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New career path making ‘safe sets’ a reality

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For the #MeToo generation, intimacy co-ordination has become a vital role on film and television sets – one that didn’t exist until recently.

“One of the main purposes of intimacy co-ordination is to advocate for the safety and privacy of the performers,” says Natalie Fisher, a local dancer and choreographer who recently added intimacy co-ordination to her skills set. “This ensures that everyone on set adheres to physical boundaries and understands the importance of establishing codes of conduct.”

Before the inclusion of intimacy co-ordinators on film and television sets, the situation was “completely appalling”, says local intimacy co-ordinator Sara Blecher. “I don’t know a single actor who doesn’t have a horror story about an intimate scene.”

A filmmaker, director, and producer, Blecher is a leader in the intimacy co-ordination field in South Africa and globally. The need for trained intimacy co-ordination is so great, she and her business partner have been approached by Netflix to train cohorts in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

“The best way to understand what an intimacy co-ordinator does is to think of it like a stunt co-ordinator,” Blecher says. “It’s choreographed to make it look as real as possible. While it has to be compelling for the characters’ journeys, it also has to be shot in a safe way. It’s about ensuring absolute consent, choreographing it shot by shot, taking away embarrassment, and allowing actors to know what to expect from each other.”

“Degrees of harassment and coercion are checked and resolved, resulting in a pleasant work environment for all,” says Fisher. “More than that, it’s important that all sexual scenes are simulated. Skill is required to make it appear real for the viewer. However, it’s completely enacted for the camera or on stage. I like to establish respect between the performers through workshops prior to the actual performance. During this time, we build performances through play, consent, and imagination.”

While one may think that intimacy co-ordination is needed only for sex scenes, Blecher says it’s for any intimate scene, “for example nudity, or a mother holding a child to her breast, or a nurse caring for an elderly man”.

Blecher chose this speciality after attending a film festival in Berlin in 2019. “I went to a talk about intimacy co-ordination. It was the first time I had heard of such a thing, and it blew my mind. As a director, I understood the problem of intimate scenes, that they could potentially be damaging or dangerous. This is especially true in the South African film industry where there aren’t budgets to ensure the emotional well-being of actors. Intimate scenes are often rushed through when they should be the ones dealt with most cautiously and carefully.”

The talk was given by Ita O’Brien who has developed intimacy co-ordination as a profession. Blecher eventually trained with her, part of a group of women from around the world who were among the first people to be trained in the profession. Blecher then set up a company, Safe Sets, with Kate Lush to develop intimacy co-ordination in South Africa.

Fisher choreographs for television commercials, theatre, and movies, working with dancers, actors, singers, models, and extras. “My forté is that I really understand the dynamics of movement in the body and between bodies,” she says. “I’m aware of the complex dynamics at play when engaging with bodies and people through close physical contact.”

She was trained while working as a movement coach for an HBO series called Warrior in 2018. The producers brought out HBO’s intimacy co-ordinator Alicia Rodis to train Fisher and a colleague. Rodis has pioneered the role of intimacy co-ordinators in the United States.

Blecher says that before the start of intimacy co-ordination, actors used to make up intimate scenes as they went along, were told to get together to practice, or were told to do what they would do in their own private lives.

“Intimate scenes should never be rehearsed in private,” she says. “Many felt coerced or violated, but that they had no choice. Some left the profession. It was seen as a ‘day’s job’, but these actors need to go home to their partners and families and not go home feeling violated.”

Says Fisher, “When actors were confronted with performances that created moral, physical, or psychological discomfort, they could be coerced with money or threatened with no more work in the industry if they didn’t agree to whatever was being asked of them. Through intimacy co-ordinators, they have a voice and awareness of their legal rights. More broadly, this advocacy also applies to the entire working team. Establishing an ethic of respect improves work relationships between technical and creative crews as well as production management.”

The #MeToo movement had a major impact on the need for intimacy co-ordinators. “The profession existed for many years, but it became more common after #MeToo, when actresses began to talk about what they had gone through. It showed that there was another way to act intimate scenes safely,” says Blecher.

Says Fisher, “globally, in domestic, institutional, and commercial situations, obscene displays of power are seen through gender-based violence, sexual harassment, and coercion. Being an intimacy co-ordinator tries to identify and prevent these situations before they are played out. It gives people the confidence to know their rights as human beings.”

Blecher says that on set, she will engage with the director on the vision for the scene and the characters. Then, she works with the actors, getting their consent, and gauging where they are comfortable being touched. Each actor has their own individual preferences and it’s about establishing boundaries. She will then design the scene according to the vision of the director and the consent of the actors. She will choreograph it, and break it down into movements.

Intimacy co-ordinators have their own challenges. “Individuals with authority, such as the director, might feel that their creative spontaneity would be disrupted with an intimacy co-ordinator on set,” says Fisher. “There are times when producers haven’t communicated that an intimacy co-ordinator has been requested by the actors. Misunderstanding the purpose of intimacy co-ordinators and unclear communication sometimes results in being bullied or even losing the job.”

Blecher says often the biggest challenge is budgets, as every filmmaker thinks about how they can do it for less, especially in South Africa. But just like a film with stunts is risky without a stunt co-ordinator, a film with intimacy needs the same. In addition, intimacy co-ordinators can find themselves in conflict with directors who want actors to give more than they’re willing to give. But Blecher says that hasn’t been her experience, and she has often worked with actors who are willing to give more when the environment is safe.

Blecher says directors don’t usually have the capacity or resources to ensure actors’ well-being, and intimacy co-ordinators can take this off their shoulders. It’s rewarding to make the environment safe and professional. For Fisher, “when the energy on set is respectful, trusting, and everyone is comfortable, the work is done smoothly and generously. It’s immensely gratifying.”

Though it’s an exciting new career option, Blecher warns that training for it is critical. “There’s nothing worse than an untrained intimacy co-ordinator – the damage they can do is almost worse than not having one. Just like someone trying to co-ordinate stunts without training, it can hurt people. We need more trained intimacy co-ordinators, especially in this country.” She encourages anyone interested in pursuing this career path to contact Safe Sets.

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