Hot Docs 2009: Part II

Saturday was a quieter day for screenings, although that was in part due to a concert by the Vancouver Symphony who were in town for the evening.  That pre-empted my documentary viewing for a few hours.

Reviewed here:

  • Orgasm Inc.
  • Presidio Modelo
  • Audition

Orgasm Inc., directed by Liz Canner

At this point in Hot Docs, this is my “best film”.

Nine years ago, Liz Canner got an odd proposition:  A company named Vivus which, briefly, had the market for male sexual dysfunction drugs all to itself, was working on a female equivalent.  They needed erotic material to get women in the mood to test their new product.  Canner was recruited to produce porn for women.  In return, she asked to be able to document this process.  Vivus agreed, probably expecting that this would show the launch to market of their next great success.  It didn’t quite work out that way.

At first I worried that this “documentary” might turn into an ad for the manufacturers, complete with an animated race between competing products, but very quickly the real thesis emerges.

This is the story of the pharmaceutical industry’s search for a female version of Viagra, but that’s only the start.  As we go along, it’s clear that the product itself is almost a secondary consideration to the real task:  marketing.  “Female sexual dysfunction” is a term invented by the industry because, of course, if you don’t have an illness, you can’t have a cure, and you certainly can’t have a formally approved drug and treatment protocol.  Are women cold, unwelcoming of sex, unable to achieve orgasm?  Relief is only a pill, a cream, a spray or a patch away.

Armies of doctors spouting all sorts of gibberish appear on news and talk shows without revealing their financial links to the industry.  Laura and Jennifer Berman of Chicago become almost an industry in their own right, running a sex therapy clinic and touting whatever quack cure the industry is pushing.  One has become a regular on Oprah even though her professional opinion has changed a few times along the way to suit prevailing test results, or lack of them.

Big Pharma’s opponents work to advocate for women simply knowing how to please themselves and that there are many effects — stress, aging, personal history of abuse — that affect sexual response.  There’s an amusing presentation by Carol Queen at Good Vibrations in San Francisco of her collection of antique vibrators.  The serious side comes with the industry’s concerted efforts to prevent presentations of any alternate views of their products at trade events.  Even worse is the emergence of plastic surgery clinics that will modify genitalia to be more attractive as if this will somehow make women more attractive and improve their sex lives. 

The idea that any problem must have a “cure”, and  that the medical/pharmaceutical industries can provide it, is at the heart of US culture.  Coupled with direct consumer marketing allowed in the US, this leads to potent force that defies reason.  Sex sells, and nobody ever went broke preying on the idea that you can have a better time in bed.  The risks people can be convinced to take for that goal are deeply troubling.

This is a troubling but important film about an irresponsible industry and the political culture that makes it possible.  It deserves to be widely shown in schools, but given the repressive nature of high school and even university sex education in many areas, it probably won’t be.

Presidio Modelo, directed by Pablo Alvarez-Mesa

Cuba, 1926. General Gerardo Machado builds a circular prison based on an architectural design, the panopticon, of Jeremy Bentham in 1785.  In this prison, every prisoner is visible but the guards are not.  Every cell has a window to the outside that both taunts with the freedom a prisoner cannot attain, and constantly lights the cell so that everything he does is visible.

The prison is now a ruin, but it is the site where Fidel Castro began work on his manifesto.  All that remains is a shattered building and remnants of paintings on the cell walls.

This short film is a meditation on space, its history and the memory of the imprisoned.

Audition, directed by Nelofer Pazira

Audition begins in an Afghan village near the caves that once held the giant Buddas destroyed by the Taliban.  Women are washing clothes in a stream and don’t want to be photographed — their families won’t allow it.

Pazira has returned to Afghanistan from Canada to seek actors for a film.  As she gains the villagers’ trust, we see a tentative rapport.  A few men have worked in films before, and we see people genuinely interested in acting, even if there’s a lot of fooling around in the auditions.  The women are shy, few want to talk, but those who do are articulate about their position as women in their society.  The discussion turns serious when the men are asked to explain the history and concept of their honour and of how the actions of their female relatives reflect on it.  We see people trying to move to a less constrained society but limited by a conservative ethic and concerns for what others will think.

During the Q&A, Pazira mentioned that the families who participated in the film did not object to the women as actors because the subject was primarily to show their own traditions, and the women were acting in traditional roles.

By the end of the film, we are back at the stream washing clothes, but the camera pulls back to reveal that this is really a scripted scene.  How much of what we saw before was the story within the story, and how much was real?  Audition makes us examine not only how the camera affects those who are photographed, but can also present a story of the director’s choosing to an audience.