By Patrick Keilty
One of Canada’s largest peepshow and erotic film collections, spanning the entire pre-home video era, is now accessible for research at the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto. Donated by media archivist Albert Steg and the George Eastman Museum, The Erotic Film Collection, part of the Bonham Centre’s Sexual Representation Collection (SRC), consists of a diverse range of hardcore and softcore pornographic film and ephemera, including 1,824 8mm films, 863 16mm films, 203 super8 reels, 302 paper pamphlets, 20 books, 7 card decks, 1 box of peepshow stills, and 1 box of assorted correspondence. Highlights from the collection include two prints of El satario, the world’s oldest extant pornographic film, silent era stag films, pre-war hardcore films, coin-op peepshow films, and films featuring brown, Black, and trans performers from Latin America, East and Southeast Asia, the United States, and Canada. The SRC thanks the University of Toronto Libraries, Archive/ Counter-Archive, the Cinema Studies Institute at the University of Toronto, the Knowledge Media Design Institute at the University of Toronto, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their support to preserve and process the collection.
The collection includes examples of the major modes of pornographic film production, exhibition, and distribution of the era, including peepshow films, (originally) illicit stag films, feature-length films shown at grindhouses, and mass-produced, commercially sold 8mm films aimed at the home market. Documenting the transformation of sexual mores throughout the 20th century, the collection charts the entire evolution of the peepshow format from its “softcore” roots to “hardcore” genre. The collection also traces the history of stag film from its professional and semi-professional 35mm origins to amateur and prosumer 16mm formats. The preservation of such a wide range of ephemeral, amateur, and orphan histories enables researchers to better understand the history of film and media, sex work, gender, race, pleasure, sexuality, media consumption, and global sexual commerce.
Research Assistants Sydney Perkins, Ty Murphy, and A. Hawk worked for the past year to rehouse, process, and describe the collection. Together, they created a fond description and finding aid for scholars, now available on the Sexual Representation Collection’s website. Later this summer, portions of the collection will be digitized for an upcoming exhibit featuring peepshow films at the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto from August 1 – September 30, curated by Research Assistants Maggie MacDonald and Camille Intson.
The prints of El satario have already received significant attention from scholars, culminating in a panel discussion last year, featuring film historian Andrea Cuarterolo and audiovisual archivists Carolina Cappa and Leonardo Gomes. The event, co-sponsored by the Cinema Studies Institute at the University of Toronto and the ArQuives: Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Archives, is available to watch online. Cuarterolo, Cappa, and Gomes examine the film’s social, cultural, and technical context, and the mysterious circumstances of its production, circulation, and reception. As they explain, it is extraordinary to find prints of early erotic cinema from Argentina. Because the performers in the film are largely believed to have worked in a brothel in Buenos Aires, the film provides rare documentation of Argentina’s sex work history. The Bonham Centre’s Sexual Representation Collection worked with the University of Toronto Libraries Media Commons and Toronto Metropolitan University’s Film and Photo Preservation Program to digitize both prints of El satario, which it then uploaded to the Internet Archive, part of the efforts of the Adult Film History Project.
The SRC is a non-circulating collection, and most of its materials are stored off site. Digitization services, including digital research copies, are freely available upon request. Material held by the SRC is open to the public; some collections, including digital copies, may have restrictions based on copyright, individuals’ privacy, donor specific restrictions, and the condition of the material.
Patrick Keilty is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Information & Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, with a cross-appointment at the Cinema Studies Institute. He is Archives Director of the Sexual Representation Collection and Interim Director at the GLAM Incubator.