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FilmOut: "Folsom Forever" filmmaker Mike Skiff talks kink, fetish

(Editor's note: SDGLN is featuring Q&A interviews with leading filmmakers from around the world who are participating in FilmOut San Diego's 16th annual LGBT Film Festival, running May 30 to June 1 at the historic North Park Theatre. Follow us for all the news about one of the top LGBT film festivals in the U.S. “Folsom Forever” will be presented at 10 pm Saturday, May 31. Fetish Men San Diego is a co-presenter.)

SAN DIEGO, California – What started out as a small-time street festival in 1984, designed to shine a light on the rough-and-tumble Folsom Street neighborhood and stave off the bulldozers of urban redevelopment, became the worldwide phenomenon called the Folsom Street Festival that highlights the kink and fetish community.

Director Mike Skiff (“Kink Crusaders”) documents the history of the popular San Francisco event in his new documentary, “Folsom Forever,” coming to FilmOut San Diego’s 16th annual LGBT Film Festival.

Mike Skiff details what drove him to make “Folsom Forever,” what he learned from his extensive research, and why he likes confronting the expectations of viewers.

Q: “Folsom Forever” examines the phenomenon that is the Folsom Street Fair. What is your connection to the fair and what drove you to make a documentary about it?

Other boys read Playboy in high school; I read the leather magazine “Drummer” in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It was based out of San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood and made Folsom Street sound like a mecca of hyper-masculine sexuality, contrasted to the drag and disco culture available in Phoenix where I grew up. It was a rite of passage as a budding leatherman to visit Folsom. The Folsom Street Fair evolved into a wild celebration of SOMA’s queer, kinky roots. I found that story fascinating -- and largely untouched in film.

Q: What is a lasting lesson you’ve learned from making this documentary?

Folsom Street Fair’s origins were not as a leather/kink debacle but a kind of political action against neighborhood gentrification as well as a reaction to AIDS apathy Reagan administration.

Q: What taboos are you trying to shatter with this film?

More than taboos, I was interested in challenging a kind of “kumbaya” version of queer history that’s taken hold since the height of AIDS and the rise of gay marriage. We didn’t always get along. “Folsom Forever” looks at the challenges the kink community has faced from within the greater LGBT movement. There was a good deal of mutually agreed upon separatism between the men’s and women’s communities. Leather dykes were vilified by the greater feminist community for celebrating BDSM. Racial intolerance was common with bars having rules requiring three pieces of ID for those they wished to ban. And while unprotected sex allowed the spread of the HIV virus throughout SF, shame about sexuality led many gay leaders to seek the closure of bathhouses and sex clubs, places where information about alternative sex practices could be discussed. This fear of sexuality helped in the closure of business and cultural institutions which had begun promoting safer-sex awareness.

Q: Do general audiences generally get past the taboos in your films, such as “Folsom Forever” and “Kink Crusaders,” or perhaps not?

It’s funny … I directed over 20 gay porn features in the ‘90s for Catalina Video (“the Disney of gay porn”). It would be easy for me, as a documentarian, to make films that really are titillatingly cum-shot driven. Rather, I do want to confront a viewer’s expectations, to go beyond the physical by exploring the history and the politics that makes sexuality such a fascinating part of our humanity. In that sense, I do think they get past the taboos. Still, the viewer is giving up more than an hour of to sit for my film and I hope that I have won their confidence with quality storytelling.

Q: What people do behind closed doors has always been a closely guarded secret in America. Do you think leather and kink are more common than people think?

I once wrote an essay for gay pride called “Perverts, Be Proud.” In it I pointed out that statutes across American criminalized people who engaged in oral, anal or any non-procreative sex as perverts. The most “vanilla” of gays and lesbians by today’s standards were viewed as vile and despicable. These laws applied to straights as well. If you’re not trying to make a baby, you’re opening up all that intimacy and passion to a world of possibilities.

That said, no one should be forced to do something with their body they don’t want to. Sex is oddly the one place were discrimination is actually OK.

Q: What is the buzz about “Folsom Forever” on the film festival circuit?

Are we talking mainstream film festivals or queer film festivals? Because “Kink Crusaders” and “Folsom Forever” get very little love from the mainstream (I think it takes having a name like [James] Franco for Sundance to really care). But within the queer circuit, I’m so proud of the excitement the films have generated because they both strive to tell historical/cultural stories largely abandoned because of shame -- or not being sexy enough to attract an audience.

Q: What do you want audiences to remember about the film after they leave the theater?

As Folsom continues to expand as a global brand representing the celebration of sexual freedom, the street fair itself began not as a fetish event but a political action AND continues its tradition of make remarkable contributions to charity through gate donations.

Q: What’s next for you?

In 1976, Los Angeles’s gay community was greatly oppressed by a homophobic police department under the leadership of Chief Ed Davis. He led a raid of a leather charity “slave auction” at the Mark lV bathhouse, in which some 40 men from were arrested. It’s my understanding that this was the largest single apprehension of the gay community in LA’s history. Some of those arrested that night were Bob Opel, made famous to America for streaking actor David Nivens at the Oscars, pornographer Fred Halsted and the publishers of Drummer magazine.
Few people are left to speak first-hand about the event and I fear it is another story that could be lost with the passage of time. It is a challenging project for many reasons.

Q: What is something your fans don’t know about you?

I am youth mentor through LifeWorks program at LA’s Gay and Lesbian Center.

About FilmOut San Diego

FilmOut San Diego affirms the ongoing integrity and boundless imagination of our community and the artists who tell our stories. We believe our work is an integral part of an ongoing effort to build a vibrant, affirming and sustainable LGBT community in San Diego County. We hope you will join us.

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Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN and GLBTNN. He can be reached at ken@sdgln.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.