Saturday, April 18, 2009

Exterra XX

Verena Kyselka shows some of her artwork; photo by Val Phoenix
Featuring alongside the arrival of the re.act.feminism video archive this week at the Kunsthaus Erfurt is a retrospective of the women's performance group Exterra XX. Starting out as the Frauengruppe and then the Kunsterlingruppe and conducting its activities covertly while under Stasi surveillance under the old DDR regime, the group blossomed into Exterra XX and existed until 1994, when it disbanded.

Before that, however, the members put on "fashion object shows" and performances, made Super 8 films and founded the Kunsthaus Erfurt, which is returning the favour by staging this 25-year retrospective.

While attending re.act.feminism earlier this year in Berlin, I met two former members of Exterra XX, Verena Kyselka and Gabriele Stötzer. Both had been under Stasi surveillance and were considered enemies of the state. Nevertheless, they doggedly pursued their artistic ambitions, as well as sticking to their beliefs, which under the stifling conditions, is quite admirable. Amazingly, none of the women in the group informed on the others, though some of their own nearest and dearest, including Kyselka's partner at the time, did.

This became clear in the early 1990s, with the release of the files the Stasi held on anyone considered worth observing, which numbered millions. Both Stötzer and Kyselka have incorporated their Stasi files into their artwork (see pic for Kyselka with an image of a project in Erfurt). And in October Stötzer will be staging a recreation of a momentous event--the storming of the Erfurt Stasi offices in 1989.

It's an emotive topic. After we spoke at the conference, I emailed Stötzer for further comment and she sent her replies in German. I've been wanting to make this blog bilingual anyway, so here is some of our exchange, in which she discusses the re-staging and the difficulties of working in groups.

(KB) Could you say what you and the other four women did in invading the Stasi office? When was this? Was it planned? Was it a political act or a form of performance? What would you like to do with this performance you are planning in October?

(GS) die erste stasistürmung war in erfurt. es war am 4. dezember 1989... es war nicht geplant, die frauen sagen: es war notwendig und wir haben es gemacht. nach unserem anfangen und der erfahrung das die stasi nicht schiesst haben die anderen städte schnell die anderen stasizentralen eingenommen und dadurch viele akten vor der vernichtung gerettet.... ich will einerseits das durch die wiederholung der stasistürmung mit den authentischen personen dieses geschichtsbewußtsein wieder mit der wahrheit getränkt wird und das die frauen die damals spontan und politisch verantwortlich reagiert haben (und ihr leben aufs spiel setzten) diesmal ihr persönliches vermächtnis mit in die aktion bringen. damals mußten wir nur in den vorgefundenen verhältnissen reagieren, jetzt können wir unsere eigene persönliche vision mit in das geschehen geben. noch einmal klar: damals das war eine politische aktion, diesmal wird es kunst werden.

I was interested when you said that the women were all united until after the Wende. And that it's necessary to go your own way. What did you mean? And how do you feel about the reunited state and your place in it?

die frauengruppe war in der ddr eine form uns selber gegen das herrschende system, das anpassung verlangte, als individuum auszusprechen. dazu kam das innerhalb dieser gruppe jede einzelne sich über ihre eigenen grenzen hinaus entwickeln konnte und durch die gruppe geschützt war. wenn sich z.b. bei einer performance eine frau ausgezogen hat, wurde sie durch das normale umgehen der anderen frauen in der gruppe gestärkt. auch die angst vor den represalien wurde als gruppe gemeinsam besser ertragen. als dann die wende kam und wir ein kunsthaus gründeten, wurde nicht weiter nach frauenbildern oder unserer eigenen gruppendynamik geforscht. das haus existiert, weil es von außen finanziert wird und wir auf die anforderungen der finanzierer (stadt, ministerium) reagierten. ich bin weggegangen weil ich weiter allein für mich aus mir heraus schreiben wollte und nicht lesungen anderer in dem haus organisieren. nach der wende war der zusammenhalt gegen das system nicht mehr da. jede konnte sich allein retten und mußte es auch lernen. ich hatte bis dahin die leitung übernommen und habe mich selber abgesetzt, bzw. bin selber abgesetzt worden.

The re.act.feminism video archive and Exterra XX retrospective are showing at the Kunsthaus Erfurt from 21 April to 10 May. Gabriele Stötzer peforms on 19 April.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

LLGFF: Tru Loved

Still from Lion's Den
Tru Loved, dir Stewart Wade
Lion's Den, dir Pablo Trapero
To Faro, dir Nanna Neul

Three tales of forbidden love and social barriers.

US high schools are a fertile ground for films in a way other educational systems don't seem to be. There's something about the social pressures, hierarchies and cliques that is irresistible to filmmakers. Tru Loved is the latest such comedy, dropping a coming out story into this social pressure cooker.

The title character is the new girl at school, moving from San Francisco to the boondocks at the behest of her two moms. Ignored by the self-appointed cool kids, she is thrilled when quarterback Lo asks her out. Envisioning romance around every corner (the film makes great use of fantasy sequences), Tru is brought down to earth when it becomes clear that Lo is a closet case. Undaunted, she sets out to establish a Gay-Straight Alliance (these have become omnipresent in the last decade but certainly didn't exist when I was at school) at her school and finds herself confronted by all manner of complications, while maintaining her "romance" with Lo. Funny and well-written, the film has a few flat moments but has some real bite and intelligence, not the least in its use of "Katie" as a term for a beard. How did that get past the lawyers?

Not nearly so upbeat is the Argentinean prison drama Lion's Den, featuring a standout performance by Martina Gusman as Julia, imprisoned for the murder of her boyfriend and the attempted murder of their mutual lover. Thrown into prison and giving birth there, Julia must raise her son Tomas within the walls while fighting her conviction. Refreshingly unsensationalistic in its treatment of prison and the love affair that Julia begins with fellow inmate Marta, the film is sensitively directed by Pablo Trapero and asks a difficult question: is it better for a child to be raised in prison or taken away from his mother at age four?

Asking, but not answering, questions about perception is To Faro, a German film about mistaken identity that is an uneasy mix of comedy and drama. Stifling in her job at a company providing airline meals, Melanie jumps at the chance of dating cute teen Jenny, even if it means adopting the identity of Miguel, a Portuguese emigre. Conducting a romance under false pretences leads to comical mix-ups and very serious consequences, with abrupt shifts of tone that are jarring. As Melanie leaves home, the film offers her an escape from her predicament but not the underlying problems.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Tuesday, April 07, 2009


Still from Bandaged
Travel Queeries, dir Elliat Graney-Saucke
The Lollipop Generation, dir GB Jones
Bandaged, dir Maria Beatty

A couple of films that put the Q in LGBT, so to speak, Travel Queeries and Lollipop are both long in the making, a reminder of how hard it is to make DIY films that go under the radar of funders. Travel Queeries documents queer subcultures across Europe, from London to Belgrade and features an array of inspiring real-life characters who work under the most arduous conditions, from the activists who brave violent attacks in Belgrade and Warsaw, to the artists who liven up their surroundings in Copenhagen. The film also points out how these cultures are being united, with the Internet and travelling activists serving to link disparate cultures, a function the film serves, as well.

GB Jones is a legend in Toronto, co-founder of the original homocore zine JDs and the dyke band Fifth Column. Her magnum opus The Lollipop Generation was started in the early 90s and has only just reached completion, so feels a bit piecemeal, with star Jena von Brucker's hair colour changing from scene to scene. Surely a continuity editor's nightmare. I don't mind the DIY roughness of the film and positively revel in the grainy Super 8 quality, which suits the story of a teenaged runaway (von Brucker) and her adventures with the street kids she meets.

My reservations lie more with the storyline, with von Brucker reduced to a mere linking device, as the story shifts to street teens Peanut, Janie and Rufus, who are pursued by the "Horrible Homos", porn makers with a taste for kids. The appearance of Vaginal Davis, whose character picks up a boy outside a school, flings him over his shoulder and then attempts to have sex with him, is just plain creepy. Davis has great comic appeal and the scene appears to be played for laughs, but what is the message? That paedophilia is funny? That the situation, in which the only black character in the film is a sexual predator, is meant to be a comment on social stereotypes and so should be read ironically? Jones seems to revel in sexually explicit scenes, with a plethora of blow jobs, at the same time she seems to be decrying sexual exploitation of street kids. The message seems hopelessly muddled and so undermines the film.

While Bandaged is coming from a completely different place, it stars Susanne Sachsse, who has featured in several Bruce La Bruce films, as well as leading Berlin's Cheap arts troupe, which numbers Vaginal Davis among its members. I had high expectations for this film, which was billed as a horror period piece. The set-up is intriguing, as Sachsse's Nurse Genova arrives at a remote mansion to tend to the wounds of Lucille, a suicidal teen, at the behest of the girl's domineering scientist father.

Nurse Genova has a questionable record, with a penchant for putting patients out of their misery which is not in line with the Hippocratic oath. She becomes attached to the girl, with much face-stroking and suggestive washing. But what are her motives? And where is dad getting his amazing skin grifts from? Yes, these are the dual plot lines and they play as ridiculously as they sound. The dialogue is so stilted, it sounds dubbed, badly. The best shots are reserved for syringes, and Sachsse is called upon to act in some of the worst sex scenes committed to film. So bad, it's good.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Monday, April 06, 2009

LLGFF: Ulrike Ottinger

Still from Madame X - an Absolute RulerThe festival capped off its mini-retrospective of Ulrike Ottinger with the premiere of Prater, her documentary on Vienna's famed amusement park, not her queerest work but one that encompasses many of her themes, both in terms of content and form: the sharp observation, playfulness, and fascination with exoticism, among others.

I found the film beautiful and also bewildering in parts, which may sum up my response to Ottinger's work as a whole. Her imagination sometimes leaves the viewer behind. Prater is in some ways the most straightforward of films, a documentary looking at an amusement park that serves as both pointer to the future and past, one which has pushed technology throughout its history but is also supremely kitsch, offering the comfort of nostalgia.

Ottinger, of course, has deeper concerns and her selection of attractions, including dancing monkey figures and rictus-grinning magicians, is telling. Within the long film are many stand-alone scenes, including one she described in the panel discussion as a "short film on machismo", an extraordinary sequence in which a group of young men unleashes a torrent of violence in pursuit of pleasure, egging each other on to ridiculous heights as they compete in a game.

The festival showed three of Ottinger's earlier works, Madame X - an Absolute Ruler, Johanna d'arc of Mongolia and The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press, illustrating her views on gender, sexuality and power relations.

Madame X, I was surprised to learn, was quite controversial on its release in 1977, with some feminists expressing outrage at its depiction of a group of women offering themselves in servility to the "absolute ruler", Madame X. Seeing it for the first time, I actually found the film quite mild and, indeed, chaste in its depiction of lesbian sexuality. But the suggestion of S/M was considered outrageous at the time, as was Bildnis einer Trinkerin, for its depiction of the sexual underworld of Berlin in 1979. A pity this latter wasn't up for re-consideration on its 30th anniversary.

Thursday, April 02, 2009


Back in the day, when I lived in San Francisco's Castro District, periodically there would come a knock on the door and I would answer it to find the slouching figure of Lynn Breedlove standing there, holding a package requiring my signature. Knowing her to be the singer in Tribe 8, as well as in the courier biz, I would ask what her band was up to, and she would hand me a flyer, usually for a gig at El Rio (tagline: Your Dive) or some other sweaty local venue. Ah, those were the days.

So, it was with a touch of nostalgia that I found myself a couple of nights ago watching the new, improved, transified Lynnee Breedlove, not hollering shirtless into a mic or chopping up a dildo but striding onstage nude, save a harness and purple appendage, at Bar Wotever. Not content with being a musician, novelist, and filmmaker, Breedlove is now trying out stand-up comedy. It wasn't the most side-splitting set, but there were a few good one-liners and, with charisma to burn, Breedlove carries a great deal of charm, even if the material was a bit, eh, d__k-heavy for me.

The evening was a bit of an SF-early 90s reunion, as not only did I see a few familiar faces from the past at the gig, but earlier I was reunited with an old activist pal-turned-filmmaker, Consuelo Ramirez, whose doc on Yo Majesty, Keep It Movin', showed at the LLGFF. This being her first film, she was thrilled to come to London to show it and had a plethora of behind-the-scenes stories about the band, which I can't repeat but which may turn up in her book in progress.

I tell you it was almost like 1991 all over again, but that's silly. After all, back then there was a recession and the USA was engaged in a pointless war in the Gulf.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

LLGFF: Society + The New World

Still from The New World
The New World dir Etienne Dhaene
Society dir Vincent Moloi

Stop the baby madness! In French comedy The New World, Lucie and Marion decide their domestic bliss can only be completed with the addition of a sprog. Hence, their search for the perfect donor, with castings, a phone-round by their female friends and the eventual choice of Marion's pal Hugo, conveniently based on the other side of the world and so unlikely to interfere. Or so they think.... Well-acted, written and directed, the film also has a serious point in that non-straights in France can neither adopt nor use alternative insemination and so usually end up going to Belgium to conceive.

is an entirely gloomier, yet equally sparkling, affair, as a group of black women in South Africa is reunited by the death of a former school friend. Will the closeted teacher come out to her pals? How will the reluctant mother cope with a child? And will the two former rivals ever get along? With equal parts drama and knockabout comedy and entirely focused on female relationships, it's what Sex and the City should have been.