(Interview has been edited for clarity and brevity)
If you watched the Unicorn panel at the Bi Pride Festival 2021 (which of course you all did, because it was brilliant and featured moi 😉), you’ll already be familiar with the powerhouse that is Rufai ‘Roo’ Ajala. Cinematographer, lighting expert, intimacy co-ordinator, and fierce NB activist, we sat down to talk about Roo’s work, their life, and how they’re making sex scenes in films safer and sexier for all concerned.
U: Thanks for joining us, Rufai, and great to see you again! So, why don’t you start by telling us the queer history of Roo?
R: So… I went to boarding school in Ghana, and it was very religious, very strict conservative. Even now, you can be put in jail for being gay. I didn’t have the best representation of what a queer relationship looked like, or how life could look like. Spending time with my amazing mentor, Simon Foxton, seeing how he and his partner lived, gave me all the representation, the drive, the ‘aim positive’ influence
I needed to know that I could live my life. Through him, I learnt a lot about photography, and discovered the work of Rotimi Fani-Kayode, which I really identified with being part Nigerian myself and queer and Black and AMAB*. That was something I really latched onto.
*assigned male at birth
U: I’m guessing that’s how you got into film as well? Tell us a bit about your work.
R: My friends and colleagues at work describe me as a one-person ‘do-it-all’. I’ve covered a lot of bases in film, but for the last 10 years I’ve been involved in the lighting department, and also as a cinematographer.
A lot of the films I work on are around queer people of colours’ stories or sex workers’ stories, and back in 2017/18, I chanced upon the role of intimacy co-ordinator, which was relatively new at the time. I wanted to have more tools to be able to approach those kinds of sensitive and vulnerable stories in a better way, and I’m just very fascinated about sexuality and kink and sex and consent.
I spent two years training with Ita O’Brien (Sex Education, Gentleman Jack, I May Destroy You) and Jarrett Doe (Atlanta, Bridgerton, The Girlfriend Experience). Seeing how different people work and different people’s approaches to intimacy co-ordination was really fascinating. Me having had 13 years of experience behind the camera and now transitioning into being much more in direct conversations with the actors and doing a much more movement-based work has been a very interesting kind of shift.
U: What constitutes day-to-day training for an intimacy co-ordinator? Is there a checklist of certain types of scenes you need to be comfortable with?
R: Every pathway is different, but there is talk about standardising the practice so that everyone who becomes an intimacy co-ordinator has roughly the same kind of topics covered.
60% of what I did focused on the admin side of things: contracts between the actors and the production, talking about their nudity, riders, what the actor has agreed to do in an intimate scene or in a simulated sex scene. We have to establish what the boundaries are, and help put that into words, think what is the best language to go through that and hand it over to the productions to put it into a legal kind of text. We have to be very clear about the parts of the bodies, boundaries, consent, and if things change a week before the shoot, we deal with and manage that.
Another 25% was more physical body stuff, like intimacy garments, silicon padding for the groin area, nipple covers. There’s a great company called Intimask which does some amazing flesh-toned modesty garments of all kinds, from really light to dark complexions, so we can get the modesty garments matching as closely to the actors’ skin tone as possible. Then going through positioning of actors: how we place both of them on each other where they feel comfortable and go through the scene with those modesty barriers so that it looks convincing to camera.
And then you also have unions, so SAG-AFTRA in the USA, Equity in the UK. They all have different requirements or definitions of nudity or where intimacy coordinators come in, so we have to go through all of that stuff.
U: It sounds to me like you’re ‘sex translators’, in the sense that you’re combining those different unions’ needs and ideals, and also trying to translate what the actors are comfortable with and convety that to people.
R: I think that’s actually a really good summary. One definition that people use to explain our role is we are like stunt coordinators: we manage the emotional and physical safety of actors during a sex scene, or a simulated sex scene, or a nude scene.
A lot of people maybe have the misconception that we are taking over, ‘the sex police’… (laughs) We’re not just party poopers saying you can’t say things or taking over from directors. We’re there to facilitate and help better understand everyone’s needs, trying to give each party the tools to be able to work better and more comfortably.
U: It strikes me that’s similar to discussing kink and limits, having those sorts of ‘boundaries and consent’ conversations, or at least it seems to be. Have you found any similarities in those things?
R: (Nods) As someone who’s deeply ingrained in the kink community, when I first started exploring kink and being actively part of the wider community in the UK and around Europe, I picked up a lot of great tips and resources about communicating my needs and boundaries. Because that’s what is taught – when you’re playing with someone new, ‘what are your kinks?’ or ‘what are your fetishes? ‘How hard do you like to be hit or flogged?’ or safe words and all of that kind of stuff.
That’s pretty much a given, a bare minimum. I didn’t realise then how much that helped my non-kink sex life, having those kinds of discussions. There was not the space or education to be having those kinds of discussions – if you go on a one night stand and ask ‘what do you like?’, people are like ‘wait, what?’. It’s like people just think things happen organically, which can happen.
But we should also talk about sex or what we want or desire, what we don’t like, or maybe that ‘I’m not feeling this today – I might have liked it yesterday, but today I’m not feeling that’. There can be these open and clear discussions about wants and needs in non-kink sex lives, and we can also bring that into film.
U: Do you find that actors have very set ideas of what sex is, and are not so used to discussing stuff openly?
Yeah, where productions or directors are approaching sex scenes, sometimes they will just leave the actor to ‘you know… OK…’. In the script is very vague about what the sex scene is, and it’s like ‘reach the room, take off their clothes and have rough sex or rigorous sex’, and that’s it.
When things are very vague like that, sometimes the directors will just go to the actors ‘OK, you two need to just go and sort out what the sex scene is’. And that can cause problems, if it’s a bigger named actor with someone who isn’t the lead. If there’s a big power imbalance, it can cause issues not having a third party there. So we all sit down and really talk through this, so we’re all on the same page and happy with what we’re doing, so we can allow space to be vulnerable.
U: Does everyone always get on board with that openness and vulnerability?
There have been instances of an actor or performer saying one thing, but their body language is saying something else. They may be shielding their crotch or crossed arms or stuff like that. We all feel that pressure when it’s within a group, so we try to lessen that by having those conversations privately if we do notice things, always being on the lookout for body language.
But that is a continuous thing that does happen. It is a fairly new practice of trying to get actors to really say ‘no’ to something, if they haven’t been empowered before. They’ve always just taken direction from what’s on the script, like they are just a vessel, they have no agency – which I think is a sad thing. We have actors who are trained to be able to embody a character, to be able to bring their own strength and vitality, and film is a collaborative medium. There are a lot of directors who are very ‘it’s my way or the highway’, but we have to move away from that.
U: How do you put the actors at ease when they’re more nervous, then?
About six weeks ago, I worked on a production about coming of age, a short film called Minutes. It shows snippets of this relationship forming, maturing, plateauing and then ending. It was both the actors’ first time having an on-screen kiss, and they were very nervous. So we were high-fiving after every scene, which really released a lot of their stress.
There are other things we do, like having a closed set where we only have the core team, so there’s not 20 or 30 people as they usually are, just looking at them when they’re doing a very intense scene – it could be sexually joyous, or violent, or a masturbatory scene. That’s already enough pressure! We try and have their favourite snacks too, have a chat with them before about how we can make things more accommodating for them.
U: That high five thing you mentioned, I’m going to steal that and try it in real life. High five, good snog! (cackles) So you’ve talked a lot about your sex life and kink helping your intimacy co-ordination, but are there any things that have gone the other way round?
I think so. My way into intimacy co-ordination was… not an odd one, but a lot of people I met in the introductory course came from a place of trauma, either personal experience or they had witnessed something on set. I don’t really do many things in front of the camera, but I was performing and had a director who abused their position of power. It was a deeply traumatic thing. So my work behind the camera doing stories about queer trans people of colour led me on my journey to intimacy co-ordination, but also that traumatic experience led me down the path of trying to find resources to help myself heal.
What people don’t understand is that, with doing stunts, you might have a physical injury. But if you’re doing a simulated sex scene or a nude scene, you might not see any physical harm, but it might be emotional or mental trauma, and it has an impact that reverberates throughout that person and their whole life. Intimacy co-ordination has empowered me more about owning my ‘no’ and owning my ‘yes’.
There’s one thing that Ita said, which is ‘saying a positive no’. People always take it as a negative thing, but when you’re accepting a ‘no’ from someone, make it positive, you’re empowering them. A lot of those things helped translate back into my personal sex life, and intimacy co-ordination gave me more tools and resources to help.
U: Thank you for sharing something so personal with us, Roo. Finally, tell us about some of your projects that you’ve found your intimacy co-ordination has really enhanced (obviously bonus points for queer stories, given we’re Unicorn!).
I’ve worked on some really incredible stuff, particularly stories regarding what I’m really passionate about, which is representation for people of colour like queer and trans people of colours.
I’ve worked on a project called Something Said, which was a film by Jay Bernard, talking about the Brixton Riots and the New Cross Fire, and them being trans. It was a very intimate autobiographical poem story, about them transitioning but identifying with people who died at the party, and their impact on them now being looked at through our society as a trans Black body. It was incredible to have tools with intimacy co-ordination, to be able to work with Jay Bernard together in doing this very intimate self-portrait, showing the aftermath of top surgery and stuff like that.
Another project I’ve worked on is called Oink, which was about ‘dark room culture’, how antiretroviral drugs for HIV and AIDs have changed how people engage in dark rooms and sexuality, and also how queer people slot into that. People who are trans masc or trans femme are also making their own dark rooms and how they fit into the culture.
And the last film I want to mention is called Tribute, which is kind of a queer cruising art porn film by Max Disgrace and Lina Bembe. It’s a kind of ‘twist’ on the whole cruising genre, which normally stars cis gay men, and it’s an AFAB* trans masc dyke kind of scenario in a cemetery. It’s a tribute to Sex, Lies and Religion by Annette Kennerley. With the tools I’ve learnt from intimacy co-ordination, it was amazing to be a part of that.
*assigned female at birth
Rufai ‘Roo’ Ajala
Roo was interviewed by Maddie