Fast-paced and fluidly edited, this feature documentary explores both the history of lesbian characters in the movies as well as the rise of queer female filmmakers. Screened at Raindance Film Festival, Dykes, Camera, Action! is a thoroughly entertaining film covering quite a lot of material in its brisk running time. Most interesting is its singular angle on movie history, telling a story that has never been explored like this before. And filmmaker Caroline Berler packs it with terrific clips from the films, plus interviews with filmmakers, journalists and historians who have a vested interest in the topic.
The point is made early on that the vast majority of movies are made by straight white men, and it’s no surprise that films tend to see the world and women through their eyes. So back in the early 1960s, when filmmakers began experimenting with these themes, lesbianism was depicted as something painful, even fatal. This is true of films like The Children’s Hour (1961) and The Killing of Sister George (1968). Lesbian audiences loved seeing their feelings on-screen, but were traumatised by the tragic endings.
As feminism came to the forefront in the 1970s, films became more open and diverse, allowing lesbian filmmakers the chance to make experimental movies that offered a balancing voice in a predominantly male industry. In the 1980s, these themes began being picked up by big Hollywood filmmakers in such hits as Robert Towne’s Personal Best (1982) and Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983). But it wasn’t until the 1990s that lesbian filmmakers finally broke through into festivals and cinemas, telling their own stories on the big screen.
One of the key interviewees in this doc is Rose Troche, whose film Go Fish (1994) deliberately sought to cheer up queer audiences during the Aids epidemic. Other landmark films in the 1990s include High Art and But I’m a Cheerleader, both of which have had huge impact on cinema at large. Further into the mainstream, The Hours (2002) offered awards status, while The Kids Are All Right (2010) presented a remarkably complex lesbian plotline and Carol (2015) proved to be a beautiful lesbian movie by a gay male filmmaker.
Along with Troche, the film features telling interview material with boundary-pushing filmmakers Desiree Akhavan and Cheryl Dunye, who faced added pressure because they are not just gay but also Iranian and black, respectively. Their observations about their own life experiences are powerfully important, because they add to the texture of their work.
Another key interviewee is noted journalist B Ruby Rich, whose articles for Village Voice announced the emergence of New Queer Cinema. She talks about how, before the 1960s, lesbian stories were almost completely absent from cinema, limited to literature and “fancy ladies like Virginia Woolf”. So when they finally arrived on film, there was a hungry audience waiting for them. At just over an hour, Dykes, Camera, Action! covers a key segment of film history that’s relevant to far more than LGBTQ audiences. It’s a bracing look at culture at large, and the importance of telling everyone’s stories.