Why you should care
Because it’s a film that celebrates female pleasure.
For most of my sexual life, female ejaculation didn’t register on my bedroom to-do list. It proved an elusive mystery, and like many Western men, I was content to stay ignorant … and dry. Then I moved to tiny Rwanda, where I encountered a culture that embraces female ejaculation — or kunyara, as it’s known locally — with unprecedented vigor. Here men seek out women who look “heavy”; banana fiber mats are offered as engagement gifts, to protect mattresses; and herbal concoctions are available to help women produce more “water.”
Olivier Jourdain, the Belgian filmmaker behind the documentary Sacred Water, was a novice to the world of kunyara when he first visited Rwanda in 2009. He learned of the custom a month into his stay, after coming across a wet mattress outside a friend’s home. The practice, his friend explained, dated back more than a century, to the Third Dynasty of the Rwandan monarchy. Legend has it that while the king was off on a military excursion, the queen summoned a guard named Kamagere to have sex with her. “Do it or be killed,” she commanded. Terrified of the possible repercussions, Kamagere began to shake uncontrollably, and his penis, instead of penetrating the queen, rubbed up and down against her labia and clitoral glans. The motion, which became known as kunyaza, provoked a gush of liquid, and thus a tradition was born.
It wasn’t pornographic. It wasn’t the American way of squirting.
Olivier Jourdain, filmmaker
Jourdain’s friend “explained the history in such a poetic way,” recounts the filmmaker. “It wasn’t pornographic. It wasn’t the American way of squirting.” His curiosity piqued, Jourdain began to take breaks from his work as a documentary cameraman and editor to dig deeper. He read widely, met with a noted Rwandan anthropologist and was introduced to Vestine Dusabe, a charismatic Rwandan sexologist and host of a nighttime talk-radio show about sex.
Dusabe, who would become the protagonist of Jourdain’s film, is the catalyst behind some of Sacred Water’s most memorable scenes. Whether in the studio fielding questions, at a Women’s Day gathering in the countryside or at an all-girls’ school to underscore the importance of gukuna — a custom that requires girls as young as 8 to elongate the lips around their inner labia to make their bodies more prone to kunyara — Dusabe disarms her audience with humor and an unrelenting conviction that a lack of water “can break a couple.”
Throughout the 50-minute movie, Jourdain weaves in and out of interviews with people in the street, in hair salons and homes, and at a communal bath. In conservative Rwanda talking about sex is still taboo, and Jourdain spent considerable time over the course of three years cultivating bonds with his interviewees. “The idea was to do it with the people, not just about them,” he explains. For some intimate sequences, Jourdain filmed alone, without an interpreter. “Sometimes this helped,” he says. “It allowed people to speak more freely because they weren’t understood immediately.”
The film also alludes to the ongoing debate in Rwandan society on whether kunyara is outdated or still essential to a couple’s well-being. Although Jourdain paints a romantic vision of the practice, “I tried to analyze without judgment,” he says. “Nothing is pre-chewed. You have to digest it yourself.”
Since its June 2016 release, Sacred Water has been screened in festivals across Europe, Canada and Africa, and the online preview has garnered 7.5 million views. Jourdain attributes the film’s “exceptionally great” reception to its universal theme of female pleasure. “It holds up a mirror to everyone’s sexuality,” he says. In October, Sacred Water will make its U.S. debut in New York City, at the Margaret Mead Film Festival.