A strange rush of emotions runs through you as you watch Inside Lara Roxx, the documentary feature by Montreal filmmaker Mia Donovan that is equal parts revealing, sad, confounding, hopeful, infuriating and sensational. Roxx made headlines in 2004 when the then-22-year-old was trying to make it big in the Los Angeles porn milieu, only to contract HIV.
As one of only a handful of porn actors to publicly suffer such an outcome, Roxx soon became tabloid and mainstream media fodder, igniting international headlines. In the realm of contemporary journalism, Roxx’s story was a perfect storm, involving pornography, betrayal and what some clearly saw as a moral: if you play with fire, don’t be surprised if you get burned. Roxx’s tale drew so much attention that she ended up interviewed by the likes of Diane Sawyer and Maury Povich.
Roxx’s revelations drew solid ratings, as she recounted going to Los Angeles with high hopes and getting swept up in the idea of making a fast fortune by having sex in front of a camera. She also believed industry types when they said everyone involved had been tested repeatedly and that her chances of contracting HIV were virtually nil.
Donovan carefully places this media phenomenon into context, showing us how Roxx did her best to weather it, and how she attempted to confront her past through trips to LA and Las Vegas, and how addiction ultimately landed her in rehab. It’s a harrowing journey, but it’s also one of those powerful docs that manages to forge beyond the valley of the tabloids. Yes, Roxx’s story is innately sensational – how could it not be? – but Donovan treats Roxx with a respect and depth that gives the film and its subject a humanity.
It was during the initial media firestorm that Roxx caught the interest of Donovan. “I saw Lara on [French network] TVA, where she was being interviewed in studio,” Donovan recalls. “I remember immediately feeling badly for her. She looked like someone who could easily be manipulated. I worried that someone would take advantage of her.”
But Donovan had other reasons for feeling a certain connection to Roxx: her own work experiences.
“I used to strip when I was in school,” she recalls, of her time doing a bachelor of fine arts at Concordia University in Montreal. “I had a bit of insight into the types of people, the girls and guys, who are in that industry. I met so many girls who were exactly like her. I felt badly for her right away. I felt kind of angry, too – I could tell right away that someone had taken advantage of her.”
Donovan immediately contacted Roxx, who was in the throes of crisis but who agreed to be the subject of a documentary. From the moment she knew she wanted to make a film about Roxx, Donovan also knew she did not want to rush the project – this story had already been told at the breakneck pace many journalists operate at and had suffered as a result.
“That’s why it took so long for me to shoot the film. I could have done something quickly quite easily, especially during that first year when she was in hospital. She needed attention and would have done pretty much anything. I didn’t want to take advantage of her like that. What was driving me to shoot her was that I kept reminding myself that I had to be patient and that it might take a long time. I remember even her dad saying, “Shouldn’t you finish this fast so that people remember her name, and then the film will be more successful?” To me, it really wasn’t about that – it was about getting to know her as she became more grounded, rather than in her more erratic, drug-induced state.”
Donovan felt able to handle this dilemma because of her own connections to strippers and porn actors, but also because she was witnessing some of the over-the-top excesses of the most brazenly tabloid TV shows and their treatment of Roxx. Her appearance on the Maury Povich Show was, perhaps not shockingly, like hitting rock bottom. Roxx was offered a mere $100 to appear on the show, and when she negotiated to get $500, the woman negotiating on the show’s behalf claimed she almost lost her job for paying Roxx such an exorbitant sum. The actual program wrapped itself up as a cheap morality tale, with Roxx pushed to warn young people about the horrors of what could happen to them if they followed her sordid path. She was handed scripts and repeatedly coached to say the things she did. As Roxx recalls it, there was nothing spontaneous or real about it.
“She knew the entire thing was ridiculous,” says Donovan. “But she thought someone might see the show and listen to her. I felt like she was grounded enough to make the decision to go on.”
The clips from Povich’s show add another dimension to the film, as does the Diane Sawyer interview, indicating how many different ways Roxx has been represented, and how intoxicating all of that attention clearly proved. But even more amazing — and more disturbing — are the outtakes from porn movies in which Roxx appeared. Scenes from two different videos show Roxx embracing various men, ready to engage in what was clearly unprotected sex. Scenes from one of her first appearances, titled Bi Boys and never actually released, shows Roxx embracing two men. The shoot took place in Montreal and was produced by local porn creator Vid Vicious. “He didn’t want anything to do with my film, but when I offered him money he saw it as a business deal and then gave me the footage,” Donovan remembers. (Donovan suspects Bi Boys was never released because the two men engage in sex after having sex with Roxx, and sex between men in hetero porn is widely regarded as an ongoing taboo.)
One especially memorable interview has Donovan talking to one of Roxx’s boyfriends, known only as “Wolf.” Clearly high on something, Wolf recounts having just stabbed someone in the hallway of Roxx’s apartment. “I wasn’t sure what he was saying, as my French isn’t that good,” Donovan says. “Then Lara held up a bloodied shirt and I realized what he was saying. He never would have told me all that if I’d had a cameraman or sound guy with me. Having no crew is part of why the film is so intimate.”
Some documentary filmmakers argue that the director should keep a certain distance from the people they are filming. Not Donovan, who concedes that she and Roxx have become “very close friends” but offers no apologies for it. “I really can’t imagine not allowing myself to develop a friendship with any of my subjects; I’ve always been that way, even with photography. Especially dealing with complex characters like Lara, or as the Maysles brothers did with Little Edie and Big Edie in Grey Gardens; they never would have gained access to their lives had they not developed a friendship. For me, I could not have made this film the way I did had I not developed a caring friendship for Lara. I have a lot of respect for her and care for her well-being, and that was part of the inspiration I needed to keep shooting for over five years.”