The Pink House

Madam Carmel welcomes you into Australia’s oldest working brothel

The Pink House The town of Kalgoorlie is a relic of the goldrush, built on ‘gold, girls, and grog’. In its midst is Questa Casa, the oldest working brothel in Australia. Run by the exceedingly proper Madam Carmel, the brothel is struggling, not helped by the charismatic yet troubled working girl BJ. Their unique stories tell of two women at odds with the modern world and epitomise the thorny debate surrounding the sex industry.

“Some scary shit is going on”, says a distracted BJ between hearty cackles and Cheshire cat smiles, “the best and safest place for me is Questa Casa, The Pink House, you know, and Carmel – and now I’ve ruined all that”. She is no longer permitted to work at Australia’s oldest brothel, run by the pristine, platinum-bobbed Madam Carmel. Despite what you might think about the prostitution industry, Carmel’s world is one of propriety and even prudishness, where drugs and certain types of sex are entirely unwelcome. Embroiled in a murder case, BJ is bad for business and the Pink House is struggling as it is.

The Pink House first opened its doors for business in 1904, 12 years after the criminalisation of brothels in Australia. Its presence on the infamous Hay Street is one of few remaining mementos of Kalgoorlie’s past. “I love this house. We’re sort of holding it in time as an icon of what the town once was, and I believe history should never be just thrown away”, says Madam Carmel.

BJ has worked and lived at The Pink House for years, but she has a tendency to disappear for months at a time, enticed away by drugs and alcohol. “We’ve saved her from herself so many times. She can resist anything but temptation”, explains Carmel. Promised all the drugs she could want, BJ moves into a new home, but she is soon involved in a terrible crime that takes place there. Beau Davies is brutally tortured and murdered by BJ’s housemates over his drug debt. She helps clean up after the incident, afraid for her own safety. “When you swim with sharks, you have to expect to be eaten”, remarks an ever-composed Carmel. But it seems there is no way out for the troubled BJ; sex work is all she has ever known. Pushed into prostitution at 14 to settle a family debt, she has been stuck in the industry ever since.

BJ’s reputation is ruined, and the Pink House can’t risk the disrepute she would bring if she returned. The brothel is already in trouble, in fact. Former madam, Mary-Anne Kenworthy says that it has simply failed to move with the times, unlike her own brothel. Madam Carmel disagrees, seeing the Asian brothels as the biggest threat to her business. The reality for Asian sex workers remains uncertain, with some people claiming that they are held against their will or are spreading sexually transmitted diseases, and others denying it all as vicious hearsay. Whatever the truth, it’s clear that Australia lacks the legislation to properly protect these women. “No bad whores, just bad laws”, says one sex worker.

Despite scandals and a dwindling number of customers, Carmel remains hopeful for the future of her brothel: “girls have come, girls have gone”, she says, “I’d like to see it just continue on and be The Pink House always”.

The Producers

Claire Haywood is a writer, director, and producer, originally from Western Australia who juggles passion projects with working for commercial television. She wrote and directed ob doc series Taxi School (SBS 2009) and Kulka, a documentary about radical Indigenous leader Gordon Briscoe. Claire’s Executive Producing credits include the quirky, comedian-driven series, Unreal Estate; Storm Season; and Gold Coast Cops. Her Series Producing credits include the heart-warming Crash Test Mummies & Daddies, the edgy, Logie Award-winning ob doc series Kings Cross ER 1 and 2, and Territory Cops. Claire wrote and produced Kalgoorlie Cops, a series which won an Astra Award in 2012. As co-director of Wonderland Productions with Kingston Anderson, Claire is passionate about telling stories in new and powerful ways that inspire and entertain.

Sascha Ettinger Epstein is a documentary filmmaker known for her dark, edgy, Australian stories. She has won the AFI Award for Documentary Direction twice, among other national and international awards. Her first documentary, Painting with Light in a Dark World, which earned various accolades for its depiction of street photographer, Peter Darren Moyle, was the beginning of a career-long exploration of beauty in darkness. Her following films The Oasis, and Playing in the Shadows, continued the same theme. She also made Wall Boy, a short drama based on a true story of a young male prostitute forced to work at The Wall. Sascha’s lighter moments include commercial TV series such as Recruits, Kings Cross ER, and Kalgoorlie Cops, as well as advertising work such as global webisode series, 2020 Vision.

Making The Film

I encountered Madam Carmel and her long-standing lady of the night, BJ while working in Kalgoorlie. I had heard only vaguely of the strip's infamous past as the sex capital of the West and had no idea brothels are technically illegal in Western Australia. Creative collaborator, Claire Haywood and I chose to focus on the personal fortunes and fragile relationship of two very unique women against the backdrop of changing political currents and social mores. We operated basically as a skeleton crew because of our low budget, but this helped to create the intimacy the project needed. The film has morphed into something quite different from our original intentions; we could never have predicted what would befall our characters. We hope to shine a light on the complexities and paradoxes of politics and law enforcement as they continue to impact the women who work in the sex industry in WA. The Pink House’s future trading may be uncertain so we are proud to have preserved its story for posterity.

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