Update: Following allegations from the film's star, Liara Roux, director Michael Jacobs has voluntarily withdrawn GFE from SXSW's Virtual Cinema show. The original article follows.
Much of the virtual reality film GFE takes place in luxury San Francisco hotel rooms -- softly lit, cozy spaces -- while soothing music lingers in the background. There's only one main character: a young woman who narrates her experience as a high-end escort, providing a "girlfriend experience" of dates, conversation and intimacy. She walks through Union Square in purple boots and a short skirt, sits across from the viewer at a cafe, applies lipstick in a hotel mirror. At times, the camera's point of view places you as a neutral observer; at other moments you're the implied client, locking eyes with the woman.
The closeness you feel to subjects in virtual reality is heightened here, for better or worse. Your level of potential discomfort is "a bit of a Rorschach test" for how one feels about sex work, said director Michael Jacobs. "I wanted to try to find a story or a character or an idea that would really push the viewer to confront something."
Premiering at SXSW, the film is described as a fictional "documentary fantasy" by Jacobs. The premise is to take you, in just under five minutes, through what it's like to have a liaison with the woman, who regularly works as an escort in real life and is anonymous in the film. She narrates her own experiences unscripted, but the scenes were all staged; there were no real clients involved.
About two-thirds of the way in, she appears in lingerie, with the viewer assuming a first-person point of view. She looks directly at the camera and removes her bra. The film cuts to the woman kneeling on the bed, naked. You have to physically look downward to see a following scene of her lying down while languidly stroking her right thigh.
The nude scenes last less than a minute and aren't more explicit than what may appear in an R-rated movie. Yet the same levels of intimacy that have fueled porn as a major early application of consumer VR may instead unsettle viewers here. Viewers demoing the film at SXSW's virtual cinema were visibly uncomfortable, shifting their weight from foot to foot and wrapping their arms tight around their chest. It's a fine line to walk: Sex workers are a frequent source of fascination in the media, but depicting them on camera -- especially with VR's sense of presence -- invites a prurient and exploitative male gaze.
"I think that can be provocative ... what those emotions do to you and how you examine that. Do you find it compelling? Are you disgusted? Is it a version of an erotic fantasy? Does it reaffirm everything you believe about escort work? Or does it bump up against that?" said Jacobs, who described the piece as sex positive. "I love the idea of demystifying escort work and bringing a sense of empowerment to escorts, to women who do this work, and men."
The production process came with strict conditions. There were two men on set -- Jacobs and the director of photography -- with four women forming the rest of the crew. It took two months of negotiation with the escort before the shoot last summer in which Jacobs went through the same vetting process as any of the woman's clients, including providing his wife's contact information as a reference. They met only once, at the shoot, and have never spoken on the phone. "I don't know her name. I don't know where she lives. I don't know where she's from," Jacobs said.
This anonymity -- even to the filming crew -- adds another level of intrigue: How do we know that this is an authentic experience, and that the escort's stories are true? Jacobs says the mystery is itself part of an authentic girlfriend experience. The woman who stars in this film is skilled at performing a certain persona while keeping her true identity unknowable, he told me. She allows clients to project their fantasies onto her. In GFE, the question remains, does virtual reality invite the viewer to do the same?
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