Film Review: Meet the Fokkens

The fiercely feminist Dutch documentary <i>Meet the Fokkens</i> (no kidding) takes up the battered-wife syndrome, low pay for female workers, forced separation of mothers and children, ageism and&#8212;finally&#8212;a woman-owned business. Gloria Stein

As Rob Schroder and Gabreille Provaas’ documentary Meet the Fokkens opens, a 69-year-old Dutch woman plies her trade, starting with a business-as-usual beginning: walking to work, greeting the paper boy (here a 65-year-old former bobby), getting coffee, displaying her wares of the day. But she’s not selling tulips; instead, there’s a cheerful demonstration of alternate butt cheek-slapping to give a little encouragement to an S&M client. Martine Fokkens explains why she puts boots in the window: Some like to dress up, and this way they will know what’s available. You start to get the picture, especially when the camera pans the room, shot in appropriate high-saturation reds, with a single utilitarian bed and functionally minimal accoutrements like clean towels. Nothing scuzzy here, but then this is Amsterdam’s red-light district: prostitution is legal, and sanitary.

Martine is engagingly open as she talks about her work, life in “the life,” and her clients: Some of them are such nice men, she says, just wanting to feel comfortable and liked. Pragmatic and wise, she explains the importance of not turning too many tricks in a day—some of the younger girls have run themselves down by over-scheduling, she clucks. And there is some hilarious shop talk with her twin sister, Louise, no longer practicing due to arthritis.

Meet the Fokkens also gets poignant on purpose with its backstory of class slippage, of exploited joie de vivre. It’s especially touching, because while it uses documentary staples of personal photographs and narrative voiceover, the material is from the private cache of the subjects. Two adorable identical twins with blonde Dutch bobs turn into fun-loving teens, in love with love, then sex. They have double dates. Then one relationship with a macho dominant guy goes bad; he happens to be responsible for Louise’s becoming a mother of three by nineteen. He married her, but beat her into submission, and life as a prostitute (her working overtime making lampshades wasn’t bringing in enough money for them, or him). Martine follows her into the business, and together they set up their own shop—in their words, they weren’t impressed with the pimps. Together they laugh about some of the habits of their repeat clientele, which included priests and rabbis.

Regrets? It’s hard to say, because Martine especially is so likeable, proud and can-do. A hard bit is that kids were placed in foster care, but there is reconciliation: sweet scenes with Louise and her now-adult daughter. Meet the Fokkens is never painful, and of course we can’t stop watching: Who isn’t curious about the sex habits of others, by definition infinite (as Martine says when adding up a lifetime of tricks, a “whole cruise-ship-full”). With faces smudged out by the filmmakers, we see men in highly compromised situations, and Martine coolly, clinically, in charge.

So why is she still working? It’s a bit murky. She says she needs the money; in Holland (as in this country), retirees are forced back into the labor force because they can’t make it, as Martine says, on “a government pension.” But she complains about having to deal with bureaucratic details of running a business. It’s a verity that some get stuck in the life and can’t get out, or don’t want to. But happily there is another outlet: painting. Don’t expect any Grandma Moses presentations, though: At a celebratory gallery opening at the end of the doc, the alternative bouquet spray on the canvases is mainly of genitalia.