On Not Watching Passion

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There are lots of things I could tell you about Maja Borg’s film Passion (2021). That it is their second feature film, after Future My Love (2012). Or that it received backing from Creative Europe and the Swedish Film Institute and premiered in competition at the renowned CPH: DOX festival in Copenhagen in 2021. That, quoting, it is a film about ‘how Christianity meets BDSM rituals’.

I can tell you what it was like to watch Future My Love during an earthquake in Michoacán, Mexico, as part of the travelling Ambulante film festival in 2013. But I can’t tell you what it’s like to watch Passion on the big screen with an audience because the Folkestone Documentary Festival screening was cancelled by the local council under the strictures of the UK’s arcane and convoluted censorship laws. Which is how I came to take part in a discussion with a filmmaker who couldn’t attend a screening of their film that couldn’t be screened, convened by guest curator Melanie Iredale, director of the UK’s feminist film advocacy organisation, Birds Eye View (BEV).

A week before the festival, the local Folkestone and Hythe council refused to licence the film on the grounds that it included extreme pornographic images outlawed by a set of interrelated but distinct acts and regulations. Yet during the summer of 2022, BEV toured Passion to five different venues in different regions as part of their Queerious programme, which focused on films by women and non-binary filmmakers that explored queer desire in ways rarely seen on screen. The programme was funded by the British Film Institute (BFI), awarding funds from the National Lottery under the umbrella of the BFI’s Film Feels programme. Over several summers, Film Feels had funded local and touring film programmes by venues and independent curators that centred emotion, affect and intimacies of all kinds. Its very existence is a marker of the entanglement of intimacy and (through its funding) the state, an entanglement that is often a site of violence.

Passion is a ravishingly beautiful black-and-white film with a lyrical voice-over that evokes the auto-fictional writing of Annie Ernaux, Maggie Nelson and Jenny Hval, contemporary standard bearers of feminist interiority and embodied experience. Like them, Borg is directly concerned with how our personal and collective relation to and experience of intimacy is shaped by violence, and how what might be perceived as intimate violence is, in fact, intimacy conformed and deformed by the state and other actors, such as the Church, that continue to uphold cis heteropatriarchy. As Cineuropa’s tagline encapsulates, the film draws parallels and contrasts between Christianity and BDSM rituals. The Christianity is specifically Evangelical Lutheranism, formerly the national church of Sweden but officially separated from the state since 2000; the BDSM rituals seen in the film are specifically those emerging from contemporary Eurowestern LGBTIQ+ communities. As both onscreen subject, off-screen narrator, and writer-director, Borg is at the nexus of these two ritual communities redefining themselves through queer feminism.

The film follows the course of their recovery from a relationship that has ended, in which it is inferred that consensual BDSM shaded into, or became a site of, intimate violence through coercive control; similarly, it infers that a childhood relationship with religion became one of spiritual violence through the controlling aspect of the conventional church. Borg seeks to remake their relationship to themselves, their body and their spirituality not by rejecting BDSM and Christianity but by finding new, queer relations to these ritual practices in such a way as to refuse and refute institutional violence and coercive control. The film asks whether, as a person who values autonomy, it is possible to embrace submission: a radical proposition that upends the negative value attached to being vulnerable in Eurowestern culture.

As in their first film Future My Love, about the lost futures of a failed relationship and of Western futurology, and short film MAN (2016) about their butch pregnancy, Borg practices radical honesty and accountability by placing their experience and interpretation of intimacy front and centre, constantly questioning and questing rather than asserting or generalising. As Borg’s voice-over states, when they end a relationship with their sub that has left them questioning their relationship to violence and control, ‘I need to make my own liberation alone. So I close the door to the dungeon and walk deep into myself’. Yet part of the film’s radical nature is its consideration of sexual practices as shared, both physically and verbally: what Borg finds deep inside themselves is connection: the connection between sexuality, spirituality and creativity, and that part of that connection is that these are collaborative and witnessed endeavours. Borg shows how sexuality – whose privacy is central to morality and its censorship – is intimate because it is shared not only with a significant other but with communities of practice and care.

It was precisely a screening and discussion in the community that was prevented by the council’s decision, which presented the only option as the festival opening a private members’ club, in which screenings of unlicensed pornographic films are allowed, another remnant of the British class system. Film censorship is a history of intimate violence in a dual sense: on the one hand, the state – informed by politicians, religious leaders, and a conception of the so-called moral majority – defines the nature of intimacy and violence and their interrelation, and delimits how they may be depicted onscreen. In doing so, the state enacts intimate violence, controlling our representation and imagination.

At the base of censorship is the idea that representations themselves enact intimate violence, inescapably intruding on the moral and sensory imaginations of readers, listeners and viewers with such impact that they are able to alter behaviours. Modern censorship remains based on nineteenth-century imperial moralities that while seeming to classify representational works, actually classified their audiences into those who were typed as more or less impressionable, that is, more or less able to withstand the intrusion. It was, of course, along the axes of class, gender, racialisation, age, and disability that viewing subjects were classified, with white, wealthy, able-bodied, cisgender men seen as immune to impressionability, simultaneously because of their worldliness and their supposedly innate morality. Yet this means that the practice of censorship has worked to favour the practitioners of intimate and state violence by repeating its power relations.

Indeed, early censorship suppressed all depictions of political resistance and/against state and imperial violence as forcefully as it did the intimacy that it characterised as violence, with blasphemy as the third strand of unacceptable material, a strand that saw Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) banned by 39 local councils in Britain – a country that proclaims itself a liberal democracy, while having the most stringent audiovisual censorship laws in Europe. While the idea of censorship is often associated with totalitarian governments such as the National Socialists in Germany, Tom Dewe Mathews notes in his study Censored that it begins in 1912 in the UK as an attempt to assert control over a popular new medium and meeting place, the cinema. Unlike theatre and literature, which were subject to legal censors’ offices, cinema was unregulated, and film reels arrived from around the world, screening in unlicensed venues. These spaces were not only unlicensed but affordable and dimly-lit social spaces for sexual encounters, often inspired by the material onscreen. Before the codification of narrative cinema, lots of early films were erotic shorts following on from what was known in Britain as ‘end of the pier’ peep shows such as ‘What the Butler Saw’. It was this conjunction of liberated images on screen and liberating spaces in which they were screened that led to censorship, as local councils would refuse venues permission for their supposedly incendiary reels.

This frustrated the distributors who imported and circulated prints, as screenings were cancelled at the last minute according to a postcode lottery of local mores. It was distributors who organised as an industry to fund a board that would licence their films. While the British Board of Film Censorship was supported by the government and its chair appointed by them, it is an autonomous, private organisation whose findings are only binding as effected by local councils. The founding of a board created an opportunity to meet, and learn from, the new medium and new era; of course, in imperial Edwardian England, this opportunity was not taken. Instead, the BBFC became an organ of Victorian repression that shaped how and which British films, and films across the then-Empire, were made, as well as how they were seen. Especially once sound cinema arrived, scripts had to be pre-submitted to the BBFC for approval before production, as it was harder to snip offending images from finished sound films than from silents.

The framework of film censorship in the UK did not emerge from nowhere. To some extent, it paralleled legal constraints on sexuality between consenting adults and political resistance such as strikes and protests. The relation between what could be enacted and what could be described, depicted or performed already controlled theatre via the King’s Censor’s Office, and the Obscene Publications Act of 1857, which was passed in recognition of the new mass, industrial reproduction of sexual images and thus their availability beyond the ruling class. The law’s wording is moralistic and paternalistic, with material considered obscene if it would ‘deprave or corrupt’ the aforementioned ‘impressionable’ viewer. Even after the Act was significantly reformed in 1959, the prosecutor at the trial of Penguin for the 1960 publication of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover fell back on the argument ‘Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or servants to read?’ (Wills) – prompting laughter in the court and among the jury.

Not least, thanks to this outdated formulation, Penguin were acquitted, and the book was unbanned; the Act was amended in 1964 yet remains in effect. When the council officer in Folkestone and Hythe was viewing Passion, they remained bound by the Act and its audiovisual counterparts, which are based on two related but separate pieces of legislation. Under cover of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, the Labour government included Section 63 criminalising what it defines as ‘extreme pornography’ in audiovisual material not classified by the BBFC, which includes representations of bodily harm that can encompass play piercing, blood play, and other consensual activities. This was followed by the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014, which translated the BBFC’s updated guidelines for R18 films into a legally binding codification of online audiovisual material. As the London Porn Film Festival team wrote for Dazed Digital in 2019:

“Many people have written about the increasingly worrying issues of privacy, surveillance, and data collection in this country. The London Porn Film Festival was established at a time when many sex acts, including fisting, face-sitting and female ejaculation, were illegal under the Audiovisual Media Services Regulation 2014, nicknamed the ‘UK porn law’. The protests seemed funny and eccentric, but this law targeted and impacted queer, independent, porn producers, and by extension, sex workers.”

The letter of the law demanded that Folkestone and Hythe council refuse the film a certificate while allowing the screening of mainstream films that include violent rape. Critics of the 2014 Regulations knew well and stated that censorship has long struck hardest not at depictions of intimate violence but of non-cisheteromasculine consensual pleasure and autonomy (as exemplified by the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover) and that when works designated as pornography are censored, radical art-making will also be excised.

All of the participants in Passion are queer; several are gender non-conforming. The film focuses on their desires, including acts outlawed from representation but not enactment in the UK, including beating, play piercing and blood play, as well as asphyxiation practiced by a professional. Every scene (in the sense of a pre-planned BDSM act) is preceded and often interwoven with discussions and demonstrations of consent in its full collaborative complexity, with representations of aftercare and positive assent from all participants. There is as much, or more, vulnerable intimacy in these moments of stating a desire or its satisfaction as in their realisation.

Passion contains a reminder that this liberation cannot be pursued only within the self, but that, as Ingrid Ryberg writes in ‘Every Time We Fuck We Win’, ‘it is an ongoing and collective process of negotiating norms that both surround and incorporate us… this continuous, collective negotiation can potentially make queer, feminist, and lesbian pornography a safe space for sexual empowerment for women and queer people’ (141). Ryberg and Borg both made short films, including Dirty Diaries (2009), a portmanteau of queer feminist porn shorts produced by Mia Engberg, and Passionincludes documentation of a feminist porn film made by other Dirty Diaries associates. Passion refuses the separation between porn (bad) and art (good), just as it refuses the separation between sex and religion. It insists on the intimacy created by intimacy, the continuum rendered by eroticism, sensuality and desire, which manifest in our creative, spiritual, affective, and physically lived experience – including collective viewing practices.

What I saw in the absence of Passion was how film censorship continues to write its intimate violence on the screen through its erasure of queer and feminist desiring autonomy. What I saw in the existence of Passion and our discussion in the film’s absence was that queer feminist ‘continuous, collective negotiation’ will continue to challenge violence through an insistence on the power of intimacy in all its senses.

 

 

References

London Porn Film Festival Team, ‘Why we run London Porn Film Festival despite protests, censorship, and hate’, Dazed Digital, May 1 2019, www.dazeddigital.com/life-culture/article/44290/1/why-we-run-london-porn-film-festival-despite-protests-censorship-and-hate

Tom Dewe Mathews, Censored: What They Didn’t Allow You to See and Why, The Story of Film Censorship in Britain(London: Chatto & Windus, 1994)

Ingrid Ryberg, ‘“Every Time We Fuck We Win”: The Publis Sphere of Queer, Feminist, and Lesbian Porn as a (Safe) Space for Sexual Empowerment’, in The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure, eds. Tristan Taormino, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Constance Penley, and Mireille Miller-Young (New York: Feminist Press, 2012).

Matthew Wills, ‘Would You Let Your Servant Read This Book?’, JSTOR Daily, Nov 15, 2021, daily.jstor.org/would-you-let-your-servant-read-this-book/

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