by Marc Siegel
Cut, no. 41, May 1997, pp. 131-136
When I began thinking about the relationship between questions of identity and lesbian and gay film festivals, I found myself returning to Stuart Hall's well-known essay on cinema and cultural identity. Hall's reflections on, for example, the various presences which position Caribbean cultural identities have always seemed to offer rich possibilities for discussing the process of identity formation in relation to various cultural objects — films, photos, books, and perhaps even film festivals. But I have often been perplexed by the role played by cinema, by cinematic representation, in Hall's essay, which is, after all, entitled "Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation." Of course I understand that cinema functions as one particular mode of representation within which identity is constituted:
But Hall speaks as well of language and the ways we are positioned by the names we give ourselves, those strategic and arbitrary closures necessary for one to produce meaning and identities out of the infinite stream of language.
What then is particular about cinema to this conception of identity? Hall does not so much as mention any particular film in this discussion of cinematic representation. I note this not in order to raise the argument that cultural studies scholars don't or won't or can't do close readings of specific texts. For Hall does discuss specific works in this essay. They are just not films. According to him, the best examples of the conception of cultural identity that he wants to discuss "come across vividly, not yet in the Caribbean cinemas but in other texts" (73) Here he discusses the photographs and texts of Tony Sewell and Derek Bishton.
But not just these photos are the occasion for Hall's essay and its profound reflections on identity. Instead, another major impetus was probably the shock of similarity and difference that Hall experienced when he, a Jamaican, returned to Martinique from his adult home in England for the first Caribbean film festival in 1988. Thus a film festival played a quiet, yet significant role as inspiration for Hall's thoughts. Following Martha Gever, we could say that entering the festival with a "presumption of community" may have offered Hall an opportunity for a re-evaluation not only of the importance of cinematic representation to identity, but of the very content of identity itself.
Gever's argument makes explicit not only cinema's mediatory role in constructing identity but that of film festivals as well. Utilizing Hall's essay, she reflects on how lesbian identity is negotiated through participation in various community events, namely lesbian/gay pride celebrations and film festivals.
What is this event? What constitutes the event of the lesbian and gay film festival? And what identities are produced within such an event? To begin to answer these questions we need to shift our attention away from a discussion of any particular spectator's relationship to any individual film to a consideration of the spectator/ consumer/ community member's involvement at every level of festival activity, from purchasing tickets to attending parties to cruising the lines to milling about in the lobby to spilling out onto Castro Street.
In the following discussion I pull most of my examples from one festival, the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. This is the oldest — now in its 21st year — and largest lesbian and gay film festival in the world and has in many ways influenced the evolution of other festivals. It has also been the occasion for the majority of my festival participation. This essay is divided into two sections. I begin by emphasizing the relationship between Frameline's festival and pre-existent community structures. In the second section, I focus on the centrality of cinema to the identities that are produced by lesbian and gay film festivals.
SPILLING OUT ONTO CASTRO STREET
From its earliest days, the San Francisco lesbian and gay film festival was linked to an emergent gay political movement. As Susan Stryker points out, the loose group of gay filmmakers who came together to organize the "Gay Film Festival of Super-8 films" in San Francisco in 1977 were both directly and indirectly associated with Harvey Milk and his campaign to become the first openly gay elected official. Milk's camera shop in the Castro was the place where the young filmmakers took their film to be developed. Two of the organizers of the first fest, photographers Dan Nicoletta and David Waggoner, actually worked in Milk's shop. The first festival was held on February 9, 1977 at the Gay Community Center at 32 Page Street. Stryker describes the event as follows:
The organizers plastered the city with handbills announcing a free screening of their work, and the event succeeded wildly. Two hundred people crowded into a room meant to accommodate a hundred twenty-five, and a hundred more were turned away at the door. In spite of the film splices breaking repeatedly and an unpopular no-tobacco-smoking policy, the response was so overwhelmingly favorable that a second expanded and equally well-attended show was scheduled for March 13 at the other larger community center at 330 Grove Street. (3)
This loose group of filmmakers soon organized themselves into a collective called "Persistence of Vision," which went on to become the non-profit organization called "Frameline" in 1979. After the first year's screenings, the festival date was moved to June to make it coincide with San Francisco's yearly Stonewall commemoration. For its first few years the festival was actually sponsored by the Pride Foundation, the same group that organized the yearly Gay Pride March down Market Street. At this early stage in its development the Gay Film Festival (Frameline didn't add the word lesbian to the title until 1982) was clearly contextualized within a larger, somewhat established, gay political community. Festival involvement thus became associated with the politics and identity of San Francisco's Gay Liberation movement.
Since 1979 the festival had been held primarily at the Roxie theater, a small space of about 275 seats in the Mission District, San Francisco's traditionally working-class and now predominantly Latino neighborhood. In 1981, for the fifth festival, the main venue became the Castro theater, a grand old movie palace built in 1922 and seating 1500. While this shift dramatically increased the festival's scope — which expanded in one year from one sold-out night at the Roxie to a week of sold-out Castro and Roxie shows — the existence of two very different venues (these are still the two main spaces) also meant films could be divided along a number of axes: feature films vs. shorts, conventional narrative or documentary vs. experimental, films presumed to be of general community interest vs. those for a more specialized audience, and, perhaps most significantly, gay vs. lesbian.
The association of lesbian concerns with the smaller, less fashionable venue, the Roxie, came about for a number of reasons. The Roxie is closer to some of the more important women's institutions in the city — the Women's Building, Old Wives Tales Bookstore, and Osento Baths. But, as Stryker notes, since most lesbian filmmakers at the time produced less technically-finished products than their male counterparts, their work was already destined for the Roxie, the venue for most experimental work. Together with the screening committee's reluctance to program the few available lesbian features, these factors combined to create the impression that lesbians were of secondary importance to the festival.
In 1986 lesbian discontent with Frameline exploded in what has come to be known as the "Lesbian Riot." The catalyst for the explosion was the screening one evening of Midi Onodera's TEN CENTS A DANCE (PARALLAX) at the close of a lesbian shorts program at the Roxie. TEN CENTS A DANCE is a 30-minute film divided into three sections, each of which depicts two people either discussing, having, or discussing as having sex. In the first section, two women at a dinner table in a Japanese restaurant discuss the possibilities of having a sexual relationship together. In the second, two men have sex in the stalls of a public bathroom. The final section features a man and a woman having phone sex. Shot with a static camera in real time, each scene is also divided into two adjacent spaces by the use of a split screen.
At the Roxie that evening, the film progressed no further than the second section, the one depicting male-male sex, when some women in the audience became incensed. They stormed out of the theater, yelling and disrupting the screening for the other audience members. Frameline, whose staff was verbally harassed during the riot, responded with a community forum a few months later on lesbian representation within the festival.
I mention this series of incidents because it highlights a number of concerns central to a discussion of the construction of community through the event of the festival. It is not surprising that Onodera's film should serve as the spark for a riot around questions of lesbian representation. In her acute analysis, Judith Mayne for instance reads the film as a kind of rallying cry to women. She discusses it as one example of those films that
For Mayne, Onodera's use of the split screen throughout the film enables her to align the positions of lesbian desire with those of gay male anonymous sex and heterosexual phone sex. The film thereby
This strategy of establishing an affiliation between various sexualities runs counter to the programming practices of the Frameline fest (and most other lesbian and gay film festivals for that matter), which to a large degree serve to reproduce pre-existing gender and sexual divisions through, to pick the most obvious example, the segregation of lesbian from gay films. The reaction to TEN CENTS A DANCE thus cannot be fully understood outside of its festival context, namely that it was screened on a lesbian shorts evening at the Roxie by a festival programming committee already perceived as indifferent to lesbian concerns.
While the occurrence of the riot does attest to a kind of failure of "simple communication," it did succeed in motivating Frameline to engage with community concerns about its programming practices. This subsequently resulted in Frameline's greater sensitivity to not only lesbian representation within the festival and within its own organization, but also to its increased concern with minority representation in general. Finally, this level of interaction between audiences, films, and programmers is precisely what marks the lesbian and gay film festival as a community event.
Over the years Frameline's response to community demand for minority representation has resulted in special evenings, often held at the Roxie, focusing on issues relating to, for example, Jews, lesbians of color, Latin Americans, transgendered people, Soviets, bisexuals, and Native Americans. These programs unfortunately function to isolate minoritarian concerns from the concerns of a presumed majority of festival goers and as such can be seen as Frameline's attempt to respond to contemporary identity politics with its own brand of liberal multiculturalism. There is also an economic factor at work here. Due to decreasing government support, Frameline has become more dependent on corporate sponsorship for the festival. These sponsors are often community businesses or organizations who extend their support to individual programs that in return reflect back the sponsor's identity. Hence, the bisexual evening was sponsored by the Bay Area Bisexual Network, the transgendered evening by FTM, the international organization for female to male transexuals, etc.
While it is essential that the festival address these concerns as part of the field of queer identities, this segregation of works by identity has some unfortunate effects. In the case of the 1995 festival's transgendered evenings, the programmers apparently confronted a lack of transgendered films/ videos, yet still wanted to respond to a desire for transgender representation in the festival. As there was a sponsor for a program of such work, the committee pulled together an assortment of images of transsexuals, butch lesbians, and drag kings and queens. For those of us interested in transgendered issues, those of us already thinking transgender in relation to our own gender identity, the program was relatively interesting. Yet, those who attended the boys' shorts programs instead were treated to a more sanitized, less expansive vision of gay male sexuality, one cleansed of images of drag queens, transsexual men, and butch lesbians.
I mention this example in order to qualify the assertion that lesbian and gay festivals are sites for community debate, safe spaces where queer political concerns can be debated within the community. For while this certainly can be the case, as the existence of many panel and theater lobby discussions attest, there are also ways in which the festival, by replicating pre-existent community structures — be they community political organizations or exhibition venues — fosters divisions and inhibits debate as well.
QUEER FILM FESTIVALS CAN TEACH US HOW TO DO QUEER READINGS!
In an article on queer film festivals in Australia, Samantha Searle emphasizes some of the advantages obtained by such festivals through the very presumption of identity that I was just critiquing. Influenced by Gever, Searle notes that the
Her example is the screening at an Australian queer film festival of Elia Kazan's PINKY (1949), a film about black people passing for white. The film was introduced by Cindy Patton, whose words backed by her stature as a queer scholar helped make explicit the possible connections for queer audiences between race, gender, and sexuality.
Queer film festivals have often provided explicit contextualization for those films which are not immediately read as queer. In addition to Searle's example, there are the many film/video clip presentations that are among the most popular of festival events: Vito Russo's 1980 The Celluloid Closet presentation, and, more recently, Henry Jenkins on Queers and "Star Trek," B. Ruby Rich on "Kids in the Hall," and Judith Halberstam and Jenni Olson's "A Rough Guide to Butches in Film." Attendance at one of these programs moreover is certainly not the only way for festival goers to develop queer reading skills. For mere participation in these queer events presents an opportunity, an occasion for interaction with other queers that can function to reorient one's film viewing experience.
In his review of the 1988 New York Gay and Lesbian Experimental Film Festival, Tom Kahn notes that during both of the screenings of a film which contemplated 1970s gay male sexuality
In the context of a queer film festival, this beeper functioned as a kind of gesture that jarred Kahn's relation to the screen. This is a distancing effect not of the film itself, but of the festival film viewing experience. We can consider this beeper as an insistence on the importance of the place from which we watch. For a beeper only sounds like an AZT beeper to those who know that they are watching films with people with AIDS.
Perhaps then, entering a queer film festival may exemplify what Roland Barthes describes as the sole exception to the way in which we usually enter a movie theater.
Judith Halberstam's remarks on the 1992 Frameline fest attest to the "anticipatory anxiety" experienced by the audience at one lesbian shorts program:
In Halberstam's account the place from which one watches becomes as important as what one sees. In this scenario, where film viewing combines with community interaction in the most erotic and tactile way, "spectators participate in the creation of new ways of seeing." (26)
The relation between queerness and cinema fostered by these film festivals can extend beyond film viewing to filmmaking as well. Over the years Frameline has hosted a number of panels on both practical and theoretical issues that offer guidance to new queer filmmakers. In conjunction with the festival, the Bay Area Video Coalition holds an open house to introduce queers to their digital video and audio editing facilities. Since 1993, Frameline has co-sponsored an evening of Safe Sex Erotic Video Awards, a program designed to encourage and recognize homemade safe sex videos. In a broader sense the mere existence of the festival as a congenial space for queer imagery acts as encouragement to queers to produce work. The importance of this community space of exhibition and interaction extends to more established filmmakers as well. Pratibha Parmar, for example, writes:
In recent years these festivals have faced a number of critical challenges. B. Ruby Rich has noted the irony that in 1992, the same year she was announcing the "New Queer Cinema," Frameline and two other lesbian and gay film festivals were defunded by the NEA. As queer films and film festivals have become more popular and thus more visible, other film festivals have expressed interest in exhibiting this work as well. Hollywood has also taken an interest, attempting to pawn its so-called queer product off on the festival circuit. Los Angeles' OUTFEST has graciously accepted. In 1995, OUTFEST announced that its sneak preview slot, long a space for the premiere of eagerly awaited community-produced films (John Greyson's ZERO PATIENCE, for instance) will become the venue for special preview showings of Hollywood's new "queer" work.
In 1993 the San Francisco International Film Festival, held several months before Frameline's festival, was eager to feature Sally Potter's ORLANDO. It programmed the film in a high profile way, giving it the Satyajit Ray award. In response to concerned questions, Mark Finch, then Framehine's Festival Director noted,
While this is certainly true for Frameline's festival, namely that the exhibition of a potentially more popular film like ORLANDO in another high profile local festival frees up valuable space for other challenging work, Finch's comments nevertheless only partially address the range of differences between the two fests. In 1994, for instance, both the S.F. International Film Festival and Frameline were bidding for the same film again, this time Gregg Bordowitz' FAST TRIP, LONG DROP, a film by a person with AIDS reflecting on mortality, activism, and ethnicity. This time Frameline won because it, as opposed to the other fest, was willing to pay for Bordowitz to travel to accompany the film on its San Francisco premiere. The S.F. International Festival was interested merely in the film itself, while for Framehine the range of images alone did not make for a successful event. Since Bordowitz had long been an important AIDS activist videomaker, his film as well as his personal appearance and interaction with the queer festival community were essential.
At a queer film festival, one finds therefore not only films but a festival of encounters, whether nostalgic, erotic, or informative which combine to create a particular film viewing experience. The identity that one affirms upon entering the festival can thus become redefined to include not merely a different relation to race, gender, or sexuality, but to cinema as well.
SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL LESBIAN AND GAY FILM FESTIVAL AWARD WINNERS
Best Feature — STONEWALL (Nigel Finch, Great Britain) — fictionalized account of six New Yorkers during the Stonewall Riots
Best Documentary — IT'S ELEMENTARY (Debra Chasnoff and Helen Cohan, US) — the efforts to incorporate gay and lesbian material into elementary school curricula
Best Short — MARGARET STAR: A FALL FROM GRACE (Annabelle Murphy, Australia) — after a break up, Margaret decides to become a wrestler
Best Features — COSTA BRAVA (Marta Balletbò-Coll, Spain) — subtly understated comic love story between two women in Barcelona;
Best Documentary — FICTION AND OTHER TRUTHS: A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT JANE RULE (Aerlyn Weissman, Lynne Fernie, Canada) — life of lesbian author/activist who fled McCarthyism for Canada
Best Shorts — THE PARTY FAVOR (Lisa Udelson, US) — comedy about a lesbian couple attending a suburban bridal shower;
Best Video — COMING OUT OF THE IRON CLOSET (Larry Peloso and Imre Sooaar, US) — interviews with activists and entertainers in several formerly Soviet countries
Best Features — ONLY THE BRAVE (Ann Kokkinos, Australia) — hard edged drama about a girl and her high school gang;
Best Documentary — COMPLAINTS OF A DUTIFUL DAUGHTER (Deborah Hoffman, US) — personal interactions between a lesbian and her mother with Alzheimer's disease
Best Shorts — CARMELITA TROPICANA (Ela Troyano, US) — hilarious send up of ethnic identity by Puerto Rican lesbians;
Best Video — SIS: THE PERRY WATKINS STORY (Chiqui Cartagena, US) — portrait of black gay man's successful fight against his Army discharge
Best Feature — GRIEF (Richard Glatzer, US) — bittersweet behind-the-scenes comedy at a tacky daytime TV show
Best Documentary — ONE NATION UNDER GOD (Teodoro Maniaci and Francine Rzeznick, US) — the attempts at "curing" homosexuality from the 50s to the present
Best Shorts — INTREPIDISSIMA (Marta Balletbò-Coll, Spain) — humorous tale of a tomboy's resistance to dresses;
Best Short Documentary — CHICKS IN WHITE SATIN (Elaine Holliman, US) — the commitment ceremony of two Jewish lesbians
Best Video — HOMOTEENS (Joan Jubela, US) — diverse self-portraits of gay and lesbian New York adolescents
Best Feature — TWIN BRACELETS (Yu-shan Huang, Hong Kong) — contemporary story of lesbian love in a traditional Chinese village
Best Documentary — CHANGING OUR MINDS: THE STORY OF DR. EVELYN HOOKER (Richard Schmiechen, US) — tribute to the pioneering psychoanalyst who fought against the attempts at curing homosexuality
Best Shorts — A CERTAIN GRACE (Sandra Nettelbeck, US) — a photographer leaves her boyfriend for a woman;
Best Video — (IN)VISIBLE WOMEN (Ellen Spiro and Marina Alvarez, US) — portrait of HIV-positive Latinas
Best Feature — TOGETHER ALONE (P. J. Castellaneta, US) — intimate bedtime discussion of love, sex, and AIDS
Best Documentary — THANK YOU AND GOODNIGHT (Jan Oxenberg, US) — idiosyncratic investigation into a family's adjustment to its grandmother's death
Best Short Documentary — KHUSH (Pratibha Parmar, Great Britain) — multifaceted depiction of life for South Asian lesbians and gays
Best Short — GIVE AIDS THE FREEZE (Cathy Joritz, Germany) — scratch film PSA of AIDS information
Best Video — AMERICAN FABULOUS (Reno Dakota, US) — fascinating feature-length car ride with storytelling Southern queen
Best Feature — ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT (Beeban Kidron, Great Britain) — a young girl's complex coming out from a quirky religious community
Best Documentary — PARIS IS BURNING (Jennie Livingston, US) — celebratory investigation into vogueing subculture of transgendered Blacks and Latinos
Best Short — FLAMES OF PASSION (Richard Kwietniowski, Great Britain) — beautiful, steamy brief encounter between two men on a train platform
Best Video — TONGUES UNTIED (Marion Riggs, US) — poetic, experimental rendering of the lives of Black gay men
Best Feature — LA COEUR DECOUVERT (THE HEART EXPOSED) (Jean Yves Laforce, Canada, 1986) — romantic, family drama between older teacher and younger man
Best Documentary — OUT IN SUBURBIA (Pam Walton, US) — tribulations of coming out as lesbian in the suburbs
Best Short — RAY'S MALE HETEROSEXUAL DANCE HALL (Bryan Gordon, US) — gay man searches for a pal
Best Feature — VENNER FOR ALTID (FRIENDS FOREVER) (Stefan Henszelman, Denmark) — charming coming-of-age story of three high school boys
Best Short — BERTRAND DISPARU (BERTRAND MISSING) (Patrick Mimouni, France) — the quirky friendship formed by a 12-year-old runaway
Best Video — THE WAR WIDOW (Paul Bogart, US) — period piece about the difficulties of a lonely WWI soldier's wife
Best Special Program — THE DAYS OF THE GREEK GODS: PHYSIQUE FILMS OF RICHARD FONTAINE — pioneering gay erotic films of the 40s and 50s
Annotations are based on the extensive listings in Jenni Olson's The Ultimate Guide to Lesbian and Gay Film and Video (New York: Serpent's Tail, 1996).
1. Martha Gever, "The Names We Give Ourselves," in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, ed. Russell Ferguson, et al. (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1990), 191.
2. This essay was originally presented at the Society for Cinema Studies Conference, Dallas, TX, March 6, 1996. I would like to thank the other panel members, Gabriel Gomez and Kaucyila Brooke, and our gracious respondent, Chris Holmlund, for their comments. The staff at Frameline, in particular Michael Lumpkin, Amy Schoenborn, and Desi Del Valle, generously gave of their time and resources. Finally, a special thanks to UCLA's Queer Media Research Group, particularly Chon Noriega and Peter Limbrick.
3. Stuart Hall, "Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation," Framework 36 (1989).
4. Susan Stryker, "Twenty Years of the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival," unpublished paper, (May, 1995), 2.
5. Onodera is an Asian Canadian filmmaker who recently made her first feature film, SKIN DEEP (1995).
6. Judith Mayne, The Woman at the Keyhole (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 226.
7. This separation of lesbian and gay concerns, as evidenced for example by the yearly programming of lesbian films at competing times with gay films thereby forcing one to choose between them, continues as a festival norm, and facilitates the expression of the uglier side of gay men's relations with lesbians. In a nasty turn of events, the 1996 Frameline festival, which made positive strides toward including more lesbian work though by no means overturned the primacy of gay male work, was virulently attacked and boycotted by men in San Francisco's gay community, who felt betrayed by what they bizarrely perceived to be a predominantly lesbian festival.
8. Samantha Searle, "Film and Video Festivals: Queer Politics and Exhibition," Meanjin 55:1 (1996): 53.
9. Tom Kahn, "Identity Crisis: The Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival," The Independent Film and Video Monthly 12:1 (Jan.-Feb., 1989): 31.
10. Roland Barthes, "Upon Leaving the Movie Theater," Apparatus, ed. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (New York: Tanam Press, 1981), 1.
11. Judith Halberstam, "Some Like It Hot: The New Sapphic Cinema," The Independent Film and Video Monthly 15:9 (Nov., 1992): 26.
12. Joy Chamberlain, Isaac Julien, Stuart Marshall, and Pratibha Parmar, "Filling the lack in everyone is quite hard work, really" in Queer Looks, ed. Martha Gever, John Greyson, and Pratibha Parmar (New York: Routledge, 1991), 50.
13. B. Ruby Rich, "New Queer Cinema," Sight and Sound 2:5 (Sept., 1992): 30.
14. Susan Gerhard, "The Queen of Festivals," The Independent Film and Video Monthly 17:2 (Mar., 1994): 29.