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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Worlds and Their Women

Meet the Fokkens
Mosquita y Mari
Dreams of a Life

Rob Schröder and Gabrielle Provaas, Dutch film-makers, are lucky. They have found what can only be called a knockout subject for a documentary—identical twin sisters, now in their seventies, who have spent their lives as prostitutes in Amsterdam. The sisters even have a name that, for Anglophone viewers, has a special edge: the picture is called Meet the Fokkens. Altogether, even if this film were not cordially made, which it is, it would have a considerable jump-start.

Louise and Martine are plump, rosy-cheeked, hair-dyed women, who look and behave much of the time like any contemporaries— neighborly, chatty, reminiscent, appreciative. Louise is now retired because of arthritis, but the film begins with Martine on the way to work, carrying her little dog, greeting neighbors on the way to her brothel in the red light district as if it were any other business, stopping in a shop to buy a box of condoms as if they were cornflakes, then sitting in her small brothel, either calling out to possible customers or greeting old neighbors. Later her sister joins her, and they are visited by an old friend, a local pastor, in ordinary clothes. Martine tells us of clerical patrons through the years (this man not included). We also hear of clients’ quirks, recalled almost maternally.

The film then gossips on to give an account of their lives. Each now has her own tidy apartment in a nice district. Friends and pastimes are met or mentioned as in any recounting. Through photos we see the women as cute children and attractive girls. Then there are marriages, both bad, with men who apparently pummeled them into prostitution. There were children, but they figure very slightly in the present. We can’t feel that the sisters entered their profession willingly, but we see that they long ago learned to make the best of it and that the best included a view of their work as simply another kind of job. They found in themselves a way to be, even in this business, amiable neighborly beings. In fact, the few shots of Martine professionally employed, in shadows, seem almost irrelevant, intrusive. (Though they remind us that there is no mention of customers’ brutality or of diseases.)

Not many will see this film as an argument in favor of this profession. We know from the start that these twins are exceptions, which is what makes their story interesting. Men have long fantasized a justification of the profession with the notion that hookers eventually retire and even marry. This film does not support that fantasy: it is so unusual that it only nudges those who don’t take refuge in it.

SEVERAL WORLDS away, another film about two females. Mosquita y Mari is set in a Mexican district of Los Angeles, and the two females this time are fifteen-year-old schoolgirls. That description, true as it is, does the film insufficient justice—in fact it is, in a sense, misleading. We all have seen plenty of sensitive adolescents, especially girls, and in terms of content or plot, this film has little new to offer. Yet it is a small prize.

A young woman named Aurora Guerrero wrote and directed it and set out to report little more than many such pictures have done—to recreate a time in her life of special importance to her, emotional and altering. How Guerrero thought of herself and this venture in relation to many of the films she must have seen, I can’t say, but her courage is clear.

From the very start she shows that, with all her innate love for these people and their community, she looks with an eye that must have come from a conviction that she could do it better. She finds uniqueness in virtually every shot of the familiar; that is, she manages consistently to show what she knows in a moving apostrophized form. This leads not to affectation, but to an unexpected sophistication.

The story is full of scenes that we have, so to speak, seen before: jealousies, quarrels with parents, parties, troubles with teachers, and so on. The one scene I couldn’t remember having seen before is when the two girls break into a car, not to drive off but to play at driving and carrying on. There is also a moment in which the two tremble on the edge of the sapphic.

Another wonder is the quality of the acting. Venecia Troncoso is Mari, Fenessa Pineda is Mosquita. (Her real name is Yolanda. Mari has nicknamed her Little Fly.) Both of them are exquisitely moving. Consider that they are, more or less, the adolescents they are enacting, and the result is, in terms of self-understanding, impressive.

Guerrero is equally impressive in all her casting. Further, she has found a cinematographer, Magela Crosignani, and an editor, Augie Robles, who are extraordinary. The loving curiosity of the camera and the liquid motion of the film are fine.

All in all, an unexpected occasion for hope.

STILL ANOTHER WORLD awaits with another female, this one interesting because deceased. This time the documentary is set in London, where, in 2006, a woman’s body—or what was left of it—was found in her apartment in a busy district, over two years after she had disappeared. She had been lying there all this time with the television on.

Carol Morley, an English film-maker, was fascinated by the facts of the unknown, and the result is Dreams of a Life. Morley rounded up a number of friends and acquaintances of the woman, whose name was Joyce Vincent. They turned out to be a reasonably articulate lot. Further, to avoid merely a repetition of talking heads, Morley engaged actors to re-enact some of what the others tell us.

As we see, Joyce was Caribbean and throughout her childhood in London was enthralled by the music of that region. As she grew, she tried for a singing career and was varyingly successful. All of the witnesses speak of her with some affection, and a few of them noticed changes in her toward the end. But apparently none of them did much about her disappearance.

The account is disturbing because of its own basic mystery, but to me this is eclipsed by the magnitude of the primary story. How can a person disappear for two years without some inquiry? Weren’t any of these witnesses curious? Joyce’s landlord finally took action when her rent arrears reached £2,400. The most frightening aspect of it all seems to be that the more crowded a place becomes, the easier it is for an individual to disappear.

In 1964 the Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara made Woman in the Dunes, in which a minor Tokyo official, on a personal remote entomological quest, gets involved in a love affair. He stays where he is and is reported missing for a while. At last his name is simply glossed over. But at least he was hundreds of miles away. Joyce was right there in the middle of things, and not one person was sufficiently disturbed to look into it. Somewhere at the bottom of this story is an ache about the value of a life.