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Sara Blecher: Tracking Old Photographs and Championing Safe Sets

Film freezes a period in celluloid. However, an uncoordinated intimate scene could leave a psychological scar.
May 3, 2023
11:13 am
Sara Blecher

Accomplished filmmaker, Sara Blecher continues to dig deep into her extensive South African and Johannesburg roots, whether by way of film-making, budding multi-media projects, or the Intimacy Co-ordination company (Safe Sets) that she founded with Kate Lush.


A current project that Blecher is involved in is tracking old photographs of trees in Johannesburg, towards a multi-media exhibition. When Johannesburg was founded as a mining town in 1886, it was predominantly treeless grassland. Initially, trees were planted to protect one from the dust, and later forests of trees were introduced to provide wood for the mines, which propped up the mineshafts. Many of these trees still exist. Blecher says: “They’ve borne witness to this transformation of the city.”


She aims to look at the world that has changed around the trees, showing that every moment in history is part of a continuum of change. Blecher refers to this moment in the city’s history, where there are countless potholes and once functional robots, lie amputated on the sides of roads.  “This moment too is part of a continuum, and the tree project is a part of reflecting that.”


The exhibition will include geo-locating the trees on a map so that people can visit them and learn about the changes. Blecher says, “If you think of trees as living creatures, they are the only ones who have lived through all this history.  They are the survivors and it’s about what those trees as living creatures have borne witness to. “


Blecher chronicles the trees of Joburg

As a filmmaker, Blecher has faced her fair share of challenges. She says that although all her films have been both rewarding and challenging, the film Mayfair (2018) was one of her most challenging experiences. It was a gangster film based in Mayfair when old Indian families were leaving and new Somali immigrants were coming into the area. “Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong from funding falling apart to the DOP no longer being able to work on it, because of date changes,” she says.


She reveals, “Ultimately, we had to complete the film without a third of the money being secured. I had to mortgage our house and borrow money. The levels of stress are just inexplicable. People do say you have to bleed for art, and I really do feel that. Everything I’ve done was not easy. As a youth, my dad would repeatedly ask me, ‘Sara, if there’s an easy way and a hard way, why do you have to take the hard way?’  I don’t know the answer to that question, but I think I should start taking the easy route.”


An additional branch in Blecher’s legacy is her recently formed company called Safe Sets. As the founder and former chairperson of Sisters Working in Film and Television (SWIFT), Blecher attended a talk by an intimacy co-ordinator at the Berlin Film Festival and the work hit a chord.


She says, “The work addressed so many of my interests and I knew that I wanted to learn how to do this thing.”


At that point, there were no intimacy co-ordinators in South Africa. Blecher completed her level 1 & 2 training under Ita O’Brien, the founder of Intimacy on Set (IOS). During this time, she met Kate Lush and together they founded Safe Sets.


Blecher says that unlike directing, one of the first rules of intimacy co-ordination is that it is critical to keep personal sexual experiences private and protected and to allow them to explore the character’s sexuality and experiences.


The work of an intimacy co-ordinator is to keep the crew and the cast safe, as much as possible.  “Intimacy, like stunts needs to be very carefully choreographed. You wouldn’t say to stunts let’s have a fight and see what happens. That’s how you keep the actors safe and keep the personal private. With intimacy, you can’t see the blood and the broken bones that would result if you don’t have it, but you can see the trail of broken people that get left behind.“


For Blecher, one of the big things that came out of SWIFT was the need to keep women in the industry. Before she trained as an intimacy co-ordinator, she saw that many actors who were traumatised left the industry or refused to do intimacy because of the triggers. “Also, one of the results coming out of the #me too movement is that women now know they can say no, whereas I think previously women didn’t know they can say no.”


Choreographing an intimacy scene

Blecher finds the intimacy co-ordination work extremely gratifying. She says, “Both experienced actors and new actors are grateful because this work helps them to understand that they can say no, and still do the role and be safe, and not feel like they have for example, betrayed their partner. Alternatives can be designed to convey exactly what needs to be conveyed, but in a way that doesn’t violate them.”


Blecher unpacks some of the work of an intimacy co-ordinator on a film set.


“On one of the very first jobs I did, I worked with an actress. We were doing a consentive touch agreement. When the person asked may I hold your hands, she started giggling. The same person then asked may I hug you?  Once again, she started giggling, and then in the middle of this consent exercise, she got up and left the set.


“I followed her, and she was crying and devastated. I asked her what was going on and she said that no one had ever asked her permission and she didn’t know what to do with that. She had clearly been violated but she didn’t even know that she could be asked.


“There are also tricky situations because although you might be able to see that the scene is violating someone, she might insist on doing the scene. In that situation, you must trust what she’s saying.


Image from Pexels Cottonbro studios

“So, I might say to her, listen I think you must go and see somebody after this process, but I can’t stand in the way of you wanting to explore this; so, if this is what you want to do and you want to work through this, let’s find a way to do it safely and slowly. Let’s take the time and I will work with you, and the outcome can be extraordinary. ”


Blecher adds that it’s crucial that the cast and crew know that the intimacy co-ordinator is not a therapist.  “I tell people, I’m not a therapist or a sex coach, because those are the things that people keep approaching you for, the minute you’re the intimacy co-ordinator. What we do is not real sex. We do simulated sex that makes it look like it’s real sex and makes it look like it’s part of the character’s journey.”


She describes a situation where she was working on a gay love scene.


“It was two men and neither of them was gay. We did consent of touch and agreement. Everyone consented to the scene until the one actor’s body completely froze. So whereas he was saying yes, I can do this, and I consent to this and I will do the kissing scene, his body was not consenting. He literally couldn’t move and that’s trauma in performance, when your whole body goes into a fight-or-flight response. Your mind is saying I’m going to do this scene, but your body is saying no I’m not going to do this scene. This is characteristic of grey areas that can arise.”


Image from Pexels Joshua Mcknight

Blecher stresses that before there were intimacy co-ordinators this was the job of the director.


“I’ve realised that you cannot direct and be an intimacy co-ordinator because the power balance is all wrong. As the director, you are all-powerful. Intimacy co-ordination frees the director from actor care.  An actor is more likely to say ‘no’ to a third party than to the director.”


To date, Safe Sets have trained several cohorts, which has included South Africa, the Middle East, and they have a training scheduled for Netflix in Turkey soon.


The company has also developed a set of protocols around working with minors, and trauma in performance.


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