New Queer Cinema – A contemporary glance back at the urgent wave

Kate Fahy, 28/08/20

Poison  (dir. Todd Haynes, 1991)

I don’t know whether it’s because of my own queerness, my age (having been born in the early ‘90s to lefty parents), or something else entirely, but when I picture the 1980s and 1990s in my mind’s eye, the biggest associations that come to the fore are of conservative oppression, punk activism, and the AIDS epidemic. Life and death danced with one another, while oppression and expression played fisticuffs.

Of course, political oppression and the AIDS epidemic were entwined; leaders of the English-speaking world, i.e. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, validated the villainization of AIDS sufferers, allowed the spread of disinformation, and allowed the deaths of tens of thousands of people (largely queer) before breaking silence. This silence, in terms of education, research, treatment, discussion, and simple recognition, allowed the epidemic to spread globally, and by 1999 over 14 million people had died from AIDS. It was within this silence that art, too, became woven into the fabric of this era. Moreover, while arts funding was being cut, the arts pushed forward in the spirit of resistance. For, in the times when art and expression are suppressed, they are often most needed. Art then becomes political and activistic in its existence.

I’ve gone a little broad-scope here; what I want to write about is the queer community of the late 1980s and early 1980s, and the emergence of what B. Ruby Rich termed New Queer Cinema. I have started a bit awry because the context in which this wave of cinema is born is so essential to its creation, its style, prominent filmmakers, reception, legacy, and of course its films’ content. As well as the resistance, suffering, and struggle in relation to the AIDS epidemic, the New Queer Cinema was also largely due to the influence of the academic development of Queer Theory in the 1980s. As a continuation from Feminist Theory, Queer Theory aimed to further push debates in gender and sexuality, identifying that notions of gender and sexuality were social constructs, and deconstructing hetero-patriarchal norms and imposed binaries. As such, the term ‘Queer’ started being used as an umbrella terms for any LGBTQI+ identity, recognising the fluidity of sexuality.

In terms of cinema, the 1980s also saw a great proliferation of identity-based film festivals, that popped up in response to needs for expression, network formation, and active discussion. It’s not really a surprise then, with all of this going on at once, that when film critic and scholar B. Ruby Rich did a lap of the international film festival circuit in 1992, she proclaimed that “1992 has become a watershed year of independent gay and lesbian film and video”. The festival boom (relatively speaking) of queer film led to buzz, mainstream press, distribution and exhibition of queer films, and there was a feeling like the door had been swung open.

Reading B. Ruby Rich’s Sight & Sound article now, there is sure enough a consistency in style, aesthetic, content, and story – at least in the films that I recognise – i.e. the films that achieved funding, distribution and legacy. The most ‘famous’ films of the NQC like Todd Haynes’ Poison, Derek Jarman’s Edward II and Tom Kalin’s Swoon each follow what has become deemed conventional of the NQC. By this I mean the ways in which they play with and rework history, their experimental form: rich and defiant, their wit, and also their positioning of protagonists as outsiders and renegades.

While this is the general perception of New Queer Cinema, and while the aforementioned films are masterpieces, each wonderful and important and beautiful, there is a lot to NQC that has been forgotten, or was never encouraged to prosper. As a queer woman, B. Ruby Rich is clear in highlighting the discrepancies in representation and success of queer films. She writes that unsurprisingly, the ‘prominent’ films – films with the bigger budgets, and the bigger buzz – are largely made by white men. Meanwhile, women and people of colour are side-lined. Rich gives a lot of attention to the innovative and modern, yet ignored videos generated by lesbians – “Surprise, the amazing new lesbian videos that are redefining the whole dyke relationship to popular culture remains hard to find”. What I’m trying to say is that there are a lot of stories within the NQC movement that struggled to get an ear or a pair of eyes, and certainly struggled to be put in the archive for preservation, celebration, and a place in cinematic history. I’m thinking of filmmakers like Cheryl Dunye (The Watermelon Woman, She Don’t Fade, Vanilla Sex), Sadie Benning (Jollies), Cecilia Barriga (The Meeting of Two Queens), Cleo Uebelmann (Mano Destra), and Isaac Julien (Young Rebel Souls), but do have a read of Rich’s 1992 article to get a fuller idea of what is out there.

Watermelon Women (dir. Cheryl Dunye, 1996)

That being said, Jennie Livingston’s film Paris is Burning was also produced in this circuit, released in 1991. The film is not mentioned too much by Rich, in fact I was a bit disappointed that she doesn’t mention trans cinema or lack thereof, as part of her general recognition that inclusion and equality was lacking. It’s really interesting then, that Paris is Burning has become perhaps one of the best known and loved films of NQC in a mainstream landscape (it is currently streaming on Netflix and I don’t think I can say that for many or perhaps any of the NQC films that Rich speaks of). There are some issues with Paris, mainly in that Livingstone allegedly did not give any earnings to the participants of the film. This is obviously hugely problematic, when on and off screen trans representation is so scarce, and when trans communities (particularly black trans communities) suffer massively disproportionate levels of socio-economic disadvantage. However, Paris is the first film that represented black trans experience, and it is hugely educational for the wider world. It’s had endless rippling effects all the way up to contemporary popular culture, and is generally beloved by the queer community.

It is also worth noting that while the male filmmakers dominated the NQC of the 1990s, there were a handful of massively facilitating and sort of king-making queer women behind the scenes. One such is of course B. Ruby Rich, whose criticism remains iconic, and who also funded several queer filmmakers. There is also Christine Vachon, legendary producer who worked on the likes of Swoon, Poison (Vachon remains Haynes’ long-time collaborator), Boys Don’t Cry (dir. Kimberly Peirce, 1999), and the slightly later queer classic, Hedwig and the Angry Inch (dir. John Cameron Mitchell, 2001).

It is wholly understandable that the male-made NQC films received deserved attention and acclaim because they were a direct product of the climate, and provided a mouthpiece for an otherwise silenced community that was essentially being allowed to self-combust. Simultaneously, however, it should not be the case that a single segment of the queer community is seen whilst the rest remains invisible, un recognised and not remembered. Whilst we learn of the dominant voices of the wave, let’s also dig a little deeper, to the women, the lesbians, the people of colour, the trans folk, and everybody queer, whose histories (both cinematic and otherwise) must be neither ignored nor erased.

Honeyland - A Portrait of Life Itself

Daniella Verektenidi, 29/1/21

When you get caught in the midst of a moment in life you cannot grasp, it's rarely you take the time to dwell within that moment. Observe and discover. Filmmakers have given us those moments and have let us dwell in them, observe and discover. Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov, 2019), is made of the simplest of ingredients, resulting in a film that will stick to your memory and your heart. A film that manages to find its holding within a simple story about a woman and her bees. Opening its doors to life’s circumstances, aches, necessities and human nature. One can go on in all the details that a viewer can obtain from observing the subjects of this story. The filmmakers have magnificently created a portrait of a woman, of a village and of the Macedonian hills without letting their presence known. Observing and discovering you step outside of what you are and into a cinematic meditation of what’s unfolding in front of you. In the end, you almost forget the film is a documentary - letting you go back to your own moments in time and see them with a different eye.

Missing the days of cinema viewing, connecting with one another through a shared experience. I watched Honeyland back on those days. Nostalgic of the cinema atmosphere and watching films you didn’t know much about. I went into the screen completely unfamiliar with what to expect. It is not often you’d make such a statement - but I did come out a little bit better, with a little bit more warmth in the soul.

It is easy in times as now to forget about what makes us feel this way. Although not as great as going to the cinema, I do urge you to seek those moments in films that you can access online. They can be free, or through various subscriptions. Re-create the scenery as much as you can and let the stories take you.

Honeyland is available to rent via Amazon Prime & Apple TV.

More information:

Reflecting on Trans in Focus: With Corporatism absent, now is the time to reclaim space and
utilise our voices

Kate Fahy 03/07/2020

Through all of the pain, grief, agitation, anxiety, suffering and hardship that this current pandemic has caused, I have really been latching onto the idea (perhaps for the sake of sanity) that these times have brought some long-absent power to the people. Quarantime has gone from baking banana bread and zoom quizzes to proactively tackling systemic injustices. The Black Lives Matter movement has led to global conversations on anti-racism, the symbolism of celebrated slave-owners have been physically torn down, almost every large organisation in the UK is currently introspecting on institutional racism and how to be better, education on black history is yearning to be improved. BLM has achieved real, tangible change, and its efforts are far from done.

The people have reclaimed the streets, and COVID has meant that it has been necessary to do this with care, thought, and meaning. After months of feeling ‘what the fuck is happening right now’, the other day it finally hit me properly that we were living in a very different time; that things had irreversibly changed. It was when I was walking through Brixton and noticed all of the out of date poster advertising, the emptied bus stop adverts that had been replaced by Extinction Rebellion posters, and posters for a campaign to save a local treasure – the grocery shop Noor and Cash which was under threat of eviction (the campaign has fantastically won its battle against the billionaire DJ who owns Brixton Village). Corporatism is absent, it is even struggling. It has temporarily lost presence and power, and in turn the people, the local communities have reclaimed space and voice.

This was felt so strongly at last weekend’s Black Trans Lives Matter march in London. Last year I went to London’s Pride march and found myself bored, standing behind a fence watching corporation after corporation adorned in rainbows – not marching for queer rights, but marching for advertisement and profit. In antithesis, the BTLM march was solely led and formed by queer people. In fact, it was a protest led by black trans people – just as Stonewall was. This time everybody was adorned with flowers in homage to Stonewall leader Marsha P. Johnson. It felt like the true roots of Pride, it felt powerful and vibrant and beautiful, and angry and united.

It is painful that protest is still necessary. Current issues in the UK seem to revolve around the myth that in giving trans people rights, cis women will lose theirs. This fear is being most prominently circulated and acted upon by the likes of Equalities (this irony is always too much to bear) Minister Liz Truss and author JK Rowling, who for some unknown reason has become the TERF master.

Trans people do not have enough of a role in the implementation of their own rights to exist and this cannot be the case. Through our Trans in Focus season, the primary goal was to hear the voices, experiences, and history of trans people through cinema, and to in turn be educated and also generate a discussion. Despite all the painful and oppressive things that trans people have always faced and are currently facing, it gives me hope that these conversations are currently so wide and present, and that people are uniting both on the streets and on the internet to fight against oppression, and to protect trans life.

From the programme, my favourite films have been the shorts. This is probably because they were all directed by trans filmmakers/artists. Feature films directed by trans people are scarce thanks to lack of opportunity and resources, and bigotry in production and distribution. There are films directed by cis people that are about trans life – some of which are good and some of which are not. But I feel that the best stories are told by the people who know those stories; who live them.

Woman Dress by Thirza Cuthand is my stand out, and I think that’s because of its allegiance to story-telling – to the power that it holds, also the impact of its suppression. It delves into a story of a Two Spirit person in indigenous Canada that had been handed down for generations, until it stopped being told due to shame and fear imposed by Colonialist ideals and general suppression of indigenous existence. Only 6ish minutes in length and super low budget, the film really inspired and educated me. I wasn’t aware of the concept of two-spirit people, and had barely given enough thought to the fact that colonialism, westernised ideals and religion had all had a huge impact in removing the historic and sacred existence of trans and non-gender conforming people globally. It was a real thrill to be able to have Cuthand join our discussion of her film, and while we have been consistently bummed that we have not been able to put on these screenings physically, it did reveal the potential of the digital – to communicate and connect with a filmmaker on the other side of the world.

It really feels like we are all on quite a wild ride right now. There is no doubt fear as to where it will land, but it feels a whole lot safer and stronger as we take it on in unity. Let’s keep raising one another up, let’s keep talking, learning, unlearning, fighting. Let’s keep story-telling. 

Born in Flames - Let’s tear this fucker down

Kate Fahy, 12/05/20

“We will continue to fight … against the system that names itself falsely. For we have stood on the promises far too long now that we can all be equal under the cover of a social democracy where the rich get richer and the poor just wait on their dreams.”

– Honey of pirate station Phoenix Radio

When I sat down to watch Born in Flames, I was already angry. I had just watched Boris Johnson’s mumbo jumbo public speech of nothing-ness. He encourages people who can’t work from home to go back to work, such as those in ‘construction and manufacturing’. I heard this as “I really don’t want to be paying your wages any more so you working class folk can go back to work and put your lives in danger so that I can keep my property investor friends rich and save a few pennies myself”.

Money > life apparently, and that’s not to mention the gross under-emphasis on those who are being most severely affected by COVID 19. The hardship upon those who were already experiencing it – i.e. BAME people, the working class, those with mental and physical illness and disability, and those suffering abuse – has exponentially risen, with seemingly little recognition by leaders.

I had also been reading about the global roll backs on trans rights, and directly harmful and discriminative policy changes amid COVID, such as Trump’s push to allow doctors to refuse transgender patients treatment for the virus, trans women in Puerto Rico being hunted and burned to death with no arrests, and the Hungarian government seeking to no longer recognise the existence of trans people. (The current violent oppression of trans people is an urgent topic that will soon be given greater focus by Vadi? Nevadi.)

That turned into a minor rant, but needless to say, I was pretty agitated when I decided on a whim to watch Lizzie Borden’s 1983 pseudo-documentary, Born in Flames, which had been sitting in my watch list for far too long.It turned out to be exactly what was needed. The film is radical, urgent, and furiously calls for active rebellion. Set 10 years after the American ‘Social Democratic War of Liberation’, it investigates the fragmented injustices that remain in a state that calls itself Socialist and ‘free’. Hierarchies persist in terms of race, gender, and class, and the film gives perspectives of diverse feminist groups that are agitated and willing to scream for equality.

Radical in both content and form, the film was made over several years as an independent film on a shoestring budget. Borden herself has said that she made the film “as an act of rebellion.” I read that independent filmmaking used to be called guerrilla filmmaking – a term that seems apt here. The final product is an aesthetically and conceptually raw film that simultaneously grabs you by the throat and unlocks your shackles.

Born in Flames is overtly outraged and fuelled by anger, yet manages to remain inquisitive, with room for curiosity, multiple perspectives, and open-ended questions and ideas. It stands for unity, for rebellion, and for revolution. I felt it as a call to arms. COVID quarantine has encouraged inaction, but current oppression against already marginalised communities cannot remain overlooked. Global administrations are arguably more violent and more powerful than in 1983. As I began the film I felt angry, but also deflated, defeated, and tired of seeing only a growth of pain, death, and injustice; as I finished the film the anger had grown, but so had my willingness to fight.

P.S If you’re in the mood for some political punk, check out ‘Born in Flames’ by The Red Crayola which runs through the title film.

Power in Community Cinema

Kate Fahy, 07/05/20

This time last year I was losing my mind writing my Master’s dissertation about community cinema and counterpublic formation, and planning my first screening in Bristol of Barbara Hammer’s Nitrate Kisses on 16mm print. I’m fully in love with community cinema, and the power that it holds – for me, for us, and for the greater good (the greater goooood). I re-read my dissertation the other day, and wanted to share some points and thoughts that I think reflect the aims, ambitions, and passions that me and Daniella share, and that translate and echo through our project Vadí? Nevadí.

To really understand the formula and ambitions of community cinema today, it’s vital to go back to the roots. So let’s rewind a few decades to the 1960s and go south to Argentina. Argentinian Militant cinema (a more politically focused strand of the Latin American Third Cinema movement) was orchestrating clandestine cinema screenings of highly political films that explicitly opposed the country’s existing oppressive regime. Such films included La Hora de los Hornos (dir. Octavio Getino, Fernando Solanas, 1968). The organisers and attendees of the screenings faced massive risk of persecution, violence, and even death if discovered – so why the fuck do it, right?

My most and least favourite phrase is “but it’s just a film”. It’s my least favourite because it really pisses me off, but it’s my most favourite because my belly gets fire-y and I can let it loose. Leaders of the Militant cinema, like Getino and Solanas saw cinema as an important weapon and tool in the process of liberation. They encouraged active participation from audience members in the form of pamphlets, introductions, and most importantly, post-screening discussions. Their screenings intended to have transformative impact on their audiences, and thus onto wider society. Through clandestine screenings, often in warehouses inciting the working class to rise up, they advocated alternative forms of film distribution and exhibition.

The late 1960s saw global uprisings in response to consistent oppression, discrimination, and the squashing of identities by dominant culture (ie. Bourgeois white, cis, heteropatriarchy). Identity politics were widespread, and there started to be a cultural shift reflected in film programming, in that film festivals started to become more politically engaged and driven, and there was a growth of alternative identity-based film festivals. These festivals acted as a sort of cultural intervention that sought societal change and followed the formula of encouraging active participation. Marginalised communities mobilised with the desire for network formation, and the enablement of an open and discursive space in which they could confront issues and freely defy dominant conventions.

A slice of history gives an understanding of the formula and deeply imbedded aims and purpose of politically driven programming and community cinema today. But there are also contemporary issues that feed into DIY culture and film programming. I am really drawn to the issue of space. Space is banal – it is just there. But at the same time, it is huge – it can be gendered, sexed, raced, cultured, open, private, exclusive, free, and a whole lot more.

We live in the sometimes truly disturbing era of neo-liberal capitalism in which space is ultimately money. Cultural spaces across the country and across the world are being bought and privatised on a huge scale. Space is property, capital, and investment to the gains of the rich, and the loss of those to whom it originally belonged and held solace. The reclamation of space thus becomes political (as it also was for Militant cinema). DIY cinema takes space back and gives it identity, and purpose. DIY screenings are for the most part non-profit. We hope that Vadí? Nevadí screenings will always be free. I love the idea that the organisers and attendees of politicaly-driven screenings in reclaimed spaces are activists. Everything about them is oppositional – to capitalism in formation, to societal ‘norms’ in content. We like to experiment, push boundaries, showcase that which is not being showcased, and most importantly create space for conversations.

Vadí Nevadí has a lot of room to grow, and we hope that we can nurture a space and community that is really powerful. We want to represent, celebrate, connect with, and engage marginalised communities. We are exploring both physical and digital space, and the potential of discussion, unity, and exploration, that both of these entities hold. Cinema is powerful, as so is each of us.


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