Fog of Sex is the latest documentary by BAFTA award-winning filmmaker Christopher Morris. It is the story of people who are, for the most part, normal students in British Higher Education. They also happen to be sex workers. Ranging between glamour models, online panty-sellers, “dressed to impress” cleaners, lap dancers, escorts, and pornographic actresses, the film follows nine such individuals as they retell in candid camera style the story of their more alternative careers.
The film begins with the funnier, less intense narratives, which disarmed my usual critical arrogance. This is no patronising exposé on why the sex industry is worse than everything else in the world ever. The gamut it runs is varied and fair, but there is still no doubt at the film’s conclusion about the dangerous realities that students face in the sex industry. Fog of Sex escalates the viewer’s emotional investment along with the stakes and the accounts become dark. Very dark.
The featured women come to talk of rape, violence, and extortion as often as confidence and self-expression, and you wonder as the credits roll: is this empowerment the true way of things? Or, as the film’s director later put it, is it a “mantra” they offer themselves as comfort? He was careful not to come down either way on the matter, and it’s perhaps this impartiality that gives Fog of Sex its bare-bones, data-driven elegance.
The decision to use actors was questioned by critics at the premiere, and it has made TV networks so reluctant to take on the film that just one has shown interest in its current form. After the screening, director Christopher Morris spoke to me of doubts he has about the documentaries the public want: “[the networks] wanted the real people onscreen and a celebrity voiceover telling you what to think. I didn’t want that. I don’t even want money for the film. This was National Lottery funded. I was giving it away for free and they still didn’t want it in its current form.”
It’s a shame, because this is the sort of filmmaking that educates rather than desensitises. It demonises neither men nor women and there is no hyperrealism for gossipy audiences to fetishise. It neither speaks down to the audience nor overreaches to lofty ideas above its station, and it more than fulfils the entertainment impulse to which Mr. Morris has admitted. Each shot is rendered with exquisite symmetry and richness of colour, and it’s done with the restrained visual trickery of a veteran documentarian.
Morris also spoke of how recent documentaries on Channel 4 and BBC3 have used masks and suchlike to get around the demand for sensational realism and how such theatricality would have ruined the “still, blunt, austere” tone he was striving for. Morris and his team are academics from the University of Swansea, and their film is the delicate staging of firsthand accounts and statistics one would hope for from such a pedigree.
Around 7000 students working in the sex industry were interviewed for the study, and the film’s script was woven from the transcripts of nine. Their names, locations, and courses were changed, and none outside the production team knew their real identity. It gives the film the ethical backbone of an academic study and keeps the content free from the bias of evading judgment. It makes the documentary more believable than any verbatim interview footage could have been.
For that, Morris has thanks to give. The considerable talent in front of the camera weaves a watchable web of empathy-invoking conviction and charm. It doesn’t seem to matter what humanity they were asked to perform: confident naivety, strong-hearted fragility, or optimistic regret. It seems a cliché, but there were occasions on which I had to remind myself that the real sex workers were not on screen.
Fog of Sex is a powerful piece of filmmaking that shines a nuanced, pathos-smattered light on the realm of student sex work. It reveals to us what we don’t want to hear: that sexual exploitation is as much a product of our education system and economy as it is the machinations of the cruel. The only people left to combat the tide are the universities and the cinemas and that, like the final moments of Fog of Sex, is perhaps a small ray of hope.