Professional cuddling services that provide non-sexual snuggle sessions to customers have been opening up around the world. But can these services really alleviate loneliness—or are they a Band-Aid on an open wound?
Interview with Director/Producer Sara Joe Wolansky
Congratulations! Why did you make your film?
My single friends and I often bemoan the fact that we "just want someone to cuddle with." We are used to getting almost anything else we want, after all, at the click of an iPhone app. So when I found out about Steve's "professional cuddling service" called "The Ecstatic Embrace," my interest was piqued. I was curious to see if this really could serve as a surrogate for non-sexual physical intimacy that normally can only be found with a romantic partner. I tried out a session with Steve and realized that the complexity of the emotions I experienced were worth exploring further through the documentary medium.
Imagine I'm a member of the audience. Why should I watch this film?
It's not a tragedy. It's not a comedy. It's a little bit of both--just like real life. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and you'll be inspired to re-examine your own intimate relationships.
There have, in fact, been other films about cuddle services--and the majority of them treat professional cuddling as the butt of obvious jokes. Although, of course, there *is* something funny and awkward about professional cuddling, my film transcends lazy punchlines and delves into the real emotional journeys that many cuddle practitioners and clients experience.
The appeal of the film is not solely limited to the small percentage of people who have participated in a cuddle party or professional hugging session. The topic may be niche, but the underlying emotions experienced by the people in the film are universal. Thus, even those who would never in million years consider stepping anywhere near a "professional cuddling service" can still relate to the film subjects' psychological journeys.
How do personal and universal themes work in your film?
One of the core themes of the film is the idea of loneliness. What does it mean to really know someone? To feel connected? Can intimacy be constructed? Our desire for connection is the real driving force of the film.
Holding someone carries an unspoken message. "You are not alone. I care about you. It is okay to be vulnerable here. You can trust me." Our bodies respond positively to this type of intimate contact, and experts have reaffirmed non-sexual touch's physical and emotional benefits. My film does not seek to confirm or deny the benefits of touch (it's taken as a given) but instead strives to test the limits of non-sexual touch's power.
Is it possible to produce laughter, tears, feelings of elation, and a deep sense of trust in a situation that involves a financial transaction? From what I have observed through my own personal experience and through filming others, it appears so. Can these services really alleviate loneliness—or are they a Band-Aid on an open wound? That's left up to the viewer's interpretation.
How have the script and film evolved over the course of their development and production?
Since this is a documentary project, the film's narrative evolved as we learned more about our subjects and the stories they shared with us. Like most films, we had to "kill some babies" -- a term for leaving a treasured interview, shot, or other priceless moment on the cutting room floor out of concern for length, clarity, or making the overall film stronger.
There was one interview that we did that I remember thinking, "this is it, we nailed it!" It was one of my favorite interviews that I've ever done. I thought for sure that this interview would be absolutely vital in crafting the story of this documentary. To my surprise, we ended up cutting out that footage completely. I loved that interview in a vacuum--but it ultimately didn't contribute anything to the overall narrative of the film.
What type of feedback have you received so far?
I think people have been surprised by the direction that the film takes, as well as its relatability! As I mentioned earlier, many of the existing documentaries simply make fun of professional cuddling services without going much deeper into why someone might seek a service like this out or what the emotional landscape of a cuddling session actually entails. I think many people go in to the film expecting a joke-a-thon, and come out with a much more introspective reaction than they anticipated having.
One of the other pieces of feedback that I have consistently gotten is that people have found themselves thinking about the film days later. Although the topic itself sounds kind of light and silly--and even the word "cuddle" implies a certain amount of frivolity, I do think that the film strikes people in deeper places than they were expecting.
Some of the scariest feedback to receive as a documentary filmmaker is that of your subjects, who have been brave enough to make themselves vulnerable (and put up with endless hours of your camera in their face). I recently received a letter from Steve about how his thoughts had evolved on his own work, which I'd like to honor here (paraphrased):
"What I have discovered is that touch, particularly reciprocal touch, is a tool for well-being. My work approaches it in a particular way, but there are many ways to express care through touch. We need ongoing access to touch to thrive and sustain the benefits that it delivers. My response to the question you pose in the film is: One would never expect for all our problems to be repaired by a therapist in a couple of sessions (or ever), as one won't be cured permanently from loneliness from a couple of sessions with me, though they may well feel powerfully opened up from the experiences and newly appreciative both of the value of being held, as well as the quality of connection and vulnerability that is expressed there."
Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?
One of my fears going in to the film is that some people would be turned off by the topic. I understand that it can be hard for some people to accept that these types of services are not sexual in intent. I worried that people would be too distracted by that to pay attention to the (in my opinion) much more fascinating and nuanced emotional story I was interested in telling. I am delighted that most people seem to understand that the story is about something deeper.
(And honestly, if I had wanted to make a film about a rub-and-tug, I would have just *made* the film about rub-and-tugs. It would have been a lot easier and more straightforward!)
Every documentary has hours and hours of great footage that gets left on the cutting room floor. Although I strive to be as truthful as I can, the final product is inevitably filtered through my unique point of view. Every camera, editorial, and sound choice involves including some details at the expense of others--and thus my representations are not and can never be truly objective. Hearing feedback inevitably challenges my point of view for the better. It forces me to justify why I chose to craft the story that I did through the means by which I did it.
What are you looking to achieve by having your film more visible on www.wearemovingstories.com?
I'd love to connect new viewers with my film. Reaching the widest possible audience is always the goal--after all, I made the film to be seen!
Who do you need to come on board (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists) to amplify this film's message?
We would love to screen the film at more festivals, as well as have more press coverage in order to increase the number of people interested in the film.
What type of impact and/or reception would you like this film to have?
Critical accolades and film festival acceptances have been amazing. We recently were fortunate enough to receive the award for Best Short at the American Documentary Film Festival. My favorite type of reception, however, happened at a recent festival screening. After one of the showings of the film, an audience member found me in the theater's foyer, gave me a huge hug, and just took a second to cry in my arms. Knowing that the film made a real difference for at least that one person was priceless.
On a separate note, I would love to generally spread the word about the existence of professional cuddling. This type of service may not be a great solution for everyone--but there are definitely people out there who would greatly benefit from professional cuddling and simply do not know that it is an option.
What's a key question that will help spark a debate or begin a conversation about this film?
What does having a meaningful connection with another human being entail?
Would you like to add anything else?
Thanks so much to everyone featured in the film for opening up to me and trusting me with your stories. Thanks so much to all my hardworking creative collaborators for making this project possible.
What are you developing or working on now?
Sara Joe (director) is directing her first feature documentary. The film is currently in the middle of production. Alix (cinematographer) will be the cinematographer for this project as well.
We Are Moving Stories embraces new voices in drama, documentary, animation, TV, web series and music video. If you have just made a film - we'd love to hear from you. Or if you know a filmmaker - can you recommend us? More info: Carmela
Cuddling with Strangers
Director: Sara Joe Wolansky
Producer: Sara Joe Wolansky
About the writer, director and producer:
Sara Joe Wolansky is an award-winning documentary filmmaker who crafts stories that blur the line between comedy and tragedy. More information about her work is available at www.sarajoewolansky.com
Looking for (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists): All of the above :)
Release date: 2016