SCENEprofiles Interview with Lisa Vandever

SCENEprofiles Interview with Lisa Vandever

SCENEprofiles Interview with Lisa Vandever, Producer, Activist and Co-Founder, New York S/M Film Festival

Lisa Vandever is a producer and development consultant with approximately fifteen years of experience in film and television. She was previously the director of programming for a regional network of public television stations, worked as a development executive for two New York-based independent film companies and was associate producer of a Sundance award-winning feature film. In addition to her role as co-founder of the New York S/M Film Festival, she has consulted with media distributors on how to best reach alternative sexuality communities, and she is available to advise filmmakers on how to present their work to a wider market.

She is currently a representative to the NCSF’s Coalition Partner Council, and also serves on the organization’s media committee. Her additional memberships include the Association for Independent Video and Filmmakers, New York Women in Film and Television, and The Eulenspiegel Society. Sadie: The New York S/M Film Festival just completed its third year. You must be very proud of this enterprise! What did you enjoy the most during this most recent festival?

Lisa: “Since I’ve already seen most of the films by the time we present them, it’s always a thrill for me to experience them again through the reactions of the audience. I particularly love those moments when someone recognizes a version of him or her self, perhaps brought to them courtesy of an obscure short film they’ve never heard of, or via a director working in the far-flung reaches of, say, South Korea or New South Wales.

“This was the first year we had some of the filmmakers actually taking part in the festivities, which added another very enjoyable layer to the interactions. Claes Lilja brought his documentary, ‘Beyond Vanilla’ and Phil Leirness was on hand with ‘Story of O: Untold Pleasures.’ I know that both were very excited at the opportunity to screen their projects for an audience with a specific interest in S/M. Since we’re the only festival with this particular focus, it’s a chance for them to not only hold up their work, but also get feedback from such a unique perspective. Denny Daniel, David Ryan, Felice Shays and Sir D were also in attendance to support their short works.”

Sadie: What is your role in making this festival happen?

Lisa: “I’m co-chair and co-founder of the New York S/M Film Festival, along with Michael Ashack, who’s the actual creator. Michael came up with the great idea of showcasing S/M films – the first festival was in the fall of 2000 – and I saw the festival as an opportunity to use my film background to a very unusual end. We’re both responsible for the overall programming, publicity and operations for the event.”

Sadie: What was your favorite film this year and why?

Lisa: “They’re all wonderful, of course, and I hate to single out any one at the expense of the others. That said, being a big believer in nepotism, I’d obviously have to point to my father’s short film, ‘Media Dreams,’ which was included in our ‘Fetish in Brief’ program. Shot back in 1964 as part of his own film school thesis project, it’s the story of a Barbie doll that comes to life and wreaks a bit of sexual havoc. The film would occasionally pop up for friends-and-family screenings and I’d always thought it was alot of fun, but when we booked another short about robot fetishes for the program, it occurred to me that my father’s film would be a good companion piece. My request to screen it in this particular context definitely made for an interesting family discussion – but he seemed to enjoy having his work in the festival.

“‘Beyond Vanilla’ does a great job of cutting across sexual orientations to present a wide gamut of fetishes and S/M practices, but what I really love about the documentary is that it conveys such a sense of light-heartedness and good humor along the way. There are over a hundred people interviewed in the piece, and you get a good understanding of the pleasures they derive from S/M and the affection and caring – and lust – they hold for their partners.

“Benoit Jacquot’s ‘Sade’ is a very engaging look at the Marquis de Sade, one that actually manages to connect his celebration of sensation, the existentialism of his writings and philosophy, with some kind of historical context.

“And, aside from the obvious twist, ‘Babette’s Feet’ is your basic boy-meets-girl saga – and a perfect love story.”

Sadie: Why do you feel that it’s important to have a film festival that focuses on the BDSM lifestyle?

Lisa: “I don’t know that lifestyle is necessarily the correct term. S/M means many different things to many different people – and that’s part of the festival’s purpose, to depict the wide diversity of S/M sexuality and explore its various aspects.

“The images of S/M that mainstream films and television usually present are generally very sensational, very far removed from what people practice on an everyday basis. As a producer, I can certainly understand that impulse. The trappings of S/M are quite visual and lend themselves easily to a shorthand suggestion of a circumstance or character that’s not only out of the ordinary, but also flavored with sex and the potential for danger. With the impetus of the story so often a need to identify and explain the actions of a ‘transgressor’ or villain, S/M provides an easy way out in tying up those loose ends.

“In face of that, the New York S/M Film Festival was established to showcase and celebrate positive depictions of S/M in the movies. And the festival is also important in destigmatizing S/M. Most people who engage in S/M are afraid to lay claim to it, and it’s not uncommon for people to experience job discrimination, child custody challenges, even violence, just because of the way they express their sexuality. It may seem like a rather minor bit of political activism, but even the act of publicizing the festival increases the overall awareness of S/M and contributes to the notion that it might not be so out of the ordinary after all.”

Sadie: What were the biggest challenges in choosing films for this year? What is the criteria that you use to choose films?

Lisa: “As we got deeper into the actual programming of the festival that first year, we found that the qualifier ‘S/M-positive’ became more loosely defined. Until very recently, most films, particularly dramatic features, might spend the bulk of the narrative lovingly detailing an S/M relationship, only to bring everything to a screeching halt right before the end. One or both of the main characters would meet an untimely, often gruesome demise, or experience a sudden epiphany about the errors of their S/M ways and wander off into the sunset of presumed normalcy.

“So, we relaxed our criteria a bit to include those, since they should still be acknowledged. But basically, we start from the condition that the film be sympathetic to S/M, or that it explores the issues around S/M in a provocative way, or is somehow important to S/M’s cultural and aesthetic history. From there, we try to put together a good mix of sexual orientations and various predilections, with the hope that nearly everyone can find something that speaks to their particular interests.

“Our biggest challenge, every year, is actually tracking down the exhibition rights and prints of the works that we’d like to include. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as going down to the local video store, picking up a copy and popping it up on the screen. In order to show the work to an audience, you need to first secure the exhibition rights. With so many distributors folding and merging in the past few years, it seems like you’ll finally nail down who might be able to help, only to find that the rights transferred to another company the month before.”

Sadie: We’ve all seen low quality BDSM films. How would you describe the characteristics of quality films?

Lisa: “It’s a little like obscenity – we know it when we see it. And actually, ‘quality’ can be another problematic term. A work with polished production values still might not connect with an audience if it lacks a certain amount of passion or sincerity. Or if there’s no real story at the core.

“Generally, I try to judge each work on its own merits and whether it seems to accomplish what it sets out to do. And as long as there’s a basically non-exploitative spirit behind it, I can find a spark of quality in a range of genres, from a high-minded documentary to the raunchiest bit of porn.”

Sadie: Your second annual festival in 2001 raised $1,166.82, which was donated to the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom and to the Leather Archives & Museum. Why did you choose these particular good causes?

Lisa: “That was the first year that we incorporated a fundraiser into the overall slate of activities, using the increased visibility of the film festival to bring attention to organizations serving the S/M-leather-fetish communities. That particular festival was held less than a month following September 11th, when we are all still very much in a state of grief and shock, and I remember how comforting it felt to be with everyone at The LURE, those who could make it into the city, finally loosening up a bit and turning our focus to raising money for some very deserving causes.

“It was suggested at the time, understandably, that the proceeds be diverted to support WTC-related efforts. But with funds to other charities and causes drying up at the time – a situation that continues to be a problem for all non-profits – we decided to stick with our original beneficiaries.

“The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) is the only organization working to guarantee equal rights for consenting adults who practice forms of alternative sexual expression, particularly S/M, and a critical first-line resource for anyone facing discrimination because of that expression.

“And given the difficulties we’ve had in finding existing copies of films and videos, from even just a few decades back, we realized the importance of preserving the communities’ history, which is the very important function of the Leather Archives & Museum.”

Sadie: Who are the recipients of this year’s profits?

Lisa: “Half of the $1,756 raised at this year’s kick-off party was given, again, to NCSF. They’ve had to expend an enormous amount of work this year fighting the efforts of religious extremists, groups such as Concerned Women for America and the American Family Association, who have begun targeting S/M events and activities. The other beneficiary, the Tom of Finland Foundation, is dedicated to protecting and preserving erotic art, and educating the public about the importance of freedom of expression.”

Sadie: The website comments that, “The pop culture and the media have been using S/M imagery more and more. This is a way to use two forms of media–film and video–to reclaim our identity and reshape our image of ourselves.” Can you tell me of some ways that film has affected these changes?

Lisa: “On a very basic level, the mere depiction of S/M on the screen can be radically affirming, if only in speaking its existence. So often I’ve heard of someone who, first realizing a pull towards S/M, assumes that he or she is the only one to have ever felt that way. Watching a character who also fantasizes about or experiences S/M can make that realization far less lonely. Watching a character who does all that and who is also not portrayed as a depraved lunatic? That can make the realization far less worrisome – and even introduces the possibility of discussing it with others.

“The common wisdom is that the S/M or alternative sexuality movement is about 20 years behind the gay rights movement, and if you look at the burgeoning of gay and lesbian films and programming, you can perhaps see our future. In the meantime, I think ‘Secretary’ is a huge step in that direction. The project was apparently kicking around in development for nearly a decade and the director/producer, Steven Shainberg, is to be commended for brushing off reported pressures to reform the characters by the final reel, as is screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson for creating such a sexually complex set of characters. It’s really the first sympathetic portrayal of S/M to present itself for consumption by a largely mainstream audience, and its success in the marketplace hopefully will open doors to similar works in the near future.”

Sadie: Do you find that most of the viewers are scene people, or do you reach a broad vanilla audience? How many people attend in total?

Lisa: “We get about 400-500 people throughout the course of the festival, but without following the audience home into their bedrooms it’s a little difficult to know for sure about their leanings. We do offer discounts to anyone presenting a membership card from an S/M-leather-fetish organization, so we’re able to get a rough idea of the audience make-up. Generally I’d say about half are from established groups. We get a few general film buffs, and then the rest are likely people who may be more private about their S/M proclivities, or who are curious and looking to learn more.

“The Eulenspiegel Society (TES), which has been wonderfully supportive in presenting the S/M Film Festival the past three outings, has found that the event is a great outreach vehicle for them, particularly in reaching those curious newcomers. The publicity for the festival also draws attention to the organization and there’s usually a bump in new membership and attendance at meetings around the event.”

Sadie: How many people and organizations does it take to make this happen each year?

Lisa: “In addition to TES, we’ve also gotten a good deal of help from members of Gay Male S/M Activists and the Lesbian Sex Mafia, and we’re hoping to pull in other organizations in the future. As to individuals, Thor Stockman’s been on hand every year to prepare and deliver the introductory presentation. Gary Switch has been particularly helpful suggesting films and reviewing our publicity materials, as has Lolita Wolf, who also distributes our announcements to the S/M-leather communities. Susan Wright is our press liaison for the event, and Jeff jumps in to seamlessly supervise the on-premise operations. We also have a loyal cadre of volunteers who work out any bugs in the website and show up religiously during the event itself and ensure that all runs smoothly. The staff of the Anthology Film Archives, our venue, have also been enormously accommodating.”

Sadie: How can volunteers get involved? What kind of help will you need for next year’s festival?

Lisa: “If anyone’s interested in volunteering, please just drop me an email! Michael and I are pretty hands-on with the programming for the festival, but we can always use additions to our crack team of scouts, who send us leads on recommended films. We would quite likely bow down and worship the feet of anyone with a demonstrated knack for securing sponsorships. In the month or two before the festival, our publicity and promotion efforts begin to ramp up tremendously. And during the festival itself, we can always use folks to help out with operations at the theatre and at the parties.

“We’re also looking at the possibility of starting up in other cities, so if there’s an interest let me know.”

Sadie: How would someone go about purchasing copies of the movies shown?

Lisa: “It really varies from title to title. Many of the feature length works are available for purchase online, while some of the shorts can be found for free download on Internet movie sites like Ifilm. If anyone runs into a definite roadblock, they’re welcome to email me for more information.”

Sadie: What are some of the other projects you are involved with?

Lisa: “I’m very involved with the work of the NCSF media committee, assisting with press releases and media updates, and have recently been working with Susan Wright, the NCSF spokesperson, to establish entertainment media updates. I’ve also taken a role in organizing fundraisers for the group and to benefit the lawsuit ‘Barbara Nitke and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom v. John Ashcroft,’ a groundbreaking challenge to the Communications Decency Act and its restrictions on Internet content.

“In terms of personal projects, I recently founded the SM Action First Weekend Club. Modeled on the efforts of other media activist groups, its primary purpose is to alert members to the upcoming release of movies containing positive depictions of S/M – and to encourage people to support those movies by showing up and buying a ticket during that crucial first box office weekend of its release. It’s free to join at

Sadie: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Lisa: “Perhaps only the observation that we’re all a part of politics, whether we think so or not, so we might as well make it a positive and productive experience. And if you can have fun in the process – so much the better!”

Sadie: Thank you very much!

Lisa: “Thank you!


Additional links:

National Coalition for Sexual Freedom

Leather Archives & Museum

Tom of Finland Foundation

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