Making intimacy safe on set

The development of industry protocols for filming intimate content and the introduction of intimacy coordinators is a critical and vital step for safety on and beyond sets in South Africa.

The South African film and television industry became part of a worldwide movement when it adopted protocols launched last month for intimate content, marking a significant shift from the industry’s harmful and violating legacy.

The protocols grew out of a collective endeavour to cushion the industry from the impact of Covid-19. The consultative process  to sustain the industry offered a template for developing the intimacy protocols, said Tracy Clayton from the South African Screen Federation (Sasfed) and Sisters Working in Film and TV (Swift). 

Swift introduced the concept of intimacy coordination when Kate Lush, a movement director and intimacy coordinator from the United Kingdom, gave a workshop at the Durban International Film Festival in 2019.  

Intimate content may be emotional or physical intimacy, sexually charged or not. The role of an intimacy coordinator involves “keeping track of what the actors agree to, what the director wants, what the storytelling wants, how the production is going to handle it and how wardrobe is going to handle it, and to pull all these elements together and to get an agreement and consent on set,” said Lush.

Undated: Safe Sets and Intimacy Practitioners South Africa drafted intimacy protocols for South African film and television sets in consultation with industry stakeholders. (Photograph supplied)

Lush trained with Ita O’Brien, who pioneered intimacy coordination in the UK. 

“There is an inherent risk in unchoreographed sex scenes, a risk of trauma and a risk of sexual harassment,” said O’Brien. “Any scenes involving fights or stunts are discussed in advance and mapped out to avoid anyone sustaining injury … It could be argued the emotional and physiological injury sustained in a poorly directed sex scene could have much longer lasting implications, and cause much more hurt, than any physical injury.”

Swift founder and then chairperson Sara Blecher trained with O’Brien and when Lush relocated to South Africa early last year, the two women formed their company, Safe Sets, and non-profit Intimacy Practitioners South Africa (IPSA).  

They drafted intimacy protocols and consulted representative bodies in the film and TV industry.   The Independent Producers’ Organisation (IPO), Sasfed, the South African Guild of Actors (Saga) and the Personal Managers’ Association of agents all took part in the process.

“It just got broader and broader and broader, and we began to consider more and more angles. None of the other protocols in the world had gone this wide at the time. Since then, Canada has come out with protocols that address the different parts of the value chain. But ours were the only protocols that really addressed the whole industry, whether you are a producer, a director, a writer, an actor, a casting director… So that was really amazing.” 

The real effects 

It has taken years for intimacy coordinators to be recognised as equals with stunt coordinators, animal wranglers and child wranglers, which are required by law on South African film and television sets. Early intimacy coordinators such as Alice Rodis from American television network HBO, who was a fight coordinator, recognised that if actors are dealing with intimate, emotionally charged material, it needs to be choreographed, repeatable and blockable or precisely staged. 

When the Me Too movement outed now convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein in 2017, it exposed violations in sex scenes on film sets around the world. Erotic films made decades earlier, such as Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, came under renewed scrutiny. Actress Maria Schneider has spoken out about the lasting effects of performing a rape scene that wasn’t in the script. 

Co-star Marlon Brando and Bertolucci told her about it right before they began filming. “Even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears,” said Schneider. She never appeared nude on screen again. 

With intimacy protocols, actors are empowered to say “this is my body, these are my boundaries and this is what I consent to” without being intimidated or afraid they will lose their jobs in an industry with a culture of fear and reprisal. 

Undated: Director Sechaba Morojele. (Photograph supplied)

But not all producers can afford an intimacy coordinator, said IPO co-chair Thandi Davids. “So, what we have done, in conjunction with the experts, is create what we call a producers’ checklist, which indicates what to look out for and to be aware of and cognisant of as we go into creating intimate scenes on our sets, with the understanding that it is going to take us a number of years before these protocols, from a cost perspective, will be in every single budget that producers create.” 

The movement is working with broadcasters and commissioning editors, said Davids. In the conservative South African environment, “a lot of that content is now pushing boundaries” and “has sexual content in it … They are not looking to just fade to black so audiences assume what is going on. So there is a shift.”

The change has made new demands on writers, said screenwriter Vicki Bawcombe at a recent Saga webinar. “Over the years we have been comfortable just saying ‘cut to sex’ or ‘cut to rape’, and leaving it to the actors and directors to figure out how to do it. But the story doesn’t go on pause while these extreme moments are happening. In fact, those moments reveal aspects of the storytelling that we need to take responsibility for.”

And gender-based violence (GBV) is an inescapable backdrop. “The paradigm that you face as a producer, as a director, as a male actor, is that you have power, and that is the premise from which you must operate when you walk on to a set,” said Khayelihle “Dom” Gumede at the Saga webinar. “The responsibility is really about how I read and understand myself as a man, because that has a power to it that is exceptionally clear.” 

Time is up

Director Sechaba Morojele, who worked recently with Blecher on a film with a number of sex scenes, said, “Working with a coach who is loving and caring as Sara was opened the women up much more to be able to say no, or to be able to say yes and feel comfortable.”

Morajele said he didn’t think there was any option but for the industry to adopt the protocols. “Time is up in the patriarchal world that we live in. If any actor makes any kind of sexual advance to a woman now, they get kicked off set. That could happen to directors as well. It will change the way that directors work. But producers must set the standard by finding the money to employ an intimacy coordinator.”

Actors, including men who have been traumatised by playing a perpetrator of sexual violence, have welcomed the protocols.  

31 January 2018: Nthati Moshesh at actor Sandy Mokwena’s memorial service. Sara Blecher is the intimacy coordinator on the set of Isono, in which Moshesh stars. (Photograph by Gallo Images/ Lucky Morajane) 

Nthati Moshesh plays the main role in drama series Isono, which is known for its sexual content. Moshesh explained how Blecher, the intimacy coordinator on the series, works with and sensitises directors. “An actor has to ask permission to come into your personal space and there is a lot of staring into each other’s eyes to establish the level of comfort you feel between one another, and from then on you shoot the scene. And then after the scene Sara debriefs you, which is something that has never been done before in this country.”

Tarryn Wyngaard, known most recently for her role in Showmax drama Dam, worked with Blecher on the set of Afrikaans coming-of-age film Pou (Peacock). The intimate scene was of a girl kissing her best friend in a swimming pool. Issues around consent were important, Wyngaard said. “Intimacy is a strange, strange thing. You think that kissing is hectic or whatever, but sometimes just holding hands and giving someone permission to see you can be more intimate than having to do a stunt that is very nuts-and-boltsy.”

Undated: Tarryn Wyngaard worked with Sara Blecher on the set of Afrikaans coming-of-age film Pou. (Photograph supplied)

Wyngaard carries insecurities from a bad experience on set. “It was a nightmare, because I was almost bullied by the producer,” she said. “I hadn’t had clear discussions with the director about nudity and what he was expecting. I was also shooting in another country, so I was away from everyone and on my own and it was quite an unpleasant experience in terms of having to fight to protect my body in the contract … No actor wants a situation where you have to go in fighting, it is not conducive to the creative process.”

With Pou, Wyngaard read the script and said the questions raised about sex and shame were important. “I spoke to the director about his intention and his approach, and how he wanted to de-shame the whole thing. It freed me, it liberated me more as a performer. I could focus more on the actor’s journey rather than my own, because I had those insecurities of shame and that needed to be undone to be able to tell the story effectively. That is why I was so grateful to have Sara there and to just work out the nuts and bolts of it and have the scene framed.

“How does the female body have agency and also be protected at the same time?” challenged Wyngaard. “You want this body to have agency and be free and also to have its own artistry. How do you reconcile those different expectations from a woman’s body in a film industry where all this harassment and bullshit is happening? The issue of agency, plus safety, plus creativity in this industry that can be so violent is like a hornet’s nest.”

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