Discussing Equality in the Bedroom with 'The Dilemma of Desire' Filmmakers

We speak with documentary heavyweights Maria Finitzo, Diane Quon, and Cynthia Kane about their upcoming feminist film.

Kartemquin Films

Women’s equality is a familiar subject for filmmaker Maria Finitzo. The two-time Peabody Award-winning documentarian and Kartemquin Films associate directed her first film, 5 Girls, after a trip to Blockbuster Video: “We were wandering through the aisles, looking for a movie, and my eight-year-old daughter asked, ‘Where are all the movies about girls?'”

There were plenty of films with girl sidekicks, but the selection of titles was clearly missing stories that portrayed the real lives of young women. “So, I decided to make a film about girls growing up,” Finitzo told me, “I wanted a film that my daughter could watch that would reflect her life experience in some way.”

Since the premiere of 5 Girls on PBS in 2001, Finitzo has gone on to direct and produce a number of successful social issue documentaries, including Mapping Stem Cell Research: Terra Incognita and In the Game. Both films involve young women and the struggles they face, whether that be paralyzation in the former or the issues of equality for a low-income, predominantly Hispanic high school soccer team in the latter.

While looking for her next project, Finitzo once again found herself drawn to women’s rights and equality as she picked up a copy of Daniel Bergner’s What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire. The book follows a group of researchers who studied women’s sexuality and, despite common societal assumptions, found that women’s sex drives are just as high as men’s.

Although the conclusion of the study cast a favorable light on the subject of sex drives, Finitzo became focused on the lie that had been told to women for generations, the lie that dismissed women’s libido in order to reinforce patriarchal structures.

“That became the germ of wanting to cinematically explore the idea of what gets in the way of women having agency over their sexual desire, whatever that desire is,” Finitzo says. She had found her new film, and from that point on, the idea of The Dilemma of Desire became a reality. “It’s like a lot of my films, an exploration of how women still struggle for equality, only this film looks at that issue through the lens of how we are treated as sexual beings.”

I spoke with Finitzo and The Dilemma of Desire producers Diane Quon (Minding the Gap) and Cynthia Kane (Sundance Channel, ITVS, Al Jazeera), to find out more about their new project.

Nonfics: Why is it important that this film is being made now?

Maria Finitzo: There are textbooks used in med school for doctors that are specialized in OBGYN, and there are only a few textbooks that have the complete examination and innovation of the clitoris. And these are people who are doctors for women, right? Men’s prostate is the holy grail of urology. Everybody knows all about it and are worried about knicking the nerves, and nobody even gives a shit about the clitoris.

Cynthia Kane: I’ve been shocked approaching people, many women, and even senators who can’t say the word clitoris because there’s still so much stigma and shame around saying it. It’s tragic.

Who are the subjects of The Dilemma of Desire?

Diane Quon: Maria has been shooting and following many characters — we call them four experts that are using their work to change the culture and break myths about female sexuality. And then we follow five “everyday” women and watch them as they go about their lives and deal with sexuality and how people perceive them and how they’re overcoming their challenges. Just in a very real way, rather than just telling you what’s happening. I always think it’s better to see what is happening.

With a taboo topic like female sexuality, has there been hesitance from any of the participants to open up about the subject matter?

MF: The whole process of bringing in five verite stories started with a big meeting of maybe 40 women at my condo. I showed a clip of the film with Sophia Wallace and her clitoris-themed 100 Natural Laws installation and I thought people were going to be really embarrassed to talk about that, but immediately, women started talking about it saying, “We never have these conversations, no one ever comes together to have these conversations, and I want to talk about this.” So that was a surprise to me. And then when you pick a subject, it’s always an exploration. I’m very aware of that need for trust and the need in some sense to protect the people in my film because I know what happens when a film is released and someone is in it, even if it’s a story that everyone feels good about it, it’s still a very powerful experience to see yourself on a screen. And that’s been something I’ve been aware of from the beginning and will continue to be aware of as I go through the film.

How do you think the film’s subject of sexuality will affect distribution?

DQ: That’s a huge part of a producer’s role: what do we have to do to make it as marketable as possible whether it’s for funders or distributors? What’s the best way to get it to the audience?

MF: If you haven’t noticed, the double standard is women’s bodies can be sexualized and objectified. We can watch on network television a rape-a-week show — and don’t even get me started about cable tv — but a film that wants to say that women can be sexual and that they have that right somehow counts as pornographic. So, I hope we get this film out into the world broadly. It will not be on public television, but I hope it will be on one of the major cable TV platforms and then after has a life in community screenings, at high schools, all over the place.

What kind of impact are you hoping to make with this film?

MF: I do have a really specific impact goal and I’m calling it #tellherthetruth. I want every girl entering her freshman year of high school to know the truth about her anatomy, what her clitoris looks like, what it is, and what it’s for. The sexual landscape is complicated, and I think if we empowered girls with that knowledge, they would have information that would enable them to make different choices about deciding how and when to be sexual. And I’m not saying they won’t be sexual, but I’m just saying that if we shifted the narrative to the truth — that within their own bodies they have the capacity for great pleasure — that sex wouldn’t always be about the guy’s pleasure.

DQ: I have three daughters, and when Maria said it was about equality, that means a lot to me, to keep making a difference and trying to make a better world for my daughters for the future.

CK: The more we make this less shameful and less not talked about, the more we’re open about it, the more normal it all becomes, which is really, really important.

What went into the decision to launch the Kickstarter campaign?

DQ: We have finished shooting and have edited rough cuts of acts one and two, but now we have no more money left, which is a common issue in documentaries. So we decided to do a Kickstarter campaign to raise more money for editing.

CK: The $40,000 goal is a sweet spot for Kickstarter for what docs can raise. A lot of campaigns don’t succeed, so we wanted to start with something we knew that we hopefully could obtain and it’s really exciting that in just a little over a week we’ve obtained this goal. Now, we can do a stretch goal because we do have a lot more money to raise to finish this film and so in doing a stretch, we can start thinking about our animations and graphics.

MF: The Kickstarter campaign has been really fun to watch. Diane is the leader, and it’s being run by a group of interns and her three daughters who are all volunteering their efforts to make it a success. And usually when people volunteer, you have to be on them to do the work, but these people really believe in the mission of this film, so it’s been such a tremendous energy behind the work they’ve been doing, and it’s been so much fun to be a part of and I’ve been honored to see how hard everyone has been working towards this goal.

The Dilemma of Desire continues to crowdfund through next week. The hope is for the film to hit the festival circuit in 2020.

Dylan is a Chicago local with a love of documentary filmmaking, television, and her pet rabbit, Paul. When she's not working at her full-time job at tastytrade.com, you can find her cooking for friends or discussing the brilliance of The Fast and Furious franchise.