Justin Ducharme is a Métis multidisciplinary artist and former sex worker, whose third film, Positions, follows a day in the life of a two-spirit hustler navigating financial independence, agency, and desire. With Positions, and as co-editor of the forthcoming Hustling Verse: An Anthology of Sex Workers Poetry with Amber Dawn, Ducharme is making work that disrupts common representations of sex workers from an experiential and personal view, and helping others do the same. We sat down to talk about Positions, poetry, and the necessity of self-representation.
Elizabeth Holliday: Tell me about your mediums.
Justin Ducharme: [I do] film, writing, and I’m a dancer. I started dancing when I was like 7 back in Manitoba with a group in my hometown of all of my cousins, and I did that up until I was 18, when I moved out here [for film school]. I didn’t know of the Metis dance company that exists in Vancouver, until somebody introduced me to Yvonne Chartrand who runs V’ni Dansi, which revived my dancing career. I’d always been interested in film, so I think that probably came second.
EH: What was your film school experience like?
JD: I had a really negative experience [at VFS]. It’s a very expensive school and they move very quickly, and I feel like if you want to be an artist in your filmmaking, you want to say something, they don’t really nourish that side of it. I learned technically how to do things which was very helpful, but I had negative experiences with staff there, mostly older white male staff, about my interest in film. I definitely think race played a big part in it, because I didn’t really know how to explain why I wanted to make film about certain things or with certain people. And this was in 2013, so the climate was different in terms of talking about diversity in film.
EH:How did you fill that gap in what you wanted to learn?
JD: Poetry helped me do that, actually. After I graduated from VFS, I wasn’t writing screenplays, which is something that I used to do a lot. I got back into screenwriting [by] writing poetry, and then I started to put visuals to [it]. Then I made a film with my friends Taran [Kootenhayoo] and Georgia [Bradner] called Him/Her (2016). I had given each of them poetry that I had written [...] [and] we made this piece of work; [it] was the first film I ever made that I was proud of, that I wanted to show people, because I felt that it was infused with a sense of life, [more than] anything I had made before. It wasn’t until those two sort of collided that I was like, “Oh, I can actually use [...] these mediums to fuel each[other]”
EH: Where does Positions fit in your catalogue, in terms of telling the kinds of stories you actually want to tell?
JD: It’s funny, when my friend Kimberley Wong came on as a [Positions] producer, she watched my other films, and she was like, “I don’t see any of the Justin that I know in these.” [Positions is] really the first thing from me, packaging it up and giving it out to the world and being like, this is what I want to say, how I want to say it.
Mostly it came together because I couldn’t write about anything else for a very long time. I’d been jotting down, through poetry and short story form, experiences that I had with sex work; I always see things very visually, and I knew there was a story there. Then I went to imagineNATIVE in 2017, and that woke me the fuck up. I was seeing work of a different calibre and different approach, and people were making things about issues that weren't necessarily easily digestible. It made me feel a lot more confident in actually putting something out that was this personal [...] I think any time you’re talking about sex work, there are always going to be people who have eyebrows raised. So seeing that work and knowing that there were filmmakers out there, specifically Indigenous filmmakers, who were taking these risks, I was like, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t at least try to do this.
EH: Positions is shot in a very simple and naturalistic style, with the central character mostly silent and non-reactive. What was the intention of that?
JD: When I pictured it visually, I never wanted to shoot it in a way that was telling the audience how to feel about what the character was doing, because I think that having conversations around why people feel discomfort or anger towards sex workers is really important. I just wanted the camera to feel like it was already in the room. I [also] wanted it to come across that this was an exploration of sexual interest and desire - within the search for financial dependency. I've always pictured the character to be kind of quietly observing himself in situations, whether they be sexual or not. He's trying to figure himself out, so in my creation of him he really lived in his head a lot of the time.
EH: Why do you think you’re feeling ready and particularly motivated to focus in on sex worker’s stories at this time in your life?
JD: Probably because I’m famished for them, I want to see them more [...] When I started hustling, I was very much thinking that it was going to be a specific way. It was very sensationalized in my mind, which is what media does to it. And that’s what happens when you watch work that isn’t made by someone who has an experiential point of view. I also need to preface this, because I never want to be that person who’s trying to speak for everyone, and everyone’s relationship with the work is different.
EH: Let’s talk about Hustling Verse! How did it come into being?
JD: I think the anthology was a dream of Amber Dawn’s for a very long time, and she had done something to a smaller scale before out of Pace Society called Sex Worker Wisdom, a chapbook collection of poetry by sex workers based in Vancouver. I had 2 pieces in that chapbook under a pseudonym. [Hustling Verse was] a conversation that we had had as something that I could possibly do under her guidance, getting to know the ropes of what [editing a poetry collection] would take. But then, after I came out as a sex worker with Positions, it was very clear that it was going to be a partnership. We pitched it to Arsenal [Pulp Press] and they were down, we had a call for submissions [...] [and] the response that we got was overwhelming, more than we ever could have imagined. Which only goes to show that sex workers are tired of their stories being told elsewhere. [...] The support from community and the trust that these workers have put into us to represent this work, it makes my heart soar. I can not wait for people to be physically holding it and be able to read it.
EH: How did the experience of making Positions affect how you approached this project?
JD: I’ve been really good at keeping it separate [...] Positions is very much a loosely-crafted narrative based on my singular experience, and I think with Hustling Verse we’re trying to encompass all types of voices and experiences. I have a few pieces in Hustling Verse that are very much my own, but throughout the editing process we’ve really been looking at the versatility, and the difference, and how to fully encompass all different forms of sex work and even types of poetry. We haven’t been strict on form at all. One of my favourite things is when people do whatever the fuck they want.