Safe to say that in all my years covering nonfiction fests around the globe, «Naked Truths – Intimacy in Documentary Film» is a panel title I’d never seen listed in any program. Until now. Presented at this year’s hybrid DOK Leipzig, this thrillingly enlightening (virtual) talk posed a lightning rod question rarely wrestled with: Namely, what is the place of sexually explicit imagery in the nonfiction, non-porn world? (And since we’re getting all philosophical, what is, in fact, intimacy itself?)
Deftly moderated by the selections committee’s own Djamila Grandits and Carolin Weidner, the four deep-thinking participants included Pornfilmfestival Berlin’s founder Jürgen Brüning (a veteran producer and programmer at the Berlinale as well) and its co-organizer and curator Paulita Pappel (also the co-founder of lustery.com, a «platform dedicated to the sex lives of real-life, loving couples»); Julia Palmieri Mattison (whose short Play Me, I’m Yours played the fest); and Pia Hellenthal (who directed the Berlinale-premiering Searching Eva, probably my biggest doc find of 2019).
Porn is film
After launching the discussion by pointing out that the lines between porn and film had never been rigid to begin with, Pappel stressed the need to use film terminology when talking about explicit imagery because porn is film. She also believed that since sexuality is such a taboo topic it’s, therefore, crucial to put it onscreen – in order to open up a wider conversation within society.
Brüning then mentioned that he was the one to suggest the panel’s title – as the word «intimacy» seemed more apropos to the work these filmmakers were creating. In personal documentaries, he reminded, «explicit scenes are always contextualized.» And crucially, arousal is not the purpose. He noted that the beginning of this approach occurred all the way back in the 60s when experimental/performance artists like Marina Abramovich and Carolee Schneemann started exploring their own bodies in their films. It was an attempt to express their personalities as a whole – including the body. To which Mattison, who called nudity a «creative trigger» for her, added that intimacy doesn’t even have to involve explicit imagery. Often an intimate conversation can be even more revealing (Grandits then suggested that this was all just a part of self-expression.)
…the lines between porn and film had never been rigid to begin with…
Next, Hellenthal revealed that her film’s protagonist Eva, who now identifies as Adam, didn’t even subscribe to the concept of intimacy. Indeed, it’s what baffled her about him. Simply put, Adam took all morality out of sex. And whether he was peeing on the toilet or sleeping with someone in front of the camera – to him, it was just the same «as eating muesli for breakfast in the morning.» No shame was involved in any of these actions.
And in this way, Hellenthal hypothesized, Searching Eva reflects back on the viewer their own morality (in other words, her protagonist is neutral). She added that the more naked Adam was, the more elusive he actually became. «If you put everything out there you become invisible.» Through this exploration, Hellenthal also discovered that the things that are most telling about us are the things that cause us fear or embarrassment. The things we hardly ever show in life or onscreen.
This caused Brüning to meditate on Thunska Pansittivorakul’s Avalon (which he produced and was also screening DOK Leipzig). While the Thai film is mainly comprised of sex tapes, the insecurity that appears during a sex scene is actually the essential element that propels the narrative. And yet he found that certain critics seemed to focus solely on the sex, which led to missing the point. Grandits wondered if perhaps «a lack of literacy» around sexuality in film might be to blame. Maybe viewers equate sex solely with arousal – and thus perhaps unconsciously recoil, or even dismiss, any explicit imagery that bucks that norm.
As the discussion wound to a close, the subject of market-driven forces pushing more sex into nonfiction films came up. Indeed, documentaries about sex work have proliferated over the past few years – and have «specific dominant narratives,» Grandits lamented. Usually, the sex itself is not actually dealt with, or even shown, onscreen. This seemed to be a pet peeve of Pappel’s, who urged for the stigma to be challenged. The idea of sex work needed to be expanded (something she believed Searching Eva had achieved). Audiences, she noted, are used to seeing brutality – the «sex worker gets raped and murdered» narrative. In fact, the trope has become so normalized that there is no longer any shock to the senses. However, if a documentarian chooses to show sex workers having sex onscreen viewers are, well, suddenly stunned. In other words, we should be questioning not the sex but our own reactions to it. Or as Pappel put it, «We need to challenge the paradigm.» Sexualized violence has become nearly «acceptable» because those watching rarely relate to the characters. We need to re-humanize these people, the panel agreed. This is where documentaries come in – ultimately stimulating all of us to open ourselves to the human experience, whatever form it may take.
Featured Image: Searching Eva, a film by Pia Hellenthal