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Not a Love Story

1981, Directed by Bonnie Sherr Klein.

Made over two decades ago, this NFB produced attack on the misogynist values of the porn industry has not dated well. Many of the feminist attitudes presented by filmmaker Bonnie Klein have since been discarded, and the ramifications of pornography have been rethought in better and more contemporary ways. Still, at the time of it's release, Not a Love Story was extremely relevant and does contain some insights into the peep-show filled world of adult entertainment at a time just before home video completely revolutionized the industry.

The surprisingly conventional plot of this film has director Bonnie Klein shaming a stripper named Linda Lee Tracey into giving up the business. Tracey, who is actually more of a burlesque performer, tells Klein at the beginning of the film that because she is in control of her act and aware of her sexuality, she doesn't feel like stripping is degrading to women. She says her act is a parody of eroticism, and that she can't identify with the feminist movement which sees her as a victim.

In an effort to mold Tracey's attitudes in her own image, Klein takes her on a tour of New York's sleazy red light district, and to interviews with feminist writers and thinkers including Susan Griffin, Andrea Dworken and Laura Lederer. Representing the other side of the industry is the Toronto publisher of a magazine called Elite, and a female photographer for Hustler. At the end of the film, Tracey poses for the Hustler photographer herself, and realizes what Klein has been saying is true-- she is being molded and shaped to satisfy men's desires for dominance. The film ends as Tracey professes her realization that pornography is all about "heavy power."

Although it's hard to argue with many of the points that Klein makes about the troubled girls in the sex industry and how pornographic images represent male fantasies of power over women, Not a Love Story chooses to highlight a survey of early 1980s feminist theory at the expense of taking an in-depth look at it's true subject. Nowhere does Klein present any kind of historical context for pornography or power in sex, and neither does she offer opposing viewpoints. Both the photographer and the publisher serve up cliched sexist opinions that Klein easily refutes, and she drives her point home with ease by using a shocking array of stills and film loops that are particularly violent.

This film also displays a lack of understanding about films, pornographic or otherwise. For example, one male professor contrasts images of rape to show how pornography is misogynist. He says that in pornographic films, a woman being raped is shown to actually enjoy being physically assaulted, but when a man is raped, like Ned Beatty in Deliverance, it is shown to be a painful, humiliating experience. While these particular examples are true, comparing a Hollywood film with a pornographic movie is flat out irresponsible. There are many theatrical films, many of them Canadian, about a woman who feels violated and ashamed after being raped. In response, she tracks down her assailants and kills them. Of course, you can argue that these films still uphold patriarchal attitudes, but it's a classic revenge film plot. The only real difference between these films and Deliverance is that the latter stars a man instead of a woman. Secondly, I find it hard to believe that there aren't images of men enjoying being raped in gay porn, the only real comparable subject. Klein is right to point out that rape is an abuse of power, but it isn't limited to a man's power over a woman.

Klein also hints that pornography is going to get much worse in a very short period of time, suggesting that society will become desensitized to violent sexual images. This, of course, is a prophecy that has failed to pass even 20 years after Not a Love Story was made. What Klein failed to foresee was that the pornographic industry could cleanse it's image and make unbelievable forays into popular culture. Thanks in part to the breakthrough of home video which took porn off the streets and put it behind closed doors, the industry has completely reinvented it's image. The seedy 42nd peep shows have been replaced with slick convention centre and shopping mall settings. Stars like Ron Jeremy have become media superstars. Documentaries about porn are commonplace, and few take a view as harsh as Klein's.

Despite it's flaws, Not a Love Story is a significant milestone in Canadian documentary filmmaking. On release, Not a Love Story ran into trouble with the Ontario censor board, which originally banned the film over the graphic content. Of course, Klein was trying to use the images not to titillate, but to shock-- and they do. Supported by the NFB, the board finally reversed it's decision and Klein's documentary became the first movie to legally show oral sex onscreen. Like other previously banned Canadian documentaries films like Warrendale and Drug Addict before it, Not a Love Story pushes the boundaries of filmmaking with a frank and revealing eye which challenges mainstream conceptions.

Truly a rallying cry at the time, Klein surprisingly doesn't focus much on Canada throughout her film. She does take a Canadian viewpoint a couple of times, and there are a few scenes in Toronto and at a Montreal strip club, but that's about it. Margaret Atwood is featured in one scene, but she is not interviewed, she simply reads a poem about pornography(?!). Still, Not a Love Story is an important, if high profile, documentary that is essential viewing for Canadians.

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