As the world’s largest doc fest the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam is jam-packed with nonfiction gems from around the globe. Yet one of my most delightful and surprising finds at the 24th edition this past November was a small film from the heart of the host city itself. “Meet the Fokkens” is a nuanced portrait and loving celebration of 70-year-old twins Martine and Louise Fokken, two vivacious ladies of the night who’ve been selling sex in Amsterdam’s infamous red light district since 1961 (though Louise, suffering from arthritis, is now retired). Prior to the latest “Meet the Fokkens” screening at February’s Berlinale, I spoke with the doc’s Dutch co-directors, who gave me the scoop on many-splendored things, including Martine’s green fingers, corruption in the red light district, and the history of older professionals in the oldest profession in the world.
Lauren Wissot: So let’s start from the beginning, fill me in on the tale of how you two got involved in this unique project. Rob, I know you live a few doors down from Martine’s window in the red light district.
Gabriëlle Provaas: The moment Rob moved to that little street five years ago, it was clear that a movie had to be made. The women lined up there are older and wiser. For the most part, they are not forced by pimps or loverboys. They are friendly to the neighbors. And half of them are Dutch. Which is rare in the more touristy parts of the red light district. Already then we wanted the movie to be about women who chose this oldest of professions voluntarily. We wanted to call the movie “Hollandse Waar” (“Dutch Produce”) but then we got stuck. You cannot tap on a window and ask to have an interview.
Rob Schröder: So we put those plans away and decided to see what would happen. Next to my door is the room where Martine works. She is by far the oldest on the street. I was fascinated by her. She’s old and fat. She does not look a day younger than her actual age. Do some men really prefer a grandma? I could not imagine anyone paying for her. But Martine also has an easiness about her. I liked chatting with her. She takes care of the little gardens in the street. She really has green fingers. Before I moved into the house, she also tended mine. This is how we came to talk. It went on for a while. One day she asked me why I travelled so much so I told her I was a filmmaker. She was interested. Then I added that I’d like to make a film about this little street. She said, “There are a lot of stories to be told.” “And you can be the protagonist,” I told her. “Maybe, but can my sister also join?” was her reply.
GP: So after a month we sat down with these identical twins to talk about their lives, to see what their story was. A flood of words came out. Louise has a giant memory and got lost in details and anecdotes. I remember getting quite worried about streamlining their stories. This was going to be a hell of a directing job. After many sessions, hours and hours of talking about their lives, a clearer picture emerged. Then we started writing to get the funding into place. We scripted about half of the movie. Luckily, the subject matter was red hot, so we hit the jackpot with the Teledoc project (combined funding of film and TV subsidies).
LW: The film really allows the audience to get to know these twin dynamos, yet it left me wondering quite a bit about those left, for the most part, off screen. Other than, if I remember correctly, Louise’s daughter, we don’t get much sense of the ladies’ families. I know from speaking with them at IDFA that they’ve both got children, grandchildren – even great-grandchildren! How do the relatives feel about the sisters having worked as prostitutes for so long? Did they not want to be interviewed, or was this a directorial choice not to widen the story?
RS: As everybody can imagine, it is hard for children to have a mother who’s a prostitute. Nothing new about that. And Martine’s children were very much ashamed of their mother still working. They refused any cooperation and did not even want to be mentioned. The eldest two daughters of Louise were very forthcoming. Since motherhood is not the main focus of the film (it’s merely a driving force in their lives) we found it more interesting to have one child being almost the opposite of what you’d expect. Now it’s Louise who blames herself, and Caroline telling her mother to leave the past behind.
GP: We respected the wishes of the other children not to be involved. It wasn’t the main focus.
LW: We touched on this briefly when I first sat down to chat with you both at IDFA, but could you talk a bit about all the corruption that goes on in the red light district? I think a lot of outsiders view Amsterdam as this liberal safe haven, but the sex industry is really not a female-friendly environment. The afternoon I accepted Martine’s invitation to visit her at work the cops were just leaving her window – after having made quite a few girls on the block nervous.
RS: Obviously corruption is hard to prove, but there are some historical developments that emerged out of their stories. In the old days everybody had a small business and people took care that no one grew too big. It was a very social neighborhood. Everybody had an eye on everybody. Everybody was a small time crook. It was not tolerated if an owner or madam had more than two brothels. This changed with the influx of drugs, and from that, shiploads of money. It was invested in brothels. So the careful, if somewhat criminal, balance was lost. With the drugs came the heroin hookers, the women from abroad – it polluted everything. These new moguls had money to spare to pay lawyers and lawmakers. The little brothels in the end were not able to survive, as they simply did not have the means and the power.
GP: So a small-scale, independent and informal society in the heart of Amsterdam, that made its own rules and regulations, got lost. The sad thing is that with new rules and regulations, only the good guys are hit. It is, of course, a criminal’s business to not get caught. So Martine and Louise were stuck between a rock and a hard place. Till 2000 prostitution was officially illegal in The Netherlands. The law was never on their side. The law is still directed against the normal people trying to make a living from prostitution, with its rules of registration, taxes, etc. It just forces the real criminals to go underground.
LW: In the doc the ladies are both very honest about the dark days after WWII, and the fact that prostitution was never a voluntary decision. Louise was 19 with three children to support, and an abusive husband who she says, “beat me into the red light district” (and Martine pretty much followed her there in solidarity). Yet they both have this incredibly positive outlook, and the ability to make the most of any situation (i.e., “If I have to be a hooker I’m going to be the best hooker there is!”). Not to mention to find the humor in the everyday. They’re the rare “sex slaves” who took the power into their own hands to become independent of the pimps. Can you discuss why it was important for you to present this highly nuanced and very complicated view of prostitution?
RS: To start, the world IS complicated! Recent discussions were all about loverboys and human trafficking. Working women were either sluts or victims. Just looking at the women in the Oude Nieuwstraat led us to believe that the image of prostitution in the present time lacked nuance. We do not believe prostitution will ever disappear. It has a social function that goes beyond a quick shag. It’s good those women are there.
GP: Just look at societies where men and women are completely segregated. They are dictatorial, violent and backward. You cannot expect all men to be celibate. It’s a force of nature, the drive for sex. It has to be tamed. (laughs) It’s quite worrying to see new (old) taboos emerge. The fact that women are forced into prostitution does not mean prostitution itself is wrong. Human trafficking is wrong. By blaming prostitution these women are victimized twice!
LW: I agree. One of my favorite lines in the film is said in reference to the sex industry, that “you’re not allowed to be old,” but really that’s also a statement about society. Mortality scares the hell out of people. As does oftentimes female sexuality – i.e., they’re a double, double threat! And unless you spend a good deal of time in Calvinistic Holland (even Amsterdam at heart is quite provincial and rebel-averse) it’s hard to appreciate how unconventional they really are. Rob calls the sisters “anarchists,” but I think they’re pioneering feminists in that they’re forthright about both their sexuality and their age. Do you get the sense that they see themselves as groundbreakers for other women or sex workers? Because I’m not so sure that they do.
RS: The film is a success because people of Martine and Louise’s generation really feel liberated having seen it. In that sense, yes, definitely.
GP: As you know, their book (a memoir, yet to be translated into English – LW) is also a big success. and the twins talk with loads of people that come to their signing sessions. I guess they realize it only now. As Martine also remarks in the movie, a few decades ago it was quite normal for women her age to still work. She remembers those years and will not give in to the demands of a society that is all about youth, beauty and porn. That’s a rebellious act.
RS: Louise and Martine are beyond shame.