This month, Cinema Asian America on XFINITY presents Sofian Khan’s much-discussed, fascinating documentary, “The Dickumentary.” A cultural history of the penis, Khan’s debut feature film is a rigorously-researched and humorously-approached study of that anatomical appendage which has, for mankind’s history been used as a symbol for everything from fertility to power.
Spanning fourteen countries, from Korea to Pakistan, and tackling earth’s history, “The Dickumentary” tells the story of the penis — from its evolution as a biological structure millions of years ago in prehistoric fish, to today.
Your film suggests that if we zoom way out and look at the lens of human history through that of the penis, and how cultures have been built around it, that something broader can be gleaned about culture and society. What have you found through making this film?
I found that wherever you look in history, every culture has some expression of its fascination with the penis. I think this is because men have always been preoccupied with it, and men have had control of the cultural narrative for most of history. Even where this expression has been suppressed, by religion for example, it finds a way to manifest.
In Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries you had this meteoric rise of the codpiece — these absurd protruding phallic pouches that men wore over their trousers. The church actually had to ban the fashion because they were getting bigger and bigger, thanks to a sort of obscene arms race that was going on. This was during a period in Europe when any depiction of the male form was heavily circumscribed by Christian morality. It was possible to paint a nude Jesus, usually as a baby, or some mythological scene with naked satyrs perhaps, but the penis as a symbol — that is, the phallus — was being covered up by the proverbial fig leaf.
At the same time, in the English language, this is a period when all the myriad names for the penis that we have today were entering the lexicon. So, while the phallus was not overtly visible as a symbol, people were definitely talking about it, and, as with the codpiece, trying to bring it back into the public space.
(Incidentally, centuries later, a former Black Panther attempted to bring the codpiece back in the 1970s. That’s a whole other story— but I really wish it had caught on!)
You traveled to 14 different countries to understand how very different human cultures have historically understood the penis as a symbol. Were there any unexpected alignments or disjunctions you found as you did this broad survey? Is there something more truly universal about its position in culture, or did the variance surprise you?
The major difference I found between how the penis is viewed in different cultures honestly has a lot to do with colonialism. My father is Pakistani and my mother is British, so colonialism has been a constant topic of discussion in our family, and I may be predisposed to see things in this way. But I found that in places where you may have once had phallic symbols as part of the indigenous religion, and then colonial powers subsequently arrived, there has either been a sense of shame introduced — or a complete erasure of the symbol. This is true in the Muslim expansion as well, which was not sympathetic to so-called idolaters, but this happened in a much more gradual and haphazard way than with the Western colonization.
People don’t realize that Europe itself was littered with phallic symbols, even during the early days of Christianity in the continent. This was a leftover of the Roman propensity to display the phallus as a symbol of power. It was worn on pendants, carved into the cornerstones of houses for good luck and carried in various religious processions dedicated to fertility. But these were all eroded by a sort of internal process of colonization— that being the church coming to dominate the spiritual lives of Europeans and pushing out pagan influences.
So I came away from the whole experience with the impression of a world before the expansion of the major monotheistic religions that was rife with phallic symbols. They are part of a vast shared cultural heritage that probably began with very early human cultures who saw it as the source of human creative power. But it has since become more of a curiosity than a norm, and invokes giggles instead of awe.
Discussing the penis is something that can induce discomfort, humor and offense. Can you talk about the voice and tone of the film and how you chose to work with the cultural sensitivities of this subject matter?
This is a topic that definitely raises a lot of eyebrows, and even now that the film is out, my dad still won’t mention it to most of our family! But I do think that attitudes have changed a lot, even since I was in high school, and the discussion is much more open.
The approach I adopted was to keep the tone light, but make sure the film is informative as well as entertaining. There have been other docs as of late that have tread similar territory, but which have relied on endless puns and cheap laughs instead of doing the subject justice. Frankly, there is so much that we could have made a miniseries! So I got most of the silliness out of the way with the title and tried to let the experts do most of the talking.
Can you share with us a few unexpected facts or histories that you discovered while researching this film? Perhaps frameworks that shifted your conception and understanding of the penis?
Probably one of my favorite surprises during my research was finding out about circumcision in South Korea. They had no history of it before 1945. Then the U.S. forces arrived to fight the Korean War. Wanting desperately to adopt modern ways, the South Koreans followed the American example and began to circumcise en masse. Only they had their own twist on it: instead of doing it at birth, they waited until their boys were between 10 and 12.
During my time in Seoul, I tried to understand why this age had been chosen. Was there some reason these kids had to go through such a painful trial? Was it a rite of passage of some sort? However it appears, at least as far as I was able to discover, to be far more mundane than that. A prominent Korean surgeon suggested this age in his writings on the subject, alleging that it had a lower chance of causing complications, and the medical institutions of the day simply adopted it.
The fact that a society can adopt a practice like circumcision, something once rooted firmly in religion, and evolve it into an unquestioned cultural tradition, based on a desire to modernize and a vague suggestion by an obscure surgeon, is totally fascinating to me. The American medicalization of it in the first place is, of course, no less strange and incredible.
You’ve had an exciting year; in addition to the release of “The Dickumentary” another film you’ve made “Gaucho Del Norte” is also being screened at film festivals and on television. Can you tell us about this film, and what else you are working on? “The Dickumentary” is a very particular film – through it can we get an understanding for some of the larger themes and approaches you have in your body of work?
My other doc “Gaucho del Norte,” which aired in late 2014 on PBS and premiered at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival this February, is about South American shepherds who are recruited to work in the U.S. on three year contracts. It’s a job that most Americans don’t want to do, so we bring Chileans, Bolivians and Peruvians to do it. I started “Gaucho” almost a year before “The Dickumentary,” but because it is an observational film following two seasons of an agricultural process, it took longer to shoot, and was quite a bit more difficult to edit.
The fact that they are being released at roughly the same time has been really interesting for me because, frankly, I am hard-pressed to find a connection between them. I think that they represent two different facets of what I am trying to accomplish as a filmmaker. On the one hand “The Dickumentary” is all about ideas and history, and I am excited to start a new line of research toward another film like it. On the other hand, “Gaucho del Norte” is a personal story of an immigrant, eschewing narration and light on context. Instead, it is about an experience unfolding in the moment, and is more about sensitivity than ideas.
On that note, my new project “The Interpreter,” is also about an immigrant. It follows an Iraqi interpreter who is struggling to bring his family out of Iraq. Thanks to his friendship with a U.S. soldier, he was able to come last year on a Special Immigrant Visa to escape threats to his life. But now, with the incursion of ISIS near his hometown, he is working to bring his wife, son and three daughters to join him. It has been a truly incredible experience to work with these guys, and we hope to complete the film early next year in time for the fall 2016 festival circuit.