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A screenshot of Riley Hooper's documentary film Vestibule

Q&A | In Vestibule, Riley Hooper Moves from Pain to Agency & Pleasure

For the past eight years, award-winning filmmaker Riley Hooper has been working on a feature length documentary about her decade-long journey to diagnose, treat, and heal from congenital neuroproliferative vestibulodynia, a vulvovaginal pain condition that can make penetrative sex impossible. Riley combines documentary footage and dance sequences to share both the speakable and unspeakable aspects of her experience.

Riley and producer Bryn Silverman hope Vestibule will spread awareness and spearhead advocacy work around vulvovaginal pain and pelvic floor health.

Vestibule is in its final stages of filming — help get this important work over the finish line by donating here. You can also follow the film on Instagram for updates.

Riley, the short documentary films you’ve made are incredible. I just watched Why Not Now and am drying off happy tears. When did you start making a film about you?

Riley: I made short profile films for a long time about all these interesting people. Then for the past eight years, I've been working on this film about myself. It’s so different from anything I've made before. I'm really excited to put it out there and be in this different aspect of my career.

Like many people, it sounds like you had a long journey to find some relief from vestibulodynia.

Riley: It took a very long time — almost 10 years to diagnose and treat my vestibulodynia. I had two vestibulectomy surgeries. The second one worked, but that was four years after the first, so, it was such a long process, and so confusing. I was very young.

I started making the film in 2016 and it documents the last year and a half of my treatment, when I was technically physically ready to have sex. But emotionally, there was still so much work to do.

Why did you choose to incorporate dance into your storytelling?

Riley: I did authentic movement dance therapy as part of my healing process, and it was such a cool form of therapy that got me out of my head and into my body — and took me on these pathways that I wasn't expecting. The movement really tapped into my subconscious, so it expanded things a lot for me.

In the film, I use dance when dipping into memories and moments where the camera wasn’t present. So, it's a nice tool, but it's also a way of telling the story of my body through my body.

Can you describe what a movement therapy session looked like for you?

Riley: It's really wild. The process is that you close your eyes and you move however you want to move with no music. It’s just me and the therapist and she's just watching me. Sometimes I would go for like 20 minutes and if you can really get into it, you drop into a place where you're not aware. I would come out of it sometimes and be, like, I don't know what just happened. But I felt something. You're really tapping into something.

My therapist would talk about developing a feeling of safety in your body. Sometimes she would say “you can go under a blanket and just sit there, just do nothing.” One time I did, and being witnessed by someone as you do that, and who is accepting of you in that state, is really powerful.

Riley Hooper and Bryn Silverman wearing matching pink jumpsuits
Riley & Bryn after winning the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival

I can see how the witnessing would be so important. Someone is letting you take the time and space you need to tune into your body.

Riley: Yes. You need other people — therapists, partners, family, healthcare providers — to help you feel safe so that you can develop your own sense of safety from the inside. The film is definitely about that process. And the film takes that idea of the witness and brings it out to an audience of people who are witnessing me and my body. So there's so many layers to it.

But movement is also just a beautiful way to explore and tell a story — where I don't have to say everything. And then inviting an audience to be able to connect with their bodies. Because I'm not talking all the time, they can have their own experience of it.

It's hard to say things. Sometimes it's unspeakable, you know?

Are you a dancer?

Riley: I definitely love dancing. I grew up dancing, but I'm not a professional by any means.

It must feel so vulnerable to get in front of a camera and dance in this way. Where did the courage to be that vulnerable come from?

Riley: I think it comes from this lineage of women that I come from. In the film, it's revealed to me that my grandma was sexually abused as a child. And she didn't tell anyone until she was 90 years old when she told my mom. And so, that story is in the film — the silence and shame that surrounds women's bodies.

But my grandma was also the most beautiful, elegant, embodied woman you've ever met. She was so graceful and there's all this beautiful footage, like 8mm footage of her diving into pools and running into the ocean and she was so in her body. I never got to talk to her about it, but it's kind of like a thesis of the film that my grandma and I both found our way to healing through being in our bodies.

I think more and more of us are realizing how our mother’s and grandmothers’ stories are at the core of our own.

Riley: Oh yeah, there are so many layers to it and it's such an emotional thing. The film has been a process of realizing it's not just me. It’s all of these circles, going back generations.

You know, it took me two years to even go to the doctor in the first place because I was minimizing my pain, not thinking my pleasure was important, and all of that. And it took me such a long time to even figure out that that's what I had been doing, and that's so problematic — it connects to such a broader, cultural thing that’s been passed down through our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generation, where we minimize women’s pain and pleasure. And reinforce the message that sex is only for the man in a heterosexual relationship.

Was there ever a point where you just felt angry about having vestibulodynia?

Riley: Anytime I ever got on the phone with my health insurance company was when I got the most angry. The bureaucracy of it all felt so dehumanizing.

And that anger can be a really good thing. There's a dance scene in the film where I'm in an operating room and get up off the table and tear apart the whole operating room and throw things around. Anger is energy that you can use to tear things apart and build something new.

stills from the film Vestibule

Bryn, can you tell me more about your background and role as producer on Vestibule?

Bryn: I'm also a documentary filmmaker, though I’m on this project as a producer. I tend to wear different hats depending on the project, but in recent years have really felt drawn to producing films where women are telling their stories and holding the cameras and writing or re-writing their narratives, however the hell they want to. Taking a little bit of power back in the way that we're using film to show people who we are and how we move through the world.

So I've been consulting on this project for, I think, four years. Riley and I had consistent creative calls and this past summer I came on to help build community around the film, create financial infrastructure and get the film finished and distributed alongside our other brilliant producer Caitlin Mae Burke.

It’s cool that as a filmmaker and creative person yourself, you’re also taking so much time to support another filmmaker.

Bryn: Sometimes as a producer, I feel like my job is a form of advocacy. I have no shame asking people for money or resources for Riley's film because it's going to move people and change people's lives, there will be a ripple effect.

And yet, I’m making my own film on my experience with thyroid cancer, and it's hard for me to ask for those resources for my own project. So I have a producing partner who's helping me do that.

It’s like how we might need an ally or caregiver with us in the doctor's office to help advocate for us. We need people in the room when we're pitching and making our films, especially projects like this that are so personal. It's like having someone who can step in and have your back, you know?

Where are you in terms of finishing the film?

Bryn: Right now, we have a really amazing rough cut that's working really well and the only element left to film are the dance sequences. Those will be produced in a studio and beautifully designed to fit seamlessly within the verite footage.

You can see if you watch the teaser, there are just so many moments where the different types of visuals are woven together in the most wonderful way.

How is the fundraising going?

Bryn: We’ve been connecting with organizations recently, not only for funding, but to really build community. The idea is, let's connect with people who get it and are already working and advocating in this space and start building that community and engaging those people around the film. This is a part of our impact campaign, so we can get Vestibule in front of the audiences who really need to see it. But we are definitely actively fundraising and similarly hope to partner with donors who want to see a film like this in the world.

We saw that you recently did a work-in-progress pitch at the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival and you won! Congratulations! What was that experience like?

Riley: Thank you! It was really exciting! Bryn and I felt so good about our pitch and it really meant a lot to us to be recognized in that way. That was the first time I’ve ever talked about the film publicly. In the last few months all of the lessons I’ve learned from making this film have really been crystallizing for me. I feel clarity in what I’m doing, and that helps me to feel safe to share.

What’s the next big step for Vestibule?

Bryn: The next big step for us is to finish production, which means filming the artistic dance sequences that make up parts of Riley’s journey in the film where a camera wasn’t present. We are aiming to start filming those this summer. And of course, as is generally the case with documentary film, side by side with the creative is fundraising. We’re applying for grants, but are also set up with a fiscal sponsor to receive tax-deductible donations. And we’ll be doing some community fundraising, so keep an eye out on our Instagram for exciting fundraising-related opportunities from us!

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Nicole Zeman
Nicole Zeman

Nikki Zeman is the Head of Content & Community at Origin — a dream job that allows her to create eye-opening content about pelvic and sexual health. Before Origin, Nikki worked at Cosmopolitan, Women's Health, and Parents Magazine as an editor, health journalist, and advice columnist.

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