Bye, bye ethics

  • 2001-02-22
  • Jorgen Johansson
RIGA - "Women!" "Everywhere! Beautiful girls!" "Girls!" "The marvelous girls and women in Riga!"

So runs the beginning of a Swedish made documentary called "Buy, Bye Beauty" as foreigners are stopped in the street and asked what they like about Riga and Latvia.

Sometimes messages in bold white letters flash across the TV screen.

"There are 7 million sexual services sold in Riga every year."

"There are 20,000 sexual services sold in Riga every day."

"50 percent of all Latvian women between 18 and 30 years of age have, at least once in their lives, prostituted themselves to make ends meet."

The name of the man who spawned this film is Pal Hollender. His claim to fame, until now, has been his participation in a highly popular TV show in Sweden called "Expedition Robinson." Today, his name and picture is appearing on the front pages of almost every major newspaper in Sweden and Latvia because of his controversial film.

This film is centered around a thesis that Hollender believes to be true, that Swedish businesses and businessmen in Latvia contribute to keeping the price of prostitution down in Riga by not paying their employees sufficient salaries, thus forcing women to sell themselves.

On Feb. 15, Swedish TV3 decided to show an edited 55-minute version of "Buy, Bye Beauty," originally 100 minutes long, on its debate program "Folkhemmet." Before this, few people had actually seen the film, which was first shown at Sweden's Gothenburg Film Festival in January. Now it has been shown on TV, it is making headlines and stirring up wild debates for its highly delicate content.

Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga has expressed a wish to see the scandalous film.

"If the film expresses the statement that every second woman in Latvia is a prostitute, then we aren't speaking about a documentary but something else - political propaganda," she said during an interview on state radio Feb. 19. "From that point of view it should be perceived very seriously."

Sex contract

In order to show just how bad he assumed the situation is for women in Riga, the Swedish filmmaker paid $200, the same price he paid per night for his hotel room during his visit, each to six different Latvian women, makes them sign a contract where they agree to give three separate interviews and, in the end, have sex with him.

These are perhaps not the most fortunate of women, and it is fairly obvious that none of them can afford to say no to Hollender's proposition.

One of the women, a single mother of four, says she has no problems with selling herself and that all women should do the same as long as they can.

As for the rest of the women, a striptease dancer, two full-time prostitutes, a low-income secretary and one unemployed young woman, they are portrayed as providing a typical cross-section of Latvian society. There is nothing ordinary about any of these women or the situations they are in.

The hand-held camera movements are jerky throughout the film and mostly show images from Riga's Old Town and various nightclubs and strip clubs in the city. Hollender makes the comment during one scene in a restaurant that almost all restaurants in Riga have lists of phone numbers of prostitutes that are offered to diners.

The film claims there are 15,000 to 18,000 prostitutes in Riga, and that a third of them are minors. Hollender adds that it is common that police officers work as part-time pimps for prostitutes in exchange for free sex, and that most of Latvia's national police force is corrupt.

Spokesman for the state police Krists Leiskalns said that he had no idea where Hollender got his statistics, but that the official number of prostitutes registered in Latvia is between 3,000 and 4,000, some 80 percent of which are in Riga.

A common estimate from NGOs in Latvia is that there are 10,000-15,000 prostitutes in the country.

After seeing the film, the Latvian Interior Ministry is currently assessing the possibility of filing a libel suit against Hollender.

But the Latvian Foreign Ministry has been criticized by some Latvian parliamentarians for not trying to ban the film from being shown in Sweden in the first place.

Latvian state secretary at the Foreign Ministry, Maris Riekstins, told the Baltic News Service it would not be possible for Latvia to ban anything from being shown on Swedish television.

"The film may be liked or disliked, but the only thing that can be done politically is to ask the Swedish Film Institute how satisfied they are with the film's quality," Riekstins said.

"Buy, Bye Beauty" cost $30,000 to make. All the funding came from the Swedish Film Institute.

Street experts

Most of the film is an odyssey of Riga night life with a lot of footage of young women dancing in discos or working the pole in some strip club, and a few interviews with "experts" on Latvian prostitution.

The first expert is writer and artist Andris Grinbergs. While he is interviewed he does nothing but smoke and give opinions on how he perceives the relationship between Latvians and Swedish businessmen. Mostly, Grinbergs sounds drunk and confused. He mumbles something about Latvians being slaves under Swedish authority.

Another expert interviewed is Latvian nude photographer, Ralfs Vulis, who made his name in Latvia last year when he photographed very young girls at Riga's High School N07. Vulis testifies that there is prostitution going on in Riga and that it isn't too hard to find for those who look.

Commenting on his own work, Vulis tells Hollender what he does with the women and girls he takes pictures of.

"There are some one takes pictures of and some one has fun with," Vulis says.

Hollender's last expert analyst of the prostitution scene in Riga is a young man, some 20 years old, who calls himself DJ Ozols. He is dressed in a chicken-yellow outfit recalling the 1980s break dance era. All Ozols has to say in between occasional swearwords, is that he has performed in a nightclub where there is also striptease going on.

Then come the highly debated final scenes. Hollender has sex with the six women he interviews. He does this, he says, in order to accentuate his point of how Swedish businessmen take advantage of Latvian women.

The youngest of these women, Rita, is 21. Her boyfriend Andrejs, also 21, sits on a couch smoking a cigarette, watching the intercourse take place. Hollender's wife filmed the sex scenes.

Mass debate

After the film was shown on TV3 in Sweden, a debate with participants from the Swedish Parliament, the Swedish Film Institute and media representatives followed.

Invited to the studio to speak on Latvia's behalf was Latvian journalist Juris Kaza, who writes for Dienas Bizness and is an occasional contributor to The Baltic Times. But whenever he was given room to speak he was cut off and not allowed to finish.

"Everybody's missing the point about the film," he told The Baltic Times later. "This is social jamming at the expense of Latvia. It's not a piece of journalism, it's garbage."

Despite the lack of an opportunity to express himself without interruption, the statement printed in bold white letters on his black tee-shirt seemed to speak for itself: "Never Underestimate the Power of Stupid People in Large Groups."

Since some of the Swedish Film Institute's funding comes from Swedish tax money, initial debate in Sweden ignored the fact that Hollender had failed to provide sufficient evidence for his allegations about Latvia and looked at how Swedish tax money had gone to pay for sex in Riga.

But in Latvia the debate has grown hotter. Here, public opinion is demanding that the Latvian Interior Ministry should do its best to bring Hollender to court for slandering Latvia.

The debate on the "Folkhemmet" show finished with a flat-out travesty of journalism and ethics, and gives a general idea of how Latvia is viewed in Sweden.

One of the presenters, Robert Aschberg, turns to Hollender and says, "I just have to ask you, how the heck could you get an erection for the final scenes?"

Hollender looks at him, smiles and answers, "It wasn't easy."

The Swedish word for "easy" is also the same word for "Latvian", but with a slightly different spelling.

In Sweden, TV3 is the only channel that has chosen to broadcast Hollender's film. Staffan Erfors, a program manager at TV3, said he thinks the other channels backed out because they feared the debate which would inevitably follow.

"We were attacked by the general public before we showed the film," Erfors told The Baltic Times and added, "but afterwards we have received thank-you letters.

The first screening of the film and debate TV3 made was viewed by approximately 415,000 viewers. A rerun attracted another 135,000.