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Arts and Culture

Sex and the Modern Documentary

'The Erection Man,' 'Orgasm Inc.' and 'Male Domination' are among DOXA's offerings next week in Vancouver.

By Dorothy Woodend 30 Apr 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other Friday here on The Tyee.

The DOXA Documentary Film Festival's 10th Anniversary edition begins next week. I can't wait.  

Having helped choose some of the films this year, as part of the programming committee, I can honestly (if not entirely impartially) tell you that there are some wonderful documentaries on offer. DOXA Documentary Film Festival opens on May 7, and runs until May 16, but tickets are moving very briskly. Vancouver being a last minute kind of place, people don't tend to buy tickets to a film until 10 minutes before show time. But you're risking terrible disappointment. A great many screenings sold out last year, and sad, long lineups lingered outside of the Vancity Theatre as if some great magical block of seats might open at the last possible second.

Sexual content

There's a lot of sex at DOXA this year, although it's not really the fun and frolicsome variety. A great deal of the issues attendant to contemporary sexuality, be it porn, drugs, surgery or sadness, take one of life's greatest wonderments and mess it up good. Two excellent examples of the bewildering sexual wilderness in which both men and women are wandering around, occasionally bumping into each other are The Erectionman and Orgasm Inc.

Liz Canners' film Orgasm Inc. tackles sexual dysfunction from the feminine perspective, and discovers that women are having an even worse time than men in the sexual fray. Sexual surgery, pills, creams and the occasional jolt of electricity are all advocated as the new snake oil of sex. Unfortunately none of these aids actually work. Good old-fashioned porn, as well as something that vibrates really quickly, and that can include a man, is just as efficacious as female Viagra. Which doesn't actually work by the way (not that I've tried it).  

Director Michael Schaap's The Erectionman takes as its principle target the rise in Viagra-induced (male) erections. Schaap's film is as much a personal odyssey as it a probing and intelligent investigation of current sexual mores. With his own experience providing a jumping off point, the filmmaker perambulates around the world posing hard questions to a variety of different folk, everyone from doctors in the pay of pharmaceutical giants, to tattooed horny types, who see nothing wrong with buoying their sexual performance with a little chemical aid. Rather like Dante traipsing into the abyss, Schaap makes a deeply charming guide. His explorations variously include visits to the fading Playboy empire, filmed shutting down their New York Office, to Amsterdam's Red Light district, where the filmmaker himself got his start, working at the last porn theatre to switch over from film to video. "At least it was film," he says. 

But it is penetrating Pfizer, the giant corporation who makes and markets Viagra to the world, that proves the most difficult part of Schapp's odyssey. Despite repeated phone calls and emails to the company about changing the warning label on their drug to read: "May cause dependency," and "Won't make you feel more masculine," the doors remains closed. Some rather lewd animated sequences add an additional element of piquancy, but despite its lightness of tone, The Erectionman is engaged with some pretty heavy subject matter. Namely that the invasion of corporate interests (be they porn producers or pill pushers) poses potential problems to our deepest sense of ourselves. Journalist Myrthe Hilkens in her book McSex argues that the prevalence of porn, used in tandem with Viagra, has fundamentally altered the way we conceive of sex, turning the expression of physical love into the ultimate commodity. 

Schaap puts it more poetically: "We shall have sex, all of us, until we drop... And the last one out will turn off the lights."

What do men want?

If you really want the big picture of where much of Western culture currently stands on sexual issues, then I cannot recommend highly enough Patric Jean's manifesto-cum-survey of gender and its many complaints, Male Domination. This is a big film, in the sense that it tackles the eponymous subject from a multiplicity of angles. From the opening sequence, in which a young man undergoes a penis enlargement, this is a film unafraid to state its case openly and with great conviction.

Not only has gender disparity not been eradicated, it has actually staged something of a major comeback. When I typed Patric Jean's name into Google, I found that he is persona non grata with Quebec men's rights groups, who label him a traitor to his gender. When the film was screened in Montreal at the Rencontres internationales du documentaire last fall, Jean had to cancel his trip because of threats to his personal safety. The film's point, that chauvinism and misogyny never really went away, and if anything they're bigger and badder than ever, is hammered home, or more correctly, assembled piece by piece into a veritable wall of fact.

The director himself is filmed throughout literally building his case, through image and interview. The section in the film that is perhaps the most disturbing involves the Masculinist community in Quebec. Posing as a sympathetic ear, Jean filmed men holding forth on the perfidy of women in general, and their especial hatred for feminism. It is literally stunning. I felt my felt my chin slowly descend to my chest as man after man carried on about the evil of all womankind.

Male Domination ends on a day that lives in sadness and horror, the day that Marc Lépine walked in and murdered 14 young women at l'École Polytechnique in Montreal. Like most Canadians, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I first heard the news. This is where such hatred always ends, with someone killing someone's else sister, mother or daughter. 

Stubborn activists

Given Jean's disturbing reminder that social progress is never to be permanently taken for granted, there is something deeply admirable about people who stick to their guns, or peace signs, no matter the cost -- even if they have to pay the ultimate price as was the case with the Greenpeace's flagship, The Rainbow Warrior.

Suzanne Raes's film The Rainbow Warriors of Waiheke Island recreates the maiden voyage of the first Greenpeace vessel to sail the seven seas and make things difficult for whalers, the French Government, and assorted other assholes that would treat the ocean like it was a giant loot bag, easily plundered and despoiled. Where are you now, great ship, when the world's oceans are being set on fire?

In 1978, activists from Greenpeace decided they needed a ship from which to launch anti-whaling campaigns. With little more than hard work, and a lick of paint, Greenpeace purchased an ancient old trawler called the Sir William Hardy, and transformed it into The Rainbow Warrior. The original crew had a couple of experienced sailors, but even more inexperienced ones, and with more gumption than sense, the boat set sail to stop whaling in Iceland, confront Canadian seal hunters, and evacuate entire villages from the Marshall Islands, where years of nuclear testing had decimated the local population. 

On a trip to New Zealand to refuel, The Rainbow Warrior was sunk by the French secret service who set off two bombs on-board the boat. Crewman and photographer Fernando Pereira was killed in the attack. 

Lasting connections

The original crewmembers profiled in the film, including Susi Newborn, Bunny McDiarmid, Henk Hazen, Hanne Sorenson, Martini Gotjé, and Rien Achterberg, are complex individuals who have seemingly managed to remain connected to one another over the years. Susi and Martini had a kid, got married and then unmarried, but managed to remain friends. The film is wadded full with archival footage filmed during the Warrior's many adventures, and much of it is heart stopping in its intensity and courage.

A few long-haired men and women in a rubber zodiac cutting across the bow of a whaling ship, putting themselves directly in the line of fire, still brings a lump to my throat. That brand of bravery and commitment is a potent reminder of what people are capable of in defense of the planet and its inhabitants. 

The ship herself is now lying on the bottom of the seabed, off the coast of New Zealand, but the people who helmed her are largely still here. Mostly intact, mad as hell, but active, engaged and trying, each in their own ways, to make things a little bit better. 

Having taken you from sex wars to sea warriors, let me remind that these are only a smattering of the 75 films screening at DOXA this year.

See you there

The thing I like most about documentaries is that there is always something new, some bit of information you'd never heard of before or a place you or people you never knew existed.

This influx of information, story and image, I simply cannot get enough of. As I say, I can't wait.  [Tyee]

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