"Shocking Truth" porn documentary now available
Independent documentary film by Alexa Wolf
[this review is based on the Demo copy distributed on VHS to selected feminists in the US]
D. A. Clarke
[Note: This powerful anti-pornography film contains a surprise plot twist which adds to its effect. Unfortunately I will have to disclose this surprise in the course of the review. Therefore, if you have access to the film, you may wish to postpone reading this review until after you have seen 'Shocking Truth'. 'Shocking Truth' contains clips from actual, commercial hardcore videos and should therefore be viewed with caution by women for whom such images will be re-traumatizing.]
The video "Shocking Truth" was made by freelance journalist Alexa Wolf during her last year at the national Swedish Film School. She was unable to get funding from IDFA-98 or from the school for this project; one suspects that this was because she admitted openly her intention to tackle the subject of pornography.
She bought the rights to the film from the school, and continued the project alone. From this unpromising beginning, her film has beaten the odds: it achieved significant public exposure and has had a remarkable impact on Swedish public discourse:
(from the press release)
Suddenly something happened. In just a couple of weeks everyone knew about the film. It was exposed in every media and a version of it was shown by TV4; a semi-public Swedish channel, When TV4 showed it they reached their highest viewer rates ever at 10.00 p.m.
The debate that followed did not end in the studio but grew nation-wide. For a couple of months (!) Shocking Truth seemed to be covered in every obscure little paper all through Scandinavia. All the women's organisations cheered, and shocked parents wrote letters to the editors revealing that they had had no idea that their children watched this after midnight 365 days a year!
The hotline for children in need, BRIS, jammed: 25% more calls about sexual violation against children were taken. After four months, close to two thousand articles had been written about "Shocking Truth" all through Scandinavia.
Even the market was affected - the stocks of MTG, the owners of the -- in the film -- criticised cable channel TV1000, began to go down.
How did a student film project achieve such public impact, especially when the film's message was an unpopular one, critical of prostitution and exploitation? Perhaps one reason is that Sweden, a country long known for "liberal" policies regarding obscenity and pornography, is no longer a major exporter of porn. It's now an importer -- and the main supplier is America.
Alexa Wolf told me that:
I am ashamed to tell you that the biggest buyers of American porn in the world, isn't American cable channels, no, it is Sweden and Germany. Biggest buyers of "gonzo porn" are Holland and Denmark, who also have the tamest, close to nonexistent feminist movements in the whole of Europe.
Can it be that after decades of porn-liberalism, perhaps the novelty has worn off in Sweden sufficiently that at least some people are somewhat open to a critical analysis? Or is it just that foreign product is easier to criticize than domestic?
Whatever the reason, Wolf achieved the impossible: public debate on the negative impact of pornography was stirred up in a liberal Western industrialized nation.
Wolf chose her title in deliberate satire of an American porn video series, 'The Shocking Truth,' which was aired on Swedish TV network TV-1000. The American production (made by US pornographer Gregory Dark between 1994 and 1997) consists of a series of interviews: a male interviewer questions female "porn stars" on the sets of their films, or in the clubs where they work.
Along with the interviews, Dark includes footage from the actual porn films. The interview questions are deliberately suggestive and mocking; for example, a spacey, perhaps drugged woman dressed up in elaborate porn-fantasy costume is asked whether her friends think of her as smart, what she has to offer socially, etc. Her responses are dopey, inarticulate, "dumb". She confirms that the only thing she has to offer is "her mouth" -- as in, fellatio. The object in each interview is to get the women to say on-camera that they are stupid, have no value except as sex toys, or that enjoy their porn film work, that they are are no good for anything else, that they are insatiable, etc.
In fact, Dark's "interviews" are themselves a porn film. In a classic bit of po-mo conscious irony, he has taken the documentary film tradition and assimilated it into the pornographic cinema. His "shocking truth" is in fact just the same tired old "truth" that his male viewers want to hear: that women are stupid, that women are whores.
However, seen in the surrounding context of a *real* documentary film, the clips from Dark's misogynist pseudo-documentary bizarrely regain documentary status. The disconnection, alienation, and lack of affect in the faces of the women he interviews, their deadened eyes and mumbling, dazed responses, draw an immediate empathetic reaction from any female viewer. Particularly for women who have little to exposure to hardcore porn, it is indeed a "shocking truth" that millions of men pay to watch videos of women who are clearly in an altered, possibly damaged emotional and mental state -- and that these images are normative for male sexuality.
Clips from Dark's production are jump-cut into Wolf's film throughout, which may be a little confusing at first for the US viewer unfamiliar with the popularity of US porn material on Swedish TV. Dark's 'The Shocking Truth' in particular was aired "over and over again since 1994," says Wolf, on TV-1000 and Canal+. (Mr Dark, by the way, is now making Britney Spears videos).
Wolf's film follows the story of a young woman (Lisa) who wants to write a paper for her adult education class; she wants to write about pornography -- what it means to her and to her society. In the course of her project she doggedly interviews local porn film producers in Sweden, watches porn on video (including Dark's famous videos, so popular in Sweden), and gets background material from a mysterious informant called "Cookie". Her brother figures in the film as a supportive friend; another ally and helper is a young man, himself an ex-prostitute, who runs a small agency for the aid and comfort of young men who are sexually abused or exploited.
There is an odd sense of "self-referential documentary" in that Lisa is working on a documentary paper, and the film-maker is simultaneously shooting a documentary about Lisa's paper. As soon as the film (which delivers a very powerful message about the harm done to women in prostitution) gained popular attention in Sweden, mainstream media responded quickly by accusing Ms Wolf of using professional actors to tell a fictional story. (Other viewers responded more directly by making death threats against Wolf and her children).
I asked her about this aspect of the film; I myself was curious whether it was a re-enactment, or shot live during the actual writing of Lisa's paper. She responded:
To be honest, the most important thing for me (my dogma) is to never make anything but "true scenes" in the films I make (I have even started a Guild for documentary film makers who want to keep it real). In other words there are no faked scenes in the film. In the film there is a text (maybe hard to see on video) saying "all pornographic quotes are taken from Canal+ and TV1000." Most European viewers get this because these names are the biggest cable channels in Scandinavia and Europe [...]
I knew it [about Lisa's paper] from the beginning. I was so sad because she already started her writing and made some main interviews when I found her. So many characters were never filmed, only to be found in her paper.
She also noted: I believe that I got the material I got (people saying what they are saying, and so on) because many of the interviewed characters underestimated me and in particular Lisa. Sometimes the reality is just so much harder to believe in than the myths, isn't it so?
There are two "shocking truths" revealed by Wolf's documentary. One is the high cost of pornography in human suffering and debasement, as told first-hand by those who have been there. The other is the denial, hypocrisy, and wilful ignorance of those in "straight" society who, themselves safe from such exploitation and abuse, do not like to admit it exists.
Lisa, with Wolf's film crew in tow, interviews Swedish porn producers. She interviews an ex-porn actress now respectable. She asks an executive from a Swedish television programming review board why she approved of the showing of the US porn series on Swedish TV. Predictably, she gets the same tired old answers about freedom of speech and the harmlessness of porn. From the producers she gets the laissez-faire capitalist line (I can make money however I want, it's a free country) and the classic "the girls are better off in my studio than on the street."
Nowhere does she get an honest human reaction to the abuse that she (and we) witness via Dark's camera, in the clips from his series. In one very moving shot, Lisa sits with her brother watching a violent gang-rape scene in one of Dark's videos. She is weeping in despair, talking back to the TV. She says "Look at her, look at her eyes. She isn't even there any more. She's gone." Suddenly she cannot bear to see any more. She turns it off.
We see the same clip, first in small excerpts, then later in a more continuous take. In the porn film "plot" a young blonde woman is surprised in an indoor setting by several men wearing absurd animal masks. The men strip down (some keep their masks on) and start what appears to be a gang rape, though the woman puts up little resistance (after all, this event takes place in Male Fantasyland, where women like being gang-raped).
Since this is hardcore, the action is not faked. It's evident that the woman is being handled violently. The affectless, impersonal expressions of the men who are brutally fucking her, the vulnerability of her naked body being twisted and forced into various positions, and the vague, absent expression on her own face, are appalling to observe.
What is most appalling perhaps is that we know by now that this video has been broadcast and rebroadcast repeatedly on a public TV channel in Sweden, accessible to any viewer (including young people). This video is educating both adult and young men, and probably young women as well, about sex. It is teaching the public what is normal and acceptable. The public is watching a documentary about the abuse of women, but it is called entertainment. The public is learning that the deadness in abused women's eyes is sexy.
At the end of the scene when the porn director calls "Cut" and our "porn star" stands up to take a break, she staggers and nearly passes out (which Lisa notices and remarks on angrily). Later, Dark interviews the "porn star", still dazed and exhausted, her face smeared with semen. In the same vague, disconnected tone she tells him obediently that she "loves dick" and that working in porn films is just great.
But in Wolf's real world, Lisa is weeping broken-hearted while her brother tries to comfort her. In ragged, incoherent, raging phrases she says that the woman in the film was raped on camera, that it was "just like what they did to me in that meadow." We, the viewers, realize that Lisa is a rape survivor -- and that this makes Dark's pornography even more insulting and hurtful to her than to a luckier, relatively untraumatized female viewer.
Lisa meets Mikko, a young man who has escaped from life as a prostitute and now is trying to run a shelter for prostituted men and boys. He runs his shelter out of a friendly church, having no money for an independent facility. Ms Wolf says:
He started it himself. Because until he did that in '99, there was no help whatsoever for abused men. He has nooooooo money! The organisation lives on charity and a very small state funding. I found him by going to hear him lecture, and he agreed to be filmed.
Mikko is interviewed by Wolf's crew. He speaks fluently yet sincerely about the degree of self-hatred and alienation involved in prostitution. He talks about the way he was drawn into it (by an older man) and how it felt to live by renting his body to older men. He tries to describe the attitude and the emotional state required to survive as a prostitute; it's in his past now, so he's achieved some degree of detachment and dispassion, but this doesn't diminish his descriptive power. It's also clear that his experiences have filled him with determination to help others escape: hence his one-man crusade to start the shelter and a hotline for exploited men and boys.
Wolf gets Mikko's permission to film an interview between him and a Swedish police chief, Rolf Edin. Mr Edin was chief of "the prostitution squad" for fifteen years, but according to Ms Wolf he was fired "for helping and demanding treatment for the girls instead of the clients." Edin speaks quietly and sadly on camera about his years working with prostitutes on the streets, about the conditions which drive or lure young people into pornography and prostitution, and the great difficulties they face in getting out of it again. He is the only "establishment" figure in the film who shows genuine empathy and respect for the women and kids on the front lines of prostitution.
His attitude contrasts sharply with that of the female broadcasting official who grants Lisa a few minutes of her very precious time. Her glibness and lack of accountability speak so clearly on-camera that no editorial comment is necessary (from Lisa or anyone else). The official position of privilege is articulated shamelessly, without the least self-consciousness.
Alas, even people from whom we expect better demonstrate the same disconnection from reality. Lisa's writing teacher keeps criticizing her paper. The language is too passionate. It should be more academic, less emotional. In one scene, Lisa sits on her bed, reading the teacher's marginal notes and complaining to her sympathetic brother: the teacher finds the manuscript "too personal", Lisa is too close to her informant, she must be more distant and objective if she wants to convince people.
It's at this moment, as Lisa laughs bitterly and says "Too personal? How could it not be personal?" that I (the viewer) started to get a clue.
Eventually the clue is fulfilled, and we realize that Cookie, Lisa's informant from inside the world of pornography, is actually Lisa herself. It is Lisa who was brutally raped on-camera, physically damaged, viciously abused. Lisa is writing not a "concerned citizen" inquiry into a social problem, but a passionate and honest account of the abuse, injustice, and injury that she experienced while she herself was a prostitute and a "porn star".
Had she not taken a different turn, made a determined effort to change her life, Lisa could have ended up in Gregory Dark's viewfinder: answering mocking, cruel questions, dazedly assuring male viewers that she "just loves dick".
With this revelation Wolf's film is complete: she has sprung the trap on us the viewers, and introduced us to an "ordinary" girl, a smart, stubborn, shy, determined girl, who is also a survivor of prostitution. Lisa's sincerity, and her absolute ordinariness, strip away the last pretence that prostitutes and porn models are "a different kind of person" from the respectable rest of us. For any female viewer fortunate enough to have escaped sexual abuse and exploitation in youth, Wolf's film must strongly inspire a sharp uncomfortable feeling of "there but for the grace of God [or just plain luck] go I."
Breaking down this ridiculous mythology -- this tacit belief that prostitutes are another species, not quite human, not quite like the rest of us, magically immune to humiliation and harm which would be unbearable to "a normal person" -- this is what has to happen for the real harm of prostitution and pornography to be admitted and addressed.
Wolf's film achieves something which other anti-porn films have not always even attempted. Anti-porn documentaries have usually focussed on revealing to female audiences the awfulness of both mainstream and fringe pornography. The point has usually been to reveal the dreadful depths of male misogyny, to "out" men for the hatefulness of their preferred "erotic" materials. Often this revelation is very effective: many women are sheltered from the worst of porn and find it hard to believe how intense and unrelenting its hatred of women really is.
Wolf takes it a step further and shows us the way porn is being integrated into respectable society -- how it is seen but not seen, used but not perceived, a "public secret". She shows us the construction of our pragmatic social myth: that there is a "natural underclass" of career sluts for whom pornography and prostitution is a suitable and harmless career. She shows how the pornographers themselves construct self-referential propaganda to create and repeat that myth (as in Dark's dreadful pseudo-documentary) and how the respectable mainstream media obediently repeats it.
There is nothing new about the creation of such myths. Southern slaveowners had a comforting myth about Black inferiority, about their slaves being "naturally suited" to backbreaking work in hot, humid conditions. They managed to construct myths about Black people being "happy" under such circumstances, and hence were able to blame rebellious slaves for being "ungrateful". California landowners created similar myths about Mexican labour. Exploiters of Chinese labour reassured themselves that "in the Orient, human life is cheap"; and even today, ads in electronics trade magazine tell CEOs that women in Singapore and Malaysia are specially suited, due to their "delicate, small hands", to wage-slavery in semiconductor sweatshops.
Wherever an underclass is created and exploited, the dominant society constructs a comforting myth to salve its conscience: this is the natural order of things, these people are happy where they are, and God must want it this way... otherwise we would all have to admit that we are standing by and doing nothing while crime and atrocity go on right under our collective nose.
Alexa Wolf's film does a good job of deconstructing the comforting myth that hides the crimes and abuses of prostitution.
She shows us the grim reality -- the reality which any person not brainwashed by the pornographers will perceive after watching just a few unpleasant minutes of the product: women and girls are being abused and raped on camera, for profit. And mainstream TV stations are airing the results, for profit.
It's no wonder that controversy exploded in Sweden as soon as Wolf's film got any exposure. She has lifted the lid on a poisonous, seething case of mass denial.
February the 16th 'Shocking Truth' was shown in the Swedish parliament. Today, only four months later, it actually has led to change of laws and routines concerning child abuse, and the admission of porn on cable channels [...]
It has also been shown in the Polish parliament (March the 2nd) as part of the debate preceding votes on prohibition of porn in Poland.
April the 12th it was shown at Stortinget (parliament) in Norway, where a similar discussion of liberalisation had been raised.
The 3rd of March it was shown in the EU parliament in Brussels on initiative of the Swedish left party. At MIP -TV Festival in Cannes in April it was the most seen film this year.
'Shocking Truth' has now proposed and/or changed laws in three countries.
What a wonderful thing it would be if Wolf's film could get exposure in the US, and bring about a similar enlivening of public discussion here.
I recommend this film to all teachers of college-level or adult-ed media criticism classes, feminist lecturers at the college level, and social justice activists working to raise public awareness (and funds) to help women escape from prostitution.
As Alexa Wolf's press release concludes:
We hope that 'Shocking Truth' shall keep stirring up stagnant images of pornography and "the happy whore" all over the world.
I share that hope.
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