Hot Docs 2012: ‘Meet the Fokkens’ offers a charming, unusual personal narrative

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Meet the Fokkens
Written by Gabrielle Provaas and Rob Schröder
Directed by Gabrielle Provaas
Netherlands, 2011

There is a long tradition in documentary film of personalizing unusual individuals. In fact the entire genre of first-person narrative documentary has largely revolved around finding people and stories that are unusual, even openly odd, and seeking to provide the viewer with some insight into their character and behavior. Another genre, what I like to call Freakumentaries, finds weird people and exploits them for the entertainment of their audience, providing little else beyond voyeurism. In describing Meet the Fokkens, a film about two elderly twin prostitutes who are retiring from the Red Light district in Amsterdam, one would be excused for expecting the latter, especially given the terrible (English) title. However the film is actually an excellent, if unusually executed, example of the introspective power of narrative documentary film to personalize a subject and engage an audience.

Meet the Fokkens follows Louise and Martine Fokkens, twin sisters who have been prostitutes in Amsterdam for more than 50 years. Aside from their profession they appear similar to anyone’s affable, plump, gossipy grandmothers as they chatter constantly back and forth and tell embellished stories about their youth and the people they used to know. The content of the stories, however, would likely traumatise your grandma if she was able to follow them. As would the frank and graphic scenes involving Louise, who is still in the business, servicing clients in her booth in the Red Light District.

Despite its content, or more likely in a deliberate attempt at irreverence, the film is absolutely charming and presented almost like a piece of 60’s French cinema. The non-diegetic music is full of accordions and clarinets, the cinematography is whimsical and colourful and the overall message is one of enjoying the particulate experience of life. While this approach is well executed and engaging, the film also seems to avoid a deeper level of introspection that would likely reveal a more dark and painful reality within these women’s lives; we get glimpses of that side but they are quickly washed away by the omnipresent theme of levity and joie de vie as we watch Louise and Martine natter over the particulars of a 40 year of sexual encounter over tea and biscuits.

Meet The Fokkens does what any good character doc should; it takes a subject you are unfamiliar with, who operates in a space you are likely uninterested in, and makes them engaging. Even if it does not say as much as it could about who they are as individuals and how their experiences have shaped them, it succeeds in captivating its audience with unforgettable characters and beautiful cinematography. A film as fun to watch is it is simply to look at.

Michael Waldman

Hot Docs runs from April 26th through May 6th. Visit the official festival website here.

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