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Julia Patey: “I never thought I would direct porn”

The Canadian director, editor and producer talks to us about her early years in Berlin and her natural progression towards the adult genre.

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Canadian director, editor and producer Julia Patey talks to us about her early years in Berlin and her natural progression towards the adult genre. Photo: Supplied

Canadian Berliner Julia Patey has made a name for herself over the last few years with short films, erotic shorts, commercial spots, and music videos for the likes of Elen, Sarah Connor and Jadu, a body of work which creates a unique experience by amplifying the senses. Her recent work, including this year’s terrific Elemental, is produced by Erika Lust as part of the XConfessions series, which promotes the female gaze in pornography.

We spoke to the director, editor and producer on her start in Berlin, her natural progression towards the adult genre, and the power of suggestion.

You moved from Vancouver to Berlin seven years ago. In 2016, your playful and raunchy short Juice Porn screened at the Berlin Porn Film Festival, and it was something of a turning point for you as a director, right?

Yes, Juice Porn was a catalyst in many different ways for me and the film became something of a calling card. I was very lucky when I moved to Berlin because I met some people from DFFB (German Film and Television Academy Berlin), including the cameraman I work with the most, Konstantin Minnich. The first project we did together was Juice Porn, and that collaboration kicked off a lot of different things. When you come out of film school, at some point you have to start saying “I’m a director” and not “I’m studying…” and that’s pretty much when I began to define myself as a director and having the confidence to say it to others, even if I didn’t have a huge reel.

Did your formal training in Canada prepare you for the reality you faced in Berlin?

I came to Berlin with a plan to become a director, and it’s been a learning experience ever since. I’ve had people who have supported me throughout, but no one told me how to do anything. It’s been like becoming an adult – no one really tells you how to do that! (Laughs) I can say that the formal training is helpful, as it gives you some tools to put in your toolbox to fall back on, but the best is learning by doing. For instance, when I came to Berlin and I was given the chance to write a treatment for a music video, I was Googling “What is a treatment?” (Laughs) I made it up as I went, and slowly you learn what they expect. Film school did not prepare me at all for a lot of things, especially selling. So much of a director’s work is selling ideas – not just pitching vocally, but pitching with words, images, designing a document that shows what you want to do. I really didn’t know that.

A common thread in your shorts, commercials and music videos is the way you explore the senses. Do you enjoy playing with the (hyper)sensitivity of your viewers?

Definitely. What I really like – because I like it when it happens to me when I’m watching a film – is when something gets under my skin, so much so that I make connections in my head. That’s so much more powerful. Someone isn’t explaining it to me – when it goes past your eyes and you’re left with the “What did I just watch?” feeling. I love that.

This would apply to No Exit, an immersive short film that explores lockdown darkness and tension with a great amount of humour. You filmed it over three days in your apartment during last year’s first lockdown – were the restrictions motivating or freeing in any way?

To be honest, that project was difficult for me. It was my way of dealing with the lockdown, to create and express something I was thinking and feeling. It was good because I was experiencing it as I was making it, but at the same time, it was hard to have motivation. It was important that I did it, but once it was done, it felt like I’d been through something. The process was therapeutic in a lot of ways, a cathartic experience.

In No Exit, you touch upon information overload, implying that lockdown has only galvanized our dependence for the next orgasmic hit of news coverage…

Exactly. I think a lot of people can relate to that constant checking for information, this obsession with checking the numbers… I’m very critical of this technology overuse, and I too can struggle with finding a nice balance between actually living things and being on a phone. It’s important to have a social media presence – a lot of people expect that – but to be honest, I wish it didn’t exist. I say that not knowing what it would look like, but I’m not a big fan, and I can’t stand it when I’m hanging out with someone and they’re glued to a screen. It’s become the standard now, and I feel old saying this, but it’s a case of “Let it go and unplug!”

Your most recent film, Elemental, is part of Erika Lust’s XConfessions series. You already had two shorts produced by the indie erotic film director – Sp(l)it and Entr’acte. How did that collaboration come about?

I was told that I should check out Erika Lust’s work and I went to a screening she had in Berlin, at Babylon theatre, about six years ago. It was interesting for me to watch porn in a theatre, but this was really different. Her style is so unique. She was answering some questions at the end of the screening, and I may have skipped the line of people waiting to speak to her and said: “Hey, I really like what you’re doing – let’s have a drink if you’re in Berlin these next few days.” I wasn’t even thinking about a collaboration at this point – I was just curious about her story, how she got into this. And we met! Until that moment, Erika had been directing everything herself, and she told me she was just about to start collaborating with other directors. She said that if I was interested in collaborating, I should write something, send it to her, and take it from there! (Laughs) I never thought I would direct porn, but this was a very natural next step, because everything in my work already had this erotic undertone, an implicit eroticism.

When you suggest something and let it happen in the viewer’s mind, it’s far more powerful. Being explicit and shocking is fine, but we’ve all seen everything. At this point, nudity is not that interesting anymore.

With your use of close-ups and the evocative nature of your work, porn does seem like a natural progression. Your erotic films feature graphic scenes but they – Elemental in particular, which communicates in an oneiric way how abandoning yourself fully to your senses can make sex transcendental – show that the power of suggestion seems very important for you…

That’s exactly it. When you suggest something and let it happen in the viewer’s mind, it’s far more powerful. Being explicit and shocking is fine, but we’ve all seen everything. At this point, nudity is not that interesting anymore. There was a moment when I was really into more dark and shocking material – trying to shock, through BDSM imagery for example. There’s a sensitivity and tension in darker things. But for me, the power of suggestion is more important. You can get under people’s skin better when you let them wonder, “Why do I feel like this?” instead of showing something they have seen before. It builds a feeling and a tension in subtle ways, and subtle can be way more shocking at the end of the day.

Your films are breaking away from the typical narratives linked to the porn genre. Is that what you’re trying to do – explore the genre’s potential with new narratives?

It’s new territory for me, but also in general, because people are pushing the boundaries of what porn is and what it can be. With regards to sex, the more psychological aspect is more interesting to me – what things are going through my mind, for example. These are things I’d like to express, as well as exploring what sex can be. Mainstream porn has its place – I don’t want to be critical of that, and it does the job. But when I think about sex, that’s not what I think about. What interests me is how to express the different kinds of feeling of sex. It’s not just what it looks like – it’s all kinds of different things. With Elemental, I created something I was missing and wanted to see.  

Have you found there’s still a stigma around directing pornography?

From experience, some people can be irked by it. And people love to categorise, especially producers, who need to categorise directors, and you can become pigeonholed. But it’s evolving, and, today, to be able to say that I can direct intimate things, explicit or not, can be seen as an asset. I also think Erika’s mission – that porn educates us about sex – is important, and if I can be a part of that and get people talking about that, then it’s fantastic. There should be other options out there – seeing people who look like other people having sex, for a start! The promotion of body positivity and diversity is lacking, and Erika is helping to change that.

You’re currently writing your first feature film. Are you looking to continue in the pornographic genre or looking towards another genre?

I don’t know yet. I’ll be shooting another short with Erika later this year, and she also produces feature films and she’s offered me to do one. It could be a great way to have a platform and an audience ready to watch it. That being said, I have ten features in my head! (Laughs) I always had this vision that writing a feature film would be sitting down, writing everything in a few weeks. But I can’t do that. I’m always writing ideas in my notebook, and I even did the PostIt on the wall thing! (Laughs) It’s a long process, but I am aware that I envisioned that at this point in my life, I’d already be making features. No one is going to say “Hey, write this feature!”. I have to do it. Maybe I’m putting too much pressure on it because it’s the first one, but with any film, you have to have something to say. I have a lot to say and I want to focus it. That’s the biggest challenge.

A selection of Julia Patey’s shorts, commercials and music videos, including Juice Porn, No Exit and Elemental, can be found on her website.