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  • Maja Classen on kink, queerness and breaking down taboos

Truth or Dare

Maja Classen on kink, queerness and breaking down taboos

Filmmaker Maja Classen's latest documentary, 'Truth or Dare', explores Berlin's queer, sex-positive spaces.

Photo: Katja Ruge

Berlin-based filmmaker Maja Classen has found success digging into the subcultures and social issues of the world around her. In 2007, her documentary film Osdorf about a Hamburg high-rise was screened in the Deutsches Perspectivo category of the Berlinale Film Festival and was awarded the Babelsberger Medienpreis.

Her Body*Love Rap Project, a collaboration with queer feminist rapper Finna Luxus and body therapist Mitu, runs rap workshops for kids. Through a successful crowdfunding campaign, her new documentary film, Truth or Dare, has raised over €10,000 and is now entering post-production. We sat down to discuss Classen’s path into film, her relationship to Berlin and breaking down taboo subjects.

Berlin is the birthplace of many sex-positive productions. Why make another documentary on this theme now?

I’ve been quite connected to the club scene in Berlin for many years. My first documentary Feiern (2006) was about the club scene around Berghain and the previous club Ostgut. Ostgut and Berghain came very much from a masculine gay perspective, but more recently, I discovered spaces that were womxn-run. As I was doing so, everything shut down because of the pandemic. Everything I had lined up was gone and I was stuck at home as a single mum homeschooling my kids. A young producer who had seen Feiern got in touch around that time, asking if I wanted to do a sequel. I told her ‘No, but I have this idea about sex-positive spaces and their visibility, maybe we can do something with that?’.

Still from Truth or Dare. Credit: Alina Albrecht.

Then the lockdown shifted, and many club spaces opened as exhibition spaces. I thought okay, maybe we can make an exhibition that would emulate different spaces, like a darkroom, a play space – all with sound and video installations built into an immersive experience. I started researching online, recording interviews. This process challenged my own prejudices, especially around sex workers. I discovered this queer sex-positive post-porn scene in Berlin, and became a part of it. I love the way this scene tries to create safer spaces through the way they produce porn and challenge stereotypical ways in which sexuality and bodies are perceived.

I’m always trying to find new ways so people have more power over their own story.

How do you successfully capture and represent something that is such a personal experience, like sex?

I’d never shot real sex before the documentary. And I thought long about the process, about how to do it mindfully. How can I shoot this and create a space that allows people to have real intimacy and not just perform it? Then we got the funding for a short film. We built this little by little over the last two years, and it’s still in process. Interestingly enough, out of this process came other ideas and documentaries. We are doing another documentary with one of the people who appears in Truth Or Dare, Puck Ellington, a non-binary artist, sex worker, stripper, oil wrestler and post-porn performer, about the relationship between a character that they invented and the private person behind that, how they influence each other.

Now that it’s almost done, did anything surprise you about the final result?

In Truth or Dare, we see consent talks, where everyone sits together and introduces each other and has a mindful check-in. I also asked the protagonists to find a partner they really, really like, someone they have at least a crush on, so that there’s a personal and emotional level involved as well. So a lot of the footage is very sweet. I mean, there’s some rough BDSM stuff, but there’s a lot of sweetness and softness and tenderness, which you wouldn’t expect.

LoFi Cherry in Truth or Dare. Credit: Alina Albrecht.

Let’s back up a bit. How did you first get into filmmaking?

I grew up in Hamburg and studied American Literature and Psychology. Soon I realised that I wanted to work practically, with people and my hands and not so much intellectually or academically. I spent a year in San Francisco with independent filmmaker William Farley, as his assistant. I finally found him online after looking up big film production companies. At first, he said, “I’m just a one-person operation, I can’t have an intern!” I told him I wanted to learn from him – he seemed so cool. Through Farley I realised that directing is so complex. And to understand auteurship, I wanted to study – I didn’t want to take any side routes. So I studied directing at Film University Babelsberg. In the beginning, I thought I wanted to focus on fiction, but I discovered that I love the process of having a small team with flat hierarchies, and discovering stories together, which is basically the process of documentary-making.

What’s your approach – where do you start?

I’m always driven by questions more than messages. I have something that I want to know more about, like a subculture or a topic that I have questions about. That is my starting process. And I think I also often choose topics where I feel that there is stigmatism or discrimination. I find I tend to meet the people that go beyond these stigmas, like the stigma of sex-positive spaces being hedonistic spaces. I often start with feeling out some stereotypes in me that I want to challenge. Then I really try to get to know the people and really understand, to find their soul and their humanity. I think that’s when you cannot stick to your discriminatory thoughts, if you’ve felt somebody’s soul, somebody’s humanity, somebody’s trauma. That’s often what I’m trying to do with my films.

Still from Truth or Dare. Credit: Maja Classen.

Why make documentaries with subjective viewpoints, rather than being a fly on the wall?

That’s an interesting question, because I’m also teaching at a documentary graduate programme and we talk a lot about these different authorship approaches and the different modes of documentary. My own graduation film, Osdorf was about young delinquents in Hamburg. I wanted to do a direct cinema, film it fly on the wall.

There’s some rough BDSM stuff, but there’s a lot of sweetness and softness and tenderness.

And then, when we entered the space – which was outside of Hamburg, plenty of high rises, and like a ghetto – the kids reacted very strongly to us, because they had already had experience with the media that was very negative, very much putting them in boxes and asking them to represent gangster stereotypes. They didn’t feel respected at all. And they put us in the same box, because we were also white middle class kids coming from film school wanting to make a documentary about them. I felt that I had to make this part of the documentary. I can’t pretend we’re not there, because they are acting and reacting to us as we point the camera at them.

Now, with one of my current projects, I’m diving into the queer sex work community and becoming a part of it. But I’m not a sex worker, and I come with a team. We’re entering a space of queer sex workers, and there are moments where some people feel like we’re intruding, and it’s something that I feel is very important to acknowledge and try to react mindfully. This is something that is really, really important for me as a filmmaker and film tutor – consensual, mindful, ethical filmmaking, to really make an effort to avoid the people who participate feeling exploited. I’m always trying to find new ways so people have more power over their own story.

Bishop Black and Jorge The Obsence in Truth or Dare. Credit: Maja Classen.

You’ve made or are making films about sex-positivity, the techno scene and the immigrant experience. Some might think it’s daunting to take on such big Berlin themes. Why go there?

It’s always been attractive for me, topics that are somehow taboo, because the general image that society has on these topics – on sex positivity, or porn – is that they’re very much stigmatised. I never really watched porn, because mainstream porn is very sexist. It’s very misogynistic. And it’s also very, very staged. That’s not attractive to me at all. But I always found that if you look deeper into something, and if you start meeting people, then you see the other side of it. If somebody tells you about how shy they were at their first sex date or when they first got into sex work, it’s really difficult to hold this taboo. And I like to challenge myself, I don’t find it so daunting. I think the challenge is to not fall into these traps of reproducing exactly the stereotypes.

Why is Berlin a good backdrop for your work?

Berlin is really such a magnet for queer sex-positive people from all over the world, because here the scene is so free. There are places where it’s politically not safe to be queer, or very open with your sexuality. Maybe it was the party or club capital at one point, but now it’s definitely the queer sex-positivity capital. That was also a really interesting part of the interviews, to know about the different political and cultural backgrounds that people are coming from and how they were raised and how the religious or political restrictions they grew up with have influenced them. The need to live differently and to be more free – that’s possible here.