This year’s 4th edition of Diametrale Nachtvisionen was dedicated to sexploitation, a genre that celebrated its peak in the 70s. These cheaply produced films used explicit sexscenes as a crowd puller and they served one purpose above all: to make a quick buck. Most of these raunchy productions were directed by men. The organizers of Diametrale, however, have tracked them down for us – the sexploitation films made by women. Alongside movies by Doris Wishman and Stefanie Rothman, an X-rated version of A Woman’s Torment by Roberta Findlay was shown. The intriguing Q&A after the screening prompted us to find out more about the director, and eventually we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to have a phone conversation with the 74-year-old at her recording studio in New York.
“A Woman’s Torment – the story of my life.”, Roberta Findlay jokingly says about the movie, depicting a woman’s descent into madness. Findlay’s statement seems quite ironic when one finds out that she, at some point during shooting, had to replace the leading lady Tara Chung, who ran off with the gaffer. Chung felt that the set was far too boring and lacked drugs and action. She even compared it to a retirement home. Findlay recalls that they were lucky that the actress had forgotten her dress and her wig, thus she herself could get into costume and take over the role. But whoever finds a masterfully installed meta level here will soon be informed otherwise by Findlay. For her, it was a necessary step to complete the film and avoid losing money.
Findlay’s most frequently cited quote is the following: “I made these films for two reasons: One, to make money, which we did. And I liked to shoot as a cameraman. That’s what I liked best, being behind the camera.” According to her she ended up in the film business through sheer coincidence, relationships and for the practical reason of earning a living. Making movies was never a dream of hers, she would have rather done something „meaningful“, like being a doctor. Her parents, on the other hand, were adamant that she was destined to become a concert pianist. But as life goes, she ended up in a completely different sphere: Adult entertainment or, as she likes to call it “dirty movies”. The formula „sex sells“ certainly served Findlay well, and thus she earned her living for many years as one of the first female porn directors. Nowadays Roberta Findlay is getting more and more recognition and is considered a pioneer in the field of sexploitation. Her works are considered cutting edge narratives from a female perspective, deconstructing heterosexual power structures within a sexual framework. At film festivals, they are usually placed in a feminist context. Findlay can’t be bothered with any of that. Back in 1975, when critics described her films as a „warm, erotic experience… a woman’s approach that has never existed before“ she countered,
„I’m not a feminist. I don’t feel responsible for any other woman in the world. I’ve gotten to where I am all by myself, and if anyone had helped me, it was my husband – and he’s no woman.“
Like all her male colleagues, she was mainly concerned with one thing, namely money. When it comes to the people who still watch and admire her films today, she has one thing to say: “They seem to have deep psychological problems.” (Filmmaker Magazine 2005).
Recalling her signature quote, it was not money alone that motivated her to make films. The other driving force was her passion for the craft of cinematography. This dedication to painting a vivid cinematic picture is immediately apparent when you watch one of her films. A Woman’s Torement begins with a close-up shot of hands trying unsuccessfully to build a sand tower on a beach. Over and over again, they erect the sandcastle, only for it to crumble between fingers each time. The sound of the ocean waves ebbing up and down accompanies the scene. The shot that directly follows is a close-up of bobbing genitals. The woman in the scene begs the man to wait with cumming, so that she can also reach orgasm. He ignores her and lets things take their natural course. The scene ends with a ranting and disappointed woman and a man who promises to make it up to her. Findlay’s sex scenes are as explicit and detailed as they can be and yet they create a sense of detachment. Everything seemsmechanical and almost abstract. It’s hard not to think of her movies as subverting a genre defined by the male gaze and as sublime expressions of female oppression. Findlay however vehemently denies these „accusations“.
We called the 74-year-old in her New York recording studio where she still works every day and talked to her about her approach to sex scenes, getting arrested and the craft of filmmaking:
You once said in an interview that you don’t like women. Considering this, isn’t it pretty ironic that nowadays your films are often shown at film festivals in a feminist context?
Yes, I know. I went to some of these screenings, and I actually yelled at the women asking me questions and insulted most of them. I don’t know, they are just annoying – women and children.
Many people say that you have introduced a revolutionary female perspective in the field of sex films.
It never occurred to me! Absolutely not. I started as a cameraman and shot countless sex pictures and 8-9 action and horror films. Maybe I am dull, but it never occurred to me that I was doing anything unusual. Just like for the men in the business, it was my way of earning a living.
However, what I did realize was that, at least in this country, there were no female cameraman. I just took it upon myself to learn how to shoot. Actually, my husband made me do it. I said to him: “Walter, I don’t know how to do this.” And he said: “See this button? Just press it and shoot what you see.” And I said “Okay.” That’s how I began. The first picture I shot was Snuff in Argentina.
So you got into filmmaking more or less by coincidence, but did you actually enjoy it?
Yes, I loved shooting. And even more than that I loved editing. It’s like a great jigsaw puzzle to me. You take a piece of this and a piece of that and put it all together, so it ends up looking correct. In all the pictures we made, there was never much footage, because we just couldn’t afford it. In Hollywood, they shot over ten times more footage than they used in the final film. We shot 1.3 to 1. I did what I could to create a coherent story with what little we had. I loved editing and I still have my editing machine.
Are you still making movies?
No, no. The last film we made 20 years ago was a dismal failure and so I said: “Forget it, that’s it, that’s the end of it. I am not putting my money in any pictures anymore.” We always put up our own money for our movies and we did quite well. Not by Hollywood standards but in our world. The last one though was a complete disaster.
You always had a quite practical approach to filmmaking. It was your way of earning a living. Did you never consider your films to be art?
No never, I couldn’t bring myself to say that. It was purely practical.
A lot of people would disagree.
Well, they are entitled to their opinions. I have to say though, Blood Sisters, which I wrote, was sort of inventive. It’s a kind of a horror movie and there is a whole series: Lurkers, Tenement, Survival. But none of these are sex movies.
I read in an interview that you did not like shooting the sex scenes.
No, I didn’t. Nothing sociological about it. I just found it kind of disgusting, physically.
How did you approach shooting the sex scenes?
I was definitely more interested in the footage leading up to the sex scenes. The exterior shots and the dialogue scenes.
When it came to the sex scenes I would just say: “Okay and now everybody screw.” Then I would walk around them with a handheld camera shooting at will. I did not tell the actors what to do, I did not direct them. I just captured what they were doing.
And you get very, very close to the action with the camera.
Yes, I developed that. Nobody else in the whole world did it like that. I used a 90mm lens, a close-up lens that focuses down to one inch. And I handheld it. But you can’t tell that it is handheld. The camera was so heavy for me that I was not able to move or shake it and thus it was very steady in my arms.
I used the lens mainly because it wasted a lot of screen time. Panning up and down John Holmes* penis would fill up 4-5 minutes. No artistic reason, just cheap footage.
And still people point out that these super close–ups almost look like abstract paintings.
That’s what it looked like to me through the lens after a while. A pole in front of a purplish background. It didn’t look like human parts anymore. That’s true.
Do you think that this aspect made shooting uncomfortable scenes easier for you?
Yes. I was looking for patterns. I would shoot something that looked like a piece of a painting to me. Often from severe angles. I would climb up on ladders and lie on the floor to get interesting shots. I wanted to make it more interesting because the whole thing was terribly dull.
There is an R-rated version of A Woman’s Torment. In another interview you said that you actually prefer that version.
Oh yes, of course! How is this: I have never voluntarily watched someone’s X-rated film. Especially not my own. When I get invited to screenings, I usually enjoy the refreshments before the film and then I leave.
I don’t know who made the R-rated version of A Woman’s Torment. It wasn’t me. It’s amazing, it almost looks like a real film and it’s not boring to say at least.
Why did you frequently work under a fake name?
That was in the beginning. I was hiding from the police. I thought that when we would get busted, they wouldn’t know it’s me.
Did you ever have problems with the police making your movies?
I’ve been arrested twice. One was a bad arrest during a shoot and we were in jail for one day. But the police did not have a warrant, so my husband Walter sued the police and won. John Holmes was there too, and he was terrified because he thought that he will be raped by all the inmates.
The other time I was arrested was pretty unlucky. I was looking for the exterior of the house that the film allegedly took place in. I chose the nicest looking house in the area we wereshooting in. Unfortunately, it happened to belong to a judge. The police told me that if I told them who was involved, they wouldn’t arrest me, so I told them. Ratted everyone out. But I was arrested anyways. Stupid me. I was 22.
What movies do you yourself really like?
I watch old movies endlessly. Roman Polanski is one of my favorites. I am also a big fan of Billy Wilder. For me, he is the most eclectic and talented director. Sunset Boulevard, Sabrina and Witness to the Prosecution, for example, are excellent films.
*John Holmes was one of the most famous American porn actors of all time; inspired Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Boogie Nights.