6 Lesbian Films Break Ground

Women are underrepresented in film.  No matter the success of Hunger Games or Bridesmaids or Spy or Trainwreck, women filmmakers and female stories are consistently given short shrift in an industry that is notoriously conservative, reluctant to stray too far from the formulaic, male-dominated productions that studios know will achieve a satisfactory return.

If women in general encounter a fair amount of resistance from a recalcitrant and prejudiced industry, lesbian women suffer from even greater cinematic neglect, both in front of and behind the camera. Lesbian women are doubly marginalized in the history and practice of film, often overlooked by mainstream production companies for daring to represent gender and sexual identities other than that sanctioned by prevailing social norms.

A new year-long film series at Yale is looking to upend this cinematic disparity, or at least update the conversation among New Haven’s film-going audiences. The Lesbian Filmmakers at Yale series includes six groundbreaking films and filmmakers from the past 4 decades of the genre, highlighting a diversity of perspectives on what it means to be a woman, a lesbian, a filmmaker and a film subject in post-Stonewall America. Each screening will be followed by a conversation and Q&A session with the director of the film herself.

“The history before Stonewall, as far as lesbian representation [in the movies], is a pretty dark history,” said Ron Gregg during an interview on WNHH’s “Deep Focus.” Gregg is a senior lecturer in the LGBT and Film Studies departments at Yale, the director of programming at the Whitney Humanities Center, and, along with graduate student Lena Eckert-Erdheim, one of the chief programmers of the lesbian film series.

“Most of the films where lesbian representation is included are films directed by men. They’re made by the industry. It isn’t until the 1970s when women filmmakers, just like other feminists, said, ‘We’re going to represent ourselves. We’re going to find a language that represents an interiority that men, who don’t experience the world through a lesbian life, community, desire, or subjectivity, just don’t get.’ So we were choosing films that broke through that lack within the history.”

On the one hand, “breaking through that lack” can mean drawing attention to films that tell very specific, sometimes deliberately exclusive stories about what it means to be a lesbian. With the 1970s experimental short films of Barbara Hammer as well as the 1990s New Queer Cinema representatives Go Fish and The Watermelon Woman, the Yale series charts a trajectory of lesbian cinema that actively rejects the constraints of popular appeal and market success, choosing instead to represent people and stories and issues specifically relevant to the American lesbian community.

On the other hand, the series also highlights those pivotal moments in the history of lesbian cinema when a movie sought, and achieved, significant crossover appeal. Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts, Kimberly Pierce’s Boys Don’t Cry, and Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right all incorporate narrative arcs, professional talent, and other cinematic techniques that are familiar to more mainstream audiences, all the while remaining true to representing an authentically lesbian experience on the screen.

“I think [this series] is open to everyone,” Gregg said, taking a step back from the individual films themselves and looking at the project as a whole, “because of the questions that we’re asking, which are not just about [lesbian] history per se, but about who gets represented within the filmmaking industry.”

To listen to the full discussion, click on the audio above or fine the episode in iTunes or on any podcast app under “WNHH Community Radio.” The latter half of the episode, starting at minute 38, includes a discussion with Ken Winokur, the director, percussionist, and clarinet player from the Alloy Orchestra, a three-piece orchestra based out of Cambrdige, MA that writes contemporary, often avant-garde scores for classic silent films. Winokur and the Alloy Orchestra came to New Haven last week to perform their acclaimed score to Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera at a free screening and concert at the Whitney Humanities Center.

Below is a complete schedule of the Lesbian Filmmakers at Yale series. Each screening is free and open to the public, with no tickets required.

Desert Hearts (1985) by Donna Deitch - Friday, September 11th, 7pm at the Whitney Humanities Center

Boys Don’t Cry (1999) by Kimberly Pierce - Monday, September 28th, 7pm at 190 York St

Dyketactics and other experimental films from the 1970s by Barbara Hammer - Wednesday, October 28th, 4pm at the Whitney Humanities Center

The Watermelon Woman (1996) by Cheryl Dunye - Monday, January 25th, 4pm at the Whitney Humanities Center

Go Fish (1994) by Rose Troche - March, date and place to be announced

The Kids Are All Right (2010) by Lisa Cholodenko - Thursday, April 7th, 7pm at the Whitney Humanities Center

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