Age of Consent: An Interview with Charles Lum
Age of Consent tells the story of London fetish sex club The Hoist. Director Charles Lum talks to Polari about how the project grew from its initial idea into a wide-ranging piece of queer social history.
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The controversial documentary Age of Consent was one the most popular, as well as one of the best-selling, in the BFI’s Flare programme in 2014. It tells the story of Vauxhall based sex club The Hoist while at the same time telling the story of how homosexual sex was fully decriminalised in the UK in the years following its partial decriminalisation in 1967. It was one of the festival’s stand-out films and featured a great many faces of the London scene. On its opening night there was a party at The Hoist, and for the first time since it opened in 1996 women were allowed in. In another first, toilet seats were even installed for the occasion. In an engaging, funny and razor-shap conversation, Charles Lum, who directed the film with Todd Verow, talked to Polari Magazine about how he worked with Kurt Strielger, co-owner of The Hoist, to make the film possible, and how the project grew from its initial idea into a wide-ranging piece of queer social history.
What was the inspiration for a documentary about The Hoist?
Todd and I had made a short that played at the BFI last year called Tom’s Gift, which was part of a larger movie in which people would describe their cruising experiences and places they’d been. It was kind of a nostalgic film because a lot of the cruising areas are gone. After we’d finished showing it we asked other people to tell us their stories, and after it was over Kurt came up and introduced himself. I thought immediately, this is not a short story, the story of The Hoist, it’s a real piece of history. I decided to make the film then.
The film is called Age of Consent because it’s really about that subject, and the social and political changes that made The Hoist possible. At what point did you realise that was going to be the story?
When we decided to make the movie The Hoist was about to turn 18, and I thought if we could get this movie done in a year it would be perfect. I thought, 18 is the age of consent, and came up with that title. Then I started to do research about it and I found out the age of consent was one of the laws that were part and parcel of why The Hoist could open. Sexuality, the criminalisation of it, and the risks that are involved, has always been a subject of my work, so it came together magically. I thought of the idea before I really knew about the importance of those specific laws, and how the difference between the 18 and 16 was a very important thing – but that was incidental to us because we’re American.
The most startling aspect of the story is that it was not until 2003 that homosexuality was completely decriminalised in the UK. I was struck by the scene in which you have a guy masturbating as Peter Tatchell tells the details of that story in a voice-over. I was curious about your creative process – at what point did you decide on that imagery?
I have to say that if you’re gonna talk on and on about history it gets a little dry, so you have to add a little spice to that to grease the hard facts with a little liquid enjoyment! What Peter is talking about, and the freedoms he’s describing, are obvious on the screen. The one is dependent on the other, they are concurrent – and it’s entertaining, it enlivens his speech, it makes you see the freedoms that were fought for all right there.
It’s certainly unusual to have that kind of narrative with that kind of visual.
But it drives it, it gives it momentum, and that’s one thing that we like. It’s at the beginning of the movie, too, but to really understand the significance of The Hoist story you have to have that background. So it’s a way to make school more entertaining. It’s a visual aid to make you pay attention. Hopefully it’s not too distracting … but then that’s ok too.
It’s a graphic subject, and it’s a fairly graphic film. Was there anything you filmed and then thought, “no, that’s too much”?
Absolutely. We did a lot of interviews, and some went places we found were not necessary to the streamlining of this story.
When you’re doing the festival circuit with a film like this do you ever run into a problem with people saying “that’s too explicit” for a festival.
This is my first feature film but I’ve done a lot of shorts, and the shorts have been extraordinarily controversial because of sexual imagery. So I’ve had a lot of objections to what I’ve done, and had a lot of people upset and argumentative in the Q&As. A lot of people just don’t like my films. I’m a festival favourite here because they like it, but there are a lot of people that don’t like my work. They don’t like to be inundated with explicit images. They don’t think it’s necessary but I do. I talk about sex and I think you need to see it. It has power.
Do you find it difficult to get it into festivals?
Yes, there are many that won’t take it. A lot of the mainstream gay and lesbian festivals in the States won’t touch it at all. Not everyone is talkative in terms of Q&As. I did a movie called AIDS Conference Cock Suckers that was putting those two things together … which was interesting and funny but some people didn’t think it was funny. I did a movie called Lloyd Blankfein Must Die. He’s the CEO of Goldman Sachs, one of the sponsors in this festival, and that was programmed – that loads of imagery too, but that was a comedy.
What were the Q&As for that like?
We didn’t show it here, we ended up showing it at Bar Wotever as a protest later. I had more controversy in Tel Aviv. And New York. In New York a lot of people like to talk. So the Q&As are kinda lively there.
Do you find that the festival audiences differ between the States and UK?
They differ everywhere. The LA audience is very different from New York. The New York audiences are always the loudest. I find that the London audiences are quire reserved. Italian audiences like to talk a lot, too.
How has Age of Consent been received here?
It’s been received wonderfully. I couldn’t ask for a more wonderful reception. I’m very proud that it’s one of the top selling films at the festival. Whether or not people want to see the sex, or whether or not they want to see a story about London, it was designed for the people here to understand their own history, and to introduce them to The Hoist if they didn’t know anything about it. The cast is from London, and virtually everyone who was in it was at the premiere. They hadn’t seen it before as we’d shown it to no one and it was a really great experience. In the party afterwards we brought women into The Hoist for the first time ever – and in the future there will be a mixed party at The Hoist, so we brought actual change and opened up a whole world to a new group of people.
I found the section in the film when you talk to the trans community about how they don’t really have their own space and would like to explore these spaces fascinating. What led you to include that story?
I thought it was very important because trans issues are the issues of the day for the GLBT community. I have trans friends who are in the movie and they have something to say about it. I have always found the absence of trans men in The Hoist interesting. It was one of the most important story lines for me so I’m happy that I’ve been able up these communities to each other a little bit more.
One of things that struck me in the section looking at HIV is that David Regan said he thought it was a safe place for people who were positive, but he wasn’t sure it was a safe place for people who were negative. I’m wondering how difficult it was a filmmaker to navigate that question and that issue.
As well as the trans issue, as a HIV + man myself, that was the most important part of the why I made this movie. I want people to understand how people with HIV have sex. And how the culture is around that: in terms of adapting to being open about HIV or not being open, how people in a play community deal with it as an issue, where the responsibilities lie, how it’s evolved over the last 10-15 years. A lot of people aren’t used to that because it’s not spoken about. In a place like The Hoist it’s always known so therefore it’s a constant presence. Your defence, or your acceptance of it, is your own responsibility. The Hoist manufactures this understanding of that fact, and that keeps sexuality moving and embracing and learning.
When you go into The Hoist it’s there. HIV is there. They want you to know that. If you’re going into a backroom and in a dance club it may be there. You don’t have that option in The Hoist. That’s why David says it’s a safe place for those with HIV. You need to know how to protect yourself, but everyone needs to know how to protect themselves. Just because it isn’t announced it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Since The Hoist is a sex club, and it came about after the start of AIDS, one of the reason that it’s marginalised is that people are afraid that that’s where it is. It’s always had condoms and it’s always had slings, so you’ve got to put it together yourself in there. And people will help you do so.
I was struck by the story of gentrification of Vauxhall at the end and the parallel between that and the way LGBT rights have changed. Peter Tatchell makes the important point that in the days of equal marriage debates is it all becoming too gentrified? This is really queercore documentary – do you think the way that the mainstream LGBT culture is changing is a threat of this type of documentary? Is it all going to be about gay weddings?
There’s a lot about that now, but yeah I do think there’s a threat that assimilation will marginalise members of our own community, but mostly what I am concerned with is the ability to speak honestly about sex. Sometimes sex can be hidden behind monogamy and therefore the discussion stops being about sex. We are homo sexual, and we have been defined by out sexual acts, yet in an assimilationist society those acts are hidden again and we lose the understanding that would teach people, for example, how the HIV people interact with the non HIV people. Anything that is graphic and honest and open about sex is important to me. I’m afraid that marriage will, as it’s done for centuries, close the door to the sexual experience that’s between people but not spoken about. People are embarrassed to talk about sex, and people who do are then shunned and pushed to the margins. We have gotten more conservative. That lovely movie Big Joy talks about how there was sexual renaissance in the ‘70s before AIDS came when all kinds of sex was possible and exciting. That’s changed. I hope marriage isn’t going to make that worse.
There are a few people who talk about The Hoist who didn’t want their faces on camera. Did you struggle at all getting people to talk about their experiences on film?
We did struggle. Not everyone who worked there gave us a interview. They were shy. It’s not because they were embarrassed about what they do, they just didn’t want to be on film. They’re private people. When we went outside the people who were willing to talk to us – Peter Tatchell and Dr Joseph Sonnabend – really gave this story the political and emotional and health lines I wanted to tell. They’re historical and important and they can’t be reiterated enough to our community – how we got to where we are – because, as we’ve seen, people have gotten more prudish, so the rights we have are in danger of being taken away. Then the movie became bigger than its original conception. It didn’t become anything different than what it planned to be it just became bugger and better and more powerful.
One of the great characters in the film is the cleaner, who is so literal about it all. What made you decide to end the film with his voice?
Because he’s wonderful. If you’re a documentarian there are movie stars everywhere and some people just need the camera on them and they become who they are in all their amazing glory. He’s a perfect tour guide. He’s got a great point of view, and his terms are endearing and loving. He loves what he does and he loves his own reaction to what he sees. He is happy and amazingly eloquent in sharing it with us. In order to have an audience care about what happens you have to have people that they care about.