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10 Jan 2019

The Art of Porn: Dan Savage's HUMP! Film Festival Makes Its Palm Springs Debut

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A promo image for the HUMP! Film Festival. A promo image for the HUMP! Film Festival.

For 14 years now, Dan Savage—the newspaper editor, sex-advice columnist, author and pundit whose Savage Love column appears in each edition of the Independent—and his associates have produced the HUMP! Film Festival, a traveling, curated selection of short (i.e., five minutes or less) pornography films.

Yes, you read that correctly: It’s a porn film festival. However, it’s not that kind of porn. Well, OK, it is … except when it isn’t.

Make sense? No? You have questions? So did we, and Savage graciously agreed to answer some of our queries.

Before we get to those queries, here is the back story: HUMP! started in Seattle back in 2005, and the national tour of HUMP! began several years later. Anyone can submit films for consideration, of any sort, as long as they’re related to pornography—and the HUMP! producers take extreme steps to make sure these films never make it onto the internet (unless the filmmakers decide to put them online themselves).

Tell me about bringing HUMP! to Palm Springs. This is the first time it’s going to be here, correct?

It is. It has played in Los Angeles, but it’s never played in Palm Springs—even though a couple of Palm Springs residents won the HUMP! Best in Show award a few years back, for a film called Glory Hole. (Laughs.) … I think the folks there will really dig it.

To people who are unfamiliar with HUMP!—and, I admit, to some people like me who are familiar with HUMP!—it may seem a little weird to go and sit at the Camelot, where they have all sorts of wonderful events, with a bunch of people from my community, and watch porn. Describe to me why that isn’t so weird.

Because it’s a different kind of porn. When you’re watching porn at home alone, you are clicking only on porn of, well, immediate utility, if I may put it that way.

(Laughs.) That’s a perfect way to put it.

What HUMP! is, is a collection of shorts, five minutes or less, with pornography as the theme. Sometimes the pornography is explicit and hardcore; sometimes it’s softcore; sometimes it’s animation. There’s even a documentary about pornography this year at HUMP!, with people recalling when they first encountered porn, in the pre-internet era. There’s a musical number in this year’s HUMP!. … It’s not the kind of porn where you sit with a coat in your lap, and masturbate, or sit with a roll of paper towels at the ready. It’s porn that you enjoy for its artistic merits. You also get to see what really turns other people on, and that may not be what turns you on. It’s a window into other people’s passions.

When we started HUMP! we were curious whether we would get submissions, and whether anyone, particularly when it was only in Seattle, would make a porn short to be screened in the community where they lived, even with the promise that it would never go online. We got a lot of great porn, and then the question became: Would people come and sit in a movie theater, in the dark, next to strangers, and watch pornography the way their grandparents did, when their grandparents went to see Debbie Does Dallas or Behind the Green Door? And the answer is yes—a lot of people would. Not people who wanted to masturbate in their seats; these were people who wanted to really celebrate sexual diversity, and diversity of gender expression.

Certain people express squeamishness, for lack of a better word, about types of pornography or visuals that aren’t their thing. I know a lot of gay men act squicked out by female body parts, and I know a lot of straight guys who would never in a million years watch gay porn supposedly. So, how is it that you’ve managed to put all sorts of different types of porn together in HUMP!?

That’s magic of HUMP! It really is. You have audiences full of straight guys watching gay porn, and gay guys watching cunnilingus, and vanilla people watching hardcore kink porn, and cis people watching porn made by trans people to accurately represent themselves, not made by trans people to appeal to cis people.

We watch the audience … to make sure no one’s taking out a phone and taking a photograph or a video clip. There’s this thing that we see at packed screenings where at first, everybody’s thrown back in their seats by what’s not theirs—"not my kink,” “not my preferred gender partner,” “not my body type,” “not the age range I prefer.” At first, all anybody can see is what’s different and not theirs. But about a third of the way through, everyone is clapping and cheering for every film. No one’s having the wind knocked out of them anymore. There’s this moment where you can really see the audience’s perceptions shift. … Because in each film, the passion, the vulnerability, the sense of humor—all that is the same, and the humanity is the same.

It’s really kind of beautiful. I’m a gay dude—who 20 years ago or so would have been squicked out by women’s genitals—and I sit there, with my eyes open, and I watch cunnilingus on the big screen, and I don’t flinch. … What I’m tapping into is not their bodies or their genitals, really, but their passion.

That’s another part about HUMP! that’s really great: These are films made by friends and lovers. So nothing’s faked, and no one in the audience has to worry if somebody up there on the screen was doing it just for the money, or under duress. Everyone is up there because they wanted to share this side of themselves, and it’s really kind of magic.

Over the years that you’ve been doing this, what have been the biggest surprises in terms of taking this on tour?

They tried to shut us down in, I think it was Philadelphia, by getting us kicked out of the theater that we had booked. (Editor’s note: It was actually the Pittsburgh suburb of Dormont, in 2014.) What was so hilarious about that was everyone … has a cell phone. This idea that you can take pornography out of your community by keeping pornography out of a movie theater is ridiculous. That was very amusing.

What’s great about the tour is that we get many more diverse submissions now. It was in Seattle alone for a few years, and then just Seattle and Portland, (which is) not really a racially diverse part of the country, although it is sexually pretty diverse. Now that we’re touring, we get more different types of people, which is great.

But the biggest change is, in the first couple of years, we got a lot of submissions where people were trying to ape the conventions of commercial porn, mainstream porn, and audiences just didn’t respond to that. You almost got the sense over those first few years that audiences were editing the festival, letting filmmakers know by voting for the best films from the festival what they wanted to see more of; now we really don’t get those films where people are just trying to make a knock-off of some commercial porn they saw on Pornhub.

Is there anything in this year’s festival you find particularly interesting or unique?

There is a five-minute musical comedy set in the bathroom of a gay leather bar.

Oh my.

I promise you, you’ve never seen anything like it—on Netflix, on the networks, on HBO. It’s the sort of thing you could only see at HUMP!

That sounds either brilliant or horrifying, and I’m not sure which.

Well, it’s one of the award winners this year. Audiences thought it was pretty brilliant.

The HUMP! Film Festival takes place at 7:30 and 9:45 p.m., Friday, Feb. 8; and 7 p.m. and 9:15 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 9, at the Camelot Theatres at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $24.49 (with fees included). For tickets or more information, visit humpfilmfest.com.

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