Hot Docs interview: Mia Donovan, director of ‘Inside Lara Roxx’
In the spring of 2004, 21-year-old Lara Roxx left her hometown of Montreal and headed to L.A to try to make tons of cash in the adult entertainment industry. Within two months of working in this industry she contracted the most virulent form of HIV while performing sex in front of the camera. Inside Lara Roxx, a documentary premiering at this year’s Hot Docs film festival in Toronto, is about the adult movie industry and its impact on a young life. Lara Roxx has been irrevocably changed by her work in porn, and her story created a media sensation (most notably interviewed by Diane Sawyer on ABC), but it’s when the media hype died that Canadian director Mia Donovan took over and began her 5-year journey with Inside Lara Roxx, beginning in a Montreal psych ward.
Director Mia Donovan took the time out from the hectic Hot Docs festival schedule to talk to me about the dangers of porn, of shooting the doc with Lara, and their friendship that goes beyond the camera.
Christine: What was it about Lara Roxx’s initial media attention that stuck in your brain and made you want to document her story?
Mia: “I remember when I first saw Lara on the local news I was struck by how naïve she was and how candidly she spoke to the newscaster. When he asked her how her recent diagnosis now affects her sex life she looked at him and said, ‘Honestly, I haven’t even masturbated since I found out.’ She didn’t say this for shock value she genuinely appeared to be looking to connect with someone. Watching this both saddened and angered me. I was sad for the fact that she had to suffer for the rest of her life because of one regrettable decision and I was angry because I suspected some porn ‘agent’ or pimp probably had some influence on her. She reminded me of so many 18, 19 or even 21-year-old girls I had met around the strip clubs in Montreal and a lot of these girls didn’t really understand how to say no to these agents or club owners who they felt they needed to impress. I remember thinking what happened to Lara could happen again to anyone one of these girls and these girls need to hear about this.”
Christine: Had you ever followed the inner workings of the porn industry before?
Mia: “I had been researching Montreal area sex workers for almost five-years before I learned about Lara. I had been researching another documentary about the local strip club culture in Montreal and had produced two documentary photo series on sex workers, Stripped and Peepshow, before I met her. But I knew very little about the California porn industry and how it operated and was quite surprised to learn about what had become popular by that time in porn and how few porn stars used condoms.”
Christine: In the film, you and Lara discuss whether or not you are true “friends.” Do you feel you became friends? How often do you and Lara keep in contact or see each other?
Mia: “I can honestly say that Lara and I have become close friends–she’s almost like a little sister. I jokingly call her my wild out-of-control-teen sister. We may live totally different lives but we do share a genuine bond. We speak on the phone at least once a week and see each other regularly.”
Christine: HIV/AIDS and STDs are discussed in the film as a hidden problem of the adult industry that no one talks about. Do you want this film to serve as a talking point for the industry? Or as a cautionary tale? A call to action? Or merely a look at one woman’s story?
Mia: “I originally anticipated making a documentary about an HIV positive ex-porn star turned advocate whose voice would instigate great change in the porn industry. But, once we started shooting and specifically once we got to L.A and Las Vegas I started to realize that this was not necessarily Lara’s reality. Inside Lara Roxx is a portrait of a women coping with the extreme ramifications that working in porn has had on her life. Neither Lara or myself are necessarily trying to deter women from working in porn, rather we hope that her story will help empower women and educate them about the reality of the risks involved in shooting sex without condoms.”
Christine: The film talks a lot about how women performers are lied to or manipulated all the time in the adult industry. Do you think Lara falls into that category? Or did she know what she was going into?
Mia: “Lara doesn’t blame anybody for what happened, she takes full responsibility for her choices, however, in 20/20 hindsight she recognizes how naïve she was back then in 2004. Unfortunately her naivety and her inability to set firm boundaries for herself once she got to L.A made her extremely vulnerable and she did fall in with a group of agents and producers that were experts at manipulating girls into going way beyond their comfort zone and even beyond that. The company she worked for is known for shooting some of the most extreme porn out there.”
Christine: Do you think the adult industry needs an overhaul in terms of safety?
Mia: “Obviously, I think everyone should wear condoms. There isn’t only HIV to worry about there is Chlamydia, genital herpes, gonorrhea and a slew of other transmittable infections that seem to very commonplace for most porn performers. One other porn star from Montreal told me she contracted Chlamydia three times while working in L.A. I say it’s a complex issue because I do also believe that as long as distributors are favoring porn without condoms – which is the main reason why everyone is shooting without them – then people will find a way to provide this. Basically it comes down to what sells and what the public wants to see. Sharon Mitchell (Adult Industry Medical Clinic) believes that if the government were to get involved and impose a mandatory-condom law then the industry would become even more underground and harder to reach. It’s a really sad situation if you consider how completely oblivious porn consumers are to health risks that porn-stars are taking to satisfy their thirst for sexual entertainment. These health risks could be practically eradicated in a matter of months if all distributors and consumers would start paying only for porn shot with the use of condoms.”
Christine: What is your opinion on the porn industry in general after making this film? Do you think porn is a healthy part of sexuality? Or is it too corrupt?
Mia: “I am not against pornography because its so ingrained in our culture and I believe its here to stay. But I do believe it can be an extremely precarious world to be in, especially for young, impressionable women because these agents can just sniff the vulnerable ones out and they know exactly how to approach them. There is a lot a pressure for producer to deliver extreme hard-core footage and this pressure obviously gets transmitted on set to the girls.”