By David-Elijah Nahmod, July 2015 Issue.
Move over Fifty Shades of Gray, Mike Skiff's new documentary Folsom Forever, now on DVD and Blu-ray Disc, tells the real story of BDSM and the leather/fetish lifestyle via the "world’s biggest leather event." And what a fascinating tale it is.
The film not only offers a behind-the-scenes look at the Folsom Street Fair, an annual event that caps San Francisco's Leather Pride Week each September, but also the culture of the communities it caters to as well as the history of the neighborhood.
For more than 30 years, the fair has taken place in the city's once-blighted, now upscale South of Market district (SOMA).
Here, Skiff and his camera wander through Folsom in 2012. Viewers will see all manner of leather people, men and women alike, dressed in their full regalia – including rubber, latex and steel, too – while having the time of their lives.
This doc shows viewers that the lifestyle is hardly the cesspool of violence it's sometimes thought to be: One woman moans with pleasure at a spanking poll, and though her "master" is whipping her, it's clear that he's actually being rather gentle. It's all good, consensual fun between adults. Respect and mutual consent are recurring themes throughout Folsom Forever. No one is forced or coerced into doing anything they don't want to do.
Skiff also offers a history of the leather culture and of the SOMA neighborhood. As black and white newsreel footage from the early 1950s is seen, cultural anthropologist Gayle Rubin takes viewers back to the blighted SOMA of 60-some years ago. In those days the neighborhood was a poor community filled with cheap bars and even cheaper hotels. Ghostly images from the past show the poverty that residents of the period lived in.
However, today's skyrocketing rents fueled by the Bay Area's tech boom have turned the neighborhood into a shadow of it's former self. As one of the more historic parts of town, SOMA is filled with 100-year-old factories that have been turned into condo lofts, and many narrow side streets which are dotted with smaller, residential buildings, yet the Folsom Street Fair remains as popular as ever.
Rubin explains how the area was transformed, not only into a leather hub, but into a community that was a leader in the fight against AIDS. And Audrey Joseph, an activist in the women's leather community, reminds viewers of the important role women played during the AIDS crisis.
Other interviewees include community leader Race Bannon, who thanks women for stepping up to the plate when gay men were struck down by AIDS. Jack Fritcher, former editor of Drummer Magazine, offers further insight into the history of the culture.
Throughout the interviews, and the look back at Folsom's colorful past, Skiff returns to the Fair of 2012, where attendees share their thoughts and feelings of what participating in the event means to them. One woman movingly recalls her late father, who had begun to transition to womanhood shortly before dying of cancer. The tragedy of seeing her dad live a life that wasn't truthful to his identity is what inspired her to come to Folsom and be truthful to herself.
"As soon as I got here, I knew these were my people," she said.
Folsom Forever stands as an educational and fascinating peek inside an often maligned lifestyle that shows itself to be worthy of a closer look. These leather men and women are worthy of our respect.
For more information, visit folsomforever.com.