Maya Goded has been telling the stories of the sex worker community of Mexico City’s La Merced neighborhood for a long time. In 2006 she published a book of photographs on the subject. Later she contributed to Michael Glawogger’s 2011 portrait of international sex work, Whores’ Glory, working as a photographer for the film’s Mexico section. Now she’s created a feature documentary on the subject, which shares a title with her earlier photography book: Plaza de la Soledad, named after the square in front of the Church of La Soledad where many of her subjects meet their clients.
The film is full of powerful moments of intimacy, clear evidence of how long Goded has known these women. Carmen, Lety, Lupe, Raquel, Esther and Ángeles invite her into their homes and their lives, tell her deeply personal stories of love and trauma, and share the intimate details of their trade. Some of them, Lety and Raquel in particular, are getting on in years but still work regularly. If there’s a mission of visibility already accomplished within the first five minutes of Plaza de la Soledad, it is the overturning of the stereotyped image of sex workers, and what society is supposed to find desirable.
Yet in spite of some moments of levity, notably the opening scene of all the women crammed into a van and belting out a favorite song by 1960s-vintage tropical band Sonora Santanera, Plaza de la Soledad is light-hearted in the manner of Meet the Fokkens. Instead, Goded’s strongest theme is that of survival in the face of abuse. She foregrounds personal histories of violence, including moments of sober and simply shot storytelling. These women have been mistreated by family as well as society, some of them since childhood. In one heartbreaking scene, Esther’s mother quickly and easily justifies their neighborhood’s derision of her daughter for a crime of “promiscuity.” We know from Esther that it was really an incidence of abuse of a child.
Goded positions many of the most emotionally devastating moments in the first third of the film, particularly those that emphasize the lack of agency granted to these women. She accompanies a few of them with the frustratingly rote tones of sad piano music, but for the most part she lets these brutal stories sink in with the audience with little cinematic adornment. Then she pushes past them, building a narrative thread around the quiet ways her subjects have built up emotional strength. She showcases their varied relationships, whether with a seemingly kindhearted pimp or a friendly shoeshine man down the street. Men are always a risky source of support, and lead to mixed results for Goded’s subjects. A more inspiring theme is their support for each other. Esther and Ángeles have been romantically involved for 14 years, their relationship a crucial source of strength for them both. Other tools for survival featured here include spirituality, makeshift therapy, and religion.
This discourse is the emotional core of Plaza de la Soledad, all the way up to a final aquatic metaphor for getting by on one’s own. The most memorable shots are those of the women simply telling their stories, the truth beaming forth from their faces. Unfortunately, the film as a whole is not so precise. Scenes with two men, Carlos the pimp and Fermín the shoeshiner, sometimes sit awkwardly in context. There also isn’t a really clear visual sense of place, even in the many returns to the titular plaza. Goded clearly has an excellent sense of character and storytelling, but Plaza de la Soledad is a bit too structurally and thematically loose to pack the punch that she strives for with its final minutes. As often happens with nonfiction portraits of community, its strongest ideas get a bit lost amid its many voices.