Watching Cam Girlz with Sean Dunne
story / Jordan Blakeman
When I first heard about a documentary on cam girls, I was intrigued. I knew it happened, I even knew a few girls who made some money off of it, but I wasn’t sure what the actual world was like by any extent. I’ve never clicked one of the links that would pop up on my screen since I assumed there’d be a per-minute charge attached like you’d find for a sexy hotline in the back pages next to the adverts of masseuses promising their clients “happy endings.” Luckily for us, filmmaker Sean Dunne didn’t hold the same reservation and he poked his head around (pun intended) to create Cam Girlz. A seasoned filmmaker, Dunne dives into what many would consider the underbelly of America, unlocking the stories behind the people most tend to avoid in their supermarkets to show the reality, truth, and humanity behind the less stereotypical and, by default, less understood. We chatted about his latest effort, most memorable encounters, and what’s currently piquing his interest.
How old were you when you first found porn online and when was the first time you ever had experience with a camgirl?
I got a high-speed internet connection when I was probably 17 or 18 and that was the first time I ever really discovered online porn. It wasn’t until years later that I heard about cam girls and saw what they do. That eye-opening experience of seeing and understanding what a cam girl does was really what led to us making this film.
What was that experience like?
I barely remember. There’s been so many but you know what it is? It filled my head with questions that eventually led me to the questions of why I was making this which was: Who is this person? Where are they? Because what happens is, you’re watching porn and a pop-up comes up and there’s a camgirl there and she seems like she’s talking to someone. It seems live. She seems like she’s in her bedroom so you start to question all these things. In my head, I’m thinking, wow, this really is a girl-next-door type situation. The more I researched it, the more I started to understand this is going on in bedrooms all across the country and wouldn’t it be cool to see what that looks like? To go beyond what you can just see online and really peel back the curtain to see what their lives and their worlds look like.
For the uninitiated, how do cams usually work? Are they typically the large chat rooms you see advertised or is one-on-one more common? What is the average pay scale for the line of work?
I can’t speak the specifics in terms of that stuff, it’s really the opposite of what this film’s about in terms of what the pay range is or anything like that. Basically, the way it works, think of it like one big on-line strip club. A lot of people are in there for free and these women are broadcasting from their homes and everyone’s watching it. It can be between one and thousands of people watching at any given time. What the models do is they will say, okay, everyone has to tip and together as a whole group we have to tip all the way up to $200 til I take my top off and $300 skirt off and $500 this or that. It can get pretty crazy. Basically it’s a community of people who are going on these sites and they are watching a public show and tipping. That’s how most girls make their money. The earning potential is huge. It’s absolutely staggering how much some of the top girls make. Fifty, sixty, seventy thousand dollars a month from getting on there and doing their 2, 3, 4 hour show a night. It was intriguing in a lot of ways in the sense that these are business women. These are artists and filmmakers. They wear a lot of hats in this line of work and I was very fascinated by that and society’s rejection of these type of people.
Speaking of it being a business, many of them find different ways to market themselves. It’s very much like showmanship. As soon as I saw Aella [she gained a lot of notoriety after a particular Reddit thread containing gnomes], I freaked because I’m familiar with her and love what she’s doing. Would you say there is an artistry behind the craft?
Oh yeah! That’s the thing. There’s someone for everyone. There really is. There’s people out there doing everything you can imagine on these cams. I think what is so great about the woman you’re speaking about, Aella, is she approached this kind of the same way that I’m approaching filmmaking. Okay, how can I stand out? There’s a lot of noise out there. What can I do? For her, it’s just about being true to herself. They get so damn creative. I feel like that was the real kinship I felt with them once I started to dig in and explore the community a little bit. All the sex stuff aside, they’re doing what I do. It’s up to them. No one’s paying them to sit around a do nothing. They have to conceive and create and produce and market and distribute these things and that’s all I’m doing with my films. I just happen to have society’s blessing with what I’m doing because I’m dressed. I definitely felt inspiration from that and you can see why some of these girls do such wild things. There’s the girl in our movie, Veronica, who works with a ventriloquist dummy and the dummy has as many followers on twitter as I do. It’s crazy. There is a bit of a nerdy element to it but it’s caused such creativity. At any given moment you can hop on one of these sites, click on any random girl, and get a really good show like you’re watching a tv show. Yeah, there’s sexuality involved but it’s actually a lot less pervy than you would assume.
The film is decidedly positive towards the industry and shies away from the negative aspects. Can you tell me a little about why you chose to go in that direction?
I think that this is really about celebrating a lifestyle and showing something for what it is. In a sense, everybody already has these preconceived notions and these girls are up against it already so all we did was take an approach where we normalize this a little bit. It ruffles some people’s feathers because I think that the traditional documentary audience is very accustomed to waiting for the other shoe to drop or give me the nasty side-effects. The more I dug around in this community, the more I realized these are people who have been completely empowered by this line of work. It’s opened up something inside of them. They’re being more true to themselves, their lives are flourishing more, and why not put that across? Why hide that? I assume that there’s a really dark side to camming but I don’t think it’s going on in the United States at least as far as I can see. I didn’t see anyone doing this against their will or how they would even do this against their will. For me to come in their with the same preconceived notions that the audience is already going to have just seems a little cookie-cutter and boring to me.
How did you find the girls to feature in the documentary? Did you reach out to them on cam sites or follow some other sort of protocol?
That didn’t work at first because these girls, as you can imagine, they’re getting contacted by a lot of creeps. It was pretty funny. We were met with a little resistance at first but once a few of them took the time to look at my back catalogue and the types of films I make they understood the type of film we were trying to make. We actually got an in with a woman named Sophia Locke who is a famous cam girl and she’s really an ambassador for the community. She got us in there and we basically filmed a trailer. After we put the trailer online, we had girls contacting us and we were basically able to cast it through twitter. It felt very appropriate given the subject matter and how digital their worlds are. We would comb through a ton of requests from girls to be in this thing. We did our best to get around to as many of them as we can. I was shocked by how diverse and how different each person’s approach is. Traditional beauty didn’t necessarily dictate their financial success and I thought that was a really interested aspect of this and an unexpected aspect of it because you just assume, here’s perfect 21 year old girl, objectively beautiful. Well, it doesn’t necessarily equal a path to success on this. That really surprised and enlightened me.
Your work tends to aim towards groups that are largely viewed in a negative light by most of society but you unearth the reality of these subcultures. So I’m curious, what is your personal background?
I was born and raised in New York, I was down in Florida for 5 years. I’ve been on a filmmaking track for 10 or 15 years. I’ve been wanting to be a filmmaker for this long and I’ve been doing it. I spend a lot of time with normal people. I spend a lot of time finding inspiration in your everyday people. Beauty in the mundane. I direct commercials to make a living and that’s really helpful because I can pour that money into these movies and not have to ask permission for them. I’m doing a little bit of a punk rock DIY approach to documentaries. I don’t know what to say about myself. No one ever asks me about me so I don’t even have an answer for you. I make these films, I’m devoted to them. At any given moment I’m making one or two of them and have got my mind on the next one. I feel really focused. I’m way into meditation and eating right and being healthy now that I’m in my thirties.
I always find it interesting to see how people correlate to the work that they’re doing. We’re not a filmmaking outlet per say but rather an outlet that focuses on creatives. It always fascinates me to know what is their inspiration, what drives them to do this instead of just what the subject is.
The subjects of these films have really informed my life and influenced me in a lot of ways and that definitely includes the cam girls, stuff that didn’t even make it into the movies. You wouldn’t believe how intelligent and well-read some of these people are. They are so much younger than me and would turn me on to all these books and music and all this type of thing. A lot of that shapes who I am. I’m kind of going around and talking to the people I find interesting and absorbing a little part of each one of them. It’s just been really cool and I’m just so damn grateful that I get to do this and I hope that I get to keep doing it. Hopefully people will see this and understand what I’m doing.
What is one of the craziest encounters you’ve had while working on your various documentary projects?
We had a woman squirt on us during this. That was pretty crazy. Our camera guy, he got squirted on. I know that’s pretty vulgar. We made a film in a town in southern West Virginia called Oxyana about a town of people where a lot of them are struggling with oxycontin abuse. That was crazy. We were down and dirty in there for a couple of months. That profoundly shifted my thinking and expanded my consciousness. I went to The Gathering of the Juggalos and made a film there called American Juggalo. That was wild. It’s funny. It seems like my subjects are usually the ones people would be scared of or would get us into these sticky situations but it’s usually the cops. When we made American Juggalo the cops hassled us on our way to The Gathering every day. When we were making our last movie, Florida Man, the cops followed us around. Even when we made Cam Girlz, the cops showed up. It’s been an interesting journey. We’ve had a lot of really wild times and we continue to expose ourselves to it. My life is kind of like half sitting in edit rooms and really toiling over how to present something and half being out there exposed to the world in a really vulnerable way. I’ve struck a little bit of a balance there. I spend half my time very, very isolated and alone and half my time extremely put out there. I’m just riding the wilds really.
What is one of the most touching moments you’ve experienced?
The thing that immediately comes into my head is this moment that I captured for our film that I just mentioned called Oxyana. We had been filming with an oxycontin addict and I think his mom was a little bit in the dark about what he had been up to and how bad his abuse had gotten. There was this very natural moment that had unfolded when we were interviewing the mom and her and her son had this amazing heart to heart where they were getting all this stuff out on the table that maybe they hadn’t said before. This was all going down based on the questions that I had and a little bit on the position I had put them in. To see them have this crazy baptism of tears right in front of me and ignore us and just really connect with each other… it was so human. I could cry just thinking about it. It was so human and so real and so touching and fraught with love. I’m going back to that place in my head now and it’s super emotional. Each one of the films has these moments like that but for me that was so unexpected. It wasn’t what we were out there to get and we ended up capturing something that felt very in the moment and very real and had real life consequences. It always is but it was so generous of these people to give me their worlds and give me their images and allow me to go back and present this to the world. It’s extremely flattering and humbling at the same time.
In many ways, you’re an anthropologist for modern America as opposed to someone who goes to different countries to learn about cultures and lifestyles.
Yeah, we’re going around and trying to do this in a non-judgmental way. It’s like we’re writing a song and I go out there and I get the lyrics from the people and I come back to the edit and we write the music. That’s kind of what it feels like. Very anthropological, for sure. I have another film I just put out called Florida Man that we just released and I think that [film] takes it into that direction.
Since your work has sensitive information, like with the oxycontin abuse, how do you gain that sense of trust to be allowed in these moments that are very private and to be able to put them on display? I know for me I would be like, oh wait people are going to see this? Fuck that, no, let’s burn the tape.
In a weird way, I think I would react that way too. It’s partly because a lot of these people, the people we are drawn to, haven’t had a voice before so they’re anxious to get their stories out. A part of it is we’re not judging them. It’s a very laid-back thing. They’re talking to friends and I’m the kind of person where you’re going to get back what you put out there. When we’re out there, there’s one version of me and it’s this really stripped down, honest person. They see that coming off of me and they give me the same in return. I explain what we’re doing and that I intend to respect them and their words in the edit. It’s about earning it really. You learn little tips and tricks of the trade as you’re going through. You learn what would work if you did want to manipulate people but you do your best to avoid those things and really try to cut through the noise and the bullshit and talk to someone about something they want to talk about. God, there’s such profound stuff in that. If you go into these things without so much of an agenda and just give somebody a platform to speak their voice and display it in a way that elevates them visually I think it’s a really special experience.
What other cultures within American society would you like to explore next or get a look inside of?
I’m going to make a film called The Psychonaut. I don’t know anything about it besides that but it’s about psychedelics.
I’m familiar with psychonauts. They’re basically the ones who will test a new drug, right?
Yeah, the people who are really pushing the astronauts of psychedelics and they’re pushing the limits of their consciousness. I’m extremely interested in psychonauts and the people that are dabbling with psychedelics, that are using psychedelics to expand their consciousness and to get in touch with something. I’m playing around with an idea for that. I’m very interested in that but I’m also looking to start up a documentary webseries called Radicals. I think we’re going to start filming that in April where we’re really just going to submit ourselves to the universe and see what stories end up in front of us and make more five to ten minute, maybe fifteen to twenty minute, little stories. Whatever each story lends itself to and put them out as episodics because honestly that’s more relevant than feature films these days.
I’ve actually been doing a lot of research on underground biohackers who create their own technology and put it into their body and do their own surgery in hidden places that they can’t disclose. That might be kind of cool to look into.
Oh god, yeah! That’s the cool thing about what I do is I get to go around and talk about, here’s the things that are kind of interesting to me. I’m not an encyclopedia but any means but the people I talk to, if I’m open about it, they end up always spitting back like, oh yeah, you should also check out this. A lot of that stuff ends up influencing us. I just want to keep this going. I honestly feel like I’m at the beginning of something and I’m at the beginning of a long filmmaking journey and I’m finding my voice and it’s through these films. I hope people stick along and watch each one as they come out and see how they progress and how we’ve progressed and how we’ve evolved a little bit. It’s certainly interesting to make it and live the process. That was something I really learned with these two films I just released. I made these films after I learned meditation and started taking mushrooms and thinking about the world a little bit differently and I think it reflects. I hope people stick with it to see how I evolve because I’m curious too.
What tips do you have for other aspiring and seasons documentary filmmakers?
I would say just get out there and talking to people and start finding your voice. I know that seems rather obvious but I think even more than scripted things you need to figure out what you’re trying to say and why you’re saying it because if you can’t speak to this stuff you’re not controlling the context of your art. Not that you can control it, but you can lend to the conversation. I think it was important to me when I was young to just be talking to people on camera all the time. I think you make your mistakes and you pay your dues and that’s what I would say. Get out there and start making your mistakes. Start learning what you’re about, start getting in touch with yourself. That was the thing that really changed for me over the past year as I got into meditation is I stopped looking to the outside world for my own validation and started looking inward. Once I flipped things on their head like that my worldview changed, things seemed more positive, I was starting to be inspired by more things. I think it’d led to these two cool little things we put out. I would say young filmmakers, start working on yourself and watch your projects get better. Work on you.
Cam Girlz is currently available on Vimeo.