The Spool / Festivals
SXSW: “The Dilemma of Desire” Examines the Politics of Passion
Maria Finitzo's documentary celebrates female sexuality in all its varied forms.
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Maria Finitzo’s documentary The Dilemma of Desire celebrates female sexuality in all its varied forms.

(This review is part of our coverage of this year’s SXSW Film Festival. While the festival itself is canceled, we’re still providing remote reviews for some of the independent offerings the festival would have had.)

While male sexuality is glorified and indulged in media, female sexuality is often diminished, if not outright erased. Women are presented as sexual objects, to be sure, but their sexuality is often framed in reference to a man’s pleasure; the idea that women might enjoy sex on their own terms is downright foreign in most media narratives. It’s a harmful status quo that the documentary The Dilemma of Desire intends to not only highlight, but fight back against. To do this, director Maria Finitzo compiles different stories of American women from various walks of life doing their part to reinforce the normalcy of women’s sexual agency.

Finitzo interviews several pioneering women in the fight for female sex positivity: Sophia Wallace, the artist behind the Cliteracy movement; Ti Chang, the creator of sex toys whose designs specifically appeal to women; and Jasmine, a woman raised in a strictly Christian household and who now works as a stripper. These are just a few of the many tales The Dilemma of Desire has to offer. 

If there’s one complaint, it does juggle a few too many storylines at once, The Dilemma of Desire feeling occasionally overstuffed. Inevitably, some of Finitzo’s subjects end up getting short shrift: this is particularly true of Umnia, who feels torn between the cultures of America and the culture of her homeland of Saudi Arabia. She gets an extended spotlight at the beginning, before vanishing for much of the runtime. 

While it would have been great to see more of her, for the most part, The Dilemma of Desire effectively juggles all its disparate perspectives. Through this expansive scope, Finitzo paints a broad canvas of the different ways women can use sexuality to reinforce their own individuality. There isn’t one way to be a woman, much less one who embraces her sexuality.

There isn’t one way to be a woman, much less one who embraces her sexuality.

The inherent uniqueness of each person being interviewed is one of the many aspects of The Dilemma of Desire that proves to be immensely thoughtful without the project ever calling attention to it. The majority of the subjects are women of color, whose sexuality is so often erased in pop culture. That element is reinforced in segments like an interview where Jasmine, talks about her experiences working at a local strip club (including her working the night Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential election).

While she talks about performing in larger venues, the only times we see her actually strip are in more intimate confines. Instead of having Jasmine get lost in a crowded strip club scene, Finitzo chooses to focus on more low-key locales, like a training room or a burlesque show, where she can be the central focus. 

These Jasmine-centric scenes are the sort of laidback but richly human moments in which The Dilemma of Desire excels. Footage depicting interview subject Coriama chilling around her house with her romantic friend Dolan being another memorable example of this critical aspect of Finitzo’s filmmaking. 

There are still mighty obstacles in the way for frank, public affirmations of female sexuality. But docs like The Dilemma of Desire make for a great counterattack against such stigmas, as well as just well-crafted documentary filmmaking in its own right.