Why I love the lesbian documentaries of the 1990s

Why I love the lesbian documentaries of the 1990s

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Filmmakers including Barbara Hammer and Karen Everett explore various facets of lesbian culture in their unabashed, lo-fi films, celebrating the defiant acts of queer joy and activism.

In her book 'Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories', the scholar Elizabeth Freeman introduces a capacious concept she calls “temporal drag”. It’s the “gravitational pull” she explains, that history exerts on contemporary culture, and lesbian culture is lousy with it. Nostalgia – a kind of emotional practice of history – holds a good deal of weight in communities whose official histories have often been erased. The systemic effacing of lesbian lives makes us a little obsessive about the past, and regressive in our love for those who came before us.

This kind of loving, unconventional approach to queer history animates Barbara Hammer’s 1992 film Nitrate Kisses, a nonlinear exploration of 20th-century gay and lesbian lives. Nitrate Kisses was Hammer’s first feature, but she’d been making films for decades. Her experimental shorts – Dyketactics, Women I Love, Superdyke – were emblematic products of ‘70s lesbian feminism, replete with nude frolicking women and yonic vegetation. Nitrate Kisses is different, not least because the nude frolicking women who do appear in it sport nipple rings and mohawks. Its embrace of gay men’s history in parallel to lesbians’ distances it from the separatist attitudes endemic to the second wave, and its postmodern approach to history is consistent with the theoretical preoccupations of the ‘90s.

Where Hammer worked in the experimental tradition, using collage to create non-narrative art films, other lesbian filmmakers used more conventional documentary formats to tell no less complex stories about lesbian culture. Three films, Karen Everett’s Framing Lesbian Fashion (1992), Su Friedrich’s Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire Too (1993), and Michelle Handelman’s Bloodsisters (1995), exemplify the kind of low-budget, shot-on-video dyke doc style that encapsulates something essential about lesbian culture writ large.

Everett opens Framing Lesbian Fashion with a bit of autobiography – an ex-mormon, she was slow to come to terms with her sexual orientation. With the realization of her lesbianism came another question of identity – was she a butch or a femme? Talking head interviews with lesbian authors and academics elucidate the centrality of butch/femme dynamics to both the European queer scenes of the Belle Époque and mid-century American dyke bar culture. Butches and femmes fell out of favor in the midst of an increasingly politicized lesbian identity, and their stark performances of masculinity and femininity gave way to an androgynous, practical look: “Flannel Forever” as an intertitle declares. Tides turned again, as they do, with the advent of queer theory and its aesthetic ripples. The dykes of the 1990s have embraced butch/femme again, Everett’s film explains, this time with a winking acknowledgement of its artifice and absurdity.

Everett’s preoccupation with butch and femme identities is a kind of temporal drag, forming a bridge from her community’s past to its present. Far from examining lesbian history with an objective and self-serious lens, Everett implicates her own sometimes embarrassing personal trajectory in every reflection. Narrating her move to Northampton, Massachusetts, a “homing ground for lesbian feminists,” she describes the radical feminist dogma she internalized over a soundtrack of rather artless womyn’s music.

The self-deprecating attitude adopted by Everett and her interviewees isn’t mean-spirited or apologetic, but consistent with the film’s playful attitude. Everett embraces the guileless stylistic hallmarks of documentary television, like using campy reenactments as illustrative B-roll. Framing Lesbian Fashion ends with Everett directly addressing the camera, sitting cross-legged in front of San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. “I'll always be thankful to lesbian feminists who turned fashion on its head,” she says, but now, “I have the freedom to do this” (a shot of Everett in leatherdyke gear) “...this” (in lipstick and a polka dot blouse) “...or this” (lingerie and a feather boa).

Friedrich’s Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire Too, a work of agitprop on the titular activist organization, also uses conventional, even corny documentary techniques. Between clips of Avenger actions are interspersed man-on-the-street interviews with ordinary (heterosexual) Manhattanites. Most are perplexed by the question "Who are the Lesbian Avengers?" Some are amused, some indignant. The film is firmly political, but aesthetics and style are as vital to its subject matter as to Framing Lesbian Fashion’s.

The Avengers themselves, founded in New York in 1992 and active through the mid-'90s, made use of kitsch and camp in their vibrant direct actions. Friedrich follows the Avengers as they march through Queens protesting a local school board’s rejection of a queer-inclusive multicultural curriculum. Some carry banners reading “TEACH ABOUT LESBIANS”, others play what one Avenger calls “lesbian polka” on cumbersome marching band instruments. Using perhaps the least glamorous musical genre imaginable, the Avengers embrace stereotypes of lesbian frump and imbue them with power.

The title Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire Too alludes quite literally to a striking performance undertaken by the activists at a number of protests. Friedrich documents a vigil for Hattie Mae Cohens and Brian Mock, a lesbian and a gay man murdered by skinheads who firebombed the home they shared in Oregon. Lysander Puccio, the Avenger leading the vigil, holds a lit torch in her right hand and proclaims: “Their fire will not consume us. We take their fire and we make it our own.” She and a crowd of other Avengers lift the torches to their mouths and extinguish the flames on their tongues.

The fire-eating performance pays heed to another lesbian aesthetic – not that of dowdy practicality but of hard-edged aggression. The erotics of that aesthetic found a home in the S&M leatherdyke scene immortalized in Bloodsisters. The film is a document of queer women’s resistance to the prerogative, imposed on them by the dicta of radical feminism as much as the heterosexual world’s presuppositions, that declare lesbians asexual and unsexy. The interviewees in Bloodsisters, among whom are the groundbreaking essayist and eroticist Patrick Califia and a handful of Ms. Leather titleholders, express consistent sentiments: they’ve been rejected not only by the straight world but also by lesbian activist circles, for their involvement in the leather scene. “Every time you come out as a leather person to somebody,” explains Ms. Northern California Leather Donna Shrout, “that's a political statement.”

Yet despite the frequent antagonism between the leatherdyke community and mainstream lesbian scenes – not least because of the trans-inclusivity of the former and the transphobia of the latter – Bloodsisters feels at home in the pantheon of lesbian feminist filmmaking. Its talking heads affirm that the personal is political, all the while cracking jokes about the complexity of their own identities and the absurdity of sex negativity. For despite the seriousness of the subject matter these films cover – gay bashing, patriarchy, self-hatred – they’re all animated by humor. In contravention of the misogynistic stereotype of the humorless feminist, the filmmakers and speakers work irreverence seamlessly into their reflections on queer activism and culture.

I love these documentaries for their embrace of the D.I.Y. methods of practical dykes. I love them for their conversion of frumpy style into camp performance. I love their simultaneous affection for and criticism of the past. Hammer, Everett, Friedrich and Handelman understand what Freeman writes in her explication of temporal drag – that the presence of the past is “a productive obstacle to progress, a usefully distorting pull backward, and a necessary pressure on the present tense.”

This article was originally published by our sister magazine Little White Lies.

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