Fringe! Queer Film Festival 2020
Featuring interviews recorded in Los Angeles and Berlin in 2019/20, the experimental documentary short OINK!offers a portrait of gay men who—in different ways—relate to the gay “pig” sexual imaginary. The film provides insight into their experiences of identity, masculinity, community, belonging, sexual pleasure and intimacy, as they are co-shaped and framed by 21st-century media.
Hi João thank you for talking to TNC, how are you held up during these very strange times?
It’s my pleasure. Talking to someone, in whichever format, is a good way to counteract the effects of isolation and uncertainty caused by everything that’s been happening, of which COVID-19 is certainly a big part but not the only one. In the UK in particular, government politics, the pandemic, the politics of the pandemic, and increasing impermeability to difference—to migrants, to trans folk, to progressive left-wing ideas, are all things that worry me deeply as a foreigner, an European, and a queer man. Hence why it is all the more important that we find and nurture communities in which we can care for one another and draw strength and an ability to dream about different circumstances from each other. Fringe! is one of the places where that is happening.
Has this time offered you any new creative inspiration?
I don’t know if it’s ethical to expect or assume that difficult situations are a pathway for creative inspiration, especially when creative inspiration increasingly appears as the privilege of those who have the time, space, and conditions to be creative. Most people don’t have those, especially now, and are simply trying to survive and live as best as they can, to keep it together as best as they can. Having said that, whilst difficult times may not necessarily mean having the space to be creative when more material everyday necessities need to be met, becoming aware of the various circumstances that limit our ability to pursue and explore our lives in a dignified manner can push us to come together and act—to do something against those challenges, against the asphyxiating impermeability to difference that we see growing all around us. So yes, oftentimes the ways in which we decide to act will be creative, in that they’ll often involve coming up with something new, with something that doesn’t yet exist, and to try to realise it. But it’s important that we see that being driven at least as much by necessity than by an idea as bourgeois as that of “inspiration.”
Congratulations on having Oink! selected for this year's Fringe! Queer Film Festival, this is going to be your World Premiere are there any nerve ahead of your screening?
I am both nervous and really looking forward to it. I think that’s because, with the help of the incredible core team I worked with (dir. Rob Eagle, DOP Rufai Ajala, editor Liz Rosenfeld, and composer Liam Byrne), we tried to document a somewhat controversial contemporary gay male sex culture—men who identify as “pigs”—whilst trying to avoid passing judgement. We wanted to give the participants in the film as much of a voice as possible whilst attempting to convey some of the embodied affects, pleasures, and desires associated with “pigs” in a way that was as close as possible to how they make sense of them themselves. Of course that will mean that there would always be problematic questions and topics that'd emerge in the film and remain unaddressed, because we did not want to pass judgments on them. We wanted to offer a portrait of a multi-layered contemporary sex culture, with its darker sides but also it’s more life-affirming ones. And I hope that, whilst this is a film about gay men, that some of the experiences, ethics, an creative forms of exploration of bodies and pleasures that come up in the film may resonate in some way with the experiences of other folk who may be equally invested in creating themselves, embracing their bodies, an exploring their possibilities.
You have recently released Bareback Porn, Porous Masculinities, Queer Futures: The Ethics of Becoming-Pig, when did you first become aware of the gay “pig” sexual imaginary?
Like most gay men today, at least in Anglo-American and European contexts, I had noticed an increase in guys identifying themselves as “pigs” on hook-up apps and gay porn, and who were proud of the kinds of sexual experiences they enjoyed which, to others—whether straight or gay—may seem abject. It seemed to me that the gay “pig” imaginary was somehow connected to the development of antiretroviral drugs for the successful management and prophylaxis of HIV infection; developments in sex media such as the increasing availability of porn, both amateur an professional, on digital platforms; and the changing understandings and embodiments of masculinity and the place of gay masculinities in relation to those. So I applied for funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to study that phenomenon and its history, as well as the ways in which gay “pig” subcultures can help us think about experiences of identity and belonging, sexual pleasure, ethics of care, and the plasticity of bodies and genders, as well as the ways in which they have been historically regulated and policed.
"...whilst this is a film about gay men, that some of the experiences, ethics, an creative forms of exploration of bodies..."
What was it about this community that inspired you to want to make Oink!?
OINK! Is the companion piece to my new book which you’ve just mentioned. The driving force to make it was my strong dislike of most of the mainstream documentaries that have recently focused on contemporary gay sex cultures of “excess.” They have tended to pathologise those cultures and practices, to respond to them with moral and sexual panics, to see them as a public health problem. But whilst there may certainly be problems associated with them—for instance problems with drug use, with increases in sexual transmitted infections, abuse, etc.—I also thought focusing on the negative aspects of that culture, of any culture, limits our understanding of what drives people to engage in them and to often have positive experiences that can affirm their own lives, bodies, and identities, finding community and making life more liveable. So I wanted to give a sense of the many layers that make up these scenes, not only the darker aspects but also the more life-affirming ones, not only the moments of sadness, of loss, of comedowns, of uncertainty, but also the moments of joy, of empathy, of connection and intimacy, the moments when we embrace our bodies and realise all the potential they have as materials through which we can forge ourselves and our positions in the world. So, OINK! explores similar themes to the book but through a very different, more creative, research process. It was not just about me researching, thinking and writing about the topic and more about inviting in the perspectives, thoughts and skills of the film team to—together, collectively—come up with a document that’d stand on its own feet and use its own creative and technical means to tell the stories of those guys through a different lens.
Do you think you will expand your experimental documentary into a feature at some point?
Originally we had planned that the film would be a feature. Yet, as soon as we arrived in Berlin for what we thought would be two whole months of shooting, we realised that Europe was going to go into lockdown. So we had to quickly reshape the whole project and approach, and we ended up cutting production to two weeks, shot mostly at people’s homes rather than also including scenes in cruising clubs as we had originally intended. In the end that led us to an experimental short that I think achieved a lot more than what we could have achieved with a feature. Or maybe achieved it in different terms—more creatively, exploring experimental forms of storytelling out of necessity due to the predicament we found ourselves in. Again, the crew were fantastic and really a joy to work with through those uncertain times. So whilst I’m not sure we’ll turn it into a feature, we’ve been talking about turning it into a multi-screen gallery installation, to further explore the potential of the form as it turned out to be, and also to maximise the affective impact of Liam’s music and the 5.1 surround sound we mixed for theatrical screenings (which unfortunately we won’t be able to experience in the online format—do still watch it with headphones on, though!).
Did you have any apprehensions about approaching people to be part of your film and how much did their contributions change or influence the outcome of the film?
As you can imagine, trying to approach people to be in a film about their sexual lives is always complicated, and lots of people I contacted were not comfortable with it for all kinds of legitimate reasons. Sex is still such a taboo topic in our cultures despite the fact that, in some ways, mainstream culture is so heavily sexualised. Then if you add conversations about drugs to conversations about sex, you can imagine the legitimate fears people will have to be caught talking about those on camera. Of course, as this is part of an academic research project, we had to go through all the usual processes for ethics clearance and to put in place ways in which people could still have control over what was recorded and even the ability to request that some of the footage be deleted later. This is both fair and ethical. We ended up with a small group of guys (also, in part, due to challenges of trying to make a film as COVID-19 was growing all over) who were passionate, open, and articulate about their sex lives. And who also didn’t take themselves too seriously, so that we could explore different affective registers throughout the film. And they were absolutely fundamental to shaping the film. We had no clear plan whatsoever when we started, apart from wanting the film to be led by the participants, rather than by our own ideas. Rob's experience in ethnographic filmmaking and visual anthropology really was fundamental to ensure we would build the film from where people were as much as we could. And Rufai’s cinematography and Liz’s editing, as well as Liam’s music, also provided a toolbox of tones, atmospheres, and effects that we then used to bring up some of the dimensions of the participants’ stories. But it was all led by them: we sat for hours in their homes chatting about their lives before we even started filming. We cooked and ate together, played music, shared personal stories with one another, and that all gave us a broad storyboard of themes that we then used to shape the filmed conversations and scenes. I would like to think that the film was as much made by the crew as it was made by the participants, which is one of the reasons why you’ll be able to see the crew within the shot, sometimes laughing with them and setting scenes up—because we wanted to be present alongside them and not hide ourselves from the viewers.
As a producer what are some of the challenges you face when working on a film like Oink!?
I’m an academic, so producing a film was a really new experience for me. It was also a really enriching one. One of the challenges was that, as you can imagine, as an academic in the arts and humanities, I’m mostly used to working alone and doing my thing. So there was the challenge of collaborating and of letting go of something that was somehow my baby. But that was as much a challenge as it was an opportunity to bring in other voices and other research and thinking processes to bear on the things I had been thinking about. Ultimately it was a really joyful experience in which I learned a lot. Another challenge, obviously, had to do with safeguarding and caring for the people involved, whether behind or in front of the camera—a duty of care I felt I had to all of them, especially considering the “touchy” nature of the topic. Then there were bureaucratic challenges of trying to get out of the box and produce a film as an academic and from within an academic institution. That was hard and I encountered bureaucratic and financial procedures that I didn’t even know existed. But, again, that was another way in which I got to learn a lot and to take all that into the future to apply to other similar opportunities that may come up.
You made Oink! with Rob Eagle and Liz Rosenfield how important is the collaborative nature of filmmaking when working on a documentary like Oink!?
Rob and Liz were really at the core of the whole process from the start; and so was Liam. I guess editors tend to come in after everything has been shot, and composers come in once there’s a picture-lock version of the film. For OINK! they were all there from the start of production, with Liz offering ideas of possible scenes and topics to explore as well as ways in which those could potentially be edited afterwards, and Liam having given us a set of sound sketches associated with some affects and spaces of gay male sexuality which we used to both guide the production but also the editing. I remember sitting with Rob at Liam’s apartment in Berlin right before we were to start production and asking him to improvise and record little snippets of music in response to things like “Poppers-fuelled dark hole,” “storm in a G cup,” “content pig wallowing in mud,” etc. It was both hilarious and really, really important. It was a really collaborative process from beginning to end.
Looking back, is there anything you wish you had asked your interviewees?
Isn’t there always? If anything I wish we had had more time to spend with them chatting and filming and following them as they went about their day. This last one was something we had planned but ended up unable to do due to lockdown. That’s the one thing I wish we had had the chance to do; so that we could build even more layers to each of their stories.
"Take risks. Be gay."
Where did your passion for filmmaking come from?
I remember having always been into film, the storytelling potential of film, and the ways in which film grabs you like no other media does. Film can be a medium that literally modulates your own body as a viewer, that makes it resonate with what you’re seeing in really special ways. Then if we’re thinking about experiences so embodied like queer and trans experiences, film is, I think, a really privileged medium not only to tell those stories but to make people become (more) aware, in a very material way, of the queer potential and plasticity of their own bodies.
Do you think filmmakers should push the boundaries of the films and stories they want to tell?
I think any artist should have curiosity over what the media they work with can do, how far they can push them and the forms they work with. Having said that, I think there’s a balance to be sought between form and content, as the two need to be weaved into one another. If we’re wanting to tell stories, we mustn’t overlook the communicative imperative of storytelling on behalf of anesthetisation or gimmickry. Things need to be cohesive and do something in the world beyond mere shock tactics or “fuck yous” to the audience. I think that’s particularly important in the wider social, political, and cultural climate so many of us are living in.
Do you have any tips or advice you would offer a fellow creative?
I don’t think I’m in a position to offer advice to actual creatives. I’m only an academic and there are people who know a lot more about film and how to make films. I’m just on the sidelines and was given a great opportunity to work with an amazing team to do something together that I hope will be meaningful to folks watching it. Having said that, maybe I do have advice for academics: get out of your box and into the world. Talk to people and learn from them. Work with them. Don’t assume the things you know are necessarily more legitimate forms of knowledge. Take risks. Be gay.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Oink!?
I hope people, regardless of their genders and sexualities, may leave the screening with a sense of how valuable, precarious, challenging, rich, plastic, and complex our bodies are. How they can be such incredible media for self-invention and exploration of the myriad of affects and pleasures they can offer us. And I hope that, in doing so, folks will be reassured of the importance of looking after one another, of caring for one another, even in moments of play where it may look like care is not present. That our bodies are precious islands with hidden treasures, but also that they become all the more meaningful when we get to willingly share them with others, to open ourselves to others, to embrace vulnerability and join others in exploring all the incredible things we can achieve when we cum together.