Mia Donovan was putting the finishing touches on the subtitles for her documentary Inside Lara Roxx when Xtra spoke with her from her home in Montreal. The film, premiering at the Hot Docs festival, takes place in the five years after Lara Roxx, the now 28-year-old former porn performer, was diagnosed with HIV. Roxx contracted it on set doing an unprotected double anal — a sex act she’d never even done off camera.
Roxx’s health status was posted on the AIM (Adult Industry Medical) website. Sharon Mitchell, who runs AIM and is a former porn actor herself, was sued by Darren James, the man from whom Roxx contracted HIV. James got a settlement; Roxx got a tabloid frenzy.
The sensationalistic quality of the sex act that gave Roxx HIV and the fact that she was a newbie to the industry were irresistible to the tabloids.
Roxx got high off the attention and received a substantial amount of money from interviews, but she was old news very quickly. The documentary picks up the story 12 months later, when Roxx has been admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
“When I met her a year later she was still a bit delusional,” says Donovan. “She still thought she was going to be a celebrity.”
Two things are very clear in the opening scene of this film: that Roxx is an inveterate and sexually motivated attention seeker, and that the way she tried to satiate this need contributed to her collapse.
Despite this, and to Donovan’s great credit, the film is not another exploitative cautionary tale about HIV, drugs and pornography. As Donovan says, “I see it as an in-depth portrait of a woman searching for a new identity for herself. In the beginning I thought I was going to make a film about the politics of unsafe sex in the porn industry. I thought it was going to be an advocate for that, but the film became more. HIV is only a small part of her identity.”
Donovan originally met Roxx on a photo shoot when Donovan was documenting sex workers in Montreal. At the time Roxx had the Lara Roxx Foundation up and running and was talking about doing a reality show about her life. Donovan became interested because she wanted to see Roxx’s activist side blossom. This young woman had gone to LA in her early 20s against the better judgment of her agent in Montreal, and in a very brief period her life, which was already quite tenuous, shattered.
“She wanted to go back to LA and see if things would change. She really wanted to talk to people,” says Donovan.
Roxx made an appearance on the Maury Povich Show, which served only to reignite the lurid quality of her mistake. She was there to provide a warning to other girls who were on the same path of destruction she was, and the show did a great job of sensationalizing her admonitory message. As Roxx astutely says about the girls she was there to scare straight, “In a sick way, they look up to me.”
LA, Donovan notes, “didn’t have much of an impact on her. The thing that was really revealing was that she had a crush on this guy who talked her into doing the double anal. She seemed so alienated from the industry, and they kind of shut her out, too. Her voice didn’t come out that strongly.”
Roxx is a bona fide wild child, blessed and cursed with the prophetic wisdom and understanding of human desire that comes to those upon whom bristling sexuality is foisted young. This quality can be deviously empowering and Roxx ran with it. She was stripping at 16, was sleeping with much older men for money, aware of her cachet and using it in the cunning way a child would. At one point she says she doesn’t think courage exists, that there is only lack of fear. Though this is an elegant insight, and Roxx is full of them, it is clear she will do anything to prove that she is not afraid.
Donovan, a former stripper herself, is acutely aware of hackneyed, victimizing representations of sex workers in media, and the only scene in the film that betrays her keen insight is one of Roxx’s mother looking over childhood pictures. Donovan was reluctant to include such a cliché but says, “I put that in later because I had a hard time making Lara appeal to test audiences and raising funds because people couldn’t connect with her as a character.”
In the end, this is the most poignant message of Donovan’s documentary: that we reserve compassion for those who we feel deserve it. Roxx lives in the world of women who struggle for this perpetually.