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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 31, 2002

Film documents lifestyle of mate-swapping couples

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Editor

Documentary filmmaker Joe Gantz and his brother Harry have turned voyeurism into a form of art.

"Sex With Strangers" opened Friday at Wallace's Restaurant Row Theatres.

View Film Inc.

Their probing HBO series, "Taxicab Confessions," has become a late-night diversion for many cable viewers (the show is now in its sixth season). It's a "Candid Camera"-type gabfest about what folks say, frankly and shamelessly, while catching a cab ride.

Now comes "Sex With Strangers," a documentary on mate-swapping, which previously aired on Showtime cable but is slowly emerging as a talked-about movie. It is a hit in San Francisco, where it has set box office records in its five weeks of release, and it made its Honolulu debut Friday at Wallace's Restaurant Row Theatres.

Joe Gantz said he brought the film to Honolulu because he loves it here.

"I'm timing my vacation to come to Hawai'i," said Gantz, who is based in Woodland Hills, Calif. "So happens that the Restaurant Row theater folks approached us about 'Sex With Strangers' for an end-of-March screening. Perfect timing, with spring vacation."

It's not common for a film — documentary or otherwise — to make it to the cinema after initial exposure on TV, but "Sex With Strangers" had provocative circumstances on its side.

Airings on Showtime were limited, for one thing, and the film boasts an engaging title.

The documentary is effective, for another thing: Its portrayal of a layer of society not generally talked about is brutally honest, and the film achieves what it set out to do, arousing curiosity and erasing ignorance about this approach to relationships.

But getting it shown commercially hasn't been all that easy.

"We had made a deal with Showtime to do the film with them, but we had the option to distribute," said Gantz. "We got lucky. One, the film became controversial, and Showtime decided to air it late, limiting viewership, since they had taken heat for 'Queer as Folks' (a series about a group of close gay friends) and for a film on the Mitchell Brothers ("Rated X," about San Francisco porn movie-makers who ran a strip club), and they avoided more confrontations. Two, they never promoted our film, declining to send it to reviewers, so viewership has been minimal."

As they did with an earlier documentary, "Couples Arguing," the Gantz brothers basically seek out, befriend, and then let their cameras roll as their subjects act. In "Sex With Strangers," what their subjects do is get into trysts with folks other than their mates.

From online sites and word of mouth, Gantz found hundreds who are fervently involved in "swinging." The rendezvous take place in various locations: at home, in RVs, in clubs catering to the crowd. Some subjects were watchers; lots more were doers.

The brothers ultimately settled on three couples (one with a third wheel), and spent hundreds of hours with them, filming their good and bad moments, the cooing with the cussing.

"You had to find people with the right attitude and the right reasons, not just exhibitionists," said Gantz. "We never used a script; we never created or re-created scenes for the cameras. We derived our film in the editing room, with about 200 hours of material."

"Harry and I jokingly say there are three rules — casting, casting, casting," Gantz said of their movie exploits. "We spent four months casting, interviewing in Florida, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, California, coming up with 12 couples, then 11 dropped out. We had to look again."

Essentially, Gantz discovered that swingers are "pretty much hidden from their neighbors, their work, even their families. They feel that there will be huge negative repercussions if they went public, and of the seven people we finally worked with, four lost their jobs in the making of the film."

Swingers look at what they do as an obsession, not a deviation; a passion, not a perversion.

Gantz said their swinging couples are no different from monogamous couples. "Everyone has issues and problems," he said. "Our film gives an insight into the humanity of the people."

The explorations are meant to document, not judge; to expose, not condemn.

The brothers' technique with "Sex With Strangers" was to be on call with at least two cameras for moments when the couples would meet and mingle.

"The way we work, Harry or myself, one of us will be in a van outside, looking at a video feed, talking to our cameraman. Voyeurism? The word doesn't insult me. I am a voyeur, but also an audioer; if someone is next to me talking intimately, I will eavesdrop. That's what happened with 'Couples Arguing.' Haven't we all heard couples fight? In our case, we turn on the videotape."

As an independent filmmaker, Gantz said he has a higher overhead and smaller cut when "Sex With Strangers" lands a theatrical booking.

He's lucky to hit 40 cities total, in a slow roll-out, compared with the 500 to 1,000 theaters typical for major studio releases. The movie opens in New York in April, in Los Angeles in May, with city-by-city unveilings through October. Hawai'i gets a reasonably early peek because of Gantz's vacation plans.

"We do buttons and postcards to promote, hand out T-shirts and fliers, often have one or two of the couples come out to a city (but not to Hawai'i). It's a grassroots things, but it works for us."

Some swingers who've seen the film have been indignant, said Gantz. "They felt that we could do better to represent their community."

Mainstream monogamists, he said, generally have liked the film, as well as its tag line: "And you thought monogamy was hard." "Monogamy is not an easy equation to work," said Gantz. "There's conflict in every couple, whether you're into monogamy or swinging."