Bruce LaBruce: It’s hard to make lesbian films as a gay man
Cult filmmaker Bruce LaBruce talks to Carrie Lyell about his new film, The Misandrists
Somewhere in Ger(wo)many, a group of budding terrorists calling themselves Female Liberation Army prepares to overthrow the patriarchy and usher in a new female world order. However, when Isolde (Kita Updike), a self-proclaimed “separatist among separatists”, is caught harbouring a young injured man in the basement of the feminist headquarters, secrets are revealed that question the very nature of womanhood.
DIVA editor Carrie Lyell caught up with writer and director of The Misandrists, Bruce LaBruce, to find out more.
DIVA: I finally got around to watching The Misandrists over the weekend and I have to say, I still don’t really know how I feel about it! Do you get that a lot?
Bruce LaBruce: Yeah. I mean, it's not an easy film in some ways. It's a critique of certain kinds of radical feminism but I think overall it supports feminist ideals. I would say it's an affectionate critique and it raises a lot of questions. It's a polemic about the politics of the radical left.
Where did the idea come from?
I've made a lot of films about masculinity but not as many about femininity – although I have always had very strong female characters in a lot of my movies. I went to university in the 1980s when feminism was really exploding in the US and Canada and I was on the collective of a radical film magazine that came out of my university which was a Marxist feminist gay liberationist magazine. I took a course in grad school called Psychoanalysis and Feminism in which I was the only male in the class and in fact it's kind of an interesting story because after the official class was over, the students took a vote on whether or not to allow me to participate and I was voted off the island [laughs]. I had good friends in the class but not enough I guess! I hung out with radical feminists in the 80s in San Francisco, in the late 80s, and I've always kind of had a soft spot for lesbian separatism even though it kind of goes against my principals of inclusion and trying to kind of form an alliance between the lesbian and gay communities.
Would you say The Misandrists is formed by or a reflection of your own personal politics then?
It is but I always acknowledge my ambivalence towards my own political convictions and I'm constantly questioning them so I wouldn't say it's a direct expression of any sort of dogmatic political position. It's more of an investigation and a questioning of my own position towards a lot of issues. One of the main criticisms that I had of second wave feminism were the anti-porn feminists because I've always believed in a radical expression of sexuality and I include pornography in that and I believe pornography is part of the collective unconscious and it's an expression of political incorrect sexual fantasies and I don't think suppressing it is a good idea. I do agree a lot of straight pornography in particular exploits women and 90% of industry porn isn't very interesting to me at all but I do in principle support people who make pornography, especially when it's independent and queer.
We see the legacy some of that conservatism today still, and many LGBT people, whether they want to or not, have ended up replicating the structures of heterosexuality. The Misandrists to me seems to be a bit of a kickback against that. Why do you think that kind of assimilation, or gay normativity, is so dangerous?
I came out of the era of gay liberation which was very leftist and a lot of it was even Marxist based, so it was an oppositional movement against the conventions of society and against the status-quo, and it was also - the gay movement in particular - driven by sexual militancy. Radical sexual expression was kind of the engine of the gay male movement. And aspects of the lesbian movement as well. For me, that kind of porn or radical sexual expression can be considered very political. Under the new assimilation, there's a tendency for a new kind of moralism supporting family values and monogamy and marriage which seems to forget the roots of the movement. There are certain aspects of judgement and shaming about radical sexual expression on the left which I find problematic.
This is one of the first times you’ve decided to crowdfund one of your films. Can you say more about that decision and why it seems more and more queer filmmakers are turning to that avenue in order to get their films made?
It's difficult [for queer filmmakers]. There's a division almost now between gay or LGBTQI mainstream film and festivals and queer festivals; queer festivals being more leftist, more underground, more experimental or challenging with their films. Assimilation means they tend to finance movies that reinforce that new narrative of normalcy and a positive portrayal - what they consider a positive portrayal - of homosexuality which tends to disassociate itself from the more radical fringes. I think that's why a lot of people are using crowdfunding because you have control of your own narrative and you're ideally trying to reach likeminded people who are into the kind of work you're doing.
Do you think The Misandrists would have been made if you had gone through traditional funding channels?
No [laughs]. No I don't think so. It's very difficult for me as a gay man making a film on a lesbian topic. The film has been getting a lot of play at international non-gay film festivals and some queer festivals. It's opening SQIFF and so on. Certain queer and gay festivals that are perhaps a little more radical. But the mainstream ones actually rejected it and one of the things they said was they couldn't programme a lesbian film by a gay man which I find problematic because in the 80s when I made my punk fanzine it was me and a couple of other women who started that movement. One of our platforms was really to encourage solidarity between radical lesbians and gay men. So I always made work about both and we appeared in each other's films and whatnot. These kind of divisions on the left and factionalisation, I find it politically, strategically, a bit questionable.
I think there's something to be said about the fact that some of the most commercially successful films about lesbians in recent years (Carol, Blue Is The Warmest Colour, The Handmaiden) have been directed by men, because men have more opportunities in filmmaking, but perhaps that's another conversation for another day.
I understand that. But I think there's room for everybody, every kind of expression.
Like many of your films, this one is rather confrontational – albeit in a playful way – and is bound to provoke a lot of strong opinions. You’ve said this has “something to offend everyone”. Do you set out to challenge and offend or do you think it’s a simply a by-product of the kind of work you’re making?
It's kind of both. If you're using a camp sensibility, there's always this aspect of extreme and shocking imagery [which can be] part of this aesthetic. Kind of over the top, exaggerated or theatrical violence or what have you. I started out as a punk and so I have a kind of punk ethos which is very provocative and challenging and [is about] being a bit ambivalent. It's partly an underground thing but also to get attention for my films. As a struggling independent filmmaker, I would have very strong and sometimes shocking scenes as a way of drawing attention to my films. I'm also into taboo and exploring subjects that are not normally represented. It's about exploring that; how far you can push an audience and challenging my own limitations and seeing exactly where you can push yourself. As an artist that's kind of something that I do.
The Misandrists is all about achieving a new world order. But do you think that overthrowing the patriarchy can ever be more than pipe dream?
Post-feminism isn't the answer. Gaining equality by participating in the existing system. So it's tough because I know that's one of the main narratives of feminism now. The only thing I can say is it's pretty evident that the existing world order is not functioning erm, very well, [laughs] at the moment and we're going through a real historical moment of regression and conservatism and rise of neo-fascism which at least is waking a lot of people up to a lot of issues that are systemic and institutional. I see that as a positive thing in a way because I think there's been a complacency on the left and there's a lot of infighting and divisions. Maybe this will cause the left to become more cohesive and strategic, especially around feminist issues.
To win a pair of tickets to the premiere of The Misandrists at Raindance Film Festival including a Q&A with Bruce LaBruce hosted by DIVA magazine, email your name and a contact number to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line MISANDRISTS.
The Misandrists premieres at Raindance Film Festival on 23 September, 8pm, at Vue West End (Leicester Square), with a matinee screening on 26 September, 3pm, at Vue West End (Leicester Square). To book tickets, visit raindance.org/festival/. The Misandrists is also the opening film for the 2017 Scottish Queer International Film Festival on Wednesday 27 September. Tickets are priced on a scale of £0-8 dependent on your circumstances. Book online at sqiff.org/event/sqiff-opener-the-misandrists/.
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