'Pornocracy': Film Review | SXSW 2017
French porn philosopher Ovidie's doc looks at the industry in an age of "tubes."
An exposé lamenting the death of old-fashioned, pre-internet pornography, Pornocracy is in some ways interchangeable with scores of "disruption" narratives in the pages of business magazines. This time, though, the commodity in question is not car rides or digital music files but videos of people having sex. Ovidie, a "porn philosopher" and former adult-film performer whose musings on the industry are well known in France, hosts this informative but overserious documentary, which will find an audience on video but (in more ways than one) is less revealing than expected.
In her four-chapter essay, the first two segments are devoted to "The Prey" and "Predators." In most mainstream discussions of porn, these labels might refer, respectively, to the onscreen performers and the producers profiting from their bodies. Ovidie, however, sees those conventional porn producers as equally the victims, their livelihoods devastated by "tube" sites that stream countless hours of porn for free.
One might well walk away thinking that, during the pre-streaming DVD boom, a career as a porn actress had no downside. We talk with a pair of women who work as agents for actresses, who say that the ubiquity of online porn has made audiences hungry for extreme content, making the work "more rough ... more pervert[ed]." Their clients, some of whom live together dorm-style, often have their first experiences of many sex acts in front of a camera, typically crash-coursing in a month through experimentation that might take years for a non-professional. Were things really that different before the internet?
The director speaks to producers who thrived in the DVD age and who have seen 70 percent of their business wiped out and now pay performers a tenth of what they used to. (Never mind that the combination of those two figures seems to work in the producers' favor.) They complain that today's renegade filmmakers don't abide by the old rules — they try to falsify medical records, they don't care about the law. Self-servingly, they suggest that before the internet came along, adult filmmaking was a happy, wholesome place. And to be fair, some on the other side of the camera seem to share that sentiment.
Ovidie talks at length about Fabian Thylmann, a techie who took over the site YouPorn and turned it into an empire, gobbling up other popular web companies and becoming the "King of Porn." In this world, actresses were "cannon fodder," rarely even credited by name, lumped together on sites by the categories of acts they could be seen performing.
If much of this seems like a weirdly revisionist look at an industry that has always been dominated by shady characters, the doc becomes specific in chapter three, "The Octopus," speaking to journalists who suspect Thylmann isn't what he appears to be. We follow the money (and the business model), hearing about financial backers with Wall Street roots, probing Ponzi-ish schemes trading traffic between websites. The punchline, according to one observer: "It appears that their primary industry is not pornography," we're told, but money laundering.
Production companies: Magneto Presse, Fatalitas Productions
Producers: Marc Berdugo, Elfriede Leca, Serge Khalfon, Jérôme Pierrat
Executive producer: Barbara Conforti
Directors of photography: Ovidie, Franck Rabel, Lars Skree
Editor: Frédérique Oger
Composer: Geoffroy Delacroix
Venue: South by Southwest (Documentary Spotlight)
Sales: Kathryn Bonnici, Java Films