Happy Endings?

Happy EndingsProstitution is a stigmatized word in America. Not even Las Vegas allows it, pushing it out far into the desert suburbs, at brothels with names like The Bunny Ranch. The mention of the word brings to mind undercover cops soliciting sex and Dateline exposes. So it came as quite a shock to me to discover that it’s actually legal to work in the sex industry in Rhode Island, one of the most affluent communities of the world. Tara Hurley’s first feature length documentary Happy Endings? explores the world of legal sex trade in Asian massage palors in Providence, Rhode Island.

Hurley spent four years of her life following a few of these women, their managers (or pimps), interviewing politicians and law enforcement, and her four years was well spent. She manages to bring to light a very serious issue that is frequently swept under the rug, and kept out of sight. She examines the double standard that law enforcement adheres to when arresting the ‘masseuse’ but not the ‘John.’ But most of all, she manages to remind us that the women who claim prostitution as their profession are not statistics, or stories to be heard on the nightly news, they’re real women, with a face, and history and a story. To achieve her goals of poignantly exposing problems with anti-prostitution legislation, she interviews several politicians, including RI senator Rhoda Perry, the mayor of Providence, David N. Cicilline, Rhode Island state representative Joanne Giannini. These interviews are so forward in their dynamic, they sometimes end with explosive results (particularly the interview with Mayor Cicilline). While these interviews are good, and informative (they certainly provide another needed view point), its the interviews with the actual masseuses that bring the issue home, and make this documentary well worth watching.

Hurley was kind enough to answer some questions for Bitchin’ Film Reviews. Here’s are her answers:

BFR: Am I to understand that Happy Endings? is your first feature length project?
Happy Endings? is my first feature length project. I have done other shorter works for musicians, artists, tattoo studios, and non profits like AIDS Project RI.

BFR: According to the commentary you and Nick Marcoux (editor and cinematographer) provide on the DVD, you spent four years working on this project. Why did you choose to bring awareness to this particular subject, and spend so much time on it?
Back in 2005 when I started this film, I was going to grad school for Gender and Ethnic studies. I had actually thought of selling my cameras and equipment to help finance the courses. When I read in the local paper about how RI didn’t have a prostitution law I figured I could spend money on getting a degree or doing a film. I chose this subject for the film because I wanted to get all sides of the issue and see what I thought about prostitution in my state. When I started researching, I found that only the women were being arrested and I wanted to bring that and these women’s stories to light. It took a long time for a few reasons, but one of the things that worked against us was not having money and working with a foreign language. The thing that worked for us was we are both passionate about making films, so passion wins over the problems we faced.

BFR: You state in the commentary that you neither sell nor purchase sex, so you try not to have a view point as a director or filmmaker (correct me if I’m mistaken), do you have a view point, or opinion on prostitution as a citizen of Rhode Island?
When making the film I put in all sides of the argument for and against prostitution laws. I couldn’t force an opinion on anyone because I didn’t really have one. After making the film, doing all the research, and meeting all the people, I personally believe that all prostitution laws harm the women that they claim to protect. When a woman is arrested and gets a criminal record, she no longer has a chance to get out of sex work even if she wanted to. When filling out a job application it will be difficult to explain the criminal record, especially with all the stigma that comes with prostitution. To add insult to injury, I am offended that only the woman is arrested. The woman is making a difficult choice to sell her body, the man makes an easy choice when he chooses to buy sex, yet in all states where prostitution is illegal the rate of arrest is approximately 90% prostitute, 5% john and 5% pimp. Like Heather says in the film “You can’t clap with one hand” so why is it only the women get blamed?

BFR: I want to compliment you on your directing style, it was vastly entertaining to watch. One of my favorite devices you used is splicing interviews with people on both sides of the argument, each recounting the details of a certain event, but wildly differing on their respective versions. Is there a side (law enforcement/politicians v. the masseuses, and managers of the spas) you feel was more truthful, or earnest when it comes to the information they were providing?
I am not sure who said this but I will agree “Of the 3 oldest institutions in the world, prostitution, government and religion, prostitution is the most honest.”

BFR: Happy Endings? provides a plethora of opinions, or at least support for these opinions, (ie – equal treatment for Johns and masseuses, the need for legislation outlawing indoor prostitution, and the need to protect these sometimes victimized women), is there one, main thought you’d like your viewers to take away from your film?
What I hope people do is see the humanity of the women in the spas. These women who are usually just referenced jokingly in tv and movies are actual women. I hope people will see that, and then they can make decisions on prostitution laws not from a place of moral judgement.

BFR: There’s a lot of things in the works in RI to solve some of the problems you discuss. Is there any hope for new laws to be put in place any time soon?
Actually tonight (June 25th, 2009) the legislation will be voting on two different Human Trafficking Bills. There is also two different bills to re criminalize indoor prostitution waiting for a full vote. We will know the outcome in the next week if the prostitution law will change.

BFR: Do you have any upcoming projects planned, or in the works?
I have a ton of ideas about social issue documentaries, but the one I am starting right now is on the Compassion Centers in RI. Just recently RI passed a law that allows for 3 non-profit medical marijuana “Compassion Centers”. I like the idea of following this for a few years, actually see the centers built and follow the stories of it’s patients. I think I am going to try for the trifecta. Sex, drugs, and then a rock n roll documentary.

BFR: Where can people find more information about Happy Endings?
My website is http://www.happyendingsdocumentary.com
I am on twitter to, where you can get updates on the law @happyendings – http://twitter.com/happyendings
Facebook is http://www.facebook.com/happyendingsdocumentary
Myspace is http://www.myspace.com/happyendingsdoc
Youtube is http://www.youtube.com/happyendingsdoc
and my blog is http://happyendingsdoc.wordpress.com/

A huge thanks to Tara Hurley for sharing this documentary with Bitchin’ Film Reviews. Be sure to check out her websites for more information.

★★★☆

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One Response to “Happy Endings?”
  1. Jessica says:

    Nice interview! All I have to say is “who knew?”

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