Silverdocs Reviews: “A Girl Like Her,” “Meet the Fokkens,” and “Virgin Tales”

Our take on what’s playing at Silverdocs this year.

By: Washingtonian Staff

A Girl Like Her

Playing Thursday, June 21, at 5:30 PM and Saturday, June 23, at 1 PM

A Girl Like Her opens with a series of iconic ’50s- and ’60s-era scenes: We watch a hand pour a Campbell’s soup can full of water into sludgy soup concentrate, three smiling boys race towards a powder blue station wagon, and a pretty woman with a shellacked hairdo slide a foil-topped pan into an oven. Gradually, the jaunty orchestral soundtrack gives way to voiceover, but the archival footage just keeps on coming.

In fact, it never stops. Up until the last few minutes of Ann Fessler’s documentary, we never see the 100 women she interviewed for the film, all of whom gave up children to adoption between the years 1945 and 1973. The subjects tell their stories of being pregnant and unmarried in that era—the parents who worried more about neighbors’ opinions than their daughters’ wellbeing, the teachers who treated pregnant girls like cautionary tales, the revolving-door hospitals where young mothers would go to give birth then head home and jump back into their lives, as if returning from summer camp or a church retreat. 

Fessler—an adoptee herself—got the idea for her film after meeting a woman who thought she might be her birth mother. They’re not related, it turns out, but Fessler was so touched by the woman’s story that she decided to explore the subject further. She spent more than a decade pulling together footage and seeking out subjects for the film, which weaves the womens’ stories together, telling bits of each tale at a time. Secrecy is a common theme—many girls were sent away to have the babies alone, and one women’s parents decided to move when they found out she was pregnant. Almost all of them felt profoundly isolated by the experience. They talk about returning to high school and no longer relating to their classmates. Several of them describe falling into a sort of enduring emotional stasis—one woman admits she never told her husband about her first baby; another says she didn’t deal with the grief of losing her son until she found him 30 years later. 

By mixing up the women’s stories, Fessler smartly underscores the universality of their experiences, and her use of archival footage—the images of the era as it wished to see itself, full of happy families and perfectly cooked casseroles—contrasts effectively with the messy realities the women describe. But if the point is to shed light on a subject that’s been long kept in the dark, it’s hard not to wonder why the women are never identified onscreen. Why hide them from us now?


Meet the Fokkens

Playing Tuesday, June 19, at 9:15 PM and Friday, June 22, at 10:15 AM

Looking for a seedy, voyeuristic glimpse into the life of a sex worker? You won’t find it here. Meet the Fokkens works pretty much exactly as the title suggests—as an extended introduction to the flaxen-haired, Dutch identical twin sisters Martine and Louise Fokken. Yes, they’ve spent the past 50 year years selling their bodies in Amsterdam’s infamous red light district. And yes, we do get the occasional peek into Martine’s brothel bedroom as she services clients (Louise has given up the trade). But mostly you see the sisters stepping rather jauntily through their daily lives, walking the streets in matching outfits, conversing with each other about their past, and reflecting on old family photographs and history.

The sisters look back on their careers with an unflinching, unassuming honesty, and talk proudly of working with up to ten clients a day, many of them priests and other religious leaders. Martine and Louise take care to point out that most men come looking for some sort of momentary intimacy from them—a soft embrace, a person to hold—as opposed to a simple roll in the hay. Things get heavier as the sisters dive into their rocky relationships with their father, their (now ex) husbands turned pimps, and children, but the documentarians are careful never to cast the sisters in the downcast, sympathy-demanding light so often found in American cable docs. 

The film seems to skimp on the parts of the Fokken story we might be most interested to hear, namely how they broke free from their pimps and started their own brothel. And those looking for a context to place the Fokkens in, or even a general understanding of the legalized sex trade at large, will be disappointed by the lack of statistics and narrative background. Instead, the Fokkens are allowed to tell their own story, in their own words and in their own order of importance, with little interference from directors Gabriëlle Provaas and Rob Schröde. As the credits fade in on the 69-year-olds laughing and playing in the snow, we’re left with a sense that the Fokkens aren’t ashamed of the life they’ve lived. That may be hard to stomach for an American audience, but these cheerful, free-spirited sisters don’t care. Which might, dare I suggest it, be a reason for said American audience to stop judging them and their fellow sex workers so harshly. 


Virgin Tales

Playing Tuesday, June 19, at 12:15 PM and Wednesday, June 20, at 8:30 PM

After the last scene of Mirjam von Arx’s Virgin Tales, the director posts a few statistics onscreen. The film explores the purity oaths taken by young girls in the evangelical faith, and after spending an hour and a half showing the genesis and growth of the practice, von Arx points out that girls who take the oath are no more likely than those in their age group who don’t take it to have sex before marriage. They are, however, far more likely to do so without condoms or other birth control.

But that epilogue is the only time when the director explicitly shows her hand as to her feelings about what she’s documenting, and even that’s simply a cold statistic. The fascinating thing about Virgin Tales is that it’s a documentary made by someone who likely has strong feelings about the issue, yet someone absolutely opposed to her position could likely watch the film and, for the most part, feel it accurately represents their feelings, as well. Even-handedness is the hallmark of von Arx’s work here, and it’s a breath of fresh air in an era when so many filmmakers treat documentaries as a bully pulpit.

The film centers on the family of Randy and Lisa Wilson, a couple in Colorado Springs with seven children, five of them daughters. Randy, a national field director for the Family Research Council, started the concept of the Purity Ball in 1998, and the phenomenon has spread across the United States and even to Europe, with young women donning dresses that look suspiciously like wedding gowns and taking oaths to abstain from sex until marriage. Their fathers, meanwhile, vow to shield and protect their daughters, and often put purity rings on their fingers in a ritual that feels close—to an uncomfortable degree for some viewers, one suspects—to the marriage ritual itself.

A number of the Wilsons’ children are already married off, a couple are yet too young, and one, perhaps the focal point of the film, is 20 years old and still living at home; God has not yet delivered her husband to her. (A big part of the purity vow is the notion that because they are committing themselves to God’s plan in being chaste, he will be benevolent and deliver a husband.)

There are touching scenes here, including a tearful centerpiece in which the Wilson’s youngest boy, a future preacher or lobbyist to be sure, delivers a heartfelt, seemingly impromptu address at the dinner table declaring his love, devotion, and admiration for his family. The Wilsons are a family tightly bound together, and they give von Arx incredible access to personal moments of their life that put the strength of their faith and familial bonds on display.

The director sticks with them for a year, juxtaposing family life with their father’s political life with the FRC, subtly bringing up the political issues without ever overstating them. Ultimately, anyone who supports the evangelical approach to sex will find much to support their way of thinking here. Those on the other side will likely find the patriarchal nature of the practice, which seems to encourage the notion that a woman’s role is as a wife and mother above all else, to be appalling. But because the film documents rather than demonizes, the issues become clear and unclouded for everyone watching, and make this the sort of film more documentaries should aspire to be.