I am a filmmaker, sociologist and ethnographer working as Professor of Sociology and Migration Studies at University Kingston London. My films and research examine the relationship between gender, sexuality and migration in the context of the global sex industry, where migrants find both self-realisation and exploitation. Most migrants decide to work in the sex industry in order to have a better life and to escape the forms of exploitation they meet in other jobs. Humanitarian and governmental rhetoric often obfuscate this complex mix of opportunities and constraints by addressing all migrant sex workers as victims of trafficking and by enforcing restrictive and criminalizing measures that ultimately exacerbate their vulnerability to exploitation. My writing and films aim at breaking this vicious circle by bringing the understandings and experiences of migrants and their complex decisions and trajectories at the centre of academic and public debates.
There is a strong relationship between my research and my interest in ethnographic filmmaking. Throughout my career as a sociologist and as an ethnographer I aimed to convey the sensuous, performative and intersubjective dimensions of knowledge production. In order to do so I developed a participative, creative and filmmaking-based methodology inspired by Jean Rouch’s ethnofictions, which included research subjects as active producers and performers of their own interpretations by transcending the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, participation and observation, knowledge and emotions. My intention in approaching the genre of ethnofiction is to convey the complexity of migrants’ life and work trajectories, to protect their identities and to share with viewers the affective and sensuous dimensions of ethnography and knowledge production more generally. This resulted in the production of my Sex Work Trilogy and in the Emborders diptych in which I explore different experiences of migrant sex work by recurring to different cinematographic and research methods. The Trilogy includes Comidas Rapidas – Fast Bites (Mai 2010; 5 mins) on Moroccan and Romanian young men selling sex in Seville; Mother Europe (Mai 2011; 5 mins) on Tunisian young men selling sex and performing love to female tourists in Sousse; and Normal (Mai 2012; 48 mins) on the intricacy of the experiences of love, exploitation, autonomy and dependency of 6 migrants (including women, men and transgender people) working in the sex industry in Albania, Italy and the UK. The Emborders diptych includes Travel (Mai 2016; 63 min) on the life history of Joy, a Nigerian migrant woman selling sex in the Bois de Vincennes in Paris after having obtained asylum as a victim of trafficking; and Samira (Mai 2013; 27 min) on the story of Karim, an Algerian man selling sex as a transvestite (Samira) at night who having obtained asylum as a transsexual woman now wants to return home as the male head of his family.
In the first two films of the Trilogy research subjects presents their stories and realities directly. However, their visibility is mediated by filmic choices such as filters and superimpositions to both protect their identities and express their marginalization and stigmatisation. In Normal and in the Emborders diptych I take this more traditional ethnofictional approach further by using actors to respond to ethical, epistemological and cinematographic challenges emerging in current times. In the last thirty years migration flows have increased and diversified. Neoliberal policies have included gender and sexuality amongst the criteria of eligibility for humanitarian protection, while restricting access to the labour market in the global north. In this context humanitarian protection and asylum became strategic borders allowing (and more often denying) people access to their rights and to the labour market. In order to get their rights recognised and avoid deportation migrant women, men and transgender people selling sex need to represent their biographies and experiences according to stereotypical canons of victimhood and suffering, which often act as humanitarian borders excluding vulnerable migrants from protection and asylum.
As a result of these processes contemporary times are characterised by the saturation of public debates with humanitarian representations framing migrant sex workers as either victims or perpetrators of trafficking. By using actors to play real research subjects I am able to reproduce faithfully the ways in which they challenged these representations before by eyes in research interviews and ethnographic observations that were not recorded to allow them to express themselves without the fear of being exposed. In this respect, following Jean Rouch’s motto that ‘only fiction can penetrate reality’, I use actors and ethnofictional filmmaking to represent and reproduce both the process of knowledge production (research interviews and ethnographic observation) and the socio-anthropological truth of migrant sex workers’ complex decisions and priorities, which deeply question humanitarian discourses.
Normal (Mai 2012; 48 min) was my first experimental ethnofiction using actors to represent 6 real research interviews with men, women and transgender people working in the sex industry. I used this method also in Travel and its sister film-installation Samira, which resulted from the Emborders art-science project questioning the effectiveness and scope of humanitarian initiatives targeting migrant sex workers and sexual minority asylum seekers through ethnographic research and ethnofictional filmmaking. The aim of Emborders project is to demonstrate the ways in which humanitarian categories risk exacerbating migrants’ vulnerability if they do not include the complexity of their decisions and experiences. The stories of the protagonists of Samira (Karim) and Travel (Joy) are presented by juxtaposing on two screens the multiple versions and narrations of the self emerging in different situations, relationships and settings: the ethnographic observation in the street, the medical visit, the interview with the OFPRA case adjudicator (French Office for the Protection des Refugees and Stateless People), while shopping in the city centre, or sitting at a café next to the street market. Each situation highlights contradictory or coherent aspects of the subjectivity and history of Karim and Joy.
The two-screen display and the art-science approach adopted in Samira and Travel aim to both portray and emphasise the contradictory ways in which humanitarian categories and LGBT taxonomies originating from the global north are appropriated and rejected by migrants. Travel and Samira show that each version of the self presented by Karim and Joy is authentic, proving that every subjectivity is incoherent and that the real privilege is not to have to be verified recognised or believed in relation to the biographical borders that are enforced by humanitarian protection.
Normal was screened at the Raindance International Film Festival 2012. Scholarly as well as general public screenings of Normal have taken place in several UK cities: London (UCL, Goldsmiths, LSHTM, LSE), Bristol, Manchester, at the Universities of Durham, Oxford, Glasgow, Birmingham, Leicester, as well as in Copenhagen (University of Roskilde), Paris (EHESS), New York (Columbia University and New School), Los Angeles (University of Irvine), Rome (MAXXI Museum), Bologna (University of Bologna), Salamanca (University of Salamanca), Hamilton (NZ – Waikato University) and Bangkok (Jam Art Gallery and Cineclub).
Samira is available in two formats: installation and film. The installation was showed at the Museum of Tapestries in Aix en Provence in October 2013 and at ‘la compagnie, lieu de creation’ gallery in Marseille from December 2013 to March 2014 in the context of the antiAtlas of borders art-science project. The film was screened at IMéRA in Marseille and at the Pavillon Vendôme in Paris in 2013. In 2014 it was presented at the Cube in the context of Digital Anthropologies, at the UCLA as part of its Art-Sci programme, and MAXXI Museum in Rome, at the International Festival in Ferrara (IT). In 2015 it was screened at the universities of Bologna, Paris (EHESS) and Rome. In November 2015, it was selected at the 2015 Festival dei Popoli in Florence.
Trailer link of Normal: https://vimeo.com/50289487.
Trailer link of Samira: https://vimeo.com/84704860
Trailer link of Travel: https://vimeo.com/139963138
Full information on the Emborders project is available here: http://www.kareron.com/nicola-mai/