Published July 8, 2022
The Ann Arbor Film Festival commissioned essays from the curators of our special programs for the 60th AAFF, and published them in our program book. Enjoy this essay by Sean Donovan, curator for A Lantern Through Your Labyrinth: Out Histories at the Ann Arbor Film Festival.
When I set out to program a block of experimental queer cinema from the archives of the Ann Arbor Film Festival’s history, celebrating the voices that have congregated here, I thought about space. All of these films were shown here as regular films in competition, playing shortly after their moment of completion. Whether in the festival’s original home at the cramped, cult thrills of the University of Michigan’s Lorch Hall or the Romanesque grandeur of the Michigan Theater, these films presented themselves to live audiences with fearless pride and naked humanity. In the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, the intensity of watching a film together in public space has taken on an even more precious sensitivity.
It’s not always easy for queer people to make themselves known in public space. Frequently, it’s terrifying. Walking around Lorch Hall, I wondered what it must have been like for filmmakers Coni Beeson and Curt McDowell, respectively a bisexual woman and a gay man, to present their work on these grounds in March 1974. Five years out from the Stonewall Riot, in a decade of immense tumult and change for LGBTQ political organizing, they opened a part of themselves to a potentially hostile audience, when queer representations on any screen were a rarity. I like to think of this program as offering these two films, and the five others from later years, a chance to re-enter the space of the Ann Arbor Film Festival under less contested terms, in a surrounding culture more capable of meeting queer cinematic dreams with the grateful and loving embrace they deserve.
Coni Beeson’s work is often described as feminist cinema before being specifically described as LGBTQ. Barbara Hammer, legend of queer cinema, when described as the pioneer of films explicitly showing love between queer women by a queer woman, would often redirect people to Beeson’s work (Hammer is also included in this program with her 1987 film No No Nooky TV). Noting the bisexual director’s 1971 film Holding, Hammer credits Beeson as a significant landmark in queer cinematic history (Haug 4). Holding played the Ann Arbor Film Festival, but not until 2007, as part of a revival program co-sponsored by the San Francisco Cinematheque celebrating sexually explicit films. Her 1974 film Women, however, arrived at Ann Arbor in its own time. While the film may have played then as an evocation of feminist utopia understood to be principally heterosexual, we can look now at the naked women smiling next to one another, having intimate conversations, playfully bathing and adorning each other with flower petals, and see the queer potential that may not have been as visible in 1974. Women exemplifies another reason this queer séance is essential: our 2022 revisit honors an energy obscured or transient in the work in its time of release. We perform a kind of historical rescue.
Looking at queer cinema’s past also illuminates the loss and disjuncture of community history. Some work is lost or inaccessible; some filmmakers have become hard to trace. Some work speaks of tragedies and mourning that cinema can barely contain. Ira Sachs’s Last Address, one of the more recent inclusions in this program, played the festival in 2011 but is grounded in an era of great crisis in queer history: the late 1980s and early 1990s. Last Address remembers the artists who died of illnesses related to HIV/AIDS, attempting to provide a cinematic monument to them by recording their final living spaces. Sachs’s camera captures what is the same and what has changed in New York City architecture, and how a plague that ravaged queer lives is and is not remembered today. Curt McDowell, included in this program with Ronnie, was among the lives lost to HIV/AIDS. Remembering the past by necessity requires coping with collective tragedies and the ongoing march of time, a kind of heartbreak and release we can find verbalized by experimental art.
This program concludes by venturing back to the past with Song of the Godbody (1977), disrupting any linear thread of time, summoning James Broughton in a sort of closing prayer (Broughton himself summoning queer elder Walt Whitman in the film). With his co-director Joel Singer, Broughton performs an exaltation of the human body, all of our modes of sensory awareness, reminding us to savor our desires and pleasures. In a poignant coincidence, Song of the Godbody feels echoed by a short film playing in our Out Night competition section this year, Madonna Adib’s Let My Body Speak, which similarly mystifies our sense of the human body in extreme close-up photography. Worlds away from Broughton and Singer’s experiences of being queer, Adib’s film uses the visuality of her body to think through trauma and sexuality in the context of her Syrian identity, queer experimental cinema acknowledging the complicating factors of race, ethnicity, and nationality in the construction of the self. Whether a specific influence or a coincidence, this aesthetic commonality across years and borders speaks of the lingering power in our queer cinematic histories, the languages we find to tell our stories, and the communities we bring together in queer artistry. May this program be a tribute to them.
Sean Donovan is a doctoral candidate in Film, Television, & Media at the University of Michigan. A specialist in LGBTQ media, Sean researches the intersections of gender, sexuality, and media, focusing on how media is used to grapple with history and group identity. A resident of Ypsilanti, Sean is proud to harness his life-long love of cinema into collaboration with the Ann Arbor Film Festival’s explosion of creativity and experimentation.
Citation: Kate Haug, “Femme Experimentale: Interviews with Carolee Schneemann, Barbara Hammer, and Chick Strand.” Wide Angle 20:1 (1998): 1–19.