'The Dilemma of Desire': Film Review | SXSW 2020

THE DILEMMA OF DESIRE Still 2 - SXSW  Publicity_h 2020
Courtesy of SXSW
Has many of the right moves.

Originally slated to premiere at this year's SXSW Film Festival, Maria Finitzo’s documentary uncovers the complex world of female pleasure.

Producer-director Maria Finitzo’s feature documentary The Dilemma of Desire was robbed, like so many other works, by the coronavirus pandemic of its moment in the spotlight when its premiere at SXSW was cancelled in March. That fate seems extra cruel given that the movie is all about celebrating female sexual pleasure and especially the much-misunderstood clitoris in defiance of patriarchal efforts to silence, stifle and suppress female desire.

So it’s cheering to see this empowering, sex-positive work managing to find some kind of online life in these strange times. Sure, it would probably be even more fun to see the film with a paying audience, whooping it up and asking cheeky questions at post-screening Q&As. But maybe shy, embarrassment-prone viewers will feel more comfortable accessing this frank but essentially feel-good work from the comfort of their locked-down homes.

Well-versed in the ways of humanist, character-centric documentary filmmaking with a strong social-issues flavor (5 Girls, With No Direction Home, In the Game), Finitzo braids together the stories of several women here with deft assistance from editor Liz Kaar. First up on camera, showing how an early edition of the storied medical textbook of Gray’s Anatomy barely even uses the word “clitoris” outside the index, scientist Stacey Dutton deplores how little the medical world engages with this unique organ, the only body part that serves only one purpose: providing sexual pleasure.

Dutton endeavors to help her students understand the little-known physical structure of the clitoris, which only peeks a bit of itself outside the body and looks in total like an upturned four-petalled flower in silhouette. This discussion leads naturally into a conversation with New York City-based conceptual artist Sophia Wallace, who celebrates clitorises in many media, especially sculpture and printing, and whose slogan-skewed “Cliteracy Project” aims to educate and inform with catchy maxims, phrases, interdictions and words to the wise, such as "The hole is not the whole."

Further out west, gender studies professor Lisa Diamond is seen leading a seminar at a university in Utah, where the class gingerly discusses childhood sexuality and queer identity, among other topics. In San Francisco, industrial designer Ti Chang speaks eloquently about the quest to rethink vibrator design as she fashions desirable, costume jewelry-like objects from metal and silicone material, some with bespoke engraving.

Viewers’ mileage will inevitably vary, but personally, I found the segments about Chang and Wallace’s work the most interesting and absorbing because the two of them are engaged with creating tangible stuff made to be either decorative, didactic and/or utilitarian.

The eclectic emotional journeys of other women met here, identified only by their first names (Rebecca, Jasmine, Umnia, Coriamma, Yixin) are told with impeccable empathy, but in their rough outlines these are like many stories we’ve heard before. One woman reveals she’s never had an orgasm, an audacious confession in an era where everyone is supposedly more in touch with their sexuality; another feels empowered by her career as a stripper, which leads to subsequent adventures in burlesque; a Muslim woman ponders the suppression of female sexual pleasure in traditional marriage; a student studies economics by day and pursues a career in stand-up comedy by night.

Self-described queer woman Coriamma seems further down a path of self-discovery, having parlayed her preoccupation with sex into some sort of media presence, and is embarking on a sweet relationship with a man who also identifies as queer; the couple could easily be the poster children for intersectional millennial self-actualized bliss, bless them.

Just at the point where more crotchety viewers may start to get impatient with the somewhat repetitive emphasis on identity and identity politics, there’s a swerve into how these women’s stories intersect with old-school politics and activism as several take part in the women’s marches that have punctuated the Trump administration. That allows the doc to find a more hopeful, rambunctious note to end on, although some may feel curious as to where the subjects have ended up finally. Have the pole dancer’s feelings about her clientele changed since the night of the 2016 presidential election? How is the vibrator designer’s business doing? And did that anorgasmic woman ever learn how to come?

Production company: Kartemquin Films
With: Sophia Wallace, Stacey Dutton, Lisa Diamond, Ti Chang, Rebecca Baruc

Director: Maria Finitzo
Producers: Maria Finitzo, Cynthia Kane, Diane Quon
Executive producers: Barbara Kopple, Jolene Pinder, Gordon Quinn, Hugh Schulze
Director of photography: Hillary Bachelder, Bing Liu, Adam Singer, Keith Walker
Editor: Liz Kaar
Music: Miriam Cutler
Music supervisor: Brooke Wentz
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)

Sales: Ro*co Films

108 minutes