'The Training of Poe' to be screened at Images Cinema

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After stints elsewhere, filmmaker Bella Vendetta knows that the Berkshires, where she grew up, is her home. But finding a landing spot in the area for her work has been considerably more difficult.

"Because I'm a sex worker, and I'm very loud and proud about it, and I advocate for sex workers' rights, people in the mainstream anything here do not want to touch me with a 10-foot pole," Vendetta said at North Adams' Tunnel City Coffee on a recent afternoon.

Yet, Images Cinema in Williamstown is changing that. The independent theater will show Vendetta's documentary, "The Training of Poe," on Monday night. The film follows Chelsea Poe, a transgender woman, as she undergoes bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism (BDSM) slave training with Vendetta in Western Massachusetts. In between the different assignments related to etiquette, posture, speech control, diet control and protocol she receives from Vendetta, Poe reflects on her state of mind as she progresses through the various activities. Vendetta labels it an art film, not erotica, but there's always different interpretations of her work's purpose, she says.

"This is actually the first documentary I've made that was not an erotic film, that was not considered — I mean, I guess that's up for debate, because [for] anyone who's in the industry, my stuff was too arty to be considered porn for the porn people, but it was too porny to be considered art by the art people, so it always had a hard time finding a home," said Vendetta, who uses her stage name in all professional settings.

For this film, Vendetta found Poe by researching her online.

"I was really attracted to her politics surrounding porn," Vendetta said of Poe, who was a member of The Trans 100, which celebrates those actively working in support of the trans community, according to its website, in 2015. "She was seriously vocal about trans inclusion and female spaces within pornography and about doing away with slurs and transphobic ways of marketing transgender women."

Vendetta eventually discovered that Poe was a lifestyle submissive who had never explored that quality much outside of pornography, making her a natural fit to be paired with Vendetta, a professional dominatrix, in a documentary that doesn't feature any sex.

"People think 'Fifty Shades of Grey' is what BDSM culture's about, and it's just not," Vendetta said.

Vendetta's trainings never involve sex, she said, instead exploring the "nitty-gritty of some lifestyle leather household stuff." In the film's trailer, Vendetta can be seen whipping a crawling Poe and dipping her head in a stream. The film's marketing materials also stress that the film includes "consent, communication, harm reduction and aftercare."

Though her latest project will air at Images, Vendetta's work — and the filmmaker herself — are still not accepted in many corners and minds of Berkshire County. When I met her at Tunnel City Coffee, she was checking to make sure the shop hadn't taken down a poster she had left there to promote the Images show. This is routine for her.

"I put them back up," she said of when stores remove her advertisements.

Vendetta doesn't have the luxury of separating her work from people's perception of her. Since moving back to the Berkshires seven years ago, Vendetta cannot reveal her real name or where she resides in fear of being targeted.

"I do get stalkers," she said.

Even though she says BDSM culture is prevalent in the Berkshires, it's "very, very underground."

"There's all kinds of stuff happening that people don't know about," Vendetta said, later mentioning rope meet-ups and play parties, "and the reason it's underground is because as soon as you bring it out, people want to stomp it out and dox people, and publish people's names and harass them. And it's just a sexuality. People aren't doing anything wrong."

Before her return to the Berkshires, Vendetta had lived in New York City and Los Angeles. She also dropped out of The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, where she had been studying video production.

"I was a professional dominatrix, which, in those days, we made a lot of money. And I found it quite silly to be going to college for something that I was going to earn less per hour than I was currently doing," she said.

Prior to that, she attended Pittsfield High School, where she first became enamored with filmmaking while taking a class with Ralph Hammann.

"He's definitely the one that probably gave me the idea that you could actually make a movie without being a famous celebrity with millions of dollars, that you could actually do it yourself," Vendetta said.

"I was a big influence on her interest in film, not in pornography," Hammann said recently over the phone.

When Vendetta was in Hammann's film appreciation course, the now-retired teacher viewed her as a strong, self-starter and someone who was also "marching to a different drummer."

"I don't know what the style would've been called; Goth or what," he said.

The class included a focus on Michael Moore's "school of guerrilla filmmaking," Hammann said, and Vendetta's talent was apparent.

"I certainly had no idea where it was going to manifest," he said.

Though the two have remained in touch over the years, Hammann has never seen any of Vendetta's films, which have all been in the erotic sphere.

But he will be at Images on Monday night.


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