Anna Karina in Pierre le Fou


Créteil Films de Femmes Ends on a Controversial Note

Créteil discussion after screening of Virginie Despentes' Mutantes
© Photo:Moira Sullivan
Ten years ago at Créteil Film de Femmes, the programming of Shu Lea Cheang's lesbian cybersex narrative I.K.U. was criticized by festival goers. "Porn has no place in a feminist festival", argued women who boycotted the event. 

Festival organizer, Virginie Despentes, Catherine Corringer, and Jackie Buet. 
©Photo: Moira Sullivan
Ten years later, Mutantes (Féminisme Porno Punk (France 2009), a documentary on "porno punk feminism" by French filmmaker and writer Virgine Despentes was screened to a packed house at "Petit Salle" at "Maison des Arts" at Créteil. Ironically,  footage by the Paris-based artist Shu Lea Cheang was included. The screening was the main event of the evening after the 33rd Créteil Films de Femmes Palmarès. The alternate event in the "Grand Salle", Donatella Maiorca's Viola di Mare (Italy 2009) projected to a small audience was about an early 20th century lesbian who dressed as a man in order to marry her childhood sweetheart.

Virginie Despentes thinking it over at Créteil: "the post-porn movement is a new stage of the feminist revolution." ©Photo:Moira Sullivan

Virginie Despentes came into the limelight in 2000 with her  rape-revenge cult narrative Baise-Moi .  In 2006 she wrote King Kong Theory about her experiences in the French sex industry, a pop culture treatise on the commodification of women and the aesthetics of "hooker chic". For the last four years Virginie has lived as a lesbian in Spain.

The screening of Mutantes followed a performance by Catherine Corringer based on the S.C.U.M. MANIFESTO by the late Valerie Solanas (1968). The parallel event was restricted by Corringer to a small group of spectators in the festival Satellite space. Both Despentes and Corringer attended the discussion following the screening of Mutantes. 

According to Despentes, Mutantes is a film "about lesbians, for lesbians". It is superbly edited with images of lesbians and transgender artists working in performance art. It is not a "mass movement" on the order  of 70's lesbian feminism and has no political agenda other than a reactive posture to radical feminist history glossed over with beguiling labels such as "feminist absolutionism".

Interviews* are made with "queer" academics such as Beatriz Preciado , lesbian and transgender artists and porn directors and stars such as Maria Beatty and Annie Sprinkle. Mutantes gives the impression that lesbian porno punk is rampant in society as the current focus of lesbian and transgender artists.   

Mutantes begins with a collage of images of book covers of 70's radical feminist texts by the late anti-porn activist Andrea Dworkin and civil rights lawyer Catherine MacKinnon. This comprises the extent of the political overview. The filmmaker claims she contacted MacKinnon and Antoinette Fouque, founder of the French "Mouvement de Libération des Femmes" (MLF) for the film who declined to participate. Thereby, Despentes believes she gave  "feminist absolutionists" a voice in her film.

Critics of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon argue that the first anti-porn legislation in the US (later repealed in Minneapolis) was backed by ultra-right activists. The 1983 legislation and subsequent efforts to pass it in Indianapolis, Massachusetts and Washington was prompted by the experience of the late porn star Linda Boreman (Lovelace) who was sexually harassed in porn films made by her ex-husband. MacKinnon represented her until her death in 2002. The Minneapolis legislation specifically addressed pornography as a form of sex discrimination and a civil rights violation, and sought to give women the right to seek damages under civil rights law. It was not based on issues of morality or sexual obscenity as is often claimed by pro-porn advocates, and throughout Despentes' film. 

In the Supreme Court of Canada anti-porn legislation was passed in 1992 but rather than upholding porn as a civil rights violation law it was used to target lesbian and LGBT pornography. The enforcement of the statute was unfairly credited to the drafters of the legislation. Despentes' documentary does not present this history.  
Porn critics have  drawn attention to what lesbian porn director Maria Beatty calls the "fast food" consumption of hardcore porn. According to film studies academic Linda Williams "pornography" is just "choreography".  When it was pointed out that Linda Lovelace became an anti-porn activist at a film studies lecture Williams nonchalantly replied, "well she still made money off of porn". 

Radical feminists such as MacKinnon and in the end Dworkin are heterosexuals who had no issue with lesbian porn made by lesbians since at the time they were trying to create anti-porn legislation there was little being made. The anti-porn agenda of radical feminism specifically addressed hardcore pornography and civil rights issues.
Lesbian Porno Punk is a reaction to the radical feminism of the 70's by claiming to be what it wasn't: a pro-sex, pro-pornography movement.  It would be more accurate to identify "Lesbian Porno Punk" as a self-generating art form rather than a reaction to 70's radical feminism.

Historically, 70's radical feminism secured many freedoms denied previous generations of women.  "Lesbian Porno Punk" appropriates some of these radical feminist inroads as "post-feminist discourse". For example, porn star - Annie Sprinkle seems to have invented the wheel for women's self-examinations in her performance art, which was an agenda of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (BWHBC) in "Our Bodies Ourselves" 40 years ago. 

When asked at the Créteil discussion if heterosexuals could achieve sexual equality, Dispentes claimed it was impossible. What is clear in "Lesbian Porno Punk" is that women and transgenders don't need men for sex and artificial sex organs eliminate the need for heterosexual sex entirely.  The Situationists thought along these lines in the 60's since one of the agendas was to  "demand better sex organs". 

Sex organs aside, the concept of gender fluidity espoused by academics such as Judith Butler (Gender Trouble) enjoys wide currency in "Lesbian Porno Punk". The transformation from women's studies to queer studies was heavily influenced by her work. 

Butler limits the meaning of lesbian as "desire", which excludes the political posture and woman-identification of lesbian feminism. "Lesbian" was historically stripped of meaning until 70s lesbian feminism. It still remains a provocation. According to Butler who speaks for lesbians and gay men alike - but not as a lesbian:
"Queer is not being lesbian. Queer is not being gay. It is an argument against lesbian specificity: that if I am a lesbian I have to desire in a certain way. Or if I am a gay I have to desire in a certain way. Queer is an argument against certain normativity, what a proper lesbian or gay identity is."
Lesbians of Lesbos claim exclusive rights to name.
The island of Lesbos initiated a legal claim in 2008 to restrict the use of lesbian for inhabitants of their island. But ridiculous actions from small Greek islands aside, the generic use of "queer" in academia as substitute for "lesbian" turns the wheel another notch making this a vacuous if not altogether redundant term. When lesbian is stripped of politics, of feminism, it is target for queer academic claims of "essentialism" or specific "natural" identity.

If gender is no longer "fixed", the choice of better sex organs, or specific gendered bodies becomes the practice. Tribe 8 musician Lynn Breedlove says in Mutantes: "I'm a guy but I am not going to change my gender". 

Through all of this one can't but wonder why 70s radical feminism is systematically watered down to an anti-pleasure, anti-sex, and thereby anti-freedom movement.  Susan Faludi's classic text Backlash (1992) has some answers, but is seldom implemented. ("Even the beauty magazines are saying it: Harper's Bazaar accuses the women's movement of having "lost us [women] ground instead of gaining it.")

When three semi-dressed women in high heels parade through the streets of an American city in Mutantes and are met by men who jerk off as they saunter by, the efficacy of lesbian porno punk activism comes to mind.

There are many questions to the discourses presented in Despentes' film.  Mutantes is well made and technically proficient. It is an excellent documentary about lesbian and transgender artistry. Artists historically enjoy a freedom of avantgarde expression. The film is a rich tableau originating in San Francisco with echoes in France, Spain and Italy.

The anti-porn movement has a history that is absent in Despentes' film, some of which concerns civil rights, sexual harassment, trafficking, coerced prostitution, incest, and alcohol and drug addiction.Somehow all this history is equated with "feminist fundamentalism", if ever an intriguing oxymoron.

Mutantes is problematic if as a starting point for discussion it's conceit prevents a real discussion that tackles its premises. At times that is how the discussion at Créteil went.

Interviewees in Mutantes:

Teresa Villaverde - "Transe" Screened at Créteil Films de Femmes

Teresa Villaverde and festival director Jackie Buet, Creteil.
©Moira Sullivan
Amidst a couple of cries against the film in progress, Teresa Villaverde's Transe (Portugal 2006) unfolded: an epic saga about a young Russian woman who leaves her country in search of more opportunity and who winds up being trafficked as a sex slave in Italy. Its not sure if the grumbling in the Grand Salle at Créteil Films de Femmes on April 2 was consciously made because the subject was so disturbing, or because of the unconventional form of the film that may have put spectators on edge. When giant trees fall in the forest at a road stop for the woman in transit, the beginning of the loss of self is profoundly foreshadowed. After the trees hit the ground, the images are blurred; this begins Sonia's (Ana Moreira) trance: one that she is within the entire film, as are we as spectators of cinema.

There is nothing random about the way Villaverde frames each scene. Her creative use of the camera and editing to create a picture language that symbolically follows the narrative is brilliant. Villaverde sets the focal lengths, angles and mobility of the camera, arranges the shots, and tells a story not only in words but in symbols.

We should remember that Sonia is a young woman in her 20s who is exposed to the most vicious degradation and loss of personal freedom one can experience as a woman. Trafficking is a huge problem today and women are doubly at risk for being sex slaves but also illegal aliens and thereby are not free to speak out against their captivity. According to Villaverde, perpetrators are sophisticated in hiding the signs of physical abuse.

Why does Sonia not resist? Why did she allow herself to be put in the trunk of a car because of a supposed raid by immigration authorities in Germany? She told the perpetrator no so many times. At every no, there is a sigh of relief. Short lived as the seduction and entrapment wins.  Why does she not jump out of the car when she has a chance? Why does she not run? The loss of self is so complete in this film that we cannot really expect any answers to satisfy these questions. We are not in her situation. What can we do about this barbarianism today? Does it continue so that prostitution can continue without any legal barriers?

We know that trafficking must stop and the buyers of sex, as in Sweden, must be prosecuted.

Is it a dream that Sonia envisions a young boy with a rifle in the room aiming at her, where she is forced to service buyers of sex? There are many facets of her trance to reconcile and Villaverde does not make this easy for us.

Sonia before leaving Russia.
First loss: Sonia loses her cloths.
The first tradeoff of Sonia in a wheat field.
The decrepit Italian site where women are sold as sex slaves.
The distraught mentally challenged man. His father bought Sonia for him.