Prostitutes, Drug Users in Turf Battle With Film Industry

By Jessica Cantelon | July 7, 2008 | 8:04 PM EDT

( - A Vancouver, B.C.-based organization representing drug users, prostitutes and the homeless is demanding "compensation for displacement and inconvenience" that is caused when the U.S. and Canadian film industries shoot movies in the area.

The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) sent a letter to 30 film companies that have filmed in the area over the summer, accusing them of "invading the most marginalized neighborhood in the country," "laying siege to the most oppressed drug ghetto in the country," and "impacting the most downtrodden, inconveniencing the least convenienced [sic] people in the country."

Formed in 1998 "to bring together people who use heroin and cocaine," VANDU is a 500-member nonprofit organization that describes itself as a "group of active and past IV drug users and supporters who work to improve the lives of people who use illicit drugs."

Their latest effort is to convince the film industry to acknowledge drug users and sex trade workers as legitimate business people who are inconvenienced by temporary filming projects.

As the third largest film and television production center in North America, Canada's British Columbia was home to over 200 productions last year, according to the BC Film Commission's website.

VANDU is aiming for a "written, formal agreement between the Film Industry and the City of Vancouver that recognizes that film companies must negotiate directly with residents and members of the community before they even begin filming.

"Sex trade workers must be compensated for displacement they experience at your hands in the same manner you would compensate a business if you were to use their locale during operating hours," states the VANDU letter.

"The same must hold true for homeless people you push from beneath a bridge or doorway and drug users you move from a park," it goes on to say.

Robert Weppler, a spokesperson for VANDU's Housing Action Committee (HAC), calls the demands "an attempt to open direct lines of communication between our community and the film companies that work in our neighborhood," but one city official says the only thing VANDU is achieving is "raising anxiety levels."

"It's so frustrating," said Muriel Honey, manager of the Film and Special Events Office at the City of Vancouver. Although VANDU is making demands of the city as well as the industry, the group has never contacted the city directly, according to Honey.

Honey added that VANDU's perception, that everybody else but them gets paid, is a "mistaken impression."

While the City of Vancouver insists that production companies address the concerns of people directly affected by the film projects, "that doesn't necessarily mean they're paid out. It means if you're shining lights in windows, you put something up to block the light."

"In no other neighborhood in Vancouver do people expect to be compensated if there's filming in the neighborhood," she said.

In a response letter to VANDU, Gordon Hardwick, the manager of community affairs for the British Columbia Film Commission, said the film community is "well aware of the issues facing the residents and business[es] In the downtown east side and have been committed to develop relationships with various groups who represent the interests in the area."

But, the letter indicates that compensation is only due to residents when filming "totally restricts" their ability to access their residences. "Short interruptions and access through alternative entrances do not constitute unreasonable restricted access," states Hardwick.

Lindsay Allen, the director of the BC Film Commission, said the commission and the rest of the film industry are "open to discuss what policies there are," but also emphasized that the commission is a marketing agency, not a regulatory body.

Even so, said Honey, the film industry does a "marvelous job" of addressing a community's special concerns through its donations to charities, food banks and other social service agencies.

"It's just that they don't directly give to VANDU or to the individuals down there because it's too difficult to know what is fair compensation to lives," she stated.

Sandra MacDonald, the business enterprise project coordinator for the Eastside Movement for Business and Economic Renewal Society (EMBERS), said VANDU is "100 percent right" in their case against the film industry. The issue of most concern, MacDonald said, is the violence that prostitutes potentially face when displaced by a film crew.

"These girls have to be out working and if they're pushed off their corner, they're going to start infringing on somebody else," she explained, pointing out that drug dealers also contend with such "territorial wars."

MacDonald said she perceives the sector of society represented by VANDU as "just another society that nobody's ever considered accommodating."

"How to solve this is beyond me," she admitted, but later suggested that "maybe you guys [the film industry] can deal with it in the way that, okay, you stay in the area and if she [a prostitute] can make appointments with some of your crew, that's fine."

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