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25 October, 2011

Interview with Queer Filmmaker Barbara Hammer: To Find Lesbian History it is Necessary to Read Between the Lines.

Barbara, how did you come up with the idea of making films about lesbians?
I didnt come up with this idea; I came out and in coming out my life changed both my worldview and how I made love.

From the beginning of the 1970s you have been working with experimental images. How does it feel to be a taboo-breaker?
It is normal for me. I was raised in a middle class American family and there were certain expectations for me that I never liked (to get married to a professional man, to have a house with a white picket fence and two children, to raise a traditional family). I always felt I was not part of the ear of corn where every kernel was the same. 

Have you ever been blamed of violating aesthetical norms by showing explicit sex scenes or forbidden images like menstruation? How do you react in such cases?
Have you ever been blamed of violating aesthetical norms by showing explicit sex scenes or forbidden images like menstruation? How do you react in such cases?

You have huge experience in the historical re-discovering and re-writing of lesbian sexuality. Where should one start when it seems that there were no lesbians in the history?
In History Lessons, my feature from 2000, I found that men before Stonewall had made lesbian history. Rather than leave a blank screen, I collected these misguided, false, over-sexualized, medical zed and legalized images of lesbians made my men and turned them on their end to make a comedy of mistaken history. It filled a void and I believe lesbians took back power by claiming and renaming a false homophobic history.

Do you think your approach could be useful in other countries and in Russia particularly?
Yes, I think if there is a will, there is a way. You in Russia and in St. Petersburg have vast archives of material both in the Moscow Film Archive and in various private archives such as the Anna Akhmatova collection. (Adrienne Rich has reminded us that lesbian identification lies on a long continuum that includes female friendship). One must read between the lines, so to speak, when looking for lesbian history and sexuality. A hint might be someone who burnt her letters; a family who destroyed an archive; extremely friendly relationships between women. Nothing is, as it would seem.

Your cinematic style is abstract and provokes a lot of associations. Is it a claim for subjectivity in the process of history making and history telling?
Yes, but more important it gives power to the viewer. Through abstraction and filmic collage I do not tell the viewer what to think or how to think but provide material for the audience to be empowered by coming to their own decisions of meaning.

You stood at the very beginning of a new lesbian cinema after the second wave of feminist ideas and the Stonewall 1969. What has changed in the American society in the last 30 years regarding homophobia? Do you feel the situation is getting better?
Yes, on the coasts it is definitely getting better, but in the middle of the country or the South and even in the East and West one finds the horrid rasping voice of homophobia driving teens to despair and sometimes suicide. On the other hand I can have students who dont bat an eyelid at anyones sexual preference. Some things have changed, other things have remained the same or nearly.

In your films some prominent voices like Adrienne Rich and Michel Foucault are heard. It seems that they have influenced your visual art a lot. How is the modern philosophy and theory connected to your work?
I personally believe it is important for visual artists to be connected to intellectual inquiry in the form of film and feminist theory and at times the theory of psychoanalysis. We cant be left out of the discourse and if we dont know what the current issues and ideas are around philosophical struggles we are apt to recreate the wheel, to be left out of the conversation, and, in general, to possibly make dumb cinema.

Have you ever been to Russia? Are you aware of the situation with the LGBTIQ in this country? What do you think could help to make this society more open and tolerant?
Yes, I have been to Russia once in 1995 for the Message to Man film festival in St. Petersburg. I made a trip to Moscow on that same trip. I was not studying gay and lesbian life nor representation at that time so I dont have a comment except to say that my film Resisting Paradise which questions what artists do during a time of war was screened at a very poor time at noon on the first day of the festival. In 2000 I went to Ukraine (Kiev, Ternopol and surrounding villages, Lvov, and Odessa in search of my Ukrainian heritage (I am half Ukrainian). I did eventually find a distant relative but on the way I was also looking for a lesbian. That was very, very difficult. I found two gay guys in Kiev who were publishing gay male magazines. Finally, I found a woman who had come out on national Ukrainian television as a lesbian. Her metal door had a big knife slash in it after the T.V. show. This is all in my 50 minute film My Babushka: Searching Ukrainian identities.

Do you think a film can change the society?
Yes, look at the number of gay and lesbian, queer and transgender film festivals that appear new every year around the globe. This is the beginning, or one of the beginnings for queers to come together, feel their power, and find unique ways depending on their country, to push for gay rights. In May I was invited to the 10th Beijing Queer Film festival in China. Although the police close it down every year at the established venues, the organizers have various other NGO venues; bars or bookstores where the festival takes place after the police close the official one. Does this sound familiar?
We must continue, we must not be afraid; we must fight for our human dignity and our civil rights each queer person in each nation according to their own ways. We are a global group but none of us from any nation can tell another representative group from another nation how to act, when to act, and what to do. I trust you will find your way in Russia and I will do whatever I can do to help you. You lead, others, and I follow.Carry on, be courageous, take heart and most of all enjoy the pleasures in your own life: Be Gay!

In conversation with Inga Pilipchuk