[8 August 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“I can’t tell you how many tricks we’ve had,” says Martine Fokken, “Countless. You could fill the world with them.” Her twin Louise nods, “I wanted to keep count, but didn’t.” Red-faced and white-headed, the sisters sit for their interview in Meet the Fokkens (Ouwehoeren) dressed in bright-striped housedresses, their hands folded in their laps. Behind them stands a light with one of those old-school golden-fabric lampshades, right next to a large portrait of a woman with what might be termed prominent breasts.
The Fokkens, 69 when the film was shot, started working as prostitutes in 1961. And if their work has been legal in Amsterdam, their lives have been tumultuous. As cheerful as they are in recounting their histories, the film reveals troubles too, not as grounds for pity or sentiment, but as complications of a seemingly familiar story. The sisters got started with help from men, in particular abusive husbands. As they tell this story, separately, each is seated before a canvas, painting colorful scenes of Amsterdam’s street life, shopkeepers, cars and trucks, women standing in doorways. Martine’s husband beat her, becoming her first and only pimp (the sisters went into business for themselves). “Perhaps if my sister hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t have done it either,” muses Louise. “I was angry with the whole world. Do you know what I mean? Because of what my sister did and all the criticism. It’s a load of nonsense now. But that’s how stupid I was.”
Here Gabriëlle Provaas and Rob Schröder’s documentary—opening this week at Film Forum—cuts to old footage of the sisters in short skirts and big hair, smiling as they walk away from the camera. As they describe the elision of violence and prostitution, their slipping from one into the other, their youth sliding into middle age, their babies in strollers, then playing on stoops. “I had less and less to do with people,” remembers Louise, “Because they treated me differently. I got a lot of flack, but you have to ignore it.”
To this day, they live lives defined by stark contrasts. Though Louise has stopped whoring (“Everything has changed and then I was diagnosed with arthritis. That was the end of it, I couldn’t get one leg over another”), she stops by her sister’s place regularly, where they share meals, giggle over clients (“They’re just like dogs!”), through piles of unopened mail (including some insurance or tax papers over a year old). “My twin sister is still working at her age,” laments Louise, “She needs the money. You can’t live off a state pension.” Where Louise spends her days with her tiny lapdog, carried in the crook of her arm or on her shoulder, Martine’s morning begins with cleaning up after the night before, then arranging her window, with bras and stilettoes (“For the naughty men who like to wear heels”) and “a clip for their nipples.” She sits, then, waiting for clients, chirping at possibilities who walk by, annoyed at the younger girls across the street who get most of the traffic.
A couple of shots here suggest a kind of telescoping of time, as Martine’s face looks out from her room, the more supple, more exposed figures blurred in the glass, at a distance. Whether she’s looking back or she embodies their future, the composition is at once poignant and a little brutal, intimating the toll the work takes on bodies, on psyches. Old photos of the sisters create a similar effect, a peek back at girls wearing crocheted sweaters and showing lots of leg, their mascara heavy and expressions dour.
These days, Martine’s labor is repetitive: she’s warm with her aging clientele, whether jerking them off, straightening their hoods, perking up their penises with vibrators, when she can get the batteries straightened out. She’s similarly patient with the missionaries who offer to pray for her (and also to help her sort out her debts, if she’ll just give them her bank card number). As they wonder, “Was it your dream?” to do this work, she laughs, “Of course not! What do you think?” Would you do it again, they ask. “Not for all the money in the world.”
Such announcements reinforce the pain that pulses just below the sisters’ adorable self-performances, kicking up their heels on he sidewalk, greeting neighbors, teasing young men in jeans and American sneakers. Louise’s daughter for a visit, the camera tracking behind her as she stops by the house where she spent much of her childhood, removed from her mother. Louise sustains a dark rage (“He broke my heart, but most of all because he didn’t care for our children, that hurts a mother most of all!”), her daughter—who looks like a younger version of her mom, middle aged, dyed blond, wearing a faux zebra-coat—remembers it differently. “I adored my father,” she says, “He was afraid that if he stayed in touch… you’re a difficult person.”
She may have been difficult, she may have been struggling to survive, or perhaps she was, as she says, “angry with the whole world.” How could she not be? The costs of surviving, you see in Meet the Fokkens, are endless.