PARIS WAS A WOMAN (1996)
Filmmaker Greta Schiller (b. 1954) first made an impact with the documentary Before Stonewall (1984), a piece on the communal history of the LGBTQ community before the Gay Liberation Movement spread through the world triggered by the New York Stonewall riots in 1969. Schiller has directed several critically acclaimed documentaries since, all of them concerned with inequality, and some of them on queer issues, such as the film we have chosen for this season, Paris Was a Woman (1996).
Film documentaries do not appear to have been a popular choice with LGBTQ filmmakers until the 1990s, when the AIDS crisis spurred activists to present the true experience of the catastrophe to the public. ‘Factual films’ have a tough time in the world of film distribution, and it is almost impossible to reach queer mass audiences outside the circuit… On the plus side, documentaries require less resources to be made, and are easier to put together (indeed, a simple interview with a ‘talking head’ on an exciting topic can be gripping). All things considered, we should have more queer documentaries – it may sound obvious, but it is crucial for LGBTQ people to recover our histories, because one of the most effective tools of oppression is the erasure of a common past.
Interestingly, a number of respected lesbian filmmakers have focused on documentary. The pioneer Barbara Hammer, for example, has been creating a unique blend of experimental autobiographical documentary, mixing fiction and archival film footage, in films such as Dyketactics (1974). Later avant-garde experimental documentaries such as the wonderful Hide and Seek (1996) turned Sue Friedrich into one of the most inspiring filmmakers in the genre. Other director-writers, like Pratibha Parmar, from the 1990s onwards, and Zero Chou for the last ten years, have made a mark with solidly produced documentaries, before jumping to the dark side and making fiction films that were, in our opinion, far stronger on visuals than on content. Another lesbian documentarist, Andrea Weiss, directed the fascinating A Bit of Scarlett (1997), a little known companion piece to the main documentary about gay cinema, The Celluloid Closet (Weiss’s focuses on British film, whereas Russo’s concentrated on Hollywood).
One of the big rewards of lesbian historiography has been the rediscovery of the effervescence of lesbian art and culture in 1920s Paris. This period was truly a Lesbian Renaissance. We owe the groundwork to researcher Shari Benstock, who pieced together the lives of the multitude of outstanding lesbian and bisexual women artists drawn to the magnetic pole of Gai Paree. Women like Gertrude Stein, Natalie Barney, or the Irish Eileen Gray, who contributed to the sexual ebullience and artistic alchemy in the cauldron of the city. It is all retold in Paris Was a Woman. The script is by Andrea Weiss, not just a documentarist herself, as we have seen, but also the author of a wonderful book on lesbian representation in film, titled Vampires and Violets. The lesbian feminist resurgence of the 1970s had a strong academic component – research seemed an urgent task, and it went hand in hand with the need to share the new maps of lesbian ancestry with other women. In the documentary Paris Was a Woman, with Greta Schiller at the helm, we have yet another case of a queer director who is pulling resources into an ambitious communal project. Which is perfectly fitting to a story about lavender networks or, (as Nazimova used to call them) ‘sewing circles’ of lesbian friendship and professional exchange.
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