I am a documentary film director. Subjects of my films have included love, sex, 9/11, indigenous fisheries, hurricanes, refugees, HIV/AIDS orphans, and visualization of God. I am best known for the Real People, Real Life, Real Sex series of documentaries that simultaneously explore the vital role of sexual pleasure in committed relationships and the problematic place of explicit sexuality in cinema. This is my "Safe" blog.
On September 23rd the National Coalition Against Censorship held a screening of DESTRICTED and I was invited to sit on a post-screening panel about art and censorship along Amy Adler, Marilyn Minter, Neville Wakefield, & Andrew Hale; and hosted by Svetlana Mintcheva.
As much as anything else, the reason I was invited to speak on the panel is because the same night that DESTRICTED played at the Australian Center for the Moving image (with the de rigueur academic panel discussing line between art and pornography) police were dispatched to the Melbourne Underground Film Festival to stop the world premiere of my film ASHLEY AND KISHA: FINDING THE RIGHT FIT. (ASHLEY AND KISHA went on to win Best Foreign Film and Best Foreign Director.)
I’ll probably have more to say about the experience at a later date, but for now here’s the panel, presented as series of YouTube clips arranged into a playlist. If these sorts of ideas — art, censorship, who is allowed to be heard, and what they’re allowed to say — are important to you, I think you’ll enjoy watching the panel!
“Damon and Hunter” was shot in January of 2005 in a house in Rego Park, Queens, New York, in the middle of a huge snow storm. When we arrived at the location the pavement was dry, but by the time we packed out there was nearly two feet of snow. It took us nearly two hours to drive the 7 miles back to our house. The film, music and culture critic Steve Dollar was there, and somewhere between the set and home, he slipped and fell, breaking his arm. Maybe that’s why we never got a story out of it.
“Damon and Hunter” had its world premiere to an overflow crowd at the 2006 Melbourne Underground Film Festival, and ultimately received the Best Documentary award. Unbeknownst to me, this screening had taken place in direct defiance of the Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification, who had refused to grant the film a festival exemption and ordered the film not be screened.
This was also unknown to the Sydney International Gay & Lesbian Documentary Film Festival, and they booked the film for two nights at their 2006 festival.
But in Australia, film festivals are required to submit their “play list” to the government, and still stinging from Melbourne Underground’s defiance, the OFLC lowered the boom. The Sydney festival director was told that if he screened the film he would face fines and jail time. The screening was cancelled, and the slots filled with a British soap opera. (A year later, the OFLC would send police to stop the premiere of “Ashley and Kisha: Finding the Right Fit” at the 2007 iteration of MUFF.)
Since the Sydney debacle, the film has gone on to screen in several other countries – Israel, The Netherlands, New Zealand, and here at the US at the 2006 Cinekink Film Festival (the first time I ever had the opportunity to see one of my films play for an audience.)
The film has also been enthusiastically embraced by the educational and therapeutic communities; and it held in the libraries of The Kinsey Institute, The San Francisco Sex Information Hotline, The Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and Planned Parenthood.
So the night after next I’m going to be on a panel at a National Coalition Against Censorship screening of DESTRICTED. The film DESTRICTED is kind of a sore point with me for a couple of reasons.
1) I don’t really think the film challenges anything. It’s a collection of shorts made by well-known, well-credentialed, well-connected artists. The authorities don’t usually come after people like that, and when they do, people like that have lots of high-placed friends to come to their aid. So when artists like Matthew Barney or Larry Clark “explore the boundary between art and porn” they do it at virtually no risk. DESTRICTED isn’t a provocation, or a test case. It’s a publicity stunt, perpetrated by people who didn’t do their homework on the state of the film festival/limited theatrical for PR, and DVD sales distribution gambit.
The result? They made a punishing to watch, ugly little film predicated on a business model that was in decline before they shot the first frame.
2) The film’s promoters and advocates have made multiple appeals to the fact that DESTRICTED “shows us porn but refuses to offer pleasure or arousal”.
[W]hilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.
Time and time again, this is the rubric that the Arts elites use to justify their forays into explicit sexual imagery, and time and time again it works. And over time, this rubric has reduced the exploration of sexuality to banal pranksterism over how much punishment critics and censors will endure for the sake of Art. The rubric reinforces the idea that arousal is an inappropriate topic for exploration and a shameful reaction to sexual imagery. And lastly (and this is the big one) that there’s some elusive quality called “Artistic Merit” that makes it okay for a Matthew Barney or Larry Clark to work with sexually explicit imagery, but it’s not okay for me.
From the DESTRICTED website:
“If porn is work that serves no purpose other than causing sexual arousal, then erotica is usually explicit material that has artistic merit beyond its ability to arouse. Erotica, for that matter need not even arouse. Somtimes the sex in an erotic story makes us laugh or cringe or cry. Where porn depends on its ability to inspire a physical response, erotica has something broader to say about human beings as sexual creatures whether it gets us off or not…
And here’s the British Board of Film Classification’s explanation of granting DESTRICTED an R-rating:
“After considerable agonising, the British Board of Film Classification granted an 18 rating for Destricted this week, to be released uncut on DVD. But it said that it must carry a warning that it “contains strong, real sex”.
“A source at the board described the film as “awful”. Unusually, it was not approved until it had been seen by the board’s president, Sir Quentin Thomas.
“The board had considered granting a Restricted 18 DVD classification, reserved for work intended to be arousing. That would have meant that a Destricted DVD could be sold only in sex shops and would have ruled out the possibility of its being put on sale in the shop at Tate Modern, where the film is to be given five screenings in September.
“Sir Quentin said that Destricted was so explicit that it would normally attract an R18 rating but he judged that it was a work of art not intended to arouse.
“He said: “In purpose and effect, this work is plainly a serious consideration of sex and pornography as aspects of the human experience.
“We think that there are no grounds for depriving adults of the ability to decide themselves whether they want to see it.”
“Tate Modern said the film was art not pornography.”
And it’s not just Britain (where my films are illegal to screen or sell on DVD.) Which brings me to:
3) It’s personal.
In 2007 our film ASHLEY AND KISHA: FINDING THE RIGHT FIT was slated to have its world-premiere at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival.
By chance, that very same night DESTRICTED was slated to play across town at the Australian Center for the Moving Image (complete with an academic panel afterwards to discuss the difference between art and pornography.)
ASHLEY AND KISHA was a film from an unknown director, playing at one of the few film festivals in Australia that does not enjoy at least some measure of government funding. DESTRICTED was a film featuring an all-star line up of well-known artists, playing at a government-funded facility, and backed by the Tate Modern.
One screening went ahead as planned.
The other was raided by the police and the film went unseen.
Here’s the rest of the story (first posted in 2007 to The Art & Business of Making Erotic Films):
It’s four in the morning here and I just finished a long chat with a representative of the Office of Film and Literature Classification.
“Ashley and Kisha” has not been classified, which meant that the OFLC could have given it a festival exemption to play at MUFF.
But the OFLC refused to give it a festival exemption on the basis that my previous three films were classified X.
I asked why “Destricted”, which features work by Larry Clark (whose previous film was refused classification) was given a festival exemption to play the same night as “Ashley and Kisha”, across town at ACMI, and they could not answer.
I asked why “Destricted”, which features brutally mercenary depictions of the most loveless anal sex, was given a festival exemption and they could not answer.
Their suggestion was that we submit “Ashley and Kisha” for rush classification, in the hopes that we would receive an R classification.
When I asked why “9 Songs”, which feature actors performing cunnilingus, fellatio, ejaculation, and penetration was given an R, while our films which depict actual lovers are given an X, they could not answer.
When I asked why “Shortbus”, which features, among other things, an actor masturbating and then ejaculating on his own face was given an R, while our films, which explore sexual pleasure inside the context of committed real-life loving relationships were not, they could not answer.
When I asked why numerous videos from the Sinclair Institute, which feature various sex acts performed by paid models, and presented under the guise of education are given R’s, while our films, which are held in the libraries of The Kinsey Institute at the University of Indiana, Planned Parenthood, The Gay Mens Health Crisis, The San Francisco Sex Information Hotline and many other health and education organizations are given an X, they could not answer.
They have told me the process is subjective and imperfect; yet this process has a “perfect” track record of marginalizing our films.
Now they would ask that we once again submit our work to this subjective and imperfect process, pay $1,000 for the privilege of doing so, against the hope that the fifth time’s the charm.
I may be a fool, but I’m not that kind of fool.
Writing about “Ashley and Kisha”, film critic Megan Spencer said, “The sweetest thing – Kisha & Ashley is one of the sweetest love stories you’re ever likely to see committed to film. The Comstocks once again put their perfect documentary formula to good use – true love and real sex – on screen; what’s not to like?!”
True love and real sex, what’s not to like indeed?
Obviously the OFLC has no problem with real sex. It has granted its R classification to “9 Songs”, “Shortbus”, and many other videos containing real sex. It has granted a festival exemption to “Destricted”, which contains real sex.
One can only conclude that the problem the OFLC has is with true love, and what a pity that is; for this film, for the people who wanted to see it, and for Australia.
I don’t know if that ACMI panel ever did figure out the difference between art and pornography, but this is the way it plays out in the real world.
Now after all that bile, if you’ll permit me one point of satisfaction. Turning back to the DESTRICTED website:
“The Destricted brand is the first in a continuing series. The seven films presented explore the fine line where art and pornography intersect. The films highlight controversial issues about the representation of sexuality in art: opening up for debate the question of whether art can be disguised as pornography or whether pornography can disguised as art or something else altogether. The result is a collection os sexy, stimulating, challenging, provocative, strange and sometime humorous scenarios that leave it up to the viewer to decide.”
That was written back in 2006, the year we released DAMON AND HUNTER: DOING IT TOGETHER (which had it’s own troubles with censorship in Australia and elsewhere). But somehow Peggy and I managed to get DVDs of DAMON AND HUNTER on store shelves. Then we released ASHLEY AND KISHA, and endured all the headaches and heartbreaks that came with that. And then we released BILL AND DESIREE: LOVE IS TIMELESS.
Right now today, we have six films, all still in print, all available online and in brick and mortar stores; and we’re getting ready to release our seventh film, BRETT AND MELANIE: BOI MEETS GIRL
As to DESTRICTED’s “continuing series”? For all their connections and clever talk about arousal and “artistic merit” the film still hasn’t been released in the US, either theatrically or on DVD; much less a “continuing series.”
I really don’t know what’s going to happen Monday night. But whatever happens, if you’re in New York, I’m sure you won’t want to miss it!