I.

As I suspect is also true of countless other nonfiction filmmakers—including those who feel the need to furnish their films with more romantic, star-crossed origin stories—I first encountered the subject of my most recent film on Wikipedia.

The film, Lasting Marks, details through personal testimony and a wealth of archival material the social and political undercurrents of Operation Spanner, an infamous British police investigation into same-sex male sadomasochism. The case began in 1987 and came to trial in 1990, whereupon it set a precedent in British law that effectively criminalised heavy SM.

Wikipedia’s account was less concerned with the societal factors underpinning the investigation than with what it claimed were the case’s lurid beginnings:

The police had obtained a video which they believed depicted acts of sadistic torture, and they launched a murder investigation, convinced that the people in the video were being tortured before being killed. This resulted in raids on a number of properties, and a number of arrests. The apparent victims were alive and well, and soon told the police that they were participating in private BDSM activities.

The entry went on to detail how, upon realising that no murders had taken place, the Obscene Publications Squad of London’s Metropolitan Police nonetheless pressed on with their investigation, ultimately prosecuting 16 men for the consensual “assaults” documented on the videotape.

Having long been fascinated by the relationship between sex and its depiction on screen, this struck me as an irresistible case study. Not only had the authorities mistaken the performance of fantasy for reality, but they were so convinced by their (mis)interpretation that they persevered even once its inaccuracy became clear.

In hindsight, the red flags in that version of events are glaring. Though the Wikipedia entry elsewhere called Operation Spanner “controversial” and alluded to the role of homophobia in the case, the narrative of the mistaken murder investigation offered one of two conveniently exculpatory portraits of the authorities: either they were naïve enough to confuse consensual SM for homicide, or else the activity in question was so extreme that any reasonable person would have come to the same conclusion.

Across 67 words and multiple outlandish claims, the tale was also absent a single citation. Instead, the entire article was littered with what Wikipedia editors call “weasel words”: words or phrases aimed at conveying authority without providing actual detail. How exactly did the police “obtain” the video? What was the “number of properties” raided and the “number of arrests” made?

II.

Finding out proved no small task when I began work on Lasting Marks in 2016, though the timing at first seemed fortuitous. British law requires that various public records be made available to the public after 20 to 30 years, and the files from 1990 had just been released.

However, when I sought out the trial records, I learned that they had been resealed for a further 55 years. Two exemptions were cited to justify this drastic extension, the primary one being “Health and Safety.” An identical justification was given by the Metropolitan Police in denying my FOIA request for their own files on Operation Spanner.

A Met representative argued that the descriptions of SM contained within the files were “quite upsetting in parts and would be likely to be considered distressing to other members of the public.” When I pointed out that a Health and Safety exemption requires that “the disclosure of information might lead to a psychological disorder or make mental illness worse,” the officer changed tack, substituting various other exemptions until I’d exhausted my appeals.

The mainstream press coverage I was able to turn up did at least clarify how Wikipedia’s sensational account had taken shape. To my surprise, it seemed that the backbone of the story—the claim that Operation Spanner began as a murder investigation—was based on a single minor detail that made its way into contemporaneous news reports.

After seizing four homemade SM tapes during an unrelated search and seizure, the police mounted a series of raids on the homes of those featured in the videos. Sniffer dogs were in attendance at one raid, and though they found nothing, their presence was noted during the trial, with the prosecution darkly intoning that the police “thought they might find something awful in the garden, but thankfully they didn’t.”

The defence questioned the relevance of this anecdote, reminding the judge that “the world’s press is listening.” As predicted, the tidbit did appear everywhere from Britain’s notionally liberal broadsheets to its gleefully reactionary tabloids, with The Sun making explicit what the prosecution had left implied: “Some of the films were so violent that police first suspected they had stumbled on a ring killing its victims for snuff movies.”

Without any way to evaluate the tapes for themselves, the public could only take the papers’ word for it, as the papers in turn took the word of the prosecution. Today, the logic is even more circular: in citing “Health and Safety” concerns to block the release of information about the case, the Met invokes the alleged extremity of the men’s behaviour to prevent outside scrutiny of that very claim.

III.

A deeper understanding of Operation Spanner only began to take shape for me thanks to the archival instincts of members of the public. From the beginning, I’d been eager to locate a transcript of the trial itself, to fill in the negative space around the salacious tabloid pull quotes. In the UK, court transcripts can be commissioned by the public, from audio recordings provided by the court to accredited transcription firms. Unfortunately, the tapes in question had been destroyed seven years after the trial, as apparently is the norm for all but the most exceptional cases.

It was only while browsing the personal files of former Gay Times editor Colin Richardson, housed in the LGBTQ-focused Hall-Carpenter Archives, that I miraculously stumbled upon an unlabeled manila folder containing a copy of the transcript, which had been faxed to Richardson three decades earlier.

The transcript laid bare the facts of the case and threw into question the motivations of its architects. Just a few weeks into the investigation, on November 4th, 1987, several of the police’s targets willingly submitted to questioning, during which they explained the nature of their private, consensual SM group. Officers repeatedly enquired as to whether anyone was drugged or otherwise coerced into taking part, but could find no one who was. They also failed to find proof that the tapes had been distributed beyond the group, a prerequisite for obscenity prosecution. Nonetheless, the Obscene Publications Squad pressed on for a further three years, at an estimated cost of £2.5 million.

Such prosecutorial zeal is hard to fathom, unless the squad viewed Operation Spanner as a test case, designed to expand its powers. Juries in traditional obscenity cases were famously mercurial, and could not be relied upon to agree with the government on whether material had a “tendency to deprave and corrupt,” as the law required. If a precedent was set that sadomasochists could instead be prosecuted for assault—in spite of the consent of those involved—there would be no need to meet the slippery definition of obscenity in such cases.

Even though assault charges are typically dealt with at a lower magistrates’ court, journalists were briefed as early as March 1988 that the case was likely to be heard in Crown Court, where legal precedent can be set. When finally charged the following year, the defendants were surprised to find themselves facing conspiracy charges alongside those they had expected. Such charges are difficult to prove, but crucially, necessitate that a case be heard in Crown Court. Once the trial was relocated, all claims of conspiracy were summarily dropped.

Of course, there were those who viewed the state’s case with suspicion at the time, Richardson included. In a lengthy article for Gay Times titled “Myths, Half-Truths and Fantasies,” he laid out the inconsistencies in the Met’s version of events, and forced Detective Superintendent Michael Hames, head of the Obscene Publications Squad, to admit that he could not explain how homemade SM tapes had been mistaken for snuff films by a police force that claimed expertise in such matters. “It was just that the activities were so, er, bizarre,” protested Hames, “that, you know, it was regarded as being beyond the pale.”

Publications like Gay Times aren’t available in mainstream newspaper archives and their reporting could not hope to have the same kind of impact that tabloids did on the public understanding of a case like Operation Spanner. It was my hope that Lasting Marks could do justice to the risks they took in cutting against the grain of popular opinion, by now placing the prosecutions in their proper context.

IV.

As the film began its tour of the festival circuit, it was written about in numerous outlets, and I hoped these mentions might elevate its standing among the sources vying to define Operation Spanner and its legacy. Again and again, however, the film was described not with reference to its actual content, but with inaccuracies lifted directly from Wikipedia.

The situation grew only more frustrating as I prepared to launch Lasting Marks online in partnership with The Guardian. In an unrelated article about the gay leather scene, the newspaper described Operation Spanner as “the high-profile conviction of gay sadomasochists arrested in Manchester.” In fact, of the 16 men charged, not one lived or was arrested in Manchester. Where a reference to the city did appear, without citation, was in the opening line of the case’s Wikipedia entry.

I realised that Lasting Marks’s impact on the popular conception of the case would always be limited as long as Wikipedia’s web of misinformation remained any curious mind’s first port of call.

The deference afforded to the site is understandable: for all its flaws and biases, it’s inarguably one of the internet’s most valuable resources. A freely licensed, collectively edited guide to (potentially) everything, it’s nothing short of a miracle that the site has remained un-co-opted and uncommodified since its creation in 2001. At its best, it’s living proof of the wisdom of the crowd, and a vital counterpoint to the official repositories of our history, which—as my research confirmed to me—often fall short of the task.

And so, in order to put my work on Operation Spanner to bed, I set about rewriting its Wikipedia entry from the ground up. Some of this was relatively straightforward. Two years of research had given me access to specifics where the entry had offered only vague generalizations: the number of men named in the Obscene Publications Squad’s report: 43; the number whom the government elected to charge: 16; the longest prison sentence handed down by the judge: four and a half years.

More complicated were those assertions that hewed closer to a subjective judgement. It’s my opinion that Operation Spanner was a homophobic project, and this opinion is expressed openly and directly in Lasting Marks. On Wikipedia, such assessments—at least when divorced from verifiable facts—are thorny, and may contravene the website’s neutrality policy. But what exactly would verify a prejudice, beyond an admission from the horse’s mouth?

The investigation occured at a turning point for the Obscene Publications Squad, which had once been relatively open about whom, and for whom, it was fighting. In October 1987, the month that Operation Spanner began, Hames’s predecessor Superintendent Iain Donaldson spoke publicly of facing down “a very powerful lobby that [says] homosexuality is normal and should not be discouraged.”

By the time the case came to trial, however, Hames had instituted a more media-savvy regime. He began attending a quarterly forum on the policing of London’s lesbian and gay communities, and strenuously denied that the squad’s flagship operation was a homophobic one, telling the group: “These were very extreme sadomasochists. Their homosexuality was merely incidental.”

In court, the government seemed less inclined to elide the men’s sexual orientation. Prosecutor Michael Worsley QC characterised their behaviour as "brute homosexual activity in sinister circumstances, about as far removed as can be imagined from the concept of human love" and said it was “worth mentioning” that some of the defendents were HIV-positive. These made for illustrative details as I reworked Wikipedia’s understanding of the trial.

Just as importantly, I documented the ways in which homophobia permeated the case from the outside. In 1987, a study found that three quarters of Britons thought homosexual activity was always or mostly wrong. That same year, a scaremongering public information campaign on HIV/AIDS was plastered across billboards and TV stations, while Margaret Thatcher made her opposition to LGBTQ education a pillar of her reelection campaign, decrying the “hard left education authorities” who she said taught children “that they have an inalienable right to be gay.”

Citation by citation, I built a case that the tail end of the 1980s represented a uniquely sharp inflection point in the backlash against gay rights in the UK, and that Operation Spanner should be viewed as symptomatic. This framing, while based in fact, is of course subjective, and an editor seeking to justify the operation might (just as permissibly) present the various accidental deaths that have been linked to sadomasochism as critical background information. Given enough time, either of these diametrically opposed narratives could harden into the accepted “truth” of the case.

V.

Public faith in Wikipedia is built on the trust that bad information will eventually be supplanted by good—even if that’s far more likely to occur with the fiercely debated entries on European capitals, U.S. presidents, and minor Star Trek characters than on the scant pages dedicated to female academics, histories of the Global South, or homophobic police operations from 30 years ago.

Perhaps this explains why Wikipedia’s article on Operation Spanner—be it my painstakingly researched 3400-word version, or the entry written seemingly from memory in 2004 that went largely unaltered for more than a decade—is likely to be called upon with greater regularity and reliance than any documentary on the case.

I don’t subscribe to the most pessimistic view of nonfiction filmmaking, which holds that the form is inherently impotent, but I do think that real “impact”—to use the dreaded word that has launched a thousand documentary funding applications—is almost vanishingly rare. In a bracingly unsentimental 2017 article for Filmmaker Magazine, programmer Chris Boeckmann wrote that in five years of screening social issue documentaries, his primary impact—so to speak—had been to prop up the “myth that this pervasive, pedantic sort of documentary can change the world.”

I can’t help but think that this routine inefficacy has something to do with documentary’s readily apparent subjectivity. Blackfish is perhaps the most impactful nonfiction film of the last decade, having dented SeaWorld’s revenue by tens of millions and halved the company’s stock price, and even then, SeaWorld was able to limit the damage by labeling the film “propaganda” and questioning the motivations of its creative team, techniques I suspect would’ve proven even more successful in the Trump era.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s many articles about the company’s scandals and skeletons live on. An encyclopedia with 1.5 billion readers and no named authors is a trickier target for character assassination.

As an artist, I feel committed to exploring the subjective nature of truth and the effect our prejudices and preconceptions have on our understanding of a common event. At the same time, I’ve never felt more alive to the limits of that exercise, and the need to participate directly in the theatre of “objective” truthmaking, on Wikipedia and beyond. The responsibility for telling the story of the past is simply too precious to be surrendered to the forces of reaction and entrenched power. History will be written one way or the other.

***

Charlie Shackleton is a filmmaker and sometime film critic, best known for the feature-length essay films Beyond Clueless and Fear Itself, as well as the award-winning short films Fish Story and Lasting Marks. His latest project, A Machine for Viewing, was a part of the New Frontier program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

As part of our commitment to supporting creative explorations of nonfiction filmmaking, Field of Vision has launched Field Notes, a new online journal for original writing about nonfiction cinema in all its forms.

Critic and programmer Devika Girish will serve as Field Notes Contributing Editor and contribute to the site’s editorial vision.

Devika is the Assistant Editor at Film Comment and a Talks programmer at the New York Film Festival. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Reverse Shot, Village Voice, Sight and Sound, and other publications, and she has served on the selection committees for the Mumbai Film Festival and Berlin Critics' Week.

For our first issue, Devika sat down with the writer, curator, and producer Rooney Elmi, who is the founding editor of SVLLY(wood) and the co-founder of the No Evil Eye microcinema; and writer and programmer Matt Turner, who serves as the marketing manager at Open City Documentary Festival and is the founding editor of the Non-Fiction journal. We hope that their conversation—which touches upon the intersections of form and subject matter in documentary, the mode’s exploitative and colonialist legacy, and the need to create sustainable spaces for writing—functions as a sort of “mission conversation,” in lieu of a traditional, monolithic mission statement.

Also joining Field Notes is programmer, writer, and broadcaster Ashley Clark, who begins a new regular column about non-fiction image work called By Ashley Clark.

Ashley Clark is the director of film programming at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He has curated film series at BFI Southbank, the Museum of Modern Art, TIFF Bell Lightbox, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, among other venues, and has contributed writing to publications including Film Comment, Sight & Sound, and the Guardian. His first book is Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” (2015).

His first column for Field Notes, on nonfiction pioneer Stuart Hall, is available to read here.

Two other pieces launched today, including filmmaker Charlie Shackleton’s exploration of the subjective nature of truth in his challenge to correct misinformation about the events of, and legendary legal case behind, his film Lasting Marks. You can read Charlie’s piece, “Sex, Lies and Wikipedia,” here. And a beautiful piece told through letters between writer and programmer Sarah Fonseca and queer artist and writer Jillian McManemin exploring the representation of sex workers on screen, the parallels of non-fiction filmmaking, friendship and place can be found here.

Field Notes will be commissioning original essays, interviews, correspondences, reported features, and other journalistic and creative explorations of nonfiction filmmaking. We are also open to publishing previously circulated work in translation from other languages to English or in collaboration with independent local and international publishing initiatives. We do not publish reviews.

To contact us about a pitch for Field Notes, please email us at editor@fieldofvision.org with a 100-200 word summary of your idea and 2-3 samples of your previous writing.

Welcome to the first issue of Field Notes, Field of Vision’s new online journal for original writing on nonfiction filmmaking in all its forms.

We’ve conceived of this journal with both narrow and broad aims. Field Notes is committed to nonfiction: it intends to be a refuge for thoughtful and considered writing on the mode, outside of the parameters of both reviewing and academia.

But our hope is also to interrogate and challenge the very contours of nonfiction: its assumptions, its hierarchies, its global legacies, its aesthetic and ideological varieties, and its ever-mutating shapes, both across history and in the present moment.

We invite writing that experiments with its own form to reflect on these questions, whether through essays, interviews, reported features, correspondences, oral histories, or more.

The pieces in our inaugural issue reflect our eclectic approach. Charlie Shackleton narrates how an unreliable Wikipedia entry about a 1980s British investigation into same-sex sadomasochism inspired his film, Lasting Marks; Ashley Clark writes about the time Stuart Hall exposed the BBC’s racism on its own platform; and Sarah Fonseca and Jillian McManemin exchange pandemic-inspired letters about sex work, independent cinema, and sex work in independent cinema.

We are inspired by other independent magazines and initiatives which have responded to the need for critical considerations of nonfiction, and we hope to be a space of collaboration. To kick off the first issue of Field Notes, Contributing Editor Devika Girish spoke with the creators of two such initiatives: Rooney Elmi, the founding editor of SVLLY(wood) and co-founder of the No Evil Eye microcinema; and Matt Turner, marketing manager at Open City Documentary Festival and founding editor of the Non-Fiction journal.

We hope that their roundtable—which touches upon the intersections of form and subject matter in documentary, the mode’s exploitative and colonialist legacy, and the need to create sustainable spaces for writing—functions as a sort of “mission conversation,” in lieu of a traditional, monolithic mission statement.

And if these pieces spark your own ideas, send us a pitch at editor@fieldofvision.org.

Note: these letters were exchanged by the writers in mid-August and early September.

08.13.2020

Dear Jillian,

Recently, I was reminded of Queen of Lapa (2019): an impressive and intimate piece of verité about the late Luana Muniz, a trans sex worker and cabaret performer living the neighborhood of Lapa in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The film focuses on her ownership of a restaurant-turned-brothel that she shared with her younger trans sisters. Think: Pietrangeli’s Adua and Her Friends meets the Maysles’ Grey Gardens. I have never before seen such a flamboyant, unhesitant love letter to those within the oldest profession.

One year after first encountering Lapa while screening selections for NewFest, New York City’s LGBTQ film festival, I continue to clutch this epistle to my chest. How were its creators, the Brooklyn-based partner-filmmakers Theodore Collatos and Carolina Monnerat, faring during a moment that has made cinema a far less visceral and materially rewarding experience? A girlfriend of mine once referred to documentary filmmaking as “thankless.” I was incensed at the time, but it’s an observation I now accept during this bloody pandemic, and especially when revisiting glorious, underseen stories like this one.

For the sake of art, love, and epistolary bliss, I will get personal. Two things have kept me firmly rooted to New York throughout my six years of residency here, the key one being the movies. The self-imposed and self-determined “social distancing” of going to the cinema has defined my existence as a film critic—that happy loneliness of it all. Likewise, I have so many stories-within-stories I want to tell you of tangibly experiencing movies in the city: of the kindness of strangers, chance encounters, and the shared, natural language of loving film.

Once the pandemic is over and we begin the work of rebuilding and healing in ways we’ve yet to conceive, I know with the totality of my soul that there will be places—be they basements or bedrooms or backyards—where people will sit, shoulder to shoulder, and consume moving pictures. Given the financial constraints and physical limitations of pandemic filmmaking, these films might be as rudimentary as the Stone Age cave paintings of horses in Europe, but they will still represent the most cathartic experiences I’ve had with movies since at least the middle of March. I desperately miss the unexpected: touch, friction, conflict, chance, hope. And given my critical affinity for experimental and nonfiction cinemas, I am eager to see these new filmic stallions gallop across a bedsheet screen.

The other thing that has sustained my relationship with our city is sex work, specifically escorting. The trade is something I view as ruefully and fondly as I do our nonprofit theaters. There is so much to love and hate about any professional system that compensates one handsomely and swiftly within the parameters of capitalism, but insists upon deeming itself philanthropic. In my case, I find ways to take the good and leave the bad, particularly when the persons with whom I am discussing equity in sex work or cinema know little about courtesans or Cukor.

When you have as many cultural loves as I do, they frequently—richly —begin to neglect you, and instead, court one another. This, if nothing else, explains why I once wrote a story about a lonely metropolitan escort who becomes infatuated with the legendary Italian actress Anna Magnani. In it, she compares the act of buying tickets to a Magnani retrospective to soliciting a prostitute.

I suppose what I ultimately want to explore with you is how, during this moment, it is vital for us to abolish notions of prestige and increase tolerance for the underground—I’d like it if society exited the pandemic with a more humane eye toward sex workers, who now, post-SESTA and post-FOSTA, get by via dark web classifieds. I would also like it if moviegoers reemerged boasting more of an appetite for nonfiction films that risk being written off as amateur, niche, or eccentric.

I can safely presume you share some variation of this same ardency, given that you are an experimental filmmaker whose work has been presented in independent nooks and crannies around the city.

You see, I am concerned that the people who have kept our souls and bodies intact through pleasure and entertainment risk not having anyone to do the same for them. I encourage the voyeurs who enjoy this spectacle of letters to donate to GLITS or another sex worker relief fund as a form of gratuity. One of my many worries at present is that our city’s independent filmmakers (who are perpetually “just getting by”) will not have the chance to be among that ramshackle fold that leads the reshaping of our arts and cultural sector; I want Collatos and Monnerat to be able to continue making work that is grounded in love and reverence for an unknown subject.

Last summer, while wading through the hundreds of submissions for NewFest, I fell madly in love with their first collaborative project. For months, Lapa remained an admittedly tricky film to program and sell. Foreign language. Documentary. Violence against transwomen. Hustling. Not exactly the visual pleasures that a garden variety Park Slope dyke or Chelsea fag is seeking for a Friday date night.

Lapa’s visual architecture resembles its brothel dynamics: everything here is so chaotically good. Sisterhood prevails, but in a tough love, fix your eyeliner and stop bellyaching way we all crave from a magnanimous matriarch from time to time. We enter the home in Rio via the smallest of cameras and remain there for what feels like years. The girls, all trans sex workers, have vast and varied personas, gender confirmation surgery goals, work ethics, and dreams about love: some fall in love with johns quickly; others do not. Luana, who became a sex worker at 11 and died of natural causes shortly after filming concluded, was obviously conjuring the world she wished she had had when at a tender age. The age of consent in Brazil is 14; as a result, several of the girls seem appallingly young. I find it immensely comforting to know that, at the end of the night, Luana was there to afford them a roof, food, and clean linens.

While concerns of exploitation are always present when viewing films about fringe cultures (and especially so with moving pictures about the physical intimacies of sex work and queer life), Luana Muniz clearly knew what she was doing by letting Collatos and Monnerat inside her business; the camera was merely another john. In an early scene in Lapa where she opines on a property claim from the former owners of her succulent ‘restaurant,’ Luana whips out a hand fan—the international sartorial symbol of courtesans—and begins flitting it relentlessly. “Talking about these issues got me hot,” she sighs. Then, she breaks the fifth wall to acknowledge the façade she herself has built to toy with the directors. “I’m lying,” she laughs. “I opened the fan because it’s charming.” The girls also possess their own documentary filmmaking equipment: their phones. They status update and broadcast to their hearts’ content, outing a married john or two on Facebook Live along the way.

There was no other option; I went to the wall for Lapa, outing myself to my colleagues in the process. I can still recall the debates where I gently pushed back against several screening committee members who deeply felt the work was defamatory. The whore in me reached a tipping point when the endless conversations about this film began to mirror the rhetoric that is used to silence sex workers’ voices today: that, despite being some of the strongest people, we lack the fortitude to stand up for ourselves. And even when we are brazen and reckless enough to share our experiences with the general public, our words are seen as being the protestations of the unliberated. Or, worse: they are exploited to benefit the platforms of those who have never bought, sold, or even truly enjoyed sex.

Which to say: I can speak to this familial ecosystem of prostitutes, its ferocity, its never-ceasing chatty-ass peanut gallery, its shared resources, and—yes—its tolls. The utility bills begin coming in Queen of Lapa from its first interview in the scene I mentioned. Naturally, this brings me back to New York and the spaces I desire my communities to maintain and create in the near future. How too will those be threatened as we find our city in crisis? I feel preemptively ready to fight for them. I know you already know this, but our crisis is not purely financial; it is ethical. It is those with, in a moment of hardship, using what they have to bully those without into subservience and an arbitrary morality.

Speaking of fighting: Several scenes later, we are privy to Brazilian TV news footage of Luana in 2010. She is hustling on Lapa’s streets and a john, over a foot shorter than her, takes her down a dark city street for a rendezvous. Realizing that he does not have any money, she wails on him. Luana does not stop until this fellow who dared to waste her precious time is lying crumpled on the ground. As brutal as it is, I appreciate this territorialism. This visual of the hardened, effeminate ferocity that society and cinema are usually keen on neglecting feels necessary and, ultimately, true. No room for obfuscation or dishonesty these days.

Long story short, NewFest programmed Lapa. Within a few months’ time, it was selected for the festival’s Grand Jury Prize. Not unlike Luana during the heyday of her cabaret career, the documentary has since traveled the world. I feel so validated by this that I want to keep showing up and showing my ass, so to speak, when it feels important. With everything swirling in the zeitgeist right now—the omnipresence of “WAP”’s brothel fantasy, Kamala Harris’s dicey track record on sex work, the narrative and empathetic competencies of the STARZ drama P-Valley—it feels important to let people know what sex workers look like, be they tours de force like Luana or droll little women like me who write about moving pictures. Before we can assert policy, we must assert that we are people.

There is plenty of Lapa to be had in New York. I want my loved ones to know that there are countless working girls in our own city, doing the damn thing, finding and making beauty and caring for others during the hardest of times.

Hopefully, I can approach this crisis of art and bodies like Luana: unflappably and with plenty of charm.

Wishing you prosperity and beauty among this year’s ashes. Don’t you dare leave New York.

Kisses,

S

09.07.2020

Dear Sarah,

I feel compelled to start my letter to you in response to the last line of yours: Don’t you dare leave New York.

How dare you. I’d never. I grew up close to the city, in New Jersey, and have lived in Brooklyn since I turned 18—which makes 2020 my lucky 13th...

I have some years on you here. I’ve had stints elsewhere—L.A., Amsterdam, Barcelona, and I’d love to have more, maybe in Mexico City, Berlin, maybe São Paulo. I’m thinking of Brazil after reading your thoughts on Queen of Lapa.

But we aren’t allowed to leave. The borders have been closed, and while domestic travel is still allowed, I haven’t even been on the subway since March. You brought me to another city in your letter, but I will keep you here, in New York, and bring you to Pandora’s Box, the high-class S&M dungeon at the center of Nick Broomfield’s 1996 documentary Fetishes.

I saw this film about 10 years ago, as I descended into the underground myself. I didn’t work at Pandora’s but a similar space in the Garment District. Pandora’s still exists, by the way, but I wonder what’s happened to it during the pandemic. How are brothels, dungeons, and massage parlors weathering this? Will they be around when this is over? And in what form? Sex work is adaptable; it only gets pushed into different forms, venues, corners of the city—it’s never stamped out. It’s too vital. But very few sex workers I know are doing well right now.

I had a recent conversation with a friend who is down to her last dollar. I will help her and there are mutual aid funds, but it’s bleak. I am ready to fight, like you. As I write this, I am thinking of Samuel Delany’s book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, about the sex industry and porn theaters of the heyday of the Deuce and their planned extinction to usher in what Times Square is now, what Times Square was in March. As of last Thursday, Times Square is just another site where a car drove into protestors.

Fetishes opens with tours of the dungeon space, introductions to various S&M practices, and some frustrations with Broomfield’s presence. The mistresses are cagey around him at first. There is a distinct and high-stakes relationship that sex workers have with revealing and concealing: you always run the risk of getting hurt, of not being in charge of the performance you’ve worked so hard to create and maintain. What was it that you wrote on Instagram ahead of this epistolary exchange?

We have to be in charge of the spectacles of ourselves.

I am thinking of Luana’s fan.

In addition to revealing and concealing, sex workers have a complicated relationship with loneliness and community. I see it in Queen of Lapa, and I have seen it in myself—feeling connected and alienated all at once, feeling totally reliant on others and totally independent. Out on a limb even in loving arms.

I want to relate this sort of loneliness to artists and filmmakers—to how artists want to hide and speak at the same time—but the comparison only goes so far. We are talking about discrimination and social stigma here, and the artist class, while a class of its own, is completely interwoven with other class values. I suppose this is also true of sex work: there’s “survival sex work” and sex work with more agency; sex work moonlighting; and the worlds between Black trans sex workers and girls like myself. It’s understanding the difference between generational poverty and being “broke” but with safety nets. But between Backpage shutting down and the pandemic, I worry about sex workers everywhere, from São Paulo to New York.

In one interview in Fetishes, a dominatrix muses on the difficulties of having romantic relationships while doing “the work.” She says that people get scared. That they don’t understand. I know this wreckage. I think we all do. The chasm between feeling desired and feeling understood. People also often just treat sex workers like shit. We pose a threat, us girls. This is just one of the reasons our connection and correspondence is so compelling, Sarah—a romance between dyke working girl writers. It’s something that Fetishes lacks. The film doesn’t go into the relationships between these working women, save for some very delicious scenes featuring the mistresses and their femme/lesbian submissives (who are also often sex workers themselves). Broomfield acknowledges that these are the sessions that the mistresses seem to enjoy the most.

The connections among sex workers, among queers in NYC, are all closer than they seem. We exist in a continuum of queerness, and in a continuum of whores. I used to know one of the femme submissives in Fetishes, Maria Beatty, a cult lesbian pornographer. She made a couple of infamous black-and-white porn films on 16mm, The Black Glove and The Elegant Spanking, with soundtracks by John Zorn. I was in a film of hers years ago, not porn but an independent feature that devolved into interpersonal drama on set. After that she asked me to make porn in Paris with her. I wanted to, but the money was unclear and it didn’t pan out. Seeing Maria on film now feels like passing someone on the street whom you used to know.

When Broomfield presses the mistresses for more, their walls come up. His misunderstandings and naïveté seem to represent the larger world. It makes his presence in the film critical. Fetishes is not a love letter; it's time spent observing someone. I think this is why some documentaries are more palatable than their subject matter, more clinical than emotive. I wouldn’t use the term “male gaze” here, but more broadly, the gaze of any outsider into sex work is probably more relatable to wider audiences than, say, a documentary on sex work made by sex workers.

I am imagining the possibilities here, and recalling what I am most nostalgic for during this pandemic: the feelings that I had while doing sex work and making experimental film––of independence, touch, slipping in and out of rooms, the type of risk that this isolation has rendered impossible. And the cash from sex work enabled me to make my film, so the two are linked for me in practical ways.

Broomfield lingers on Mistress Raven. After a long career as a pro-domme herself, she opened Pandora’s Box. The domme in charge of the dommes. She’s got jet black hair and looks like the fetish version of a well-dressed Upper East Side woman––a true New Yorker in tailored skirt suits. She doesn’t allow him to film a session of hers. She says she has stopped having sessions, although she offers one to Broomfield. She tells him:

I think that’s totally outrageous, that you can do a documentary about something that you’ve never experienced firsthand.

In her simple refusal, Mistress Raven gets to the heart of art-making and identity politics—to the camera’s ability to capture something it doesn’t own, a specter ever-present in documentary and nonfiction genres. Broomfield presses Mistress Raven on why she no longer has sessions. She talks about being burnt out, about it flooding her life, personally, socially, everything-ly… This is why Raven opened Pandora’s, because she was exhausted.

I appreciate that Broomfield decided not to be completely invisible. His voice and presence get less performatively neutral throughout the movie And the mistresses let him film more; he even captures some of the johns. Eventually, the mistresses have enough of him being coy and chase Broomfield around with a bamboo cane as film equipment dangles from his neck. They tie him up as he squeals, giggles, and resists. But for him, the stakes are low. This isn’t his life. He isn’t a sex worker; he doesn’t walk around the world as an outsider. He peers in, for a second.

Yesterday one of the mistresses I used to work with sent me a photo of us taken in 2012, in which a corset-clad 23-year-old Jillian sports a pout. I immediately asked myself: how have I changed? How haven’t I changed? How has the world changed? How has it not?

In one of the various sociopolitical S&M sessions in Fetishes, a white cop calls his mistress and confesses to his profiling of young Black men. The bleak reality of his confession stands out to me now, given the events of 2020. All of the stagnation and change we have gone through has melded into a year of loss and revolution. I don’t want to return to normal, even if that was possible. We will have to find new ways to make and watch films, new ways to trick and love.

More soon,

Jillian

***

Sarah Fonseca is a Brooklyn-based film writer whose work has appeared in Condé Nast's them., Fandor, IndieWire, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Museum of the Moving Image's Reverse Shot, among other publications. She has served as a programmer for NewFest and is a member of GALECA, the LGBTQ critics association.

Jillian McManemin is a queer artist and writer whose work has appeared in Hyperallergic, Art Agenda, The Brooklyn Rail, and Art Papers, among other publications. She recently founded the Toppled Monuments Archive and is working on her first book, Sculpture Kills.

Photos courtesy of Theodore Collatos and Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.

“Hall is the starting point, even the terrain itself, for so many of our intellectual enquiries but a figure who is not always acknowledged and recognised, as such. An intellectual palimpsest that others write from and over, even if they are not aware that they are making their own arguments from positions that Hall himself first formulated and refined.” —Ben Carrington, 2019

I’ve taken the opportunity during this long coronavirus lockdown period to reacquaint myself with the film- and video-related work of Stuart Hall, the charismatic Jamaican-British polymath. Hall (1932-2014) was a public intellectual, cultural theorist, Marxist sociologist, and co-founder of the New Left Review, who, across a nearly six-decade career, was driven by a desire to complicate staid notions of identity and challenge establishment-sanctioned ideas of “common sense.” In 1951, aged 19, Hall left Jamaica, then still a British colony, to take up a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University. In 1964, he co-authored The Popular Arts, one of the first books to argue for the significance of studying film as a serious art form. The text was an early step in Hall's journey to becoming widely hailed as the godfather of the field of Cultural Studies, and one of the most influential figures in a boom of radical Black British filmmaking in the 1980s. Though perennially genial and quick-witted in public appearances, Hall was deadly serious about the importance of closely analyzing popular culture, which, he wrote in his 1981 essay Notes on Deconstructing the Popular, “is one of the sites where this struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged: it is also the stake to be won or lost in that struggle.”

As a broadcaster, Hall placed himself on the front lines of this struggle. In 1979, the year that Margaret Thatcher and her right-wing Conservative government came to power, he played a central role in one of the most remarkable and atypically radical slices of television ever broadcast nationally in the UK. Written and presented by Hall in partnership with the actress and activist Maggie Steed, the TV episode It Ain’t Half Racist, Mum—its name a riff on It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1974-81), a deeply dubious British sitcom set partially in India in World War II—screened on BBC2 on the 1st and 4th of March 1979. The show was part of Open Door (1973–1983), an experimental series in which the BBC broke with its own tradition and handed over airtime to members of the public, and therefore often marginalized groups, to use under their own editorial control. The “members of the public” in this case were Hall and Steed, who made the program alongside their colleagues from the Campaign Against Racism in the Media (CARM), a pressure group of TV professionals and media scholars. It Ain’t Half Racist, Mum was the 161st edition of the Open Door program, but it was, according to co-writer and co-producer Carl Gardner, “the first programme to address itself critically to television itself, and to the BBC in particular.” [1]

Shot in the style of a standard news broadcast in a black box studio, It Ain’t Half Racist, Mum intercuts tight shots of Hall and Steed (both, it must be said, nattily dressed) addressing the camera with the footage they examine. This sober formal approach is calibrated to make its presenters’ words and faces the focus of our attention. They enunciate crisply and with bite, flying in the face of a long-established British media tendency to obfuscate and traffic in the passive voice, particularly when it comes to matters of race and class. Steed sets a tone of clarity in the show’s opening moments which never flags: “When the BBC says that a program like this is ‘outside their control,’ what they’re telling you is that they don’t think it’s balanced, neutral, or fair. We hope to show that many of the programs which are under the editorial control of the BBC and ITV are themselves biased and unbalanced, especially in the coverage they give to Britain’s Black community.”

Riveting from start to finish, It Ain’t Half Racist, Mum puts into practice Hall’s pioneering “encoding/decoding” model of analyzing television production as a series of codes and signs that are constructed to relay specific messages. Hall and Steed deconstruct a succession of shows, from sitcoms to current affairs news programs, and expose the often racist biases underlying supposedly harmless stereotypes. A passage about the ITV sitcom Mind Your Language (1977-86) explores how its Asian immigrant characters are represented as simultaneously over-industrious, work-shy, and too ill-educated to understand trade unions. “The British Empire was no joke for those on the receiving end,” says Hall. “It’s because of the poverty the Empire left behind that so many Asians and West Indians accepted invitations to come here after the war for work.” Later passages dissect the insidious ways that far-right nationalists, including the infamous Enoch Powell, are given freedom within purportedly neutral spaces on television to articulate their hostile positions on immigration and effectively frame the ensuing discourse on a national stage.

It Ain’t Half Racist, Mum covers plenty of ground, but it can only do so much. As Hall intones in his closing volley, “we haven’t even touched on foreign coverage, the whiter-than-white coverage of the police, the employment of Blacks in television, Black culture, or news bias in press and TV. We believe these issues should be raised in mainstream television programs. But will they be?” Hall, you suspect, already knows the answer. With bone-dry humor, he utters, “I guess this is where we hand editorial control back to the BBC,” as the camera cuts for the first time to a wide shot. The lights and the sound fade, and Hall and Steed engage in a deadpan parody of chummy newscaster badinage. In one final, subversive flourish, the closing credit crawl, instead of listing production staff, names and shames no fewer than ten producers and rights holders who refused Hall and Steed access to material. Following a quietly lethal build-up, it’s a devastating coup de grâce.

So what happened next? Did It Ain’t Half Racist, Mum prompt a period of self-critique and reflection for the legacy broadcaster? Hardly. Severely rattled and under pressure from the prominent (and lawyered-up) journalists Robin Day and Ludovic Kennedy, who were both targets of the show’s reasoned criticism, the BBC, ahead of a later Open Door episode, broadcast an apology-cum-capitulation so total, so utterly feeble, that it is worth repurposing in full:

“The BBC regrets that the Open Door programme broadcast on the 1st and 4th of March this year, by the Campaign Against Racism in the Media, could be taken as implying that Mr. Robin Day had conducted a program about immigration with a racist bias. The BBC considers that any such implication would be wholly unjustified. The BBC also regrets that the Open Door program could similarly be taken to mean that Mr. Ludovic Kennedy had conducted an interview with a National Front spokesman with a racist bias, and that a number of others, named, had presented with a similar bias. The BBC wishes to dissociate itself from any such suggestions which it considers to be entirely without foundation.”

This statement is laughable in its blanket dismissal of specific and well-researched critical arguments in just four panicked sentences. Yet it is an instructive example of a truth that persists today: in privileged institutional circles, to charge someone with harboring or exhibiting racist attitudes is a monstrous, unspeakable crime, more deserving of reproach than actually exhibiting racist attitudes. To this day, the BBC continues to make an ostentatious fetish of political neutrality, while largely maintaining a status quo which empowers whiteness and conservatism, and severely marginalizes the voices of progressive people of color. For one obvious example, consider that Nigel Farage, the far-right politician and key architect of Brexit (responsible for an anti-migrant poster so flagrantly racist it requires no decoding), has appeared 35 times on BBC’s flagship weekly political talk show Question Time. He is the show’s ninth most frequent guest, despite never having been elected to the UK Parliament. Hall foresaw it all.

It Ain’t Half Racist, Mum may not have catalyzed long-term change at the BBC, but a new generation was watching, and Hall became a guiding light for a swathe of Black British nonfiction filmmakers galvanized by his scintillating public presence and rigorous criticism. Black Audio Film Collective, an East London–based group of multimedia artists and radical thinkers formed in the early days of Thatcher’s Britain, was directly inspired by Hall’s analytical approach. Their breakthrough film, Handsworth Songs (1986), was a bracing, collage-like essay documentary about the uprisings which erupted in 1985 in the districts of Handsworth in Birmingham, as well as Brixton and Tottenham in London, in response to racist police brutality and mass unemployment.

Hall was one of the first people to offer feedback on Handsworth Songs during its production. “I was really struck by this man who we were all in awe of. None of us had met him,” said director John Akomfrah in a 2013 interview at London’s ICA Cinema. “We invited him to come and have a look at this film we were making ... We were shocked that he even said yes!” Hall later took to The Guardian’s letters page in 1987 to defend the film from a sniffy attack by novelist Salman Rushdie, who equated its radical form and non-didactic approach with pretension and deemed it “no good.” “[I]t seems to be struggling harder for a language in which to represent Handsworth as I know it than Salman’s lotfy, disdainful, and too-complacent ‘Oh dear’,” wrote Hall. Akomfrah would later direct the elegiac The Stuart Hall Project (2013), which is the place to begin for anyone who wants a succinct yet wide-ranging introduction to Hall’s life and work. The film, a companion piece to Akomfrah’s three-screen installation The Unfinished Conversation (2012), is delicately woven together from over 100 hours of archival radio and television[2] footage featuring Hall, and set to the music of Hall’s favorite artist, Miles Davis.

Black Audio Film Collective’s contemporary Sankofa Film and Video, which formed in the summer of 1983 and comprised five graduates from various London polytechnics and art colleges, was another group directly inspired by Hall. The group's blistering, pugnacious short Territories (1984) used the physical and theoretical “territory” of London’s long-running Notting Hill Carnival as a focal point to explore myriad tensions—class, sex and sexuality, desire, race and racism, labor, state surveillance, and police violence.

Sankofa member Isaac Julien struck up a lifelong friendship with Hall, who narrated parts of Julien’s sensuous Looking For Langston (1989), and all of Black and White in Colour (1992), his excellent two-part documentary about Black representation on British television. Hall also appeared briefly, as a museum visitor, in Julien’s 1993 homoerotic fantasy short, The Attendant, and then as a key onscreen contributor in 1995’s Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask. I selected this layered documentary about the eponymous French West Indian philosopher, psychiatrist, and revolutionary as the opening night film of the first program I organized in my job at Brooklyn Academy of Music in October 2017. It sold out our largest house (272 seats), and to witness Hall, projected large, addressing a big, diverse crowd in my own place of work, in my adopted country—I was born in London to a Jamaican-British father and a Scottish-Irish mother, and moved to the States in 2014—is among the most moving things I’ve ever experienced in a cinema: a personal moment of bliss where decades of disaporic dialogue seemed to crystallize in a space of communal concentration.

In his obituary for Hall, Julien, now an internationally renowned visual artist, put it plainly: “There is no way of overstating it: I would not do the things I do without Stuart.” Here, Julien is speaking for many of us, and Hall’s presence—cool, calm, analytical, blissfully immortalized on film and video—is as necessary today as it ever was.

***

[1] Amy Villarejo, “Television, Critique, and the Intentionless”, http://www.worldpicturejournal.com/WP_10/pdfs/Villarejo_WP_10.pdf

[2] My personal favorite clips come from the seven-part BBC documentary Redemption Song (1991), a sweeping and complex study of the Caribbean presented by Hall with warmth and wit.

***

Ashley Clark is the director of film programming at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He has curated film series at BFI Southbank, the Museum of Modern Art, TIFF Bell Lightbox, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, among other venues, and has contributed writing to publications including Film Comment, Sight & Sound, and the Guardian. His first book is Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” (2015).

Photos courtesy of Smoking Dog Films.

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