Harri Shanahan and Sian Williams’ feature documentary Rebel Dykes, which receives its world premiere as part of the virtual 35th BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival running March 17th to 28th and its Australian premiere at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival on Friday March 19th, is a rousing, celebratory, and considered examination of London’s rebel dyke subculture of the 1980s and its legacy. The film’s punky, DIY aesthetic captures the anarchic spirit of the trailblazing brave women who donned their biker leathers and boots as visibly queer in the homophobic era of Thatcher, AIDS, and Section 28, frequently facing disapproval from fellow lesbians and feminists.
With dynamically presented archive footage, photographs, and colourful anecdotes about the zines, densely populated women-only squat houses, nightlife venues, DJs, and S&M cabaret shows that defined London’s rebel dyke culture, there’s an evocative time capsule element that immerses us in the era, making it less a case of you had to be there, as some documentaries can make one feel, and more a case of you’ll feel like you were. The filmmakers’ knowledge of and passion for their subject is palpable throughout, as well as their sense of responsibility in presenting this untold chapter in queer history. Williams and Shanahan’s enthusiasm is infectious and it’s impressive how much they manage to pack into the film’s 82 minutes without it ever feeling rushed or unfocused.
As well as taking a deepdive into the 80s London dyke nightlife scene, Rebel Dykes also gives us an insight into the internal politics and conversations around gender and identity that were happening at the time, including the separatist lesbian feminists, who as one contributor mentions wouldn’t even have a male cat as a pet, and the intersection of race, feminism, and lesbianism. The pithy talking head clips from a diverse range of contributors who were there, are tightly edited, keeping the interviews short and snappy, and the energy buoyant.
A section of the film is devoted to memories of life on the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, which was established in 1981 as a women-only live-in protest space against the nuclear weapons that were being stored at a Berkshire RAF base, which aside from the activism, proved to be a lesbian utopia of friendship and sexual liberation, and living there was a rite of passage for many of the dykes featured in the film.
There’s an examination of the femme dyke inclusive spaces, while Roz gives some fascinating insights into her experience on the scene as a trans woman, with weekly dyke fetish night Chain Reaction at the Market Tavern proving to be “comparatively accepting”, she recalls. Roz also mentions the impact of Janice Raymond’s 1979 TERF manifesto The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male which “demanded the expulsion of trans people from all women’s spaces.” There was also resistance from some feminists to the on-stage S&M performances at Chain Reaction, seeing the acts as “anti-feminist” and “anti-lesbian”, resulting in picketing outside and even some disruptive storming of the venue.
There’s a frank and light-hearted look at the politics around penetration, and the use of dildos and strap-ons, with many lesbians choosing to chop off the balls before less phallic, ball-free dildos became more readily available. Lisa Power offers an amusing anecdote about her fellow Stonewall co-founder Ian McKellan’s reaction to seeing a freshly arrived shipment of sex toys, dental dams, and lesbian porn from the US that leads to a brilliantly conceived recreation. There’s another inventive recreation sequence as two stunning pieces of anti-Section 28 direct action is recalled; disrupting the live BBC Six O’Clock national news broadcast, chained under the presenters’ desk—leading to the tabloid headlines “Beeb man sits on lesbian” and “Loony Lezzies attack TV Sue”—and abseiling down from the visitors’ gallery in the House of Lords while the measure was being voted on. Although rather dismissed by the generally openly homophobic UK media at the time, Rebel Dykes rightfully reframes these bold actions as powerful and memorable LGBTQ activism conceived and carried out by lesbians.
While capturing the radical spirt of these women, the film also takes time to acknowledge the loving support of chosen family, with memories of group Christmas dinners and the strong sense of belonging and community.
Delightfully sex-positive, richly detailed, and lovingly-crafted, with a queer post-punk original score composed by Ellyott and quirky animated sequences by Shanahan, Rebel Dykes never takes itself too seriously, but the result is a stunning achievement, as necessary as it is entertaining. As Lisa Power acknowledges, “We’ve gone so far into the mainstream and we’re so respectable now that we’re losing all our sharp edges, we’re losing our ability to be the rebels”; hopefully this documentary and the larger archive it forms a part of, will inspire us to inject some of that rebel dyke spirit into our own queer lives today as we continue to confront the anti-LGBTQ+ forces in the world.
BFI Flare has been an annual highlight for me since my first festival in 1996 (which I previewed for my university newspaper London Student), so watching Rebel Dykes remotely and virtually I couldn’t help but imagine what the atmosphere would have been like under normal circumstances in NFT 1 at the BFI on London’s South Bank; the enthusiastic applause and cheers as the end credits rolled, as well as the spirited Q&A and serious after-partying that no doubt would have happened. I’m grateful to the programmers and everyone it takes to make the festival happen for creating a second virtual event, and picturing us all back at the BFI next year to see our stories on the big screen among the company of our beautifully diverse community.
By James Kleinmann
The film will be released in the UK by Bohemia Media.