Women are finally claiming their right to desire, argued Sweden’s Ninja Thyberg at Karlovy Vary Film Festival, where she showed her Cannes-labelled debut “Pleasure” on the big screen following its successful Sundance bow. Even though mainstream entertainment like “Fifty Shades of Grey” or “365 Days” still caters to fantasies about submissive women and dominant men that “flirt with rape.”

Thyberg, who used to be a radical “anti-porn activist” in her teens (“We never hurt anyone but we did get arrested,” she said), has been exploring pornography for 20 years, ever since her first boyfriend introduced her to such content.

“Me and my friends, we had been reading erotic novels and had this super vanilla idea of sex and romance. We never talked about masturbation. Then I saw this film, which was so raw and brutal, and degrading to women,” she said, mentioning that while her partner found porn exciting, he also looked down on its performers.

“At first, I wanted to destroy all porn. I saw the industry as my main enemy in life,” she said. The lack of positive representation of female sexuality led to an interest in feminist pornography, however, and to her 2012 short “Pleasure.” As well as the decision to go to Los Angeles and get to know the industry and its rules, which she later explored in her feature debut about an adult film star wannabe.

“When I did the short, I watched all the documentaries, I read everything and then in the interviews I would say, ‘I want to show real people behind the stereotypes.’ But I didn’t actually know them! When I got there, nothing was the way I thought it would be.”

Her discoveries made her “humble,” said Thyberg. Many doors opened also thanks to Mark Spiegler, founder of the agency Spiegler Girls.

“He is very similar to my grandmother – there are a thousand negative things you could say about him, but he also has a good heart,” she said. “I decided to see what was going to happen if I start to believe what people are saying, instead of going, ‘Oh, you really need to lie to yourself in order to survive.’ When I started to do that, everything changed.”

After securing her leading lady, with newcomer Sofia Kappel transforming into Bella Cherry, Thyberg shot most of the film in 2018, taking it upon herself to create a safe working environment.

“At that point, I had never heard of intimacy coordinators. Sofia has never acted before, so I needed to make sure she was comfortable and that we would never do anything she wouldn’t agree to,” she said, noting that while combining these roles was hard, everyone on set was allowed to say ‘cut,’ especially during the most challenging scenes. Kappel was also a part of the casting process and ended up starring alongside several industry professionals, including Aiden Starr.

“I got to know Aiden quite early, and I felt I needed her as a positive example. She is a performer, a Spiegler girl, and as a director she knows what it’s like to be in front of the camera. She shoots a lot of kink, but the working conditions are very ethical and respectful. There are more women on set than men, they make an effort for the women to have real orgasms – it’s a huge contrast,” she said.

Despite the film’s controversial subject matter, Thyberg gained the support of Plattform Produktion, co-founded by Ruben Östlund, the director of Cannes Palme d’Or winner “The Square.”

“Ruben is a very big inspiration for me and he has been a mentor. It has been helpful to have this ‘quality stamp,’ ” she mentioned, also criticizing the way people stigmatize sex workers while still consuming their work.

“That’s how the whole concept of a ‘whore’ is constructed – by putting the shame of your own sexuality on women, calling them ‘sinful.’ Quite early in my life I realized I am living in a man’s world, where most things are told from a male perspective. By telling a story about this woman, by turning it around, I felt I could really make a point,” she told the audience.

“We keep on blaming people making porn, we see them as perverts, but they are just giving the customers what they want. I was on a porn set and there were two Black men and this tiny girl half their age, wearing a schoolgirl uniform. The director told her to look ‘like a scared bunny.’ I was so upset and then he turned to me, as if saying, ‘What’s wrong with you people? Why do you want this?’ One goal is for people to never be able to watch porn the same way again.”