I know my city well. I know the glass peaks of City Hall and the best spot to sit near the Churchill Square fountain. I know the place on University Avenue where the LRT tracks cross the road and I know how to avoid them. I know which on-ramp to take into the parking lot at West Edmonton Mall in order to find myself closest to my favourite store. I know that you should always yield to a bus when merging onto the high level bridge, and I know that once you get across the bridge parking can be difficult to find but it is worth finding. I know the historic façade of the Garneau Theatre that houses Metro Cinema, but on Sunday, December 9th in Metro Cinema, I saw an Edmonton that I didn’t recognize.
When Who Cares premiered at the Metro in late November. The house was packed and more than 100 moviegoers were turned away at the door. When the encore screening took place in December, I was in line early for my ticket. Who Cares is a documentary written and directed by Edmontonian Rosie Dransfeld and produced by Bonnie Thompson for the National Film Board of Canada.
Who Cares was filmed in Edmonton, and I try to see my Edmonton in this film. I see the ETS busses pulling up to bus stops. I hear people talking about streets and places that I have driven past many times. But this is not an Edmonton that I recognize. This is what some might call Edmonton’s underbelly, a place of poverty, addiction and abuse. In the film, signs of store fronts are unrecognizable – not blurred out – but obscured, shot at an angle or with an exposure that make them illegible. We, the general public, see prostitution in Edmonton in a similar light. We either don’t know that it exists, or we know that it exists and chose not to notice.
Prostitution is the oldest trade in the world, and here in Edmonton it is illegal. So why do we see so many women walking up and down 107th Avenue at night? Who are these women? Why are they living this lifestyle? Who Cares follows the stories of Courtney and Shelly, two former Edmontonian prostitutes. They tell their stories that are exactly what we might expect them to be. They speak of broken families, abuse, and drugs, and while we come to expect these types of stories, Who Cares goes beyond the typical stories and introduces these women as they are — women — just like you or I. Courtney takes pride in her appearance, she has a mother who loves her and she walks the family dog. Shelly is a woman of deep faith, she is sweet spirited, and she loves her teddy bear. They both have hopes and dreams for the future. Courtney and Shelly teach us that the lifestyle of a sex trade worker is one of cycles – cycles of abuse, cycles of addiction and cycles of fear. They risk their lives each and every night. They are abused continually. In the shadow of the Pickton murders and with cases of missing women still left open, you can’t blame them for being afraid. Courtney shares in the film that, “every time you touch the door handle, you think this could be the last time… man to beast… the change in the eyes is terrifying.”
Who are these men? Who are the Johns? According to Officer Joe Veraeghe from Project Care, they are from absolutely every walk of life. They could be the guy who pumps your gas, your accountant, your clergyman or even your own boyfriend. When the Johns are apprehended by the police they are given an option: Pay a high fine or pay a lower fine and attend a day of “John School,” where their money will go to support local aid agencies and they will receive an education about just how serious their crimes actually are. When a sex trade worker is caught soliciting sex, they are given no option: A fine, causing them to simply work more to pay it off.
As I looked around the theatre, I thought about how so many of us really have no idea of the types of lives that these women lead, but then I looked across the balcony and saw Shelly sitting there watching the film right along with me. I looked down at the lower level of seating and there was Courtney. “We are no different from them and they are no different from us,” says Rosie Dransfeld in the Q&A session that followed the film, and she is right. Since we are no different, it is our duty to be aware of the plight of the sexually exploited.
Who Cares will be available for viewing on the National Film Board of Canada’s website in January, as well as on Shaw on Demand. I personally urge you to watch it and in doing so, educate yourself about what is going on right under your nose in Edmonton. Rosie says that the simplest way for women just like you or I to help out a prostitute is to teach our sons how to respect women, to raise a generation on men who will not exploit women. Officer Joe says to write your MLA and tell them that fining these women for soliciting sex is only contributing to the problem and driving the cycle of abuse, addiction and prostitution onward. And, if you can, give. There is never enough money to go around to help the agencies that help these women. Whether your money goes to help the women on the streets of Edmonton, or women and young gurls living as sex slaves on the other side of the world, your help is much needed. First and foremost, I ask you to care. “We are all God’s children,” says Shelly, “we need help.”
Who Cares will be available on Video on Demand January 8, or online at www.nfb.ca/whocares.