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Dan Savage Interview: How The Sex Columnist Is Re-Branding Porn To Attract Indie Filmmakers

The HUMP! Film Festival founder on how he programs the indie porn fest that inspired Lynn Shelton's "Humpday."

A still from “Cake Boss”

HUMP! Film Festival/Vimeo

It’s not every day that cinephiles can watch porn that stimulates them — artistically, that is. Unless you attend a live screening of HUMP! Film Festival, the amateur porn festival started by sex columnist Dan Savage.

Lynn Shelton fans are already familiar with the fest, thanks to 2009’s “Humpday,” which told the story of two straight guys who decide to make a gay porn and submit it to HUMP! (Fun fact: After Savage challenged Shelton to submit her own indie porn film to HUMP!, The director accepted, and the resulting film won an award at the festival.)

HUMP! features short, dirty films that are each under five minutes. Per the festival’s website: “Our carefully curated program is a cornucopia of body types, shapes, ages, colors, sexualities, genders, kinks, and fetishes—all united by a shared spirit of sex-positivity… HUMP!’s main mission is to change the way America sees—and makes and shares—porn.” The films in HUMP! look more like those you might see in a short film festival, many just happen to show explicit sex. (And many do not.)

“We’ve had everybody; from people who shot stuff on flip phones twelve years ago to Lynn Shelton,” Savage told IndieWire by phone last week. “There’s room at HUMP! for everybody.” Savage is known for his widely read sex advice column “Savage Love,” which is also a popular podcast. He started the amateur porn festival in 2005 to celebrate the variety of desires, bodies, genders, and fetishes that his column also praises. The festival now tours nationally, and the only way to view HUMP! films is to attend a screening.

READ MORE: 9 Awesome Things Dan Savage Said at the Toronto Premiere of Fantastic New Doc ‘Do I Sound Gay?’

At a recent Brooklyn showing, audiences were instructed to take out their phones and “turn them the fuck off” by a staff member. He warned that the staff would be watching the audience closely throughout the screening, and if they saw any phones, they would take them away and never give them back. “You can be a porn star this weekend in this movie theater without having to be a porn star on the Internet for all of eternity,” said Savage, noting how appealing this is to filmmakers.

Because of this policy, HUMP! attracts its share of sex-positive amateurs who may never make another film, as well as serious indie filmmakers looking to flex creative muscles in between projects. It even attracts professionals. Porn star Buck Angel directed a short this year, and another features queer porn heartthrob Jiz Lee (Pony from “Transparent”).

There is no formula for making it into the festival, but creativity goes a long way. “We look for what’s good. We look for sexy, hot, interesting, we wanna make sure the festival is as diverse as it can possibly be,” said Savage. “A film that’s badly made, or not very interesting, that happens to tick a box isn’t going to get in just so we tick a box, but we do want everyone who comes to find a little bit of themselves.” He also noted that after the first national tour, when HUMP! films began screening in cities other than Portland and Seattle (cities Savage called “very fucking white”), they started seeing more submissions from people of color.

READ MORE: 7 Dan Savage-Approved Documentaries You Should Watch Right Now

There is one surefire way to get chosen: Humor. “HUMP! manages to bring together hardcore and humor — often in the same film — and that’s how we experience our sex lives,” explained Savage. “Sometimes when we’re having sex, there’s a moment when something funny happens and people can laugh and keep fucking. You rarely see that in porn. Those tend to be the films that audiences love most; the films that are sexy and dirty and explicit and also humorous.”

The films in this year’s HUMP! run the gamut from heterosexual vanilla sex, to three middle-aged people engaging in advanced bondage and fire play, to two trans men performing oral sex on each other. In one stand-out, a film called “Cake Boss,” a man throws flour, eggs, whipped cream, and cherries over different body parts of his female partner to the thrilling swells of classical music. Neither actors show their faces, but their humor shines through with editing and physicality. There’s also extremely hot sex.

By far the funniest film this year is “Film Bonoir,” one man’s detective fantasy told as a story to his lover and enacted by penis puppets. The femme fatale, bad guy, and naturally, the dick, are played by real penises in hats and costumes. Final credits reveal the green paper with cut out holes that served as the world’s smallest green screen. Let’s hope they found card stock that guaranteed no paper cuts.

One of the unique things about HUMP! is that the films are curated, which is not the typical way most people engage with porn these days. “At HUMP!, we do the clicking,” said Savage. “You’re gonna watch stuff that if you were home alone masturbating you wouldn’t watch.” This means straight people watching gay sex, cisgender people seeing trans bodies, and young people watching older folks. No matter how open-minded you are, you can bet you are going to see something at HUMP! that pushes you outside your comfort zone.

The other unique thing about HUMP! is the experience of watching porn communally, something that used to be commonplace. “Thirty or forty years ago, people went to theaters to see ‘Debbie Does Dallas,’ or ‘Behind The Green Door,’ or ‘Deep Throat’ — these mainstream pornographic films that reached mass audiences.” Savage likens the experience to the difference between seeing a comedy in a movie theater versus at home.

READ MORE: National Coming Out Day: 5 Online Shorts That Celebrate Queer Lives

Though Savage and the HUMP! staff pick the films, Savage insists that audiences have curated the festival’s tone over the years. Through balloting, audiences vote on the festival awards, which come with cash prizes. (There were no ballots at the Brooklyn screening, however. That honor is reserved for Savage’s beloved Portland and Seattle audiences only.)

“The first few years, a lot of the films aped the tropes of commercial pornography,” he said. “And those weren’t the films that audiences responded to. Those weren’t the films that people cheered for, those weren’t the films that won the audience awards. And so over time, it’s almost like the audience created HUMP! by communicating to the filmmakers what they wanted more of.” Unique films, personal films and films that celebrated the filmmaker’s own predilections won out. “It grew into this collection of films that are very much about the people in them, and not about assumptions around mass taste or mass practices.”

With porn geared toward mass (read: male) taste so readily available on the Internet, the funny, erotic and artistic films showcased at HUMP! are a breath of fresh air. Throw in the unique experience of watching the films communally one a big screen, and HUMP! is nothing short of revolutionary.

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