At this year’s QFFU, we are screening the retrospective ”Going Underground” with films belonging to the New Queer Cinema. The films from this movement pioneered the way queerness was seen. Therefore, we like to highlight this movement and go a little deeper into what these films meant.
Although New Queer Cinema includes the term ‘new‘, this film movement is now more than 30 years old. It was academic B. Ruby Rich who first talked about it in the film magazine Sight and Sound. With this term, she described the rise of queer films in the 1990s. In her book New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut, she describes it as “a kind of filmmaking characterised by a melding of style and subject in its moments of origin”. The films were influenced by art, activism and, for example, the emerging channel MTV and its music videos. But it was not just about styles, it was also about a broader new pattern of thinking. The personal and political came together again.
AIDS crisis has major impact
When the movement was born, therefore, many serious issues were important. The AIDS crisis played a major role in the lives of these filmmakers and, meanwhile, in America, a conservative president, Reagan, was in power who had no regard for the queer community and preferred to profess a compassionate Christianity. In other places around the world, it was likewise the activists of ACT UP, for example, who had to change something instead of politicians and governments taking responsibility. Besides, the term queer had only just been introduced in the way we use it now, no longer a swear word, but a slur and an umbrella term.
To process the pain of the AIDS crisis, among others, and/or express anger about it, many filmmakers spoke out through the medium that suited them best. It was a place where reflection was possible, where own rules were made. It was a niche, but at the same time, all these makers added up to making the queer community more visible. Some of the works were very experimental, like Blue by Derek Jarman, but all had in common that they showed what (part of the) queer community was going through.
Variety of voices
Various voices also emerged during New Queer Cinema. It is notable, though, that many of these voices have often become subsumed over time anyway. For example, look at the work of Cheryl Dunye (the first Black, lesbian filmmaker), or Marlon Briggs (a Black, gay filmmaker who would eventually die of AIDS). They directed the landmark titles The Watermelon Woman and Tongues Untied. While The Watermelon Woman clearly shows the aesthetic of the 1990s and the influence of MTV, Tongues Untied is a beautiful, poetic reflection on Black identity, queerness and the AIDS crisis. Because of its poetic dimension, this film will be followed at QFFU by a spoken word workshop by Geofrey van der Ven.
A very different style has one of the movement’s most notorious makers: Gregg Araki. His colourful, unconventional and transgressive films, which more than once contain a fantasy element or play with typical genre films, will not suit every viewer, but with that they are also undeniably interesting. At QFFU, we will screen one of his most well-known titles from the New Queer Cinema era: The Living End. Because Araki is a filmmaker you just can’t stop talking about, film journalist and Camera Japan programmer and Theodoor Steen will give more context about his oeuvre and this film in particular. Another unique work we are screening that does not simply try to capture reality, but reflects on it from a scifi perspective is Born in Flames by Lizzie Borden.
Besides feature films, a number of high-profile documentaries have emerged from the 1990s that have been important for the queer community. Consider Paris is Burning by Jennie Livingston. However, since most will already know this title, we are screening a film about New Queer Cinema Dykes, Camera, Action! in the programme. Extremely suitable if, after reading this article, you want to know more about all kinds of good films the movement has produced. In it, many well-known people are featured, from aforementioned B. Ruby Rich and Cheryl Dunye to recent queer filmmaker Desiree Akhavan. It shows how important representation is and how the generation of New Queer Cinema was also an inspiration for subsequent generations. Finally, after the film, you can have your say in a conversation about queer feminist and lesbian cinema with university lecturer Laura Copier.
Tekst: Jacoline Maes