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Premiering at this year’s DocFest, Bad Reputation was a compelling dive into the lives of sex workers

Marta García and Sol Infante’s film provided a nuanced portrayal of sex workers' lives and their ongoing struggle for rights and recognition in Uruguay.

Bad reputation

Bad Reputation focuses on Karena's fight to unionise her fellow sex workers.

Initially setting out to tackle the broader issue of child exploitation, an unexpected turn brought the filmmakers of Bad Reputation to focus on the story of Karena, as she establishes a union for current and former sex workers in Uruguay. Karena’s journey and resilience is at the heart of the film, and her immediate charisma is charming and endearing, allowing a sense of light-heartedness to be brought to the film’s focus on the distressing fight for women’s rights.

Karena's character is layered and fascinating: she abstains from alcohol, citing overconsumption in the womb, and was just twelve when she was trafficked into sex work. As well as being personable she is thought-provoking and compelling. One scene that stuck with me, and where her determination is particularly evident, was when she shared her efforts to secure a cleaning job and leave the sex work industry. Despite being one of the top five candidates out of a thousand, she was ultimately unsuccessful due to her “lack of experience.”

With many setbacks like this and a fight to persuade her colleagues and friends to join the union, Karena’s perseverance is unwavering. She remains active in the organisation to this day and is currently collaborating with the Uruguayan government on projects aimed at supporting workers. Changing perceptions of sex work is the next critical step, including amending an outdated 2002 law that fails to recognise the profession officially. This leaves workers unprotected and unsupported, and Karena emphasises the need for those in the industry to communicate in order to bring strength and knowledge to one another.

The documentary’s strength lies in its ability to capture the essence of Karena’s work and life without compromising her privacy or that of her clients. Due to the nature of her work, filming was restricted during client interactions but the film-makers skilfully depict the beginning and end of her engagements through her use of social media and repeat clients. One of the most striking elements of Bad Reputation is the depiction of the sex worker community. They are fun, diverse, and incredibly accepting – a portrayal which challenges stereotypes and offers a more rounded perspective on the lives of people often dismissed or overlooked. As an audience member noted, “It’s a nice depiction of real people and real life,” with a blend of humour, social interactions, and the serious aspects of their unionising efforts.

The film also touches on Karena’s family, specifically her children’s perspective on her profession. While Karena refrains from speaking for them, she mentions their natural acceptance of her work, attributing it to her openness. Bad Reputation offered valuable insight into Karena’s daily life and the dynamics of her profession, not only humanising sex workers but also emphasising the critical need for societal and legal changes to support and recognise their rights. It offers an intimate glimpse into a difficult industry, challenging viewers to reconsider their perceptions and advocate for justice and equality while being surprisingly light-hearted and uplifting.

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