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Spotlighting Sex Workers at Sundance: Tara O’Callaghan’s ‘Call Me Mommy’

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The Motherland director takes us behind the scenes on her hard-hitting film shining a light on the multifaceted life of a 40 year old online sex worker

Spotlighting Sex Workers at Sundance: Tara O’Callaghan’s ‘Call Me Mommy’

Selected for Sundance Film Festival 2023, ‘Call Me Mommy’ directed by Motherland’s Tara O’Callaghan, uncovers the fascinating story of a single mother who turned to online sex work during the covid-19 pandemic to support her family.

The film, which was produced by Motherland (with post done in-house as well), delves into the various origins and effects of ‘mommy issues’ in Sinead’s personal and professional world - painting an intimate portrait of a modern day sex worker.

In this interview, LBB speaks with Motherland director Tara O’Callaghan and founder/director Ross Killeen to find out how they took this project from concept to success, how they dealt with backlash from the community, and what it was like to view her short film on the Sundance screen.


LBB> Tara, tell us about how the idea for Call Me Mommy first came to you.


Tara> It started for me at the beginning of lockdown. A lot of people I knew were losing their jobs and there was this massive surge of online sex work as a result. I was fascinated by how public it became, when it was usually only seen in the dark corners of the internet - like with cam girls and escorts. But over covid something seemed to change and online sex work became this brand new competitive industry and I was dying to meet the girls behind the accounts. 

LBB> And Ross, what were your initial thoughts when Tara pitched the idea?


Ross> During the first lockdown we couldn’t go more than five kilometres from our house. Tara and I actually live quite close together so we were able to meet for a walk. One day we did exactly that and she told me about her idea for this film and how she wanted to develop a doc that gave a voice to online sex workers. The film would challenge people’s perceptions of online sex work and show us a world that was hidden away from the public view. I was bowled over by Tara’s enthusiasm and ambition for the project. It’s a world I knew nothing about so was intrigued to learn more. We agreed that we would go for it and treat it as a proper Motherland production and put our resources into making it the best it could be.

LBB> You are keen on supporting young talent at Motherland, tell us why you place such importance on this?


Ross> We have always tried to give young talent a leg up in the industry. It's the ethos of Motherland and one of the best things about running the company is seeing that progression. In the past ten years, we’ve seen interns come in with raw talent and go on to be award winning directors, editors and producers. We try to create an atmosphere of support but also a trust system where young talented creatives are given opportunities and trusted to deliver. So far it’s worked out and Tara and her film is another great example of this.

LBB> With the initial concept complete, what were the next steps? What was your vision for the doc, Tara?


Tara> Originally I wanted to know more about how the OnlyFans platform exploded in Ireland over lockdown, but I didn't have a set out goal or vision for the project - that started to formulate a lot later. The topic fascinated me and I was dying to watch a documentary about it. But that film didn’t exist, so I set out to make a film I wanted to watch. Then our vision started to take shape after meeting various sex workers. It was their stories I wanted to tell, not sensationalise the work they do. Initially the film was going to focus on four girls but I found that 15 minutes wasn’t enough time to tell all of their stories, then came the last woman we shot with, Sinead. After hearing her powerful story we decided to pivot the film to her and our vision transformed again. We almost started from scratch after this, which was very scary at the time. 

We had shot a lot of beautiful footage with other girls which will never see the light of day and it was heartbreaking. But focusing on one story became more and more obvious the more we looked at their story outlines together on a cork board. We broke down all of their interviews into colour coordinated post-it note life beats, then lined them up beside each other to see whose story was the strongest. Sinead’s story was so long it took up three lines compared to the other girls - it was this first visual cue from that breakdown that pushed us in her direction. 

Sinead’s story instantly felt unique, your average OnlyFans girl is 18-25 years old and Sinead was just starting her online sex worker career at 40. After our initial interview I heard all about the challenges she overcame in her life and I think it could have been so easy for her to say, “I’m a single mother now with four kids, I don’t have time for anything else.” She sees this as the next chapter in her life and still has such a thirst to go after her dreams. I found that journey very inspiring and unique.

Tara O'Callaghan and Sinead O'Connell

LBB> How did you draw upon Motherland’s full capabilities as a studio to produce this?


Tara> The film wouldn’t have been possible without Motherland's backing. It was great to have their support from working with our talented producers Aaron McEnaney, Louise Byrne and Ross Killeen to connecting me with Motherland’s regular collaborators who thankfully jumped into the project. 

Cinematographer, Albert Hooi and composer, James Latimer were so crucial in every step of the process. I learned so much from each of them throughout the course of Call Me Mommy and they all have added their own layer to the film, which made Call Me Mommy what it is today. 

Then Motherland handled the post, Vincent McEntee is one of Motherland’s in-house editors and he did such an amazing job on the offline. It was a very exciting stage of the process. Deciding how big we wanted to take the fire portrait was a lot of fun and was masterfully done by motion designer John O’Hagan. Call Me Mommy was a joint effort and a total credit to the team behind it.

LBB> What were some of your favourite moments from working on this project?


Tara> Researching and meeting the women at the start of the project was fascinating. Hearing a wide range of stories and experiences from sex workers was incredibly eye opening to me about what it takes to be in this industry. 

The entire film was such a rollercoaster from beginning to end. It was tough working with sex workers because they are such a marginalised community they often experience a lot of backlash from the media. There was a lot of apprehension from the girls about my intentions with the film and rightly so. A lot of the girls had been taken advantage of by reporters who portrayed them in a very negative light. They would do interviews on radio or TV which would result in a lot of backlash from their communities and unfortunately they’d drop out of the film in fear of having to face that again. So at certain points I was in a constant cycle of looking for new women and I never thought I’d be able to finish the film. It became important to me that we found someone who was able to handle this type of media attention and then I met Sinead. Sinead already had experience with the media and wasn’t afraid of what people thought of her, she was an open book and exactly what we were looking for.  

We had such fun shooting the film with Sinead, who became part of the crew by the end of filming. She really threw herself into the project which made everything so much easier, especially with some of the negative reactions we came up against from the community. 

Then working with VFX and applying the finishing touches through the colour grade was very exciting, it was like seeing the last piece of the puzzle go down and the film came to life.

LBB> What were some of the challenges?


Tara> Working with Sinead over the course of shooting this doc gave me a little insight into the daily struggles sex workers had to go through. There was one particular neighbour who would give us quite a tough time and would try to stop us from shooting the film. He would ring the police, use his car to block our crew cars and watch us for hours in his car that made some shoot days rough. But thankfully we had a great team who powered through these moments and Sinead was far from backing down. 

LBB> The film has won several awards and played at Sundance 2023. What do you think makes this such a successful piece of work that resonates?


Tara> Call Me Mommy, on the surface, is about sex work but at its core is really a personal story about motherhood and trauma that anyone can connect with. I think it's this element that speaks to people the most. 

Sundance was incredible, it really is such an amazing place for independent cinema. To have your film play there is an honour and seeing the Sundance logo at the start of your programme is surreal to say the least! Meeting other filmmakers, being immersed with the best of the best of films for a week was a life changing experience.

Sound designer James Latimer, director Tara O'Callaghan, producer Louise Byrne and executive producer Ross Killeen
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Motherland, Wed, 08 Feb 2023 14:48:03 GMT