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The Feedback: Maria Finitzo's 'The Dilemma of Desire'

By Addie Morfoot

From Maria Finitzo's 'The Dilemma of Desire.' In this image, a woman is particpating in a demonstration on a city street; she carries a sign that reads "Democracy without cliteracy? Phallusy." Courtesy of Kartemquin Films

Director/producer Maria Finitzo finished editing The Dilemma of Desire in winter 2019—just before COVID-19 entered our vocabularies. The film uncovers the myths and lies that women are being told about their own bodies. The documentary sheds light on not only what the female clitoris is, but also why women’s sexual desires are often pushed to the wayside. With the #MeToo movement still in full swing, there couldn’t be a more appropriate time to launch a documentary about gender politics and women’s libidos into the world. But the pandemic delayed that launch. The film was scheduled to have its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March 2020, but when pandemic shuttered that event, Finitzo had to go back to the drawing board. Eventually the doc debuted in May 2020 at Hot Docs and has since screened virtually at over 40 festivals in the US and internationally.

The Dilemma of Desire screened as a work-in-progress at DocuClub LA in August 2019. We caught up with Finitzo, who has sold the education rights to GOOD DOCS and is currently working out a distribution deal.

DOCUMENTARY: With regards to your screening at DocuClub, what were your expectations going into that screening?

MARIA FINITZO: We were hoping to get feedback from the audience that would give us much-needed info on where the film was working and where it was not working. I didn't know how people would respond, so I was just hoping people would be engaged with the topic.

D: What were the central challenges in your film that you felt could benefit the most from the DocuClub screening?

MF: Structuring the film was always the biggest challenge and getting feedback on whether or not the subject matter was going to resonate with an audience. Questions like: Were we communicating the issues clearly and in an interesting way? Was the audience engaged emotionally with the subjects? I always think one of the most valuable takeaways from a screening is in showing where the film is weakest. We got great feedback that was positive but we also got great feedback that showed us where we needed to focus our efforts.

D: What observations did you find most surprising and unexpected?

MF: One person mentioned that he didn't know what the function of the clitoris was, so we realized we had to make that clearer. 

D: Was there ever any concern that there would be too many cooks in the kitchen with regard to feedback?

MF: Whenever you show somebody a film [in progress], you're always going to get wacky feedback. Somebody will like this character and the next thing you hear is somebody say, “I don't like that character.” What I try to do is listen to how many times I hear something. So if somebody says to me more than twice, “You have too many endings in your film,” or if somebody says to me, “I feel confused here and I got bored here,” then I listen and say to myself, “Okay, what if I did what this person is asking me to do? How would that change the film?” So I try and stay open to the “what if” because we don't always get it right. This film was an essay, which had nine subjects in it, and the central thesis of the essay was that essentially there can be no equality without the equality of pleasure. So women will never be equal as long as our sex lives are not taken as seriously as men’s. How women are viewed sexually cannot be separated from the way we are treated. And so wanting to prove that meant that I had a structure that was a puzzle that could come together in a lot of different ways, but only in one way to really end up in a successful film. So editing took us a long time, and feedback was always helpful.

D: Any unhelpful feedback?

MF: When we were finished with the film, we got feedback from somebody in the film world and the person said, “I don't think your film is finished. I don't like it.” That really shook my confidence. We were finished and I had to say to myself, “Okay. Not everybody liked your film, but they're wrong. This film is a really good film.” So at some point you have to get behind your work and just accept that not everybody's going to like it.

D: Since your film is evergreen, did you ever consider waiting out the pandemic to release it into the world?

MF: Yes. We did discuss that. I thought about delaying its release to 2021, but then there was the discussion about what was going to happen in 2021. As we were having this conversation, it became clear to everybody that this pandemic wasn't going to be over quickly, so I made the decision that it was important to start to get this film out there and to an audience. It’s been a very positive experience hearing from audiences, but I miss the in-person screenings.

D: What do you miss about them?

MF: I finished the film in a way so that it would screen in the theater with a beautiful mix, and it's beautifully color-corrected. This is a film that needs an audience, but like a lot of filmmakers, we suffered from the pandemic dust and didn't sell the film last year. After one or two terrible offers, I decided to keep it festivals this year, and hopefully find a distributor. It is evergreen and so there wasn't any rush to sell it or to get it on a platform last year because it was going to be just as relevant this year. Women would still have clitorises. But we do have plans to hopefully do a hybrid theatrical release late summer.

D: How has participating in virtual film festivals been for you?

MF: I had a filmmaker say that virtual festivals are a lot like having a phantom limb—you can still feel the pain, but it doesn't feel real and that's the biggest problem with them. We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from audiences, but honestly, there's no replacing an in-person screening. Certainly there are worse things that have happened to people than what happened to me not seeing my film premiere at South by Southwest. You just kind of have to cope.

D: But you managed to sell the film’s educational rights to GOOD DOCS. How does it feel to have the film seen in classrooms across the country once the pandemic is over?

MF: I would really love to see this film in every single classroom in the country, both college level and, I know this is big thinking, but high school level as well. I think I'd love it in eighth grade too, but that's really dreaming big. High school girls knew the truth about their anatomy; they would make different choices when they chose to be sexual; they would make more empowered choices when they chose to be sexual, as opposed to just thinking their power rested in being the receptacle of someone else's pleasure. But that’s what girls are taught. Nobody teaches them to speak up for themselves and that's where it all begins. That's where we lose our voice. Because you don't speak up in the bedroom, you don't speak up in the classroom. You don't speak up in politics. You don't speak up in religion. You don't speak up in the boardroom. Anatomy textbooks leave your anatomy out of their textbooks. I'm blabbing on a lot, but what I came to realize is,  there are all kinds of derogatory words that we make up for women's body parts. We've all heard them. We've all used them, but there isn't a derogatory word for the word clitoris. And the reason there isn't one is because the medical term itself is already embedded with so much shame and disgust that there's no point in making up a disgusting word for it, and that's really sad.

D: It’s a topic not often discussed. Is it such a taboo topic that it is making the film hard to sell?

NF: One of the reasons we never got traditional funding for the film and we didn't sell it to Netflix is because we are still comfortable in our society in viewing women as victims. We can't get enough stories about rape and violence happening to women. But having a film that says women are entitled to sexual pleasure that their bodies are capable of, and that this is connected to their power—both political and personal. That's a really scary thing to tell people. So we much rather hold onto the notion that women are victims, especially around their sexuality, rather than that women can be empowered—so empowered that they could change the world.

Editor’s Note: As we were about to publish this piece, Maria Finitzo reported to us that The Dilemma of Desire had been picked up by Utopia. She further explained, "Our general release plan for the film is to release the film for rent or purchase on AppleTV and Altavod later this year. We are also exploring virtual cinema opportunities, as well as looking to work with our partners at Rooftop Films, Ace Hotel, Arclight Drive-In and more to host potential NY & LA screenings in tandem with the TVOD release. However, those events have not yet been finalized at this time."

Addie Morfoot has been covering the entertainment industry for the last 15 years. Her work has appeared in VarietyThe New York Times MagazineCrain's New York BusinessThe Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles TimesDocumentary and Adweek.