Feminist Pornographer Jennifer Lyon Bell on Silver Shoes, PinkLabel.tv, and the Holy F*ck Film Festival
I’ve known Amsterdam-based, San Francisco-bred, Jennifer Lyon Bell ever since we met over half a decade ago at Brooklyn’s much beloved Monkey Town — back when a DIY, Williamsburg performance space could afford to host a Sunday brunch for CineKink Film Festival award winners. (Bell’s Matinée took the Best Narrative Short prize, while Un Piede di Roman Polanski, an homage to Roman Polanski’s foot fetish I co-directed with Roxanne Kapista, nabbed Best Experimental Short.) Since then Bell’s films have been both banned (Matinée from the Melbourne Underground Film Festival by the Australian Film Commission in 2009) and celebrated, most recently in the U.K. and Canada. Her latest, Silver Shoes, available from PinkLabel.tv, premiered at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts and won the Feminist Porn Awards 2014 Movie of the Year.
Filmmaker decided to catch up with Bell to chat about the film’s digital launch via a “fair trade” platform, the current climate for art porn, and Amsterdam’s inaugural (and brilliantly named) Holy Fuck Film Festival.
Filmmaker: Could you talk a bit about PinkLabel.tv and why you’re so committed to working with them?
Bell: I’ve known PinkLabel’s owner, Shine Louise Houston, for years. She’s a talented filmmaker herself. Before the site went up, we had been talking for ages about how she wanted to create a site where feminist porn, female and queer-made indie porn, and hard-to-find explicit art could coexist. She wanted to set it up as a “fair trade” profit share for the filmmakers and make the process as transparent to filmmakers as possible. I was impressed by the ethics of the site. As the site has developed, I appreciate the small details, like how all the films are available in full on the site – viewers and filmmakers can rest assured that they’re seeing the whole piece. (And they can always skip parts if they want, of course.) They also function a bit like a traditional distribution company in that they help promote our films. It’s a win-win, yet that’s an important detail that few modern VOD sites have time for. And finally, I like to support PinkLabel because I like the films they pick to show – it’s a nice collection.
Filmmaker: I hadn’t heard about the Holy Fuck Film Festival until you alerted me to it. Is this the fest’s first year? It certainly wasn’t around when I spent time in Amsterdam a few years back.
Bell: Yes, the Holy Fuck Film Festival is having its very first year in Amsterdam. We filmmakers are pretty jazzed up about it. The last erotic film festival in Amsterdam was the one I co-organized from 2007-2009, the Rated X Amsterdam Alternative Erotica Film Festival. Before that, it was only the Wet Dreams Film Festival way back in the 1970s! Rated X had a huge buzz and sellout shows. We loved putting it on, and I think it significantly contributed to a deepened discussion about sexual representation in cinema in the film community. But our team all had other jobs and we just couldn’t keep it afloat as a full-fledged festival.
There have been two other excellent, international erotic film festivals throughout this decade, CineKink NYC and Pornfilmfestival Berlin. Now there are a few other good ones, too. But Amsterdam definitely needs its own erotic film festival. One of the programmers at Filmhuis Cavia took the lead on the fest. (Filmhuis Cavia is an independent cinema widely known here for its varied and daring programming, so it’s a great place to host a festival like this.) There were films, panels, workshops and parties. I was pleased to have my Dutch premiere of Silver Shoes at Holy Fuck, and they also invited me to teach my DIY Porn workshop, “From Fantasy To Film: Designing Your Own Porn & Erotica.” It was quite a busy weekend. I hope they hold the festival again every year in the future.
Filmmaker: Your latest film Silver Shoes nabbed the Feminist Porn Awards 2014 Movie of the Year – so I was surprised to learn it had its world premiere at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts during the London Short Film Festival. Do you see a return of “art porn” to more mainstream venues nowadays, or is this still a marginalized niche?
Bell: I think the promise of the mid-2000s has not yet come to fruition, and art porn is still a specialized genre, though perhaps one that’s finally gaining some cultural attention. With films like Destricted and Shortbus in the mid-2000s, many of us – including myself – thought that the boundary between art-house film and porn would collapse. We looked forward to it. But that boundary, while showing a lot of cracks, is unfortunately still pretty solid. With a rare few beautiful exceptions, like Sweden’s Dirty Diaries that managed to cross some bridges, most movie theaters are porn-unfriendly and so are most mainstream video sites like Vimeo, YouTube, iTunes, and Netflix.
On the positive side, the web is opening new avenues like PinkLabel. And there is definitely a blooming public interest in alternative sexual cinema, like better sex-ed films, porn for women, art porn, queer porn, and films like mine which blend porn with art-house cinema. The only question is, who will dare to curate and show it? I give big props to the brave cultural institutions like London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts for insisting on showing sexual cinema. They were one of the theaters that screened Dirty Diaries a few years ago, and they screened Silver Shoes in January. I later discovered that they are literally licensed to show only one sexually explicit feature film per month. I was so honored they chose Silver Shoes.
Filmmaker: I know Silver Shoes deals with fluidity – in both gender and sexuality – so I’m wondering if this is a larger theme (or audience demand) that you’re witnessing in the greater porn world. After all, even Time last year published a story titled “The Transgender Tipping Point,” which featured the Emmy Award-winning, transgender actress Laverne Cox on its cover.
Bell: Fluid gender and sexuality are so much a part of my life that I cannot believe they’re so absent in most porn, particularly in “straight” porn. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980s, and androgyny was this beautiful new trend. Lots of people were hard to pin down on sight with regard to their orientation or gender. I also grew up as a theater geek, and theater folk are notably a community that embraces sexual diversity and experimentation. So fluidity feels normal to me.
In making Silver Shoes I’m just trying to capture a very personal experience of what’s arousing to me — a woman who appears very feminine but likes to play with her masculinity, a fellow who seems surely gay but is not. As to whether these interests of mine are also popular with other viewers, I was relieved to see that the reaction to Silver Shoes is far better than I ever expected. It’s a gamble when you’re making unusual porn. People naturally like to know what to expect, and Silver Shoes is full of the unexpected. That’s one reason I worked hard to make a trailer (in two versions, PG and X) that would give a sense of what kind of people and relationships and sex you could expect to see. It’s getting a ton of views because I think people are curious.
I might also add that I do see an appealing blending and fluidity between queer porn and straight porn in the adult film world. There are a lot of people like me out there who desperately want to see spontaneous, un-choreographed, slightly off-kilter sex for us to feel engaged by it, and that traditionally has been the exclusive production mode of queer porn. Early in my experimentations, I figured out a spontaneous style that works for me while enabling me to get the story-based structure I like. Though I still prefer more story than most indie porn filmmakers, a lot of us incorporate spontaneity even though we are not operating exclusively in the queer mode in other ways. I’m very pleased with this development!
Filmmaker: I recently interviewed Erika Lust, who you personally know, and who is also part of what seems like this ever expanding, grassroots, feminist pornography movement. There’s definitely been a backlash against female pornographers in the U.K., but as a longtime American expat in Amsterdam, do you feel it’s still easier to work in Europe? Or does the Internet make production location irrelevant these days?
Bell: Physical location is still very important. I thank the heavens every day that I live in Amsterdam. The recent U.K. crackdown is appalling. It’s sex-negative and misogynistic. It’s hard to imagine that our countries are so physically close together, and yet The Netherlands is so much more filmmaker-friendly as well as porn-friendly. Shooting in Amsterdam, I don’t have any significant restrictions on the kind of sex I want to show – which is awfully lucky, because soon I’ll be releasing an explicitly erotic, BDSM documentary with very clear images of sex and BDSM play. Also, The Netherlands doesn’t have a fiendishly expensive and time-consuming film certification process that I have to follow, like the U.K. demands for all films including porn.
But the nicest thing about filmmaking in Amsterdam, which I think is true of much of Europe, is that the lack of official union structure makes it possible to openly blend film professionals and non-professionals together on my set without risking the union status of the professionals. I think that’s a huge boon to artistic creativity. It’s a shame to penalize highly trained film professionals for bringing their expertise to porn, which, from what I understand, is oftentimes what happens in the States. The film professionals I’ve met here in The Netherlands (as well as probably the U.S. professionals) have often thought a great deal about why porn looks the way it does, and what they’d like to do differently if they could. I want to create the playground where we can make something fascinating together.