Brussels Porn Film Festival: Are you coming?

Brussels Porn Film Festival: Are you coming?
The listener, directed by Lidia Ravisso

With two porn film festivals opening in Belgium, The Brussels Times meets some of the stars preparing to open up the debate.

Porn is everywhere. From the magazines hidden under mattresses to weird Japanese anime to X-rated Harry Potter fan fiction, pornography is inescapable and timeless.

The porn industry today is often associated with annoying pop-ups about hot single moms in your neighbourhood, hastily-closed browser tabs and deleted search history, but a collective of filmmakers, sex workers and porn enthusiasts in Brussels wants to bring Belgium’s dirty little secrets to the big screen.

The Brussels Porn Film Festival (BPFF) has a four-day programme from April 21 to 24 offering more than 90 movies, and the organisers want to show that it is for everyone. The offerings range from short films to feature-length ones, from no-budget movies shot on iPhone to professional set-ups and even one that was funded by the Flemish government, in genres from niche biopics to BDSM and science-fiction.

At the same time as the BPFF, the first edition of a different porn film festival, called SMUT, is also taking place in Antwerp from April 22 to 24. What happened to sweet, little, innocent Belgium?

“I think there is a change in the air to make both of these festivals happen in Belgium now,” says Baxter Halter, who is a performer, visual artist, sex worker and part of the team behind the BPFF. “People are asking ‘why Belgium?’ but the opposite question could be asked just as well. Why not Belgium?”

Adult material

For Miguel Soll, a Brazilian photographer and co-director of Rubis Collective’s porn films, it was about bringing the special atmosphere of a porn festival to the Belgian capital. “We wondered why a city like Brussels did not have a porn festival. It is such a sexually driven and open-minded city, but it lacked such a festival,” he says. “Going to a festival is talking about films and thinking of films as an art rather than just stories. We are part of this world, and as producers, directors and actors, we know the importance of having these spaces to show legitimate pornography as cinematic films.”

The listener, directed by Lidia Ravviso

The wider public might not be ready to come together to watch porn in a movie theatre, but Belgians are ready to create sex movies, Soll says. “When we finished the programme, we had not just one showcase of a Belgian film, but we had two, so we have three hours of Belgian porn in our festival, which is huge. You can see that the people in this country want to produce porn, to see it, share it and create it,” he says.

Wham, bam, thank you ma’am

Indeed, Belgium is developing a name for itself in porn movie-making, according to Elise Van Vlaanderen, a model and erotic producer, also known as Flanders’ porn queen. Her production company has made a name for itself, partly for its women-friendly approach to making porn.

“Something is changing. In the last two years, I noticed that eroticism is talked about a lot more, and I think that people in Belgium need it to be talked about properly,” she says. “People always seemed to have an idea about the underground vulgar side of porn, but there is a growing need to be open about porn and sex.”

For Van Vlaanderen, the most important part of creating porn is making sure that everyone is comfortable and having fun, and that everything is done in a female-friendly way. “There are also a lot of people who love eroticism and sex in Belgium, and who are now able to express themselves,” she says.

Elise Van Vlaanderen

It helps that the pressure on most Belgian sets is not as high as it is abroad. “With us, actors and actresses really have sex. Abroad, they make porn. That is the difference,” Van Vlaanderen says.

The rules are different in Belgium, she explains. “You need so many minutes of a number of positions, you need this shot, you need that shot. That is not the way I want to do porn or sex films. But those that deliver abroad are bound by rules. The pressure is also higher for men because they have to be able to keep performing,” she says.

The festivals can help by de-stigmatising the sector, Van Vlaanderen says. “What I am trying to create in Flanders is a place where women – and men – who dare to do this job openly can start in a safe place. And these festivals can only do the industry some good,” she adds.

Different strokes for different folks

In addition to giving the sector a boost, the festival has a lot to say about the industry – and the misconceptions about it. As most people’s porn consumption is never talked about and only happens alone in their bedroom, a lot of what people watch is based on algorithms that know more about them than they realise. “We think that we control what we are looking for, but we are often just watching what we receive,” says Soll.

But porn film festivals let people learn about previously unthought-of scenarios. “Maybe, you will get excited about things that you maybe never even searched for, because you did not know it existed. That way, you could broaden your horizons in terms of sexuality,” Soll adds.

All of me, directed by Josie Hess

Halter, who identifies as non-binary, says that the festival aims to showcase a diverse range of concepts and include groups who are often overlooked in mainstream porn. “We want to show a bit of everything because that is what porn is about. What we are showing at our festival is definitely not what you find on Pornhub,” they add.

Soll insists, however, that there is no such thing as good or bad porn, but there are good or bad practices. “We want to show the diversity in what people are producing now because that is what is being hidden now. When video-streaming websites like Pornhub arrived, it killed 70% of the industry,” he says.

Hardcore

There is still a stigma on porn performers, which pushes production budgets down, lowering paychecks for actors and actresses. That leaves many in a precarious situation, Soll says. “We want to show the flavours of porn that are largely invisible on those platforms,” he says.

Miguel Soll

But anyone attempting alternative porn movies always faces a political angle, Soll explains. “You are putting your body on screen, showing it, challenging norms, representation and desire, so it is inherently political,” he says. “To have a good relationship with pornography, you have to be an activist, and you have to be willing to pay for it. Festivals present alternatives to getting a quick fix via a 15-minute video on Pornhub. And you can be sure that all actors were paid properly and maybe even more importantly, treated with respect.”

Soll says porn, like any other cinema experience, is also about responding to the story. “To me, porn is the most extreme part of that. When you watch it, you have a very direct physical reaction to it. You are going to be aroused and get hard or wet, just because you are looking at images. That, to me, is the core of it,” he says. “Porn is not a sub-genre of cinema, but cinema in itself.”

Halter agrees. “Making porn is activism,” they say.

Come again?

While most people may grudgingly admit that they watch porn at home, far fewer are ready to leave their house to go to a venue specifically to watch a sex movie in a room filled with strangers.

Still, porn film screenings happen the same way as screenings at regular film festivals. People sit down, they watch the movie and they talk about it afterwards, maybe take part in a Q&A. Soll says people should not have to worry that people might be masturbating around them. “I can say from experience that I have never seen that in any porn film festival that I have ever been to,” he says.

Halter goes further. “The point of the festival is that it is a safer space for everyone,” they say. However, most of the films shown already are or will be available online for rent or for sale for everyone who wants to see them in the privacy of their own home.

While the festival organisers expect sex workers, art students, queer people and members of the BDSM community, they emphasise that everyone is welcome. “I would really like to be surprised and see people who usually do not go to these kinds of festivals and are just curious about what it is like,” Halter says.

Soll wants to break these stigmas surrounding porn. “Everyone should know that it is natural to watch porn, and natural to make porn, and everyone should know that you should pay for porn,” he says. “I would love to see some artsy kid, a 70-year-old guy, and a middle-aged mom, for example.”

But Soll admits that porn is sometimes hard to explain. “You cannot define a demographic for porn watchers, because everyone watches porn,” he says. “People of every social class, every gender and every race make and watch porn. And that is what we want to show. It is a very specific genre, but it has a very universal public. Everyone is interested because everybody fucks.”

Brussels Porn Film Festival takes place in Brussels from April 21 to April 24, 2022. More info: brusselspornfilmfestival.com

SMUT takes place in Antwerp from April 22 to April 24, 2022. More info: destudio.com/nl/smut


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