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Posts published in “Cinema Libre Studio”

Sisyphus in the City: A Review of The Advocates

Special To Topanga Journal

Years ago, we went to L.A.’s Skid Row to attend a rooftop screening of an old film that’d recently been discovered. It was being shown by some local historical society, the big point being that a few seconds showed the same area of L.A. we were sitting in, but nearly 100 years ago. We rode our bikes to get there, and, running late, we focused entirely on pedaling as quick as we could on the way in. By doing so, we avoided noticing the expanse of tents and refuse, the people lingering wherever they could. 

Rick Paulas

By Rick Paulas

But a friend took the bus to meet us, and by the time the film was over, that line had stopped running. This was before Lyft or Uber. And so, in the middle of some late Saturday night, we walked through Skid Row.

Nothing overtly memorable happened, but it’s a kind of journey you never forget. It was only a few blocks from the rest of downtown L.A.—the whole trip couldn’t have taken more than 15 minutes—but it felt like we had been transported to an entirely different country, time, or maybe universe. There were unique smells, garbage fire flickers, and chaotic arguments wafting into night. Residents were holding court inside or outside their tents, passing drugs or booze or food, or whatever else.

the whole trip couldn’t have taken more than 15 minutes—but it felt like we had been transported to an entirely different country, time, or maybe universe.” Rick Paulas

Despite the expensive high heels and tailored suits in the swanky bottle service nightclubs nearby, here was an entire community that had been abandoned. This was the last place these people had to go, and when they got there, they were forgotten. I never looked at the city the same way. 

Homelessness is one of the most pervasive signs of a system that’s fraying at the edges, and since our late-night walk through Skid Row years ago, it’s only gotten worse in America. As one commenter in Rémi Kessler’s new film The Advocates points out, while encampments used to be relegated to the various city Skid Rows throughout the country, they’ve now sprawled well beyond that. Tents are pitched along highways, nestled under overpasses. They populate city parks, while others place cardboard boxes in storefront alcoves. You’d be astounded at the number of folks who spend their nights in their cars. 

While development quickens and high-rises continue to be built, what’s missing in our current urban mindset is building housing for people who need it. There’s already plenty for people who don’t, but have the money to invest; this is how you end up with so many empty, as one commenter put it, “safety deposit boxes in the sky.” But what’s also missing to get there—and this is at the core of Kessler’s film—is the idea that secondary solutions to homelessness (drug rehabilitation, treatment for mental health issues, a good paying job) are not as important as literally making houses.

During my work as a journalist in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, I’ve interviewed countless of homeless folks for a variety of reasons, and whenever I ask them what they need to get off the streets, the one thing they mention is: An indoor place to go. While there are people on the streets with mental health issues, for many, problems like drug abuse or violent mood swings are not the reasons for why they’re on the street, but problems that occurred after they got there. 

Consider: What would it be like to sleep on a city street, with traffic blaring by, unprotected from the elements, unsafe from passersby? Would you feel a little bit groggy every day? Maybe not in peak shape to attend a job interview? Or—and here is the dark secret of homelessness in America—maybe not rested enough to keep the job you have? And then, if someone has a drug that’s take the edge off for a few moments, would you refuse it? 

Kessler’s film begins with the tale of Yolanda and Ruben, a brother-and-sister pair who once had indoor lives. They live in a few cars that double as places to store their possessions, but the cars don’t run, and due to parking restrictions, every week they have to push them across the street to avoid a ticket. Imagine the toll that takes on a life, and how those parking tickets could add up if, one day, you’re not well enough to heft the heavy automobile across the street. Try being in a kind mood, or mentally focused enough to lift yourself up by your own bootstraps, with that lifestyle.

As an expert says toward the end of the film, the solution to homelessness is very straightforward: Give people homes. After seeing The Advocates, you’ll see why.


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Nelly: A Fascinating Portrait of A Sex Worker Turned Superstar

Special To Topanga Journal

Halfway through Anne Émond’s film Nelly, there’s a scene with a group of sex workers hanging around a hotel room suite. Wine glasses in hand, they huddle around the white glow of a laptop, and log onto some unnamed “escort review” website. They then begin to read each other’s reviews out loud. 

Rick Paulas

By Rick Paulas

The site isn’t named or shown; it could be one of many, as sex work has been reviewed and critiqued on the internet since the internet was a place where words could go. These reviews are written by “johns,” ostensibly to warn other people if the worker isn’t on the level, but in reality just a bunch of horny dudes writing erotica for strangers online. In the scene, the workers rightfully mock the reviewers, but there is still a clear sense of being affected by the reviews. After all, someone is publicly judging every single part of their body.

While it’s only a glimpse, it’s a fascinating insight into what goes on behind-the-scenes in the profession, and the various power machinations that develop when sex is exchanged for money. An unprotected-by-law industry, sex workers are vulnerable in ways that so many other professions aren’t — dangerous clients can act with impunity when workers can’t safely contact law enforcement — but there’s also the society veil of silence over the work itself. “It’s illegal, and it’s immoral, so we shouldn’t be talking about it,” is the sentiment.

“While it’s only a glimpse, it’s a fascinating insight into what goes on behind-the-scenes in the profession, and the various power machinations that develop when sex is exchanged for money.” Rick Paulas

Yet these are the kinds of glimpses that makes Nelly, and the book it was inspired by, such important documents. Without them, the work continues to occur — as it always has, as it always will — under the cover of darkness. 

The movie tells the story of Nelly Arcan, born Isabelle Fortier, a sex worker based in Quebec who rose to international fame after the publication of her 2001 autobiographical novel Putain (Whore), a fictionalized story narrated by a sex worker named Cynthia. She would go on to write four more books, each one a semi-autobiographical examination of her life — really: what book isn’t? Each book tried to pry open how society treats women. In 2009, after years of depression, she died via suicide.

While Arcan wasn’t as popular a figure in the U.S. as elsewhere — which certainly says something about the insidious reach of Protestantism that still haunts this country — viewers don’t need to know her backstory to be intrigued by it. 

Unlike standard biopics, this one’s told in a sort of foggy, nonlinear way, with Émond seemingly sampling from a few different characters that make up the entirety of who “Nelly” was. In all, there are five versions on display: An adolescent Fortier being introduced to sexual connections for the first time; a drug-addicted frail woman in a codependent relationship; a confident and fully refined sex worker; a fretful author trying to manage the pressures of publications; a glowing media superstar. The last four are all played by Mylène Mackay, in a series of dynamic performances that see her shifting moods scene-by-scene. I’m unfamiliar with Mackay’s previous work, and it took me about half of the movie to realize she was playing four characters, both a testament to her ability and a criticism of my own attention span.

Despite all being part of the same individual, each is presented dramatically different. One may even be fictionalized. It’s unclear. Reality and performance and truth all seem to blur in this portrait, like one of those 3D posters where, if you cross your eyes just the right way, you’ll see a sharpened vision of a boat or some mountain jutting out toward you. But every moment before and after is just a hazy blur.

If the movie comes off as disjointed, that’s probably part of the point. Life is messy, and trying to tell anyone’s story in such a compressed lens as a film is an act of blinding hubris and logistical chaos. The narrative should be from the moment the person’s born until they die, but as soon as you remove a single moment, you’ve introduced an editorial lens that has to justify itself. Émond pulls off the feat by using the chaos to her advantage. Moments occur, personalities change, other personalities emerge. If it’s unclear which is the “true” version, that’s because there isn’t one.

Toward the end, Arcan admits that she “invented Nelly to protect Isabelle, but I think the opposite happened. I did things to write about them.” In today’s age of social media, where everyone with a smartphone and ego live in a way where they’re constantly thinking if an experience is worth publishing to the world, there are fewer sentiments more relatable.


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