What makes a feminist porn film?

Erika Lust is a Swedish porn director informed by sex-positive, feminist, art-film values.

Words

Sophie Monks Kaufman

Erika Lust (born Erika Hallqvist) is a Swedish porn director who identifies as a sex-positive feminist. She has been directing adult shorts since 2004. Her passion at present is her website, X Confessions. Members of the public submit sexy confessions and a handful are converted into films. Erika Lust spoke passionately and eloquently in the Tedx talk from 2014, ‘It’s time for porn to change’. So, when she paid a visit to London, as part of Raindance Film Festival 2015, to screen a director’s cut of her work, Little White Lies was rabidly curious to find out more about her idealistic strain of adult entertainment.

LWLies: What makes a feminist porn film?

Lust: Basically that there is a feminist behind the camera, people with feminist values behind the camera. For me it’s very important to have as many women as possible on my film crew in all the important roles. Then it comes to what I am actually showing in the films – the role of women and it’s about how you are showing the women, because I think that what they have been doing in mainstream pornography for so long is they have been showing women as mere objects of pleasure. What I’m trying to do is just show women as people, not as vehicles to masculine pleasure.

I noticed something that is unusual for all movies which is that you cast leading ladies with body fat.

I cast people that I find attractive, people that I like and when I speak about attractive I don’t mean like beautiful models. I want people with personality, people that I find interesting, that have something special to them. People with sex appeal, people who enjoy sex, who like sex, who want to be in front of the camera. That’s what I want and then I think it is important to show some kind of diversity because it is quite worrying to see the same stereotyped body everytime. I want a mixture of people. Then I have to admit or have to tell you that it’s very difficult to find different people. You have to really go out there and look for them because most actors who are active as performers in adult they look quite similar because of the standards of the adult industry . They tend to transform themselves to look the way the industry wants them to look.

Where do you find your performers?

On Twitter. Seriously, on Twitter. No but normally they find me. I get a lot of requests from people who have watched my films who find them interesting and who want to participate. Some are just ordinary people who have never performed before but who want to do it, who feel like it’s more like an erotic adventure than actually looking for a career in that. Many of them will never shoot again or will only shoot with directors that they feel they have a connection with. Other people are performers in the adult industry who get recommended to me through other people. I have a few friends, a few people around who everytime they work with someone new who they like, they say, ‘Hey, you should come with Erika. You’re going to love to work with her’ Amarna Miller is one of my friends, and an actress who I’ve worked with many times and she always talks about our work. I have a lot of people come from her.

Is there a performer that you’re particularly proud of?

There’s many of them, actually. If you go on xconfessions.com website I have a whole section of all the performers where they have their page with a little information on who they are: an interview, pictures and there you can find out more about all of them. There are so many of them I don’t know where to start. I worked with an American actor called Mickey Mod this summer. I found him amazingly interesting, attractive, funny, great.

You’re redefining what attractiveness is so I’m interested to hear what for you is attractive.

You can’t say, really. It’s nothing that we would all agree on, I guess it’s a personal feeling you have when you look at someone and when you talk to someone, right? It’s the chemistry. The attractiveness is the chemistry. It’s what that person makes you feel. How would you say?

I guess it is quite hard to define which is why I was hoping that you’d help me!

But it definitely has nothing really to do with physics. It has nothing to do with perfection. It has nothing to do with what’s supposed to be pretty. It’s like the inner guts, no? What you communicate.

Do you push the boundaries of what people want from porn?

We are taught to think in a certain way. You realise, when you see something different to what you’ve learnt, that you like that and maybe you didn’t even know that. I think that’s a great value and is one of the things that pornography really can help. We benefit from looking at sexually explicit images because many of us have this feeling of feeling ashamed or being a little afraid of sex – not wanting to be odd or different or strange or outside what is normal. When you look at porn sometimes you discover that you actually enjoy and like something, some acts that you didn’t know you would like and that can actually help you to enrich your own sexual life, right? It’s kind of amazing in a way.

How do you decide which confessions to turn into short films?

It’s the same kind of thing as when I pick actors. I just go by my feelings: what intrigues me, what seems interesting, inspiring. It’s also of course what is possible. Sometimes when I read a confession I can just feel that, ‘Wow, this would be great with that actor or that actress.’ Or I can feel, ‘Wow, I’ve seen a location where I would like to shoot this.’ Or you read it and say, ‘This is an emotion or this is a feeling that I share and I want to show.’ In the end it’s very personal. Things that stimulate me and that I feel like doing. In the end, it’s a very personal project.

So you trust your intuition with your work.

I trust my intuition a lot. It’s something I’ve been struggling with quite a lot actually because I think that in the beginning when I started to make films I had all these ideas but I was somehow a little afraid of trusting myself because I felt that I didn’t have the background or the skills to work as a filmmaker. But I’ve been doing it for nearly ten years now and now I’ve learnt and now I feel so much more comfortable in my role as a director. I know what we can do and I know how to manage my team, my crew. I think that I’ve got to the point where I don’t listen too much to outside people who are criticizing, because always when you do something different there are a lot of people criticizing what you’re doing, coming from all different backgrounds. I don’t care too much any longer about that. I go with my own vision.

What do you care about?

I care about all of it. I think that it is very important to think about pornography as something bigger than just porn. Many people kind of think that there’s nothing to be done. Porn is just porn and it doesn’t matter, that not too many women are looking at it anyways and it’s just something for some men. We let it be there. But I think that it actually has a huge impact on society, in ways that we think about culture and sexuality. I see pornography as a discourse, as a way to talk about sexuality, to talk about the roles we play – women and men, femininity and masculinity. I see it today as even sex education. When I grew up I didn’t have the possibility to connect to the Internet and see whatever I wanted because it didn’t exist. If I wanted to learn about sex I had to talk to my friends. I had to go to a store to buy a magazine and look at it in my room. Everything took a lot more time. I never had the opportunity to reach out to so much material so fast. Today, new generations, they do have that and what has happened in the last 10-15 years is that they are actually learning about sex from pornography so pornography has become a very, very important tool in sex education.

What about the role of parents and adults and teachers?

Parents and adults and teachers and the school system haven’t been prepared to talk to the younger generations about the effect of pornography, they just kind of left it outside. They already thought that the sex conversation, ‘Whoa, it’s too much for me. We can’t talk about this’ and then if they had to talk about porn, they’re like, ‘No, I don’t want to go down there’ and I think it’s very important to talk to younger generations about it because when you’re young and you don’t have personal experience of sex. You’ve not had sex with anyone. You’ve only looked at it online then, of course, you think that that’s how sex is done. What else would you think, if no one says anything else to you? So, I’m a little preoccupied that what they learn from most mainstream porn out there are very chauvinist, sexist values and that young women that are growing up will think that sex is pleasing men – that’s the role of sex, that they should be pornified.

So you see your films as an opportunity to show your values around relationships?

I see my films as, mostly, a source of inspiration for people. The basic idea is to make films that will turn them on and feel good about themselves and will make them open their visions around sexuality. I think that if you watch a film of mine and watch the relationship between people in that sex situation you will see that both of them are enjoying it and that is a very important value to show.

When you take on a performer that you know you’re going to work with do you talk to them about what they’re comfortable with and what they think is hot?

We always talk to them. Communication is the most important thing in sex, always, with anyone. We always have conversations where I try to get to know them, I try to find out who they are. I try to find out what they like sexually, with what people they like to work because if they have already been in the industry for awhile they know people and they have favourite co-workers. It sounds funny but it’s like any work. There’s some co-workers that you get along with better than others and this field is exactly the same. I ask them to send me a list of their five favourite people so I have an easier time when I’m starting to create the stories to pair people. And then, what I try to figure out about them sexually, is a little like what turns them on, who they are, if they are more dominant, if they are more submissive. At the beginning, because I didn’t know as much as I know now today of the process, I had some situations where I had cast more submissive people in more dominant roles and it didn’t really work out the way I wanted it to work out. So I think it’s very important to understand who they are and then if they have some particular kinks that they enjoy.

You’re trying to make sure that everyone’s having a good time, basically?

Of course. It would be horrible otherwise. I’m showing something that is supposed to be enjoyable and fun and great. If I see in the shooting that my actors don’t feel good I would, of course, have to stop, and not dare to pressure people to do things that they don’t want to do.

Do you have any cinematic influences – either in porn or in mainstream cinema?

Influences? A lot. Many. My main influence, speaking about cinema, is independent cinema as a genre. That’s the kind of cinema I like. There’s many, many Swedish references, many Nordic references. I tend to like European cinema very much. I look for female directors. Still today, if you look at the whole game, we’re still talking about 95 percent of them are men. That’s the truth I’m speaking. Susanne Bier, I love. Per Fly I like. I’m not too much into Lars von Trier. I like some of his work but then he has a lot of difficult aspects to him. Then, of course, the standards. Sofia Coppola is a big reference. We can’t get away from that. It may seem very standard but it is. Jane Campion, of course. Isabel Coixet. But then I’m very interested in the independent scene as a whole artistically, music-wise. What’s most interesting about it is the way that it feels so much more free from the standard formulas, that you have the opportunity to go with what you really feel. Our company is founded on private money – it’s me and my partner, Pablo Dobner. We are also a couple. We have two kids together and we started a company together. Still today we fund our movies 100 percent ourselves. That’s one of the big reasons why I can do what I’m doing because I have no one to tell me that it’s not a good idea.

You have freedom?

I have freedom. I guess that’s what all creative people want to have. With xconfessions, one of the things that I like the most is the possibility to work as if it was like a film laboratory. I can choose different styles. Many times I want to try something new. I can choose a filter that makes it look like a movie from the ‘60s. I can shoot it black and white if I think that has a special value that will make one story seem more interesting. I can do a musical if I want. You know, I can do whatever and that’s a lot of fun. That’s the fun part when we sit down with the crew and are looking for a special style for a single film.

What’s the atmosphere like when you’re shooting?

It’s a lot of hard work in the end. We are a film crew of almost 15. It depends a little. Sometimes we have extra electricians and stuff coming in but more or less we are 15, almost all female, and the atmosphere is fun. It’s friendly but it’s also very, very professional and we have a script to shoot. Usually we have a day of shooting – not much time. Usually we shoot 7 to 7 or 8 to 8 so it’s 12 hours. We have everything very, very planned with our shot list and all the technical aspects. We have technical scouting where we go through scene by scene but it’s also open to the flexibility of the situation because, of course, we are shooting real sex and you never know how long it will take exactly. You will never know if you will find that spark that you are looking for.

What’s it like to watch people have sex?

It’s very natural. It may sound something different but I’ve seen it many times, it’s very, very natural. It’s like drinking water or eating. What is very different is how we film it. Anything else we do script-wise is a planned shot. When it comes to the sex it’s more documentary style so it’s a dialogue between me, my director of photography – who’s also operating the camera – and the actors. We have all talked before about what we are looking for, what we want but then she has to go in there – we are shooting with an arri alexa camera and that is a heavy camera. She is a girl, even a little smaller than I am, but she’s very powerful. She has the easy rig on and she walks around but it’s heavy work. To shoot the sex scene, it’s a least 30-40 minutes altogether, that’s like a whole gym session.

What are you focusing on while she is filming?

She is the eye who is framing and capturing. I am looking at the monitor and when I see something that I’m not too interested in then I have to communicate to her or the actors to change the things. What I normally do is write a lot of notes. I write down all the information that I feel that we don’t have because we’re only shooting with one camera and then when we are done with the actual sex I do an erotic fake shoot. I try to get all the details that I missed to be able to tell the story. Sex is a story. Sex is a dialogue. What I’m interested in is that if you do something to me then I want to see the reaction. The process of actually shooting sex is quite intense and you have to be very, very awake. It’s work.

I’m no expert but I feel like the common narrative of sex is that your bodies take over and there’s no clear communication.

Many times I think it’s because porn directors don’t know how to get it out of the material. They don’t know how to fabricate. But this is something that I’m getting better and better at. I’m learning more and more how to do it because at the beginning, it was more like, ‘Okay they’re having sex and I am filming it’ but then I had to do something in editing with the material but now I’m already editing while I’m looking at it. When I sit in front of the monitor with my notes I already do the editing. I already see what I need.

Pubic hair is quite rare in most porn films. Do you have an approach to it, like do you encourage people to grow their hair or just say, ‘Whatever you want’?

My basic policy is that people should have the look that they feel comfortable with. Then again, sometimes they are doing a character that I want to have pubic hair because it would fit with her policy. Then, of course, I have to ask them to let it be for awhile. Sometimes I’ve had reactions from actresses telling me that they already had a laser treatment so there’s nothing to do about it. That’s quite common. Other people say, ‘Oh no’, they can’t do that because they have other shoots planned and those producers or directors asked them to shave it all. It’s difficult. My preference is that I’d rather see some but it’s personal. When I speak to people, they have all different preferences. What is great is when you see different people with different styles. Some have, some don’t, some have coloured red.

I didn’t know that.

It’s a new trend. Also, some people are leaving hair under their arms and colouring it green or blue.

I noticed that a lot of time is dedicated to female pleasure. It felt quite radical to see so many scenes of guys licking women out. I haven’t seen much of that in porn or just in films that show sex scenes.

No, you don’t, because most of them are made by men. Their vision of sex is usually that the role of women is pleasing him so it’s more about him and his cock than about her and her situation. I think it’s about point of view. The stories are not really told from her point of view. Normally the male character is the principle character. His story and his sexuality and how he lives it is important. They are obviously some films lately or made in the last ten years. Shortbus is a great example of a male director who did something very interesting. Nine Songs by Michael Winterbottom, also.

Did you see Nymphomaniac?

It’s not my favourite. I’ve seen it. I think there’s some things about it that is very interesting, even how he has been able to digitally create explicit sex that was not really done with the actual actors. Those aspects technically I found very, very interesting.

Stacy Martin – the young actress – wore a prosthetic vagina!

Yeah?

Yeah.

One of my problems with it again is that it has a whole different idea to what I am doing. I’m trying to show you something that is healthy, funny and positive. He is portraiting a traumatic, difficult sexual interior world of a woman. It’s a whole different thing.

If you take as two parts though – part one is quite fun, part two is where it gets dark.

But part one has also dark things about it. All over the movie it has dark, but it’s always interesting to see a female character as a main character that has an actual sex life and that is a sexual human being. That is always interesting to me.

Erika Lust appears next at Chicago International Film Festival on Wednesday 21 October. Buy tickets at chicagofilmfestival.com

Published 2 Oct 2015

Tags: Erika Lust Feminism

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