Two DVDs released this May from First Run Features make available important contributions to the tradition and body of lesbian films and filmmaking. Lesbian Nation: A Short Film Collection includes four films that are available for the first time on DVD as well as the documentary, Lavender Limelight: Lesbians in Film (re-release). Both of these DVDs are worthwhile investments for Women’s Studies or Film Studies collections as well as for individuals interested in lesbians in film.
Lavender Limelight has been a staple of many gay and lesbian film festivals and was also an official selection at several international film festivals. This DVD includes interviews with successful lesbian directors including: Cheryl Dunye (The Watermelon Woman, Rose Troche (Go Fish, The L Word), Jennie Livingston (Paris Is Burning), Monica Treut (Virgin Machine, Female Misbeahvior), Maria Maggenti (The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls In Love, Puccini for Beginners, Su Friedrich (Sink or Swim, Damned if You Don’t, Hide and Seek), and Heather MacDonald (Kiev Blue, Ballot Measure 9, Been Rich All My Life). Whether you’ve seen the films or not, Lavender Limelight is a rich documentary that reveals the diversity of lesbian filmmakers as well as their common themes and experiences.
The DVD starts off a bit slow as the first interview is with Jennie Livingston who is best known for Paris Is Burning, a film about a segment of gay counterculture. Contextualized within the coming out experience of the filmmaker, this film makes more sense as part of a DVD about lesbian filmmakers. Likewise, some of the films created by these women are unusual, avant garde, experimental and the commentary provided by the women about their films can not only help the viewer understand the work of each of these women, but also the forms of filmmaking that lend themselves best to the stories of those outside conventional society.
The interview with Cheryl Dunye is also included on the recently released DVD, The Early Works of Cheryl Dunye. Through Dunye’s dynamic personality this interview concludes Lavender Limelight with strength. While few extras are included with this DVD, it does include brief bios of each of the women interviewed.
A variety of topics are covered in these interviews from coming out stories, to the differences between Hollywood films and independent films, to inspirations and techniques, to love and sex and family and identity and the joys and challenges of being a lesbian filmmaker. Most interesting to me were the interviews with Maria Maggenti whose work I am most familiar with and whose work is probably most familiar to the mainstream (besides Troche’s work on The L Word).
Maggenti talks about the challenges of making The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love on a small budget, offering insight into this brilliant film. But despite my lack of such familiarity with the other filmmakers, their stories and commentary were just as insightful and interesting. Each woman speaks with clarity and passion and offers personal and professional anecdotes that help to illustrate a kind of establishment for lesbian filmmakers.
(US DVD: 19 May 2009)
Interspersed with each interview are clips from the films being discussed. Each woman offers her own experiences in life and in her work, but the subjects covered by each interviewee are not uniform. The filmmaker allows for the difference in these women by not offering a stock set of questions and answers.
One thing that is immediately striking about this documentary is the distance of the filmmaker, Marc Mauceri. Even when directly addressed by one of the films’s subjects, Mauceri manages to keep the focus on the interviewee. Further, the questions that each woman is answering are displayed briefly on screen rather than verbally. Thus, only the women being featured are doing the talking in this documentary. This is refreshing and certainly a conscious choice by the director to keep the space of the documentary a female space.
Lesbian Nation includes this documentary as well as four short films: Carmelita Tropicana: Your Kunst is Your Waffen by Ela Troyano, Jumping the Gun by Jane Schneider, Little Women in Transit by Barbara Heller, and Playing the Part by Mitch McCabe. Each has something different to offer and shows the diversity of films by lesbian women.
For instance, Carmelita Tropicana is campy and silly; Jumping the Gun is playful fantasy; and Playing the Part is a kind of meditation on the process of coming out. Little Women in Transit will remind anyone who has endured that family car trip of their childhood; however, it also reminds us how difficult it can be for children to navigate sexual identity.
This collection would be stronger with the addition of some biographical information about the filmmakers or with some commentary from some of the filmmakers featured on Lavender Limelight. However, the films also speak for themselves and are given context, albeit indirectly, through Lavender Limelight.
While the subtitle of Lavender Limelight could be a bit misleading for someone looking for a documentary about lesbian representations in film, my only complaint about these releases is couched in praise. Both of these DVDs offer the work and wisdom of women who can be viewed as the “first wave” of lesbian filmmakers. Their groundbreaking work, the struggles each undertook to make her films, and the stories that accompany both their life and work are worth telling and must be recorded and collected for posterity.
But such collections make me wonder: where are all the lesbian filmmakers today? Perhaps we will see this second wave compiled and released by First Run Features within a shorter time frame than the first. In the meantime, the Girls on Film collections from Power Up or organizations like the United Kingdom’s Girls On Film can give us a taste of the films and women who have been inspired by the pioneers of Lavender Limelight and Lesbian Nation.
See also: The Collected Works of Cheryl Dunye
Power Up (July 15th they debut a new website but I am not sure if the domain name will change or not)