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      film Zio Baritaux 27 June, 2017

      these female directors are changing the way we see sex and nudity

      Zoe Lister-Jones, Anna Biller, and Elizabeth Wood discuss their first encounters and approaches to cinematic sex.

      these female directors are changing the way we see sex and nudity these female directors are changing the way we see sex and nudity these female directors are changing the way we see sex and nudity
      Still from 'The Love Witch'

      In 2016, women directed just 7 percent of the 250 top-grossing films, which means men directed 232 of the most-watched movies in the world. What that also means is that nudity and sex, which appears in most of the non-animated films on that list, is largely viewed from the perspective of men. So what happens when a woman is in the director's chair? Is her approach to nudity or sex different? "I find so much of the nudity in films so unimaginative," says director Anna Biller. "For men, I think it's all about the variety in different types of female bodies. For me as a woman, that's very uninteresting, and above all, it's not cinema. There are so many ways for cinema to create desire, and most of them have nothing to do with nudity."

      In her film, The Love Witch, for example, Biller used rainbow lenses, shot through sheer fabrics and liquids, and focused in on the faces. "Rather than just objectively show bodies on the screen," Biller explains, "I like to convey the heightened experience of sex." Elizabeth Wood, director of the coming-of-age drama White Girl, on the other hand, prefers sex to look and feel as real as possible. On set, Wood sometimes acts out sex scenes for the actors, and opts for extra-long takes. "My producers or DP would whisper, 'Wanna cut? I think we got it,' and I'd say, "Shhh dude, yeah, I'm uncomfortable too, which means it's getting good.'"

      For actress and director Zoe Lister-Jones, whose directorial debut Band Aid is in theaters now, acting in and directing her own sex scenes was liberating. "Filming sex scenes with an all-female crew was truly so freeing," she says. "To be a woman on a set, even when you're not naked and simulating sex, you are constantly confronted with objectification. So to be portraying sexual intimacy that was free of any sense of fear was incredible."

      In the interviews below, Lister-Jones, Biller and Wood share more on their variegated approaches to nudity and sex as women in cinema.

      ZOE LISTER-JONES (Band Aid)

      Still from 'Band Aid'

      Do you remember the first movie you saw that had nudity or a sex scene?
      My parents took me to see Do the Right Thing in the theater when I was seven (don't call child protective services—it's too late!). I remember that ice cube scene with Rosie Perez very vividly. I remember it feeling really intense and raw and real. I don't know if it had an impact on my directorial choices but I definitely chose to portray sexual intimacy in Band Aid in a way that felt both raw and real to me.

      How do you approach filming nudity or sex scenes in your films? Why is that approach important to you?
      I think, as a woman, I have been careful in avoiding nudity on screen until I had total control over my representation. In Band Aid, I performed my first topless scene, and was very deliberate in the way it moved the story forward. I think women are so often objectified in film that for me to be naked required a lot of consideration. At the point in the story when I am topless, my character is at her most vulnerable, and her nudity is not glamorized or fetishized.

      Do you think you approach nudity or sex differently than male directors? Does that happen naturally or is that a conscious decision?
      I think it's really empowering, especially as an actress, to feel you have agency in blocking your own sex scenes. But so often, you don't. As a director, who was also acting, it was amazing to create that environment. I think women understand how vulnerable sex is, and how charged it can be for a woman to enact intimacy in front of, what is most often, a room full of men.

      What kind of sex or nudity do we need to see more of in movies?
      Real sex that empowers women rather than objectifies them.

      ANNA BILLER (The Love WitchViva)


      Still from 'The Love Witch'

      Do you remember your first experience with nudity or sex in a film?
      I used to hate nudity in films because it seemed that having nudity in every movie was just a way to make the male hero a sexual conqueror and to cement the intended audience as male. I remember being horrified when a male high school friend said that he thought nudity in movies was "nice." Yes, I realized, it's "nice" for men to get to peep at young, naked female bodies. For me, it was anything but nice; it was a humiliation of those actresses. I felt that the nudity was reducing women and girls in films to nothing. Their roles were already strained underneath the weight of bad sexist writing, relegating them to either nagging wives or fantasy girlfriends, and the nudity made things that much worse.

      Did that impact how you direct scenes now?
      It was only when I started watching more underground and more sophisticated films that I realized that I liked nudity in films when it was presented without all of the sexist baggage. Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, Fassbinder, Joe Sarno, and Radley Metzger showed equal-opportunity polymorphous nudity and erotica. I was reminded then of the nudity I'd always loved in the pre-code movies of the 1920s and early 30s in Hollywood, which seemed to be as much or about female or gay pleasure as it was about male pleasure, and where erotica was not just about nude bodies, but about the entire mise-en-scène. I realized that I liked films that didn't prudishly push the nudity to the edges of the story, but featured it up front. When a movie is all about sex, then suddenly the sex is not embarrassing or gratuitous.

      How do you approach filming nudity or sex scenes in your films?
      So I got interested in shooting a movie that was all about sex (my first feature film Viva). That movie featured nudity as part of its imitation of (and commentary on) Playboy ads and cartoons. The way I thought about the nudity in the movie is as part of the total visual spectacle. What I learned is that nude bodies are always interesting on film, and that there's a uniformity to nudity that is aesthetically pleasing. For instance, for my nudist colony scene in Viva, the flesh was harmonious and matching, all in shades of cream, beige or brown, and so all I had to do was to surround it with matching rattan and wood furniture and neutral-colored sandals. Color accents were provided by tropical drinks with umbrellas, wigs and mirkins were used as necessary, and tattoos were sprayed over carefully.

      The emotional content of sexual nudity is something I take very seriously. I like to show sexual nudity in almost a religious way, because that's how people experience sex who are still innocent. It's erotic because it's always new. It should take your breath away to see a naked man or woman onscreen, the same way it would if she he or she were standing before you, or if you were standing naked before them.

      Do you think you approach nudity or sex scenes differently than male directors?
      I like to show equal male and female nudity. I think it's more interesting to do that. But I don't really separate nudity out from the rest of the story I'm telling. There is a powerful erotic component to nudity that I use to charge emotions during sex scenes, but I like to keep it psychological. For instance, when I shot the sex scene in Viva, the point of view shifted halfway through the scene from showing Viva having sex to showing how she experienced sex in her head, in an animated sequence. And the sex scene in The Love Witch was through Wayne's subjectivity, as someone who was on hallucinogenic drugs. For those scenes, I used techniques such as weird lens effects, rack focus, shooting through sheer fabric or liquid-filled glasses, using a multi-image or a rainbow lens, heavy use of close-ups, etc. I like having those layers between the nudity and the audience in a sex scene, which I think makes it more subjective and more erotic.

      ELIZABETH WOOD (White Girl)

      Still from 'White Girl'

      Do you remember the first movie you saw that had nudity or a sex scene? Did it impact how you would or would not direct a scene in the future?
      When I was five, my babysitter took me to Blockbuster to rent a VHS of Flowers in the Attic. The film is subtle, but it's about incest, and I got that. I remember thinking, 'Wow, films can be as deviant as I feel.' (Not that I was heavily interested in incest.)

      When I was nine, my parents took me to see The Crying Game in theaters. There is a scene of full-frontal nudity where it is revealed that Jaye Davidson, who plays a transgender woman, has a penis. I had never seen one very clearly, let alone huge on a screen. It was incredible. My parents handed me $20 and told me to go shop in the mall until it was over.

      These were the films that made me realize that there was a somewhere out there beyond the Bible Belt, where honest and wild stories could be told. And that maybe the deep dark fantasies I already had as a child were OK. And that maybe I didn't have to go to hell, maybe I could just make movies! (Fingers still crossed on that one.)

      How do you approach filming nudity or sex scenes in your films?
      My first feature, White Girl, has a plethora of sexual encounters running the gamut from super hot to gross to non-consensual. All are quite graphic. I believe all feel quite real. And real sex runs the gamut from hot to weird to gross. So it was important to cast actors that were down to go there. One of the first questions I ask actors is how they feel about nudity, because if they can't answer that with some humor, we aren't going to get very far.

      As a director I handle sex—and difficult subjects in general—with humor. Life is too crazy to be too serious. Irreverence puts people at ease to act as openly as possible. On set, I speak graphically and am willing to act out a sex scene if it might help actors go as far as possible. I also like to do really long takes.

      What kind of sex or nudity do we need to see more of in movies?
      The films that have affected me the most have sexuality that feels real and is neither sanitized or overly beautified. And perhaps I shouldn't hope that children stumble across White Girl and are liberated from whatever fear of sexuality they may have been raised with. But I do know that as a child, discovering a few films that explored sexuality honestly gave me hope that someday I too could share the darkest corners of my mind proudly. Here I am!

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      Text Zio Baritaux

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      Topics:film, culture, zoe lister-jones, elizabeth wood, white girl, sex, feminism, anna biller, the love witch, zio baritaux

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