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SUNDANCE 2021 World Cinema Dramatic Competition

Ninja Thyberg • Director of Pleasure

“Porn can be a good thing; it's just important to do it in an ethical way”

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- We talked to the Swedish director about business and... pleasure

Ninja Thyberg • Director of Pleasure

In Ninja Thyberg’s Sundance entry Pleasure [+see also:
film review
interview: Ninja Thyberg
film profile
]
, Bella Cherry swaps Sweden for a porn career in Los Angeles, but soon finds out there is still a lot to be learnt. Then again, if it's innocence that everyone seems to be buying, one might as well go and sell it.

Cineuropa: The whole conversation about the porn industry, or sex workers in general, is still very animated. When presenting the film, you mentioned there is no sex industry in Sweden to speak of, so what did you want to point out?
Ninja Thyberg: I have been working on it for such a long time, and the debate is constantly shifting. #MeToo was an important step – we have started to talk about male domination in a different way. When it comes to sex work, the discussion seems to revolve around: “Why are women doing this? Have they been abused? Is it empowering or degrading?” We haven't really looked at the men, or the structures, and it's important to think about the consumers, as the content is based on what we search for. I would go on porn sets, and there was one shoot with two black guys and a tiny white girl, dressed in a schoolgirl outfit. Very stereotypical, racist roles. The director would give her instructions: “Yeah, you are afraid of the big black cock.” I was taking notes, thinking: “What's wrong with them?!” Then the director turned around, looking as if he wanted to say: “What's wrong with you? Why do you want to see this?” They think we are the perverts. It's all because of us.

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It's crazy to think that everyone is so politically correct today, so sensitive, and yet in porn, it's the exact opposite.
I wouldn't call it “refreshing”, as it's not the right word, but they are certainly not hypocrites in that sense. It's all very honest; they tell it like it is. In the mainstream, when it comes to gender roles, you still have a domineering male and a submissive female. Men are considered sexually aggressive, predatory, and although no one will ever admit it, those roles are being played with. You have the lollipop, the pigtails. In porn, nobody is trying to hide that.

I interviewed Rocco Siffredi once and heard that to have a career, a female performer needs to engage in anal sex. Here, it goes further – Bella is told she needs to engage in some pretty extreme behaviour to truly break out.
Some are fine with it and some are not, but they need to push their boundaries. There is a critical discussion in the industry, but they aren't comfortable speaking about it publicly, as they are protective of their community, especially given how it's portrayed in the media. They deal with the problems internally. It's an issue because nobody wants to involve the police, for example; you want to stay loyal. Which is also why we need to start listening and respecting them.

You show the backstage of such productions, where everyone tries to be protective. But sometimes the words don't match the actions, it seems?
That's what I thought I was going to see, but over the years, I noticed a positive change and more nuances, I guess. I used to be more negative; I started out as an anti-porn activist. Then I was a part of the feminist porn community, and I still support it, but we need to support women who work in mainstream porn. They know patriarchy better than anyone else.

Her story starts like the most clichéd porn movie ever: a young girl comes to town, with dreams of becoming a porn star.
Change that to “star”, and it's a cliché for the mainstream as well. Her being young, that's just the most common thing. That's what sells. You have just entered adulthood, and you have very little power in life. Maybe you still live at home with your parents? These girls have almost nothing, yet they also have it all: our culture's most prized asset. In Bella's first sex scene, the director says that her being innocent and shy, that's what the audience wants. Vulnerability is an asset, too. Because, again, the women are supposed to be small, and the men are supposed to be big. But even though she plays the role of the object, she is also the protagonist. Being a woman in a patriarchal society, you have to deal with the fact that you are seen as “the second sex”, as Simone de Beauvoir would call it. We are trained to divide ourselves in two, trained to know how men can perceive us.

You had to adopt that perspective in the film, as you are also filming her sex scenes. Including one shot with a female director.
I didn't want to reproduce the male gaze or porn images, or objectify my protagonist, but this is what she is doing. That's how she sees herself sometimes. We had been planning everything very carefully, assuming this film needed to be objectifying at times. I wanted the audience to be aware of the camera position and their own gaze.

The scene you are referring to is, in a way, the “kinkiest”. It's really honest that it's about male domination: she is hanging on ropes and being whipped. But when it's done in the right way, safely, it can be a great thing for everyone involved. Porn can be a good thing; it's just important to do it in an ethical way.

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