The fin de siècle of the Twentieth Century hosted a disproportionally large amount of documentaries centered on the eroticism of power exchange and fetish lifestyle. The tectonic shift from the ’70s swinging free love to the ’80s plague paranoia brought about major changes in sexuality and a gradual change in acceptable societal behavior. This seems to have intrigued directors to challenge audiences and censors. In Europe, specifically Germany, a 1985 film by Klaus Tuschen, Domina – Die Last mit der Lust, proved an early entry in what would become a common exercise of documenting the theory and practice of what is loosely defined as bondage & discipline or sadomasochistic relationships (BDSM).
Germany continued to be a reliable source for similar films, joined in the 1990s by Denmark and finally, the United States with Michelle Handelman’s 1995 Bloodsisters starring Queen Cougar and Pat Califia. This hotly contested work upset conservative audiences with its combination of extreme fetish and lesbian subject matter. Yet, this opened the door for other films including Nick Broomfield’s Fetishes. Shown on HBO in 1997, Fetishes exposed an untold number of viewers to progressive sexual relationships and opened the floodgates for dozens of subsequent works that have tread similar ground, focusing on the many facets of power exchange.
Dominans (Steen Schapiro, 1994, Denmark)
The middle chapter of Steen Schapiro’s Art Core Trilogy, Dominans is a beautifully-shot meditation. The 40-minute work is broken into three chapters that focus on two dominant females and one dominant male. That their submissives aren’t given a voice isn’t an issue as the dominants sound completely in touch with their submissives’ feelings and needs.
Shooting in three Danish S&M clubs, Schapiro draws back the curtain to reveal the dynamics of some very complex and rich relationships. The paradoxes – freedom that can be gained through submission, the gifts received when giving up everything, the sensitivity to your lover’s needs when one’s playing the role of a hardened dominant – are all brought to light.
Schapiro allows the participants to speak for themselves, avoiding the inclusion of a pedantic expert to legitimize the practices described and demonstrated. Apparently the Danish government felt that everything was legitimate enough to fund Dominans, have it shown on public television, and make it available as an education tool in any of the country’s public libraries.
Bloodsisters (Michelle Handelman, 1995, USA)
Delving deep, this film documents a subculture within a subculture: the BDSM scene within the lesbian circle of San Francisco. Seen by some within the community as being traitors to the cause, the practitioners are the queerest of the queer.
The group’s strong desire for self-definition shines through this leather-swathed documentary. Director Michelle Handelman expresses this via scenes of activism, demonstrations of techniques, and discussions of terminology by the participants of Bloodsisters.
In direct contrast to Steen Schapiro’s Dominans, Handelman fell victim to the Puritanical mores of America. The film was flogged by the conservative American Family Association as exemplifying the immoral uses of the National Endowment of the Arts.
Strictly Speaking (Kirk Demorest, 1996, USA)
While Bloodsisters occasionally becomes mired in mid-’90s video effects, Kirk Demorest’s Strictly Speaking is lousy with them. Strictly Speaking centers on Mistress Karen, who narrates the film, explaining terms, implements, and concepts. Shown in small floating boxes, Mistress Karen is visually fragmented. This technique keeps the viewer from fully seeing the twenty-something domme. This treatment feels appropriate as Mistress Karen slowly doles out personal information. Near the end of the hour-long work, she drops a bombshell: our faithful narrator reveals that though a professional dominatrix she’s still a virgin. Dangerous role play is still the safest sex in town!
Also helping with the proceedings is model/actress Monique Parent, who struts her stuff in fetish garb, demonstrating a few of the practices discussed. The visuals are peppered with stock clips from films like Ceram Una Volta..., The April Fools, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show to display the pervasive presence of fetish-based themes in popular culture. This clever use of pre-existing material is only outshone by the insightful discussion of the nascent internet and its impact on the scene.
Fetishes (Nick Broomfield, 1996, USA)
Part of the American Undercover series of HBO documentaries, Nick Broomfield’s piece could have easily been a freak of the week exploitation of society’s demersal elements. Instead, the film is a relatively evenhanded look at a heretofore unexplored underworld; the contemporary urban professional dungeon.
The bulk of Fetishes takes place at Pandora’s Box, an upscale dungeon at the heart of Manhattan’s Mid-Town where it hides in plain sight. Broomfield focuses on several of the professional dommes at the establishment, exploring their scene specialties as well as their home life. At the crux of Fetishes is the question of whether the women who help craft the psychodramas all day at work can (and should) divorce themselves of this during their off hours.
Broomfield misses the opportunity to display life at Pandora’s Box between appointments. By avoiding the mundane life in the dungeon looks fairly glamorous. This is starkly contrasted by Eva Heldmann’s 2007 documentary about a professional dungeon cum brothel in Germany, Five Sex Rooms and a Kitchen. Heldmann’s film shows the daily grind of operating a house of ill-repute.
Several scenes in Fetishes are remarkable in their raw emotion including submissive fetish film director Maria Beatty examining her bottom after a particularly vicious beating and one domme explaining the pain of womanhood to a client engaged in feminization. Broomfield focuses on the more extreme clientele and often sounds unsympathetic in his narration.
Playing to the large HBO audience, Fetishes helped legitimize the scene; paving the way for more mainstream acceptance of these sorts of documentaries. Additionally, Broomfield’s aesthetic also helped establish the trappings of so-called reality television.
A Weekend at Miss Martindale’s (Laurie Sparham, 1996, UK)
Marianne Martindale’s mystic realm, Aristasia, is situated in an English suburb. The neighbors don’t seem to know what to make of the statuesque Martindale (nee Catherine Tyrell) and the cavalcade of girls stopping by for a stint at her school.
Sparham’s film never rises out of the mire of Martindale’s Aristasia claptrap. Entranced by the sound of her own voice, Martindale waxes poetic about her fantastic gyno-centric kingdom. This plays poorly against the film’s visuals which are more appropriate to a low grade porn film than a documentary.
The Marquesa: Portrait of a Dominatrix (Karen Young, 1997, Canada)
The opposite of A Weekend at Miss Martindale’s, Karen Young allows her subject, Toronto’s Marquesa, to voice her erudite opinions about the scene and her history as a professional dominatrix. Her interview is punctuated with beautifully-shot vignettes that demonstrate a wide range of interests.
Young allows another domme and several slaves to speak, giving Marquesa a valuable balance. Likewise, the use of music from J. Ibsen works well to set the tone throughout the video.
Didn’t Do It for Love (Monika Treut, 1997, Germany)
The boom period for scene documentaries was a busy time for Ava Taurel (nee Eva Norvind nee Eva Johanne Chegodayeva Sakonskaya). The main subject of this Monika Treut film, Taurel also appeared in Whipped and Tops & Bottoms.
A Norwegian beauty, Taurel was a Mexican cinema sex symbol in the ’60s before becoming one of the most outspoken dommes in New York City in the ’80s. These two slices of Taurel’s life, along with several others, are on display in Treut’s multifaceted film. While Taurel has led a disparate life, too much of the film consists of talking head interviews that don’t manage to express the wild ride she took.
Whipped (Sasha Waters & Iana Porter, 1998, USA)
Picking up where Didn’t Do It for Love left off, Sasha Waters’s and Iana Porter’s work focuses on three dommes, including Ava Taurel. The audience shares more scenes of Taurel interacting with her submissive, Gerard O’Neal. Also along for the ride are Mistress Sonja Blaze and her co-owner of the Arena/Blaze dungeon, Mistress Carrie Cokely.
The parallels between Whipped and Fetishes are plentiful; same shit, different dungeon. The biggest differences lay in the production values and the intimacy of the two films. Certainly that Waters and Porter are women helped increase the empathy between filmmaker and subject but not enough to overcome the problems of this rambling film.
Tops & Bottoms (Cristine Richey, 1999, Canada)
"How do you let your dark desires out?" asks the breathy female narrator of Tops & Bottoms, another documentaries about the dark and secretive underworld of BDSM. What sets Tops & Bottoms apart from the glossy titillation of Nick Broomfield’s Fetishes or the meandering Whipped is director Cristine Richey’s presentation of sexually deviant history from the Flagellants of the Middle Ages to today.
Richey provides an historic development of BDSM as contemporary culture knows it, showing that subcultures tend to flourish in times of great societal repression. Take for example Victorian England where caning was popularized; a glimpse at modern British skin mags reveals that spanking and caning are still of interest in their psychosexual fantasies. Likewise, while Mom and Apple Pie were glorified as being All-American in the 1950s, Irving Klaw was cranking out bondage-themed nudie-cuties starring America’s Naughty Sweetheart, Bettie Page.
To give viewers a glimpse at the modern scene, Richey interjects the story of creepy dominant Robert Dante, his wife Mary, and their new slave Mercedes. We’re given the opportunity to see Robert breaking in Mercedes as well as hearing the polyamorous trio describe their backgrounds and opine their need to be either dominant or submissive. Along with this, Richey presents viewers with a plethora of psychological explanations for the fulfillment garnered in a romantic power exchange.
By showing fetishism in modern advertising, Richey seems to imply that BDSM subculture has encroached into the mainstream. Can BDSM move from the shadowy corners of sexuality and be accepted, if not at least acknowledged, as a viable form of self-expression? The reality is that non-traditional sexual roles are still considered perverse and shameful. For women, submission is wrongfully perceived to fly in the face of feminism as it is confused with abject passivity and a denial of one’s self-determination. For men, submission is seen as a shirking of masculine responsibility.
Occasionally the documentary becomes overly clinical in its study of Dominant and submissive roles in history that are meant to parallel those in a psychosexual relationship. A reliance on Erich Fromm’s theories about man’s fear of freedom and the wish to give up free will may confuse audiences with the metaphorical comparisons of the inter-relationship between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and a dom/me and his/her submissive. Likewise, this may give the impression that BDSM can be likened to a personal form of fascism. This complicated fetishism of power is further explored in the 2008 Israeli documentary Stalags by Ari Libsker.
Beyond Vanilla (Claes Lilja, 2001, USA)
The opening scene of Beyond Vanilla shows director Claes Lilja explaining that one has to venture into areas which are a little uncomfortable in order to understand them. Audiences of Beyond Vanilla undoubtedly begin at a level of slight discomfort brought about by the seemingly ceaseless opening montage that sets a breakneck editing pace, only slowing slightly when the film finally settles on a subject before quickly jumping to the next. From there, the distress only increases as Lilja delves deeper than any of the aforementioned documentaries have gone thus far.
Rather than a simple discourse on impact play in its various forms (spanking, flogging, whipping, caning, etc), Beyond Vanilla touches on topics as diverse as breath control, piercing, cutting, ball-stretching, catheterization, electrical play, water sports, coprophilia, and fisting. Moreover, Lilja’s documentary is one of the first to openly acknowledge that gay men enjoy hardcore power play, too.
Too many documentaries try to separate the scene from sex as if attempting to legitimize the practice of professional domination and further extricate it from prostitution. Essentially, this neuters BDSM play of its fun and turns the practice into a mixture of fashion show and psychodrama. BDSM can exist without sex and sex can exist without BDSM. In Beyond Vanilla there is no mutual exclusion as interviewees admit to enjoying orgasms from these activities!
Beyond Vanilla is not without its flaws. Lilja’s appearances prove highly distracting as do his use of cheap video effects that lend a camcorder feel to the proceedings. Star wipes, color filters, and cheesy on-screen titles threaten to undermine the tone, if not credibility, of the film as a whole. Luckily, the subject matter and strong interviews (apart from pedantic how-to instructor Kevin Dailey) keep Beyond Vanilla on track as one of the most comprehensive and open-minded scene documentaries yet.
Bound for Pleasure (David Blyth, 2002, New Zealand)
Going down under, this film focuses on a wide cross-section of dommes in New Zealand from the eloquent Mistress J (author of Private Theater) to a Dominant family who’re the Kiwi equivalent of white trash. The interviewees stress the difference between a pro-domme and a "hooker with a whip" before contrasting strict and sensual domination. This is one of the few documentaries which address the all-important process of aftercare – the treatment of a submissive when a scene comes to a close and they are in another headspace; high on fantasy and endorphins. This is also one of the only films that discuss strap-on play and the way gender can be transformed during a scene.
BDSM - Alternative Loving (Courtney Smith, 2002, Canada)
There’s a refreshing slickness to Courtney Smith’s investigation of alternative loving. Narrated by the honey-voiced Angela Bowie (ex-wife of David), Smith attempts to make the definitive documentary on the scene. From Caligula to de Sade to Bettie Page, BDSM - Alternative Loving begins with a history of kink and the pre-requisite definition of terms. The attempt at being all-encompassing along with the need to legitimize the alternative to the mainstream tends to dilute the impact of its message. Couple this with echoed sentiments amongst the interviews and the film threatens to get redundant.
Fortunately, Smith’s work delves deeper and casts its net farther than other works of its ilk, bringing to light several topics heretofore unexplored in previous documentaries. Viola Johnson discusses the differences between slavery and submission – two terms that some find interchangeable where others find the former term offensive due to its historical connotations. This speaks to the idea of transformation running throughout Smith’s film. When violence is consensual, it ceases to be violence. Pain becomes intense sensation. Slavery stems from love. And, in actuality, submissives hold the power as they can end the scene with one utterance of their safe word.
Smith also spotlights the scene’s secret shame: Gor. Based on John Norman’s fantasy book series and turned into a way of life, Gorean play is the BDSM equivalent of Scientology. This only receives a brief mention while the section on forniphilia (the use of bodies as furniture) goes on for too long and lacks the ability to convey its appeal to either forniphiliac artist Jeff Gord or his models.
While not perfect, BDSM - Alternative Loving is an admirable effort.
Headspace (Mia Olin, 2003, USA)
Fetish: Pain or Pleasure? (Ania and Bob Shami, 2005, USA)
These two documentaries are somewhere between vanity projects and infomercials, encapsulating all of the elements that can subvert meaningful documentary films. Mia Olin’s Headspace follows a clique of performance artists enjoying sexual shock for shock’s sake. Their insular group objects to the opinions and actions of anyone outside of their clique. Meanwhile, Fetish: Pain or Pleasure? plays as a seventy-five minute advertisement for three pro-dommes. That two of the groups have gone out of business since the film comes as no surprise; one of them seemed so ashamed of her profession that she was shot in silhouette the entire time, like a repentant criminal.
Born in a Barn (Elizabeth Elson, 2005, USA)
Rather than taking on the broad range of fetishes which can comprise a BDSM scene, Elizabeth Elson focuses solely on pony play. Best known through Anne Rice’s Beauty series, pony play is a type of role-play wherein humans are dressed and treated like horses. At the center of Elson’s work is Trigger, an older guy with a big gut and strong shoulders who is having a barn built for himself to play into his desired lifestyle. While interesting in the way pony play may (or may not) be used for foreplay, the documentary tends to drag even at its abbreviated 50-minute length.
Liberty in Restraint (Michael Ney, 2005, Australia)
The story of photographer Noel Graydon, an Australian fetish photographer and dom, Michael Ney’s meandering documentary explores Graydon’s career, past misdeeds, and the part he plays in his sexually deviant community. Graydon works to bring the fetish world into the light of sanctity. "The amount of dark images I’ve done with fetish is minimal because I’m actually trying to show the light and the beauty and the love," Graydon says.
Liberty in Restraint gives a lot of screen time to Graydon’s friend, Mistress Felina, an expert in rope bondage who puts her subjects in elaborate Japanese configurations (shibari). Her work provides the photographer with some remarkable images. Other interviewees include members of the Sydney Hellfire Club, DV8 House, and well appreciated practitioners.
Filled with his lush photography, the film is a trifle schizophrenic with infrequent stops throughout to host interviews with members of the scene. This uneven mixture puts the viewer on rocky ground – providing too much of one thing and not enough of another.
Tears before Bedtime (Kevin Klehr, 2006, Australia)
Unlike Nick Broomfield, director Kevin Klehr bites the bullet and undergoes a light flogging during his film. Tears before Bedtime focuses on a handful of fetishists in Australia with special attention to eloquent Mistress Synna and effusive submissive Paul. The majority of the film consists of talking head interviews with subjects recounting their histories, boundaries and proclivities.
Algolagnia (Túlio Bambino, 2006, Brazil)
Despite its abbreviated half hour running time, Tulio Bambino manages to pack a lot of information into Algolagnia. Named after another term for sadomasochism, "algolagnia" is just one of words Bambino works to define. At one point the screen is filled with fetish terminology spanning an impossible gamut. Like some of the subjects in Tears before Bedtime, participants in Algolagnia speak about the wide and varied playing field of fetishism and how one continually pushes one’s boundaries; as with narcotics, "You start small and you want more and more," confesses subject Rosa Negra.
Bambino does well to profile a cross section of Brazilian scenesters with a wide range of experience. Algolagnia addresses the prejudice against switches – people who play either the Dominant or submissive roles. These adventurous souls are often condemned as being indecisive.
None of the film’s participants are shown clearly – they’re masked, blurred, turned away from the camera, or fragmented in extreme close-up. This anonymity implies the lack of acceptance of BDSM in Brazilian society, perhaps due to the strong religious hold on their culture. To date, no English language documentary has breached the religious implications of a fetish-friendly lifestyle.
Vice & Consent (Howard Scott Warshaw, 2006, USA)
Described as "the last form of sexuality where you have to take classes to do it right," the importance of education in and about power exchange relations is at the heart of Vice & Consent. Howard Scott Warshaw’s film is highly informative with screens featuring definitions (top, bottom, to do a scene, etc.) and its struggle to disprove the stereotypes held about participants in the lifestyle.
Contrasting the notions broadcast via popular media and pornography, Vice & Consent stresses the importance of community, safety, and negotiation. The myth that BDSM is an open forum in which adults work out childhood sexual trauma comes to the fore with participants relating their introduction to the practice and how they learned the ropes. A few even submit that some people are kinky by nature, not by choice.
There are many familiar faces in Vice & Consent including Evil Mommy Tina, Lady Green (a.k.a. Janet Hardy), and Jay Wiseman; all three were interviewed in Claes Lilja’s Beyond Vanilla. However, better production values, make-up and lighting have them all looking far better here. Along with other luminaries such as Midori (The Seductive Art of Japanese Bondage), Clea Dubois, and Dossie Easton (to name a few), Vice & Consent boasts an eloquent host of interviewees.
While espousing the benefits of being true to oneself and opening up one’s mind to different possibilities, there is also the truthful nugget that the taboo nature of BDSM gives it some of its allure. As Mollena Williams says, "Rubbing against social mores makes it hot."
Susan for Now (Robin Franzi, 2007, USA)
Opening as a first-person account of a woman finding herself and her sexual fulfillment, Robin Franzi’s film quickly becomes an exploration of the overall BDSM scene in Seattle. "I used to say my name was ’Susan, for now’ until I got to know people better," says Franzi. "The nickname sort of stuck, particularly when I started exploring this lifestyle. I researched and experimented with BDSM play and, though I was no stranger to what it meant, it was the first time I had a chance to explore firsthand."
Doing well to ignore the pro-domme arena that too many films explore, Susan for Now deals with the reality of individuals who engage in role-play activities as their primary means of expression and satisfaction. Interviewees relate how they became involved in the scene and, if they’re open members, how coming out has affected their lives.
The personal aspect of Susan for Now gives the film a refreshingly honest outlook on the scene.
BDSM: It’s Not What You Think (Erin Palmquist, 2008, USA)
Meant to dispel stereotypes and stigmas about the scene, Erin Palmquist’s half-hour documentary is a beautifully-shot high level overview of kink. Originally a student project, the film transcends its budgetary constraints to deliver a concise, albeit cursory, discussion of BDSM. Palmquist includes humorous vignettes shot as early silent films. These recast scenes of damsels in distress in a new, fetishistic light and speak to the idea of rethinking one’s expectations and exploring oneself. "[After] any good BDSM session, I know more about myself when it’s done than I did going into it," says Janet Hardy.
Graphic Sexual Horror (Barbara Bell & Anna Lorentzon, 2009, USA)
That there can be beauty found in torture proves to be the troublesome core of Graphic Sexual Horror. A look at InSex.com, this website pushed boundaries via its live stream video of extreme bondage and anguish. The brainchild of pd (real name Brent Scott), InSex.com featured a cavalcade of attractive young women undergoing myriad torments usually resulting in involuntary responses varying from forced orgasm to tears. These wild scenarios were only limited by the fertile and frightening imagination of pd and his website’s subscribers.
Directors Lorentzon and Bell (author of Stacking in Rivertown) document the rise and fall of the flagitious empire via frank interviews with several key players both behind the scenes and in front of the camera as well as footage that entertained patrons of the website. Though these clips often resembled a serial killer’s fantasies, the models were armed with safe words, paid top dollar for their trouble, and even sought out pd to session with the ingenious sadist. When things went beyond where they should have, as was apt to happen with such extreme scenes, the results could be both scary and fascinating!
Eventually Insex.com was brought down by a combination of problems inside the scene (pd supporting a spooky drug addict) and outside of the sexually dynamic operation (the Office of Homeland Security pressured companies providing merchant accounts to the site). During its run InSex gave new definition to the beauty of agony that shocked many, and pleasured many more.
During the twenty five years since Tuschen’s Domina - Die Last mit der Lust, the amount of mastigophoric movies has continued to steadily increase. This reflects both the rise of the documentary as well as frankness about so-called deviant sexual behavior. Not only are these films on the rise, festivals like Germany’s Fetish Film Festival (fetish-film-festival.de) and New York’s Cinekink festival (cinekink.com) are dedicated to programming fetish, kink, and dirty movies have been founded to support films like those discussed in this article.
Ultimately, these films offer glimpses into the rich history of psycho-dynamics behind BDSM relationships, and the beautiful ballet that can take place on the dark stage of our minds.