In 2014, Em Cominotti and Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli (a Brooklyn Magazine contributor) began collaborating on what would eventually become the feature film Empathy. The two co-wrote the documentary’s script, with Rovinelli as director and Cominotti as both subject and star. Carefully tracing the contours of Cominotti’s life as a queer escort and sex worker moving between New York City, her native Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles as she reconnects with old friends and clients and attempts to kick her heroin habit, Empathy is largely indistinguishable from fiction filmmaking, despite being tethered closely to Cominotti’s lived experiences. The film finally premieres in its native NYC this month at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real nonfiction festival, which begins tonight. The screening on April 28 will be the first with Em present (due to difficulties traveling to foreign film festivals). In keeping with the tight collaborative back-and-forth between director and subject that formed the material basis of the film, they thought it would perhaps be interesting to continue the film’s aesthetic dialogue into an explicit one with this reciprocal interview, reflecting back on the film and their work together over the past few years.
Em Cominotti: The question I most often get when discussing this film with other sex workers, which I obviously do a lot, is why did you choose to do a film on sex work?
Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli: I think I’m actually interested in two things, work and sex, and sex work puts those two together in a nice way, obviously. In my experience of life in New York City, and you and I have talked about sharing this, you’re always selling yourself in a way, especially when you’re part-time or you’re freelance, which America is moving towards generally. I was interested in the possibility of watching the process by which we make ourselves into something to be sold on-screen, and I want to be clear that this process doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with sex but with work itself. And then my interest in sex is mostly about bodies. I think visually sex is really nice because you get to see two or more bodies work out their relationship to each other physically, the social emerging though bodies moving, and I can’t think of anything more filmic than that. Focusing on sex work is a nice way to make a body a body again, under a context where you know work is going on but you’re asking, “Does something else happen? Can anything else happen?” On the one hand you have this one very oppressive work environment—and I don’t mean to say sex work is oppressive, I mean to say that work is oppressive—
E: All work [laughs].
J: … and then on the other hand there’s sex, which is also this thing that can be very oppressive, but which can also be a way for bodies to return to their materiality again, even if only for a split second. Or maybe that’s just a dream, but you can see it there, maybe.
To ask you a question—I can have a bit of a strong vision, but with this film I was trying to be a little bit more gentle without losing a rigorous approach to perspective, so I always tried to keep strong control behind the camera, and then to fade away once I’d set up that point of view. What did that feel like for you, working with that? Because you’re the other part of the equation.
E: I felt totally free on my end. When I was in front of the camera I felt free to go where I wanted to go conversation-wise or suggestion-wise. You made me feel comfortable and really involved, but I definitely saw that rigid side of you when you worked with the crew. It was interesting to see both sides, but you were clearly being conscientious and giving space to me and being gentle, which I needed, to do this.
J: There were moments such as when we were filming the scene with your client, and you said, “Hey, I’m going to cover my track marks in the bathroom, I think you should come shoot this.” How did you come up with those ideas?
E: I can’t pinpoint that. I was going with the flow at that point. I think part of that came from, or was a little influenced by, my favorite heroin movies. I have my favorite shots, I’ve watched these movies over and over again, and I have these shots in my mind. Not like I was trying to recreate anything, but if something like that would come up, like covering up my track marks, I would be like, “Oh, wow, this kind of reminds me of this in this movie,” and it would probably be really amazing on film.
What was the most difficult scene for you to shoot?
J: I literally just read that off my own set of questions for you. Actually, it was the shot of you and your partner at the time eating at Taco Bell, which was so simple and mundane. We were nearing the end of the film and I was just exhausted. In Pittsburgh you were my guide, in New York, it was my city, but in Los Angeles, it was trying to figure out the framings for this city that I didn’t really understand and I didn’t really like. It was much harder to approach. And there was so much driving and it was so disorienting. I’m really glad Bill pushed me to get that shot.
All right, what was the most difficult one for you?
E: Definitely the scene on Mulholland Drive, driving down in the car. That was the most difficult. Waiting to get that scene, with all the tourist traffic and the anxiety of not knowing after all that waiting if it would turn out OK. It looks great, but while the camera was on me and the wind was whipping through my hair and I was thinking, oh my god this is going to look terrible if I just let my hair go everywhere. But mostly it was just before that, waiting to get that shot with the fucking tourists.
J: So we both had our most difficult shots on the same day.
E: I was 100% sober and in LA. I fucking hate that city. It wasn’t “sharing myself” or actually doing anything on film that was hard, it was everything surrounding it.
So, did you get any negative comments from people when discussing the project while we were filming it?
J: Not really. I heard of a few people who just thought that the project was a bad idea, period, although no one told me that directly. I heard through others that in their minds there was no good way to make this movie.
E: Because it was exploitative?
J: They thought doing it, period, was exploitative, as far as I could tell.
E: But like, I have agency [laughs]. I wanted to show my life, so that’s weird.
J: You’re always going to get comments when you have a film with an eight-minute sex scene in it, asking, Why do we have to see that? And my answer is always, well, I’m interested in how the bodies interact and you need to see that play out, and also if it was a movie about a farmer, you would watch the farmer farm.
E: [laughs] I think it would have been absurd to do the film without having that scene in it. It’s wild to me to even question that. I feel like viewers should see exactly what goes on. It’s a huge part of my work. People ask me that all the time, “What happens during a session?” Why shouldn’t people just see it, if I want them to see it?
J: That scene is the one where you have a lot of control over the action, but at the same time, that character is an amalgam of many characters in your life. What was shooting that scene like, especially with someone you had not seen as a client before?
E: It wasn’t difficult. I just kind of saw the actor as a client, so it was easy for me to just put that mask on him in my mind. We talked about how we wanted it to go before and he did it. He really couldn’t have done it wrong, though, that’s the whole thing, because every client is different. I could have worked with anything.
J: You came to a screening of a movie I’d worked on [Bx46, 2014], and you said, hey, I know you’re doing this project that’s kind of vague but if you want to shoot me for it, you can. At the time we were working on this series of very loosely connected short films, which we ended up doing away with most of. What were your goals at that point? Have they changed?
E: When we were beginning to shoot, I just wanted to document my life, pretty much. I felt like the way I was living was interesting. I thought it would just be a few shots. I loved your work, so I thought it would be cool to work with you. But as we got into it, I really wanted to show and humanize sex work. That’s pretty much my identity at this point. I am 100% out in my life, because I hope that whenever a person is sitting there and someone makes a dead hooker joke or says something derogatory with regards to sex work, they’ll think of me. And hopefully speak up. Not just with sex work, with being a drug addict, too. That ended up being a huge part of this for me. So that people will think of me whenever they hear that horrible shit, and hopefully that will bring about some positive change. And personally, it was just to have something that I can say that I worked on that I can be proud of, especially for my family. Because for so many years my life was just a blank hole for them. I was in New York and they had no idea what I was doing, and now I can be like, look! [laughs] I made a piece of art.
Did doing this film change you in any way, do you think?
J: Yeah, for sure. I had never done a project that had such a complicated back-and-forth between the other team members. The ways in which you and I communicated on set and when we were writing it were really intense, because I knew it relied on us having a back-and-forth, and because it was so many forms of relationships rolled into one—director/actor, artistic collaborators, and intense friendship. I now I think I have to work by putting myself deeply into a situation on all sides of the camera and making sure there’s a caring tension there and that that is visible. It felt like I had my own skin in it a little too, because my act of seeing is so present, or because our interactions are crucial to the film and kind of determine the whole structure. And what really pushed me was figuring out how to do this with tools that weren’t just verbal language, on-screen and off. It’s an ongoing engagement with my own vulnerability and the vulnerability of people around me, which is frightening, but it’s a process I want to continue.
Do you think you’ve changed?
E: Definitely. You can see a lot of it in the film. But I don’t know, that’s a whole can of worms to open, I don’t know where to begin.
J: Are you happy you did it?
E: Definitely. Absolutely no regrets. It’s a beautiful film.
J: Is there anything that you want people who are going to see the film for the first time in New York to know?
E: Honestly just that I had such a large part in creating it, so that they don’t think that it’s just some person that invaded a sex worker’s life, you know. I want people to realize that I really wanted to do this. And that’s it.