[SCENE REPORT] XCONFESSIONS: A CONVERSATION WITH ERIKA LUST

 

ERIKA LUST

ERIKA LUST.

 

Explicit erotic cinema made a spectacular debut at the Chicago International Film Festival on 21 October 2015 with “XConfessions: A Conversation with Erika Lust.” Barcelona-based filmmaker Erika Lust brought a special director’s cut of several of the best shorts from her series of “XConfessions” short films—each based on a fantasy or experience shared by a member of the xconfessions.com site—to the big screen for a packed house at the AMC River East where the CIFF is held. Following the screening, Lust and local filmmaker Maria Finitzo discussed feminist approaches to porn and Lust took some questions from the audience.

 

"I Wish I Was a Lesbian" from XCONFESSIONS.

“I Wish I Was a Lesbian” from XCONFESSIONS.

Courtesy of Erika Lust Films.

 

 

The theatrical cut of XCONFESSIONS consists of a series of shorts presented in versions specially prepared for this theatrical presentation. Launched a little over two years ago, xconfessions.com currently hosts about sixty short films all directed by Erika Lust. Users submit sexual fantasies or stories, and Lust chooses a handful to made into shorts. These films are varied in look and tone, but the uniting principles behind them are Lust’s “sex-positive feminist” approach to porn and her commitment to detail-oriented, artful filmmaking. The shorts on xconfessions.com bear more resemblance to mainstream independent cinema than contemporary porn. Lust shoots with an ArriAlexa camera, a professional digital cinema camera used for many mainstream films including Hollywood studio productions. Lust and her team put careful thought into every level of production, from costume and production design and lighting to thorough post-production sound and color correction to give each film a unique feel.

 

"I Wish I Was A Lesbian  from XCONFESSIONS.

“I Wish I Was A Lesbian
from XCONFESSIONS.

Courtesy of Erika Lust Films.

 

Running just under an hour, the XCONFESSIONS theatrical cut includes a fairly representative variety of shorts. “The Art of Spanking” takes a peek into the fantasies of a man who loves to spank his lover. “I Wish I Was a Lesbian” shows the sexy dream of a young woman traveling through Europe as she stays with a lesbian couple in Barcelona. In “Dude Looks Like a Lady,” a man lets his girlfriend give him a makeover with makeup and lingerie as a prelude to sex. “Boat Buddies with Benefits” tells the story of a man and woman who buy a boat together as a business venture to rent it out for parties, but enjoy some amorous alone time at sea as well. “A Blowjob Is Always a Great Last-Minute Gift Idea!” is a brief, funny short in which a man sits on a park bench and suggestively sucks on a life-sized cock popsicle. A young woman living in Barcelona extols some of the lesser-appreciated virtues of being an Airbnb host in “The Couchsurfer.” In “Mad Men Porn,” a woman working in an antique store fantasizes about sex on a very nice desk with an attractive man who comes into her shop. And “Do You Find My Feet Suckable?” depicts a chance encounter between an artist and a young woman in a library that begins with tentative flirtation and escalates into a spontaneous, passionate tryst.

 

“A Blowjob Is Always a Great Last-Minute Gift Idea!” from XCONFESSIONS.

“A Blowjob Is Always a Great Last-Minute Gift Idea!” from XCONFESSIONS.

Courtesy of Erika Lust Films.

 

 

These shorts gave viewers who may not have been familiar with the xconfessions.com site a good cross-section of Lust’s short film work. The versions of the films prepared for this presentation are excellent examples of her cinematic approach to adult filmmaking, with beautiful cinematography and production design and attractive, charismatic performers. The program included explicit sex, but the films were edited down a bit from the originals on the site. None of these cuts were made for explicit content, however, just to get the story of each short in and showcase some of the sex in each one. The audience was respectful and very quiet for the first two shorts, but the humor in “Boat Buddies with Benefits” officially broke the ice and earned the first big laughs of the night. The shorts mostly give a quick sketch of their characters, but it’s just enough to develop genuine affection for them, which is a huge departure from standard contemporary porn and its intense focus on anatomy over any kind of character or context. Lust’s focus on female pleasure and care to provide high production values is reminiscent of the sort of work Zalman King made famous in softcore films in the 1990s, although with real sex and an even more pronounced emphasis on the technical and aesthetic aspects of filmmaking.

 

 

“Boat Buddies with Benefits” from XCONFESSIONS.

“Boat Buddies with Benefits” from XCONFESSIONS.

Courtesy of Erika Lust Films.

 

 

Following the screening, Erika Lust spoke with Chicago-based documentary filmmaker Maria Finitzo about the approach to porn that the XConfessions project represents and then opened up the floor to questions from the audience. This part of the evening got off to a somewhat uncomfortable start as a cranky old white guy complained that the performers in the films had “porn star bodies” and didn’t look like the people in the theater (whether he purposely meant to insult the relative attractiveness of everybody at the screening was unclear). Further, he complained that there were no “African-American or Latino” performers, or any over 40 years of age. Unsurprisingly, this observation did more to underline the man’s ignorance of modern porn standards than anything. The performers in the XCONFESSIONS presentation are hardly representative of mainstream concepts of “porn stars”: they are attractive and in good shape, but this is a world away from the pumped-up lips and breast implants so prevalent among women in mainstream pornographic video. And while many if not all of the performers in the films are probably in their 20s and 30s, none of them look like “teens.” These are adults with attractive, natural bodies, not people who have had plastic surgery to conform to an unrealistic ideal.

 

“Mad Men Porn” from XCONFESSIONS.

“Mad Men Porn” from XCONFESSIONS.

Courtesy of Erika Lust Films.

 

 

Lust addressed this question by pointing out that there is a wider range of performers in the shorts on the web site, and that finding performers willing to engage in real sex on camera frequently requires hiring performers who do make a living at porn. She works as hard at finding diverse performers in front of the camera as she does at finding talented, hard-working women to work behind it. Lust estimates that at any given time, her film crew is up to 90% women, which she noted has occasionally made male performers feel a little uncomfortable. Given that mainstream porn productions tend to have overwhelmingly male crews, this probably gives those performers an idea of what their female co-stars experience on typical porn shoots.

 

 

“The Art of Spanking” from XCONFESSIONS.

“The Art of Spanking” from XCONFESSIONS.

Courtesy of Erika Lust Films.

 

 

After that initial bump in the road, the questions from the audience were considerably more friendly and intelligent. One audience member asked whether Lust would ever make a male/male film. She has previously, although she admitted she did not feel like it was her best work as she was not able to directly identify with the experience. She made another XConfessions short titled “Pansexuals” that shows two men and two women having sex with each other that she felt more confident about, and said she is willing to try it again if the right “confession” came along. Other audience members asked Lust’s opinion on whether the chauvinist climate of modern porn is worse than it was in the “Golden Era” of the 1970s and 1980s, how she maintains a balance between making films that are “accessible” versus the ubiquitous nature of free porn that is by definition more “accessible,” how much of the action of the films is blocked in advance and how much is worked out on the spot by the performers, and many other topics. Lust answered intelligently, warmly, and thoroughly. Hopefully many audience members who may not have been familiar with adult film and porn beyond stereotypical “porn stars” and cheap digital video learned much and were inspired to seek out more progressive alternatives.

 

“Dude Looks Like a Lady” from XCONFESSIONS.

“Dude Looks Like a Lady” from XCONFESSIONS.

Courtesy of Erika Lust Films.

 

The program was a resounding success, and hopefully that success will resonate with both the Chicago International Film Festival and other film programmers in the city. Providing a major public space in which artful, funny, sex-positive adult film can be viewed and discussed is important toward the creation of more such cinema. Erika Lust and her contemporaries in feminist adult entertainment are doing important work in giving women a voice in an industry in which they are too often used more as props than treated like people. Here’s hoping next year Chicago International may bring her back for a new presentation, and/or incorporate more progressive sex films in their programming. With any luck, appearances and presentations like these will help inspire more female filmmakers to pick up a camera and show the world what female pleasure on film looks like to them.

 

 

— JASON COFFMAN.

 

 

Photo by Emily Barney.

Photo by Emily Barney.

 

 

Jason Coffman

Jason Coffman

Unrepentant cinephile. Contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly. Member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. Co-director, Chicago Cinema Society. Attempted filmmaker. Proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's GURU, THE MAD MONK and Zalman King's TWO MOON JUNCTION.
Jason Coffman
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