Drag, Dykes and All That Jazz: Three Documentaries from BFI Flare
“The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that are hidden by the answers.”
These words of queer literary luminary James Baldwin act as the epigraph to No Ordinary Man, one title from a striking documentary slate at this year’s BFI Flare. For me, this was its closing film, snatched with the last of my press access as the virtual festival blinked out from my locked-down bedroom television. Beckoning provocatively from a blank screen, the words struck me as a useful companion to the other non-fiction offerings I had seen at the festival too, all of which sought to shed new light on queer figures from the past so far overlooked, misunderstood, or mis-represented.
With February’s LGBT+ history month still fresh in mind, and queer voices more present in mainstream culture than perhaps ever before, answers about our queer ancestors are more readily available than they have ever been. This interest in historical queer narratives is as clear in fiction film as factual, with dramas from Francis Lee’s Ammonite to Celine Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire taking retro same-sex romance as their subject. The lesbian period drama has become so prominent a genre that it has recently earned its own SNL sketch. On television, series like the Georgian-set Gentleman Jack and 80s AIDS drama It’s A Sin have been popular hits too. No longer dwelling in semi-covert cinemas, bookshops and bars in scuzzy bits of town, queer representation has been prime-timed, shining in rainbow hues from ‘LGBT’ categories on streaming services.
This relative abundance of queer history is absolutely welcome, and remains refreshing; I never expected to have a dinner table chat with my straight parents about gay sex and moralistic HIV discourses, until Russel T. Davis beamed it into the front room. Particularly for young people in search of affirmation for burgeoning queer identities, recognising themselves as part of a long and rich lineage can be a lifeline. That said, simply putting queers onscreen doth not good representation make, and is sometimes guided more by the age-old pursual of the ‘pink pound’ than by any genuine activist commitment. Making queerness marketable and mainstream risks killing off the most exciting aspects of the culture that surrounds it. Perhaps this sounds like privileged naivety from someone too young to remember the bad old days of criminalisation, widespread violence, or even Section 28 –but I’m always a little sad to see the jagged alternativism that used to accompany queerness smoothed. As one of BFI Flare’s Rebel Dykes potently puts it, “I don’t want to be a straight gay”.
To return to Baldwin then, the most artful accounts of queer history must maintain a questioning approach to the answers they proport to provide. By nature, queer subjects often sit uncomfortably in any rigid retellings or received versions of their past or present. Those of three standout BFI Flare docs –P.S. Burn This Letter Please, Rebel Dykes, and No Ordinary Man –all make manifest this unruly multiplicity.
P.S. Burn This Letter Please
When a stash of letters penned by the queens of New York’s 1950s drag scene were discovered in an LA lockup in 2014, directors Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera blew off the cobwebs and spilled the T in P.S Burn This Letter Please. Offering a vanishingly rare glimpse into an era both glamourous and grim for its illicit queer community, the documentary reassembles their writers: a coterie of octogenarian ex-performers who wear their age with ballgown elegance. Alongside historians and sociologists, their oral history redresses public perceptions of the pre-decriminalisation era, often remembered more for swinging truncheons and slamming cell doors than shimmering sequins and fluttering lashes. Told with deferential gratitude, the film is driven by a desire to turn the historical spotlight on these queer veterans, though the nightclub spotlights of their past have long gone out.
By turns cacklingly funny and deeply melancholic–sometimes both at once–the queens are the indisputable stars, deserving of an approach more dazzling than the film’s relatively conservative style. Their talking-heads testimonies, interspersed by cloyingly acted readings from the letters, accompany a cache of archive footage and photographs. Though remarkable at their best–showing snapshots of the performers’ younger selves and their Aladdin’s cave haunts–some stock shots pad out rather than embellish a slightly bloated 100 minutes. The cast’s compelling accounts are ample; from a $3000 wig heist to Mafia-owned clubs with drag king waiters, many will likely be new discoveries even for queer history buffs. The film’s anticipated audience feels more general than this though; here screening at an LGBTQ+ festival in more avant-garde company, it’s clear that its natural home is on television. Favouring breadth over depth, this may frustrate some; I wanted to know more about how the swish rubbed along with the chauvinistic, cigar-chewing mob man–but maybe that’s another film altogether.
It’s the details–like the queens’ slanguage of “mopping”, “trade” and “flip”– that intrigue most. Notably, the cast are far more often labelled ‘female impersonators’, ‘femme mimics’, or ‘female illusionists’ than ‘drag queens’; all unexpectedly loaded terms. “There are certain performers today who were around in the 50s and 60s who still get very upset if you call them drag queens”, says ex-performer Robert. Now an inoffensive staple of mainstream gay culture, thoroughly RuPaul-ed away from its roots, it’s refreshing to see the political complexities of drag revisited. Dressing in the streets as well as onstage, and sometimes making a buck there too, drag queens were trash to some. Female impersonators “were artists”. For self-described drag queen Claude, the distinction is clear: “Female impersonators got paid. Nobody gave us a dime”. This divergence between polished performance and urgent expression – and the class, moral, and gender politics therein – is strikingly unearthed by the documentary’s contributors but largely uninterrogated by its makers. Perhaps the project’s relative lack of radicalism is unsurprising; co-director Seligman is also a producer on Drag Race.
Celebrating the forerunners of modern queer rights and culture, P.S Burn This Letter Please doesn’t think too hard about their messier aspects. Choosing to sashay away from tougher critique, it simply gives these fabulous characters a platform for tales that could easily have been lost to history’s margins - and it would be a dreadful loss. With weathered skin flawlessly painted in Pride-set closing scenes, these giants inspire adoration from those standing on their shoulders. Nobody can say they don’t deserve it.
“We weren’t lesbians, we were dykes”. So snarls a leather clad member of London’s queerest girl gang, turning the term’s slurring power outwards against anyone who dares to square up. That list isn’t likely to be a long one after watching Rebel Dykes. Beginning at the Greenham Common peace camp in the early 80s – a setting that looks positively homely compared to the BDSM clubs and squats that follow – this gale-force documentary charts the antics of the women who rejected mainstream society, mainstream feminism, and even mainstream lesbianism, whatever that is or was. Simply put, they were against whatever was going and for having loads of fun – and lots of sex. Leaving the riot grrrls of the 90s in the dust of their growling motorbikes, this motley crew are celebrated in fittingly fratchy style by directors Harri Shanahan and Siân Williams as the harbingers of modern sex-positive feminism.
Like PS Burn This Letter Please, the film makes use of astonishing archive finds; in sharp monochrome, its young subjects display a dykey twist on more familiar leather bar looks from the era’s gay iconography. The film’s formal dissidence is much more faithful to the discontents within than its drag doc contemporary though, its lithe 82 minutes matching their frenetic energy. Talking heads are flyposted with zine-y animation, and toonified versions of the cast tear through the real streets of their punk past. Sharing the Dykes’ DIY spunk, the film’s most striking sequences recreate famous news footage it couldn’t afford to use. Highlights include a cut-out Thatcher mask inside a cardboard TV, the churlish cabaret gleefully turning the Iron Lady into a paper tiger.
Taking its cues from the naked-mud wrestling at the Dykes’ Chain Reaction fetish club, the film is not shy of rubbing its viewer’s face in the muck. Whilst celebrating a semi-secret canon of lesbian culture, it remains attentive to its schisms. The ‘Lesbian Sex Wars’ it investigates saw the whip-wielding Dykes pitted against anti-BDSM feminists who accused them of patriarchal capitulation, asking “is there a man in your head?”. The film’s exploration of this is both extensive and pleasingly X-rated – prudes need not apply. Summing up the mind-bending cognitive dissonance involved in this debate, one activist scoffs “I felt like I was a bit of a second-class lesbian, because I was a lesbian out of lust and not out of politics!”. Against the backdrop of Section 28, Rebel Dykes perceptively suggests that the urge to legislate for queer desire can come from within as well as without.
The ideological nitpicking is cringeworthy in part because it feels so contemporary; “when I read the London Women’s Liberation newsletters, it was like watching a twitterstorm unfold in real time”, said co-director Shanahan at a BFI Flare Q&A for the film. In some strange way, this is reassuring; if queer activism has always been threating to eat itself, then perhaps we shouldn’t despair that this will prevent it from doing any good.
The film even suggests that the contrarian spirit that leads to this infighting is something to be closely guarded. Though clearly proud of what queer activism has accomplished, one speaker laments, “we’re so much in the mainstream, we’re so respectable now that we’re losing all our sharp edges and we’re losing our ability to be the rebels”. Far from smoothing these edges, the filmmakers make a virtue of them, consistently setting the disagreements of their subjects against one another. Even the most moving scenes of solidarity are spiked with naughtiness; one sees the chosen family of twenty-six lesbians lovingly prepare a Christmas dinner – on acid. Above all, Rebel Dykes celebrates the rampant desirousness of the gang’s attitudes and appetites. Essentially, this is the story of young women doing whatever they bloody well want, come hell or homophobia.
No Ordinary Man
No Ordinary Man is a rare example of a documentary as searching for its viewer as its subject; this exploration of trans jazz musician Billy Tipton playing on the mind long after its curtain falls. His story – or a version of it – may already be familiar to some, particularly in the pianist’s Oklahoma homeland. Upon his death in 1989, aged 74, he and his family were subject to lurid tabloid scrutiny following his public outing, prolonged by the publication of Diane Middlebrook’s similarly troublesome 1998 biography Suits Me. Perhaps for this reason, directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt depart from a traditional profile to present a multiperspectival portrait of the man and his impact on the modern trans community. Rejecting the sensationalism – and transphobia, overt or covert – of prior efforts, they craft a thoughtful and resonant film that both enacts queer history and probes its contemporary purpose.
Though more subdued in tone, the film echoes Rebel Dykes’ multi-narrative approach, its spectrum of mostly trans-masculine interviewees offering diverse and at times contradictory takes. The resulting image of Tipton and his legacy is much richer than could be achieved by a more traditional biography—and indeed the actual facts of the musician’s life constitute a relatively small part of its composition. Crackling out over contemplative shots of the landscape he inhabited, Tipton’s music soundtracks what seem to be the film’s true subjects – the trans descendents who have inherited it. These speakers—Actor Marquise Vilson and academic Susan Stryker especially eloquent among them—offer generous, personal and poignant accounts of trans history and contemporary experience. Amidst the heated and often hostile atmosphere of today’s ‘trans debate’, No Ordinary Man is refreshingly un-didactic in its approach to this, perhaps even suggesting that any quest for definitive conclusions is misguided. Grappling with the question of “what is trans”, one speaker can only conclude that “nobody is 100% anything.”
This isn’t to diminish the film’s radicalism; its greatest strength is its resolve to challenge its viewer, rather than guide them. One especially powerful sequence sees a group of trans actors, many of whom are also interviewees, auditioning to play the role of Tipton in a dramatisation of his life. Primed by preceding comments from the contributors about ‘passing’ and gender performance, the cis viewer—and perhaps any viewer—is confronted by the urge to evaluate not only the actors’ presentation of Tipton, but also of their masculinity. “Why are you asking these questions?”, probes music and queer studies scholar Stephan Pennington, turning the scrutiny of trans identities back on the insecurity at the core of their cis-het interrogators.
Self-reflexive without being self-absorbed, the documentary saves plenty of scrutiny for its own endeavour too. Peppered with shots of the filmmaking process itself, it is by far the most self-conscious of the three discussed here. By foregrounding what so many of its genre conceal, the film highlights its own character as a constructed re-telling of Tipton’s history and influence—subjective and selective as this must inevitably be. As emphasised in the film, Tipton’s biography has already served as a political football, kicked between marginalised groups as each sought to claim him. As well as the trans-men who see their experiences reflected in his life, both butch lesbians and straight women have asserted that Tipton is one of their own. Up against societal homophobia and misogyny in the jazz scene, they see Tipton as having simply – in Susan Stryker’s words – “solved the problem by becoming a guy”.
Posing that we’re prone to making historical figures into who we need them to be, No Ordinary Man urges us to find a way of harnessing their empowering potential without sowing contemporary division – or doing a violence to their memories now they are no longer here to represent themselves. Whilst sharing the celebratory focus on representation and uncovering hidden histories common to P.S. Burn This Letter Please and Rebel Dykes, this film pushes further by asking what we hope to find there—and what that can tell us about present-day queer identities. Quietly brilliant and true to its Baldwin epigraph, it is ever questioning of the answers at which we might arrive.
P.S Burn This Letter Please is yet to be confirmed for general UK release.
Rebel Dykes has secured distribution with Bohemia Media, and is set for a virtual release this June. According to directors Harri Shanahan and Siân Williams in BFI Flare’s ‘Rebel Dykes: In Conversation’, a television cut is also in production.
No Ordinary Man is yet to be confirmed for general UK release.
Heather Dempsey is a freelance arts & culture writer born and bred in
West Cumbria and now based in London. Her work can be found in
publications including Film Stories Magazine, Looper, and The Telegraph
Online. She is also Assistant Producer and Social Media Manager for the
Girls On Film and Kermode On Film podcasts -- and she programmes Girls
On Film's daily film recommendations too.
Follow her on Twitter @thatheatherd