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‘Dykes, Camera, Action!’ Review: A Peppy, If Pithy History of Lesbian Cinema

Desiree Akhavan, Barbara Hammer, Cheryl Dunye, and more narrate the history of queer women onscreen in this accessible and documentary.

"Dykes, Camera, Action!"

“Dykes, Camera, Action!”

Frameline

Much has been made in recent years of the need to support, uplift, and, for the love of God — finance —more women filmmakers, but how many lesbian films have shaken out from all that hand-wringing? It’s heartening to see a woman at the helm of a comic book movie, but when was the last great lesbian rom-com? (Even more pressing: Where is the next one?) As in the struggle for queer liberation, lesbians —and lesbian films — are often an afterthought. That’s one of the many salient points covered in the peppy new documentary, “Dykes, Camera, Action!,” which neatly presents an accessible history of lesbian cinema while offering yet more proof that no one does catchy titles like the queers.

At a breezy 60 minutes, the film has much in common with that other lesbian tradition, the potluck, in terms of the topics it covers. There’s a little o’ this, a little o’ that, plus plenty of vegan and gluten-free options. Though the history of wider LGBTQ cinema has been told in greater depth before, namely in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s 1995 opus “The Celluloid Closet,” sometimes it’s nice to have a little something of your own.

Directed by Caroline Berler, “Dykes, Camera, Action!” is filled with friendly faces sure to be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of lesbian cinema. Rose Troche (“Go Fish”), Cheryl Dunye (“The Watermelon Woman”), Desiree Akhavan (“Appropriate Behavior”), and the late great Barbara Hammer (“Dyketactics”) all appear to offer their insights and influences.

Hammer’s interviews are perhaps the most significant, given her untimely passing from ovarian cancer early last year. “Maya Deren changed my life,” Hammer says, making sure to point out know Deren was bisexual. “It seemed like if we were experimenting with out lives and the way we’re gonna live, then our film or our art form should also be experimental.”

Frameline is releasing the film virtually on Hammer’s birthday, in honor of “the rich legacy of lesbian cinema Hammer inspired as one of the preeminent female filmmakers of the 20th century and the first openly gay female director in America.” “There’s earlier cinema if you are generous with your definitions, but Barbara Hammer is the real pioneer,” the writer and activist Sarah Schulman says in the film. (A panel discussion has already been prepped to accompany the streaming release, with Berler, Akhavan, Hammer’s partner Florrie Burke, Kimberly Reed, and Vicky Du, and moderated by Jenni Olsen.)

Activism, borne from the AIDS crisis and a life-affirming need for visibility, is another vital piece of the puzzle. The film explores the beginnings of the dyke march, the first of which many of the filmmakers attended or organized. Like this film, it spoke to the need for spaces dedicated solely to queer women and dykes, lest they risk fading into the background up against the glorious glow of gay men. Lizzie Borden’s “Born in Flames,” Dunye’s “The Watermelon Woman,” and Troche’s “Go Fish,” were all borne out of the activist tradition and translated into celluloid, building on Hammer’s foundation.

The film does a fine job of highlighting black lesbian filmmakers who have been sidelined for too long. It offers ample exploration of multiple works by Dunye, as well as commentary from Yoruba Richen and Yvonne Welbon. Akhavan’s comparisons between Iranian and lesbian representation, while unnerving, are particularly compelling.

“Dykes, Camera, Action!” touches on the more mainstream hits as well, letting its subjects loose on the merits of “Carol,” “The Kids Are All Right,” and “The L Word.” As Troche points out, commercial success is the only currency in Hollywood, and each Oscar contender or box-office hit is a win — no matter how imperfect. As with all independent film, some of the greatest stuff too often slips under the radar, an issue that is doubly if not triply true for lesbian films and filmmakers. To that end, it’s validating to see a film like Angela Robinson’s greatly under-appreciated “D.E.B.S.”, one of IndieWire’s favorite lesbian films of all time, get a special shout-out.

Short but thorough, “Dykes, Camera, Action!” feels like a peak inside the last video store, where you could sidle on up to the cool dyke artists, trading hair tips and on-screen crushes. It’s a vestige of a bygone era, but one that won’t soon forgotten.

Grade: B+

“Dykes, Camera, Action!” is currently available to stream from Frameline Distribution. It will continue its virtual cinema release through the end of June in arthouse cinemas nationwide.

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