Jessica Lee, Selena and Phoebe Pua in conversation

The second Objectifs Film Club session of 2021, presented in collaboration with Freedomfilmfest Singapore, featured Singaporean filmmaker Jessica Lee discussing her short documentary The Shades of Love, on the loves, lives and losses of sex workers in Singapore, with Selena, a transgender sex worker and peer educator with Project X since 2014, and film scholar Phoebe Pua as moderator. The conversation has been edited for brevity.

Watch the trailer for The Shades of Love by Jessica Lee.

Phoebe: What were your motivations in making The Shades of Love?

Jessica: When Covid-19 first started, there was a lot of uncertainty around what it was. Many people were talking about frontline workers in hospitals putting their lives on the line to try to figure it out. I wondered who the other communities living on the margins were; who were also putting their lives on the line to work during this period of time, but did not receive as much attention. The first such community I thought of was sex workers.

While working in an NGO (non-governmental organisation) in India a few years ago, I made a very short documentary on sex workers in Mumbai. I’d never thought about sex work in Singapore, taking for granted that in a “first-world country”, these issues don’t exist. Covid-19 made me rethink that. I became curious how sex workers were dealing with this pandemic.

Phoebe: How did Selena come to be involved in the film? How Jessica give you confidence that this was going to be a project that was worthwhile and worth your time?

Selena: We already knew each other. I didn’t give an instant “yes”, but we spoke a few times on the phone and she asked me a few questions. I like answering questions! It was not just one conversation. Over time, I became more comfortable with her. 

Phoebe: Sex work happens at the margins here with legal and social restrictions. Jessica, as a documentary filmmaker, how did you navigate working on this sensitive topic and with a vulnerable group?

Jessica: Involving the community meant finding out the organisations actually advocating for sex workers’ rights. I found that Project X is the one and only NGO in Singapore doing that. The first thing I did was to approach Project X and [their Executive Director] Vanessa Ho to pitch the story idea. I know from talking to Vanessa that many people have pitched similar ideas before. But the main challenge is that many sex workers don’t want their faces to be shown, understandably, because they want to protect their own identities. This becomes the main challenge for filmmakers like myself. Can you tell stories without visuals? 

Watch this short video featuring Project X's Executive Director Vanessa Ho and staff members to find out more about their work and their approach to supporting sex workers in Singapore.

The second thing was then to understand or try to immerse myself a bit in that community, knowing of course, I will never fully be able to do that. Vanessa said I had to come down and talk to [the individuals featured in the film] Selena, Bunny and Sam: you have to get them on board, you have to follow them around. Selena very kindly brought me around the red-light areas as they were giving out condoms to sex workers. That gave me a very good first-hand experience, but also helped me understand where Selena is coming from. Selena was very gracious in giving me her time to build our bond as well. It was like a two-way relationship. 

Phoebe: Selena, as a peer educator with Project X, did you feel like it was almost an obligation for you to be involved in a film like this, with a filmmaker you believed could do a good job with it?

Selena: I’m very shy and it took a while to persuade me. I wouldn’t say it’s an obligation but I feel that people need to know what’s been happening and understand the situation: the obstacles that we face, our joy, our depression…

Phoebe: So a kind of personal responsibility to your community.

Selena: Yes, personal responsibility, not so much of an obligation.

Audience Member: What kind of audiences were you trying or hoping to reach with this project?

Jessica: When I started making this film, Freedomfilmfest Singapore wasn’t involved yet. I just wanted to make a very simple, self-funded film. Freedomfilmfest is a human rights film festival and their audience would want to find out more about Singapore’s sex work community, from personal, legal, various points of view. [After their involvement] I focused on that angle.

Selena: Even though the film is short, I felt it was quite impactful. There’s so much to tell about the lives of sex workers, their aspirations, or problems. 

Phoebe: Even within 15 minutes, the film captured a lot of emotional depth and the sense of hope and tiredness involved in sex work. Jessica, you had mentioned previously there is actually so much footage?

Jessica: We had many conversations. The short form documentary structure, which is part of the festival’s requirements, made it difficult. It could have been a two hour film. The stories from the sex workers themselves were amazing. I interviewed 12 sex workers but only ultimately chose three [interviews] that were most in depth and strongest. Selena’s story is so compelling because she’s like a leader in the community, and all these sex workers look up to her. Seeing her move so effortlessly, and people respecting her so much, I felt I needed to know her story. The depth of storytelling she gave was very impactful as well. 

Phoebe: Film and watching film is so voyeuristic, and this is a community that doesn’t really have a lot of popular media representation, especially in Singapore. As a filmmaker, what are you thinking when you’re making a film like that? Do people really have the right to do this? How do you navigate that kind of dilemma?

Jessica: Vanessa would remember when I had a moment of existential crisis about whether I am the right person to be telling the story. I feared imposing my own narrative and my own storytelling structure. Involving the community who knows best every step of the way was helpful for me as a filmmaker. Bunny, Selena and Sam gave me confidence that I was on the right track. 

As I was making various cuts during the edit, I would send them over to Vanessa for her to preview and watch and give me feedback which was helpful as well. It is intention and collaboration that hopefully sets it apart from a documentary that just focuses on, say, salacious facts or events.

Phoebe: Selena, were there specific instructions you gave Jessica about what she had to talk about, or not do? 

Selena: Not really. I was just not comfortable being filmed — same as the other two — but we were willing to share our stories. 

Phoebe: Selena, how does the film addresses some of the stereotypes about sex workers?

Selena: Some people would say, get a real job, or that this job is for lazy people, without understanding that we have to deal with people from various backgrounds with all kinds of requests, all kinds of tempers, danger… I’m not saying it’s all bad. But by and large, it’s like customer service. You have to deal with various requests even if you’re not in the mood, even if you just want to get it over with.

Phoebe: There’s a real sense in the film that sex work is not just about ‘opening your legs’ and having mindless sex. There are very real transferable skills like customer service. In the film we also see extended moments where Sam spoke about the therapeutic aspects of sex work like trying to help clients with sexual confidence, counseling them on sexual health, etc. There’s a real sense that sex work is not only legitimate work, but also work that needs its own set of protections. 

Selena: Yes. For example, the major complaints that men in married couples share is that they’re not getting enough sex at home. They have fantasies that they cannot realise or discuss with their other halves, so this is like an outlet for them. We are helping them realise their fantasies — not that we have to dance to their tune, but we can help boost their confidence to make them feel good. 

Or if clients are not aware of sexual diseases we counsel them on why they need to use condoms. You’ll be surprised that a lot of them are not aware. They are aware of HIV but I think there’s an overemphasis on HIV. They know of sexually transmitted infections, but not exactly what those are. There are more and more requests for oral sex without condoms without understanding that there are repercussions. I would consider that as counselling to enlighten them, you know, about the dangers [of unprotected sex].

Phoebe: It’s difficult for me to reconcile because in the liberal feminist framework when you look at studies and popular discourse, there’s the idea that sex is not only legitimate work, but also desirable, legitimate work. But Selena, you, Bonnie, and Sam said in the film that at some point you hope to either leave the job or that you prefer not to disclose your history with the job. Sex work has the feeling of being lousy or secret work or “no choice” work. How does the film reconcile this?

Jessica: Sex work is work. It’s a skill and requires you to be an entrepreneur, a therapist. But at the same time, it doesn’t mean that I can’t leave a job just like how I could one day choose not to be a filmmaker. [It’s about] being able to make those choices. Sometimes it feels like there is no choice. For example, some transgender sex workers, by virtue of the fact that it’s difficult for them to find gainful employment in other industries, are driven to sex work in order to make a living. 

Phoebe: Because there are no legal protections, and because of the social stigma, there is not only exploitation, there’s no recourse to exploitation, but also a self-imposed or socially-imposed silence. Is there a sense that exploitation is a big part of why people want to leave sex work, rather than the work itself?

Selena: Just like any other job, if you’ve been doing it for the longest time, at some point you get tired. That’s the reason why most of us at some point just feel that enough is enough, maybe we’ll look at something else. I think the average [stint] would be probably 10 years. 

Audience Members: What are the alternative careers sex workers choose when they no longer want to continue with this career? 

Phoebe: And what are the intersections of being trans and doing sex work? Is it more out of no choice, because somebody who is trans can experience employment discrimination?

Selena: I won’t rule out employment discrimination. If you can’t find a job, you create one. What we need are funds. Some sex workers will do something else once they have enough funds. They may go online and sell products, or go viral, or sell food. They’re very enterprising. Some don’t like to go online so they may go for some courses and work in security, cosmetics. It’s not impossible but difficult to get an office job. Not many like to do a nine to five job.

Watch this short feature on Sherry Sherqueshaa who shares more about her experiences as a transgender woman and former sex worker and about her work with Project X.

Phoebe: Jessica, among the 12 people you spoke with, did any feel this was the right job for them and they prefer to stay?

Jessica: I did talk to sex workers who did stay on and have very longtime regular customers with whom they’ve almost built, I wouldn’t say a relationship, but chemistry or camaraderie. For them, it’s like a way to make a living, but at the same time, they don’t mind it. The particular sex worker I’m thinking about is in their 50s and has been doing it for quite some time. 

Selena: If you have been at it for a very long time, it’s not all sex, sometimes you establish friendships and personal relationships. It was during sex work or escort work that I met my boyfriends, sugar daddies, husband-to-be. They book [your services] for an hour or two and get to know you, and talk to you, and take a liking to you. It’s not just for sex or money. For me it’s to get to know people. That’s how I made some friends along the way. 

Phoebe: The film was so focused on telling individual stories and is only 15 minutes long that it doesn’t cover the sense of community amongst sex workers. How would you have framed that if you were able to show it too?

Jessica: If I’d had more time, I would’ve explored other themes including the sense of community.

Audience Member: What can we do to encourage young filmmakers in Singapore to discover and tell more unconventional stories through film, which helps shed light on issues and stories which don’t typically make their way into classrooms?

Jessica: It starts in schools for sure. For those who are interested in telling these stories, finding the right mentors could help. Also reach out to these communities on your own. Engage with them directly and have discussions as to how a film could help the community by telling their stories together.

Phoebe: Since the content [of such films] would be your stories, would it be better if you were the filmmaker(s)? Would you be interested, Selena?

Selena: Why not, with the right script and director we could turn it into a beautiful work instead of the normal depictions. 

Phoebe: Would you prefer for it to be a documentary or fictional?

Selena: A documentary will be good, though I wouldn’t rule out fiction. At the end of the day, it is to educate people who may not understand what are the real issues, why we do what we do. It’s just like any other job, it comes with experience. You cannot throw someone into it and expect her to survive. You learn from trial and error, you need to have a strong personality.

Phoebe: What was something you didn’t know then that you do now, that you would tell your younger self?

Selena: Just be careful of people. Be more discerning. This job has taught me a lot and made me a better person.

Phoebe: If you could tell yourself something before you made the film, what would you say?

Jessica: That people are more similar than they are different. At the end of the day, the sex workers, Selena, I are all driven by the same desires, hopes and aspirations, and we’re not that different from each other. It’s something I’ve learned in the course of being and growing as a documentary filmmaker. 

I was very moved by Bunny, Sam and Selena’s stories, that they were so open and willing to be vulnerable and talk about things that may not be easy for them to discuss, because they understood the importance of telling these stories. 

Phoebe: It is a very vulnerable thing to do to make yourself a subject, especially of a documentary, not just a narrative story. That should be recognised.

Audience Member: Beyond this film, what else would you want to tell us about sex workers? Is there anything that you weren’t able to really put into the film?

Jessica: Some of the more tragic as well as scary aspects of the industry. There were some particular legal reasons why I didn’t. It’s worth exploring and would have taken a much more investigative bent. 

Phoebe: There’s also an element of risk in investigating [topics that] might be dangerous to talk about. What kinds of negotiations did you have to take and how did you reconcile as a young filmmaker?

Jessica: It’s something I face on a daily basis. I’m also working on a true crime series and there are a lot of legal and ethical considerations to think about and to grapple with. There is no one format or way to do it. 

I always try to start on a film by thinking about the vision for the film, and return to that every time I have a struggle or decision to make. For this particular film, it was to tell the human side of the lived experiences of sex workers. Whenever I had to make a decision, I’d go back to that, and ask myself, by choosing to tell this, am I serving that or undermining that? In a different setting, I might tell a different story. I hope more filmmakers will be inspired to do more stories on sex workers in Singapore, and tell these different points of view.

Audience Member: I like how we heard the protagonists’ voices without seeing them. I was wondering about the locations Jessica chose to film in and the reasons for it?

These stills from The Shades of Love are indicative of filmmaker Jessica Lee's intention to foreground sex workers' voices as they narrated their stories, against visuals depicting mundane scenes of daily life in Singapore. Jessica said: "Sex workers often operate in the grey or in the dark, actually, I wanted to build colour and give sex workers the colour that they rightfully deserve."

Jessica: I wanted to juxtapose the sex workers’ stories with an average mundane day in the life in Singapore, because it’s something that people wouldn’t expect. You just have an average day unfolding [onscreen] and there are sex workers who live amongst us and who are working amongst us. I wanted this juxtaposition. 

I also wanted to immerse viewers so that the key thing of the film were actually the voices, not visuals. The visuals almost serve as a guide but are meant to suck you into the sex workers’ voices.

Sex workers often operate in the grey or in the dark, actually, I wanted to build colour and give sex workers the colour that they rightfully deserve. Each sex worker had a different colour: Selena was blue, Buddy was green, and Sam was yellow. The way the film has been graded, when their voices come on screen, you will see the colours being chosen are actually different. 

Phoebe: I hadn’t picked up on that and I wonder if others did. It’s a really nice, subtle touch. Selena, did you pick up on this and what did you feel about it?

Selena: I wasn’t really focusing on the colour but our stories.

Phoebe: The story is the most compelling. Was it important for you to have your stories out into everyday life in Singapore? What are you hoping would change from that? Or what are you hoping that people will get from the stories?

Selena: That we are just normal people and we have our own reasons as to why we do what we do. We have our depressions, problems, and aspirations to have a better tomorrow. Being transgender is difficult. You have to battle depression, emptiness, loneliness. It can get very stressful [thinking about] how to manoeuvre your life, what you hope to achieve by the end of it, where you’re heading.

Phoebe: The film does a really good job of showing how being trans is and how there’s a whole other side to being a transgender sex worker that is not available to cisgender sex workers as well. I really appreciated that.

Audience Member: Did gender factor into the way you thought about making the film? Were all of the people you interviewed women and was the final choice of two trans women representative of the group?

Jessica: I went in with an open mind to meet any and all sex workers. I met cisgender and transgender sex workers, gay sex workers, younger and older sex workers, even a pimp operating a brothel. It was great to be able to interview a range of sex workers. 

When it came to choosing the stories, it didn’t come down to gender so much as to the depth of the stories. Selena and Bunny both have great stories that are in depth, touching on different parts of their lives. But the transgender theme then came to the fore as well, because I realised that there is quite a significant community of transgender sex workers that intrigued me and something I had never quite known about. But it was not pre-planned at all.

Clockwise from top left: panelists Phoebe Pua, Selena from Project X, Leong Puiyee from Objectifs, and filmmaker Jessica Lee.

Audience Member: Since your film has been released did you get any negative feedback because of the topic? If there is any, do you think this feedback reflects public opinion on sex work in Singapore? Do you see Singaporeans becoming more accepting of this career in the future? 

Jessica: I haven’t got negative feedback. In fact I am inspired by people who didn’t know anything about sex work previously commenting on what they didn’t know. Coming from a generation where when you drive by Geylang and ask your parents what’s there and they’ll say don’t ask, it was refreshing that my parents watched the film and said it was a great film that educated them.

Phoebe: Do you think the film will help change perspectives in Singapore?

Jessica: I’m quite realistic that we can’t change the world. If it leaves people a little more thoughtful I’ll be happy. If people are interested in finding out more about sex work, Project X and transgender rights, that will be a mini victory.

Phoebe: Miyazaki says filmmakers have to write the film that is going to change the world while knowing that it’s not going to change the world, so I think that’s the kind of attitude that you also expressed. Selena, what do you think? Do you think this film is going to be part of the reason why sex work might have a better future in Singapore?

Selena: I’m not un-optimistic but I think changes will come about gradually, as you tell a story from time to time. Or you make people understand the situation, think, and empathise. I don’t think it will be an abrupt change, or that you can change people’s thoughts overnight, but at least you can make them think and gradually change their perception. 

Phoebe: Jessica talked about showing this film to her parents. Selena, if you could sit anybody down in front of this film and make them watch it, who would it be?

Selena: Personally I find it’s tastefully done. I’m quite happy about it. I’m quite open. I won’t show it but if they ask me, then I’ll tell them.

Audience Member: What kind of impact or change do you hope to achieve through the film? What can people do to support sex workers in Singapore? 

Jessica: Firstly, greater awareness amongst the public that sex work is work and sex workers shouldn’t be discriminated against. Hopefully by personalising and humanising the stories it gives the public that sense of awareness. 

Secondly, there should be more legal provisions to protect sex workers. It is quite a grey area right now. It’s not easy how they operate now and there is abuse that occurs within the industry. If more provisions are made to protect their rights and well being that’ll be great. 

Thirdly, to raise awareness of Project X and the great work they’re doing. More and more people should know about it and find ways to support them, whether monetarily, or with whatever it is they need. 

Find out more about Project X, the only non-profit organisation in Singapore providing social, emotional and health services to people in the sex industry here

Find out more about the Freedomfilmfest Singapore and contact them if you’d like to volunteer with them here.

You can also read our past Film Club recaps here.