It's a cold, winter afternoon. I am sitting in the Tuchisnki, an ornate but fading picture-palace in the centre of Amsterdam, flanked by two old whores. On my right hand side is the 69-year-old prostitute Martine Fokkens (who is still working). On my left is her identical twin sister Louise (who retired two years ago.) Both have little Chihuahuas perched on their shoulders. They're drinking warm and fizzy white wine and are in celebratory if somewhat maudlin mood. Thick-set and with white hair, they look like farmers' wives... and, disconcertingly, a little like the film director Ken Russell in his latter years. Both are extremely kindly ladies, with a solicitous, grandmotherly air. When I tell them that I have been feeling a little poorly, they both put their hands on my forehead.
The sisters are clearly delighted by the response to Meet the Fokkens (the new feature-doc telling their story). The film's premiere at the IDFA Festival in Amsterdam was not so much a red-carpet affair as a red light one. Many of their clients (who've grown old with them) attended, as did prostitutes and pimps . The sisters invited 250 people with links to the red light district and most turned up.
The film has provoked a strange mix of admiration and outrage. Some are appalled that the sisters are being given a platform. They accuse the film of glossing over the reality of prostitution; as Dutch society has become markedly less libertarian in recent years, their business is increasingly frowned on. Others point to the sisters' great good humour and their perseverance. They've had tough lives and yet they've made the best of their predicament. They formed a union for prostitutes. They ran their own brothel until the politicians closed them down, ostensibly because of unpaid taxes.
Why did they agree to appear in the film? Martine explains that she met the director, Rob Schröder, when she was tidying the gardens in the street where they both live. At first, she was suspicious of him. Then she relented, saying she might do the film but only if her sister was included as well. Louise agreed.
"We said yes because we wanted other people to see what was the life... what we were doing as whores," Louise explains. Over the years, the Fokkens have serviced a huge number of clients. They calculate that on an average day (not a busy one), they'd see about 10 men each. Multiply that by the number of years they've been on the game and the figure ratchets up into thousands. Their attitude toward sex is pragmatic. In the film, we see them buying bundles of condoms and comparing different makes of vibrators as if they are housewives out shopping for groceries. We see Martine with some of her clients, who are almost as old as she is, spanking them and playing the dominatrix or even singing them nursery rhymes. A few moments later, we see the sisters painting surprisingly vivid and accomplished pictures of old Amsterdam.
At the same time they were being filmed by Schröder and his co-director Gabrielle Provaas, the sisters were hard at work writing their memoirs (which have now been published and are doing well in the Dutch bestseller charts.) This flurry of activity hasn't been simply motivated by their desire to communicate what it is really like working in the oldest profession in the world. There is a commercial agenda too. Neither sister is rich. Documentaries don't make money but the sisters are hopeful that their memoirs may catch the public's imagination.
"We don't write the normal fuck. Everybody knows the normal fuck. In love or not in love. With the hands or not with the hands... that we don't have to write," Louise declares. If their memoirs are successful, Martine may finally be able to retire from a business she entered in the early 1960s.
Speak to them for a few minutes and you quickly realise that they are not as unscathed from their many years of prostitution as they may like to pretend. Louise, who had three children by the time she was 19, was badly beaten up by her husband, who forced her into prostitution to make more money. She had been trying to earn extra cash by making lampshades late at night after the children had gone to bed, but this wasn't enough for him.
Despite such grim revelations, Schröder, who is sitting in on the interview, insists that the documentary was made to counter the typical films about prostitution, which portray the women only as victims.
That's a role the Fokkens refuse to accept. They escaped from their husbands and pimps and went into business for themselves. The sisters ran their own brothel along co-operative lines. The authorities forced them out, but, in doing so, opened the way for criminal gangs to move in and take their place. The Fokkens couldn't afford lawyers and didn't know how to play the political system. When crippling tax bills arrived, they had no choice but to sell up.
"One of the most shocking things we learned while making the movie is how bad the social stigma of being prostitutes still is... it is even worse than you could imagine", says Provaas.
In the little street where Martine still works, everyone knows each other. If it is possible to retain your dignity when you are, in your late 60s, sitting in a window waiting for clients to come in and pay to have sex with you, Martine just about manages it.
The Fokkens' relatives have all seen the film. Louise tells very distressing stories about how her children were stigmatised and bullied because of her profession. The risk that Louise and Martine faced at the Meet The Fokkens premiere was that the grandchildren would turn against them.
"You are my grandmother. What you are doing I've had to think about but you are still my grandma and I love you," one grandchild told Louise after the film's premiere. "When I think about that, I could cry," Louise confides, a lump in her throat.
'Meet the Fokkens' premiered last month at the Idfa Festival in Amsterdam. It is likely to be shown in the UK in 2012Reuse content