Michael Glawogger talks about WHORES' GLORY


Sex is for sale everywhere. The marketplaces vary depending on the society, and they are reflections of it. Michael Glawogger observed the business in Thailand, Bangladesh and Mexico in more or less forbidden zones semi-concealed in the society’s shadows, then created a triptych on prostitution which is filled with powerful images. An interview with the director.

The theme of prostitution has been touched upon again and again in your works – such as Megacities and Workingman’s Death. How was it chosen as the theme of a film project?
Michael Glawogger: It’s certainly correct to say that Whores’ Glory is an extension of the Cassandra episode in Megacities, since I noticed how complex the theme can be, which is already visible in that scene: Religious matters are involved, man-woman relations, intimate things such as the discussion of sexuality. In particular, the film’s based on a short scene in Megacities which we shot in an alley. There was a ritual I called “single-filing,” which went like this: The men stood there in a semi-circle, and prettily dressed-up prostitutes walked in a circle. The rules of the game, if you want to call it that, are that the men don’t do the choosing, a woman occasionally leaves the line and steps over to a man to talk to him. She has to do that before he can choose her. In my opinion that’s a beautiful expression of how man-woman relations function in a Catholic society. It made me wonder whether these relations can be depicted through prostitution. I’m interested in these kinds of rituals, gestures and interactions, and I took a look at prostitution in light of those angles. Neither the criminal aspect nor how it’s currently viewed by society were what interested me. Something becomes interesting when it’s taking place, not observation of it. In my opinion what’s thought-provoking about a story can be found where it actually takes place, where the client comes into contact with the girl and the everyday business routine begins.

From the very beginning you present a provocative kind of friction between prostitution and religion/faith or superstition. Why? Is this why you dedicated your triptych to three cultures that are profoundly influenced by different religions?
Michael Glawogger: That’s absolutely correct. Again and again during shooting I saw how the film works. In this case I realized that I wanted to make a triptych, which was originally a Catholic altar painting. However, my intention was to break through this image by saying to myself: If you imagine this altar painting throughout the entire world, it should also include the major religions. I don’t consider that provocative, anybody can be religious. Religion means something different in every professional group, though maybe not to the individual. In the same way that man-woman relations can be portrayed through prostitution, in my opinion the most important element in the theme of religion is that it provides a certain standard for sexuality within a society. These three forms of prostitution reflect this standard in an extremely clear way.

How is someone received when they go to these places with a concentration of prostitution and say that they intend to make a film? How can a relationship of trust be established?
Michael Glawogger: You can talk about a relationship of trust only after the first obstacle has been overcome. In Bangladesh at present, this brothel ghetto’s dominated by a matriarchy with a council of mother superiors. In this case “mother” refers to the female pimps. In Faridpur there are about 600 sex workers, and six mother superiors are in charge. Basically, if you want to film and prostitution’s involved, there’s no other way than to pay a substantial amount of money. They asked us, firstly, what will we get out of this? and secondly, how do you intend to do it? Then I had to go before the council of mother superiors with an interpreter and answer their questions about how I planned to make this film. That was amusing for them, because they realized what I was going to face in a complex of 600 young women. We finally came to an agreement, and then the real work started, convincing individuals to participate. We spent months there before successfully establishing a basic trust that we could work with. The details were hair raising.

How did shooting at the various locations differ?
Michael Glawogger: Everything’s much more controlled in Thailand, because it’s very much a mafia business. There are clear rules that you have to respect. You’re assigned times for interviews and for shooting, and you stick to them. The boss only sent me girls who had indicated that they were willing to participate. It was nice doing “business” with them because they stuck to everything that had been agreed upon. At the same time, they demanded the same of me. Once when I wanted one more girl to film, it was out of the question. Mexico was more similar to Bangladesh, though there was one problem, that the pimps weren’t present: They controlled the girls by cellphone from thousands of kilometers away. Some of the girls participated, and there were others I developed a friendship with who had been told not to. Those were bridges we weren’t able to cross.

How do you deal with thresholds of intimacy or shame as a filmmaker? Did you set borders for yourself?
Michael Glawogger: They develop naturally. A hooker in Bangladesh doesn’t undress for a client, why should she do it for a film? It definitely isn’t a coincidence that the only sex scene is set in Mexico, because it’s more relaxed there. Things are relaxed in Thailand too, but the government denies the existence of prostitution. Basically, Thailand has a much more open culture regarding sexuality than Mexico, because it’s considered a necessity. But since the Thai king claims that it doesn’t exist, you have to deal with a censor. Those are the borders that are established beforehand. I don’t set any for myself, as long as I stay on topic. I’m not afraid of contact with my theme. And when I address a theme like this, sex is involved. I consider the sole sex scene in the film extremely expressive, because the very moment the door’s closed, the power structure reverses. The woman takes command and sets the rules in a businesslike tone. I find that much more interesting than the sex itself. Sex, in many forms practiced in prostitution, is erotic only to a certain extent.

With regard to the film’s visuals the word triptych in the subtitle calls painting to mind. How were these images from a shadowy area of society captured, in a technical sense? How does one turn from a voyeur to an observer in these intimate places, and how do you stay on this tightrope?
Michael Glawogger: The first question involves a purely mechanical aspect. We didn’t use any lighting. In Faridpur and Mexico, for example, we added neon lighting where it was already present. That might seem easy, but over an area like that it can add up to 100 tubes, which might disappear by the next day. We hung a lot of neon tubes, but in the film it looks like it does in real life.
The second part of the question is easy to answer, too: by looking at the theme calmly, in that you don’t keep thinking, Oh, that’s prostitution, I have to be careful. My work on this film wasn’t any different than if I had made a film about laborers, bankers or anyone else. I look wherever I want to. If someone wants to call that voyeurism it wouldn’t bother me. I try to look at things as being normal to the greatest extent possible. The women liked that, after they understood how I work. They open up when you don’t make a big deal about their daily routine or treat it as being in any way unusual. When a woman in a country like Bangladesh sits on a bed and talks about her profession and penis sizes so explicitly, it’s a major accomplishment in so many ways, both cultural and personal. That’s hard to imagine here, where they talk about things like that all the time on TV. It involves a long process in Bangladesh.

From the very beginning, the music creates an almost meditative mood. How was the film music written? Was producing this nearly meditative atmosphere important to you?
Michael Glawogger: I wanted to create a mood that reflects what you would have to feel there. When I get there, clock in, spend an hour and a half putting on makeup, and then sit behind a glass wall for two hours until number 246 says, that’s me, I have to get into a kind of trance state, otherwise I’d go crazy. I used two kinds of music in the film: Firstly I wanted music from the location, and secondly I looked for music that underlines inner moods or more or less delivers a comment on the action. I began with the idea of using love songs performed by women. Furthermore, that’s the kind of music the girls like to play. Later, after it turned out that clients would appear also, I included duets, but there isn’t a single song that’s sung by a man alone. I was always certain that the film must have music, because music’s incredibly important for all the women in this line of work. It might not be what they normally listen to, but there’s a mutual effect between it and them. To return to Thailand, the floating, meditative aspect of the music resembles an inner state more closely, the kind I imagine they have. That shimmers in a way.

You claimed earlier that making a film about prostitution is no different than making one about banking. Were there still moving moments during shooting?
Michael Glawogger: Even if things are a little wilder in the places where prostitution’s practiced, you have to understand that what you see is their everyday life. You have to move away from the feeling that it’s something out of the ordinary and work on yourself so you sense that. Only then can you understand how the women feel, what’s difficult for them, what’s terrible, and what’s normal. It would be the same thing if you were shooting at a prison. I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere if I said to myself, Oh, how terrible, being locked up for twenty years. The first thing I have to work with is the idea, I’m locked up here. That’s what I liked about Philip Gröning’s Die große Stille (Into Great Silence), that the monks’ first demand was that the director live with them for two months. I couldn’t do that, because I’m not a prostitute and could never be one, though I tried to get close to them as well as I could by spending ten, twelve hours a day there. The surprise about what seems so terrible and abnormal to us blocks everything. I can truly understand a place only when I understand what everyday life there is like. And everyday life can be completely different at different places around the world.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
August 2011