A new set of guidelines for handling intimate scenes in film and television shoots was recently released in South Africa. Similar to those adopted in other countries, the protocols were compiled in consultation with the country's major bodies for industry workers and producers. They provide guidance on how to make cast and crew safe, especially from sexual harassment and assault. Performer and academic Fiona Ramsay asked Kate Lush, a co-creator of the new protocols, why they matter.
Why are the protocols needed?
Historically, actors and students actors were groomed to believe that if they didn't say yes to whatever the director or lecturer asked, someone else would; this was a side to the industry they'd just have to accept. Actors were rarely asked to interrogate their personal boundaries or comfort levels. As a result sexual harassment, bullying and coercion were rife in all areas of the entertainment industry and throughout academic institutions.
When I talk to people about what my role as an intimacy coordinator actually involves, the first question is usually, 'What did people do before?'. It seems astonishing to think that there was no clear methodology attached to scenes that had intimate content. Directors often didn't know how to talk about or direct these scenes. Actors were repeatedly told to just work it out for themselves or improvise. Often they were made to rehearse and perform kisses, simulated sex and nudity in front of entire casts and crews. Needless to say, this often created scenes that didn't serve the story or left actors feeling embarrassed, ashamed or violated.
So, around the world, various production companies and unions have adopted similar guidelines. This was spurred by the revelations of sexual abuse by Hollywood producers that led to the #MeToo movement.
What do the protocols propose?
Since the beginning of 2020, the South African film industry has been in conversation with Intimacy Practitioners South Africa to create protocols that outline what best practice looks like. (Intimacy Practitioners SA follows similar organisations in the US and UK. It was set up to advocate for and support intimacy coordinators and cast and crew working on intimate scenes on sets in South Africa.)
By following the protocols, producers and directors are encouraged to look at intimate content in a professional way. The protocols outline what considerations need to be put in place from pre-production, during production and into post-production. They talk about consent and agreements that must be put in place. About the right environment to hold auditions and what is the safest way to navigate scenes with intimacy, kissing, nudity and simulated sex.
They're also framed with an anti-sexual harassment ethos that should be embedded into the culture of each set and a link to a code of good practice.
Actors, for example, are required always to work with a third person, to discuss the story and character arcs as a way of keeping the personal and professional in perspective. Actors are encouraged to have autonomy over their bodies. Equally they provide guidelines that encourage creativity and resourcefulness; they invite discussion and collaboration.
The protocols also highlight the scenes that present significant risk to the cast and encourage the use of an intimacy coordinator. This person would work with the directors, showrunners, producers and writers to facilitate their vision, while communicating the comfort levels and personal boundaries of the actors.
Is #MeToo part of the historical impetus?
The #MeToo movement was initiated in 2006 by the sexual harassment survivor and activist Tarana Burke. It was during the same year that the movement director Tonia Sena, co-founder of Intimacy Directors International (now Intimacy Directors and Coordinators), wrote her Master of Fine Arts in theatre pedagogy thesis, Intimate Encounters; Staging Intimacy and Sensuality. It was in response to the work she was undertaking while assisting on the choreography of intimate content in student dance productions.
But it wasn't until #MeToo in 2017 that producers began to realise that they needed to do something proactive to keep their actors safe and to reduce the risk of litigation and bad press.
It was during 2017/18 that the intimacy coordinators Alicia Rodis (US) and Ita O'Brien (UK) were invited on to set, employed specifically as intimacy coordinators, for the HBO show The Deuce and the Netflix show Sex Education.
Here, in South Africa, also in 2017, the organisation Sisters Working in Film and Television conducted and published a survey on sexual discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual assault and violence in the South African film and TV industry. They followed this by creating the #ThatsNotOK campaign.
The protocols can't be policed, though?
By working with the whole industry we're hoping that their use will be organic. There is not a single voice instructing their use, there are many voices encouraging their use.
Some might argue this muzzles creative work
We have to assume that everyone always wants to do their best work. We have to also assume that producers want sets that are productive and respectful environments in which to work. Using the protocols, especially when in conjunction with an intimacy coordinator, brings professionalism and clarity to a process that has been historically muddy.
The guidelines never look to censor the work of any production, but to ask questions of the directors and the actors as to the story they're trying to tell in each intimate moment. They support story explorations and can offer creative solutions. Challenging stories do need to be told, but when pushing the envelope of what has been, or is deemed, to be acceptable, film makers need to take responsibility for their productions and the people working on them.