Queering The Frame
Taking inspiration from the women and non-binary people appearing in and behind the making of our #ReclaimTheFrame-supported Rebel Dykes, we here recommend more stories that continue to challenge cisheteropatriarchy, each of them films about womxn, by womxn. One of the many privileges of getting to tour with Rebel Dykes across the UK at the end of last year was hearing from so many LGBTQI+ women & non-binary audience members who felt – like me – that the film represented a slice of our history we hadn’t known and an authentic depiction of a part of our identity we have all too rarely seen on screen. Inspired by this feedback, and to kick-start LGBTQI+ History Month, we’ve drawn films from the history of queer cinema and included more contemporary titles making herstory of their own through womxn reclaiming the frame to tell the stories of rebel dykes past and present:
Dyketactics by Barbara Hammer (USA, 1973, 4mins)
“It has been the goal of my life to put a lesbian lifestyle on the screen. Why? Because when I started I couldn’t find any!” Helmed by maverick queer cinema pioneer Barbara Hammer, Dyketactics is a celebration of female sexuality filmed on 16mm. The film features a group of women dancing in the countryside, including the artist herself, together with her lover. One of Hammer’s most well-known and best-loved works, Dyketactics also sealed Hammer’s reputation as an innovator in avant-garde film. Hammer herself spoke of the film as “110 images of sensual touching montages in A, B, C, D rolls of ‘kinaesthetic’ editing,” and mockingly as a “lesbian commercial.”
Hammer’s early work can be bought on DVD via BFI. Click HERE. The theme of lesbian sexuality continues in two works both of which can be found currently online on MUBI. Click HERE: The Female Closet and Lover Other.
Je Tu Il Elle by Chantal Akerman (France/Belgium, 1974, 86mins)
In Chantal Akerman’s first feature “I You He She”, the director plays Julie (or “I”), a young woman living in self-imposed isolation in her room where we watch the humdrum of her daily life, including writing letters to “you.” Eventually, Julie leaves the house, embarking on two love affairs, one with a male truck driver (“he”) and one with a former girlfriend (“she”) – the latter results in an extended and daringly minimalist sex scene for which the film has become known. Film academic Ruby B. Rich, who coined the term New Queer Cinema, said the film can be seen as the “cinematic Rosetta Stone of female sexuality.” The next year, aged only 25, Akerman would go on to make the highly regarded Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.
As with so many important films that haven’t been fully recognised in film history, Je Tu Il Elle cannot be found on any streamer or on DVD in the UK at the time of writing, though a search on YouTube may reap rewards. Akerman’s more recent work No Home Movie however can be more easily seen on BFI Player. Click HERE
The Watermelon Woman by Cheryl Dunye (USA, 1996, 90mins)
“Sometimes you have to create your own history.” Dunye plays with the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction in this self-titled ‘Dunyementary’ in which Cheryl, an aspiring filmmaker working in a video store (Dunye) discovers and sets out to solve the mystery of a (fictional) 1940s black actress known only as the watermelon woman who becomes the focus of her documentary, within this fake documentary. The first feature film by a black lesbian and one that is considered a landmark in New Queer Cinema for its exploration of visibility and authorship.
The Watermelon Woman is widely available online, including on Pecadillo. Click HERE and LesFlicks, click HERE where plenty more lesbian bounty can be found. More early work from Cheryl Dunye can be found online by clicking HEREaand HERE
Fire by Deepa Mehta (India, 1996, 108mins)
Fire tells the story of a passionate affair between two young women, Sita and Radha, both of whom come from loveless marriages and find love in each other, against the backdrop of a deeply unforgiving society. As one says, “There is no word in our language that can describe us. How we feel for each other.” Fire was one of the first mainstream Bollywood films to explicitly show homosexual relations, and the first to feature a lesbian relationship. The film was passed uncut by India’s film certification board, but faced extreme opposition on release: theatres were stormed and set alight.
Fire is available to watch by clicking HERE
Indian and South Asian writers and directors (including those of Indian and South Asian heritage) Gazal Dhaliwal, Shamim Sarif, Shelly Chopra Dhar, Shonali Bose, and Sonali Gulati all continue to tell stories of LGBTQI+ women in India.
Bound by The Wachowski Sisters (USA, 1996, 109mins)
Sparks fly when Violet sets eyes on Corky, and the two hatch a scheme to steal $2 million of Mafia money from Violet’s mob boyfriend in this cult neo-noir thriller from The “Matrix” Wachowski Sisters. The film is lauded for the hot chemistry between the two women (with sex scenes choreographed by sex-positive feminist Susie Bright), for its sympathetic representation of a butch lesbian in a mainstream film, for flipping the script on the femme fatale archetype, and for being among the first mainstream film to have a lesbian relationship at its heart without homosexuality being central to the plot.
Bound can be seen by clicking HERE
Rafiki by Wanuri Kahiu (Kenya, 2018, 83mins)
Popping with colour and youthful energy, Rafiki tells the story of young women Kena and Ziki, whose immediate connection blossoms into romance. Based in Nairobi, Kenya, where gay sex is punishable by 14 years in jail, the star-crossed lovers face intense pressure to end their forbidden relationship, instead to present only as “Rafiki” (“friends” in Swahili). This brave film was banned in its country of production due to its “clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya, contrary to the law” following director Wanuri Kahiu’s refusal to change the ending, with those in possession of the film in breach of the law.
Another Dream by Tamara Shogaulo (Egypt, 2019, 20mins)
Another Dream explores how you rebuild a life when you know you can never go home, following a lesbian couple from Egypt facing a post-revolution backlash against the LGBTQI+ community. Together they escape Cairo to seek asylum and acceptance in the Netherlands. Told as a hybrid animated documentary in virtual reality. Created by storyteller, artist, technologist Tamara Shogaulo, Another Dream allows audiences to reflect on what they have seen, heard and felt, in VR. HERE
Rebel Dykes by Harri Shanahan and Sian Williams (UK, 2020, 92mins)
Rebel Dykes is an important chapter in British social-cultural history, telling the untold story of a community of women in 1980s post-punk London who met doing art, music, politics and sex, and how they went on to change their world by becoming artists, performers, musicians and activists. Through a heady mix of archive, anecdotes and animation, this rabble rousing doc captures the angst, energy and creativity of a subculture battling on multiple fronts against both oppressive Thatcherism and proscriptive feminism. It strongly conveys how sex became a political act during this period addressing these issues with good blend of seriousness and humour, debunking the tiered old myth of the sexless and humourless lesbian-feminist: dildos minus the balls debate, twenty ways to hold hands passionately (the traditional lesbian sex guide), and spaghetti wrestling to boot.
Melanie Iredale (she/her) Birds Eye View Director
Melanie Iredale is a film curator and cultural activist. She is the newly appointed Director of Birds’ Eye View, a charity with a mission to champion broader perspectives of the world through films by women & non-binary creatives and to advocate for equity, diversity and inclusion in cinema. She is also an Exec Producer on the award-winning REBEL DYKES, which screened in 50+ festivals internationally and 40+ cinemas in the UK since its premiere at BFI Flare 2020. Prior to this, Melanie served as Deputy Director and Programmer at Sheffield DocFest, 2014-2021, with a background of developing audiences in the North of England for international cinema since 2005.