As Salt-N-Pepa once put it: “Let’s talk about sex, baby / Let’s talk about you and me / Let’s talk about all the good things / And the bad things that may be”. In that regard, this year’s Whistler Film Festival (running from Wednesday [November 28] to Sunday [December 2]) and includes a sex comedy; an intense, carnally charged drama; and documentaries about elderly prostitutes and women’s issues—certainly gives audiences plenty to talk about.
Not to mention laughs. To say that Jordan, the repressed Winnipeg accountant in My Awkward Sexual Adventure, lacks sexual prowess is an understatement: he’s stiff in all the wrong ways. After being dumped, Jordan (Jonas Chernick, who also wrote and produced the film) enlists the help of a Toronto stripper named Julia (Emily Hampshire) to teach him sexual techniques in exchange for helping her work through a fiscal mess.
By phone from Toronto, director Sean Garrity said that what began as a Jewish romcom morphed into a full-blown Cancon sexcom. Although the film provides plenty to ogle (nudity, drag, S & M, a threesome, an outrageous fetish orgy, a cunnilingus scene… with fruit), it also zeroes in on something rarely the subject of films: male sexual repression.
What’s more, although the financial story line (think of a male Gail Vaz-Oxlade of Til Debt Do Us Part giving Julia a budgetary makeover) gets understandably overshadowed, Garrity said he wanted to explore the parallels between the two.
“As a stripper, I think she’s kind of adept at quantifying the satisfaction of emotional need and sexual desire and understanding how those things are traded and how much they cost, and Jordan does not have that sense of how that works. He’s got a very different sense of debt that she actually doesn’t really understand.”
My Awkward Sexual Adventure has been compared to Hollywood sex comedies, but Garrity (whose film is up against another one of his works, the thriller Blood Pressure, in the WFF’s Borsos Competition for Best Canadian Feature) thinks the film retains a distinct Canadian sensibility toward sex.
“I feel like in a lot of Canadian cinema…sex really works, in a way, to move stories forward and establish character, and the scenes are about more, because I think that we’re more comfortable playing with it on the screen….I also feel like a sense of self-image is maybe different in this film than in American sex comedies….I think you would find very few Canadians who would say, ‘I am amazing in the sack!’ I think we think of ourselves as kind of awkward.”
In fact, he noted that one editor counted the word “sorry” in the film 83 times—you can’t get more Canadian than that, eh?
In sharp contrast to Adventure’s lighthearted romp on the male side of bedroom shenanigans, Fair Sex (Les manèges humains) takes a haunting look at a female sexual problem relatively unknown here in Canada.
In this French-language drama, the seemingly sunny 25-year-old Sophie (Marie-Evelyne Lessard), a Quebec film grad, is making a promotional documentary about the travelling carnival where she works. But her focus shifts. Soon, Sophie is making an intensely personal film about a deeply held secret: the genital mutilation she suffered as a child in Africa has created profound sexual complications for her as an adult. But it’s not her revelation that provides the most shock waves; it’s the unsettling plan that she concocts to overcome her dilemma.
On the line from Montreal, writer-director Martin Laroche said he became interested in the subject after reading Somali-Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir Infidel, which includes her childhood genital excision in Africa. It both shocked and inspired Laroche to write a screenplay. He wanted the character of Sophie to be Quebec-raised not only because of his cultural familiarity but also “to show that genital mutilation can be everywhere”. (Although statistics aren’t available for Quebec or Canada, 50,000 to 60,000 women in France are estimated to be survivors of genital mutilation.)
He also wanted to infuse Sophie with strength.
“I didn’t want Sophie to be a victim,” Laroche said. “Of course, she’s a victim because she had a genital mutilation, but I wanted her to pass through that in her own way…to pass through her own problem by herself and decide how to do it.”
In fact, Sophie is so bold and willful in her resolve that male characters are left emotionally reeling in her wake. “I like the idea of having a female character who’s upfront and just doing what she wants, and if the other one[s] don’t want it, ‘Tough, I’m doing it anyway,’ you know?”
When it comes to strong women, the Dutch documentary Meet the Fokkens profiles two sisters who have been doing it—and continue to do it—for themselves. Sixty-nine-year-old identical twins Martine and Louise have worked in Amsterdam’s red-light district for over 40 years. Mind you, they do express regrets. An abusive spouse bullied one sister into prostitution, and the other one, outraged, followed her. A troubled childhood home life didn’t help matters.
But neither the film nor the sisters dwell on such matters; instead, amid S & M acts and giggling over sex toys, it’s their resilient, practical attitude that comes to the fore. In fact, the sisters became financially independent enough to not only kick the despicable husband to the curb but also to set up their own independent brothel that became the envy of gang-run businesses. They also established the first informal trade union for prostitutes.
The ongoing struggle by women to retain control over their lives and bodies is tackled by another festival documentary, Status Quo? The Unfinished Business of Feminism. Granted, sex is not the central subject of this National Film Board of Canada documentary, but some related consequences are.
Consider that one out of every four women you know will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime. Consider that women in Canada are facing blocked access to abortion in New Brunswick. Consider that when Vancouver East MP Margaret Mitchell raised battered-women’s issues in the House of Commons in 1982, male MPs drowned her out with laughter. Most of all, consider that over 40 years after the Royal Commission on the Status of Women exposed the inequalities that Canadian women face (tabled in the House of Commons in 1970), numerous issues remain unresolved.
Director Karen Cho (In the Shadow of Gold Mountain) started making this documentary as a historical piece on Canadian women’s rights but she decided to compare and contrast the past with the present. What she unearthed shocked her. Cho provides an eye-opening look at three basic areas: a woman’s right to control her own body, violence against women, and the need for childcare. On the line from Montreal, Cho admitted that feminism had originally seemed like something from the past to her and thought it was “a fight that had already been won”. After working on the project, she learned how these issues still affect her and both women and men around her.
“We walk around Canada with this assumption that we’re kind of on the top level of the ladder of the status for women, but even women here in North America, in First World countries, are really seeing terrible, terrible issues of violence, poverty; the rights to their own reproductive system are at stake. We always look to other countries when we have these kinds of debates about women being stoned to death…but for women here in Canada, sometimes…their own rights are equally at stake.”
The film travels across the country, from a gathering of young feminists at the RebELLEs conference in Winnipeg to an Ottawa demonstration about missing aboriginal women to interviews in Vancouver with former city councillor Ellen Woodsworth, UBC professor Sunera Thobani, Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter members, and more.
“It’s a film on women’s rights, but I think it’s a film about justice and equality, and I think men should watch the film to understand some of these struggles,” she said. “And also these are things that affect women but, in a way, they affect our society….It affects men’s lives as well.”
Perhaps even more than the other selections, this film reminds viewers that while the subject of sex may grab everyone’s attention, neither the story nor the conversation ever ends there.
You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at twitter.com/cinecraig.