I Attended An Amateur Porn Festival With 400 Strangers

True story: I interviewed for a job writing porn once.

As a writer, you often look for whatever work’s going,* and a job writing porn scripts seemed like an interesting challenge, if nothing else. And it would have been: turns out the writer’s role in the creation of a porn scene is more involved than you’d think. But in the interview and subsequent writing test – the strangest I’ve ever experienced – it quickly became clear that the (large, commercial) sites I would have been writing for were exclusively interested in pursuing cliches, recycling tropes, and scripting vanilla sex scenes.

I didn’t want to write that kind of thing, and frankly, after seeing behind the curtain a little, I didn’t want to become part of that industry – even as a weird challenge.

Neither do the filmmakers involved in Dan Savage’s Hump Film Festival, now in its 13th year.

Humpfest is a porn festival wherein amateur filmmakers submit shorts of up to five minutes – made specifically for the fest, with mandatory included elements – and selected shorts play at the various stops on the festival tour. The shorts never play outside the festival, and filmmakers are invited to experiment – both sexually and in their filmmaking. As a result, the programming is wildly varied, with all kinds of body types and sexual identities represented, and films that actively challenge the definition of what pornography is and can be.

The festival’s Montreal screening took place at Cinema L’Amour, a historic two-story cinema that operates daily as one of Canada’s last surviving porn theatres (with private areas for couples, no less). Humpfest seemed a perfect opportunity to explore this unique venue – and to watch 90 minutes of indie porn with a sold-out audience of over 400 hipsters, weirdos, and fellow youthful degenerates. With the rules in place – no cellphones, no catcalls, no mockery – the festival unfolded in all its fleshy glory.

Given that this is a porn festival, some of the 20-odd films on show are pretty much straight-up sex. Nothing as simplistic as a sextape, but there’s a lot of footage of people fucking. Some of the encounters verge on self-serious cliche, whereas others are genuine, joyful expressions of couples’ (or trios’) sex lives. They’re varied sex lives, too: straight, gay, transgender, polyamorous, or whatever else you care to mention, it’s represented here, along with a wide variety of kinks. Comfort zones are pushed, in a positive way. If nothing else, it’s quite an experience to watch someone get anally fisted while you’re surrounded by a crowd of strangers.

But the festival is mostly about broadening the definition of pornography, and the films that stray the furthest from porn cliche are definitely the best in the show. A couple of films don’t even depict sex (and one is animated), but even the ones that do often find new ways of presenting it – and of granting it more meaning than your average PornHub video.

Many entries play for laughs, for example – and not just in the pun-heavy manner you might expect. Humpfest’s best comedic shorts are, like any comedic short, elaborately-constructed jokes. Sex or masturbation is a plot point in these films, but the comedy often comes from the performances, scripts, or filmmaking – or simply from the good-natured humour of people self-producing their own porn. The results are goofy and fun, and in one case, even a satire about commercial porn production.

There’s also a lot of arty porn in this year’s Humpfest lineup: odd, sometimes lo-fi stuff that’s more erotic than strictly pornographic. The more purely sensual films – a fluid, muscular dance routine in a smokily lit coffee shop, a montage of suggestive inanimate objects paired with crunchy sound effects, a couple of incredibly strange abstract kink pieces – are some of the most intriguing works on display.

But the most surprising films are those that deploy an unexpected dose of drama. Given festival creator Dan Savage’s brand – one of openness and communication regarding sexuality – it’s unsurprising to see a handful of films that mix serious personal expression in with their pornographic material. One film takes us through the entirety of a relationship, exploring its highs and lows through how they manifest sexually. Another recontextualises a straightforward gay-sex montage with a voiceover about sexual anxieties and emotional hangups. I never would’ve thought I could be legitimately moved by a porn film, but Humpfest proved me wrong.

That’s the whole point of the festival: to challenge preconceptions about sexuality, and hopefully to instill some change in how porn is made – at least on the scale of the festival itself. At the end of the screening, the event host entreated the audience to make and submit their own films to the festival – and though I probably won’t (probably (probably)), I’ve never felt more comfortable with the idea than in that moment. The festival’s anything-goes mixture of personalities, bodies, and filmmaking styles has the homemade charm of a 48-hour filmmaking event – only with more graphic and unsimulated sex. It’s far more interesting and inspiring than the kind of commercially-produced fuck film that usually plays at places like Cinema L’Amour (and on the Internet).

So if you’re into expanding your horizons a bit, or you’re just into the idea of 90 minutes of highly varied, sexually-charged grassroots short films, check out the schedule; maybe Humpfest is coming to your town soon. If nothing else, you’ll get to experience what it’s like to watch weird-as-fuck porn with a good-hearted, receptive audience. And that’s something you won’t get anywhere else.

* Hey, employers! Still looking! Maybe not porn though!

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