Nick Holdsworth on Between the Seas selection PhoeniXXX by Mihai Gavril Dragolea (international premiere).

PhoeniXXX (Mihai Gavril Dragolea, 2017)

Mihai Dragolea's documentary of the lives of two young women working in Romania's online erotic live chat industry is, at 48 minutes, perfectly timed for a one hour TV slot. Billed as an examination of how poor young women seek an escape from poverty, it literally frames the story of Mona and Georgiana with opening shots through the window of an apartment door.

It does not flinch from showing the cost - literally and metaphorically - that the girls pay, the sacrifices they make in order to pursue a lifestyle that earns them significant sums, but exacts a cost in dignity and self-respect.

Sassy and opinionated Georgiana (online name SophieMaria) has spent 3,000 Euros on silicone implants and - by the looks of things - almost as much on exotic tattoos. These include a breastbone yin and yang symbol, a Phoenix-covered thigh and a trite homily in English on her navel: "Winners never quit…quitters never win."

She expresses contempt for the online punters that pay good money to watch her act out their fantasies, labelling them wackos and weirdos who consider her and other cam-girls whores, adding: "You’re not a real man if you pay a woman in order to talk with her… what kind of a man are you if you can't make a girl talk with you?!" But Georgiana never pauses to consider what this makes her, or to contemplate whether her dismissal of the men that provide her with a good living is merely projection, a way of avoiding looking at herself.

Mona, who finished college when she was 22, just a month after giving birth to her daughter Carla (now 7), is more thoughtful and generous to the anonymous men who see her naked and acting out their fantasies on camera. She says she had to overcome initial misgivings when she began the work but, adds quickly that, "when the pay day comes I forget about the way I earned the money."

Dragolea takes his viewers with the girls when they go home to visit their parents in an attempt to deepen the context and explore why these women chose this work. Mona, who grew up on a small farm in a village outside Bucharest, says she was determined to escape the poverty of her home life from an early age. Her parents, good natured and straightforward folk, don't judge her for her decision. Her father reasons that post-Communist collapse has forced many to make decisions that would have earlier been deemed impossible.

"In Ceausescu's time we didn't have any problems. Socialism is a lot better than democracy!" he exclaims.
"It is not so bad," he adds. "In the end all that matters is taking care of your children. It does not matter what you do, as long as it is legal."

Georgiana, brassier and more brazen than Mona, argues with her mother. Her father teases her by asking for beer money and pretending to interview her for TV, holding an electric cable and plug as if it is a microphone. There's not much depth here, but that seems to reflect Georgiana's shallowness.

There is only the most oblique reference to relationships with men. Mona was clearly married for a brief time.t one point her little girl holds aloft a photo and exclaims "there's Daddy!" as the camera briefly hovers over a picture of her with a blurry presence in the background. But nothing more is made of it. The extent to which their working lives have deprived them of any kind of close personal relationships with men is not further examined.

What the future holds for the women is only touched upon by Mona, who muses that at 29 she is near the end of her life as an erotic live chat girl. She has two options: go home and become a farmer or set up her own business in Bucharest.

In the end, PhoeniXXX gives viewers a brief glimpse into the lives and choices of these two young women, but skates over the surface of what their choices truly mean. We see brief discreet glimpses of the work they do. We drop in and swiftly out of their parents' lives. And we learn little or nothing of their inner worlds.

Nick Holdsworth  

Nick Holdsworth is a writer, journalist and filmmaker with 25 years’ experience of covering Russian and Eastern European affairs. He has served as Moscow correspondent for the (London) Sunday Telegraph, the (London) Times Higher Education Supplement and Eastern Europe correspondent for The Hollywood Reporter and also Variety. He has also produced radio programmes for the BBC and television reports for WTN.

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