When Halifax filmmaker Steven James May set out to document the lives of three women working in the phone sex industry, he knew that he would dealing with some touchy subject matter. Sure enough, in the weeks leading up to his film’s premier at the Atlantic Film Festival on September 22, he was busy working out a compromise with one of the film’s main financers, The Nova Scotia Film Development Corporation, which objected to some of the content in May’s 48-minute feature Sweet Talk.
But just like good phone sex, this story has a happy ending.
“I think because it’s a documentary on phone sex, it’s a topic where everyone seems to have an opinion,” says May. “It’s a good thing, but it does seem to strike a nerve with some people.”
The documentary was originally conceived as an hour-long feature for the cable channel SexTV, a division of CHUM Limited in Toronto. The film is still going to be shown on SexTV, but it will be making its debut at the Atlantic Film Festival.
As a financial backer of the project, CHUM was on board from the very beginning. But with limited other resources for funding, May turned to the NSFDC for help.
“I had trouble raising the money to make this film,” explains May. “If it wasn’t for the NSFDC, this film wouldn’t have been made, so I am really grateful to them.”
However, upon seeing a roughly finished version of the film, the NSFDC did express some concerns about the content of the documentary. Not surprisingly, May says that they were specifically worried about some of the explicit language that occurs during recorded phone conversations between the three women featured in the film and their respective clients.
“Also,” says May, “I don’t want to give too much away, but one of the women in the film gets really into her work when she’s on a call. It’s something I wasn’t really expecting.”
There were never any objections from the Atlantic Film Festival regarding the content of the film. After seeing a rough cut of the documentary, the film was unconditionally accepted into the festival lineup. Although the AFF was not interested in becoming involved in any kind of dispute regarding the film’s content, festival communications manager Ivy Ho did offer the AFF’s official position on the Sweet Talk situation.
“We accepted it and we’ll be showing it as is,” says Ho. “Because it’s a festival screening, we don’t censor. We have a lot more freedom. As far as we’re concerned, we’ll screen whatever wants us to screen.”
May said that his intention while making the film was not to shock or offend, but simply to portray the three women in the film as skilled and entrepreneurial individuals. He says that any potentially offensive material in the final version of the film should be taken in context with the overall message of the documentary.
“I think some people may look at a film like this and at first they say, ‘Whoa. I haven’t seen that before,’” he says. “If you’re going to have women up on screen doing this job, obviously there are concerns. Is this a good way for them to be making money? Are they being exploited? But I wanted this picture to have integrity, to give context, and in the end I think I managed to explain why I’m putting in some of the things I was putting in.”
In the end, May and the NSFDC were able to reach a compromise that satisfied both sides, managing to avoid a messy censorship conflict or a dispute about May’s creative freedom. The version of the film that will be screening at the Atlantic Film Festival will be identical to the version that will eventually be seen on SexTV. Ultimately, May is satisfied with the final cut, and he says he’s happy that things didn’t have to get ugly between him and his investors.
“In the end, they were supportive,” he says. “I think it helped that when were talking about editing different parts of the film, I told them that I had every intention of showing this film to my mother.”
Sweet Talk w/After Frank, 9:30pm, september 22 at Park Lane 4.