By Charlotte Harding

Nicola Mai has solved somewhat of an ethical conundrum with his latest film Travel. A sociologist, ethnographer and filmmaker, Mai is dedicated to analysing the experiences and representations of migrants working in the global sex industry. But when it came to turning his original research findings into film form, Mai faced opening a can of worms full of complex problems: how do you make a film about sex workers who do not want to be seen or exposed?

“I wanted to talk about migration and the tension between self-realisation and expectation throughout the migration journey,” explains Mai. “The ethics of this put a restraint on the visibility of sex workers, because of the harsh stigma they are subjected to. At the same time, I wanted them to be included, however the other ethical constraint I had was that I never wanted to reproduce a voyeuristic approach, which is often associated with sex work.”

Mai eventually found a way to overcome these challenges, through experimental ethnofiction; a visual approach that draws on participants’ willingness to discuss and realise their existence through improvised enactments within a fictive framework. “I wanted to use ethnofiction to record particular salient moments of ethnographic observations that I could not possibly reproduce by filming them as they happened,” he says.

“I had the privilege of being in a private setting with people who are confident enough to tell me their stories directly in a language that is uncensored, through a rapport of empathy that I’ve built throughout the years, so I found in ethnofiction a possibility to project and protect their identities, enabling their participation without exposure, because they never actually had to feel under pressure to reveal.”

Working with L’Association Les Amis du Bus des Femmes, an association dedicated to protecting the rights of sex workers in Paris, Mai collaborated with 8 Nigerian women through workshops aimed at creating the fictional character of ‘Joy’; the embodiment of the group’s own collective experiences. Using multiple actors as Joy to embody the lives of these real women, Mai took his approach a step further, with some of the women who wrote the film also acting as Joy; “that was a mechanism we found to protect their identities again,” says Mai, “because nobody can say who is one of the real sex workers and who is an actor, so that is a way to enhance their participation.”

The resulting process was a great adventure for Mai, and describing the biggest reward he received from the process, he cites the women’s reaction to viewing Travel for the first time; “they felt I was able to express everything they wanted to say, so that was for me the most important validation. As an anthropologist that’s all you want, to be able to express the voices of the people you worked with.”

While Mai focuses on the ambivalent dynamics of exploitation these women have faced, he hopes the lasting impression is one of agency. “What I want people to be left with is a sense of agency of these women, as the debate around the sex industry particularly when it concerns African women tends to stereotypically reproduce a vision of victimhood and passivity,” he explains.

“We have to accept that sometimes the decisions sex workers take are not those that we would take, we need to acknowledge that they express some will and decision. These women are very resilient and strong, so I wanted people to understand and feel the complexity of women’s circumstance ¬, I want the audience to leave the cinema with a sense of the intricacy of freedom and how it is contextualised – people can express their agency and freedom by complying to the forces that dominate their lives, as well as resisting them.”

TRAVEL is screening at the RAI FILM FESTIVAL on Saturday 01 April, 11:20 AM
Information and tickets here