Porn is not for everyone: but it can be for feminists, Mia Engberg tells Sophie Mayer, as her programme of shorts screens in London
In a feminist twist on conventional porn, 12 film makers have contributed to Dirty Diaries, a programme of short films shot on a mobile phone. The idea for the programme grew out of a film called Come Together, which Swedish filmmaker Mia Engberg shot for the Mobile Movies competition at the 2006 Stockholm International Film Festival.
10 selected filmmakers, including Engberg, were given a Nokia N93 cameraphone (Nokia’s then top-of-the-line phone, equipped with 30 fps VGA-resolution MPEG-4 video recording capability) to make a short film. Engberg, who had previously made two films exploring the possibilities of lesbian alternative porn, Bitch & Butch, released in 2003, and Selma & Sofie, in 2001, as well as a number of documentaries about radical communities, took up the competition’s theme of ‘together’ to imagine a radical community composed of orgasming women.
“Come Together was made mostly for fun,” she told me. “It is me and my girlfriends masturbating one by one in our bathrooms. I think it took us two days to shoot it and I edited it in an hour.” Inspired by the reaction to her film, Engberg then turned over the N93 to 12 filmmakers for Dirty Diaries.
Not all reactions were positive, despite the film being very popular at film festivals internationally. There were also some negative responses, coming (primarily) from male viewers after the short was streamed online.
Commenters criticised the performers’ physical appearance, lack of make-up and lack of conventional, heteronormative, straight male viewer-oriented erotic cues. This has led Engberg to put forward a manifesto that neatly, wittily and passionately encapsulates many of the ideals of pro-sex queer feminism: that beauty is diverse; that women can and should “be horny on [their] own terms”; that bringing bodies and sexuality to the fore makes feminism stronger.
The manifesto also encourages viewers and readers to get out there and make their own porn. Engberg says that, as opposed to US-based feminist ‘sexperts’ like Susie Bright and Annie Sprinkle, she is “more influenced by the punk-scene” and “strong women displaying sex like Nina Hagen, Lydia Lunch and Diamanda Galas”.
She is also inspired by “the do-it-yourself tradition in punk rock”. Both the cameraphone technology and the content of the films salute this, with a rough-and-ready handmade ethos, one that appreciates the sexiness of graffiti art and reading theory equally, complimenting great storytelling and rhythmic editing in each film.
Real bedrooms and real bodies are on show, although Engberg notes that, when it comes to physical diversity, “Sweden is a small country and feminist porn is new and still controversial. The Dirty Diaries collective is young, white and urban: I think that is a mirror of what it looks like in Swedish alternative porn-scene right now. I didn’t find any other women who wanted to participate. But I am sure this will change. This is just a first step.”
And it has been: Ingrid Ryberg, director of the wry and extremely sexy film Phonefuck, has gone on to write her PhD on lesbian porn, and Marit Östberg, whose film Authority is a hot mess mindfuck, has gone on to make several other porn shorts including, most recently, Share.
Both Ryberg’s and Östberg’s films have something that’s rare, if not non-existent, in mainstream straight porn: a sense of humour. This is something many of the films in the collection share. Flasher Girl on Tour (Joanna Rytel, right), for example, is like an exhibitionist parody of Amélie and loves its own ridiculousness.
On Your Back Woman (Wolfe Madam), a joyous slow-mo lesbian bedroom-wrestling short, offers the most playful take on sex and the greatest diversity of bodies, as it showcases multiple couples throwing down and enjoying each others’ strength as well as tenderness, while Fruitcake (Sara Kaaman and Ester Martin Bergsmark), Dildoman (Åsa Sandzén, below) and Red Like Cherry (Tora Màrtens) use abstraction and animation to blur boundaries and bodies. Skin (Ella Magnussson) suits its two participants in opaque nylon body-stockings, playing with ideas of safe sex and boundaries and queering heterosexual sex in the process, as skin, organs and orifices are multiplied deliciously.
In Skin, as in all the films, women are definitely on top, as Engberg notes: “Everyone made more or less queer stories so I had to headhunt some straight women to make some hetero-porn. It is more difficult to make straight porn than lesbian porn. We discussed this a lot. In straight porn you have to avoid the stereotypes of mainstream porn (no silicone, no cum-shots, etc). Lesbian porn is more free to invent itself in whatever way it wants. I guess it is like real life sex! Heterosexuality can be a real burden if you are a feminist.” She smiles. “But it turned out well in the end,” as several of the films deliberately blur or confuse the performers’ gender.
The manifesto argues that, as feminists of all genders depict and celebrate sexuality outside the formal and economic practices of commercial pornography, porn itself is being changed. Engberg says: “I’ve been in the feminist movement since the late 1980s. At [the] start we were very anti-porn, smashing the windows of pornshops. When queer feminism entered the scene in the 1990s in Sweden, we became much more sex-positive and it was possible to make our own porn. Since I have seen both ‘sides’ I can say we are much stronger now when we can produce things we actually like, and say yes to what we like and not only no to what we don’t like.”
Part of that, for her, is recognising that “porn is not for everyone. It is only for grown-ups that want to see it and choose to see it. If you are not into it, it is not for you. Some people are shy. Others don’t get turned on by looking at others having sex. That’s OK.”
If you do decide to go along to the screening on Friday 13 January or order the DVD online then, among the freshly-conceived images, you might hear something familiar. Over half of the films use the music of another Swedish feminist artist, Fever Ray, aka Karin Dreijer Andersson, as a soundtrack to their shenanigans.
Engberg says that she “asked Karin Dreijer at an early stage of the project if she wanted to contribute, and [she said] we could actually use all her music for free! Even now when we sold Dirty Diaries to many countries and made some profit, she doesn’t want to get paid because she wants to support the cause.”
So is Fever Ray the ultimate soundtrack for feminist sex? “There’s not one kind of music for feminist sex,” states Engberg with certainty (in keeping with the logic that there isn’t only one way of doing it), “but the music of Fever Ray was perfect for Dirty Diaries.” This is all part of the way the films capture a contemporary moment when sisters are doing it for (and with) themselves and aren’t afraid to show it on film.
Listen online to a new/old song by Karin Dreijer Andersson, part of Kazu Makino’s (Blonde Redhead) compilation We Are the Works in Progress, which will benefit survivors of the 2010 Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear reactor crisis.