Lisa Vandever isn't like most people working the sexual underground. For one thing, she came to her role as co-founder and director of the CineKink Film Festival from the world of legit indies.
Also, Vandever isn't trying to sell you anything. Tickets to Cinekink-which kicks off this coming Tuesday with a party at Remote Lounge before heading to Anthology Film Archives through that Saturday, with an awards ceremony on Sunday evening at a yet undisclosed location-are cheap.
She also has a pretty realistic sense of her preferred genre. The first CineKink two years ago got lucky with the James Spader/Maggie Gyllenhaal comedy Secretary, which made for a splashy festival winner-even if it had already been out for months. Speaking from her suburban New Jersey home, Vandever is refreshingly upfront about the chances of a similar mainstream hit to emerge this year.
"We have a feature on Saturday night at nine with Roger Rees in it," she notes, "so there's an S&M movie with actual good acting in it."
That's spoken with the honesty of a woman who's taken on a masochistic task. "We've dug out of the first year's hole," says Vandever, "and we're hoping this'll be CineKink's breakout. We ran more fetish videos last year, to see if they appealed to our audience. Not so much, as it turned out. It's a different experience to watch a fetish video on the big screen for 80 minutes straight. Now we've gone back to narrative films-hopefully ones that we can help get noticed by programmers in other festivals."
CineKink is also featuring its first jury this year, brought in to judge the festival's many shorts. Documentaries and features will continue to compete for their respective Audience Choice Awards. Negotiating certain landmines amongst the sensitive filmmakers explains why some vital honors go unawarded.
"We don't have a category for Best Porn," explains Vandever, "because most porn doesn't have a narrative. Also, we'll often see filmmakers in our festival explaining why their films aren't porn. You can't easily classify these things. I can't even get a read on how the mainstream press treats us. With the adult press, there's some appreciation that someone is recognizing these films as a significant genre. When I'm talking to the mainstream press, I tend to forget how certain things affect people."
Fortunately, Vandever isn't your typical oblivious wild girl. She isn't so into her sexual schtick that she becomes the festival's focus. "CineKink didn't start with my own sexual interests," she notes. "It had more to do with my dissatisfaction with mainstream films. I was involved with the New York S&M Festival through [Manhattan-based S&M group] The Eulenspiegel Society, starting when they wanted to begin a movie night. That became this transition where I wanted to make a niche for myself. I was wondering if I wanted to dedicate two years of my life to films I had no interest in. I realized that all the films I was going to see had a sexual aspect to them-and the theaters would be packed."
That isn't to say that Vandever avoids shiny PVC wrappings. "I remember asking my friends if they thought this would hurt my career, but it didn't seem to be a concern. Maybe it comes up when I'm doing corporate marketing brochures, and a potential employer Googles my name. I'm out there as an activist. They have to put a face to this thing, and I guess that's me."
CineKink is part of a scene that's kind of prudish. Vandever has to walk a fine line between serving the salacious consumers and representing her community-which isn't always noted for having a good sense of humor. Kinky types can be unbearable when demanding tolerance for their lifestyle.
"It's like any minority group," says Vandever, "so to speak. People will go from being overly earnest and protesting everything to finally beginning to relax about perceptions. I wouldn't say the whole community is humorless, but there are people in it that are. Sometimes I wonder if taking the earnest activist approach doesn't hinder us commercially. I could just go for the gratuitous sex, sex, sex angle."
But there's also an issue of liberation here. We get so used to leashes and leather in fashion ads-and maybe our bedrooms-that we forget there are still people who find S&M to be an object of ridicule. Addressing those stereotypes is also part of the CineKink cause.
"Our plan with the original S&M Festival was to be S&M-positive," says Vandever. "That gave us about two movies to show. We're usually being used for laughs in some comedy, or it's like episodes of Law & Order, where anyone involved in S&M is either a killer or a victim. A more typical narrative is that we watch someone exploring all this kinky sex, and then we have to condemn it or somebody's gonna die. There was an indie film called Preaching to the Perverted that was the first big step away from all that. Nobody died, and everyone seemed proud of their proclivity. And then there was Secretary, which actually had a happy ending."
Speaking of which, the initial press release for this year's CineKink includes Vandever complaining about "an increasingly conservative cultural climate." That's a nice fantasy in itself. Vandever, however, could be addressing something even closer to home. I'm talking to the newlywed while she's planning her honeymoon amongst the CineKink preparations.
"I don't really see my world precluding having a loving and committed relationship," she explains. "We just might have different rules. In the past, I'd date people and be afraid to reveal my sexual side to them. Now I've found all the things I'm looking for with someone who's accepted me for who I am. I actually know most of my social circle through my involvement in the scene, and they're mostly couples who all seem to have really great relationships."
Vandever pauses, considers the strange nature of the sex biz. "Maybe it gets strange for a woman when she starts feeling like she's having sexual adventures for a living, and there's money involved. But, you know, I'm still very pure when it comes to that."