From Issue 3.5 - June 1997


A Documentary by Nick Broomfield

Review by Anna Bergman

A good interviewer gets inside his or her subject and brings something interesting to the surface. This requires knowledge, insight, and mastery -- none of which Nick Broomfield brings to "Fetishes," his documentary on Pandora's Box, a Manhattan "sadomasochistic brothel" (better known to the rest of us as a professional S/M dungeon). Broomfield's "golly gee whiz" approach worked to expose the exploitation of accused serial killer Aileen Wournos in a previous film, but he's no match for the mistresses.

Mistress Raven, the proprietrix of Pandora's Box, doesn't do sessions anymore because she's burnt out. This seems reasonable enough, but Broomfield is convinced that there must be some deeper reason, and refers back to it throughout the film. He doesn't find out anything more about it -- probably because she's telling the truth -- and it's just one example of his peep show mentality regarding sadomasochism. The same question, "when did you first know you were a sadomasochist?", is asked in almost all the interviews, and is as deep as he goes.

Broomfield's other main interest seems to be the dominatrices' personal relationships with men. Mistress Catherine identifies as bisexual, but the interview focuses on her ex-husband. Broomfield asks all the women when they last "had a man," and films two of them searching on-line personal ads. After introducing her pet iguana, Mistress Katrina reiterates that "only a strong man can share my bed." She is obviously toying with Broomfield, and he is incapable of cracking her surface. Do any of these women have children, girlfriends, friends, or parents -- any relationships that don't involve men? In such a narrowly focused documentary, the subjects need to be brought out and developed in order to be interesting and real. The women of Pandora's box treated Broomfield like a client, providing a service with strict limits and no emotion. Maybe he got what he asked for, but he should learn what to ask for.

On the voyeuristic side, Fetishes provides a glimpse of some the work that goes on at Pandora's Box. The various sessions feature asphyxiation, single tail whips, and a pony ride. There is -- probably unintended -- camp value to the film, which will be most appreciated by those who are familiar with the world of professional S/M. One amusing scene involves a cross-dressing "infantilist" who is told by the mistress how painful it is to be a woman, from PMS to beauty treatments. Elissa Wald, author of "Meeting the Master," makes an appearance as "Jesse," a personal slave to Mistress Catherine. It was fun to watch someone enjoying the camera that much, as did the only other female bottom, a professional submissive who bottoms to women for her own needs.

Broomfield seemed stunned that the real world enters S/M play in his treatment of "sociopolitical scenes." Such sessions included a concentration camp scene and a plantation scene, which featured the only non-white client. Was this man the only person of color to visit Pandora's Box, or just the only one filmed? Likewise, the only non-white mistress was not interviewed.

The ostensible climax of the film was when the mistresses jumped Broomfield, who has refused to try a session himself during the entire course of the filming. Somehow that made no sense -- why make a documentary on something you have no personal interest in? Throughout most of the film, the camera made sense as an extra mind-fuck turnon, but this final scene was just plain staged, and Broomfield made us of the filmmakers safe word -- turning the camera off.

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Last updated: 6 July 1997