Now available on DVD is “Lesbian Nation,” an excellent compilation of short films celebrating lesbian talent in front of and behind the camera.
A highlight of the collection is the hour-long documentary “Lavender Limelight: Lesbians in Film.” Made in 1997 — a few years after the “new queer cinema” movement burst onto theater screens — director Marc Mauceri films his conversations with up-and-coming female filmmakers from that time. The lesbian directors are as diverse as their films, and clips from their documentaries, features, shorts and even experimental works are adroitly used to exemplify the points made by the interviewees.
“Lavender Limelight” opens with a segment featuring Jennie Livingston, director of the landmark documentary about African-American men voguing, “Paris Is Burning.” Highly animated in the conversation, Livingston describes how she got into filmmaking and why she likes telling stories. She recalls contacting director Werner Herzog, who prompted her to make films about subjects that interest her. Livingston also describes the construction of race, gender and sexuality in her work and how these themes surrounding identity also converge in her life. In the most revealing moment, she recounts how making “Paris Is Burning,” a film about a queer subculture, pushed her to establish and declare her own sexual identity.
Other interviews are equally engaging. Rose Troche, whose film “Go Fish” was a watershed release in independent queer cinema, explains how she appears at the margins in the film community, but more so because her work has experimental elements than because she is a lesbian. Likewise, Su Friedrich explains how her experimental films were not of interest to the lesbian community, and her lesbian films were not of interest to the experimental community. The filmmaker acknowledges the difficulties of matching form to content.
In other segments, native Philadelphian Cheryl Dunye, the writer/director/star of “The Watermelon Woman,” talks candidly about being a black lesbian in a white lesbian world, and Maria Maggenti, the writer/director of “The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love,” explains how making a low-budget film helped her develop her “individual voice.” She recognizes that her film can’t be all things to all lesbians, but this interracial romance provided a film for teens to dream about finding the right partner without having to change the lover’s gender.
“Lavender Limelight” will prompt audiences to watch — or rewatch — the films discussed, from Heather MacDonald’s documentary “Ballot Measure 9,” about an antigay amendment in Oregon, to Monika Treut’s classics “Virgin Machine” and “Seduction: The Cruel Woman.” The only drawback to “Lavender Limelight” is that these filmmakers have not produced nearly enough work since this film was made.
The other shorts on “Lesbian Nation” are also worthwhile. “Carmelita Tropicana” shows some verve in its spirited account of the title character, a Latina performance artist/activist, who ends up sharing a jail cell with two female coconspirators and a woman who mugged her. This enjoyable romp includes an amusing musical number and some outrageous costumes as it makes its points about gender, race and sexuality. The messages are not subtle and the performances are broad, but there is an undeniable charm on display here.
“Jumping the Gun” is an Australian fantasy about a woman who imagines the future of her life with a woman she met — and slept with — the night before. It’s well-executed and visually stylish.
The other two shorts in this collection are full of emotion. “Little Women in Transit” captures the frustration of sharing the backseat with one’s siblings during a family road trip. The dialogue is authentic, and the rage that young “Little Women”-loving Jennie develops is justified. This black and white short will resonate with anyone who has experienced a similar reality.
Rounding out the collection is “Playing the Part,” a documentary by Mitch McCabe about her inability to tell her parents that she is a lesbian. McCabe records the uneasy relationship she has with her mother, and tries on several occasions (Thanksgiving, a family visit to her at school and Christmas) to screw up the courage and confront her parents with the truth about her sexuality. While this short runs a bit long at 40 minutes, it has many poignant moments that viewers will appreciate as McCabe talks herself into — and out of — having the big discussion.
McCabe expresses how difficult this is for her, and her anxiety is justified. She is jealous of her girlfriend’s relationship with her mother and fears her disclosure will make her an “outcast.”
“Playing the Part” may get on the audience’s collective nerves as McCabe hems and haws about her situation, but it is ultimately satisfying because of how the filmmaker presents and ends her story. Her emotional honesty earns her both respect and sympathy.