Dispatches from a Dark Corner

Meet the Woman Putting the Kink into Film Festivals

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As a practicing pervert in New York City, I have been making pilgrimages to CineKink —“the kinky film festival” — every winter for several years now. The festival, which starts every late February in New York before traveling the globe, will celebrate its twelfth year this February 24th through March 1st , 2015. CineKink celebrates positive depictions of all kinds of kink in film, from documentaries to shorts to feature films to porn.

I had a spot of tea with CineKink’s co-founder, director, and curator, Lisa Vandever, and talked about the ways the festival has evolved and shaped her life.

You’ve been running film festivals in New York city for approximately fifteen years. Where did that start?
I moved to New York to work in film and video in the late 90s. I was working in development. In the other part of my life, I’d just moved to New York, and I’d started to jump into New York dating. I happened to meet somebody who was into S/M, and that triggered some interests that I had never thought were there….But, we broke up. And that led me to The Eulenspiegel Society, or TES, the oldest and largest [BDSM group] in the country. I remember looking at their website for months before I dared go. I mean, they have meetings about spanking. I was like, “How weird is that? People sitting around, talking about spanking?” And then I actually went and there were demos of spanking, and there was this whole community centered around this [lifestyle].

So I got involved with TES, and they wanted to do a film night. I was like, “I know film!” And it kind of expanded from there. The idea for the film series actually came from my [CineKink] cofounder, Michael, who was like, “Let’s do a festival!” So we did that with the Eulenspiegel people for three years.

I just wanted to find films that didn’t have that negative message. Films that showed that it was okay to explore these different, divergent paths.

Around then, my own interests were kind of expanding in kink and BDSM…I was becoming more interested in swing and polyamory and the whole gamut. At the same time, I was starting to feel a sense of ownership of the festival…And then the name “CineKink” popped into my head, and I took the domain because it was available.

This is probably an oversimplified question, but what was your original vision for CineKink? What did you think it was going to be?
I was seeing how few positive depictions there were of BDSM. Typically, there are two ending scenarios. I still cringe when I’m watching an S/M film, and it’s hot and juicy, and then the character is murdered or arrested, or something bad happens. Or there’s the disavowal. Like, “Oh, that was a wacky thing I was into! And now I’m going to have kids and be normal.” I just wanted to find films that didn’t have that message. Films that showed that it was okay to explore these different, divergent paths.

What type of film did you start off with? At that time, what was out there?
I was still working more with distributors then, so we got some big films, like the various Marquis de Sade pictures. I was looking for a sympathetic portrayal.

We did put out a call for entries, but the stuff that we got in in the first couple years tended to be very rough. The content was there, but they’d sort of let go of the production considerations.

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Do you think that CineKink has provided a reason for filmmakers to make work that they might not have otherwise made?
I definitely do. People have created films specifically for CineKink, or they somehow stumbled on it. Some of them have said, “I didn’t even know this existed.” Particularly in the non-LGBT world, because there are so many LGBT festivals, which tend to program a lot more explicit works than maybe the mainstream, vanilla festivals, who won’t—or in the past haven’t—programmed much sex. We do get filmmakers who sort of fall between the cracks. Their stuff’s not gay enough for the gay circuit, and it’s too explicit for [others].

Has the festival lived up to your original vision? Has the vision itself changed?
In terms of providing a vehicle for positive portrayals [of BDSM], definitely it’s met that. And it’s expanded in a way, it’s evolved, in terms of what things are considered kinky, and what we show.

There was a film about asexuality at CineKink a few years ago…
That would be one way that it’s kind of expanded. I would never have thought of asexuality as an identity, but it definitely is.

It’s also an example of how not all the films in the festival are about sex.
It’s not always sexy. It’s whatever contributes to or creates that space for conversation around sex. Whether it be really hot and arousing, or just a place to think, “I never thought of that!”

Now CineKink is in its twelfth year, and it’s touring. How many cities are you hitting up now?
I think it’s about six to eight. We’ve also gone to Australia now, which is nice. I’d been kind of afraid to send it out into the world [without me],because there have been film screenings where there have been guys who show up with a six-pack of beer, and they’re expecting… I don’t know. A hot, hot time? But sometimes they get into it, too.

Some people in the audience have said, “I didn’t even know this existed.”

I wonder what they’re expecting! The experience of sitting in a dark theater watching sexy films is one that not many people have had, at this point. My first time was at CineKink. And it’s such a different experience than I expected it to be.
What did you expect it to be?

I guess I thought it would be tense. And it really wasn’t. You’re all there for the same thing, you all know what’s going on, and unless you’re sitting next to someone who makes you particularly uncomfortable, it’s a really interesting feeling to know that everyone around you is probably also aroused, and that’s ok.
It’s a very respectful crowd. I think sometimes people have that old “raincoat” image in their heads, like there’s going to be “creepy guys.” But we really don’t get them. And if we do, we’re pretty good at spotting them. I can only think of once or twice in twelve years.

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Professor Mireille Miller-Young, adult performer Sinnamon Love, adult performer Jiz Lee, Cinekink director Lisa Vandever, Tristan Taormino, adult filmmaker Candida Royalle, adult filmmaker Nenna Joiner, adult filmmaker Courtney Trouble.

In addition to films and play parties, CineKink also has panels and Q&As. Have you ever seen anything momentous happen at one of those, where somebody’s mind got blown?
There are two main experiences. One was Jennie Livingston’s “Who’s the Top.” It’s an S/M comedy musical short…It was this great experience of the whole theater watching [a program of] kinky shorts, and the director was there. Experiencing Jennie experiencing the audience laughing at the right parts, getting tense at the right part… It was amazing. That kind of connection.

And the other one was with Sinnamon Love. There was a year where Tristan Taormino’s Rough Sex was part of the Bring It! [porn] competition. And the scene we chose was Sinnamon Love’s, and she was just…crying. You know, if you’re a porn actress, you don’t have that experience of seeing yourself and watching it with other people on a big screen. It was so special.

CineKink has sort of become the de facto east coast porn festival. Did you expect that to happen?
Not to that extent. I mean that’s always been the goal, to have the filmmaker there to show their work. But, I mean Tristan [Taormino]’s been there several years, Candida [Royale], Nina Hartley… And then all of the feminist porn, indie folks, like Jennifer Lyon Bell, who I think is coming [this year], Courtney Trouble, and, oh, Jiz Lee!

I look at it just as a film. A lot of it starts with: Does it connect? Are they telling a good story? Is the production holding together?

Speaking of porn, how do you curate a film that is meant to titillate? That’s so subjective.
I look at it just as a film. A lot of it starts with: Does it connect? Are they telling a good story? Is the production holding together? Can I hear? What’s going on with that? And so, even though it’s maybe not my thing, I can still get aroused by something, or see why [someone would].

There are some things that definitely aren’t my taste—things like piercings and stuff—that personally squick me, so I’m aware of that. But I’m also aware that those things don’t squick a lot of people. So I still include it.

[When I’m] putting together the reels that I travel around with, I won’t always be actively checking it [as it  records], so it’ll just be kind of playing softly in the background. So I think I’m really attuned to sound effects—orgasm sounds. That can be the most erotic thing, or it can be the most awkward thing. [Laughing] Jennifer Lyon Bell has the hottest moan tracks. They’re just soft and really natural.

I’ve never thought about that aspect of it!
I’m very aware of it. I just had this really gorgeous Spanish film, except they dubbed it instead of subtitles…I’m going to contact them to see if they have subtitles, which presents its own problems, but then at least you have the actual soundtrack. Because [dubbing] just pulls you out of it.

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Filmmaker Charles Lum, Cinekink director Lisa Vandever, and filmmaker Mike Skiff

In a porn film—or a not-porn- film with sexy noises in it—do they also dub the sex noises?
It seemed like it was kind of going in and out.

Weird! Can you imagine sitting in a recording studio making fake sex noises?
[Laughing] I’ve envisioned that a lot!

You were talking about opening up conversations about kink and sex. Have you ever seen CineKink as a way for people to move between kink groups?
We always try to bring that idea into the festival and especially our play parties: there’s S/M going on, but there’s also just sex-sex. It’s all there. So we try not to restrict anything. Whatever you’re into, and if you want to explore, and those people are into it, go ahead.

And also, one thing we try to do is create a space where there’s not necessarily sex going on. So the club we’ve been using is great because there are three floors. So on the first floor we show movies and people can dance. And if you’re feeling adventurous you can go upstairs.

Whereas in the past it was like, here’s this little area where we’re watching videos, and I’ve seen some of the filmmakers like… [making a wide-eyed expression]. I think we’ve definitely opened people up to considerations. Some filmmakers who came to show their work, we’ve had them come to a party, and they’ve been like, “I like this.”