New Queer Cinema is a film movement that I have researched for my academic work throughout grad school. It’s something that I have been interested in since college when I was first really exposed to more challenging queer cinema. Coming from a more rural area in Ohio, it’s not always easy to seek out LGBTQ-driven narratives at your local Cinemark. Growing up, I can’t even think of one film that played at our multiplex that was considered a queer story, but when I was in high school, our town was lucky enough to get a small independent movie theatre known as “The Big Picture,” which tragically closed after only a few years of showcasing independent and foreign films, as well as fun late-night horror film screenings. It was here that films like Brokeback Mountain were shown to our community. Even at this theatre, however, a film like that was still a rarity.
Caroline Berler’s documentary Dykes, Camera, Action! fuses the history of lesbian activism and lesbian cinema to weave the tales of these queer filmmakers that broke barriers to finally give voice to their experiences. Using very engaging interviews with key figures of lesbian cinema (Rose Troche, Cheryl Dunye, Lisa Cholodenko, Barbara Hammer, and Su Friedrich) as well as current lesbian filmmakers on the rise (Yoruba Richen, Desiree Akhavan, and Vicky Du), Berler shows just how drastic the impact of these earlier works have been on the younger generation of filmmakers. We see the transition from Barbara Hammer’s experimental lesbian films of the 70s to Rose Troche’s portrayal of realistic contemporary lesbians of the 90s in Go Fish to Cheryl Dunye’s search for classic examples of queer Black women in The Watermelon Woman and much more. This finally leads to the current state of lesbian portrayals in post-gay marriage society with films like The Kids Are All Right.
When looking at documentaries that focus on queer cinema, the majority of attention is generally placed on white gay male narratives. Caroline Berler more than succeeds in her goal of shifting that focus. In her film, Berler shines the light solely on queer women making films for queer women. Diving into an even more ignored population, the documentary deals heavily with queer women of color. Many of the interviewees in the documentary talk at length about how the main goal in their film work is to simply tell the stories of their communities that they were not able to see on the screen in mainstream Hollywood films. Hearing these stories from well-established lesbian filmmakers like Dunye and Troche makes the documentary all the more effective when you hear the younger lesbian directors speak about how these films made them feel seen and motivated them to pursue filmmaking as a result.
For someone who has a decent background in studying queer cinema, several films were discussed that I had not seen. Naturally, I was jotting down the names of these films to add to my watch list! If you have any interest in lesbian film, you’ll be doing the same. The documentaries and films that were made by the Lesbian Avengers, a queer and feminist activist organization, are just a few that I’m very excited to seek out.
Film history is ruled by the patriarchy. Male filmmakers are raised up on pedestals that female filmmakers simply do not have access to. But slowly, with films like this, that hyper-unbalanced system is beginning to change. With mainstream films made by straight men (Brokeback Mountain, etc.) so often drawing the focus away from these talented directors, we need more films like Dykes, Camera, Action! to showcase the work of queer filmmakers that have been pushed to the side and further marginalized. Caroline Berler’s documentary is necessary viewing for anyone hoping to learn more about queer women making films.
Dykes, Camera, Action! packs in such a wealth of information in its short 60 minute running time. This is a documentary that will have you seeking out all of the films showcased that you haven’t seen already, and even want to rewatch those that you have. I also really loved how the interview with film critic B. Ruby Rich (the creator of the term “New Queer Cinema”) was used to highlight the chronological history of lesbian cinema throughout the documentary. If you are looking for a documentary to explain the evolution of lesbian cinema, this is the one for you! It features great interviews with so many of the key lesbian filmmakers, clips from their films, and connects everything with the history of queer activism. My only complaint is that I wanted more when the film ended.
My rating: 4.5/5
Dykes, Camera, Action! is currently available to rent through iTunes and is distributed by Frameline Distribution. More information on the film can be found at: https://www.dykescameraaction.com/.