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Feminist, queer and alternative Porn Film Festivals: some suggestions for festival organizers and directors

March 2018, Berlin

Feminist, queer and alternative Porn Film Festivals: some suggestions for festival organizers and directors

edited and with additions by Mad Kate. Thanks so much Dada!

 
***Addition: It's been pointed out that I may not be clear enough in how much appreciation I have for the festivals and the bastions of organizers and volunteers that it takes for each of these festivals to run. I know that some of these festivals are like a half-year unpaid halftime job for organizers, and I feel incredibly astounded and grateful for the amount of free labor and dedication organizers give for our community, year after year. Especially as a culture of destructive rather than constructive criticism grows, both on and off the internet, I recognize what a thankless-feeling energy drain this can be: trying to build something beautiful to honor the work and the folks behind it, but receiving more shit storms than appreciation or recognition for all of this hard work. So let me say for the record: our scene, or continuing interest in creating this kind of media, would be only a fraction of what it is without all of the work of the festival organizers. Again I default to the Berlin Porn Film Festival (the fest I'm most familiar with) to say I have seen time and again folks become filmmakers and porn performers specifically because of being inspired by the BPFF. Here in Berlin at least, porn is being made in a continual feedback loop with the festival organized to showcase it. (The Berlin PFF is even one of the reasons I relocated to this city!) And I know that there is no "perfect" festival or organizational model- so these suggestions are made with great gratitude and recognition of the real-life impact the festivals have on peoples' work and lives. Without them, some of us would certainly have stopped making or sharing our porn long ago, or maybe would have never started making it. So thank you, deeply, for all you do. It sure 'aint easy! So for all the times you don't hear it, let me say: THANK YOU!*****

 

In January I  saw many of the folks I know who perform in “mainstream” or mass-marketed porn and some who do crossover between queer/independent porn and high distribution commercial work reporting from “festival season.” Generally this means the  AVN (Adult Video News awards) in Las Vegas and XBiz awards in LA--both in January. But for those of us working in other branches of pornography there are also a few glovefulls of film festivals for our work. These festivals and awards ceremonies are designed to highlight, validate, honor and serve as a platform to screen work that is intentionally feminist, queer, art or fetish based, or independently produced. These porn film festivals span North America, Europe and Australia and take place throughout the year. Our community of performers, directors, producers and festival organizers is fairly small but productive and well-traveled, and year by year an increasing number of great new talents pop up to join those of us to whom the motivation for making porn is primarily a political or artistic medium, and only secondarily (or sixthly) as a profitable commercial enterprise.

 

I’ve been performing in various pornographies since I was 22 (that’s 17 years), and have been focusing my work onscreen in the feminist/queer and artporn worlds for the past 13 years. Personally I’m glad and proud that we have the porn fest circuit that we do; the festivals give space to see and screen work by directors, producers and performers that are simply not available commercially or anywhere on the internet. They can be great places to meet other folks working in the field who live in other countries--for networking, collaboration, friendship and solidarity.

 

These festivals often actively breed new cultures and communities: I know quite a few folks (including myself) who do not have a traditional filmmaking background and never imagined themselves as directors or producers, who begin shooting weird, imaginative, political porn because they feel inspired and compelled to contribute to the festivals they love. Don’t underestimate the creative and cultural power that these relatively small yearly events have; in Berlin in particular, a tight and active alternative porn scene has grown up around the Berlin Porn Film Festival. Over the last 12 years more and more folks get excited by going to the festival, inspired by the breadth of subject and style portrayed, and motivated to create their own work knowing they have a specific platform (and a complimentary accreditation) as a goal.

 

On an emotional level these are often the real-life spaces where performers and directors get the lion’s share of their recognition and validation for their hard work for the year. In a field that is stigmatized, misunderstood, and often not even very profitable for both the performers and creators, it can sometimes feel like your work goes into a vacuum, and it can feel hard to stay in touch with the rewards of spending so much time and energy with challenging, boundary-expanding, often very emotionally vulnerable work. As platforms such as pinklabel.tv expand to create a home for “festival” work (i.e. not otherwise widely showcased or marketed) and facilitate a broad variety of creators’ access to financial compensation for their labor, at the same time, free online platforms like Instagram and Tumblr become more restrictive. These social media sites frequently cancel accounts that give glimpses of alternative porn that is not easy to categorize. This definitely limits viewership.  Many of us depend on festivals for this important “feedback loop” of creative work: being seen, receiving input, and meeting the audience of folks who value what we do.

 

After 13 years of shooting, unlike in many professional fields, I still chase folks down and ask them to shoot me, apply to new directors, and I still do at least a quarter of my porn performances for no payment (100 euros or less). I estimate that 15-20% of the shoots that I do are never released as scenes or films. That means anywhere from 3 hours to 3 days of work, per shoot, is never seen because the director runs out of money or other resources, the footage is lost, or a performer has second thoughts and requests to pull a scene. While payment is not my main motivation, it is a clear signifier of value, and if making money is not how we are shown the value of our work, then something must come in its place. In my experience, especially for the films and performers that don’t easily fit within capitalist ideals of “valuable”, it’s at festivals that we get the answer to the question: why do I do this? Does this matter to anyone? Do I have an audience, and what do they connect to in my work? How can I serve my audience and my own visions better?

 

In the last few years I’ve started to notice that the way some feminist/queer/art/kink porn* festivals organize themselves structurally and financially, don’t necessarily align themselves with the feminist labor values that are often at the heart of what the festivals aim to create: namely a space to showcase and praise the work and workers in this small corner of sex-work-meets-creative-media-creation. Since the majority of porn relies on performers working with their  bodies in sexually explicit ways, I see it as the place of the feminist/queer festivals to honor the brave and edgy work of those performers, who work and share and give so much of themselves for our arousal, our amusement, our representative relatability, our emotional processes, our awakenings, and our judgement. Sex workers know it’s no small thing to put your body on the line, and we become expert at balancing the benefits (such as ‘celebrity’, more work, promo for other sex work, community appreciation) and the challenging consequences of this work amongst increased body-image issues, stigma, repulsion, and dehumanization.


 

Most porn* festivals are organized with the weight of the credit and authorship on the directors. One reason for this is that in the alternative porn* scene there tends to be increased  crossover between performers and directors (many creators are almost one person shows, directing/editing/performing/maybe even holding the camera!). However it’s actually against the politics (in my opinion) of the whole feminist/queer porn fest concept if directors receive the sole credit, perks and honors as creators at the expense of performers and crew. Both Hollywood and mainstream/mass-distributed porn worlds honor performers in their own right, as artists and craftspeople who hone their talents and bring their skill-sets to the screen. Given that we are creating a new culture, and reinventing our standards, we might as well throw out old hierarchies that devalue the actual sex work.

 

It seems difficult to call our scene “feminist” if the folks who actually exhibit their bodies and sexuality in the videos have less chance at official, institutional recognition than they do inside systems that don’t claim or attempt to be feminist or political at all. While directors generally drive the organization of the shoots, gather the resources, and pay for what (if anything) there is to be paid for (from catering to crew fees), in my experience it is just as often that the creative content, primary concept, or aesthetic of a porn* shoot comes from the performers as it does from the director. Often performers, or camera folks, are the most experienced porn-workers on set. This experience generally comes with an added layer of labor- helping and advising the director/producer,  on elements they may not have considered, i.e., care-giving for other performers, proposing production schedules. Camera and tech people also often invent or contribute a huge amount of aesthetic style to the work since most of the shoots operate without storyboards and the lighting/shots/audio recording are then delegated to the other members of the crew.

 

So while the work of the director generally lasts longer (pre- to post- production) than that of the performers or crew, the creative “authorship” belongs not to a single Author but to many different people. I understand that choosing to credit and honor directors over performers and crew is generally a financial choice for festivals--in most films there are a maximum of two directors where there may be anywhere between 0-30 performers, and there just isn’t enough money in this scene for accreditations and travel tickets for everyone involved. But deciding that the performers’ work is secondary (especially for performers who work a lot, and over the course of many years in this genre) is not an appropriate solution. It simply reifies the old “Masters”, patriarchal art-world power and the dichotomy between “artist” and “model”.


 

The following  recommendations are by no means exhaustive or comprehensive. While there is so much room to consider issues of intersectional and representational feminism in porn festival organizational structures (making sure some if not all screenings are wheelchair accessible; reaching out to PoC and queer/transfolks not just for films but also to join organizing teams; considering ageism, fat politics, disability and gender roles in the content of the work that is curated; considering class of creators with regards to film aesthetic, ability to travel or miss work to be present for screenings, and audience -creating tiers of ticket prices, work exchange and sponsorships so screenings can host mixed classes of folks; just to touch on the very tip of suggestions), the focus of this list is on acts intended to bridge the gaps of power, honor and access between the different labor(s) of directors--who create and distribute the media, and performers--who expose their faces, bodies, skills and vulnerabilities, and the crew--who physically capture the media and often bear the brunt of the non-sexual physical labor.


 

Here are some tips I’d suggest to any festival or screening series that espouse feminism--both as an  ideology as well an organizational methodology. I’m writing here mostly from my perspective as a performer, but also as an occasional director, and having heard critiques from folks in crew positions as well.  


 

  1. Festivals can remind all directors/producers to notify their cast and crew in the acceptance mail they send out

Here’s a tuth many folks might not know: porn* performers often do not know that the films they’ve appeared in are screening. Usually this is because directors are also producers of their own work--artists on double duty with other careers and art. They mostly do not have much money and way too many life and work projects to manage at any given time. So often, especially after the first 6 months of the film’s release,  directors forget to inform their cast when and where the film is screened. Sometimes the director informs the cast via FB, or Whatsapp, or email, and not all of the cast have access or use that form of communication and so they fall through the cracks. I get it, it’s hard to be a one-person show, up to date on these time-consuming admin tasks for years. I’ve had the experience more than three times of looking up the program of a festival that I thought I had nothing to do with only to find that I would in fact appear in 3 or more films in the schedule with no notification from any of the directors. This is clearly not the best we can do for those involved in the hard work of making a film. Moreover,it means that films and fests get less cross-promotions from the performers they are screening, and sometimes even miss out on in-person appearances for QandAs. Festivals can do something very simple about this, though: they could clearly remind all directors/producers to notify their cast and crew in the acceptance mail they send. If a festival decides to honor a film or performer, send a message to the performers and DoP directly! They could even consider asking each director for a complete cast and crew list of each film so that the festival has an overall idea of all the people who have contributed to the breadth of work at the festival.

 

2.Offer Complimentary Tickets

One possibility for a practical attempt at more parity between the director(s), cast, and crew, is that each film get tickets and/or accreditations for at least 3 folks: 1 for a director/producer, 1 for a representative of the crew and 1 for a representative of the performers. Of course this is not a perfect solution: it’s more expensive for the festivals and still leaves plenty of laborers out, but it could act as a jumping-off point to consider alternative models for distribution of resources.

 

3.Create Awards for Crew

If your festival has a specific award or honor for performers, great! Consider creating one for crew as well--there may be a surprising amount of regional overlap in the camera, sound and tech folks in very different films.

 

     4. De-monopolize Performer Awards

Please figure out creative ways to re-budget to offer 3 annual awards to performers rather than just one. Perhaps fly in one performer, pick one from the local scene, and send an award or gift certificate to another? This also gives a chance to expand inclusiveness every year in your representation of honored performers. And keep in mind that newcomers, mid-career and long-working performers all deserve recognition and honors. It is possible to avoid falling into the trap of honoring either *just* “the usual suspects” or shiniest most prolific newbie.  In a small scene that mixes work, creativity, social and romantic connections, and a motley assortment of political ideals, let’s not emotionally burden ourselves and each other by unintentionally re-creating the singular celebrity culture and competition of the capitalist world in our feminist and queer performance work.

 

5.Decentralize Honors

On a similar note, inform yourself about the work of other porn festivals in the world. Share the appreciation and validation- in other words if someone already got big honors at another festival that year, consider honoring them another year or do honors in pairings. It’s part of creative practice and fine if a director or performer is blowing everyone away one year, but decentralizing how honors are disseminated can help ensure that every alternative porn festival in the world doesn’t only honor the same two people for a whole year.

 

6Offer Accreditation to performers and crew appearing in more than two films

It’s the programmers’ job to take a big picture view of the festival and to notice when certain performers and crew appear in several films. Especially with less than ideal communication between directors and cast/crew, some people may have no idea just how much they’ve contributed to the festival. If a performer/crew appears in/has worked on more than two films in the festival per year (shorts or feature length) offer the performer an accreditation, festival passes, or another concrete resource that recognizes that their work helps make the festival what it is.

 

7.Prioritize Diverse and Intersectional Curation

Recognize that while the motivation to start a porn film fest in your area may come from a variety of sources, once you begin hosting festivals you are in a position of power. The festival you create is based on the work of hundreds of folks, possibly from around the world, that you may know or never meet. Honoring the work means treating the creators, performers and laborers with respect: consider intersectionality when curating, pay screening fees (even symbolic) if possible, make sure all folks significantly involved in the work get notified, and at bare minimum ask permission from creators to screen their work. Beyond giving yourself a lot of organizational work and hopefully satisfaction in creating a shared public venue for consensual explicit film, and giving your audience the gift of physical/intellectual/creative arousal, sharing hard-to-find films and new perspectives, and participating in a temporary pocket of increased sexual freedom, don’t forget to honor the work of the filmmakers/performers/crew as well.

 

8.Publicize Featured Performers and DoP along with Directors Names

When publicizing screenings, at least credit the feature performers and DoP along with stating the directors’ names. Especially if you have no budget for screening fees, bringing in cast/crew, or creating awards, use the public platform you’ve created to mention/link to cast/crew’s  websites, social media platforms, and especially any tool folks use to monetize their work. Help your creators and performers sustain themselves indirectly (if not directly) so they can make more work for you to screen! Host or support a platform specifically for directors/producers/performers and crew folks who will attend your festival to meet on or offline to make more work during the duration of the festival or beyond.  Inform your audience via web and live announcement that this performer also does individual Domination sessions or that crew member is local and for hire for a variety of film work. Put a resources page on your site with links to everyone else’s sites. Set up or cross-promote relevant funding opportunities, or pass a hat to be sent by random lottery to someone involved in the films that are screened. Remind and invite performers/creators/crew to bring postcards, business cards, DVDs, access codes, swag, etc. so they can try to make a little money on-site. Use every possibility to bring attention to all the folks (who consent) that contributed to the films that make your festival.  Make it very easy for your audience to get more information about and access to the cast and crew that want to be seen/known/hired. The festival you create will hopefully become a destination, an attraction, a space to learn and disseminate and interact. Part of the recognition of the power of creating this space is the acceptance of the responsibility to help sustain the folks whose work fills up that space.

 

9.Don’t let camera/sound/photographer folks, performers, or producers with low income have to pay to see their own work on screen.

Sometimes we never receive a screener link, but even if we have, watching what you’ve worked on in a theater is a significantly different experience, often with a much greater sense of accomplishment, than watching alone with a phone or laptop. If giving a comp ticket to every member of cast/crew for every screening is (understandably) unfeasible, at least create a sliding scale ticket option for folks who’ve worked on the film to be able to watch their work for free or at very low cost. Alternatively, announce to your audience that you will host a sponsorship campaign to raise money to cover ticket costs so that cast/crew can see their own work for free. Many observers of the small alternative porn scene have no sense whatsoever of the economics of the filmmaking and would be happy to pay for an extra ticket so that someone who was paid nothing or almost nothing can watch the product of their work without having to pay for it.

 

10.Don’t ask for unending unpaid promotional or preparation work from underpaid performers

If you do honor individuals, and not just films, please do not ask for an ill-defined and increasing amount of labor in exchange for the honor. If your program depends on 1 minute promotional videos, a night of screenings, a night of awards, and a panel discussion for example, figure that all out in advance, extend the invitation to be honored and make sure that all the additional time and work that will be required of the folks is clearly stated upfront, in the invitation or acceptance email.  I’ve had the experience of performing in films that were scheduled in festivals, not being paid to come to the festival, not offered free tickets to screenings of the films that I’m in, but then being asked to make a promotional video for the festival, or do an unpaid explicit photo/video shoot for their marketing material. At the time I did it in good faith, but looking back I feel a bit used and definitely underappreciated for giving so much of my time and energy without any attempt of compensation except for the ‘honor’ of using my image to promote the festival.  Especially where creators and laborers are not being directly compensated except by the honor of their work appearing at the festival, please do not demand more unpaid labor from us. A practical alternative would be to intentionally conceptualize a marketing approach that uses only flashbacks or new framing of old materials; then request photos or links to other already made works, along with permission for the festival team to create promotional materials out of these pre-existing materials.

 

11.Find Alternative Ways to “Pay Back” unpaid promotions

If you are organizing a festival or festival off-shoot project that asks for or receives free creative or promotional labor from porn cast/crew (performances, writing, photo/video shoots, design, big promo pushes from well-known creators, etc.) strongly consider “paying them back” by finding a role with some honor and perks for them such as paying their way to the fest for a Q/A, giving an accreditation, making them a juror if you have a jury selection, or performer/filmmaker/cameraperson in focus.

 

12.When Choosing Who to Honor, Look Beyond the Obvious and Do Homework

Keep an overview of who has been honored over the years and if there are folks who have been working in the field a long time that you have not yet honored. Especially in festivals that identify as ‘feminist’ it doesn’t make sense to focus honors only on youth, business savvy, or high production rate, all obvious aspects of structures of patriarchy, capitalism, and consumerism. Find creative ways to publicly let long-standing, less high-volume or less mass-appeal contributors to your festival know how much you appreciate their work.

 

13. Consider Offering Festival Jobs to people directly involved in the films

 

Even if you can’t offer free tickets or fly cast or crew in, you could offer some of the jobs that would otherwise be paid, in exchange for accreditation, to those already involved in the scene. Find ways to involve the people who make the films in the festival organization. They may also be the best most engaged people to run Q/As and present films and be happy to have a way to see the whole festival. They can also be asked to organize, host, and perform at after parties in exchange for accreditation.

 

14. Make Sure that Hosts and Facilitators Use Inclusive Language

 

Not everyone will be completely politically aligned or in agreement at any festival, but if a festival espouses feminist or queer politics, every person who is part of the festival should be “on the same page” about respecting gender pronouns and language around bodies/genitals and avoid any kind of shaming/stigmatizing when asking questions and publicly speaking about films. If it’s “too hard” to find those people, consider asking actors and crew themselves, who often have increased sensitivity/knowledge around this.

A good way to handle this is just ask! Included preferred pronoun category on applications or the option to write in preferred gender terms. This includes programming shorts in appropriate categories- transmasc performers are not often happy to find their work billed as “lesbian”, or non-binary folks in “womens porn” or “gay porn” categories. Included a list of possible categories and ask the directors/producers/performers to pick 2-3 options that would work for them.  

 

While these suggestions all require varying degrees of more effort and organization, both of which are generally at a premium for porn festival organizers, this list is not intended so much as a series of demands or requirements, but more as a springboard of tools and inspiration to help film festivals include feminist labor practices and make concrete offers to value folks working sexually in public and validate the work of the performers and crew who work year round to make this movement a reality.




 

*From now on in this piece “porn*” will stand for alternative independent feminist/queer/experimental/art/post- porn

Sadie Lune