When one refers to them self as “open-minded”, there is very little thought given to the fact that it’s a risky label. What is your definition of open-minded? Does it include being racially tolerant? Or perhaps, it means you consider yourself to be gay positive? How about religion? Do you feel that believing in religious freedom makes you a forward thinker? If you answered “yes” to any of these question, then you’re right…and wrong. Truthfully, we fear what we don’t understand. It doesn’t make you a bad person, it makes you human.
The sexual underground is a very misunderstood “minority”. Fetishism is way of life that people still treat as a taboo, mostly out of misunderstanding. As the internet flourished, our culture became more aware of these sexual proclivities that our missionary position minds, don’t care to process. I will be the first to admit-I am all for sexual freedom, but have often been the person to deny the existence of most fetishes. I’ve always been under the impression that the internet is responsible for 90% of the world’s fetishes and they were created solely for the means of making cash. Well, after seeing the documentary “Graphic Sexual Horror” (currently available from Synapse Films), I learned that I was not only wrong (well, kind of wrong-these websites make bank!!!) but also uneducated on the subject matter.
Graphic Sexual Horror is a documentary about the infamous BDSM website, Insex.com and it’s founder, pd. At the beginning stages of live feed websites, Insex set the precedence for what bondage sites would aspire to be. Pd’s approach to bondage was more of an extremist art form that challenge the parameters in which people view sexuality roles and dominance within those parameters. I’ve got a hunch that a lot of the torture porn that we see bankrolling huge box office numbers have taken many cues from pd’s devices. Insex had a monstrous following and it’s performers became cult figures of sorts. While the original concepts of BDSM were usually added to the pages of your garden variety skin mag in the “glamour bondage” format i.e., women in high heels and lingerie, bound and gagged ever-so sexily, Insex was not your big brother’s bondage. This was visceral, intense, horrific stuff that straddle the line between sexuality and violence, usually crossing over into the latter. Members of the website could log in and take part in the process, by using live streaming chat rooms to let the viewers help call the shots in the process. Pd’s fame soared and Insex became the foremost authority on BDSM. His possibilities seemed endless-until the terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11th, 2001.
As we entered the post-9/11 world, the Homeland Security Dept. went on its modern day witch hunt that saw them attacking everything from music to food. Paranoia reached a fever pitch as anything that went against the order of the Bush administration, was considered “terrorism”. One of the victims of that witch hunt was Insex.com. The HSD decided that funds were being funneled to terrorist groups through pornographic websites, particularly those of a violent nature. If it sounds like bullshit, that’s because it is bullshit. Nonetheless, the damage was done and Insex was gone…
Director Barbara Bell and her co-director Anna Lorentzon, were around to capture the mayhem that took place at Insex.com. When The Blood Sprayer started tossing around the idea of a Women in Horror Week, Barbara’s film was the first thing that came to mind. Graphic Sexual Horror is every bit as terrifying as anything you’ll see this year. Watching the sessions play out on camera is a lot like watching a Gaspar Noe film, in that the reality is all out there for the audience to deal with. The difference though, is Bell and Lorentzon’s ability to give you a look at the human side of each performer and the creator’s themselves. GSH made waves at Fantasia, TIFF, and Slamdance which cemented its place with the horror/exploitation film community. It’s an unflinching look at a sexual culture that is every bit as intelligent/artistic as it is unnerving and one of it’s progenitors who took the community to all new heights. It is easily one of the most intriguing films you will see all year.
I had the opportunity to meet Barbara Bell recently at a convention, and realized very early in the conversation that this was not our average filmmaker. She’s a renaissance women in her own right, having released novels, albums, and now films. While it comes as no surprise to me after seeing the film (and won’t to you either after you see it.), Barbara is surprised at how the horror film community has taken to her film and adopted her as one of their own. But as I stated previously, one viewing of this film and you’ll be telling all your friends about this “insane film you just watched”. She’s a fascinating person and this interview just scratches the surface on what brilliance awaits from her.
Barbara took some time to answer some questions for me and gives us a fantastic look into the world of Insex, as well as, insight into what being a female filmmaker who’s poking open minds in the chest is all about.
Barbara Bell: I was in New York because Simon & Schuster had just published my novel, Stacking in Rivertown. PD was looking for a writer because he wanted to create a mainstream web-serial that had BDSM elements. Anna Lorentzon, my co-director, knew both of us, so she introduced me to PD. I worked up a screenplay for the pilot and Anna (his producer at the time) and I co-directed it. During that time, Anna and I discovered that we worked well together. After Insex fell apart, Anna and I met to discuss doing a project together. And all we could talk about were the experiences we had at Insex. So we decided to do a documentary as a way to get people interested in our work.
Blood Sprayer: For those who may not know, could you fill us in on what Insex.com was and why it was such a landmark website?
Barbara Bell: PD began Insex in 1997, just as the internet was really taking off. He already had skills in website building from having taught at Carnegie Mellon. He claims that Insex was the first western BDSM porn website that created content made exclusively for the web, rather than magazines or CD’s. He was also one of the first webmasters to play around with “live feeds” or live streaming. To top it off, PD’s artistic strengths fall both into imagery and spectacle. He wanted to create a modern day Gran Guignol. His vision of bondage was not “glamour” bondage. PD was highly influenced by the House of Milan type of imagery – gritty, industrial, serial killer-esque scenes of bondage and torture. He cites Last House on the Left and Texas Chainsaw Massacre as two big influences upon his work. If you look around the web today, PD’s style of bondage, even down to replicas of his props – are everywhere. He has heavily influenced modern BDSM imagery.
Blood Sprayer: While a lot of folks may view BDSM as misogynistic, your documentary proves the participants to have a much different opinion. In a lot of instances, it seems that it was liberation for some of the performers. Of the performers you dealt with, how much of it was about the art and how much was about the money? Most of the women weren’t shy about their affinity for the pay, but still, did they gain as much personally/artistically as pd, or were they suffering for a paycheck (in some instances)?
Barbara Bell: BDSM plays with power dynamics, one of the most familiar in our society is sexism. So BDSM can look misogynistic. Yet a lot of BDSM doesn’t involve women at all. So BDSM is not misogynistic just in its existence. PD sponsored a website called Insex M in which a female dominant worked with male models. Do we worry about the men and think of that imagery as sexist in some way?
Everyone that came to Insex had his/her own set of reasons for being there. But the most-cited reason in our interviews was money. PD paid very well. The models that returned for many shoots (a small percentage of models) may have returned because they preferred PD’s artistic style of work. But in general, getting through an Insex shoot was physically difficult. So hardly anyone returned because of the art or the challenge. Most were there for the money. One model who was in a pre-med program at the time told me, “I can make as much in one hour working for PD as I can in a week working for McDonald’s.” The second strongest motivator was the adulation that the models received from the members of the website. Insex had a loyal following. PD’s models became stars to the membership. Insex members worshipped them. That’s pretty heady stuff for a late teens/twenty-something female.
In the movie, we tried to illustrate the moment when a model has to make an active choice – Do I want this money so much that I’m willing to put up with that? You see, we ALL have to make that choice in our jobs. Sometimes we need the money. But for many of us, we simply want more money. This is where we begin to see what I call the “secret actor” in our documentary (and in our lives). Money. It blurs the line of consent. We live in a money-centered culture. The problems of money-worship are seen everyday. How many people cut corners they don’t want to cut, but it’s cost-efficient? How many people do things in their jobs they believe is morally wrong, but they do it anyway because they just can’t let go of the money or benefits that job provides?
This is what I found so interesting about the Insex studio. The extremity of the climate at Insex illuminated the complexities found in all of life. It made certain profound problems of being human very clear. That is the message behind Graphic Sexual Horror. It’s about marvel and obsession. It’s about greed and how it drives us.
Blood Sprayer: While we’re on the topic of misogyny, I want to ask you about being a woman filmmaker. One would never guess that a documentary like this would’ve been made by women. There’s still quite a bit of old fashioned thinking, in terms of roles in sexuality and how it plays out in film, art, etc. What’s your response to folks being taken aback when they find out this film was made by women? Has the reaction altered people’s opinions after finding out or is still a “loved it” or “hated it” mentality (note: I ask love or hate because I assume there hasn’t been a lot of middle-of-the-road reaction)?
Barbara Bell: I do think that for some people, finding out that the film was made by two women helped them decide to go see it. But I don’t know if it has made much difference once they’ve seen the film. The difficult subject of the film over-shadows most everything else. What we did discover about our audience (this is a generality) is that there seems to be a difference between the under-35 crowd and those older. Younger viewers appear to be more able to look at the imagery without taking it as reality. I think they’ve had more experience viewing extreme types of imagery from having grown up with the internet.
Blood Sprayer: In regards to gender and the presumed bias in the film industry, do you think the biases are real or do you feel like the playing field is levelling out, in terms of opportunity? For example, how differently do you think the film would be perceived had it been made by a man, if at all?
Barbara Bell: I believe that subtle (and not so subtle) biases still exist everywhere. But we didn’t really deal with the film industry beforehand – as in raising money and interest in our project. Once the film was made, the extreme nature of the finished product had more influence on possible buyers than the gender of the filmmakers.
I think that if a man had made the film, it would have been put together much differently. Ours became powerful because of the focus we put on the interaction between PD and his models. To us, the most interesting piece of the story was how two human beings negotiate an outcome while in the tricky terrain of sex, money, and emotion. Does that make it a chic flick? (Just joking.)
Blood Sprayer: Graphic Sexual Horror gets the audience involved and almost attached to the subjects. How difficult was it to be objective after spending so much time with these individuals? What has become of the “cast” of GSH since filming ended?
Barbara Bell: It is always hard to be objective. Personally, I don’t believe that anyone is ever truly objective. But we tried very hard to paint a true and balanced picture. Anna and I both learned a lot about our own reasons for making the film as we went over and over clips and edits. We constantly questioned each other about motives and direction. It was a journey, that’s for sure.
Lorelei and Star were still doing fetish modeling the last I heard. Princess Donna and Matt are both webmasters at kink.com. Cyd and AZ have worked for PD recently. PD has several websites – Hardtied.com, InfernalRestraints.com, RealTimeBondage.com, and topgrl.com. InsexArchives.com operates out of the Netherlands.
Blood Sprayer: I think that people will potentially be polarized by pd’s approach to art. On one hand, he’s definitely a brilliant mind who’s able to take art to it’s furthest limits but on the other hand, it seems as if he began to buy into his own hype as it pertained to Insex.com. What’s your take on pd? Considering what the world knows of him, what, if any, is the misconception?
Barbara Bell: There are clearly artistic elements in PD’s work and personality. His obsession and drive mirror the personalities of other well-known artists. He’s rather Kubrick-esque, as one reviewer said. There are also clearly pornographic elements in PD’s work. So he’s difficult to classify, which makes him fascinating.
I think most people assume that PD hates women and does horrible things to them with the intention of doing “real” harm. I do not believe that is true in the least. PD had an audience that loved his spectacles. And he pushed himself and his models to extremes in order to create more and more fantastic spectacles. PD was also being driven by “the secret actor” in our film. The pressure of the audience and the money was higher for him than anyone else. He became a demanding boss like many bosses, yet when he breaks a limit on camera with a young, naked, vulnerable-looking model, it looks really bad to many viewers. In truth, he’s pushing the limits of the situation because he’s conscious of the pressure of all those viewers and their money. It doesn’t make it right, but if you put it into a day-to-day context, it’s pretty normal.
I think a very important point that we didn’t have time to cover in the film is the nature of fetish. PD is obsessed with the imagery because it is a fetish for him. He has experienced what he does to his models and he loves being on the receiving end. So to him and his members, this imagery has a completely different meaning than what most people assume. People who do not have a fetish misunderstand the meaning of it to those who participate in it.
Barbara Bell: As I said above, I feel that the power and urgency of fetish is misunderstood by those who do not have it. The imagery of BDSM is looked upon as “violent” by those who do not enjoy the role-playing and challenge inherent in BDSM scenarios. To many individuals in the BDSM community, this is a fantasy that is physically, emotionally, and sexually charged. For some, it is a spiritual pathway – a vision quest. Many of the members of Insex found immense relief when they discovered a community of people that had similar fantasies as themselves. They found partners. They found life-long friends. After Insex fell apart, staunch group of Insex forum members created a private forum where they still connect with one another.
One of the saddest comments about our whole project was that not one member of Insex would show his/her face on camera for fear of reprisals from family, employer, community – you name it. This is a vastly misunderstood minority.
Blood Sprayer: The screenings at Toronto, Fantasia, and Slamdance solidified the fact that you would be endeared to the horror/exploitation community. Couple that with the film being distributed by the fine folks at Synapse Films, and you’ve pretty much been integrated into that world. But from a previous conversation you and I had, I discovered you’re not even a big fan of the genre. So, how has it been being involved with it (the horror genre/community)? Also, how did the deal with Synapse come to be?
Barbara Bell: I have found it really surprising that the horror community has been so taken with the film, but really, I should have anticipated it. When we played at Fantasia in Montreal, we came to the attention of Don and Jerry at Synapse. We already had two other offers for DVD distribution when Jerry called me. One of our offers was from a startup that looked to be a potentially big opportunity. But after talking with some of Don and Jerry’s clients, we decided to go with Synapse because they play it straight. They do what they say they’re going to do and they don’t cheat the artist. That’s nearly impossible to find in this business. I’m glad we went with them.
Blood Sprayer: You’re a jack of all trades: Filmmaker, author, musician. If I’m correct you’re working on a new screenplay as well as a new book. Can you give us any details on what’s to come from Barbara Bell?
Barbara Bell: I released a new novella on Kindle called Line of Battle. It’s political intrigue that involves torture and the life-changing consequences of it. I wrote it, in part, as a cautionary tale because I was so appalled when the Bush administration began legalizing torture. There is NO comparison between real non-consensual torture and what PD does in a studio. I’ve also begun work on a screenplay for a full feature film based on the same basic scenario as the documentary. You can find out more about my work by visiting www.barbarabell.com. A forward and three sample chapters of Line of Battle are on my website.
Blood Sprayer: This interview is being done as a part of our Women in Horror Week at The Blood Sprayer. Throughout your various careers, who have been the women in those fields that have served as your inspiration to create? And as someone who’s crossed over those barriers, what words of wisdom have you given to aspiring writers and filmmakers who you’ve encountered?
Barbara Bell: There’s so many wonderful women – Virginia Woolf, Marguerite Duras, Janet Frame in writing; Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, Gillian Welch in music; film – Jane Campion (The Piano), Catherine Briellat (Fat Girl), Emma Thompson (Carrington).
As Spinoza said, all noble things are as difficult as they are rare. If you want to do something creative in our world, something fine, you have to be driven. It’s not a career, it’s a life-commitment. You do it because you can’t stop yourself from doing it. And you won’t rest until every detail is as it should be. And you never stop. You never ever stop. Pay attention to everything, even the things you don’t know – especially the things you don’t know.
Blood Sprayer: What has become of pd since the documentary’s release? What are his feelings about the film? After having his livelihood basically ripped from him by the Homeland Security Dept., one would think a person could end up pretty bitter. What is he doing now?
Barbara Bell: PD is running the websites I mentioned above, and as far as I know, doing very well by all standards. The experience of the loss of his merchant account and Insex was incredibly difficult for him, but he is a very determined man. He is not happy with the documentary. I have not spoken with him for over a year.
Blood Sprayer: Usually, we end our interviews finding out what are subject’s favorite horror film of all time is. Since I know you’re not a die-hard fan, I’m still curious to know-what is your’s?
Barbara Bell: It’s not what we would call a traditional horror film – but I’d say Night and Fog. It is a documentary of the Nazi concentration camps. Directed by Alain Resnais, the documentary features actual photos and films shot by the Allies’ “clean-up” operations.
I’ve never had the ability to watch horror films. Though I think Alien is a great film, I had to walk out of it. For some reason, the real horrors of life seem never far from me.