film

Mother's Day protest at an Arizona prison (Photo by PJ Starr)

Mother’s Day protest at an Arizona prison. (Photo by PJ Starr)

Editor’s note, 8/31/2017: In light of Trump’s pardon of former sheriff Joe Arpaio for his contempt of court conviction re: the order to cease his reign of terror against immigrants in Arizona’s Maricopa County, we’re posting an updated edition of my September 2014 interview with PJ Starr. I interviewed Starr on her documentary about Marcia Powell, a sex worker left caged in the Arizona sun to die of heat stroke and dehydration in Perryville Prison. Arpaio is a mass inmate murderer and human rights violator. During his tenure as sheriff, many prisoners died of negligence and exposure, suicide in despair at intolerable conditions, and beatings from guards. Maricopa County paid out millions of dollars in lawsuits over these deaths. The Phoenix New-Times called them “a parade of corpses“, but Arpaio refused to disclose exactly how many prisoners had died. However, the paper verified that the rate of prisoner suicides alone in his facilities “dwarf[ed]” those of “other county lockups”. Arpaio himself once proudly called his tent city a “concentration camp.” His carceral tent city and chain gang model spread throughout the state, and Arpaio’s brutality was itself a reflection of the state’s violent, punitive criminal justice system. Powell wasn’t under Arpaio’s care when she died, but she went through his jail system, and the agony she suffered was a direct result of his approach to the prison industrial complex. Her blood is on his hands. And because of Arizona’s draconian prostitution mandatory minimums, many other sex workers endured Arpaio’s abuses as well. And yet, Arpaio himself is only a symptom of Arizona’s consistent disregard for prisoners’ human rights. 

I asked Starr a few additional questions this week which I’ve appended to the end of this interview, to find out what she learned about Arpaio in the course of making her documentary and working alongside SWOP-Phoenix.

Content warning: this post describes the murder of an imprisoned sex worker through neglect and human rights abuse in graphic detail. It also touches on structural violence and violence against sex workers in general.

I spoke to sex worker rights film maker and photographer PJ Starr about her upcoming documentary film, NO HUMAN INVOLVED, on the death of Arizona street worker Marcia Powell through prison brutality. The interview that follows is a composite of a week of e-mails between the two of us.

Who was Marcia Powell? 

Marcia Powell was arrested in 2008 for solicitation of prostitution and was sentenced to 27 months in Perryville Prison, a women’s prison located in Goodyear just outside of Phoenix, Arizona. In 2009, while she was serving that sentence, she was left in a cage in the sun during the heat of the day for hours. She collapsed and some hours later died in a hospital in Goodyear when the Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections had her removed from life support.

Marcia should not be and cannot be defined solely by her death. Marcia Powell was a parent; she named one of her children—her daughter—”Eureka”. A former partner described her as “so beautiful she would stop traffic.” Marcia loved coffee, everyone who knew her in prison mentions that. She had experienced mental health issues, that was clear, but as one of her friends from Perryville said to me during an interview, “she had good sense.” On one hand, there is the public figure that Marcia came to be after her death, but, as is always the case, her story is much more nuanced than what we can contain in one news story. At points in her life she did not even choose to be “Marcia Powell.” She sometimes used another name, but in prison, her ID name Marcia Powell came to be how she was known and is now remembered.

How did you get the idea to make a film about her death?

Firstly, in 2009, when Marcia Powell died, my friend Cris Sardina (who is now the co-coordinator of Desiree Alliance, but then was involved with the Women’s Re-Entry Network in Arizona) sent me an e-mail telling me about what had happened. Cris’ message put the story in my mind and I continued to think about it for a long time. Secondly, I was given a space to be part of the Filmmakers’ Collaborative at the Maysles Institute in 2010 and the collaborative focused on writing a treatment for documentary film. I proposed three ideas to the other filmmakers and every person in the collaborative advocated for me to make a film about Marcia Powell. That was a wake up moment for me to think that other people outside of the movement for sex worker rights would be so affected by the story, so I prioritized the film. I thank the other filmmakers at Maysles for helping me see what was important for me to pursue.

Who is the intended audience for your film? What would you like viewers to learn about the prison system and survival sex work by watching No Human Involved?

I am very proud that we have the genre of representation that has been carefully encouraged by people like the incomparable Carol Leigh, and I am always keen to make films that speak to the sex worker community, but I have been working on this film with the aim of having a broader audience as well. I am aiming for the film to also resonate with people who may care about human rights or women’s issues already, but who really have not yet had information about what I am starting to think of as a conveyor belt that moves people along via arrests for prostitution, or related issues like “trespassing” of “camping” in urban areas, to the court where they have no choice but to plead guilty, to the prisons where they are at the mercy of a brutal system of incarceration.

In the promo video for your film, Peggy Plews laments, “How can sixteen people pass by a human being in a cage—defecating over herself and pleading to be let out—and do nothing?” Where does this systemic brutality come from? How can we combat it?

Yes, how can so many people ignore someone who is begging for water? Incarceration relies on categorization, dehumanization and a hierarchy of command that distances each person from responsibility. Part of the problem that day was that Marcia was not seen as a person in a cage by the officers walking by. She was viewed as an irritant, a thing to be ignored until the sounds (i.e., her pleas) stopped. But no matter how responsible those individuals are for what happened, there is equal responsibility held by the people who have designed the current approach within the Arizona Department of Corrections. People who institute and maintain systems of brutality have a vested interest in erasing its history so that it seems that the the system is “normal” and permanent, and that there is no way to create change.

The first step to being involved in change is then to learn how the system was set up so we can dismantle it. One excellent resource is the book Sunbelt Justice by Mona Lynch, which explains how Arizona’s carceral policies developed and the role that their approach plays in America’s current system of mass incarceration. Another step in combating brutality is to be in solidarity with prisoners, because wherever there is injustice there is always resistance. And perhaps one more element to remember is to keep an open mind about who can be part of standing up against the abuses as allies. There are people who have worked in Corrections who challenge the dehumanization and who have questioned what happened to Marcia Powell. The system is not as invulnerable to criticism from within as the leadership might want the public to think.

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Solomon with the star of her short, Manini Gupta, on set. (Photo courtesy of Nicole Witte Solomon)

Solomon with the star of Small Talk, Manini Gupta, on set. (Photo courtesy of Nicole Witte Solomon)

Nicole Witte Solomon and I have kept up with each other online for a while, dating back to the era when she was a young phone sex operator/film student, just beginning to pitch her clever writing on topics ranging from vegan cooking to feminism in pop culture to a variety of venues. As the years have gone by, she’s fulfilled many of her dreams, from directing a video for her favorite Jewish post-riot grrl band The Shondes to co-founding writers’ site The Stoned Crow Press. Having followed the making of her phone sex horror movie short Small Talk since its inception, it’s exciting to get a chance to interview Solomon about it as it finally makes the festival rounds.

What attracted you to horror as a genre? What sort of opportunities do you think horror provides for feminist artists?

I’m attracted to horror as a viewer because it has the potential to make me feel a wide range of intense emotions within a controlled and hopefully safe environment. A great horror director is much like a great domme; of course I gravitate towards the genre as both a viewer and filmmaker.

The whole reason Small Talk happened is I was writing a phone sex memoir and got the image in my head of a PSO taking a phone sex call while dismembering a corpse. It felt a lot more compelling than a long, tedious recounting of autobiographical detail. Horror allows us to break into the supernatural where needed and requires no happy endings.

It was enormously therapeutic for me to make this film. I had some unresolved feelings and then I exploded a couple [of] people in a movie and now I feel fucking great. I am a huge proponent of filmmaking as a form of narrative therapy and encourage any and all sex workers who have unresolved feelings to make art about it, if for no other reason than my own selfish one of I really can go the rest of my fucking life without reading, viewing or otherwise consuming a sex worker narrative by a non-sex worker, and god knows everyone else is apparently starved for them [narratives by and about sex workers] and—

The horror community has been by far the most welcoming of the film. I submitted it to a ton of “women’s” film festivals and not a single one has wanted to touch it. One festival that rejected me offered to send a summary of jury comments for free and the comments were basically like “It was well shot and acted and all but it was about a phone sex operator and it was so disturbing and suddenly people were exploding and I don’t understand why and our audience will be so disturbed and upset.” That was the consensus of why my film was a bad choice for their festival.

I was impressed with how Manini Gupta, as the phone sex operator protagonist, Al, was so versatile with the affect of her voice as she worked the line. And I empathized with her so much as she rolled her eyes through most of those calls. What were you looking for in the actress that would play the PSO? What was most important for you to say about being a phone sex operator in your movie?

It was not easy finding someone who could do all the things you mentioned, and the most important thing to me was that the actress I cast be believable—to me. That was the litmus test. I needed someone who could 1. Convincingly play all those things on the PSO fantasy end—sound like a believable, good PSO while also 2. Play the Al character’s own, usually conflicting reaction to what’s going on. Manini was totally on the right track from the first audition, whereas most people I saw couldn’t really do either, let alone both at the same time.

In terms of what I wanted to say about being a PSO—I guess I wanted to portray it as a challenging job involving a particular skill set. I wanted to show some of the less savory aspects of the job without demeaning it in any way. I wanted to open up to the world about the specific aspects that can be difficult and sometimes emotionally damaging in a way that contextualized it within a broader service industry—looking at race and gender dynamics within capitalism in general, not just the sex industry specifically or the phone sex industry in particular. I meant this film as a kind of valentine to other PSOs, honestly. Our labor and skills are so commonly undervalued and misunderstood, and what we do is so tricky, if we do it well.

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Sin City 1, via fanpop via huffington post Imagine a city so bleak, so hopeless, so full of darkness, that only criminals and social rejects have a fighting chance to survive living there. Imagine villains so desperate, so foul, so vile, that the ugliest death for them still wouldn’t feel like justice. Now imagine heros who are so full of vice, rage, and demons that they are not much better than our villains. Picture a city that doesn’t have a violent underbelly, because its entirety is a violent underbelly. This is the setting Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller have built for us with Sin City and its sequel, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. Based on Miller’s comic book series of the same name, the two have constructed a nightmare town that is terrifically gory and hellbent on destroying every person who enters it.

The characters that seem most equipped to survive Sin City are its sex workers. (Spoilers ahead.)  [READ MORE]

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Cheyenne Picardo, director of the independent film Remedy.

Cheyenne Picardo, director of the independent film Remedy. (photo by Rose Callahan)

Cheyenne Picardo wrote and directed Remedy, a film based on her experiences as a professional switch that is currently making the rounds at film festivals internationally. Her movie is an unflinching look at what it’s like to work in a Manhattan ‘house dungeon,’ in which dommes, subs, and switches work shifts for the owner, who in turn provides clients, space, and equipment. I worked as a pro-switch in a Manhattan house myself and spoke with Picardo via email about Remedy and her experiences in the sex industry.

You’re open about the fact that Remedy is based on your time working in a house. As someone who did the same job, I have to say I was blown away by just how true-to-life the movie was. In telling this story, was realism a major concern for you?

It was paramount. When I first started working on the script, back in 2007, I was preoccupied with recreating, with absolute accuracy, every detail of sessions that had happened a good three years before. Because I was producing my own film as part of my MFA thesis, I never saw the need to format the screenplay in the traditional way, so it read like a long journal entry with dialogue.

Then, a year after writing Remedy, I began to shoot the film, and the limitations of the script started to become obvious. Clients were rewritten according to the best actors I could find. Some of my dialogue was scrapped entirely because it was so laced with narcotic haze—I wrote the first draft while bedridden with a spiral fracture. Some scenes were rewritten the night before shooting, often with my assistant director Melissa Roth or the actors who would be playing the parts. For other scenes, like ones involving heavy bondage or corporal, my only direction was to hit a few dialogue points and dramatic beats but otherwise talk normally, and I shaped the acting and language as we shot. I think these methods enhanced the realism tremendously in the final product.

Whatever changes I made to “my story” were OK—as long as I retained emotional truth, and as long as what I depicted was either something I had experienced firsthand or something that a friend in the industry had told me over takeout while we sat the overnight shifts watching gonzo porn or Charlie Rose.

Ultimately—and I’m very free with this—the biggest “lies” in the film are these: I did have a dungeon boyfriend, but we didn’t actually lip-lock; the manager is not based on any single person; and the co-workers are meant to represent certain types of women who work in dungeons, not caricature the actual people I worked with. [READ MORE]

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Fumblerooskie, pig skin, Hail Mary, OMAHAAAA! Are you rooting for the Seahawks or the Broncos? (image by USA Today Sports Images, via cbssports.com)

Fumblerooskie, pig skin, Hail Mary, OMAHAAAA! Are you rooting for the Seahawks or the Broncos? (image by USA Today Sports Images, via cbssports.com)

Thank the gods that the Super Bowl is this Sunday. We can say goodbye to another year’s worth of trafficking/stripping/sex work stories related to the Big Game. But first, some gems from the last week:

PolicyMic contributor (and daughter of Jamie, CEO of JP Morgan Chase) Laura Dimon basically rewrote every Super Bowl trafficking story ever. Then a reporter from the Dallas Morning News showed up in the comments to tell her she was wrong, and an editor’s note was posted stating that erroneous information had been changed. But there’s still plenty in there!

The NYPD have already made almost 300 prostitution-related arrests because, of course, the Super Bowl equals human trafficking equals let’s arrest lots of people. The founder of the non-profit Girls Educational and Mentoring Services says that the focus on human trafficking surrounding the Super Bowl may actually be hurting victims, not helping them.

Tits and Sass co-editor Susan debunks the myth of the influx of sex trafficking during the Super Bowl in this fantastic piece for Sports On Earth.

The Super Bowl Media Day got a little a weird. This query was lobbed at Seattle Seahawk Richard Sherman: “…All of you football guys going into the strip clubs, and throwing… raining down on these strippers. I think that’s a bad example for our young ladies. How can we stop that? I think it’s a bad example that we’re setting for our young girls that they need to be strippers.” Tits and Sass would like to remind reporters that strippers do not think these footballers are setting bad examples. Strippers actually love it when wealthy football players give them money.

Plus, strippers are athletes! This Vocativ article talks to dancers preparing for Super Bowl crowds about injuries, conditioning, and the physical demands of working a big game weekend.

Here’s a profile of a stripper in her 40s who’s looking forward to working the Super Bowl crowds at none other than the Bada Bing, aka Satin Dolls in Lodi, NJ. It’s a pretty cute profile and we hope she banks! We’d buy a dance.

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