Erotic Auteur Jennifer Lyon Bell on SMUT, TEDx Talks and CineKink NYC
In the world of erotic cinema, veteran indie filmmaker Jennifer Lyon Bell is a (non-nuclear) household name. An early member of both the feminist porn and ethical porn movements, the director-producer — and curator, writer and teacher — has for over a decade and a half been on a transatlantic mission to spread the sex-positive word. And now the Amsterdam-based expat and founder of Blue Artichoke Films will be Zooming in to this year’s virtual CineKink (May 4-8 with a week of encores to follow) on the afternoon of May 8 to present “From Fantasy To Film: Design Your Own Erotic Movie,” a “two-hour virtual workshop, designed to put you in touch with your own creative desires, and help you plan the one perfect sexy film you’d make if money and reality were no object!” (Yes, dream big but fantasize bigger.)
Which gave Filmmaker the perfect excuse to check back in with the ridiculously busy Bell to find out what she’s been up to since last penning one of our top posts of 2021.
Filmmaker: I have to say, I love the name of this “first Flemish porn festival” that just launched in Antwerp that you were involved with. In addition to your 2018 short Adorn having its Belgian premiere at SMUT, you also appeared in the fest’s “Beyond the Binary” event (alongside Jonnah Bron and Poppy Sanchez, who I believe are likewise based in Europe). So can you talk a bit about this particular panel? I read it dealt with gender identity in porn, and specifically how this aspect can be improved.
Bell: Yes, I enjoyed that panel. It ended up being less about how to create diversity in porn, which I’m sure is something we already all believed in, but rather about the intricacies of gender identity and terminology. Jonnah talked about her experience of gender being less about being nonbinary, per se, but about being queer as her gender identity, and how that affected her casting of her first film. I shared my own experience with how a performer’s gender identity can transition during the long process of casting through creating the finished film (not caused by anything to do with the film experience, just as a natural part of that person’s personal journey); and why it’s important as a director/producer to try to be aware that this could be in play.
I hadn’t realized that Antwerp is generally considered a bit more conservative than other big, cosmopolitan European cities. The city apparently had never held such a porn/sexuality-oriented festival. Indeed, the SMUT team (including the very enthusiastic cultural venue De Studio, which hosted it) wasn’t even sure if the community would embrace it or not. That was a surprise to me. Fortunately for all of us, it was a hit. The closing party was jam-packed and the Belgian media ran a number of very supportive articles (including a beautiful one reviewing my film Adorn) in the big mainstream Belgian newspaper De Standaard. I think we are all excited that SMUT can look forward to a second edition.
Filmmaker: SMUT also featured two porn artist retros, a 4K restoration of John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, and even a debate about the decriminalization of sex work, as Belgium is set to become only the second country in the world to do so. (Though I’m guessing the inevitable mafia downside likely came up in that discussion.) So what were some of the SMUT highlights for you personally?
Bell: I always love “Filmmaker In Focus” evenings centered on a particular performer or director. This year the guests were Bishop Black and Kali Sudhra (who, completely coincidentally, happen to be the co-stars of my last film, Wild Card). They also held a panel together. Bishop shared some interesting things about his approach to experiencing real intimacy with his co-performers on camera. Kali spoke a lot about her experience as a South Asian woman — of the racism and discrimination in the porn industry, and how to best make steps toward dismantling white supremacy during porn creation. They provided a real insider’s look at the porn world. I learned a lot from them.
I also loved the now multi-award winning documentary feature Raw! Uncut! Video!, which is having an amazing festival run. It’s an exploration of the kink subculture of this loving gay couple who for decades ran a wildly successful kink magazine — well, one of the partners did — and then together ran a VHS mail-order video studio. Their shared kink aesthetics were so particular. So many full-bodied men, hairy men, working-class fantasies. And the kinks were so specific – mud and faux cowboys from Texas lacking good private hygiene! It’s fascinating to see how kinksters all around the US felt so “seen” and liberated when they could finally access such movies. The viewers’s letters nearly brought tears to my eyes. I left feeling very inspired by how porn can actually help people.
Filmmaker: You also just headlined at the Seks Festival in Utrecht, where you delivered a presentation on ethical porn. I’m familiar with that college town outside of Amsterdam I’ve actually never heard of the Seks Festival — what was that fest like? What are you hoping the audience took away from your talk?
Bell: It was a great festival. The Seks Festival is brand new, although they designed and prepared it for the better part of a year before it actually occurred. I was pleased to be invited to speak, and it was even better than I hoped.
The Seks Festival itself is a collaboration between the nonprofit Seksueel Welzijn Nederland (Sexual Wellness Netherlands) and the well-known Dutch music venue TivoliVredenburg. The result was a multimedia, multicultural, diverse evening of presentations, performance art, cabaret, screenings, music, visual art, and more. I saw a drag show, an educational lecture about fantasies, a panel on how to talk to your kids about sex, an interview with an expert about sexual violence, and even a cabaret show with big foam costumes. The festival’s mission was a full expression of sexual experience, with all of the highs and lows.
Which resonates with a lot of us who feel tapped into the joy of sexuality, but also want to make space for integrating the less positive experiences that some of us have: Relationship troubles, worries, even sexual violence. They asked if I would give a talk from my experience about making ethical porn. That’s a topic that folks have generally heard once or twice, but most don’t know exactly what it means or where to see it. And it’s a hot topic in the feminist/alternative porn community because it doesn’t have a fixed meaning, so certain producers have, it could be argued, exploited it unfairly.
I decided to be very personal in my talk about how I used porn when I was younger, how I came to decide I desperately wanted porn that I found both hot and ethical, and how I developed a filmmaking practice that felt right to me. In my talk I outline the 10 ways I try to integrate ethical practice into the different stages of making my films: How I run auditions, how I choose performers, all the way through to how I run my set with my crew. I illustrated with lots of real-life examples of things that had happened on my films. The audience was extremely lively and supportive, and came up to me all night with more questions. I had a wonderful time.
Filmmaker: Speaking of talks, how did your recent TEDxYouth talk on “Sex, Relationships, and Exploding Normalcy” come about? How did it go?
Bell: That was so enjoyable. The organizers called and told me that this year’s theme was “What is normal?” They wondered if I would be interested in delivering a talk to 16-18 year olds on this topic. I most certainly would! The greatest challenge for me was creating a lecture that would resonate with the most youthful 16-year olds, as well as the most mature 18-year olds – without exposing them to more than they were ready for. And I wanted to speak not only to cisgender straight-identifying youth, of course, but also include trans and nonbinary youth, LGBTQIA+ youth, and even asexual youth.
I decided that the sweet spot would be less in talking about porn, per se, but rather in our own guesses about what it means to be sexually ‘“normal” and how those beliefs are unfortunately shaped (more than we might ever guess) by TV, movies, ads and social media. One of my general evangelist talking points as a sexuality professional is that “normal” isn’t a useful concept for sexuality; “common” might be, but that carries less moral/ethical valence and isn’t often all that helpful either.
I also addressed the worries that I know teenagers had in my youth, but also the teens of today. And those worries aren’t all that different from the worries of grown adults — as I have likewise heard them in the workshops I teach! We all are anxious about questions like: Are my fantasies too weird? How do I know if I’m ”good in bed” when it comes to anything from kissing to sex? Why do I have the feeling everyone else knows what exactly you’re supposed to do with a partner, but I don’t? It was enjoyable to show that we have so much in common with one other. We are not as alone as we think.
Filmmaker: Finally, anything I missed asking about? Do you have any new film or VR projects, talks or classes, coming up in the near future? I know you’ve got the virtual CineKink event this weekend.
Bell: Yes! This weekend is CineKink NYC, the “Sundance of Porn.” (Although really they screen so much more than just porn.) It’s going to be a virtual festival this year, which happily means that they can cater to viewers in all time zones – including my Amsterdam zone! I am going to to be busy there all weekend. First, Wild Card is an official selection of the festival and will be playing in the DIY Afterglow program all day on demand on Sunday May 8 (and then in the Encore program May 9 – May 15). The ticket to the festival includes all screenings, and there are so many great films there (including the doc Raw! Uncut! Video! that I enjoyed at SMUT).
Secondly, this Sunday May 8th I’m also teaching a special two-hour virtual (Zoom) version of my most popular workshop, “From Fantasy To Film: Design Your Own Erotic Movie.” It’s so rare that any of us get a chance to take a few hours on a weekend and learn about our own sexuality. And here we do that through the medium of film. (I’ll be showing some great clips, too!) I’m so pleased that CineKink offered to host this with me. (We even picked a time to appeal to international participants: PST (San Francisco) 11:00am-1:00pm, EST (New York) 2:00pm-4:00pm, CET (Amsterdam) 8:00pm-10:00pm.) Tickets actually just went on sale, and attendance will be limited to preserve our safe/fun vibe. It would be great to see some Filmmaker readers there.