Friday, February 18th 2022 sees the start of a landmark retrospective, Pioneers of Queer Cinema, with free in-person screenings across 12 nights in Los Angeles, presented by The UCLA Film & Television Archive, IndieCollect, and Outfest.
This diverse survey spans seven decades and comprises 33 works including documentaries, narrative, and experimental features and shorts, drawing primarily from the collection of the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project, the world’s largest publicly accessible archive of LGBTQ moving image media. The series offers audiences a chance to see seminal works exploring sexuality and gender identity that are now part the queer film canon on the big screen alongside lesser known and rarely shown titles by influential creators.
The carefully curated double bills and multiple film presentations allow the works to sit in conversation with each other, tracing the lineage of today’s LGBTQIA+ storytellers, incorporating pre-Stonewall depictions of queer lives, and the precursors and emergence of New Queer Cinema. Many of the screenings will be illuminated by an exciting lineup of in-person discussions, with showcased filmmakers such as Gregg Araki, Donna Deitch, Arthur Dong, Zackary Drucker, Rob Epstein, Jenni Olson, Gus Van Sant, and Jennie Livingston all participating.
“Pioneers of Queer Cinema celebrates the groundbreaking achievements born from visionary artists who have powerfully illustrated identities pushed to the margins”, comments May Hong HaDuong, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Contemplating the title of the series she adds, “The coupling of the words “pioneer” and “queer” draws out contradictions woven in complex histories. The former term activates ideas of colonial placement and power, while the latter embraces a phrase initially intended to malign the community it represents. Juxtaposing these words is an act of rebellion, seizing on the discomfort that queerness embodies.”
For IndieCollect’s president and founder Sandra Schulberg, the series also “celebrates the virtues of preservation and pleads for the resources our field needs so we can maintain access to this enormous body of work in all its candor, beauty, complexity, and power. It is important that we be able to measure the depth and breadth of the community’s output. Through IndieCollect’s Queer Cinema Index, created with the help of Outfest and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, we’ve documented more than 12,000 LGBTQIA+ titles. We believe that independent films are the hallmark of an open society and that iconoclastic voices are crucial to the survival of our democracy. IndieCollect was founded to #SaveIndieFilm and to ensure the films are discoverable and watchable in today’s digital environment and for generations to come.”
Formed in 2005, the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project continues to document, preserve, and present LGBTQ+ moving images from its over 40,000 item collection. It has already completed over two dozen film restorations, including Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances (1986), Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996), Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts (1986), and Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning (1990), which are all showing in the Pioneers of Queer Cinema program.
“It’s an honor to lead an organization whose mission is to reintroduce these works to new generations, and to work with our partners to ensure their place in ongoing conversations around what it means to be queer”, comments Outfest’s executive director Damien S. Navarro. “We in the queer arts and media space are faced with the challenge of ensuring the survival of LGBTQ+ storytelling as venues dedicated to these cinematic visions are shrinking or disappearing. We remain convinced of the continued need to gather together to watch, discuss and share our differing and often radical visions of sexual and gender identity. It is our hope that the Pioneers of Queer Cinema program will reacquaint us with our queer origins while encouraging us to reframe conversations and rethink the obstacles our communities continue to face.”
The series opens with a 35mm screening of Gus Van Sant’s first feature Mala Noche from 1986, based on the 1977 memoir Mala Noche: And Other “Illegal” Adventures by Walt Curtis. As Nathan Rulf points out in the program notes, the film shows Van Sant’s interest in “issues of class and queer life” that “continued from the brash Mala Noche through its delicate, full-color inversion in My Own Private Idaho, to the eight-Oscar-nominated juggernaut Milk over 20 years later. But it all began here, on a bad night in Portland.” Mala Noche will play in double bill with a 16mm print of Su Friedrich’s Hide and Seek. “Friedrich daringly immerses her viewer in her own 1960s adolescence via the uncharted angle of a tweenage lesbian awakening”, writes K.J. Relth-Miller in the series catalogue. “Constructed narrative moments are mixed with documentary interviews with lesbians of various ages discussing their burgeoning identities alongside archival footage of fascinatingly outmoded sex education films likely seen by Friedrich herself in her middle school classroom”.
Friedrich’s work is cited as an influence by queer film historian, archivist, and filmmaker Jenni Olson, whose 1998 short Blue Diary plays on the final night of the series, alongside Jim Hubbard’s Memento Mori, and Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts. Speaking with The Queer Review about the contemplative Blue Diary, voiced by Silas Howard, Olson remarked, “It’s kind of an amazing achievement to make a sexy 16mm urban landscape film and to have it be able to elicit such a strong response from people. In so many ways my films are about failure and rejection, and pining over unavailable women.”
“Trying to tell a story that incorporates sex and sexuality in a way that is creative was something that I wanted to do”, continues Olson, “and also specifically to try to convey things from a butch perspective and to tell a story that addresses butch identity or butch experience, or things that other butch dykes could connect to and identify with. Which goes back to The Celluloid Closet. What Vito Russo wrote about was the importance of seeing ourselves on screen, and how, especially historically, people grew up feeling very alone. So to me it was absolutely transformative to see myself on screen and to feel less alone and to feel the joy of that, in seeing those endless stories and images. But images of butch identified folks or gender nonconforming folks are few and far between, so it’s always been important to me that my films speak from that perspective and that they hopefully help people feel a little bit less alone.”
Kenneth Anger’s hypnotic and poetically erotic short Fireworks, produced in 1947, is the earliest film in the program. With beautifully rendered suggestive scenes of gay cruising, an early public screening of the work led to the owner of the Coronet Theater being charged with obscenity by LAPD vice squad. As John Trenz acknowledges in the program notes, “Anger is central to the development of the underground tradition of queer cinema; his concerns with personal identity, self-disclosure, and subversive desire seem to predate contemporary gay filmmakers that represent gay youth anomie through a direct critical gay voice, especially Gregg Araki and Sadie Benning. If Anger’s film is less explicit in its sexual politics than his contemporaries today, the underground distribution and reception of Fireworks speaks to the notoriety that can be achieved by young queer filmmakers through defiant and deviant approaches to production and distribution.”
Fireworks will play alongside the most recent film in the series, Zackary Drucker’s At Least You Know You Exist from 2011. Featuring legendary activist and performer Flawless Sabrina, the captivating and beautifully layered experimental short intimately explores the interaction between these two figures, shot in Flawless Sabrina’s East 73rd Street Manhattan apartment. Drucker told The Queer Review that she is thrilled that the film is part of Pioneers of Queer Cinema. “As a cinema lover I’m deeply influenced by New Queer Cinema, Barbara Hammer, Kenneth Anger, Marlon Riggs, and Julie Dash. As a teenager in the 90s I was a voracious consumer of anything experimental and queer, so to be in a program like this with the only film made in the 21st century is an astounding honor.”
“Flawless is a contemporary of the other filmmakers”, Drucker continues, “so it’s thanks to her in my mind that the film has been included. She’s among her peers in a program like this and I’m along for the ride as a young person who helped make it happen. She and I really collaborated to make At Least You Know You Exist and it was her favorite film. While those filmmakers were creating experimental narratives about their lives, Flawless was an artist in the medium of life. Like so many of our trans and non-binary elders, they did not have the tools of cultural production, they were the subjects but they were not the authors. Creating At Least You Know You Exist was an opportunity for Flawless to be a co-creator and to be behind the camera. Anytime I’m on camera it’s her filming.”
“The UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Legacy Project in particular are spaces that I champion”, adds Drucker, “and it was so generous of them to restore At Least You Know You Exist. The previous version of it was from me projecting the film onto the wall and filming that projected image, so for all these years that was how I was showing it. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I gave them all of my film prints, because we found a few reels under Flawless’ bed when we were cleaning out her apartment. I’m so grateful for their efforts to preserve our history.”
Among the documentary features in the program, is Oscar-nominated filmmaker Arthur Dong’s Coming Out Under Fire, an exploration of the US military’s discrimination against gay and lesbian service members in World War II up to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Congressional hearings of 1993. It features interviews with veterans recalling not only the horrors of interrogations, witch hunts, incarceration, forced psychiatric treatment, and dishonorable discharge, but also the queer joy that they experienced through romantic relationships and close friendships forged while serving their country.
“I’ve always been interested in how governance and public policy controls us as citizens and controls certain groups of people”, Dong told The Queer Review. “I think it’s important to know that sometimes we are the victims of forces that we can’t control, but it’s up to us to overcome those barriers and it’s up to us as humans to find a way to survive and to resist. It may not be to the level of making great social change, but if as individuals we can resist now so that we can survive, I think that’s an accomplishment. Particularly when we’re talking about pre-Stonewall days, in the 1930s and 40s when there was no gay community, where the only community that existed were ones where you found each other as individuals.”
“What I saw in Coming Out Under Fire, along with the author Allan Bérubé whose book the film was based on, was a beginning of the forming of a community”, Dong continues. “They were forced to do that. People were all drafted into same gender barracks and so there was no way that they couldn’t see each other. That’s what happened as a result of the draft and selective service. That helped us as individuals and as a community and I think that the adversity, that common force against us, brought people together as well.”
“Like my first film, Public, an animated short about sexuality and violence that I made at age 16 in my bedroom at my parents’ home in 1970, Kenneth Anger made Fireworks at age 17, also at his parents home”, Dong observes. “I’ve only recently discovered this correlation, and it’s a revelation to see how our creative efforts were not produced in isolation, but with a perhaps unspoken, but nevertheless communal purpose. I’m honored that Coming Out Under Fire has been selected for the series, which will mark the theatrical premiere of a newly restored 4K version produced by IndieCollect and UCLA Film & Television Archive. It’s programmed alongside Marlon Riggs’ revolutionary Tongues Untied, a film that altered my understanding of the documentary form.”
Ashley Clark, who curated a major Riggs retrospective both in-person at BAM and on the Criterion Channel told The Queer Review that in his view, “Tongues Untied is emblematic of Riggs’ work in general because it’s rigorously intelligent, it’s poetic, it’s playful, and he brings a lot of himself to it. This was the first of his films that he was front and centre in, so I think Tongues Untied is not only a great introduction to his work and his world, but also to him as a person. Nothing else really looks like Tongues Untied in terms of the style and the form and the artistry. Today, there’s often a lack of marriage between form and style with political and sociological content in films, and I think that’s one thing that makes Marlon’s work so special.”
It was while working on Tongues Untied in the late 80s that Riggs was diagnosed as HIV positive. Speaking with The Queer Review, Riggs’ frequent collaborator Vivian Kleiman recalls the impact receiving that news had on him and his vision for the film, “When he first conceived of Tongues Untied I remember him coming down the hall of our office space and he had that glint in his eye, and he goes, ‘I have my next project’. He’d already started working on Color Adjustment, but then he had this idea of doing a short piece, it was going to be 10 or 12 minutes; the audio was going to be poetry by Black gay men, and the images were going to be created out of what he would hunt and gather. So on the first day of filming, Marlon and I and about half a dozen of his friends from this group, Black Gay Men United, sauntered over to a festival in Oakland and just started grabbing images with this new camera. We took turns, the camera went from his shoulder to my shoulder. The film was going to be something that was for Black gay men, and it was going to be very poetic and lyrical. And then he got sick and learned he was HIV positive. At that point, Marlon’s entire being shifted. And what was going to be this little 10 or 12 minute film became infused with a rawness, a vitality, an urgency, and a force that it might not otherwise have had.”
While Marlon Riggs was making Tongues Untied, Jennie Livingston had begun work on Paris is Burning in New York City. Livingston, who will be joined by ballroom legends Sol and Freddie Pendavis as part of the series screening, reflected back on entering the ballroom scene in a 2020 interview with The Queer Review to mark the film’s restoration. “As a white person from a different socio-economic sphere walking into the ball world I never felt unwelcome, I never felt “othered”. This wasn’t the age of the Internet, there was no online look into the ball world, so if you knew about balls it was because you knew people in real life who handed you a flyer and invited you. There was no casually running into it. And so anybody who was there, including white ball participants like Ben Ninja, it was just assumed you knew somebody and they were therefore welcome. I think that the people I talked to were very eager to tell their stories. I had a similarity in terms of being queer and being gender nonconforming, but I’m not Black, I’m not Latinx, I didn’t grow up in New York, so many things were different. But I think the reason I was empowered by the people that I talked to to make the film was that they saw that I really was excited to talk to them. They saw that I had a love for their world and I had a couple of years of getting to know people and earning their trust before I raised the money to shoot the film. To this day it’s a very beloved film amongst queer people of colour and trans people, because it reflects people who for younger people are their queer or trans ancestors, and for all of us, they have so much to say about queer and Black queer and Latinx queer wisdom and resilience and even spirituality.”
Paris is Burning plays with the 1991 short, Stormé: The Lady of the Jewel Box directed by Michelle Parkerson, a documentary portrait of drag king and activist Stormé DeLarverie and history of North America’s first racially integrated drag revue. As Todd Wiener notes in the program, “The charmingly reflective DeLarverie almost appears to be at odds with her larger-than-life historical presence within queer history and culture. In addition to her infamous drag king persona, Stormé is commonly referred to as “the Rosa Parks of the gay community” and is widely credited as being one of the first people to throw a punch at the NYPD during the Stonewall uprising of 1969. Pakerson brings Stormé’s historical story into the present of the 1990s, where the icon is working as a bouncer in a women’s bar and still performing in her unique, powerhouse style.”
The third film on the bill that night is the 1962 short Always on Sunday, directed by Connie B. Demille, one of four films made by the Southern Californian queer collective, Gay Girls Riding Club, formed by cinematographer Ray Harrison. Described by Wiener as a “gender-bending comedy sketch”, this nod to Jules Dassin’s Never on a Sunday focuses “on the fluidity of gender roles and norms, as well as masculine experience and presumptions in relation to the homosexual experience. In a queer historical context, the subversive GGRC films and the group’s larger cultural impact are an important pre-Stonewall mid-century representation of cis-gendered drag culture. In a way, GGRC began to lay the foundation for the hugely successful and popular drag culture scene popularized by RuPaul’s Drag Race and the like that now thankfully embrace a wide variety of diverse non-binary, gender-fluid community members.”
Illustrating the potential for immediate real world impact of screen portrayals of queer lives is LGBTQ ally Peggy Rajski’s Oscar-winning darkly comic coming of age short Trevor, about a teenager who contemplates suicide. Ahead of the film’s 1998 airing on HBO, Rajski searched for an organization that young at risk viewers who identified with the central character’s experience could turn to for help. Discovering that there was no such resource led Rajski and the film’s writer Celeste Lecesne to found a nationwide 24-hour crisis line for LGBTQ youth, the Trevor Lifeline, which continues its invaluable work to this day as The Trevor Project.
Rajski’s film will play alongside the groundbreaking 1977 documentary feature Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives. Upon its theatrical release Jeffrey Friedman, then working as an assistant editor, was immediately struck by the film. In fact, it made such an impact on Friedman that he sought out those who’d made it, leading to a meeting with Rob Epstein which resulted in an Oscar-winning, decades-long and still ongoing creative collaboration. “Word Is Out really opened my eyes and kind of blew my mind. It was the first documentary made by gay people about the gay experience. It was a really well-made film and it impressed me that there were such talented, committed filmmakers doing work that reflected my life and my experience.”
Friedman went on to work with Epstein on his next project, The Times of Harvey Milk, which is also part of the Pioneers of Queer Cinema program. “I was essentially a volunteer, a friend of the film and I offered my expertise wherever it was useful”, Friedman recalls in an interview with The Queer Review. “I had some experience designing moves on still photos, so photo animation is how I helped practically. I also looked at rough cuts with Rob and editor Debbie Hoffmann and gave my thoughts and suggestions. I was one of a number of people from the community who wanted to see this film get made. It felt like a story that needed to be told. It was what was happening in the world around us, which seemed very important to us at the time and I think in retrospect it was a really important moment.”
The Times of Harvey Milk will play alongside two remarkable documentary shorts from the early 1970s, Changes by Pat Rocco and Arthur J. Bressan, Jr.’s Coming Out. Jenni Olson, who has been instrumental in ensuring the preservation and restoration of Bressan’s films, reflects on Coming Out, “Like Gay USA, Bressan’s subsequent feature-length documentation of the Gay Freedom Day parades of 1977, this 1972 short offers up a thrilling collective portrait of gay liberation. Ecstatic celebrants fill the streets as we hear on the soundtrack a series of vibrant interviews with attendees who speak of their lives and their loves. We hear primarily from gay people (sharing the joys and struggles of being gay) along with a smattering of straights (one woman describes how she prays for the homosexuals as they go by, while a straight male ally vehemently expresses his support saying, “they’re human; they’re just like anybody else”). Bressan would also go on to incorporate this footage (as well as Lilli Vincenz’s Gay and Proud footage of the first parade) into Gay USA.”
Changes, which makes for a fascinating companion piece to Chase Joynt’s Sundance 2022 hit Framing Agnes, opens with a cisgender heterosexual male interviewer questioning a young trans woman about her life. Despite the questions being intrusive, they are posed more with curiosity than judgment, and the subject has the upper hand throughout, remaining patient and calm, she charms the interviewer and the viewer with her warm, intelligent, and matter-of-fact responses. The second half of the film sees her set free from her inquisitor, joyfully strolling through the streets of LA and the paths of Griffith Park, where she reclines topless by the water, a proud and confident trans woman. The film’s original song, performed by Rocco, plays on the soundtrack with lyrics such as “gender is a pretender, change the offender”.
Playing alongside Todd Haynes 1993 short film Dottie Gets Spanked, and Bill Sherwood’s 1986 feature Parting Glances, is Nikolai Ursin’s fascinating pre-Stonewall portrait of a Black gender nonconforming subject. Shot in 1967, the generally upbeat film is from the subject’s perspective with them narrating their own experience of being female presenting in public spaces, including an unexpectedly pleasant run in with a police officer in a men’s room. “Stylistically, Ursin artfully blurs elements of cinéma vérité documentary and subtle dramatization to bring his unnamed lead’s deeply personal aspirations and meditations on love and acceptance to light”, writes Mark Quigley in the program notes. “The resulting intimate portrait, possibly one of the earliest to honestly document a Black, gender-fluid person on film, serves as a rare cultural artifact at the intersection between transgender life and African American life in the U.S. at the mid-century. Significantly, the film also provides cinema and LGBTQ+ scholars with a previously unavailable bridge to later companion works, such as Shirley Clarke’s landmark documentary Portrait of Jason (1967) and the problematic, but essential pseudo-scientific study of a group of trans women, Queens at Heart (1967).”
“People on the margins who are still invisible—trans and queer folks of color, or people who are on continents who have no rights at all—those stories are the ones that we’re still building a world for,” Cheryl Dunye recently told The New York Times, considering the future of queer film. Her 1996 New Queer Cinema classic The Watermelon Woman, which was recently added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, is programmed with a new 4K restoration of Jan Oxenberg’s short A Comedy in Six Unnatural Acts. “This 1975 series of black and white vignettes interprets six stereotypes of lesbians as a series of standalone sketches worthy of a queerer, more experimental Saturday Night Live. The Wallflower, Role-Playing, Seduction, Non-Monogamy, The Child Molester, and The Stompin’ Dyke are satirical depictions of insults levied at lesbians, but Oxenberg’s humor twists each ending into feel-good fun unseen in any mainstream filmic depiction of queer characters of the time.”
Deprived of being taught queer history at school, it is often a moving and empowering experience to see our LGBTQ+ ancestors and depictions of queer characters from the past projected in a communal space. While Moonlight‘s Best Picture Oscar win in 2017, and forthcoming studio features such as the Billy Eichner penned BROS and Andrew Ahn’s Fire Island—alongside a wealth of television series centering LGBTQ+ stories like Pose, Veneno, It’s A Sin, Euphoria, and Love Victor—might reflect an increase in visibility and acceptance, the defiant spirit of resistance inherent in many of the films in Pioneers of Queer Cinema urges us not to let our guard down. There have of course been some significant recent legal advances, such as protections against discrimination for LGBTQ employees, but this is a distressing time for our community with trans folks under an unrelenting legislative assault, Florida’s dangerous and regressive Parental Rights in Education bill advancing through the state legislature, and a continuing epidemic of violence against trans and gender nonconforming folks, particularly trans women of colour. As important as mainstream, studio-led representation might be, that shouldn’t be the sum of what we aim for. Let us as a community be reinvigorated by the work of these pioneering queer filmmakers and strive to support and even create our own uncompromising queer stories that examine our lives from within.
By James Kleinmann
Pioneers of Queer Cinema runs February 18th – March 28th 2022. All below screenings are in-person at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90024. Click on the film titles for more details and to register for free tickets while available. Envisioned as a North American tour, the series is available to venues to screen these rarities, new restorations and venerated classics.
Schedule and guest speakers subject to change.
Mala Noche / Hide and Seek, February 18th 2022 at 7:30 pm. In-person Q&A with filmmaker Gus Van Sant moderated by Lucas Hilderbrand, professor, UCI Film and Media Studies.
Coming Out Under Fire / Tongues Untied, February 20th at 7pm. In-person Q&A with filmmaker Arthur Dong, moderated by Brendan Lucas, Outfest UCLA Legacy Project Manager. Intro by Jonathan Willett, Los Angeles LGBT Center.
Oblivion / If Every Girl Had a Diary / The Living End, February 26th at 7:30pm. In-person: filmmaker Gregg Araki and actor Mike Dytri in conversation with filmmaker Sean Baker.
Always on Sunday / Stormé / Paris is Burning, February 27th at 7pm. In-person: filmmaker Jennie Livingston, film participants Sol Williams and Freddie Pendavis, and producer Natalie Hill. Q&A moderated by Miss Peppermint.
Trevor / Word is Out, March 7th at 7:30pm. In-person: filmmaker Peggy Rajski.
Fireworks / Seascape / At Least You Know You Exist / Nitrate Kisses, March 11th at 7:30pm. In-person: Q&A with filmmaker Zackary Drucker; Florrie Burke, widow of Barbara Hammer.
Changes / Coming Out / The Times of Harvey Milk, March 12th at 7:30pm. In-person: filmmaker Rob Epstein. Q&A moderated by actor and filmmaker John Cameron Mitchell.
A Comedy in Six Unnatural Acts / The Watermelon Woman, March 14th at 7:30pm. In-person: filmmaker Jan Oxenberg. Video Q&A with filmmaker Cheryl Dunye.
Jerovi / Testament / Confessions / My Hustler, March 18th at 7:30pm. In-person: Intro by Bradford Nordeen, Creative Director of Dirty Looks INC.
Blackstar / Choosing Children, March 20th at 7pm. Video intro by filmmaker Mimi (Kim) Klausner.
Behind Every Good Man / Dottie Gets Spanked / Parting Glances, March 21st at 7:30pm.
Blue Diary / Memento Mori / Desert Hearts, March 28th at 7:30pm. In-person: Q&A with filmmakers Jim Hubbard, Jenni Olson, moderated by Kirsten Schaffer, Executive Director of Women in Film. Q&A with filmmaker Donna Deitch, moderated by Merynn Johns.