Caroline Berler’s one hour documentary, Dykes, Camera, Action! is a must-see for anyone interested in 1) lesbians and 2) lesbians on screen. I should go broader and say that if you’re into queer cinema or the history of cinema, this film is for you, but really, the key word here is dykes! Lesbians! On the big screen!
Few of us who are adults now grew up watching films that represented desire outside of heterosexuality. There might have been lesbian moments in a handful of films and TV shows in the 90s but I had certainly not seen them. For narratives that stepped out of heteronormativity, many turned to Virginia Woolf, who always left me wanting more, or to the likes of Radcliffe Hall, whose Well of Loneliness outright depressed me. As the documentary explains, my reactions to these narratives, with their stunted lesbian characters or terrible endings, were the norm since in reality, lesbians had few rights and no one could imagine happy endings outside of heterosexuality. On top of which, most of the movies in Hollywood were being written and made by men.
Dykes, Camera, Action! corrects my narrow vision of lesbian cinema, taking us back the 70s with experimental films that were breaking new ground and opening doors for lesbian narratives on the big screen. Filmmaker and critics Barbara Hammer, Rose Troche, Cheryl Dunye, Desiree Akhavan, B. Ruby Rich and Jenni Olson are featured in the documentary. We owe them so much, from creating a visual vocabulary that reflected our deepest desires to validating, on the big screen, our identities, loves and lives.
It wasn’t until The L Word came out that I could see—with my lesbian eyes wide open devouring the screen—women loving women, making love to each other, building lives, and so on. Yet the documentary reminds me of Maya Deren and Alexander Hamid’s seminal short film, “Meshes of the Afternoon” (1943), which I saw later in life as a graduate student. Experimental, passionate, poetic, it reminds me that before we can get to direct, satisfying and openly lesbian narratives such as The L Word or Carol, courageous dykes (and their allies) had to pave the way first.
Numerous movies and shorts are discussed and positioned in their historical contexts, including Jeff Robson’s Thelma and Louise, Jamie Babbit’s But I’m A Cheerleader, Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behaviour, and many others. What I appreciate most about Dykes, Camera, Action! is its breadth and width as well as its inclusivity. Women of colour, different sexual orientations and gender expressions, are not only presented and heard in the documentary but also featured in the long list of films it canonises and legitimizes as being part of lesbian cinema.
Dykes, Camera, Action! plays at 1pm on Sunday November 11. The Inside Out Festival takes place November 9-12, with screenings at the National Gallery of Canada and other events around town. For all of Apt613’s coverage of the Inside Out festival, visit our Festival page here. Visit the Inside Out webpage for full schedule, trailers, and tickets.