“… When you’re a Niche Filmmaker in a World That’s Not Always as Openminded as You Might Like”: CineKink Artist Spotlight Award Recipient Jennifer Lyon Bell on Her Art Porn Career
This year CineKink NYC will be celebrating its upcoming sweet sixteen edition of the fest (April 3-7) by adding something new: the CineKink Artist Spotlight award. And in town to receive the honor — and premiere her latest Adorn, along with its making-of documentary, as well as host her “From Fantasy to Film: Design Your Own Porn Film” workshop — will be Amsterdam-based Jennifer Lyon Bell, no stranger to the kinky fest. Indeed, Bell has been screening her work at CineKink since 2006, racking up awards while making connections she cites as integral to her longevity in a notoriously difficult industry.
Filmmaker caught up with Bell to find out how exactly a feminist pornographer stays afloat in an age of social media platform crackdowns and trendy “intimacy coordinators.”
Filmmaker: So it must be quite an honor to be the recipient of the first-ever CineKink Artist Spotlight award at the 16-year-old fest. Which makes me wonder, since CineKink’s been screening your films since 2006, what role founder Lisa Vandever and CineKink NYC might have played over the years in the development of your career.
Bell: I’m so touched by CineKink’s decision to offer me this award. I truly have grown as a filmmaker with this festival, since I’ve been screening there since my very first film. Lisa is a discerning programmer and it means a lot to me when she sees value in my work.
I especially appreciate that she has valued some of my odder cinematic moments. Several film festivals wanted Silver Shoes, but only CineKink was especially interested in the odd little sad/liberating piece Silver Shoes/Housesitter, in which AnnaBelle rifles through her lost lover’s possessions and eventually lies on their bed and weeps while she masturbates. I hadn’t seen heartbreak masturbation in a film before, and it felt very realistic to me. I appreciated that Lisa could see what I did.
CineKink has also been the main U.S. festival where I’ve been able to connect over the years with other American erotic filmmakers, and filmmakers dealing with sexuality. With the filmmaker meetings and parties, CineKink gives us a chance to share ideas and get inspired by each other. It matters when you’re a niche filmmaker in a world that’s not always as openminded as you might like.
And because I’m also a film programmer, specializing in erotic/porn film, coming to CineKink has enabled me to see amazing work which I can then personally help promote internationally, which is a privilege.
Filmmaker: Can you talk a bit about your latest, Adorn, particularly the “experimental erotic game” idea behind it?
Bell: I wanted to create an experience of real-life sexuality which I think is very exciting — being completely tuned into the other person because you have no idea what exactly will happen next. And I also thought it would be exciting to disrupt the typical sexual “pattern” that we see in male/female sex scenes, whether porn or mainstream films. First they kiss, then his hand goes under her shirt, etc., ending in typical heterosexual intercourse. So I created a game that starts naked with one single rule — you may only touch your partner under or over clothing that you dress them in. There is no other rule — it’s 100% improvisation. By creating a game where the players are enthusiastically engaged, but where they literally cannot proceed in the traditional way, I thought they might possibly access a different emotional level. And it worked!
They must trust each other and communicate honestly in order to make it through the game, and in a strange quirk of chemistry, this somehow breaks open their relationship into a kind of intimacy that looks very much like love at times. Whatever this strange intimacy actually is, I believe it’s precious. (And the film is, I must say, exceptionally hot.)
Filmmaker: As an American expat living in Amsterdam who’s played festivals the world over — Adorn just premiered at Pornfilmfestival Berlin, I believe — do you think certain countries or cities are more embracing of the type of arthouse porn you’ve built your career on?
Bell: I’ve been fortunate to screen my work in several cosmopolitan cities, all of which have been very supportive — Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Tokyo, Paris, London, Berlin, Vienna, Oslo, and of course my home city of Amsterdam. They’ve all had great audiences, but Berlin’s have been especially amazing. The boundary between “mainstream” art film and explicit/pornographic film seems much more fluid there. I don’t know if it’s their cultural tradition of sexual imagery in film, or their celebration of sexual performance like drag and burlesque, or the fact that the economics of Berlin make it more affordable to be a working artist/actor/performer who can participate in smaller projects, including alternative erotic ones. But many of the erotic performers live in Berlin, and it just feels like an exciting erotic city to me.
Filmmaker: What are some of the challenges in running your own production house Blue Artichoke Films? And what are the upsides and downsides of being based in Amsterdam versus in the States?
Bell: When I became a film director I didn’t really realize that running your own production company is basically a hundred jobs in one. Besides directing/producing/writing my own films, I distribute them and market them. The marketing is especially challenging given that so many traditional avenues for small filmmakers to reach viewers are closed to people like me — filmmakers who make sexually explicit work.
Even with tame, non-explicit trailers, I’ve been removed from Vimeo, YouTube, and Facebook. Patreon, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr are cracking down too. It’s quite sad, especially since viewers say they are hungry for interesting erotic cinema. I’ve just had to get very creative. And I have finally created my own “erotic platform” at blueartichokefilms.com, which I’ll officially launch this spring so that I can show whatever thoroughly explicit clips I want, create radical discussions without fear of censorship, and let film lovers know about events where they can see films that are suppressed or banned elsewhere. By the way, all of us erotic filmmakers appreciate it tremendously when other filmmakers signal-boost for us. It makes a huge difference.
As to Netherlands versus the States, I am grateful to live in a country where film content ratings are truly voluntary, as opposed to being voluntary-but-functionally-mandatory (as in the U.S.), or just plain mandatory (as in the U.K.). Opaque judgment systems and weird sexist guidelines about “acceptable” sexual imagery are just plain wrong.
Filmmaker: As a longtime feminist pornographer have you seen any post-#MeToo shift in who attends your “Fantasy to Film” workshops, or in what participants are most interested in learning about? I was just thinking that with HBO hiring “intimacy coordinators” for The Deuce last year, defining rules of respect for on-set sex scenes has pretty much become mainstream.
Bell: “Intimacy coordinators” are a hot topic in the Netherlands right now, and they are considering training local film people. I’ve been asked to share my thoughts about it. I appreciate that film professionals are taking this seriously, or at least are considering it. However, I wouldn’t yet say that defining rules of respect for on-set sex scenes has become mainstream, in Europe or the U.S.. We are only in the beginning stages of becoming serious about protecting sexual performers. I think it’s wonderful that I’m being asked, as a filmmaker working with explicit un-simulated sex, if there’s anything that my production process can teach the mainstream filmmaking community. And I think it definitely can. But whether that sticks is another question.
As to my “From Fantasy To Film” workshop, while I don’t think the participants tend to be a different kind of people than before, I do think that the more experienced filmmakers (like the ones I teach at the Dutch Film Academy or the Raindance Institute) are especially interested now to hear details of how to create a safe on-set experience for performers. I don’t necessarily think they have had bad experiences; I think they would like to prepare for good ones. And I think that’s great.