“Political porn?” He smirked a little and handed me the ticket. The concept seemed to be alien to him. Looking around the foyer of Moviemento in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, its walls plastered with fading movie posters and its shelves lined with indie DVDs, it was hard to imagine why. Is it still such a niche idea? I try to always be vocal in support of pornography as an art form but it tested my resolve a little when he studiously read out all nine of my other choices. Each one was critiqued with a widening of the eyes or a strangled chuckle. Even when there’s space to move and it’s not boiling hot inside, Moviemento is not my favorite place in the world.
Despite my misgivings about the venue, when the Berlin Porn Film Festival rolls around each year, I can’t possibly stay away. Few people understand when I insist that it’s one of the best cinematic events of the year. I’ve seldom convinced anyone I know to attend for the first time. Even with seemingly open-minded people, delving too deeply into the topic of sex, talking about the mechanics or the simple pleasure of it can end in an awkward silence. The porn festival creates a place where the weight of disapproval is lifted to some large degree. In addition to being a relatively open forum for discussion, the festival collects a diverse range of different viewpoints. A wealth of directors and performers travel here or submit their work; there’s always something on offer which will surprise you.
Having sung the porn festival’s praises, there do remain some drawbacks to the event. The organisers made a good move by making the theme of disability and sexuality a focus for the 10th anniversary. This gesture was somewhat blunted by the total inaccessibility of the main venue. The decision to screen only some of the films directly relating to disability in an accessible venue also seemed like only a cursory solution. One other potential sticking point is the cost of the tickets. It is of course infinitely easier to criticise than to be saddled with financing and running a large event. Unfortunately, with only minor bulk discounts and no festival pass that I could find (most Berlin film festivals have them), if you want to experience all the delights the porn festival has to offer, you might need to save up some cash in preparation.
All things considered, the 10th Berlin Porn Film Festival was still an amazing experience for me. Whether or not you participate in all the social aspects of the festival, attend the workshops and surrounding events or frolic in the dark rooms at any of the after parties, something positive still comes from the experience. Perhaps it’s seeing so many great and sexually-charged films in such a small space of time. Maybe it’s just spending time where everyone is on a similar wavelength and ideas like sex positivity or non-binary gender don’t need constant defending or re-explaining. Whatever combination of factors give the festival its magic, I came away from it feeling uplifted and with my mind full of fresh ideas.
Here I’ve written about some of the films I found most affecting. There are several great films I saw but didn’t include, either due to time constraints or because I couldn’t remember enough details to do them justice (I forgot to take a notepad again this year).
The feature films I saw were all special but wildly different in content and style. These films all each deserve some extended words of their own, but so far I’ve not yet had a chance to write about them fully:
A bizarre and brilliantly made comedy which felt oddly reminiscent of Russ Meyer’s more outlandish films. I found it almost too offensive to watch and yet mind-blowing enough to keep me hooked right through to the end (the ending was one of the best that I can recall seeing).
I misread the blurb and went in expecting a documentary. What I got instead was a sublime selection of rapid-fire shorts which gave inspired and often hilarious responses to the different kinks.
A good satire on the appropriation of black culture, this film was also erotic in a markedly different way to many of the other films I saw. While the scenes were perhaps less explicit in what they showed, the film was certainly not lacking in sexual tension. It’s a real pity they screened this on Sunday morning when the audience was comparatively small.
A harrowing portrait of a vicious misogynist who was himself a victim of years of abuse, this film was tough to watch. The story was told creatively with a mixture of interviews and narrative and the lead actors all carried their difficult roles well. I found the portrayal of the main character troubling at times (it felt like certain details were being skipped over), but it remains a powerful film which is worth watching.
I’m rarely as pleasantly surprised as I was by Having My Cake. I enjoyed Music Box last year, another short by Morgana Muses, but I knew very little about this one before the titles flashed up on the screen. The word exquisite describes most aspects of this film best: the grandiose location, the succulent (yet ill-fated) Parisian cakes and the fine outfits in which the stars are temporarily clothed. Morgana looked fabulous in an ornate ensemble of suspenders and stockings. She took the dominant role in firm but understated fashion which fitted perfectly with the film’s playful tone. I’d seen plenty of photos of her co-star Bishop Black in drag before, but none of them quite did him justice. The two performers seemed completely at ease and playful together. The sex which ensues when they find themselves in bed together is sublimely hot and captivating. Usually I can never get into porn which features messy sex, but this time was a notable exception.
In addition to the on-screen action, Having My Cake was a sharp piece of film-making. Each angle framed the performers just right to display their bodies and especially their facial expressions to maximum effect. The film was a string of delicately constructed and lustful vignettes. The cinematography here stood out even amongst all the other fine films at the festival. Combining smashed confectionery, deftly filmed orgasms, palpable sexual tension between the stars and much besides, Having My Cake was one of my favorite films of the weekend. You really should watch it.
Pornography may be candid in its nature, but a film which grants you a window into something genuine and intimate is still a special thing. Shine Louise Houston’s film documents the sex between two people who are both performers in mainstream porn movies, but whose own private sexualities are wildly different from their usual on-screen personas. The film expertly plays on established porn norms. Initially the two performers look the picture of a conventional porn pairing. Within a couple of minutes, the male performer has a wand vibrator snugly inside him. What follows is an expression of fierce and unbridled lust between the two people.
The couple’s on-screen dynamic is overwhelmingly intense yet playful and arrestingly sweet. At every stage, Houston positions her camera ideally to drink in everything that happens. There is so much squirting and fucking in these twenty two minutes that I had to wonder at the stamina and self-awareness these two people must possess. Shine Louise Houston displays an eye for interesting sexual dynamics and her ability to capture them honestly in this film. It was another highlight of the festival program.
“It’s interesting watching the fetish shorts with an audience. You can tell exactly when everyone’s feeling awkward because there’s laughter when it’s not funny.” The curator of the fetish shorts program hit the nail on the head when she made this observation. There was plenty of laughter during Manure Tank, whose subtitle is “even punks might shower sometimes.” I suspect that the film was selected as the shocking jewel in the fetish shorts’ crown. Its concept is simple: a man bathes in the flow he unleashes from a tank of liquid manure, gradually bringing himself to a sexual climax as he writhes in it. I did find it pretty repulsive.
The film is certainly tongue-in-cheek, but it felt like the director and performer were doing more than playing it for laughs. At several intervals, the man stops crawling around in the slurry and stares into the camera with a mixture of lust and what seemed like defiance. Whatever the film’s intention is, it struck me as a decent and unabashed portrayal of a fetish which isn’t often widely discussed. I’m not keen on seeing Manure Tank again, but it is a shit-connected fetish video which I (sort of) enjoyed watching. I’m not aware of any other film which meets that description.
Spanking films have not traditionally been heavy on plot or character development. The great pity is that a well-developed scenario with believable dynamics between the characters can be as important as the act itself. A nervous shuffle, a raised eyebrow, a petulant pout or any number of minor-sounding elements can be a crucial part of something genuinely arousing. If spanking and D/s isn’t your thing then this might sound contrived, but the devil is really in the details. Pandora Blake is one person with a deep understanding of screening and playing out D/s dynamics. Having established herself as an auteur of the spanking genre and feminist porn in general, this film was her first entry to the festival as a director and to me it felt different from much of her previous work.
The spanking part was not the focus compared to the dynamics between the performers and the appreciation of their bodies. Tai Crimson makes his first porn appearance (he turned 18 just 5 days before shooting) as a young man seeking training as Pandora’s new houseboy. He appears sprightly and innocent at first glance, but he wears an expression of suave resistance, especially whilst being beaten. Eliza Grey plays the bookish and insecure house maid who seethes jealousy through her glares and sharp tones. The setup came just as much from the visuals as the dialogue. Jealousy and rivalry are expressed through glances and tones of voice instead of being simply laid out in the dialogue. Pandora displays her dominance and control in the way she moves and speaks in contrast to the two servants. This film needs to be watched intently to catch all the great details.
Having waxed lyrical about the other parts of the film, the spanking scenes themselves are really hot. Having set such an elaborate scene the camera catches all the right details. Tai Crimson looks extremely cute red-arsed and acting as Pandora’s foot rest. Eliza’s quiet, pouty frustration as she’s spanked is equally captivating. Despite it not being the main focus, this movie has all the classical elements of spanking porn expertly interwoven. With Houseboy, Pandora Blake has made an intricate D/s film which can be enjoyed on multiple levels: the well-deserved winner of the short film contest.
The original Grimm Brothers story of Cinderella was harrowing but remains a favorite of mine. Zolushka has to be my favorite re-working of this tale. The film drips cuteness from every pore whilst cleverly sending up some well known clichés of the gay scene. The story revolves around a lowly janitor who is the butt of everyone’s cruel jibes at the gay bar where he works. One night his luck changes when he encounters a fairy who gives him a special suit which makes him irresistible, but only until the stroke of midnight. Will he be able to romance the tall muscular bear who is the object of his desire before his time is up?
From the hilarious ‘missed connections’ ad which gets posted after the janitor has to flee, to the wildly flamboyant but slightly sinister fairy, Zolushka is brimming with wit. Admittedly, the film is likely to be more enjoyable if you’re familiar with what’s being satirised. However, as someone with no connection to the Seattle gay scene, I still found it charming and funny. Although the characters are cartoon-like and the plot is deliberately contrived, it’s impossible not to feel some connection to the leisure-suited janitor as he triumphs over his tormentors.
The costumes in the film deserve a special mention. The bear whose heart the janitor longs to win is rugged and masculine yet preened and sensitive. The fairy character looks somewhere between an ecstatic bride and an ice queen. The magical leisure suit itself looks so comically awful that the sight of all the men fawning over it becomes gut-wrenchingly funny. Zolushka is a delightfully sweet and heart-melting take on a classic fairy tale.
Subtle is a word which is rapidly losing its shelf life when describing interesting pornography. Most of what was screened at the festival fits this description in some way. The best films all had the quality of making their imagery at least as expressive as their dialogue and usually more-so. Last Call directed by Katy Bit is one such film which weaves its spell with a series of glimpses into different fantasies. Sadie Lune plays a lonely woman sitting at a bar and drowning her sorrows using shots of gin. Her fantasies gradually take over and she imagines a space full of people all unleashing their sexual desires in different ways.
Sadie Lune always has a uniquely commanding screen presence. The contrast between the downcast and sedate figure slumped over the bar and the woman who strides confidently through the dream-scape is especially striking. Slow motion can be an easy technique to misuse, but it is works to great effect here to display the orgiastic movements of the scenes Sadie passes in her dream. What stuck in my mind the most was the image of three men having sex together, the camera savoring the moment when one of them reaches orgasm. These scenes are brief but each one is carefully selected to present a moment of climax or intensity. Sadie herself has her own moment when an exquisite look of raw and desperate desire flashes across her face just momentarily after sex. Last Call draws together a multitude of different sexual energies and persuasions, combining them with wry humor and skillful direction.