The new psychological thriller Cam explores the camming industry in an intimate and nuanced way. Troy Michael Bordun talks to the filmmakers about digital identity, camgirl super-fans and sex workers rights.
Montreal is a hub for the camming industry, so it’s fitting that Cam (2018), a fiction film about camgirl Alice (Madeline Brewer, The Handmaid’s Tale [2017-] and Orange is the New Black [2013-]) and her aspirations of fame, premiered at the city’s Fantasia Film Festival. In my interview with writer Isa Mazzei, director Daniel Goldhaber, and actor Patch Darragh, Mazzei mentions that they wanted the film’s location to be non-specific, a kind of “Anywhere, USA.” The non-specific location is appropriate: digital technology allows anyone with a computer, webcam, and ID to become a camgirl. In Cam, small-town Alice (Lola by camname) wishes to become the number one performer on FreeGirls.Live but runs into trouble when a doppelganger steals her identity. This simple story allows Mazzei and Goldhaber to explore the industry and craft a unique psychological thriller with a potent and timely message: destigmatize the camming profession and provide more oversight and legal rights for sex workers.
Due to the popularity of the camming industry, camgirls have received a lot of attention in recent years. Camgirls operate at the periphery of sex work, combining porn performance, what some view as prostitution, and stripping all into one round-the-clock job. As Cam makes clear, sex is just a small part of this work: camming requires social media presence, purchasing outfits and props, interacting with fans online and sometimes offline, and researching other camgirls.
Cam’s acute depiction of the industry, the workers, and the performances is one of its strengths. This accuracy is due, in part, to Mazzei’s previous experience as a camgirl and the in-depth research she and Goldhaber conducted prior to and during scriptwriting. “Initially it was purely pulling from my own experiences and trying to put that on the page,” Mazzei said. “Later, we involved other camgirls and sex workers, speaking to them about their experiences as well.” Goldhaber was also able to interview Mazzei’s former fans: “I had the opportunity to meet these people and ask them all of the questions I could think of. When it came to collaborating with Patch and Michael Dempsey, who plays Barney, it felt like there were all of these specifics outside of Isa’s direct experience that lent an authenticity and specificity to those characters, characters who were composites of what we found to be the most categorical personality traits amongst the people we interviewed.”
Without a former sex worker’s contribution to the story and script as well as input from camgirl fans, a thriller/horror film about camming could smack of anti-sex work and sex-negative sentiment: we know that the “bad girls” (i.e., slutty girls) always die in horror movies. Instead, the world of Cam is consistently at odds with the camming industry. If the industry and the world mutually cooperated, the film suggests, camgirls could more easily pursue their line of work and simply live better. Cam’s Alice desires this kind of freedom.
Moreover, the film is pro-porn in its depiction of Alice. She enjoys her career and the performative aspect of camming. The pro-porn lean can also be seen in the depiction of camgirl fans and the relationships that can development between them and performers. Darragh’s somewhat creepy yet sympathetic fan-friend Tinker, in his own way, tries to help Alice when she needs it. Although Tinker believes an intimate relationship between himself and Alice is possible, Darragh confirms that the crew nevertheless presents their relationship “beyond the cliché of the dope who thinks something is happening but it’s not.” They develop a friendship apart from Alice’s performances, something that, according to Mazzei, happens frequently amongst camgirls and their fans.
Mazzei clarifies that they didn’t want to moralize on pornography. “We didn’t want the negative stakes of the film to come from [Alice’s] choice to be in pornography, and we wanted audiences to understand why she goes back to pornography in the end.” Goldhaber mentions that they drew inspiration from the depiction of intensely zealous artists and performers in films such as Whiplash (2014) and Black Swan (2010). “Alice is this really passionate performer and artist,” Goldhamer told me. “That doesn’t mean that that is every sex worker or pornographer or camgirl’s experience, but that’s the one we’re following. I think it’s a way of getting an audience to understand, at the very least, the craftsmanship that goes into this work.” Mazzei adds that they wanted audiences to understand Alice’s “dedication and ambition, with her calendar and recording all her tips, doing the research, keeping the notebook, that is how a lot of sex workers approach their job – it is a business, so it is important for us to bring that to light.”
Despite focusing on a young, white, cis-gendered and able-bodied protagonist, Mazzei and Goldhaber also show us a racially diverse camming industry. “Whiteness is privileged, in any industry, but definitely the porn industry. I noticed that the top girls were almost always white. We really wanted to show the top girl as a person of color, and we wanted to make that clear because it’s something that is not necessarily represented in the industry but that should be. It was also important for us to include other camgirls of color.” Goldhaber is also acutely aware of the fact that sex work is not immune to racial bias and discrimination. I’m reminded of Robert Reese’s article about the impossibility of a black Belle Knox. In early 2014, Duke University student Miriam Weeks aka Belle Knox was the subject of a media frenzy when she revealed her line of work (porn actress) and how it helped pay for her education. Reese suggests that Weeks’s whiteness allowed for a largely positive reaction from the public, while a black sex worker would likely have faced violent reproach, at best.
Cam again excels with respect to its nuanced depictions of camgirls, emphasizing racial diversity to be sure, but also highlights bodily, class, and sexual diversity in the industry. A camgirl montage early in the film presents larger women, obvious amateur performers in their bedrooms (contrasted with Alice’s professional-looking and elaborate set), and brief glimpses of sadomasochism. The camming industry has a range of performers and so Cam demonstrates that fans have a range of tastes, fetishes, and desires.
A racially diverse cast isn’t the only political aspect of the film. The plot reads as a call for better working conditions for camgirls. The doppelganger pretending to be Lola looks exactly like Alice, performs from her camming account, and interacts with her fans, but Alice is unable to take legal action due to her criminalized status. Mazzei describes the film as “about a loss of control. When Alice loses control of her digital identity, and as she seeks help, she encounters only red tape and people unwilling to help her.” Alice initially tries to solve this problem by turning to the camming site for help, FreeGirls.Live, but despite taking 50% of her earnings, the site administrators refuse to help her. “It’s not that they’re mean to her,” Mazzie remarks, “they just don’t care because she’s just a commodity that they’re using.” Alice then seeks advice from her camming friends – they can only offer sympathy, not solutions. Finally, she seeks the help of policemen, but unsurprisingly they are ignorant about the industry and one cop is curious about whether she also performs sex work offline. “In the scene with the cops, almost every single line is something that has been said to me in real life or things said to my friends,” Mazzei states.
Alice eventually has a thrilling online confrontation with the doppelganger, but her bureaucratic difficulties prior to this climax speak to a larger systematic issue at stake for the sex worker community. Alice’s line of work, as the film shows, calls for more oversight, fairer and more equitable treatment of performers (health benefits? employment insurance? job security?), and better rights around the circulation and distribution of their images and videos. Alice willingly pursues her passion, but is left at the mercy of camsites’ drive for profit, the law’s misunderstanding of sex work, and stigmatization by friends and family. Without access to the benefits enjoyed by legal workers, camming can certainly be a nightmare.
Troy Michael Bordun is a part-time instructor in Communication Studies and Sociology at Concordia University in Montreal, QC. He most recently published an article on solo performers (and camming) in Porn Studies.