Perspectives on Street Prostitution in Edmonton: An interview with film-maker Rosie Dransfeld | By Sansitny Ruth

Rosie Dransfeld is an award-winning film-maker from Edmonton, Alberta. The following interview is the director’s perspective on her latest film project “Who Cares?”: a documentary exploring the issue of street prostitution in Edmonton, and the physical, psychological, and sexual abuse of women who are involved in such lifestyles. The film premieres at the Metro Cinema on November 27th. A Q & A with the Director and Courtney (one of the subjects of the film) will follow. Mittens, scarves, gloves, and other winter accessories will be collected by the John Howard Society the night of the premiere to be given to women on the streets.


Where did the idea for this project come from?

A friend of mine who’s an aboriginal journalist, she asked me whether I would be interested in taking this project on and doing some research on it. Her concern was the many murdered and missing women in Canada. Together with the National Film Board [of Canada], I did a very intense investigation and then decided it’s a very complex issue and it’s not an aboriginal issue only. Yes there is a level of racism, yes the aboriginal community suffers more than any other from poverty and unfortunately due to residential schools there is a high level of dysfunction, addiction, mental illnesses and everything. They are certainly a main target and more likely in western Canada to end up on the streets. I decided not to follow the aboriginal world only but to explore the world of street prostitution. And I learned through my investigation that the world of street prostitution and the world of prostitution in brothels and massage parlours are two completely different things. There is a level of devastation and danger on the streets which is reduced in other places. In the end these are all stories about sexual exploitation.

Street prostitution happens just 3 or 4 blocks away from where I live. I’ve been driving down 95th Street a lot to go to the Italian supermarket or the Portuguese bakery. And I’ve been seeing these women for years now. Like others I’m sad that these women are there but I’ve been just as complacent as anybody else. I just let it happen. With this film I had the opportunity to really show what the lives of these women are like.

Why does the project matter to you personally?

I found it important to tell this story to understand how dangerous it is on the streets. The film is not just about a few women, there are thousands out there in Edmonton alone. In the newspapers this one year, a prostitute was found behind some garbage bin burnt to death. It was a shocking event. And because she was a prostitute, [the reporter] painted [the story] in a way as if she deserved to die, and nobody deserves to die like that. This film really took a piece out of me. It was really hard to make this film and I don’t think I’m the same woman after this film.

This is somewhat of a hush-hush topic. How does one get started on such a project?

I just went out on the streets and I was meeting with the social agencies. This is how I met Courtney. Shelley I met at Reno Pub when I already started to construct the story. The elements, the location, I needed to give the viewer an understanding of this world. You have to document this world. You can’t make a really good film if you just go out and do one interview after the other and just ask people how they are feeling today. So you have to decide on your setting.

The streets at night is the war zone, where the women go out and risk their lives on a daily basis. I portrayed this through Project Kare. They have very unique access and a very haunting setting for this world.  If you describe this as a war zone, then you need the trenches, the place where soldiers go to be safe. I was looking for this safe harbour for these women, a place they can go to relax and not be afraid as they are in the outside world, and I found this in the Reno Pub. This was the world I created. You really reduce it and create this microcosm. Then I just decided on these two major stories, and followed two different story lines. Courtney’s story is the story of a woman who managed to get out of this world. Following her struggles I was able to tell the story about the effects of male violence, sexual exploitation, and drug abuse. It’s not like what we always believe “just get out of there, just move on in life, why don’t you still have a job?” I want people to understand that it’s not that simple.

Was it difficult to find people that were interested in taking part of this film?

Yes, it wasn’t easy. It’s never easy because it requires a commitment from the side of the participants as well. How do you get concern from a drug addict like Shelley? The National Film Board and I had a lot of discussions about this and a lot of times the social agencies said “you cannot get consent from these women”. First, because they’re so vulnerable and if they go public are they aware of how they will be looked at by the rest of the population? And you certainly can’t get consent for filming if somebody is high on drugs. But I thought if we can’t tell the stories of these women because they are too vulnerable, then we make them even more vulnerable because we take their voice and their stories away.

We think these women can live on the streets like this, then we obviously think they are capable of surviving on the streets right? So they have skills I don’t have. They make a lot of smart choices on a daily basis to be able to stay in this world. I don’t think I would be able to even survive one night. And with Courtney a lot of times because of her post-traumatic stress disorder, we needed social workers to be present while we did the filming. I didn’t want to trigger something there and make her go back to using. Ethically, it was a really difficult film to make.

Is there anything you wish you would have been able to capture in the film that you didn’t get to? Either because of ethical reasons or the physical limitations of not being able to be around your subjects at all times?

I certainly wish I could have put into the film all the young girls who are on the streets there. They are 10 – 12 years old and they are prostitutes. But there is no possibility of that, you’re not allowed to tell their stories because you can’t get consent neither from their families nor Alberta Child Services. They live in an invisible world, you can’t access it.

Ideally what impact do you want this documentary to have on the community?

I hope this documentary raises awareness: it makes people ask themselves “how can we help?”, it makes them think about what has to happen on a political level, and what decisions would be the best for our community to protect these women?  I hope the film will really get people’s attention and it is a good experience for them to watch it. That it’s enlightening and that it’s touching, so that they don’t think they’re just educated and told what to think but that they have this unique experience. And the next time they drive down the street and see a woman out there at -30, not to look away but to stop and ask her if she’s okay. Perhaps she needs something warm to wear? Because they really have nothing. If we’ll only do that, and care for them.

What’s the most important thing you’ve taken away from this project, either for your outlook on life or the film-making practice?

The most important thing I’ve taken away from this project is that it was very heart-breaking but on the other hand it was very satisfying and fulfilling to make this film. And this is a production of the National Film Board of Canada. I was hired as the director of this film, and whoever worked on this film, beginning with the cinematographer and the production team, post-production, the editor, and two of the producers from the National Film Board, there was an amazing dedication to make this film good. And you usually don’t have this experience. There is a lot of jealousy in our business and everybody plays a little bit of “the queen”; there are all these vanities. But with this film and looking at the footage and knowing that these women are so vulnerable and so brave to share their stories, and they shared very powerful stories of their lives, we said “wow, the only people that can screw it up is us”. So everybody was respectful, dedicated, and worked really, really hard on it. It was never about power games, the only thing on our minds was “how can we make this the best film possible?” It was very satisfying. And the women, their honesty and openness, it had really provoked the good of us, and we really wanted to make it good. I think we did the best we could do.


To view the film’s trailer click here.

To view the director’s statement click here.

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