Top Girl

Still from Top Girl

Birds Eye View Film Festival

March 5-13, 2009

Various venues, London

Festival Website.

‘I can’t imagine this talk happening anywhere else but Britain’, said Mike Figgis at the conclusion of Bird’s Eye View Festival’s Sex on Screen panel discussion. He had a point, for although the debate had touched on subjects such as sexual taboos, pornography and masturbation, this was executed ever so politely.

Talking about how gay porn had influenced mainstream cinema, the event’s chair, former Erotic Review editor Rowan Pelling, said: ‘The flipside of that is that it makes you think, “if I don’t like it up the back entrance then there’s something wrong with me and I should go and live on a desert island somewhere”’.’

Under The Skin director Carine Adler, who didn’t seem keen to talk about anything – let alone sex – before the debate was in full swing said to fellow panellist pornographer Petra Joy: ‘I would not have the courage to do what you do, I avoided any nudity, I don’t have the guts to do it, I want to stay ‘artsy’. My mother! Oh my god.’

A similar reaction came from the audience, who burst into embarrassed giggles when Joy described the misogynistic sexual acts depicted in mainstream porn – leaving her to joke that she was used to talking at erotic film festivals and hadn’t perhaps prepared herself for this altogether more polite affair.

But thank god for Joy who spoke loudly and proudly about sex on screen, from her unique viewpoint as a female pornographer, and well done to Bird’s Eye View for enlisting her. She raised the night’s most interesting point; distribution of her films, she said, was hindered by a censorship process that made no sense. Both she and Figgis (suitably attired, some might say, in a long, navy Mac) argued that arbitrary censorship meant that graphic violence slipped through the net, while graphic – read realistic – sex, with orgasms and erections, was not able to. ‘What’s the problem with making a film to arouse people? We see lots of violence in films, like Baise-Moi, and [that’s allowed because] they say, “well the sex wasn’t made to arouse”. But that’s the problem because you can’t control what’s going to arouse people’, she said. Pelling summed it up well, saying: ‘Surely the least harmful form of sex on screen is that which is specifically designed to arouse rather than repel or horrify?’

The problem was compounded, Joy said, by porn shops who balk at supplying films that have no big-name stars and no male ‘money shots’ or other such clichés. What’s more, cinemas need licenses to show hardcore porn – her films shown that night at the ICA were cut to comply with censorship regulations – which puts up yet another barrier between the films and their target audience.

Sam Roddick, founder of upmarket sex shop Coco De Mer, said she too had been restricted by licensing laws, which control the percentage of ‘directly sexual’ products she sells in the shop and subject each item to a permissibility audit. ‘They were very very vague about it’, she said, ‘so I had to get a bit more explicit. I said, ‘I’m carrying 18th-century prints, and they’re of two bridesmaids and a bride and they’re going down on her, and they said fine’. She defined erotic cinema as ‘a lot more emotional, more abstract’ than pornography, which she sees as ‘functional’: ‘When people watch porn they are either doing it to have sex or to wank. There is an outcome.’

Joy called for more films to show female pleasure – ‘women are multi-orgasmic and they can keep on coming after the man has but we never see that’ – gay men who weren’t suicidal, positive sexual role models, and the crucial matter of contraception: ‘it’s sex education as well as entertainment’.

It remains true that most films gloss over the use of contraception, unless the matter is overblown into a comedy sequence. Are viewers to believe so many people don’t give it a thought? Or do filmmakers have the right not to be realistic? Possibly, contraception is inherently unsexy and therefore an unwanted distraction to big screen sex scenes.

Realistic sex is not what Adler finds titillating. Discussing the much praised sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, she said: ‘A married couple having great sex is not something I find exciting. Maybe if they’d had sex with the murderous dwarf I would have found it more so’.

For his part, Figgis declared all pornography ‘boring’ and said what really excited him was unexpected erotica cropping up in non-erotic films: ‘I like it in The Misfits when they suddenly start smacking Marilyn Monroe, it’s one of the sexiest things I’ve seen. You can’t keep that woman down, she is so sexy – maybe she insisted on that scene.’

While he praised Joy’s positive outlook, he admitted that he liked miserable things to happen in films, so dysfunctional sex was no problem for him. Looking at his own body of work, this shouldn’t come as a surprise: Leaving Las Vegas, for instance, is a doomed and tragic love story with scenes in which sex is brutal, forced or impossible.

The short films shown after the discussion were nothing like that. A combination of Joy’s own work and Coco De Mer’s collection of erotic shorts, the films were light-hearted, beautiful and – dare I say it – sexy. Joy’s In Her Wildest Dreams was most definitely a porn film. With no plot or dialogue, the film showed a woman being indulged in many sensual ways by an ensemble of men and women. Following the principles the filmmaker had outlined during the talk, it showed the female orgasm, a positive, sexual, female role model, and as Joy put it, plenty of ‘guy candy’. The action took place behind various layers: part of the film was shot underwater, another part was shot through a beaded curtain across the doorway and mainstream porno’s procession of body parts gave way to more holistic shots taking in clothes, setting and some very contented-looking faces.

Clothes also played a big part in Eva Midgley’s Honey and Bunny, which consisted in a series of cheeky vignettes in which the two actors played out various fantasies. Kitted out in lustrous fabrics and beautiful shoes, the women were not passive sex objects but agents of their sophisticated sexuality. Similarly, Midgley’s Erotic Moments showed gentle, loving, consensual contact, such as the striking Footsie, which depicted a man being pleasured by a woman’s foot.

But nothing was more honest or more moving than the sex scene in Top Girl, a film by Rebecca Johnson that screened as part of another shorts programme during the festival. In the coming-of-age tale, a teenage girl, in her effort to become a rapper, finds herself being led to the bathroom of a DJ’s flat where he encourages her to fellate him. Full of adolescent feistiness, she delights in the encounter until she gets taunted for it at school. It succinctly expressed the joy, secrecy, awkwardness and taboo of sex.

Particularly British sex.

Lisa Williams

Watch the trailer for Top Girl.