Director Tara O’Callaghan calls the shots in sex work doc Call Me Mommy

Tara O’Callaghan is a director on the up, working with the rising Motherland and directing eye-catching docs like Call Me Mommy. With Motherland and sister company Event Junkies recently merging in an effort to create one of Ireland’s most progressive production companies for production, post-production, delivery of film, commercials, online content and music videos, their stated aim is to be talent driven – intimate, modern storytelling like Call Me Mommy could be key to that success.

Blending realism with dynamic visuals, O’Callaghan provides a platform in the short doc for sex worker Sinead Connell to assert her own narrative. Cut off from some family members and open to the various perceptions of sex workers, single mothers and women over 40, Sinead nevertheless is unapologetic, assured and reflective as she shares her story onscreen. 

The short has just screened at the prestigious Krakow Film Festival and will be arriving in Irish festivals soon. We spoke with Tara about meeting Sinead, challenging negative perceptions of sex work and the film’s journey as it honed in on its proud and personal subject.

How was it that you crossed paths with Sinead during your research before making Call Me Mommy

Up until the point where we decided to pivot the film to solely focus on Sinead’s story, we had been shooting already for about a year. We shot with five girls previous to Sinead and I was constantly chatting to new women as there was a really high dropout rate due to the backlash they faced online and often offline when living in smaller communities. 

Trying to get them to trust me was tough at first because a lot of them have been taken advantage of in the past in different ways, so they have a very big wall up. That was tough in the beginning, then eventually one of the girls I was chatting to put me in touch with Sinead. I was meant to only talk to her for 5-minutes and we ended up sitting on the phone for 2 hours with her just telling me about her life, it was wild, and I thought okay I need to meet this woman, she’s brilliant.

Sinead’s story instantly felt unique to me, your average OnlyFans girl is in the 18-25 year old age bracket 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 look, I’m a single mother now with 4 kids. I don’t have time for anything else, but she didn’t. She sees this as the next chapter in her life and still had such a thirst to go after her dreams. I found that  journey very inspiring and different. 

Building trust with the subject is important for any documentary, but particularly as you say with people that have been misrepresented previously. With Sinead, was there a lot of developing that sense of trust between the two of you, or was she very open to communicate immediately?

Sinead was open immediately as she’s a strong confident woman, but she also had a wall up that I felt straight away. She did talk to me a lot about her life, which was a big marker of why we shifted the story towards her, but also the day I actually met her she had quite a front up and seemed unphased by everything. I actually ended up leaving my charger in her house and had to go back a couple days later to collect it. When I arrived she had just filmed quite a difficult scene for her OnlyFans and just burst into tears in front of me. I thought hold on, this was not the Sinead I saw in the interview a couple of days ago, there’s a lot more going on here then I think she even knows herself.

I spent a lot of time with Sinead over last summer, we became quite close around that time –  I really wanted to get to know the real Sinead and wanted to build that trust so she could feel comfortable being open around me. That was really important because I felt like if she didn’t know me, how could I expect her to be vulnerable in any way? 

What is her sense of the final product and the journey the film is on now? Is she excited for it to be going out to festivals?

She’s very excited and very involved. I’ve been keeping her up to date with every stage of the process, I’ve wanted to get her blessing throughout the whole process of the film. Even before we picture-locked the film, I showed it to her to ask – are you comfortable with what we’ve shown here? It’s such an intimate portrayal of her life and how she became the person she is today, I wouldn’t feel right as a documentarian to put that out into the world without consulting with her first, thankfully she loved it. We had been on our own journey together throughout the film so it was a great feeling to watch the finished product together and get that blessing from Sinead.

Often in documentaries you see the filmmaker’s understanding of their subject matter develop as they’re going through the film. Going through the entire process on this film, what were the biggest learnings for you on sex work and sex workers?

There’s a lot of stereotypes that sex work carries, and recently online sex work in particular. A lot of people are very opinionated on what online sex work is and there’s this perception of ‘Oh you’re going to make 100K in a month’. A lot of young women get into this with the thinking they’re gonna be rich in a month and a half. I would hear people talk about online sex work saying ‘did you see so-and-so is on OnlyFans, she’s not paying taxes, she’s making more than I make’, these negative stereotypes are attached to it but it’s not what the reality is. There might be a couple women at the top who were pushing that image online but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Due to lockdown that whole market became so saturated with online sex workers that everything became hyper competitive. What women had to do became more extreme and they had to push their own boundaries of comfort to keep up a high revenue stream. That is not even considering the backlash they get from their communities online and offline, it’s a high risk, high reward type of profession and it attracts a lot of vulnerable women, with the average online sex worker only doing the job for a couple months. 

It’s hard work and long hours, Sinead is up in the middle of the night answering messages, it’s the first thing she does when she wakes up, she’s never off the clock. You’re running your own small business and you’ve only got yourself to count on. 

I’m curious what your thoughts are on how film in general has historically influenced attitudes to sex work; it’s very easy to zone in on the glamour and/or exploitation and film can really accentuate those aspects.

I did see a lot of the girls get onto platforms like OnlyFans because of the fantasy – it portrays this glamorized idea of what the work is which only shows one side, the beautiful images, the adoration, the glitz and the other side of the women’s lives didn’t seem to factor or matter. Which is generally always how women have always been portrayed in media and film.

Cinema and the image of women has always been held through the male gaze, with women acting much more like a sexualised fantasy rather than an in depth charter with their own wants and needs. Women then often see themselves the way men want to see them and with Call Me Mommy we had a great opportunity to strip that sexualised persona away and let Sinead tell her own story through her own lens.

Would they develop a lot of comparable skills to filmmakers and to people in that industry, both in terms of the hustle and in terms of actually presenting themselves? 

Absolutely, you have to be quite inventive and think outside the box to get your subscribers up and overall be quite intuitive with your approach. It’s not just about uploading sexy pics to your account, you really have to be quite a good sales person to get your account out there. They need to learn how to do  cross platform promotion, their own film making setups are getting more and more advanced, as well as finding their own niche on the sites and developing their own ‘character’ or ‘persona’ to sell themselves, they learn to play to their strengths to get a baseline of subscribers they can depend on month to month, it really is like a small business, something not many people consider when getting into it.

Where that stigma still does exist, is that something that you have experienced directly where people ask you know what are you working on?

It was a really hot topic amongst people that I knew, me and my friends would debate the ins and outs of Onlyfans over a couple pints and those conversations always carried a lot of strong and controversial opinions. 

Overall people never really expressed anything other than interest when I spoke about the film and the real stigma came from talking about the girls themselves rather than what I was working on. Mainly men that I spoke to would make comments that  they’d never date a girl on Onlyfans or that they’d disown their daughter if she had an Onlyfans account, so the stigma unfortunately was always put back onto the women.

It’s in Call Me Mommy’s favour that it is open and honest and allows for a lot of nuances and for Sinead to assert herself as a worker and a mother. No matter what work you’re doing, your work is not who you are.

Totally and that’s exactly what we tried to do in the film, sex work is part of her life, but its not her whole life. 

In terms of the conversations that you’re hoping that this film and films like this put out there, what is the best-case scenario this will prompt in audiences when they see it?

I hope Call Me Mommy gets people question their own stereotypes and reactions to online sex work and sex work in general. This line of work carries huge prejudices but just because it’s an uncomfortable topic doesn’t mean it’s not happening. If anything, with the explosion of the internet sex work is becoming more and more common. I don’t know if we’ll change any minds, but I’d love for people to sympathize more with the women and think about things from their perspective instead of jumping to their own conclusions about what kind of people they are. Hopefully Call Me Mommy can start that conversation and to begin to break down the preconceptions attached to sex work where traditionally power has not been in the hands of the sex worker. 

Motherland is a hybrid Production and Post Production Company, working across all platforms. They pride themselves on being talent led with craft at the heart of everything they do. Prior to the release of Call Me Mommy, Motherland has had success with the 2021 release of feature film ‘Love Yourself Today’, as well as several short films on the international festival circuit such as 99 Problems, Seven Feet, and Becoming Men. 

Award winning director Tara O’Callaghan is a rising star. Dynamic, experimental and constantly pushing creative boundaries. Her love for realism is often blended with expressionistic editing for a unique feeling. Her Style cuts through narrative to reveal the underlying emotional core. From Kinsale Shark Awards and Vimeo Staff Picks to Galway Film Fleadh, Tara continues to demand attention.

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