This well made film about two women in the cybersex industry is neither the familiar story about exploitation of Eastern European women, nor the often seen work of soft pornography masquerading as a documentary.
In post communist Romania cyber sex is a growing economy. PhoeniXXX is an adept 48 minute documentary set in Bucharest, Romania that tells the story of Mona and Georgiana, two friends in their late 20’s who work as «live chat girls». Despite the topic, Dragolea skillfully concentrates predominantly on the daily lives of the film’s two protagonists outside their work.
«The women’s line of work becomes subordinate to a poignant portrayal of their daily routines, family dynamics and future plans.»
Seemingly shot with a one-person crew, PhoeniXXX is deliberately raw in both its texture and its visual aesthetic. This is further enhanced by the overcast skies and modest interiors in which much of the film is shot. This grittiness also suits the subject matter and the protagonists’ honesty and lack of pretension.
A different approach. The film is neither the familiar story about the sexual exploitation of Eastern European women, nor a work of soft pornography masquerading as a documentary as many recent offerings dealing with such subject matters have been. Instead it achieves a much greater depth of characterisation, with regard to both the main characters and their families. As the film progresses the nature of Mona’s and Georgiana’s employment becomes subordinate to a poignant portrayal of their daily routines, family dynamics and future plans. Never the less it is their vocation that causes them and their families the greatest consternation and remains central to the narrative, if not the characterisation.
As a result the film successfully illuminates the lives of those caught in the global momentum towards widespread urbanisation. Both Mona and Georgiana hail from agricultural families, yet they are understandably reluctant and dubious about their ability to survive and prosper by remaining in the rural economies in which their parent’s lives still are grounded.
«We observe and contemplate contemporary Romanian society and the lack of opportunities available for these competent young women.»
Family perspectives. A great strength of the film also comes from its portrayal of support characters, who not only help drive the narrative of the main protagonists but also offer further insights into the socio-economic realities of contemporary Romania. In one mid-film scene Mona’s father laments the fall of socialism proclaiming that it had provided a better standard of living and greater job opportunities than the current «democratic» system. It is an assessment based on desperation and frustration, as well as a conversant expression of parental concern that will be familiar to a wider audience.
Indeed the inclusion in the film of both the protagonists’ parents is vital to the overall personification of their situation. The fact that both sets of parents are aware of their daughter’s occupations and yet inflict no strong moral judgments on them highlights an admirable kinship. The parental acceptance is by no means a completely comfortable one, but it is certainly a caring and mature one in its nature. More importantly this acceptance by the protagonists’ families challenges the viewer not to pass a negative moral judgment on the women and their choice to work as live chat workers. Instead it becomes a catalyst for the audience to observe and contemplate contemporary Romanian society and the lack of opportunities that are available for these competent young women to earn their living. Indeed both characters are intelligent and articulate (Mona is a university graduate), yet the scarcity of choices available is made very stark throughout the film.
«Ultimately the film is a positive narrative of survival.»
Of particular importance to the film is Mona’s young daughter Carla and the relationship between mother and daughter. While Mona sometimes struggles to reconcile her roles as mother and cyber sex worker, she is still vociferously intent on providing her daughter with future choices. In this sense Mona becomes a heroic figure even as her 6 years old daughter sometimes rebels against her mother’s absence due to work. At times Mona appears to rely on a tenuous mix of private nannies and friends to care for her daughter; however, this becomes a definitive comment on the deficiencies of the social welfare system in contemporary Romania more than a criticism of Mona’s proficiencies as a parent.
Empathy-inviting. PhoeniXXX is the work of a male director, but the film never strays into the dubious territory of projecting a gratuitous portrayal of a masculine version of sexuality. In fact when the woman are shown at work, it is the incongruous nature of their job that is highlighted against their own well defined and reasoned personalities. As they recount stories of what they are asked to do by their clients their frustration is made clear, yet they never lose their dignity or their sagacity in rationalising their own situations.
The relationship between filmmaker and subject is clearly a robust one that is full of intimacy and trust, and this facilitates a viewing experience that encourages one to become empathetically immersed in the struggles of Mona and Georgiana.
Ultimately the film is a positive narrative of survival, and despite the demanding circumstances of the women’s lives it offers an ending filled with a restrained optimism for both them and their future.