Thursday, December 31, 2015

Year-end Thoughts

It's been a tumultuous year for me, one in which I retreated to offline space to ponder personal vulnerabilities, but I still managed to venture out to enjoy the plethora of culture on offer. Here is a quick round-up of things that made a big impression on me.


I saw quite a few films I never got around to reviewing, including A Girl Walks Home Alone, Dear White People and A Girl at My Door. Tops for belly laughs would have to be the genre-mashing Dyke Hard. However, for films that made a big and lasting impression, my two favourites would be Girlhood and Carol, both of which I reviewed. 


The Brighton Festival, guest-curated by Ali Smith, offered many delights, including Agnes Varda's installation and Gauge. I also enjoyed Bridget Riley's exhibit at the De La Warr, her intricate drawings deconstructed, yet still mesmerising to the untrained eye. There are still a few more days to see the survey of work by Emily Jacir at the Whitechapel. I was most intrigued by her detective/archaeological/archival retrieval of the life of the assassinated writer, Wael Zuaiter.

For me, personally, my highlights were having 1/3 of a retrospective at Wotever DIY Film Festival, starting work on my next film, the contemporary B-movie, Lactasia, and enjoying some glorious days out at the seaside in Brighton, Bexhill and Folkestone.

Onward, 2016.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Carol Soundtrack

Well, here's a thing. Having become rather obsessed with the music from Carol, I have found a performance the composer Carter Burwell did at the Middleburg Film Festival! Most interesting to hear his views about how the music articulates things the characters can't.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Or Oscar for Ms. Blanchett!

Perhaps getting ahead of myself. I headed into this preview screening at the BFI full of trepidation. Would Todd Haynes mess it up, overstylising his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's 1950s lesbian-themed novel, lavish on his box of cinematic tricks and miss the wood for the trees? Thankfully, No. Haynes hits it out of the park, as we used to say, back in the old neighbourhood. That neighbourhood was slightly north of Manhattan, seen here in all its sepia-toned loveliness, a time when men wore hats and women like Cate Blanchett's Carol wore gloves. And what gloves! Those gloves, so artlessly left on the counter of Therese's (Rooney Mara) department store counter, prove so alluring that she sweeps them up, takes them home and eventually posts them to their owner who promptly reciprocates by phoning her on the shop floor and inviting her to lunch. As you do. And so it begins.

Their romance, teased out through home visits, car journeys to New Jersey and eventually a rather unexpected road trip to Chicago (!) brings the older, wealthier Carol into the orbit of the younger, breathlessly naive Therese, so green she doesn't know how to order at a restaurant, much less define her sexual identity. Blanchett's indefatigable tranche of meaningful looks, hair tosses and the occasional pat on the shoulder is a delight to watch. One envies Therese, for how can she resist?

Despite having read the book many years ago, I didn't recall many plot details and agonised over how the story would play out, as Carol is put through the wringer by her soon-to-be-ex-husband, who is keen to punish her for leaving him and uses their daughter as payback. Carol and Therese's relationship alters as the balance of power shifts, and it is also a lovely touch to see that Carol has an ex-lover who remains a loyal friend, so rare in mainstream films that isolate lesbian relationships. I was enthralled, my one gripe being the sex scenes seemed a bit porny, as seen through a male lens. Generally, though, the tone of the film is just right, not so in thrall to period detail that it forgets the characters or their very powerful emotions.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015


Finally, finally, finally I caught up with this film depicting the struggle of British women for the vote some 100 years ago, and by an accident of timing, on US Election Day of all days. I have been prepping by reading up on Sylvia Pankhurst, the radical activist branch of the famous family. Ironically, Sylvia does not appear in the film, and Emmeline's much vaunted appearance (courtesy of the venerable Meryl Streep) amounts to one striking speech and then a quick getaway.

A curious beast, this Suffragette. The lead character is a fictionalised launderess in Bethnal Green, played by Carey Mulligan, who is radicalised both by her grinding poverty and social inequities, as well as her associations with suffrage agitators, including Mrs. Pankhurst. Making a working-class woman the protagonist is to be applauded, but in fact, Mrs. Pankhurst was not at all interested in class struggle and specifically withdrew her WSPU organisation from the East End. It was her daughter Sylvia who was devoted to getting the East End involved in the struggle, who made common cause with the nascent Labour Party and who had a life-long intersectional political outlook. Her acknowledgement in Suffragette is limited to one comment by a male character that "Even Sylvia doesn't approve of the violence." No, she didn't, but she had a lot more to offer than that.

Well, what is in the film? Several real-life suffragettes, including the martyred Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press), who flits in and out of the film, arriving in a prison scene and departing via her confrontation with the King's horse at the Derby. In between, we learn precisely nothing about her politics, her life, her reasoning. Nothing except that she hands Maud a book she has received from the suffragette/pharmacist Edith Ellyn (a delightfully arch Helena Bonham Carter), who I am intrigued to learn was a real person. Must read up on her.

While I got fired up watching the women venting their spleen by smashing shop windows in Oxford Street and blowing up pillar boxes, I felt there wasn't nearly enough depiction of this in the film, especially as it spends no time discussing their politics, perhaps reasoning that "votes for women" is self-explanatory. But, it isn't, as the split between the Pankhursts makes evident. Votes for which women? In the end, we are left with a dignified procession for Davison and a scrolling list of countries granting the right to women. The film feels very much like an exercise designed to be used as a teaching tool about equality. This may also explain the downplaying of the violence experienced by the protesters on the streets as well as in the prisons. There is only one depiction of force-feeding, suffered by Maud. While it is awful, it is nowhere near as harrowing as that shown in The Baader-Meinhof Complex, for example. Clearly, the filmmakers wanted that 12A rating.

The film's heart is clearly with the downtrodden women suffering degradation and belittlement at the hands of violent husbands (Anne-Marie Duff's Violet bears the brunt of this depiction) and sexual harassing bosses (Maud's intervention in this regard is curiously underplayed). It could have been much, much more.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Unidentified Photo Object

Nothing spooky to report today, other than this Halloween emoji. Even that is a castoff from the emoji I couldn't get to work in Twitter.

Anyway, enough about my digital incompetence. I have had two rather underwhelming gallery visits recently, not for the subject matter but for the presentation. Galleries in Shoreditch seem to think that presenting photographs without captions or with minimalist captions is somehow doing the art a favour. I disagree.

Last week I saw the Syd Shelton: Rock Against Racism exhibit at Autograph ABP, touring the cool, white space at Rivington Place in quick time, partly because the accompanying information was so utterly inadequate. Photo after photo was captioned with a location and a date, but no information on the subject. Who were those young people slouching against a wall in Hackney? Those two girls at a rally? No idea. In some cases the identifing info could be quite important, as Shelton shot both anti-racist and far right participants. One should not get confused as to who was who!

Moreover, what information was given in the captions was annoyingly shabby. "Jimmy Percy" was some kind of singer, apparently, who performed at the famous RAR gig at Victoria Park in 1978. It wouldn't take more than a quick web search to work out this character was actually Jimmy Pursey. Similarly, "Dennis Bovel" is actually Dennis Bovell, not only a musician but also producer of some renown. I met him some years back at a Slits gig and told him how great the production is on The Slits' Cut. I'm sure there were other slip-ups I missed, but mis-spellings in exhibits is a bugbear of mine and spoils the viewing. If it's important enough to go in a gallery, the text should be given as much attention as the artwork.

At least there were captions in that exhibit. When I stopped by After the Fall: Berlin 1990/2000 at Red Gallery a couple of weeks ago, I found three walls of photos with no captions at all. What the heck? Who were all those people, I wondered. What were their squats called? What was their relationship to techno? as an introductory text opined. I found it a most frustrating experience and did not linger long. Context matters.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015


Volcano Castle; photo: Val Phoenix
No gold was found, but I did enjoy my day trip to sunny Folkestone at the weekend. My companion Helga and I attempted to find the elusive Creative Quarter mentioned in guides to the town, only to get lost and request assistance at the library. We were directed back up the hill and then saw the giant Creative Quarter sign flapping in the breeze. Sadly, the Quarter is in need of a bit of a spark, if the many empty if attractive properties for let in the Old High Street are anything to go by. Helga and I attempted to come up with some nifty business ideas, including our screenplay-in-the-window wheeze (£50 per page was my pitch). Such a lovely town. It needs some visitor love.

I was terribly motivated to find some of the gold bars left from last year's Biennale project, Folkestone Digs, and so we arrived on the Sunny Sands Beach equipped with trowel and colander. Our digging for gold proved fruitless, but Helga did leave behind her post-modern creation Volcano Castle for the sea to reclaim. I handled the documentation for the piece, as well as contributing the essential final touch, the shells. Some of my best work, I think.

Monday, August 31, 2015

The End of Summer

Dewy flowers; photo: Val Phoenix
Well, if this rain is anything to go by, summer seems to have departed. Before it breathed its last, it shone on my screening at Wotever DIY Film Festival last week. I have had a stressful time of it recently and wasn't fully alive to the joys of the day, but it was great to meet some enthusiastic filmgoers and see work by my fellow retrospective-ees, Barrelstout and Krissy Mahan. I think they both have more of the camp in them than me, although my next projected film is highly camp. Perhaps I have been saving it up. But, I think their work responds more to pop culture than I ever have. I seem to dredge up rather obscure elements for my films. I don't fully understand them myself!

Looking forward to September, I anticipate eagerly publication of Carol Morley's 7 Miles Out, which is billed as fiction but seems to be autobiographical, if the publicity notes are anything to go by. Anyone who's seen her doc, The Alcohol Years, knows she is not averse to putting her eventful life under the microscope, which makes me wonder why it's a work of fiction. Why not just write some memoirs? Legal reasons? Well, she is doing some readings so perhaps this will all be revealed. I had not realised that Carol's life and mine had overlapped until she commented after the Wotever screening that she had met someone who appears in one of my films. "I knew her when I was 14", she said, and I burst out laughing as I suddenly realised the connection. "Six degrees", she added. A small world indeed, especially if it involves underground music and rebellious women.

So long, summer. Wish I'd got in more blackberries, but I ate all of the ones I picked without freezing any at all.

As a memento of the season, here are some flowers I shot recently. No idea what they are, though.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

One Third of a Retrospective

Next month festivalgoers will have the chance to honour my illustrious film-making career as I receive a retrospective (!) at Wotever DIY Film Festival. Four of my films will be shown, alongside those of Barrelstout (Bev Zalcock and Sara Chambers) and Krissy Mahan on 22 August in London.

It's a curious state of affairs to be part of a three-way retrospective, but I welcome the chance to get screened in a queer setting, and to discuss DIY film-making with the other practitioners. Bev and Sara I know well, but Krissy is flying in for the occasion. Should be good stuff. I believe I will be showing: Totally Girl Powered, In Bloom, War with Love and the world premiere of The Woman from the Future.

My only concern is we are on opposite the networking session, and I'll want to get some nibbles!

Monday, June 22, 2015

ACT UP 25 memories

SF Pride 1990; photo: L.A.
While I am a great one for marking anniversaries, I almost let slip a very big one: the 25th anniversary of ACT UP protests at the Sixth International Conference on AIDS. Not that I forgot about the actions. They were my coming of age as an activist. I only joined ACT UP in the weeks leading up to the protests and was a very nervous legal observer at some of the demos during that week in June. But, I decided to put my body on the line, as it were, and join in the Women's Day Action, which was June 22, 1990, 25 years ago today.

I wrote a bit about this time in my recently completed MRes dissertation, which I quote below.

Coming out in 1989 was not about exercising personal freedom, and it certainly was not about donning the cloak of respectability to be like everyone else, join the military or get married. It meant joining a community under siege. Once I came out, I knew I had a responsibility to this community, and I was quick to join direct action groups ACT UP and then Queer Nation, seeking to do my bit. I do not think this Generation Y (or whatever they are called) necessarily has this raison d’être. As Jose Muñoz writes in Disidentifications, “The social is both a stage and a battlefield” (Muñoz 1999, p. 199). Every day we need to pick our battles carefully. And ACT UP exemplified this in its tactics. Many members of ACT UP made it their business to get arrested. One of my comrades, Peggy Sue (she described the moniker as her nom de guerre), was quite keen on it, turning her arrests into a kind of performance art. She had mastered the art of yelling as she was dragged away and was known to enjoy the process, ticking off her arrests with pride.
I was not so keen. As my particular battlefield, I chose a big one, getting arrested at the Sixth International Conference on AIDS in June, 1990. It was the women-only day, and I sat down with several hundred others at the intersection of Sixth and Market streets, thereby “blocking a public thoroughfare”, as the charge sheet described it. My friend L. was meant to stay on the side-lines and hold my glasses, but when I arrived at the jail with scores of other detainees, a police officer drew my attention to someone waving to me from an adjoining paddock, my spectacles in her hand. L. told me later she could not refrain from joining in when she saw us being arrested. My glasses were unharmed, and I was grateful to see clearly once more. During our stay in jail, we held an activist fashion show, women parading down an imaginary catwalk, hands still cuffed behind their backs. Availablism in action.
True to form, San Francisco has been marking the anniversary in fine style, with events at old haunts such as The Women's Building and Cafe Flore. I wish I'd known well in advance. But, I like to think I have joined in the reunion in spirit, if not in person.

Two days after that demo was my first Pride march, which I attended in my Women ACT UP t-shirt, protest turning to celebration, as various marches flowed into one another and we experienced the mix of emotions that comes with the cycle of life and death.

Saturday, May 30, 2015


I made the briefest of visits to this exhibit at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in West London. I arrived with great expectations and left rather bemused at the minimalism of the presentation. The text on the gallery's website is far more revealing than anything in the gallery: no brochure, no captions, no supporting materials were to be seen for Ishiuchi Miyako's documentation of Frida Kahlo's personal belongings, long stored in a bathroom at the painter's home.

The photos could be similarly brushed aside, shorn of their context. But, if you do know anything of Kahlo's extraordinary life, the photos do reveal some stark realities, tenderly realised. The vivid dresses. The chic sunglasses. And the shoes. One image stuck with me, but I can find no reproduction of it: two shoes shot from behind. Bright red. And then one notices that one has a much higher heel, stacked, than the other. These were shoes that must have been custom-made for the artist, to compensate for one of her legs being shorter than the other. I stopped short and stared at this image, struck by its poignancy.

The other notable images include hammer and sickles that seem to have been hand-drawn on her corsets, often sewn into her dresses. To me, these speak of a defiance and a sense of humour: often confined to her bed, Kahlo made her mark on her immediate surroundings and dressed for the stage beyond them. Even her clothes were a canvas.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Taking Flight

A Murmuration; photo: Val Phoenix
Having attended the last day of the Brighton Festival yesterday, I left feeling very tired after a day's walking round but rather charmed by the limited offerings I attended. In truth, it was as much about a day out from London for me, but I still managed to tap into the festival theme of taking flight. Guest-curated by author Ali Smith, the festival wanted visitors to imagine themselves as birds in migration. The bird theme certainly resonated in the exhibits I visited, most notably in A Murmuration, a series of installations at ONCA Gallery. On the ground floor, visitors tucked themselves into a hide and watched videos discussing Second World War surveillance of seabirds. Moving downstairs to the basement, I found myself in an extraordinary crypt- or bunker-like structure arranged with sound recordings. Quite atmospheric. One could also check out artists' archives of notes and slides in an upstairs area.

Across the road was the Agnes Varda installation, Beaches Beaches, which certainly tied in with Brighton's seaside location, if not so much with the avian theme. Varda's array of brightly coloured plastic objects stuck to the wall created a rather camp feel, not so much in keeping with her very serious film footage. The hut in which this played was so crammed with visitors, I couldn't get in, but found myself peeping through a gap in the curtain. Photos adorned the walls, though I was not so sure of the connection of the different elements.

Around the corner in Circus Street was the highpoint of my visit, the multimedia immersive installation, Gauge. Themed around water rather than birds, it was fun, atmospheric and rather thrilling, as I picked my way around a dilapidated indoor market dotted with curious contraptions and enthusiastic visitors--a playground for all ages, I thought. Each gadget was hooked up to microphones, so that visitors' engagements were played out through the speakers, creating an ever-changing soundscape. I got my hands dirty in some mud, just so that I could faintly make out the swishing sounds of the water. A cascade of water suddenly dropped onto a piano, startling everyone in the vicinity. Finding no keyboard on the piano, I plucked on the strings, and was joined by a little boy who tried his hand at making some sounds, as well. An impromptu duet. Steam issued from a small pool and people tried running round it in unison to make a tornado. I wanted to move in there, but left to wander along the beach and enjoy some quiet time before making my way home in the evening, sadly missing out on the enticingly-titled Fleeting, a performance on the beach involving lights and birds.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Falling

Just out in the UK is Carol Morley's swooning girls drama, The Falling, which I referred to previously.

Here is an interview she did with Radcliffe and Maconie discussing the film. For some reason it won't embed.

But, I have been able to embed some of Tracey Thorn's music for the film.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Flare: Mood Swings

Broken Gardenias
Today's report concentrates on two films that combine comedy and drama, making for uneasy viewing.

In the Australian comic drama (?) Zoe. Misplaced, Zoe is attracted to her housemate Coal's ex, Nat, who reciprocates her feelings. And then Coal finds out.... What starts off as an amusing L Word episode progresses onto darker and darker territory, until it turns into a bit of a psychology lesson. I puzzled over the abrupt shifts in tone, wondering whether they worked or not. Then I pondered the characters' motivations and questioned whether I had missed some key hints. So, I guess it's a pretty effective piece of work, if duplicitous.

Broken Gardenias, an American road movie, looks great, with sweeping vistas of California, as its two loners, hunky butch Sam and forlorn Jenni, go to L.A., in search of the latter's father. A film that includes a suicide attempt early on that is played as one of a number of comic setbacks has an interesting notion of comedy. And I never quite warmed to it, despite Sam and Jenni's quirky budding friendship. It reminded me a little of By Hook Or By Crook, with Jenni's very mannered fragility setting my teeth on edge. Plus, the running joke of her ex-housemates shadowing the duo through L.A., arguing all the way, felt forced and gratuitous. Jenni is played by the film's screenwriter, so she must have felt highly invested in the story.

I believe both films were crowd-sourced, explaining their rough and ready feel, but getting the tone right is something that can really make or break a film, regardless of budget.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Flare: Marginal Communities

We Came to Sweat
Today's retrospective Flare viewing includes two shorts by Silas Howard and a documentary on the now-departed Starlite Lounge in Brooklyn.

Howard's two films focus on Bambi Lake, one-time Cockette and unlikely punk spoken word artist, whose song "The Golden Age of Hustlers" provides a narrative device linking the two, to explain her life, from her days as a hustler on Polk Street to today, when she admits she's not especially happy, as she sits glammed up outside a cafe. While I was not so taken with the recreation of the song with Justin Vivian Bond singing, I did find the short documentary, Sticks and Stones, fascinating and would like to know much, much more about this pioneering performer.

The Starlite Lounge was that rare thing: a black-owned bar providing a non-discriminatory space in pre-Stonewall New York. Kate Kunath's documentary, We Came to Sweat, picks up the story in 2010 as the bar is threatened with closure, a victim of the gentrification of its corner of Brooklyn. I would have liked to see more on the neighbourhood and the changes befalling it, but Kunath sticks close to the bar itself, which rather limits the scope of the story. I found the film overlong and repetitious, once the basic facts were established: the bar was established in 1962 and provided a safe space for its patrons. This point is repeated so often it becomes tedious. In the end, commerce wins out and the bar loses its leases and never reopens. What happens to the community is not pursued.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Flare: Sultry Summer Days

Teenaged girls. Rural towns. Unrelenting summer heat. What could possibly go wrong? Well, two films show what happens when girls looking for something to happen find what they're looking for.

The Argentine drama Atlantida is languid, understated and, well, a bit tedious. Swotty Lucia is left in charge of her younger sister Elena, who's broken her leg. Save for the occasional dawn swim, Lucia has not very much to look forward to, as she studies for her exams, hoping to move to Buenos Aires for uni. As the film unfolds over one extremely long day, Lucia finds herself attracted to Ana, a friend of her sister's, while Elena tags along with the family doctor. A storm is imminent, the signs are set..... but not much actually happens. Such a disappointment.

The Dutch drama Summer sets its stall out early, in another rural household, as Ms. Silent, later revealed to be actually called Anne, narrates the summer her life changed. This quirky and very stylish film captured my attention much more fully than did Atlantida, as Anne matter-of-factly describes the wife-beaters, rapists and child thugs who populate her town, all existing under the beady eye of the town business, the nuclear power plant that seems to have a hold, a force field, over everyone. When Lena, a mixed race biker, arrives in town, her presence seems to disturb the torpor in which everyone lives, including Anne. While the plot may lack orginality, the execution is spot on, and the soundtrack, of jauntily retro tunes, provides a kind of psychedelic haze through which the narrative unfolds. I actually have no idea in what decade the film is meant to be set. It could be anywhere from the 1960s-onward. Very impressive work from writer Marjolein Bierens and director Colette Bothof.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Flare: True Romance

Girltrash: All Night Long
Although the festival ended on Sunday, I shall continue reviewing films from Flare, courtesy of its new online preview service. Today's subject: romance.

Portrait of a Serial Monogamist is a Canadian comedy offering Elsie, a lead character whose first action is to dump her long-term partner, Robyn, and exit the premises, claiming it was for the woman's own good. I immediately didn't like her and her subsequent behaviour did nothing to endear her to me. A problem when the character seems to be the one the audience is meant to identify with. In fact, of the five or six characters who had most screen time, none was particularly engaging. I did rather like the bi-curious character Elsie tried to to seduce but then drove away. Quite frankly, by the end of the film I really didn't care whether Elsie and Robyn got back together or not, they were so cloying and annoying. The bi-curious woman had a lucky escape.

Girltrash: All Night Long is a musical set in Los Angeles featuring a band. A very promising start and I enjoyed its cheesiness immensely. Particularly good is Michelle Lombardo as the heartbreaking bassist everyone wants to bed. The character names are ridiculous: Colby, Tyler and Misty sound as if they are '80s soap opera characters. But, the film revels in its own ridiculousness and I found it entertaining, if a bit light-weight. Any film that sets its big shoot 'em up in a sorority house has something going for it.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Flare: Of Girls and Horses

Of Girls and Horses
As I said, I have seen few films at the festival, but I am quite glad I saw this one on the big screen, because it is a visual delight and deserves to have its sweeping shots seen in their full glory. An unexpectedly sweet film from the formidable Monika Treut, Of Girls and Horses is a coming of age tale involving two girls on a horse farm in northern Germany. While that may not scream must-see, it turned out to be both visually and emotionally engaging.

My companions and I talked over the film afterward, admitting we had expected disaster to strike, given the set-up of troubled Alex arriving in the middle of nowhere, attempting to kiss her supervisor Nina and then stealing Nina's pills. But, these transgressions did not end in disaster or melodrama, merely serving as bumps in the road of Alex's growing up. When posh girl Kathy arrives with her horse Carmina, again one might anticipate jealous Alex to take some kind of revenge on the girl or her horse, but she merely befriends both.

"There's no conflict," said B, and we agreed our expectations were not met, but in a good and surprising way. Intererestingly, in the accompanying notes, a reviewer notes that "the conflict of Of Girls and Horses is purely emotional". I might have reworded that as "the conflict is internal". It's not a drama played out between people, so much as what is happening in Alex, Kathy and also Nina, who is torn between her spiritually enriching life on the farm and her girlfriend in the metropolis of Hamburg.

And the horses look amazing. Such impressive creatures, rendered as curious but mute characters by Treut and her DOP. Whether turning to regard the camera with suspicion or galloping across the shore, the horses in the film command respect and affection. Not so different from human beings then.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Flare: Where Are the Lesbians?

Yesterday I saw no films at Flare, but did engage in stimulating discourse, courtesy of a panel, a networking lunch and extended social time.

The panel was the provocatively titled Where Are the Lesbians?, bringing together programmers, filmmakers and journalists. I took copious notes, but what emerged were several strands of debate, namely: why are there so few lesbian characters on mainstream TV; who authors these characters; why is it so difficult to get funding for films with lesbian characters. Not much was decided, though much frustration was expressed, and I was left feeling rather deflated by the prevailing gloom. There was a view expressed that things were better in the old days, when Channel 4 used to commission LGBT programming. And I do well recall seeing a lot of UK films in the early 1990s make their way across the pond, to be eagerly set upon by queer audiences in San Francisco. We were amazed a television station had funded them. That situation no longer exists, but was there ever a golden age of lesbian programming, really? It may be misplaced nostalgia. Are programmers more conservative now, asking lesbian filmmakers to tone down the queerness of their female characters? Or is it that the whole system has always been heteronormative and patriarchal? I smiled wryly when a young filmmaker who had self-funded her feature expressed the optimistic view that things will get better in years to come. Will they?

After the panel, I chatted to a few attendees, including Lisa Gornick, who had raised the vexed question of capitalism ever so briefly in the panel. In her experience, filmmakers see few financial returns, even if their work is distributed. She asked the question, not addressed in the panel: what is a lesbian film? Something made by a lesbian or something with lesbians in it? So many questions to consider. The only concrete plan that emerged is that Diva magazine has arranged a meeting with the BBC to ask why they keep killing off their lesbian characters. Other plans to increase distribution opportunities for queer films, via a UK festival network, may also be in the offing.

Then it was on to the extended social time, which culminated in a giant long table of dykes eating, drinking and chatting, with a bit of film talk thrown in. From small beginnings do revolutions grow.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Flare: Community Entanglements

Dressed As a Girl
I have spent the past few days alternating between watching films online and visiting the festival on-site, making for a strange parallel universe effect.

As it happened, I was watching Colin Rothbart's Dressed As a Girl online as it premiered at the festival on Sunday. I do wish I could have been there to see the participants in-person. Given what I watched onscreen, they have wonderfully complex and tangled lives. Starting as a recap of Jonny Woo's Gay Bingo club and East London's drag scene, the film tracks the lives of several associates of Woo, and he offers some arch commentary from his position as arch provocateur and master of ceremonies. In truth, I found Woo's narrative arc less interesting than the others, as he played up his drug and booze antics early on and then became clean and sober by the end of the film. His co-stars Pia and Amber proved more compelling to me, both quite vulnerable in their own ways, with the former wandering off in a haze of conspiracy theories and the latter attempting to transition to female while also reaching out to her biological family. Her encounters with her Dad were painfully awkward, as he attempted to be supportive while also tripping up on the correct pronouns to use. I imagine it was the type of documentary of most interest to those who already know the scene under examination.

As a companion piece, Ben Walters offered up the latest instalment of Burn, his "platform" for alternative performance and moving image. I still don't get how this platform works, but he showed nine short films made by some of the same people seen in Dressed As a Girl, plus a documentary on the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, site of its own alternative scene in south London. Standout shorts included Woo's vision of multiple Margaret Thatchers lip-synching to "Hold On", plus Figs in Wigs' hilarious food-and-names electro music video. Tim Brunsden's Save the Tavern proved to be an oddly restricted look at the glorious queer history of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, as it seemed to be entirely Duckie-centred, with no mention of any of the other clubs that currently call the RVT home. Where it was quite good was in giving some of the backstory to the current situation of the club and its place in queer history, offering some great archive footage of Adrella and Lily Savage, as well as explaining how the club offered a gathering place for a community under siege during the AIDS crisis.

Where I often come unstuck in situations like this is in hearing the testimonies of people who say they found a home at such places. "It's so welcoming and friendly," they say, and I wonder to whom? I saw next to no people of colour in any of these films, for example. And for every boozer that people call home there are those who don't feel welcome. What if you don't drink? I am all for saving the RVT, but I do wonder whether the community has moved on from always assigning the highest status to a place that is focused on consuming alcohol. As one commentator says in Save the Tavern, they only got the cabaret in to sell more drinks, after all.

And speaking of precarious forms of community, last night I finally saw Girlhood, Celine Sciamma's third feature, still exploring the lives of girls, but this time focused on black girls living on the edge of Paris. What. An. Amazing. Film. It went on a bit too long and had a few false endings, but I was gripped and full of concern as downtrodden Merieme transforms herself into fierce girl gang member Vic, before falling in with a drugs operation and then having to decide what her path in life really is. It was easy to see how she could make so many "mistakes", given her circumstances, from her abusive brother lording it over her at home, to her tentative relationship with sensitive Ismael having to be a secret. The girls who took her up built up her self-esteem but at the cost of having to commit acts of brutality against other girls. And I think this is the film's strength: it makes a case for female solidarity by showing how often girls end up fighting each other rather than the dominant males who oppress them. If I see anything better than Girlhood at the festival, I shall be very pleased indeed.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Flare: On the Market

This year I am making an effort to attend more events at Flare, which has resulted in me being slightly more sociable than normal. Yesterday's visit, for example, resulted in only one film being viewed, The Falling, which I am not reviewing now, as it has a release date of 24 April. I will, however, write about the event of the film screening.

But, before I went to the film screening, I attended two other events and ran into quite a few familiar faces. It has taken 20 years of London living to experience what everyone seems to say should be true: seeing familiar faces at specific events. Well, it finally happened. Most odd.

Early in the day I visited the Market Place Live, Film London's get-a-film-released-in-90-minutes challenge. There was no actual film production, but rather a panel of industry folk ready to use their experiences to advise on getting a fake film onto screens. So, we had Parkville Pictures producer Cecilia sweating it out, trying to get the BFI and various funders interested in the film Treat Me Like a Lady, a curious beast of trans rom-com and spy caper. I learned quite a bit of industry jargon, from m.g. to P&A, though I never did quite twig what Cecilia meant when she kept saying she had done the whole thing without a "com title" (phon). A bit of demystification would have been helpful to those of us not in the know. Later, I attended a delegates reception and got a bit of info on the terms from financier Laure, who had also been on the panel. I also spoke briefly to Desiree Akhavan, director of Appropriate Behavior, who seems to have dropped anchor in London, at least for a bit.

The evening was capped off by a screening of The Falling and a rather rushed Q&A with director Carol Morley, a shame as the film raises many questions. Not that I had anything on the tip of my tongue, but if I had, it certainly would not have been, "What do you think of the male characters?", a rather loaded enquiry made by, yes, a male audience member. I groaned inwardly. It's interesting men never seem to make these enquiries of films that feature a male-dominated cast, which is to say most films. The Falling is set in a girls' school and, unsurprisingly, most of the cast are female. Missing the point, I would say. Morley was gracious enough about the question and encouraged audience members to start a conversation online, even if they hated the film, which provoked great laughter, as did BFI host Tricia Tuttle's comic swoon, in sympathy with the mass psychogenic illness that the film depicts.

And on that note, I shall leave off for now.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

BFI Flare Preview

Tonight marks the return of BFI Flare LGBT Film Festival in London, running through the 29th of March. I am especially looking forward to Carol Morley's The Falling and Monika Treut's Of Girls and Horses, as well as attempting to do some networking at the many events scheduled throughout the festival.

As well as new films, it's a chance to check out old favourites such as Orlando and The Color Purple to see how they stand up.

While I have yet to see much in preview, there are five short films online for a global audience to enjoy, courtesy of the fiveFilms4freedom project to promote LGBT rights across the world. The aim is for people to watch the films together on 25 March. I am not sure how the films were chosen, but all are worth a look. If only I could figure out how to shave the bicycle into my scalp, as seen in True Wheel.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Appropriate Behavior

I am intrigued to see the high-profile publicity Desiree Akhavan's film, Appropriate Behavior, is attracting, no doubt in part because of her attachment to the Girls juggernaut. But, I do hope discerning cinephiles will seek out Appropriate Behavior and enjoy Akhavan's oh-so-knowing and yet hopelessly inept Brooklynites as they grapple with relationships gone awry and being closeted to their families.
Appropriate Behavior
The heroine, Shirin, is a bisexual Persian-American 20-something reeling from the breakup with her girlfriend Maxine, bits of their story told in flashbacks punctuating the narrative. This time-skipping, as I discovered in a recent chat with Akhavan, was suggested by the film's producer, Cecilia Frugiuele, whose company Parkville Pictures financed the project. The trope slightly fractures the narrative, but doesn't detract from Akhavan's sharp ear for dialogue and range of intriguing characters, most notably a couple who hook up with Shirin in the most excruciatingly tense threesome I have seen committed to film.

If the ending is a bit vague and abrupt, the preceding 90 minutes speed by in a blur of deadpan one-liners and a bit of character development that belies the film's millennial glibness. Plus, the moody score is by Josephine Wiggs, who I am glad to say is continuing to make music after seeming to drop off the earth for a decade or so. Apparently, she is now touring with The Breeders again.

It is great to see such a mix of talents involved in independent film. UK filmgoers can see Appropriate Behavior on general release now and it will also feature in the upcoming Flare programme. More on that in due course.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Lesbian Lives conference

seagulls; photo by Val Phoenix
I spent a well-earned day out in sunny Brighton yesterday checking out the second day of the Lesbian Lives conference. Somehow this conference had never come to my attention before, but since I have become somewhat immersed in academia, I hear much more about such things, though this is the first gathering I have attended outside of London.

Coming to the conference on the second day meant I missed a few discussions that had clearly started the day before, or even further back. I was curious to see if there would be any points of disagreement or tension, as the build-up to the conference saw some high-profile debates over freedom of speech and inclusion of trans women at queer and feminist events. None of this was apparent at the conference, as the day passed quite uneventfully. A far cry from my last lesbian conference in 1991, when disagreements were played out on-stage and in the corridors, voices raised and positions hardened.

Aside from two keynotes, I attended two panel discussions, one on archives and the other on French feminism. It has recently come to my attention that I am woefully ignorant of the French philosophical strand of feminism represented by such thinkers as Irigaray, Kristeva, Cixous and so forth. The panel I attended attempted to make connections between the writings of Monique Wittig and English-language writers, making it a bit less daunting for me. I was very pleased to hear one of the panellists making comparisons between Wittig's writing and that of Virgina Woolf's Orlando, which I have read. The funny thing is I took a class with Wittig back in 1989 when she was a visiting lecturer at my college. But, I cannot remember a thing about what she taught, just that I had one very intimidating tutorial with her, and she fixed me with a rather disdainful gaze as I attempted to ask a timidly framed question. Not a woman to be trifled with. It seems her reputation as a visionary thinker is being redeemed by the current crop of queer theorists.

The other panel was about making use of the past, which has direct relevance to my research, as I prepare to move on to the next phase and decide how and why I shall make use of institutional archives. One speaker made a distinction between how the words lesbian and queer are received in non-Western cultures, which I found interesting, as both are Western terms. Apparently, lesbian is seen as having activist associations whereas queer is not, much to my bemusement: in my experience both have activist associations. Anyway, it's interesting to hear these points when one attends conferences. I have yet to get an explanation as to why identity politics is seen as outdated, however.

Once the conference disbanded just before 5pm I took advantage of the gap before my train left to hightail it to the seaside where I drank in the sea air, watched a glorious sunset and dodged a violent hailstorm before heading back to chilly London.

Friday, February 06, 2015


Just got back from viewing of the film Pride at the unlikely venue of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, screened as part of their LGBT History Month programme. Of course, I am a good five months late seeing the film, but thought I would share my thoughts anyway.
Pride (UK 2014)

It's a tearjerker, historically inaccurate in places and underwrites the women characters, with barely a named lesbian in the mix. But, what really stuck with me was the use of the word "solidarity". I had thoughts on this word dropping out of the social vocabulary, as I was writing my dissertation recently, but left this idea out of the finished work. Certain words seem to belong to certain decades and "solidarity" seems to scream '80s-'90s to me. I well remember using it, feeling it, living it, but not recently.

Hmm, I ponder to myself. Was queer/AIDS activism the last gasp of the solidarity movement? In Pride the solidarity is meant to be between the LG (as it was in those days) community and the striking miners in South Wales in 1984. But, the community itself is not in agreement. The men talk over the women and mock their expressed desire for a women's group. And most gay men they meet in clubs are not at all interested in supporting a demographic they perceive as macho and homophobic. Solidarity is hard-won, if at all. Despite the film's feel-good ending, the miners lost and Section 28 was adopted within three years of the film's final scene.

One of the characters, Jonathan, is based on Jonathan Blake, who spoke after the screening. Now 65 and a long-term survivor of AIDS, he clearly has a history of activism, and many in the audience were keen to hear his thoughts on the changing face and focus of LGBT activism, with concerns raised about privatisation and commercialisation of events like Pride (the event, not the film), as well as HIV care. For my part, I was keen to hear more about the community the film depicts as being centred around the Gay's the Word bookshop. Sadly, this part was fictionalised: Blake says he lived in a squat in Brixton and most meetings were held in gay pubs, such as The Bell. I hold out hope that somewhere there is a solidarity movement brewing in a queer bookshop.

Sunday, February 01, 2015


How terribly excited was I a few hours ago when I took some time out for a laze and a listen to 6Music and discovered they were playing Riot Grrrl selections? And how annoyed and frustrated was I two hours later when Riot Grrrl turned out to be "Riot Grrrlz", some strange all-encompassing term for any woman who might have been in a band in the 1990s? Plus, forebears and current young 'uns.

I wouldn't mind, if only the presenter had made it clear that bands like L7 and Babes in Toyland were not actual Riot Grrrls, but were around at the same time as bands like Bikini Kill and had, in fact, formed before them. But, No. I gritted my teeth, frustrated at the lazy misnaming and associations.

It was great to hear airplay for punk and post-punk artists like The Slits and X-ray Spex who were certainly inspirations for Riot Grrrl. But, it fell apart with the last track--Hole. Courtney Love hated Riot Grrrl so much, she did a joke RG track called "Olympia". And she tried to burn Kathleen Hanna with a cigarette! How ahistorical can you get? Grrrrr!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Chris Stein/Negative

I thought I was too late with this, as Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie, and The Advent of Punk was meant to close today, but this exhibit of photos by Stein has been extended to 8 February. Very good news for lovers of punk/New Wave and New York's indigenous contribution, the very grotty No Wave.

Best known as guitarist for Blondie, Stein has a fine eye and a long-standing practice as a documentary photographer working in black and white. As one might expect for one so engrained in the New York music scene, Stein's work provides an entree to the CBGBs crowd and their cohort, including a lovely portrait of Basquiat. But, he also captures some of the West Coast contingent, with many shots of a very young Joan Jett, including her lounging in her "notorious Los Angeles apartment", handcuffs and other accoutrements dangling above her head. "Wahey!" I noted to my friend B., a punk veteran who had seen pretty much everyone in the bygone era and was thrown into many a reverie, including one recollection of time spent at Jones Beach under some influence, ahem.

My eye was taken by a shot of a handsome blond head spied from across the room. "Oh, Billy Idol!" I thought. But, no. On close inspection, it was none other than The Avengers' Penelope Houston, looking more androgynous than usual. Sadly, the caption identified her band as hailing from Los Angeles, rather than San Francisco, which led to much tsking on my part.

In addition to the star names, there are many shots of long-gone and not so well-remembered figures, many dead from HIV or drug abuse, which illustrates the other side of 1970s New York. While many rhapsodise over its magnetic and creative qualities, I well remember the city as being pretty seedy and grim in many ways. One shot shows Debbie Harry reclining on a car. The caption notes the hood (bonnet) is sealed with a lock to prevent battery theft. Yes, really.

Debbie Harry by Chris Stein
I hadn't mentioned Harry up to now, but she is the undisputed star of the show. Not surprising, as she and Stein lived and worked together back in the day. And he obviously found many opportunities to work her into photos. And, let's be honest, who wouldn't? There's Debbie standing by a window, backlit like a Bond girl. Debbie on a train somewhere on tour, looking amazing in a beret. "A classic look", observed Bev. And she's on quite a few postcards, too. "Picture This", indeed.