joy are the upshot by the time of the strategically paced film’s end.
We walked out of the Metro complex to find the warm weekly doings of the Farmer’s Market stopping traffic on State Street and thanked God for life as we know it.