Anahí Berneri’s fifth and third film competing in San Sebastián follows a young prostitute, mother of a one-year-old boy who gets kicked out of her apartment after a raid. With neither her phone (confiscated by the police) nor a home, she is unable to work and, therefore, to get an apartment. What could have been the quintessential film about a suffering mother in the most desperate of life situations is turned upside down. Alanis is stripped down of melodramatic moments and, by contrast, presents a story that is luminous, but still achieves to depict the underworld of the protagonist, and optimist even, without sugar-coating the seriousness of the topic it addresses.
Alanis’ only driving force is pure survival for her and her child, prompting her to take temporary shelter at her aunt’s shop and daring into street prostitution, a territory where she is the least welcomed. The characters around her help us understand the constant stigmatization she undergoes: the policewoman who plays the here-to-help role but whose only real interest is to gather evidence that can support her claim of Alanis’s victim status, the aunt that takes pity on her because of the baby but constantly patronises her; or the Puerto Rican immigrants whose authority over certain streets reveals not only the existing boundaries of prostitution territories but also the racial and social differences within them.
Through these characters and Sofía Gala Castiglione’s incredible performance, it is evident that this is a sensitive, well-researched film that navigates well the difficulties of tackling a subject matter strange to the director. Berneri admitted that her biggest challenge was to present the required distance with the topic, showing her awareness and empathy, but never through demagogy. To show, rather than to take sides or to provide a solution to the problematic of prostitution and, for that, it was necessary “to invoke the identification with the character through the everyday, helping us not to see the prostitute as the other.”
The film’s photography is key to achieve this and moves away from the dramatism of the single shot, focusing on the protagonist’s actions instead. The camera is often placed at the breasts’ angle, and there is no shortage of baby-holding or breastfeeding shots, emphasizing a character that does not stop moving around and the film’s deliberate un-aestheticized style. Natural lighting shapes the imperfect bodies we encounter, not appearing as “dirty realism” but, rather, as a statement for a more truthful approach to body representation on screen. Thus, a politics of the body emerges both in form and in content. As Alanis’ constant movement stresses her agency and independence so does her refusal to be thought of as victim, unceasingly denying she has been forced into prostitution but has chosen her profession among an extremely limited choice of work opportunities. According to both the director and the producer Laura Huberman, Alanis is the embodiment of many of the stories of sex workers they met when researching for the project and has had a great reception among sex workers’ collectives.
Even if light-hearted in tone, Alanis delicately explores the mechanisms of exploitation and stigmatization, as well as the lack of active response by Argentinian institutions in the face of prostitution, which, in their willingness to protect the so-called victims deliberately generate unsafe situations for sex workers (such as eviction as reflected in the film). More importantly, the film looks away from recurrent cinema clichés that characterise prostitutes as victims. With no intention of taking sides on the never-ending debate on whether prostitution should be legalised, Alanis’s only statement is that if women choose to survive within prostitution, then there must be dignity about the work they do.
Words by Amaya Bañuelos Marco