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The Pink House: Inside Australia’s oldest brothel

BJ spends much of the night attempting to entice customers into the brothel.
BJ spends much of the night attempting to entice customers into the brothel.

WHEN CARMEL was feeling a little depressed after being widowed for the third time in her early 50s, her doctor suggested she find a new interest.

It's unlikely the GP was envisaging she would move to Kalgoorlie and purchase Australia's oldest brothel, but that's just what she did.

Carmel, the owner and madam at Australia’s oldest brothel. Picture: Supplied
Carmel, the owner and madam at Australia’s oldest brothel. Picture: Supplied

Questa Casa, affectionately known as "the pink house", was established 113 years ago in 1904 to service the cashed-up men from the gold mining boom.

Despite the fact that prostitution has technically been illegal in Western Australia since 1892, the brothel has been an enduring fixture on Hay Street ... just up the road from the police station.

But since the mining boom dried up, things have been much quieter in Kalgoorlie.

Once upon a time Questa Casa was turning customers away. Now they have nights where nobody crosses the threshold.

Carmel keeps her brothel spotless.
Carmel keeps her brothel spotless.

Carmel, 70, has been the brothel's madam for 25 years now. With her posh accent, sensible pressed pants and conservative persona, she is an unlikely head dame for this remote house of debauchery.

New documentary The Pink House paints an affectionate portrait of Carmel and the last resident worker, BJ, who lives with Carmel out the back of the pink tin shed.

BJ works the door at Questa Casa ... business has been much quieter since the mining boom ended.
BJ works the door at Questa Casa ... business has been much quieter since the mining boom ended.

Sascha Ettinger Epstein, the documentary's AFI award-winning director, first stumbled on the pair while working in Kalgoorlie on a different project.

"One quiet night I went to Hay Street and it was like going into another world," she tells whimn.

"This very proper madam and her blonde bob and BJ hanging over the doorframe, waving at the traffic. When you're a documentary-maker you're switched on, and I love weird eccentric people, and I thought, this is just bizarre."

Filmmaker Sascha Ettinger Epstein.
Filmmaker Sascha Ettinger Epstein.

Ms Ettinger-Epstein lived with the pair on and off for five years as she made the film.

She describes the dynamic as "like a little dysfunctional family".

"(Carmel) really treasures history and in her mind she's the madam of this iconic piece of Australian history," Ms Ettinger-Epstein tells Vice.

"BJ is her last working lady of the night. They just have this interesting, unusual relationship while they're attempting to survive all of the cultural, political, and social changes in a new era of sex work."

Madam Carmel looks after reception at the brothel.
Madam Carmel looks after reception at the brothel.

BJ and Carmel have their work cut out for them in modern day Kalgoorlie. 45-year-old BJ repeatedly bemoans the fact that their business is being undercut by Asian prostitutes who work out of nearby apartment blocks.

But as the film progresses, we discover that BJ is her own worst enemy - despite Carmel's best efforts to keep her clean, BJ repeatedly goes off on drug benders. And things eventually take an incredibly dark turn.

BJ has been working as a prostitute for over 20 years.
BJ has been working as a prostitute for over 20 years.

Regardless of her obvious affection for the characters of the film, Ms Ettinger-Epstein tells Viceshe believes the story of The Pink House is an important one to tell.

"I do hope this slice of history can be preserved," she said.

"It's really quite a fascinating era. People don't realise that prostitutes came from all over the world - being entrepreneurs - to make their fortunes on the gold fields, just as the prospectors and miners did."

Carmel moved to Kalgoorlie and purchased the brothel on a whim.
Carmel moved to Kalgoorlie and purchased the brothel on a whim.

"Women came from everywhere, from France and Japan and all over the place. It was known all around the world that Hay Street, Kalgoorlie was the money making district.

"It's quite amazing that we had a little slice of Amsterdam in the middle of this remote desert in a gold mining town that most people haven't heard of. It's the unwritten side of the gold rush."

The Pink House will be screening in November on limited release.

NSW Leichhardt - Wednesday November 1st

QLD Brisbane - Wednesday November 8th

ACT Manuka - Wednesday November 8th

TAS Hobart - Wednesday November 8th

VIC Melbourne - Wednesday November 8th

WA Churchlands - Wednesday November 8th

SA North Adelaide - Thursday November 9th

Topics:  brothel documentary editors picks



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