Is Porn Liberation? Interview With Romanian Director Mihai Dragolea

 

Pornography is divisive, not because it involves two people fucking, but because there is no proper response. Regularly, porno has been rightfully criticized for its sexism and its usage of harmful stereotyping of race. On the other hand, it has also been linked to providing an avenue for giving women economic and physical autonomy. Like other issues, such as prostitution, it is unlikely that pornography will ever disappear. Yet, there are serious ethnical questions for the industry. It is an issue that cuts through globalization, neoliberalism, gender, and race. It is an issue that provides far more questions than answers.

Sex has always been a complex issue for post-socialist states. Women from these countries have regularly been objectified in Western media as exotic conquests that only care about getting an American passport. The prevalence and acceptance of this notion is highly alarming. In this fashion, pornography regularly affirms this racist stereotype. However, in an area where employment is regularly underpaying and precarious, working in porno can provide one of the few areas for giving women economic empowerment. This dichotomy is at the heart of Mihai Dragolea’s documentary PhoeniXXX.

PhoeniXXX documents Mona and Georgiana, two Romanian women who work on erotic videochat sites. They both contend with balancing their family lives with their line of work, which is demanding and disrespected by large segments of society. Their struggles mirror many other Romanians who are forced to leave their agricultural roots for the chaotic life in Bucharest. This documentary does not look to provide any absolute answers, but demands the viewer to consider these individuals full humans that are doing their best working with their circumstances. We spoke to Mihai about his documentary and looking to understand this issue a little better.

It should be noted that two men having a conversation about historical oppressed women without a female voice might appear to be ironic. However, part of untangling toxic masculinity involves men posing greater questions to these complexities.

So much of this story is about survival. Both your two characters, Mona and Georgiana, are women from rural, economically challenged settings, who act against tradition by moving to Bucharest while single. As women, both use their bodies to their advantage in order to support themselves and their families. Do they provide an example of a facet of post-socialist feminism for Romania and other Eastern European women?

Their motifs are really complex; coming from small towns and rural areas that were created in the communist utopia, only to fail after, and people don’t have many alternatives. The Eastern European exodus towards the west is the first consequence, the dissolution of families comes soon after, and then the people who don’t want their children to bear the same hardships go to extreme lengths for them.

In this post communist, crazy capitalist world, women in this film are becoming the main stabilizing factor in the society. They are trying to make up for the father’s absence, to bring income in and sustain even their parents – who are resigned to a post socialist world that they no longer understand and have failed to evolve with. So this internet job is actually a way to have a normal life, as strange as it may sound. Romania isn’t a wealthy country, the wages are really small and sometimes, using what you’ve got (your body) in this kind of a job is really the sole alternative.

Actors, sports people, performers use their bodies to make a living and there are jobs where the body is used in the same way a corporate office employee uses his tools. Romanian society is too false and prudish to acknowledge that these girls do the same. Actually, the whole world is too prudish to say such a thing. My characters are proud of what they’ve done: they wanted to shoot this movie in order to tell the viewers that they are performers, they are mothers, they are good at their job, and this was the only way to achieve greater things. Moreover, they have been deceived by husbands, and are witnessing the depravity of the men they encounter online but, at the same time, have the patience and the grace to listen to those who just want to talk to them. They are feminists.

There is a peculiar debate in terms of working in the erotic/sex industry, like performing in front of web cams or live chat, for instance. These women are able to survive by using their bodies freely, yet these sorts of occupations tend to thrive in economically disenfranchised places like Romania. Do you believe pornography provides a means of liberation? Or, is it exploiting the desperation and eroticization of Romanian women?

The porn industry has it’s headquarters in Los Angeles, so I wouldn’t say that we, as a poor country, are taken advantage or take advantage of this taboo business. There are many Romanian models out there because we can learn English and Spanish easily, we have great internet in our country, and of course, we are poor.

The girls don’t think that porn liberates them – they don’t see live chat as porn. Maybe they’re lying to themselves but live chat involves a lot of chat, a lot of talking or just watching someone chat with you. Of course there is a lot of explicit content – sex sells – but the most well paying members don’t go for that. Their jobs have empowered them, money actually empowers them and they feel satisfied with this, that they managed. But they don’t see the porn part as empowering; they don’t like to think too much about it.

I would like to say that the hardship of performing for 6 nights per week is empowering, the toughness to do this job is actually empowering for them, not the porn aspect of it.

As far as exploitation goes, as we live in capitalism, sadly you have to be exploited in order to survive…

Porno is something that almost evades all moral classifications. On one hand, we have two women that are providing for their families and living autonomously because of porn. On the other hand, both appear to have an uneasy relationship with their clientele and working on the web. Did you come to a conclusion about the porno business after making this documentary?

The porn industry isn’t for everyone, some people can’t simply do this – as some people can’t be actors, some can’t be gangsters and some can’t be doctors. So for me, in order to get into live chat, one has to have a set of characteristics. A lot of people told me it’s easy money; clearly they never played with a toy for an hour straight or watched a man drink his own pee. So in order to do this, one has to be very mentally strong, level-headed, cynical, ruthlessly smart, and determined.

I haven’t been in contact with the porn industry itself, I have never seen a sex act happen in front of me, but the live chat industry works pretty much the same as your normal day job. You have working hours, you have breaks, some great workplaces and the option to quit whenever you desire. So there is no shady business, like drug abuse by models, hardcore scenes performed by male actors and so on. There are nicely furnished rooms, great common areas for socializing, big pay checks, and lots of dildos and cameras.

Your film is very personal and, at its heart, about two people making their way through life. Since your film has been released, how have the two characters reacted to their story being made public?

As I said before, the characters had a sense of empowering while shooting. They were validated by a movie that was set out to understand them, not catch them out or judge them.

They were free and encouraged to be themselves and express themselves freely. Thus, their experience with the public has been good, we do talk about screenings and how it went at a cafe, but I would like to stress that the real joy and content came to them during the shooting of the actual documentary.

Their job, that was stupidly exploited by mainstream media, was portrayed as a freak show by internet tabloid-like publications (I won’t mention them but we all know… :p) was now being filmed and understood by someone who came from the outside but also the inside of the industry, I worked a bit with them, and now tried to shed a different light on the matter. This relationship with me, the filmmaker, and the trust established, was a key component in making this movie as honest and humane as the characters are. We hope the public feels and sees the things we did.