Call me a prude, but I consider sex to be a very private function. Like defecation, I don’t see the point of discussing it, much less watching it in a movie. The concept of an erotic narrative film is hilarious, actual porn makes me weep for the future of our species, and I would never expect a documentary that’s ostensibly about prostitution to strike so many emotional chords.
That’s largely because director Catherine Scott’s story is much broader and more important than I’d short-sightedly anticipated. Her camera mainly follows 30- something Australian sex worker Rachel Wotton, a composed and good-natured self-deemed “whore” who has spent a great deal of time establishing long-term physical relationships with several disabled men. Rachel maintains that these members of our communities have just as much right to sex as anyone, but are unfortunately given fewer opportunities to get it.
As her clientele expanded over the years, Rachel realized that this was a bona fide social concern, and set out to educate the public – as well as other sex workers – that there’s no reason to exclude the disabled from our bedrooms. We learn that she’s founded an organization called Touching Base, which aims to bring this unspoken concern to international awareness as well as provide options for those who haven’t easily found intimacy due to their physical hurdles. It’s a bold, unprecedented cause to champion, but Rachel’s tireless tenacity shows that the task is certainly not insurmountable.
Her clients are equally impressive in their drive and optimism. Two of them are happy to openly discuss the experiences they’ve had with Rachel, and entirely unashamed to say they pay for a woman’s company. John lives with multiple sclerosis, his limbs immobile but his wit and creativity as sharp as ever. After a memorable appointment with Rachel, he tells his friends, “I feel like a man again.” Mark, who communicates via computer due to cerebral palsy, explains to his mother that all he’s ever wanted is to spend the night with someone and wake up beside her. In the film’s most indelible moment, he does. There wasn’t a dry eye in my entire row at the screening.
That being said, the film avoids all obvious emotional pitfalls. Both of its primary focuses – prostitution and disability – are sticky topics that are here treated with a refreshingly minimal amount of melodramatic sympathy. Rachel is portrayed as what she is: a healthy, level-headed adult who is confident in her career path and determined to help others find their paths as well. She has the support of several friends, colleagues, her loving boyfriend and even her elderly mother. Her clients are treated with a similar respect by the filmmakers, never pitied or portrayed as defeated by their individual challenges.
Scarlet Road isn’t flashy, artsy or clever. It’s better than that: a plain, old effective documentary that benefits from its simplicity and objectivity. And – unless you’re a completely small-minded, judgmental asshole – it’s inspiring and unforgettable regardless of your age, background, vocation or freedom of mobility.