Lesbian Nation

First Run Features,

Carmelita Tropicana:
Your Kunst Is Your Waffen
Jumping the Gun
Little Women In Transit
Playing the Part
Lavender Limelight:
Lesbians In Film

Unrated, 139 minutes

Lavender Limelight:
Lesbians In Film

First Run Features,

Marc Mauceri

Jennie Livingston,
Rose Troche,
Monika Treut,
Maria Meggenti,
Su Friedrich,
Heather Lyn MacDonald,
Cheryl Duyne

Unrated, 56 minutes

Shorts Ala Sappho
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, June, 2009

Lesbian Nation is an intriguing anthology of lesbian-themed short films, each released during the mid-1990s as LGBT films began to proliferate into a major genre onto itself. As I wrote a few months ago, when I reviewed a few gay short film collections, the nice thing about shorts is that they are, well... short. With the exception of the documentary that concludes this DVD, each of these filmmakers understands that these little vignettes are not meaty enough to sustain a feature film and they are all to be commended for not trying to do so. Shorts are the perfect venue to explore non-epic ideas and, oftentimes, a nice way to just have fun. The final film, a documentary entitled Lavender Limelight: Lesbians On Film, is also available as a separate, stand-alone DVD with additional directors' bios.

Carmelita Tropicana: Your Kunst Is Your Waffen, 1994
Director: Ela Troyano
Screenplay: Alina Troyano, Ela Troyano
Starring: Alina Troyano, Livia Daza-Paris, Anne Iobst, Sophia Ramos, John Lanzillotto
27 minutes

Leading off this anthology is the extremely funny Carmelita Tropicana: Your Kunst Is Your Waffen. Directed and co-written by - and also starring - Cuban-born Alina Troyano (1997's Latin Boys Go To Hell), this delightful short was originally produced for public television's Independent Television Service (ITVS). Troyano stars as a Latina performance artist named Carmelita Tropicana who is mugged while walking home from one of her shows. She wakes up the next morning to a pair of frantic phone calls. One is from her father, the other from the leader of an activist group. It seems that Carmelita is late for a counter-protest in front of an abortion clinic but first she has to stop to fix the boiler because her upstairs tenant is out of hot water.

Carmelita rushes with her girlfriend to the clinic just as things are beginning to get ugly . A posse, consisting entirely of middle-aged white men, is screaming epithets like "You Lezzie Commie Baby Killers!" The leather-clad dynamic duo is arrested, along with Carmelita's conservative sister and they are thrown into a jail cell with the woman who mugged Carmelita the night before. The rest of the film is a delicious send-up of women's prison movies, feminist activism, Broadway musicals and patriarchal Latin archetypes.

Troyano's small character touches are wonderful. The straight sister is first seen reading a magazine entitled For Today's Hispanic Woman which dispenses "fashions tips for corporate success" such as not wearing big gold earrings or Steak Tartar lipstick. (What she is wearing, of course, violates every rule in the magazine.) Just to annoy her sister, who is furious that she is in jail, Carmelita and her activist girlfriend break into a dance, singing:

"We're here! Who's here?
We're anti-sexist, anti-racist
And very very lesbian and gay!
In The fight Roe Versus Wade
Eggs And Ovaries!
Eggs And Ovaries!
They're Mine! All Mine!
We win the fight for equal rights!
Uh-huh! Uh-huh! Uh-huh Uh-huh Uh-huh!"

As they pass the time in prison, the mugger speaks of being a gang member and Carmelita tells a story from their family's history which unfolds as an old black & white Spanish film parody scored to cliched Flamenco guitar. The doors to the jail cells open and the women emerge dressed as Carmen Miranda and dance to an elaborately choreographed and overdone Telemundo television extravaganza, complete with funny feminist lyrics and a sing-along.

The mood is totally farcical and tongue-in-cheek while, at the same time, it is also a celebration of Latina culture. The disc is worth a look just for this short film alone. Carmelita Tropicana won the Teddy Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival

Jumping The Gun, 1996
Director: Jane Schneider
Screenplay: Hilary Beaton
Starring: Georgia-Troy Barnes, Jenny Vuletic
10 minutes

Jumping The Gun, from director Jane Schneider, features a young woman author who wakes up from a one-night stand and fantasizes a relationship from honeymoon to break-up. At first there is rapture. Her very dirty and cluttered apartment transforms into a botanical garden of earthly delights as she cooks breakfast for the lady, who lies still asleep, in her bed. This short film is very artsy, at times surreal, and also a bit confusing. Clocking in at only 10 minutes, it is the cinematic equivalent of a daydream and should be enjoyed as a pleasant interlude and nothing more.

Little Women In Transit, 1996
Director/Screenplay: Barbara Heller
Starring: Magdalena Gross, Cara Jedell, Danielle Shuman, David Little, Sally Heller
7 minutes

Little Women In Transit, from writer/director Barbara Heller, based on her short story, is a brief black & white snippet from a family's hellish vacation car trip. Jennie, 12 years old, is seated between her sisters in the back seat as she tries to write a melodramatic story. The girls poke and pull each other's hair. The two sisters tease Jennie that her favorite writer, Louisa May Alcott, is a lesbian. Short and sweet, (7 minutes), that's about it in a nutshell. That, and the father yells at them to behave.

Playing the Part, 1995
Director/Screenplay: Mitch McCabe
Starring: Mitch McCabe, rest of cast not credited
38 minutes

Playing the Part is a mockumentary by Mitch McCabe in which she plays a film student who tries to come out to her very conservative family in Grosse Point, Michigan. Her family is a parody of the typical suburban, all-American dream in which any deviance from being as perfect as possible is not to be tolerated. She learns that resistance is futile as her many attempts to tell her parents fail miserably.

The film is shot mostly as a series of home movies and interviews while McCabe's deadpan musings skewer upper class mores and her bohemian lesbian rebellions. She thinks it's "sorta weird" that her father's private practice as a plastic surgeon, specializing in mastectomy restorations, pays for her college tuition. Her mother's life is a debutante ball on a tape loop, and coming out would "destroy everything [her] family has built." Most of Playing The Part is amusing but after awhile the repetition becomes tedious and the ending is a cop out.


Lavender Limelight: Lesbians In Film
Director: Marc Mauceri
Starring: Jennie Livingston, Rose Troche, Monika Treut, Maria Meggenti, Su Friedrich, Heather Lyn MacDonald, Cheryl Duyne
56 minutes

The final entry is Lavender Limelight: Lesbians In Film. Marc Mauceri's documentary concerns seven noted lesbian directors, most of whom came to prominence during the second wave of the New Queer Cinema during the mid-1990s. While hardly a comprehensive and all-encompassing study (this film could have easily been much longer), each of the short interviews, illustrated by clips from their movies, offers fascinating insights into the thoughts, politics and filmmaking strategies of each of these remarkable women.

It should be noted that this documentary was filmed in 1997 and so, for example, director Rose Troche's involvement with The L Word, and Maria Maggenti's acclaimed Puccini For Beginners, is many years in the future.

First up is Jennie Livingston, best known for the popular Drag Ball documentary, Paris Is Burning (1990). Livingston talks about attending one of these balls and watching the ways in which the participants deconstructed their very identity, class and gender. She recounts contacting famed German filmmaker Werner Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath Of God) who told her that film is not about making money and that she should follow her heart and make the films that she wants to direct. She became aware of her own sexuality as she made this classic film about queer subculture, and describes filmmaking as a process of coming out.

Next is Rose Troche, the director of 1994's groundbreaking Go Fish. She rebelled against the notion that, as a Puerto Rican woman, she should become a nurse, get married and have 20 kids. Instead, she recounts her journey from being a maker of non-narrative, experimental short films to Go Fish which was called "an arthouse lesbian film" that hadn't been seen before. Troche wishes to remain a director where she is in control without having Hollywood producers calling the shots. "I always want to be on the margins," she declares, "But I want to be on the margins because I'm an independent filmmaker and not because I'm a lesbian."

German filmmaker Monika Treut grew up watching the films of edgy directors like Rosa Von Praunheim and Rainer Werner Fassbinder on television and considers herself to be androgynous. With no formal film training, she made Verfuhrung: Die Grausame Frau (Seduction: The Cruel Woman) in 1985. This audacious film debut explored S&M rituals and compares the lot of the masochist to a director on a film set who demands a scenario. Her follow up film was Die Jungfrauenmaschine (Virgin Machine - 1988). She remarks that lesbian films are the current flavor of the month and expresses a desire to turn instead to the documentary where she can be surprised by the filmmaking journey's ultimate destination.

Maria Maggenti is the auteur of 1995's charming The Incredibly True Adventure Of Two Girls In Love. Maggenti recounts being an ACT-UP activist from 1987-1990 and then going to film school where she became "less interested in facts and more interested in truth" and moved from documentary to fiction films. The aforementioned breakthrough film explored an interracial love affair between two teen-aged girls from opposite sides of the tracks and eschewed all cliches. For her, independent filmmaking should always be about the individual voice.

Su Friedrich, the daughter of German immigrants, first crafted documentaries about her parents' experiences in Nazi Germany before turning to a fiction film about a girl who falls in love with a nun in 1987's Damned If You Don't. She is best known for Hide And Seek (1996), a film about young girls who grow up to be lesbians.

Heather Lyn MacDonald speaks of making documentaries in Russia and coming out, after 12 years of marriage, when she was 30. Her best known title, Ballot Measure 9 (1995), recorded the events surrounding an anti-gay ballot introduced in Oregon in 1992 that led indirectly to an increase in violence against gays and lesbians. She was drawn to the subject for the opportunity to contrast such conflicting emotions and some of the footage is pretty scary.

Finally, Cheryl Duyne speaks of filling a void in which she saw no films being made by African American lesbians. Following a series of shorts, she wrote and directed The Watermelon Woman in 1997 - which also won a Teddy Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. This groundbreaking film was the story of a black video store clerk, played by Duyne, who watches an old Southern plantation film and is struck by a colored maid who is identified in the credits only as "the Watermelon Woman." Seeing this as an interesting subject for a documentary, she discovers that the unknown actress had an affair with her director (a white woman based loosely on real life 1930s lesbian director Dorothy Arzner), and then enters into an affair with a white woman that parallels the film she is making. Duyne optimistically predicts that queer cinema will have a presence beyond this "magical moment" in the mid-90s.

While the middle three films are a bit "iffy," Lesbian Nation is bookended by two terrific films that make this DVD an essential addition to the collection of any serious student of queer cinema.


More On Rose Troche:
Go Fish
The L Word

More On Cheryl Duyne:
The Watermelon Woman

More On Marie Maggenti:
The Incredibly True Adventure Of Two Girls In Love

More On Monika Treut: