Filmed after eight months of research about sex work in large cities, this documentary paints a portrait rarely seen of the “prostitution capital of Canada.”(CFMDC) Exploring the streets of Vancouver, filmmakers Janis Cole and Holly Dale turn their lens onto the culture and lives of the sex workers of Davie Street, located in the heart of the city’s residential West End. According to a CFMDC film study guide, the West End was Canada’s prostitution capital, with more than 150 sex workers turning “the tree-lined streets into a drive-in brothel open for trade from noon until 4 am, seven days a week.” Candid, one-on- one interviews mesh with scenes filmed on the job, in this burgeoning hot spot for female, trans and transvestite sex workers. Gaining their subjects’ trust, the filmmakers shot some of the most compelling scenes when the eponymous workers were secretly mic’d to record candid interactions with johns. Dale and Cole opened doors to a world where sex workers stood side-by-side to create a work environment without pimps. One of several Cole/Dale collaborations, the feature was nominated for a Genie Award for best theatrical documentary in 1985 and won the Gold Plaque at the Chicago Film Festival.
Hookers on Davie is a unique look at the feminist-led movement for the implementation of regulations and laws to protect sex workers in and around Vancouver. Inviting viewers to shed the stigma in and around sex work, the film humanizes a profession that is a perennial target of scorn. With this didactic optimism, the directors sometimes skim over some of the violence their subjects face. For critic Matthew Hays, “Certainly, their Hookers on Davie opened them up to the charge that they were exploiting the sex workers profiled in the film. But I strongly disagree – I think that’s a remarkably empowering film, and they gave people who are often voiceless a chance to speak out about their own lives.” Over 30 years after its release, sex work in Canada is still a hot topic and this film remains a testament to this lesser-known era of sex work activism in Vancouver and in Canada more broadly. Music rights, especially the use of The Crusaders’ popular song “Street Life” stalled halted the film’s commercial DVD release, but it is available from the CFMDC for institutional, educational and community viewing.