O Brothel, Where Art Thou?
By Tom White
Legalized prostitution, one of the twin pillars of sin in Nevada—the other being legalized gambling—is under siege these days. With Mormons encroaching from over the Utah border and Nevada leading the nation in population growth, state officials have worked to restrict legal prostitution to the rural areas, where for over 150 years, a steady flow of clientele—from cowboys to miners to truckers—has made the desert brothels its way stations.
When Doug Lindeman first surveyed this territory in the 1980s, he was a journalist working on a story about how the AIDS pandemic had impacted legalized prostitution in Nevada. His story led to other articles, then screenplays. Dissatisfied with fictional accounts, he was encouraged to make a documentary about the subject. He had previously produced Shooting Porn (1997), Ron Larsen and Caryn Horowitz’s take on the gay porn industry, but his Angel’s Ladies would be his first venture as a director.
“[Filmmakers] have opinions about prostitution, and that was my problem with Nick Broomfield’s and Lizzy Borden’s documentaries and other films that I’d seen. Clearly there’s an editorial agenda afoot, but I knew these people [in the prostitution trade], and I thought their story was much more interesting than my take on it. All I wanted to do was get in there and almost have the camera as representative of their point of view.”
Through the help of the head of the Nevada Brothel Association, he reached Mack and Angel Moore, a Christian couple who had retired from their funeral home business in Oregon to run a brothel in Nevada. The challenges in filming were complicated. Shooting was technically prohibited, and there were a number of prostitutes who didn’t want to be on camera. “When I first got there they wanted nothing to do with me,” Lindeman remembers. “I just had access to Mack and Angel. After I was up there for about four or five days, they found that I was gay, and I knew this would work in my favor. I was more odd than they were in that world, and my boyfriend being up there to work with me was the oddity. And it was curious to have two gay men staying at a whorehouse.”
This is one of the few cultures where the white heterosexual male has no power; the brothel is run and operated by women. “The women live in a very ancient society with unwritten laws,” Lindeman observes. “It’s highly codified. It’s very interesting how these women get into this life and stay in this life; it’s like a gypsy culture.”
Lindeman was able to earn the trust of the women partly through outsider simpatico, but also through the enormous respect he had for them. “My criteria for everyone I worked with on this project was simply to honor these people,” he maintains. “I didn’t care about agreement or disagreement; I just wanted their humanity honored, because no one knows anything.”
“The only reason these women were as candid with me as they were was because they did not see me as different from themselves, and that really was my motive,” he continues. “I really wanted a take on this world from their point of view. After a screening, a woman came up to me and said, ‘You know, after seeing this, it makes me see that a prostitute isn’t something a woman is, it’s something a women does.’”
Women have responded very positively to screenings of Angel’s Ladies at the Hamptons International Film Festival and at The Screening Room in New York. “Women would come up to Melody [one of the subjects of the film] on the street and ask if they could talk to her because they had things they wanted to talk about that they knew she knew. I think [the film] really empowers women in a very interesting way—sexually, it empowers women.”
But more than an empowerment tool, Lindeman sees this film as a rallying cry for sex workers in the brothel industry. “Since we did this project, it’s causing changes in the industry,” he claims. “Women are starting to demand certain rights. They’re starting to get organized, some are going to back to school, and they’re staring to wrest economic control of their lives out of the hands of the people who own the houses because it’s still not a very favorable situation for them.
“These are not prostitutes; these are women. These are human beings, and judge not, lest ye be judged.”
Tom White is Acting Editor of have.