‘Auteur’ documentary and the ethics of production
In Fetishes (Nick Broomfield 1996, broadcast on Channel 4 1997) everything works to reassure the audience that they will not be debased by what they are watching. The markers of ‘quality’ designed to assuage the viewers’ anxiety about watching a programme on sadomasochism include the choice of location (just off Fifth Avenue), the high social class of the clients, the use of historical archive footage, the use of literary quotations over a soundtrack of Mozart (labelled as ‘a well known fetishist’) and the leisurely production schedule. In fact, its purpose is established as pedagogic – the point is to share the film-makers’ quest to try to understand sadomasochism and what motivates people to be involved. But the truth is not to be found in balancing competing perspectives, as in current affairs documentary: the auteur provides the truth as he sees it. We must trust him to be a reliable guide.
Here what matters is Broomfield’s reputation and persona, though as Stella Bruzzi (2000) notes, there is a distinction between Nick Broomfield the film-maker, and ‘Nick Broomfield’ the persona the film constructs. His presence as the sound recordist, the interviewer, the director and the editor gives his films a personal signature that distances them from the institutional address of television, a distance that provides more freedom in the approach taken. Fetishes is introduced as ‘Nick Broomfield’s controversial and highly personal enquiry into the world of sadomasochism’. It is scheduled in a documentary strand called, with intentional paradox, True Stories, a title that signals the constructed nature of ‘truth’. Broomfield presents himself as a sexual innocent, who hadn’t chosen sadomasochism as a topic but responded to a request to do it. ‘I was intrigued but uneasy. It’s something I’d heard of over the years but not heard much about’, we are told. This allows the audience to share his innocence, his doubts and his curiosity, a position that enables us to feel justified in continuing to watch without feeling bad about our own motives. He wears a bright white T-shirt throughout, speaks in a subdued middle-class accent, and looks sheepish and coy whenever it seems that he might be drawn further into the activities he is investigating. In other words, he does everything in his power to offset any possible imputation of prurient interest or motivation.
Broomfield’s reputation as an ‘auteur’ rests on his use of ‘performative documentary’; that is, the events in his films are shown to come into being in the course of the film being made. They are performative in the linguistic sense; that is, they describe and perform an action simultaneously. This is not the same as saying that a film is about performance, such as a film about drag artists, although in this case the film is also about performance. ‘In performative films the fact of the camera and crew is emphasised as an inevitable intrusion that alters the situation they enter’ (Bruzzi 2000: 155). This is crucial to the way the film unfolds, and in this case, I would argue, to its ethical exploration of the dynamics of sadomasochism.
The question of power and control is central to this film’s subject matter, and more to the point, the pleasure that (mostly) men find in relinquishing power and control in certain tightly defined, constructed scenarios. Mistress Raven, the central figure in the film, gives us a guided tour of the settings provided for this process to take place: ‘Your imagination is pushed to the limits here. All kinds of bondage, all kinds of transfer of control and power’, she tells us. Fetishistic and sadomasochistic scenarios are played out before us, where the camera concentrates on the clients more than the mistresses. These scenes are interspersed with interviews with the mistresses and some of their clients to explore their motives and how it makes them feel (and how they feel about the film being made), and a sparse, voice-over commentary from Broomfield. The pacing is leisurely, the camera dwelling on a series of scenes in which men gain pleasure from humiliation: a male slave kneeling at his mistress’s feet to have a cigarette stubbed out in his mouth; a Wall Street broker during his lunch hour being fully encased in a rubber suit and treated as a dog; a Jewish client being dominated in neo-Nazi scenarios; and finally a man with murderous fantasies in real life being forced to lick a toilet bowl clean with his tongue. These are cut against speeded-up shots captured by a surveillance camera of people passing through the hallway between the rooms. This emulates the rhythms of the women’s working environment, with its periods of waiting followed by intense activity.
‘Here Mistress Raven, who doesn’t like to be called Betty, tries to persuade me to do a session’, says Broomfield early in the film. In this short comment the power game the film plays out between Broomfield and Mistress Raven is announced, with the
other women in supporting roles. Broomfield’s task is to gain sufficient control of the situation to get his film made, while resisting the women’s attempts to control him. The progress of that game is revealed to the viewer in a series of understated scenes and comments that reveal the extent to which they all know what game they are playing. They are professionals. As he gradually wins their trust, many of the women gradually concede and let Broomfield have the access he needs to make the film, despite their misgivings about the bad effects it might have on their lives. Broomfield wants Mistress Raven to be filmed doing a session but she will only be filmed doing a session if Broomfield is the client. ‘What would you do?’ he asks. ‘I don’t know, we’d have to feel what its like – go with the flow ’, just as Broomfield must do as a documentarist. She jokes about his resistance to being dominated, his need to stay in control. ‘A lot of restraint – total constraint for you’, as a wide shot shows Broomfield being surrounded and touched by the women (he chews gum and looks pleased but non-committal). ‘And it’s all mind games. We can take you down without even touching you. You can break a grown man just by your will’, comments one of the other women.
Neither Broomfield nor Mistress Raven will back down. She explains her motives: ‘I think it totally outrageous that you can do a documentary about something you have never experienced first hand.’ When he excuses himself by saying he doesn’t like pain she scolds him for poor research: ‘You should be trying to portray that pain is not the only outlet here – it can be psychological, sexual, any fantasy. It’s about the transfer of power and control. There’s not just pain involved. However, in your case I’ll make sure there is’ (laughs). She wins in the end. Broomfield fails to get the key bit of film that he wants (or says he wants). The film ends with the women ganging up on him. They tie him up and haul him up to hang from the ceiling on a pulley while the women playfully lash him with whips. ‘And that is the closest I got to doing a session with Mistress Raven’ is Broomfield’s closing comment. Then the credits role and the editors are listed as Nick Broomfield and Betty Bukhart (remember that she didn’t like to be called Betty). Not only did Broomfield (reluctantly?) submit to being strung up, but did making the film also require Broomfield as auteur to relinquish editorial control? Was this the deal that allowed him access? Paradoxically, rather than undermining his control over the subject of the film, it cleverly enacts the transfer of power and control that is at the root of sadomasochistic pleasure. This is no less of a performative film than his earlier work, and so, I would argue, he avoids the charge of prurient exploitation the topic incites.
Despite the obvious ‘quality’ of Fetishes, Brian Winston (2000: 147-8) considers Broomfield’s ‘forays into the world of commercial sex ethically suspect’. I disagree, and I think Winston is not entirely clear about his own reasons for making this judgement. The film meets all the criteria for quality production and ethical practice that he advocates. It is carefully researched, it shares editorial control with the participants and it doesn’t rely on the participants’ naivety for giving their consent. Indeed, they show a sophisticated understanding of how the film will be received and its potential consequences for them. It neither positions the sex workers as ‘victims’ nor attempts to ‘save’ them from their life of ‘immorality’, nor does it gloss over the complex effects on their personal lives of the work that they do. It enhances our understanding of a practice that remains largely taboo, regarded by many as a dangerous and violent sexual perversion, a sign of depravity in the people involved.
Critical practice would ideally have the film-maker as ‘enabler’ to the women’s own project. But this would inevitably reduce its ‘illocutionary force’ (Lara 1998). The case for justice and recognition requires persuasiveness, enabling the audience to connect with the experiences that form the basis for the claim. Broomfield’s skill and celebrity as a film-maker make his authorship the more effective strategy, in my view. I think it is a work of great subtlety that contributes a sympathetic portrayal of a stigmatized form of sexual expression in such a way as to engage a mainstream audience’s empathy. Like Broomfield, we can be sceptical at first, but like him be persuaded that the mistresses are justified in thinking that they give ‘clients a needed service that isn’t being provided elsewhere’; and that they themselves are not being exploited in the process.
To return to the questions posed at the beginning of this chapter, these examples show, in my view, that not all documentaries about the sex industry are inevitably exploitative, but some certainly are. The difference is a question of aesthetics as much as it is a question of the power relations between the participants and the film-makers. Indeed, the two cannot be easily separated. It can be seen how the influence of feminist interventions on the politics of sex work has been taken up in ways that have contributed positively to the complex debates about the regulation of the industry and to a better understanding of and empathy with the women involved, which destabilizes the rigid boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Despite the caveat over the representation of foreign sex workers, feminist critique of the generic codes of current affairs and documentary can be seen to have allowed for aesthetic innovations in narrative form and mode of address, enabling new ways of understanding and relating to the issues. When it comes to docuporn, however, a spurious appeal to feminist legitimacy is undermined by the restricting codes of its limited erotic vocabulary and its institutionalized relations of consumption that are characteristic of this type of sex industry documentary. It can only be hoped that these hybrid forms become a historical relic, to be looked back on as a passing stage in the development of truly diverse ‘quality’ provision of erotic entertainment on television.