Out of the Margins: A Review of Four Lesbian Video Documentaries
by Edie Thornton
STOLEN MOMENTS. 92 mins. 1997. Prod./Dir.: Margaret Wescott. Sale: $39.95; $150 (with public perfomance rights). First Run/Icarus Films, 32 Court St., Suite 2107, New York, NY 11201; 1-800-876-1710; website: http://www.frif.com
HIDE AND SEEK. 64 mins. 1996. Prod./Dir.: Su Friedrich. Rental: $90. Sale: $295 (+ $15 shipping). Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, 5th Floor, New York, NY 10013; 212-925-0606; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: http://www.wmm.com
JODIE: AN ICON. 24 mins. 1996. Prod./Dir.: Pratibha Parmar. Rental: $90. Sale: $250. (+ $15 shipping). Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, 5th Floor, New York, NY 10013; 212-925- 0606; email: email@example.com; website: http://www.wmm.com
FRANKIE AND JOCIE. 20 mins. 1994. Prod./Dir.: Jocelyn Taylor. Rental: $60. Sale: $200. Third World Newsreel, 545 8th Avenue, 10th Floor, New York, NY 10018; 212-947-9277; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: http://www.twn.org
Nowhere has the attempt to recover and examine lesbian history and identity been more provocatively addressed than in the films and videos of the 1990s. Through gay/lesbian film festivals, university-sponsored projects, and the increasing marketability of independent films, lesbian filmmakers have finally been able to piece together lesbian histories and pose complex questions about same-sex desire. While new fictional films such as Better Than Chocolate, Watermelon Woman, When Night is Falling, and Go Fish have introduced art house and video audiences to lesbian-themed fictions, documentary filmmakers have been experimenting with ways to articulate knowledges that have routinely been ignored or erased. The four videos reviewed here each grapple with questions of lesbian identity, history, homophobic violence, childhood, erotic experience, and family connections. While all are classified as documentaries, each stretches the genre in new and unconventional ways to give voice and shape to that which has historically remained unspoken and invisible.
As a Canadian entry into the growing lesbian documentary genre, Margaret Wescott's 1997 Stolen Moments is the longest (at 92 minutes) and most accessible of the four works. While it covers some of the same ground as Canada's1993 Forbidden Love, particularly in its discussion of the 1950s lesbian bar scene, Stolen Moments is both unique and ambitious in its attempts to discuss lesbianism in the West from Sappho to the present. It begins by focusing on the celebratory abandon of lesbian bikers at a New York City Gay Pride parade in the 1990s and moves quickly to Amster-dam and the more sober rituals of lesbians commemorating homosexuals killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust. From here the film threads its way through famous lesbian bars in Berlin and Amsterdam before and after WWII; passing women in Europe from the 1700s to the present; Paris salons and the influences of Gertrude Stein, Natalie Barney, and other lesbian ex-patriots in the 1920s; the Stonewall riots; lesbian art and music, including the Michigan Women's Music Festival; and recollections of first loves and erotic experience. Interspersed with the contextual material are fictional recreations of the bars, songs, police raids, and riots that punctuate this telling of lesbian history. Writers Leslie Feinberg, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, and Joan Nestle, among others, provide insights and charges to action for the next generation.
If it sounds like Stolen Moments is casting rather a wide historical net, it is; yet this ambitious approach sets the film apart from other documentaries seeking to recover a coherent lesbian past. By using a non-linear organization, Wescott allows her film to circle through important issues like anti-lesbian violence, butch/femme relations, job discrimination, and shifting lesbian/feminist politics against a background of historical events. By refusing to focus solely on the United States or Canada, Wescott emphasizes the interconnectedness of lesbian experience and struggle in Western culture and articulates the high price paid by lesbians in situations where being "out" often meant being brutalized. Leslie Feinberg, whose masculine dress and appearance make her particularly vulnerable to homo-phobic violence, sums up her reaction to the lesbian's still-fragile place in society by remarking, "I live like my hair is on fire." Yet Wescott's story is only part tragedy; her interview sub-jects, both famous and unknown, are filled with joy and energy, offering multiple analyses of lesbian identity that could appeal to a wide range of viewers. For this reason, Stolen Moments is an excellent teaching tool as it does not assume knowledge of lesbian history, nor does it sentimen-talize or exaggerate the moments it depicts. Wescott's meandering style allows her subjects to offer insights on a wide variety of topics and this in turn could prompt class discussion, creative assignments, and interpretative debate.
Su Friedrich's Hide and Seek (1996, 64 minutes) is another consideration of lesbian history, although this time the backward glance is toward child-hood. What, Friedrich asks, is a lesbian childhood? Is there such a thing? Or do individual lesbians attempt to fashion a gay narrative to shape and make sense of their childhoods? To explore these questions, Friedrich combines a fictional narrative with interviews and still photos of little girls who presumably have grown up to be lesbians. By far the most interesting aspect of Hide and Seek is the fiction that traces several key months in the life of Lou, a tom-boy (circa 1969) who is moving quite uncomfortably from childhood to adolescence. Clips from the suffo-cating "facts of life" films shown in public schools during the era provide Lou with a rudimentary understanding of "proper" gender roles; they also inform her that liking girls is simply a stage that one passes through on the way to choosing the appropriate object of desire - a boy. Mesmerized by girls tickling each other during school assemblies, the bare breasts depicted in a discovered Playboy magazine, and her beautiful best friend, Lou is understandably troubled by her constricted gender options. As Lou moves through her first menstruation, slumber parties, tree house confidences, and several renditions of Supremes songs, her resistance to taking on the identity of a "girl" is carefully and sensitively articulated. Intercut with Lou's story are several interviews with gay women who consider their own childhoods and struggle with the desire to read their pasts as a coherent maps to their current lesbian identities.
By far the most challenging - and to my mind, the most compelling - video reviewed here, Hide and Seek's strengths outweigh its flaws. Theoretically ambitious, Friedrich's film is a sophisticated contemplation of the power of narrative to shape our understanding of ourselves. More importantly, it also considers the limitations of seeking a single story to tell the complicated tale of (homo)sexual development in a heterosexual world. However, the "talking heads" segments of the video, which are apparently an attempt to make the issues current and to explain the fiction's preoccupations, are dis-tracting and sometimes incoherent. Moreover, issues of race are introduced and then abandoned, as when an African American girl belts out a stunningly good version of "Stop! In the Name of Love" and then disappears for the rest of the video. That said, Hide and Seek is well-acted, smart, and provocative; its glimpses of childhood through Lou's eyes suggest that Friedrich is as gifted a storyteller than she is a documentarian - and perhaps more so.
Childhood is revisited in Pratibha Parmar's short, playful Jodie: An Icon (24 minutes). Here film critics and Jodie Foster fans attempt to describe Foster's appeal to lesbian spectators. In the absence of concrete information about Foster's sexuality, the subjects consider her tomboyish presentation as a child actor and speculate on how that "dyke-y" screen persona has enabled lesbian spectators to read the adult Foster as sexually ambiguous. As one critic points out, Foster's adult characters are not lesbian per se. Her Academy Award winning roles, however, are independent, unconventional heroines such as Clarice Starling (The Silence of the Lambs) who lack a male companion and are therefore open for lesbian interpretation and fantasy. Unlike the videos discussed above, Jodie: An Icon assumes a lesbian or lesbian-friendly viewer and does not try to justify or defend homosexual practices. Instead, it introduces two important theoretical tenets in the study of lesbian spectatorship: one, that lesbian viewers seek and construct alternate interpretations of mainstream films such that, as one critic notes, there are as many lesbian films as there are lesbian viewers; and two, that the exchange of looks or gazes between women in mainstream films are "iconic" moments that can be read as expressions of lesbian desire. With its high-energy, engaging style, Parmar's video is an entertaining look at how marginalized groups find pleasure in popular art forms that generally exclude or ignore them.
The intersections of lesbian identity, family, and race are at the center of Jocelyn Taylor's short but powerful Frankie and Jocie (1994, 20 minutes). Taylor uses a telephone conversation between an African American lesbian and her heterosexual brother as the frame for her discussion of how African American men and African American lesbians do - or do not - communicate. Covering a remarkable amount of material at a fast pace, Taylor interviews several African American lesbians about their relationships with their brothers. The women are filmed in extreme close-up, a technique that urges immediate intimacy; their comments are intercut with a voice-over of Jocie's phone conversation with Frankie, the representative "brother." Frankie's contradictory answers to Josie's questions outline the communication slips that prevent heterosexual male and lesbian dialogue in the African American community. While Frankie is outraged at a story about anti-lesbian violence, for example, he also bemoans the "waste" of attractive women who turn out to be lesbians. The video addresses jealousy over girlfriends, parental reactions to lesbian "coming out," and the tendency for hetero-sexual men to regard all women as potential sex partners. While it is unclear whether Frankie has learned anything by the time the two hang up, Taylor has made her point: African American men and lesbians must cease regarding one another as threats and begin a conversation about what it means to be on the margins of the dominant culture.
Undeniably, Frankie and Jocie is rough around the edges. The sound is uneven and the transitions from interviews to phone conversation are sometimes hard to follow. However, Taylor's questions address fundamental issues that have troubled African American attempts at resistance for more than a century. For purposes of exploring how African Americans can negotiate gender and sexual difference in order to focus on larger issues of living in a racist society, Taylor's decision to use a brother/sister conversation is inspired. Her strategy, from the extreme close-ups to the phone conversation frame, personalizes large questions and renders them both accessible and moving.
Dialogue, visibility, history, personal experience, pleasure - all four of these videos thoughtfully examine the relationships between sexual identity and cultural context. The wide variety of style and strategy in this brief sample suggests that there are many ways to consider lesbian life that we have yet to see, and that there are, thankfully, lesbian filmmakers working to tell us their stories.
[Edie Thornton is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Her research and teaching interests include American women's self-expression in popular art forms, from magazines to television to film. She is currently working on a book about women's magazines and magazine fiction in the 1920s.]
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Mounted September 9, 2000.