Mexico City’s La Merced Market is a notorious haunt for prostitutes hawking their un-wear. Maya Goded, a photographer who has made prostitution one of her primary subjects for decades, follows a few of them in Plaza de la Soledad, a documentary slice of life that, by design, is much less a deep-tissue exploration of any single topic than it is one big hangout. The camera, and by extension the viewer, lounges on street corners or in out-of-the-way rooms with these women. Essentially plot-free, it moves along as a series of confessions. Some docs observe. This one listens.
Which is not to say that this could have been done as a series of podcasts or the like. Goded, acting as her own cinematographer, naturally knows how to capture the smallest nuances offered both by her interviewees and by their surroundings. There’s a riveting sense of time and place. Here at Sundance, there are many VR experiences available for festival attendee’s curiosity, but it’s difficult to imagine that any of them are as immersive as this film. She knows each of her subjects well and transfers this intimacy to the audience, knowing exactly when to push in on someone’s face or pull out and watch them fold clothes or read their fortunes in tarot cards.
Prostitution is a hazardous theme, but Plaza de la Soledad is as matter-of-fact about it as its characters. The youngest among them is moving past middle age — they’ve each plainly seen it all, and their candor about their profession is amusingly straightforward. The closest the movie comes to depicting their work is in a purely businesslike back-and-forth between one of the women and a prospective john. None of these women ask for sympathy, and the doc never makes them out to be tragic. Certainly, there’s tragedy at the margins — stories of broken love or rape — but Goded doesn’t turn this into an inherent symptom of prostitution, but rather as a fact of life that anyone might deal with regardless of their work. Sneakily, it might even suggest that there’s not too much of a difference between the way prostitutes may be mistreated and the way any woman may be mistreated, simply on the basis of their gender.
Deftly free-form while never formless, warm without ever stooping to sentimentality, Plaza de la Soledad treats its societally put-upon characters well by empathizing with them without ever overreaching for sympathy. It also grants a rare picture of sensuality and sexuality in old age, linking it to dogged, admirable self-determination and self-possession. Among the ranks of purely political documentaries about prostitution (which, of course, have their place), this is intoxicatingly refreshing.
Plaza de la Soledad premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.