Like something straight out of fiction, the beautiful antiquated Armory and Arsenal, once home to the San Francisco National Guard, sits across from a Middle America-looking gas station. The Armory was built to resemble a Moorish castle sometime in 1914 and has since been used for everything from San Francisco’s primary sports venue in the ’40s to the inside of several spaceships in the film Star Wars, as well as the odd stint as rehearsal space for a local opera company throughout the ’90s. But for most of the last 40-some years it sat vacant until BDSM pornography company Kink.com purchased it in its entirety for $14.5 million in 2006.
Since then, its high brick walls have kept out the murmurs
of irate neighbors, concerned citizens and those who just didn’t understand the
culture that surrounds BDSM and have become home to one of the most lucrative
alternative pornography stops on the web. It didn’t take long for someone in
Hollywood to notice the company, which stuck out like a sore thumb in San
Francisco suburbia, either. After starring in the 2012 indie film About Cherry, James Franco contacted his
friend and cinematographer Christina Voros to see if she’d want to shoot a
documentary about the life of those who work at Kink after shooting several of the films scenes at The Armory.
“It’s always really important to me to have some sort of chemistry with my subjects when I’m doing doc work or something about the process of what I’m following that really speaks to me. So when he first brought up The Armory, I grizzled and thought, ‘I don’t know if I have anything to say’; I sort of passed judgment on the subject,” explained Voros, who was hours away from jumping onto a plane to screen the premiere of her now finished film Kink. Eventually Franco persuaded her to take a meeting at The Armory, where she found herself immediately fascinated. “The people that I met were really bright and really funny and really driven and very creative and incredibly relatable. I found myself fixated on how somebody ends up in that world as a director; what drives someone to become a director in pornography? I walked away from that first meeting knowing that there was an incredible story there that a lot of people don’t see and don’t expect to relate to and thought it would be fascinating to take this sort of foreign world and make it relatable.”
The film began production soon after and lasted for about four weeks. The first hurdle Voros and her team faced was establishing trust with the workers at Kink, as many had been left with a sour taste when it came to outside cameras after another production team tried to do a reality series on the goings-on at Kink that had left workers feeling misrepresented. Fortunately, employees were quickly put at ease by the team. “For two of the weeks, we had three cameras going eight to ten hours a day, five days a week. We had a lot of footage. There are a lot of movies that could’ve been made, I think, from this film, but I’m really happy with the one we ended up with.”
Voros and her crew were immediately charmed by the diverse group of people that worked for the company. Camera crews dispersed into three teams following the directors, who each have a total of three shoots a week with two to six models working up to eight-hour days.
Two directors who come up frequently in the film are Princess Donna, who is also a performer for the site as well as a BDSM educator, and Maitresse Madeline, an actress, dominatrix and BDSM/Fetish Director. “Madeline and Donna do pornography from two opposite ends of the spectrum. Donna does primarily female submissive stuff and Madeline does primarily male submissive stuff, and so it was really interesting watching the differences and their directing styles and the way their personalities and their personas on set were similar and different. There’s this real palpable sense that they each feel that they are creating something that is ultimately helpful, that is ultimately valuable, whether that’s in allowing people who have the same fetishes and desires that they themselves have wrestled with having at a certain point in their life and being part of an organization that doesn’t normalize it, necessarily, but allows it and allows it to exist in a safe, sane and consensual universe.”
After spending that much time in the halls and sets of Kink, it was obvious that Voros, whose previous beliefs about pornography had been drawn from fictional representations like the fallen starlet trope or Boogie Nights, had a different opinion of the profession than when she began. “I got really excited for this film as we started making it, coming to terms with my own judgments about that industry and coming to terms with some very stereotypical worldview contradictions about that industry that is so incredibly widely consumed and yet people still for the most part look down on the people that make it. There’s this assumption that a porn star has to be this fallen little lady or someone who wanted to make it in Hollywood but didn’t quite make it out. It’s really interesting and refreshing to meet people who are like, ‘No, I really love what I do! And I do it not because I have dark seedy reasons for doing it; I do it because this is an active choice I have made to pursue this in my life.’ There’s naturally the flip side, I’m sure there’s a lot of people doing porn who would rather be doing mainstream cinema, but there are exceptions, and the instances of those exceptions are things that I don’t think ever really crossed my mind.”
And for a girl who has yet to read Fifty Shades of Grey, she understands the social importance of the erotic novel and what it has done for her film. “My mom knows what a safe word is, you know? That was not the case 12 months ago,” she joked. “But I feel that I should read that book because I’m very grateful for its existence in terms of having a stage for a film like this to potentially reach a much greater audience than it would have even a year ago. In a world that is tossing certain BDSM terms around at all, not to mention more frequently, it’s interesting and important to let them see what that really is for the people for whom it is a reality.”
Despite the current rise in BDSM interest, the film will obviously be highly talked about as pornography, and the culture that surrounds BDSM is still eschewed in society. “I don’t think this film is necessarily for every single person in the world. I think that the characters really find a way into your heart to a certain degree, so even if it’s not a world that you can relate to, there are people that you can because it’s human. It’s a humanity that’s omnipresent. I think that there are a lot more people who think they might be interested in seeing this movie now that wouldn’t be a year ago.
Although she is not the first to ever pull back the iron curtain of the world of BDSM for mainstream, she does now have a better knowledge than she did coming in. Voros admitted that upon arriving in San Francisco she picked herself up a copy of S&M 101. But after completing the project and having it ready to go for its first screening, the major misconception she felt many people had about what happens at the Armory was quite simple, really: people just don’t understand what BDSM is.
“Pornography is a fantasy. BDSM is a fantasy. I think for someone watching it for the first time the impression is that someone is being abused. That the person who is whipped or chained or being choked or slapped or flogged is out of their control and something bad is happening to this person and there must be something wrong. Even if it’s assumed that they’re consenting to it, there must be something wrong with them to want this. I don’t know if this is the norm in the industry, but Kink.com films not only the scenes, but interviews before and after with the actors/actresses as well. Part of this sort of mirrors the actual negotiation process in BDSM play where there’s this very clear dialogue beforehand of what is permissible and what isn’t, what the safe word is, and understand that ‘you can slap my face but don’t call me bitch,’ you know? People don’t understand what BDSM is, and so the notion of the submissive being ultimately the one calling the shots is hard to get your head around unless you’ve really been educated.”
Kink premiered at Sundance this past Saturday and will be screening for the rest of the week. More information on the film can be found at sundance.org.