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Pleasure: Porn, power and patriarchy

The Swedish writer-director talks about her debut film, Pleasure.

Image for Pleasure: Porn, power and patriarchy

Photo: Weltkino

After her prize-winning short of the same name, Swedish writer-director Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure dives into the world of the adult film industry with a critical eye. Her debut feature is an unflinching and layered examination of a stigmatised world, which we see through the eyes of a young Swedish performer who heads to LA to make it big in porn…

You described yourself in the past as an “anti-porn activist” – can you tell me about this and your first experiences with porn?

It started when I was 16. My boyfriend at the time and I were both virgins when we met and he showed me a porn film. I was very shocked, because it was so far from what my thoughts of sex were. I had a naïve, very vanilla view on sex and what I thought porn was. The brutality that I saw was so raw, and there was so much humiliation and degradation – the women were treated like sex dolls, only there to satisfy the man. It made me very angry, but also scared, because I realised how different my then-boyfriend and I viewed sex and how different the expectations were. So I became very engaged in an activist group against the objectification of women and anti-porn. At the time, I could only see porn as a male-gaze that objectified women. I didn’t have any other perspectives.

When did that change?

I kept on researching and wanted to learn more. The more I learned, the more I was introduced to other perspectives, and how filming sex isn’t a bad thing in itself. When I was focusing too much on the victim aspect, there was a lack of positive representation of female sexuality and desire. If you look at everything from a male perspective, then you start to reproduce that in your own head. I became interested in feminist pornography and realised that I couldn’t fight images of degradation, for instance, but I could try to put an alternative out there and create different types of images.

Pleasure is a very impressive balancing act: there are several different perspectives, and you never reduce the porn industry as outright negative, even injecting some tender and funny moments.

Thank you! It was wasn’t easy, and that’s why it took me 6 years to do! When I got access to that world, I realised that no one had done the film I was doing. It’s unusual to get such access, so I felt it was so important to do it justice. I wanted to show the real people behind the stereotypes, to be super exact with everything, and to be accurate with all the details. And as you said, I wanted to calibrate and get the right balance of showing as many sides of this world as possible. If you just show one side, it can be true, but it doesn’t give an understanding – you have to show as many angles as possible to paint a portrait that is accurate. I’m always trying to find new angles and even if I don’t have all the answers, I want to keep things open and encourage discussion.

All the performers, apart from your lead character, are industry professionals. How did you manage to get such access to the LA porn industry and was it difficult earning their trust?

I wouldn’t say it was difficult – it just took a lot of time. It wasn’t like I came the first day, asking: “Hey, can I come to a porn set? Hey, can I ask you all these personal questions?” I took it slowly, step by step, and it took years of developing contacts, spending time on porn sets, and finding the right people who wanted to be in my film. And the casting of adult film actors made it feel more genuine, which is something I was striving for.

“I wanted to show the real people behind the stereotypes.”

Sofia Kappel is phenomenal in the lead role – how did you meet her and when did you know she was the right person to portray Bella Cherry?

It took me over a year to find her, because I knew I wanted someone who was special, someone who could carry the film and who could be both strong and vulnerable. I wanted the audience to be able to connect with her, feel for her, but not too far – she doesn’t need to be saved. She has agency and on top of her game, whilst being naïve. There were so many criteria, and no one matched for the longest time. Everyone around me started telling me that I was chasing a ghost! The thing is that I didn’t have a super clear idea of exactly how she was going to be, but it was like my research into the world of porn: I don’t know what I’m going to find but I’m going to keep on digging until I find something that is precious. And finally, I found her! So, it’s all about not giving up.

It’s a very challenging role, especially for a performer who wasn’t in porn before and who makes her first acting performance in Pleasure

It’s a big thing to ask someone to play this part. I had to know that she was emotionally mature enough and that she had good support from her family and friends. We also didn’t have any intimacy coordinators on set, because we didn’t know about this at the time – we shot most of the film in 2018, and it wasn’t an established thing then. When I look back at it now, I think it’s crazy that I had to do all of that myself. That was a full-time job, to communicate about the details and to make sure that she always felt safe.

Did Sofia have any say when it came to the script?

Yes. I rewrote the script once I’d given her the part, basing it on her a lot. I wanted her view on everything, and she was very much part of developing the script and the character. She did a lot of research with me, she met everyone during the casting process… We worked a lot together on finding the right compositions, on finding the female gaze, because my first impulse would probably be to reproduce the male gaze – that’s how our brains work. You do what we’ve been constantly shown everywhere. In order to do that, we rehearsed the sex scenes a lot and tried out different camera angles, approaching the scenes from a technical point of view. Sofia wasn’t just an actress – she was part of the whole process.

Was it difficult to get the film financed, considering the topic and the explicit moments in the film?

It wasn’t that bad. In Sweden, I was already established as a short film director – I had already had the short film Pleasure in Cannes and Sundance… It’s not that big on an industry back home, so everyone knew me, and they knew that I was legit. And artistic freedom is valued a lot. I got backing from Platform Produktion and Ruben Östlund, and when he won the Palme D’Or for The Square in 2017, that really helped. Of course, people were nervous about the film – they didn’t say ‘no’, but there were a lot of meetings. They were a bit scared of it, but they understood it was their job to back it and make sure that the artistic freedom was met.

I became interested in feminist pornography and realised that I couldn’t fight images of degradation, but I could try to put an alternative out there.

Was your goal with Pleasure to shift perspectives and to make people view porn and the porn industry differently?

Yes, because what the film is criticising is the patriarchal and capitalistic structures and the power dynamics in the industry, not the sex work itself. Sex performance is not as emotionally damaging as many people assume, but my film only focuses on mainstream pornography. It doesn’t show the alternative scene at all. The system that the lead character finds herself in is a metaphor for patriarchy and the mainstream images dominated by the male gaze. The alternatives are not that present in my film.

It’s still a very stigmatised genre, and it often seems like Hollywood is reticent to change. The second that there is a film which moves things forward by offering more nuanced perspectives, the system fights back by throwing out a 50 Shades of Grey or a 365 Days, films which reinforce this male gaze and objectification of submissive women. Do you see that changing?

I think that the industry is changing a lot. People are aware of the problems in the industry – a lot of them are working hard to change things when it comes to working conditions. A lot of performers are also getting more power through social media, for example. And when the women in the industry get more power and can speak up more, the view will shift on the performers and the stigma. When it comes to mainstream porn and mainstream media, I think there’s always pros and cons, and I think that in the future, the feminist movement is going to be more aware of this.

People mix things up – many think all that all porn is one thing and only see the exploitative aspect of the male gaze in porn. It’s important for people to see it for what it is – power structures are the problem, not the sex. More awareness about that is vital, but there’s still a long way to go, as people still consider it as being taboo, despite the huge amount of pornography being consumed today. It’s a big part of our culture, yet one that still is kept in the shadows. But I definitely see it as going in the right direction though and Hollywood is changing a lot. There is definitely a revolution happening within Hollywood – whether or not it’s a short trend remains to be seen.

Image for Pleasure: Porn, power and patriarchy

Photo: Weltkino Filmverleih

Ninja Thyberg

The Swedish writer-director made an impression in 2013 with her short film Pleasure, which won the Prix Canal+ in the Critic’s Week section at Cannes, and with her short Catwalk in 2015, about fashion and power structures. She explores social issues via the prism of sexuality, and the themes related to body, sexuality and patriarchy are explored in her debut feature film Pleasure, an ‘extension’ of her celebrated short, which boldly explores the male-dominated world of the sex industry.