Long before KINK and SEX TV became staples of sex “edutainment,” the prospect of a film of any genre, be it narrative or documentary, dealing with BDSM was very exciting. After all, the ground on the subject was more barren than Pat Robertson’s sex life. So in 1996, when it was announced that a feature-length documentary on the subject was coming to a theatre near you, fetish communities around the world rejoiced! Finally, a filmmaker was going to cover one of the most misunderstood sexual lifestyles and offer an objective, unflinching view on what the world of BDSM is really all about. Unfortunately, the filmmaker was Nick Broomfield.
FETISHES centers on Pandora’s Box, Manhattan’s famous upscale dungeon where clients can pay up to $1,000 an hour to indulge in some of their deepest and darkest fantasies. Pandora is run by Mistress Raven (who incidentally looks like a dead ringer for Cher), the most famous Dominatrix who’s ever worked America’s East Coast. She employs a wide array of Mistresses, each of whom specialize in different aspects of BDSM. We’re introduced to Mistress Raven and the other Mistresses throughout the course of the film via a series of interviews and filmed sessions, with the latter providing the obvious eye candy of the film.
One of the strengths of FETISHES is that in addition to the more conspicuous ones, Broomfield also devotes a portion of his film to the study of socio-political fetishes. For example, we meet a Jewish client who has concentration camp fantasies and wishes to be verbally humiliated by a Dominatrix in a Nazi uniform, an African American client wanting to pretend he’s being auctioned off as a slave in the days of plantation slavery and a white cop who beats up black men during the day and fantasizes about apologizing by submitting to them at night. While these are admittedly extreme examples of just how far the boundaries of fetishistic fantasies go, there’s undoubtedly a fascinating psychological aspect to them that warrants mention and kudos to Broomfield for including them.
Broomfield also deserves credit for showcasing Elissa Wald (a.k.a. Jessie), a woman who identifies herself as a “professional submissive.” When one speaks of BDSM in film, all too often men are categorized as being submissive and women as being dominant. In reality, the roles are reversed more often than you’d think. Mistress Raven employs Jessie as a sub for men who have domination fantasies they wish to enact. Jessie comes across as a perfectly normal woman who sees S&M as an opportunity to have complete control over her body and dictate exactly what she wants happening to it.
Broomfield, however, commits the cardinal sin of going into the making of a documentary with a preconceived notion of what his subject is all about and, despite finding evidence to the contrary, almost exclusively focuses on footage that proves his point. FETISHES is a film that was clearly made on the pretense that BDSM is a weird and unhealthy sexual activity solely based on the giving and receiving of pain. There’s a scene in which Mistress Raven asks Broomfield if he’d be willing to participate in a session to which he declines because he “doesn’t like pain.” With that admission, Mistress Raven clearly sees through Broomfield and realizes he has no knowledge whatsoever about the subject he’s documenting and rightfully chews him out for it.
Broomfield also employs a very condescending tone throughout the film, be it the use of ironic music over the film’s inter-titles, the “peep show” approach he takes in showcasing “real people with strange habits” or – perhaps the most offensive – when he actually laughs during a male client’s session with his Mistress.
Nick Broomfield’s FETISHES came out at a time when films on the subject were few and far between. Nowadays that’s no longer the case and, as such, there is no real reason to recommend this film when there are plenty of better options out there.