Love, paid for by the hour
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Love, paid for by the hour

Award-winning documentary filmmaker Alison Rose takes a surprisingly heartfelt look at the seedy world of Miami’s pay-by-the-hour sex motels, and its patrons

Love at the Twilight Motel is a captivating documentary about the seedy world of a Miami-based, pay-by-the-hour sex motel. However, instead of dwelling on the sleaze, award-winning filmmaker Alison Rose instead takes a heartfelt look at the sad and complicated lives of some of the motel’s patrons. Popj.ca spoke with Rose, and she tells us what drew her to create this documentary, telling a story where the motel itself often plays the lead role.

What inspired you to make this film?

Well, I’d never been to Miami before, and I went there for the first time to do  research on the Cuban-American community for a political documentary. I had been sent to meet Fidel Castro’s estranged daughter, Alina Fernandez, to ensure that she would participate fully in a film. I was being given a tour by Ms. Fernandez my very first day in Miami, and we were driving down this central corridor toward Little Havana, and she said these motels may look like ordinary motels, but they’ve got mirrors on the ceiling and they rent rooms by the hour — and they’re for sex. She laughed. I’d never been with anyone who ever pointed out sex motels to me before! I paid attention though so that when I came back, I made sure I photographed the motel. The [Twilight Motel] turned out to be the most interesting motel after I did all of my research. When I came back to Toronto, I showed the photographs to an art instructor friend of mine because I thought she’d be interested in Miami too, and she said jokingly, “No matter what happens with the other film you’re working on, I think you should make a film about these motels.” That was a little prod. It was a kind of affirmation that this might be worthwhile exploring.

What a great story to just sort of stumble upon.

Yeah, and the other thing is, these motels are in the centre of the city — they are not on the periphery. It’s interesting once you spend time in the Miami community, or in public circles in Miami, as they’re very polite environments. It’s interesting to test how people talk about the motels. The code of conduct that I observed is that everyone is publicly critical of motels, and they have a terrible stigma attached to them, and people say they’re terrible. Though no one hangs around outside of them watching to see who goes in and out. So in a way, the motels are protected by that taboo, and by the code of conduct where no one watches the goings on. This protection allows anyone to use them if they want to or ever need to.

That’s so true. Your film shows such a diversity of people who used the motel.

The motel that I filmed in is right at this crossroads, just near an exit from the I95, and one neighbourhood away from a predominantly Black neighbourhood, and two blocks from the banking district. If you scrutinize the cars that you see in my images, as we drive by slowly, all those cars in the garages — look at the makes -– Porsches, BMWs, Lamborghinis and Maseratis. The motel is a great leveler; people of all different socio-economic levels stand in line in the office to pay for their room for two hours.

How did you get these people to open up so much?

I honestly don’t know. I can’t say for certain, but I can tell you that instead of asking people for an interview, I thought of what I was doing as offering an invitation to people who wanted to talk. I thought of my work as giving someone who really wanted to talk about something an opportunity to do that. It changed my mindset. I went through the longest period of time feeling guilty about asking people for interviews, asking people to talk about something that was intimate and private and ought not to be talked about in public — one’s private sexuality. I do really feel like that’s private, and I think privacy is important which is why I love the motel. Yet, here I was, making a film that was about this private place.

I shrank the size of the crew, so there were just two people in the room — unless we needed a translator — and we were interviewing in bedrooms, and I don’t think you can underestimate the degree to which people are accustomed to speaking candidly and intimately behind the closed door of a bedroom.

Why did you use the word “love” in the title when, really, most of what occurs has nothing to do with love?

I named the film before I made it. I went wanting to explore the relationships there. A lot of the time, it’s not about love at the motel, but then again, there are things that one can love. You can see its beauty in a way. You can see the beauty in the images of the workers. And finally, there is something tragically beautiful about those characters. I love them.

Love at the Twilight Motel won the 2010 award for Best Documentary at the Female Eye Film Festival. Love at the Twilight Motel plays April 10 – 11 at the Royal Theatre and April 14 – 15 at the Revue in Toronto.