Writers: Valerie Kontakos, Despina Pavlaki and Christos Asteriou
Director: Valerie Kontakos
Chelly Wilson was Jewish, and celebrated Christmas – in a porn theatre. “Life doesn’t get any weirder,” according to her grandson David Bourla. There are weirder things about The Queen of the Deuce, the story of Grandma Chelly’s life, including: a screen-filling pair of naked buttocks, Rudy Giuliani looking like a serious politician, and gay cinemas in 1980’s New York – without a single mention of AIDS.
Rachel Sorrero was born in 1908, into the large and thriving Sefardi community of Salonika. Her chutzpah was of industrial strength. So were her courage, foresight and steadfast, if unconventional, devotion to her family. She was never going to fit the expected mould. Childhood photographs show her en travesti ; she intended to train in medicine. Instead, out of respect for her father, she married Moise Bourla, a perfectly polite young man who unfortunately made her “want to vomit.” Nevertheless they had two children together before Chelly divorced him and escaped to Athens, taking the younger child, Paulette, whom she soon left to the care of a foster family.
She was the only one in her family who recognised the danger of the Nazi occupation. In 1939 she was on the last ship to leave Greece for the U.S., where she was to make a fortune through far-sighted decisions and, sometimes, lucky breaks. Determined to help her homeland, she bought newsreels from Greece and showed them at fundraisers for the war effort. She married Rex Wilson, because he kept her in cigarettes. She had another daughter. After the war, her contacts supplied her with films for the homesick Greek community. Then she discovered “another kind of film.”
Who’d have guessed that you could charge more for a film such as The Vixens than for a romcom set in the Greek countryside? This film doesn’t seem to come with any warnings, so if you were expecting an inspiring film about an immigrant entrepreneur you may be surprised by the generous amount of vintage porn included – though as ‘adult film’ producer Arthur Morowitz says , today it “could play on regular TV – in the afternoon.” The lewdest scene is an amusing animation showing the progress of the porn industry from softcore to hard. Which happened in 1969. Chelly produced at least one film of her own, with the unforgettable title Scarf of Mist, Thigh of Satin.
At this point, you can’t help wondering about the behaviour of everyone involved. Chelly’s sympathetic granddaughter Dina Pomeranz mentions feeling “conflicted” when she got to college, and we get a brief glimpse of a feminist march with placards decrying exploitation. Otherwise the question of sexual propriety is not addressed. Barbara Nitke, who looks like a college professor (she is), is a distinguished photographer in the field of “human sexual relations.” She is comfortable talking about how she got her start in porn movies. But this is precisely the era when Harvey Weinstein was active in the mainstream movie world. It’s impossible to believe that women were any better off in the porn industry. It would be useful if director Valerie Kontakos had found an actor to interview, apart from Chelly’s devoted son-in-law Don who first met her when he was a young actor in New York desperate for a job.
An unsurprising revelation that comes late in the film is that Chelly was gay, and seems to have enjoyed a satisfying love life. It is therefore a bit odd that gay men are only of interest as punters, and only one of them, Efrain Gonzalez, appears, talking about the clubs in their prime. Surely the AIDS epidemic hit sales? Not mentioned in the film is the fact that many specialist cinemas like Chelly’s were closed down in vain attempts to check the disease. The grandchildren remember watching the CCTV monitors outside the Eros cinema, and, sweetly uncurious, counting the number of men in raincoats queueing up for tickets. Less than decade later, that number would be sadly diminished.
The film is enlivened by Abhilasha Dewan’s witty animation, which combines cleverly with real life scenes, and creates an entirely appropriate comic book feel. Sometimes it’s more evocative than the blurry home movies.
Puzzlingly, some people’s identities are withheld until seemingly random moments. We are kept wondering exactly who Dina is until nearly the end.
It’s also strange that grandson David gets the last word. Having just clearly demonstrated that business acumen is not hereditary ( he refused his grandmother’s offer of a house in New York), he says, “not wanting to sound spoilt or entitled, If you don’t create some escapism , then why are you here?”
Although Chelly Wilson knew plenty about escaping, what she was here for was the deal.
Queen of the Deuce is screening at the UK Jewish Film Festival 2023.