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21 Apr 2008

pioneer lesbian director bares all in beijing

Fridae's Beijing correspondent Dinah Gardner caught up with arguably the most prolific lesbian feminist filmmaker in the history of cinema, Barbara Hammer who was in town for a screening of several of her over 80 experimental shorts, videos and features.

It's there on the screen in all its flushed glory. A close up of a woman's genitals, a finger vigorously rubs the clitoris.

Top: Barbara Hammer and screenshots of Multiple Orgasm (1976) [middle] which shows 4 vaginal and 4 facial contractions and Dyketactics (1974), the first lesbian lovemaking film made by a lesbian in the history of films.
The audience - about 50 young mainland Chinese feminists and lesbians - seem unperturbed. They continue chatting, some watching, others munching on crackly shrimp snacks or tangerines.

This masturbation in magnification is a provocative 1976 lesbian short called Multiple Orgasms. The American filmmaker, 68-year-old Barbara Hammer, is in Beijing to hand deliver one of her recent films, Devotion, a documentary on "cult-like" Japanese filmmakers, Ogawa Productions, and to show her early lesbian work to these curious young women. Looking more like a svelte 50-something business dyke in a figure-hugging brown and red shirt and black pants and sporting a funky cropped haircut, Hammer flirts and jokes with her audience. We are in the offices of the China Women's News, a few blocks north of Tiananmen Square.

Next up we're treated to a group of naked women. They roll about in a leafy park in a sensual orgiastic dance to discordant pipe music. A girl spreads her legs and takes a photograph of her crotch. This is Dyketactics. Made in 1974, it's considered the world's first lesbian film made by a lesbian. At the time, Hammer reportedly refused to let men in the audience. That's followed by Menses (1975), a satire on menstruation. A row of naked women open their legs and chicken eggs fall out of their vaginas, a woman frantically scrubs her crotch and thighs clean a la Madame Macbeth, while another joyfully waves a blood-splashed white towel around her head as if it's her national flag.

It's about as far you can get from the diet of kung fu epics and weepy historical dramas that typically fill mainland television and cinema screens.

"A lot of women didn't like my films at the time because they were too experimental," Hammer grins. While the nudity and edgy choice of topics - lesbian sex and menstruation - must have been scandalous at the time, Hammer's playful treatment makes us laugh. The girls here tonight don't look turned on and they don't look shocked. They are too busy chuckling.

And in person, Hammer endears herself with a similar cheekiness and passion. After the talk she poses for photos in a local lesbian bar. "I won't show this one to my girlfriend," she quips, hugging a cute 23-year-old American-Chinese butch. "She'll be jealous."

In her long career spanning three decades, Hammer has made dozens of films. "I can't remember how many," she laughs. "At least 80." Her early work in the seventies, after she left her husband and came out as a lesbian, covered women's gender, family and ageing issues. "Maybe you could consider me a lesbian film pioneer," she quips. In the eighties, when "there was a backlash against feminists," she was inspired to focus on a wider range of topics including filming underwater and a walk across the US.

Another of her films collects together lesbian-themed movies made by men pre-Stonewall (1969). "It's a comedy," she explains. "There are educational films warning schoolgirls not to get too close to each other and there are others that medicalise lesbianism."

This is her first visit to the People's Republic and her first chance to see Chinese lesbian society on the mainland. She says it feels like American lesbian society 20 years ago with the strong butch-femme divide.
"China is where the West was decades ago," she says.

"In the sixties we had butches and femmes. In the seventies we were all identified as working class in jeans and plaid shirts and these terrible short haircuts. In the nineties butch and femme came back into fashion. Nowadays the identity is much more fluid and that's much more exciting. You've got heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, transsexual and you can change between them all. Whatever you want. Whenever you want."

She described how after she told her Chinese host, a straight woman, that she was gay, her host had asked her if she was a man or a woman.

"I didn't know what to say," Hammer laughs. "Eventually I said I was a woman. She seemed pleased."

The lesbians in the audience giggle and there is some discussion whether Hammer would call herself a p (femme) or a t (butch). She confers with her translator. "I am bu fen!" she grins. Bu fen, which literally means not divided, is a term used to describe those women who neither identify as a butch or a femme. Citing French lesbian writer Monique Witting, she says: "I am not a woman. A lesbian is not a woman. A lesbian is outside that construction." An idea, she explains, that is part of the relatively new gender queer identity movement of North America. Her audience looks perplexed.

As one of the world's most prolific lesbian filmmakers, Hammer appears keen to inspire these young Chinese women. China's answer to Hammer, lesbian documentary maker Shi Tou, is in the audience.

"Don't listen to your male professors," Hammer says. "Or your female ones. Just do what you want to do Make your films. Make your work. We need it or your histories are lost. Our histories are lost."

Recording non-mainstream or threatened identities is a passion of Hammer's. She has worked on several documentaries recording the lives of people who are either ignored by other filmmakers or disappearing. One of her latest projects, The Diving Women of Cheju-do, documents a matriarchal society on this South Korean island, where the tradition of its hardcore women divers is dying out.

As China buckles down pre-Olympics and in the face of overseas human rights protests with police crackdowns on bars and the tightening of visa restrictions, it's somewhat satisfying that these two women's groups are holding this lesbian movie discussion night in the city.
And if you suffer from repression, Hammer says, you can make your work anonymously. This tiny engaging woman stands up and spreads her arms earnestly.

"It is your turn to take a risk."

Reader's Comments

1. 2008-04-21 18:56  
Despite all that has been said in the media, it looks like Beijing is more liberal than it's made out to be... I bet all the films are too progressive for Singapore although they are over 30 years old!

2. 2008-04-22 00:28  
No you're so wrong Kellen, I heard Mediacorp is going to collaborate with her to make a radical post-feminist piece about sexual liberation in Singapore called Chicken Rice Whore, starring Liang Po Po and Divine .

Just kidding, sadly. Maybe Almodavar already did it.

3. 2013-04-06 22:46  
Its interesting... but I guess it will be difficult for lots of indonesian community to accept such a progressive movies like yours.

I'm intrigue by it though

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